Our day began in heavy seas as the Oceanic Discoverer made her way through Fouveaux Strait and around the southern shores of New Zealand’s South Island (Te Wai Pounamu). The rough weather continued through till we reached our destination at Dusky Sound, but the seasoned Lindblad travellers dealt well with conditions. Royal Albatrosses and Westland Petrels were among the seabirds that escorted us on our way. By the time we reached the shelter of Dusky Sound, in the wilds of Fiordland, the sun was out and smiles had returned.
Dusky Sound is a stunning wild land of steep forested slopes and clear water, located on the South Island’s remote south west corner. Apart from walking for a week through very rough mountain tracks, the only way to reach it is by water. An area of outstanding natural beauty, Dusky Sound is notorious for rain and for clouds of sandflies (biting midges). During our visit though the weather was superb and the sandflies were only in evidence when we landed.
The Discoverer explored the waters around Parrot and Pigeon Islands at the sound’s mouth and then ventured in the direction of Pickersgill Harbour. Along the way we observed seals and coastal birds such as the kawau (cormorant or shag as they are known in New Zealand). We were following in the wake of Captain James Cook, who sailed into Dusky in March 1773, during his second great voyage of exploration. Cook’s ship, the Resolution, arrived after 122 days in the Southern Ocean, where he had been searching for any evidence of a southern continent. After such a voyage Dusky Sound seemed like a paradise, especially as in those days it was teeming with birdlife, seals and fish. Cook’s men set to shooting or catching and eating as many varieties of the local wildlife as possible. In modern times the wildlife is still present but in much lower numbers. This is not, however, so much due to the activities of hunters, as to the impact of introduced mammalian pests such as rats, cats, stoats, and possums.
The Lindblad-National Geographic expedition followed the Cook trail, visiting Astronomer’s Point in Pickersgill Harbor. Richard Pickersgill, one of Cook’s officers, ‘discovered’ the Harbor while exploring in one of the ship’s boats. The Resolution was brought into this snug refuge and moored to trees on the shoreline. A rata tree still protruding over the sea is reputed to be the very one that the crew of the Resolution used as a living gangplank. Cook’s men cleared the point of trees and established an observatory there for the ship’s astronomer, William Wales. One aim of the voyage was to test newly developed chronometers and compare their time keeping through astronomical observations; part of the British Admiralty’s quest to improve the measurement of longitude.
The Resolution’s crew also set up camp on the point, no doubt relieved to be on dry land. Cook and his men ended up spending over a month in Dusky Sound. During this time they met several groups of local Maori and established friendly relations with a family of eight who were living in the area. Even in this remote corner of the country the tangata whenua, the people of the land, had explored and settled long before the Pakeha (Europeans) arrived.
The intrepid Lindblad expeditioneers made their way to Astronomer’s Point in the trusty Xplorer. We disembarked and made our way into the regrown bush, passing beautiful ferns and native trees such as the totara and rimu. (Cook used the sap of the rimu to brew the first beer made in New Zealand). Scattered around the forest were what are perhaps New Zealand’s most historic overgrown tree roots, evidence of the clearing made by the Resolution’s crew. The sandflies were a nuisance, but we were cheered by another native, the piwakawka or fantail, a friendly bird that makes a meal of these insects.
On our return from this site of natural beauty and historical importance, we set sail through Dusky Sound. The sound appeared in many ways unchanged since the days when Maori canoes were paddled across it and when Cook explored its reaches as he mapped the area. We passed up the Acheron Passage, named for the survey ship of 1851, and behind Resolution Island out into the open sea. Resolution was the site where Richard Henry, the hermit naturalist, struggled in the 1890s to establish a reserve for native flightless birds such as the kakapo, a nocturnal ground parrot, only to have his efforts dashed when stoats swam across the water and invaded the island. As we passed through the passage a pod of bottlenose dolphins entertained us with their exuberant breaching. Our day was made complete when, sailing up the magnificent coastline towards Doubtful Sound, we were passed by a number of humpback whales.