Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Captain Cook Missed the Boat – He Totally Blew It!!

Jan. 14-15, 2013

Richard and I just had the most fabulous overnight cruise through the largest fjord – OMG, if you ever get to New Zealand, you have GOT to do this trip!!!  We had talked about either a day trip or an overnight, and I’m so glad we went with the overnight, it was so much fun and I didn’t want it to end!  (And I know some of you want overviews, while others want all the details so, here are the details, and tons of photos and if you want an overview, just read the first sentence or so of each paragraph and you'll be okay.)

Okay, first, the details – we decided to go to Doubtful Bay (named such by Captain Cook in 17-something, and he called it Doubtful Harbour because he doubted he’d be able to sail back out due to lack of wind).  We opted for Doubtful rather than the more popular Milford Sound because Milford is much more busy (and we always do the off-the-beaten-path option), plus Doubtful is much larger (more than twice the size, some 40 km in length).  Turns out Doubtful also has a series of arms, or what I think of as baby fjords, branching off in all directions – and on an overnight trip, you get to visit all of those arms. 

We went with Deep Cove Charters because they only take a maximum of twelve passengers, and our cruise only had eight of us.  There were the two of us, a couple from Jersey, England (one of the Channel Islands), a couple from Malaysia but living in Auckland, and a couple from the Seattle area (Bellevue, to be exact).  We probably were all somewhere in our forties to sixties, and it was a very congenial group, with interesting conversation as well as stories of our travels.

Deep Cove Charters is mostly a family operation, with Chris our captain, son Travis the chef and all-around assistant (as in baiting the fishing rods and taking off the fish for me).  Wife Diane does the bookings, gets people on the boat across Lake Manapouri, does the provisioning, all that.  Here’s the link, so you can see their operation as well as book with them (because you really don’t want to be on a giant boat with 70 other people, do you?  Or pay twice the price?  This was the best price and the fewest passengers, so it totally suited us, and turned out to be fabulous!) – okay, the link:

So – our day started with a drive down to the cute tiny town of Manapouri, about 20 km from Te Anau.  We got on a large ferry that took us across Lake Manapouri, a large deep lake among the hills and mountains that on this grey misty drizzly rainy morning were shrouded in clouds, making for a great gloomy mysterious atmosphere.  Some of the mountains had snow on the peaks, and it was a study in black white and grey.  Fortunately the ferry company has complimentary tea and coffee, so we were warm as we slid past the giant hills rising from the equally dark lake.

We met Chris at the info center, and climbed into his van, luggage going into the small trailer.  We stopped along the twelve mile drive to look at amazing waterfalls, local trees, even mountain orchids.  Under the road runs the tunnel, where water is pulled into a hydroelectric generator and the water is then drained out into Doubtful Sound.  We could see the huge electric lines carrying out all the electricity that is generated there – nice clean energy.   

Anyway, we made our way down the gravel road and arrived at Deep Cove, where we boarded our ship.  (I’m not sure how large it is, but bigger than a boat and smaller than a cruise ship.)  We dropped our stuff in our cabin and went back up to cast off.  (I have to add that Chris looked at Richard, looked at me looking at the double bed lower bunk, and offered to make up the upper bunk for me – I said yes, because it really would be a tight fit to get both of us in a lower bunk!)

The weather was still grey, the fjord dark and silent and flat, the only sound was the engine and us, talking.  It was gorgeous – breathtakingly, achingly, broodingly beautiful.  The top several feet are rainwater, sitting on the sea water which goes down who knows how deep – probably as deep as the mountains are high.  

We sailed (well, motored) past waterfalls, hills/mountains covered in green, bare rock where the trees and other vegetation slid off in what they call a treevalanche. An avalanche of trees.  There really isn’t much soil, just a tiny bit that accumulates on the solid rock (I think most of it is granite), and that’s what the ferns and trees latch onto – but there isn’t much, the trees can’t get their roots very deep, and in heavy rain or under constant waterfalls the whole thing periodically slides off in a treevalanche, with the trees disappearing under the dark water.  That actually is part of why the water was so dark:  the tannins in the trees leaches out as they soak underwater, and creates the dark dark water.  Plus, in the past week, there were two days when the Fjordland area had half a meter (19-20 inches) of rain in a twenty-four hour period.  So the lakes and even the fjords are higher than usual.

Lunch was served, a lovely salad accompanied by fresh lobster tails – these are spiny lobsters that Chris and Travis pull up every day, clean, boil, and serve to their passengers.  Probably caught the previous night and boiled that morning – delicious!  Can’t get much fresher. 

We saw the Southern Hemisphere’s tallest waterfall, a kilometer-long cascade of water that comes from a lake atop the mountains, so it’s a year-round waterfall, too.  (That’s about a 3200 foot waterfall!!!!)  Some of the mountains are much higher, some have bits of snow on top – the snow line was something like 1200 meters, 3600 feet.  It was cold, in the fjord, but it was so gorgeous.
Our afternoon included cruising into several of the arms or, as I think of them, baby fjords that feed into the main fjord of Doubtful Bay.  Each one has their own name (Hall Arm, Crooked Arm, First Arm, Bradshaw Sound, and Thompson Sound) – none really creatively named, but each just as beautiful.  Most of the other guests went off kayaking from mid-arm to the end of whichever arm it was, but I wasn’t prepared to get wet in almost-icy water, so I stayed on board and fished – I secretly enjoy fishing, but I feel bad for killing the fish so I need someone to take the fish off for me.  In fact, a few of the small ocean perch I caught, which we saved for bait, were flopping around in the bucket and I found that too sad, so Chris was nice and killed them – what can I say, I don’t mind killing fish for food, I just don’t want them to suffer.  A paradox, but there it is.  Anyway, I had fun catching fish, and we tossed back the little guys and only kept a few medium fish as bait. 

We also saw a mama seal with the most adorable pup, who was sprawled out on a warm rock and was not about to be disturbed from his afternoon nap.  He opened his eyes to look at us, then rolled a bit so his head was hanging down and he could achieve maximum cuteness, if that was possible.  He definitely posed for lots of photos, and I think he’s hoping to be a poster child for anti-seal-hunting campaigns. (You have GOT to click on the photos to see this little cutie close up.  Richard told Captain Chris that I was going to want to pet the little guy and take him home as a pet.  I'd be perfectly happy doing that!)

More cruising, watching for dolphins and penguins and seals, as we approached the mouth of Doubtful Bay and the Tasman Sea.  We did some more fishing – several of us caught decent sized blue cod (I had one that I think may have been close to 7 to 10 lbs, and about 14-16 inches) and scarlet wrasse – and we saved the good-sized fish for dinner later on.

Then the piece de resistance (sorry, I can’t get the accents going the right way) – Eng, our Malaysian passenger, caught a shark!  A four foot shark (or so) who fought and fought, but was pulled in so his hook could come out – and then of course he had to come into the boat so we could all photograph Eng holding on to him as the shark rolled and thrashed and tried to get away – soon enough we was picked up and tossed back in, and fortunately he didn’t bite any of us.  But it made for a thrilling afternoon!!!


We headed out of the fjord into the Tasman 
Sea, and down to a few rocky islands where the fur seals bask on sun-warmed rocks (by now the sun was out, though the clouds weren’t totally cleared) – a few seals looked at us or jumped around to a better spot, but mostly they just opened one eye and went back to sleep.  I didn’t see any cute pups, though – I guess their mamas bring them into the more protected waters of the inner fjord, until they grow up a bit.

So back into the calmer waters of Doubtful, 
and after a bit we encountered a good-sized pod of bottlenose dolphin, a lovely blue grey with white stomachs.  We drifted by, a few came over to jump and breach and generally show off, while others played in our wake, and a few just ignored us and continued on their way.  Then they swam to the other side, and continued jumping and breaching and diving, as we oooohed and aaaahed and tried to catch a few decent photos.  There were possibly ten or twelve adults, full grown and up to maybe nine feet or so – and there were two little babies, I’m guessing maybe three or four feet long – keeping up with their moms as they swam and dove their way further into the fjord for the night.  Fascinating to watch the babies in a synchronized swim with the mamas!

Our captain Chris and son Travis stopped  
and pulled up two lobster pots – the first had a bunch of lobsters that were keeps, but one was about double the size of the rest and so, after his photo opportunity, he went back into the fjord to live out his golden years.  The second pot had mostly small lobsters, so they went back into the water to grow a bit older.  Those unfortunate lobsters who were in the prime eating range were relegated to a large covered box where they spent the night before they'd become the next day's lunch – lucky for us, but not so lucky for the lobsters. 

We had dinner out in the main part of Doubtful Bay, a tasty meal of venison (I don’t eat Bambi), the fish we’d caught (simmered in butter and herbs), roasted potatoes, and fresh vegs, with carrot cake and tea or coffee for dessert.  Several of us had lovely white wines which either accompanied the meal or were drunk for dessert.  We cruised on to a nice secluded spot where we’d spend the night, waiting until about 9 or 9:30 PM for settling in, because the sandflies in the bush come and bite all day long, but seem to stay away when it’s dark.  Some of us watched the sun set, others chatted, and eventually we all wandered below deck where we fell into our bunks and slept all night.

I did have a bathroom trip at 3 AM or so – and the restrooms were up on the main deck – so this meant quietly wandering up and using the facilities, then looking up at the sky.  Wow, what an incredible display of stars – with all kinds of constellations we never see in the Northern Hemisphere, and others that I think of as northern constellations but which make a sneak appearance here.  There was Orion, on his side, as if he was sleeping.  And the Southern Cross, which always looks like a giant kite to me.  And unexpectedly, the Milky Way – I don’t know why I didn’t expect to see the Milky Way, we’re in the middle of the galaxy, but I was sort of surprised to see it on this side of the world.  Just a fabulous clear night with blinking twinkling shining stars, diamonds in the dark sky, with the occasional falling star glimpsed out of the corner of my eye.  I stayed outside
marveling at the display, until I was 
 shivering in the cold – then crept back down to our cabin and climbed back into my bunk, the upper bunk, where I warmed up under the cozy duvet.   


Six-thirty AM came way too early – I could 
see the light coming in through our porthole, and I wanted to stay warm and asleep, but the engine sprang to life, the anchor chain rattled as it hauled up, and this would be our best chance of seeing penguins, so I clambered out of my bunk, threw on clothes, and ran up to the top deck (saying good morning to Chris, already navigating our way out of the arm) – no penguins to be seen, and it was cold cold cold, so I added my heavy sweater, had breakfast with the others as they gathered, and went back up to the upper deck – we did find more dolphin, but they weren’t interested in socializing as they headed out of the fjord, intent on breakfast and not wanting to entertain another species.  Actually, we encountered another medium sized pod, with babies, and then another three or so later on.  But they were focused on their dolphin business, and we had to get back to Deep Cove by 9:30 so we motored on.

There was also a seal pretending to be a dolphin.  From a distance, he looked like a dolphin, leaping out of the water and diving back in, as is their wont.  But once we got closer, we could see it was a seal he'd leap out of the water kind of on his side, so one side fin was up in the air, resembling the dorsal fin of a dolphin, and the seal's feet looked like the tail of the dolphin but we were close enough to see that it was really a seal!!!  So funny!  Chris said that's what seals around here do, jump out of the water like that.  We'd never seen that before, it was just strange, and funny.

It was a gorgeous day, with blue sky and crisp air and green mountains, artistically curling and winding clouds and mists wrapping themselves over and around hills.  The sun rose higher and higher, but didn’t seem to warm the air – but it was so beautiful on the top deck that I spent most of my time up there, huddled in my clothes and watching for penguins and marveling at the beauty of the day and the location.

And then, it was over too soon.  Time to grab our bags, disembark, and climb back into the van for the ride back to the lake ferry.  Chris gave each of us a packet of cooked lobster tails – YUM!  I don’t know if he does this with each voyage, but his next group only had five passengers, so maybe he had extra lobster and we were lucky.  But what a treat!

So we drove back over the same route with a short stop to see Doubtful Bay from the overlook above, since it had been too grey the day before, and now we knew what the fjord looked like up close and person.  Our group caught the lake ferry, relaxed on board with more tea and coffee, and came back to Manapouri.  We shared emails and hugs goodbye with our fellow passengers, and then headed our separate ways.

I seriously could have gone another day or two, it was so much fun!  I had a wonderful time, it is definitely one of the highlights of our three months in New Zealand!  And I know there are a lot of photos here – I took a total of 380 photos in 24 hours – but I’m only posting a fraction here, and you really do need to open each one to see how gorgeous the fjord was.  It was fabulous!

And we’re back in our cozy hotel, in Te Anau, planning to head up to Queenstown on Jan. 17.  For another adventure.  But it won’t top our overnight cruise – that truly was the best!!!

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