There’s a Fjord in Our Future

…or, more accurately, in our past as I type this.

We have in the past 24 hours overnighted aboard the Fiordland Navigator, a comfortable 50-passenger ship with vestigial-looking fake sails, now returned from our excursion down Doubtful Sound in southwestern New Zealand, in a region aptly known as Fiordland.  It turns out that the remark I made a few days ago about Queenstown looking like a cross between Switzerland and Norway was more accurate than I realized: the sounds in the southwest (of which the best known are Doubtful Sound and Milford Sound) are, geologically speaking, actually fjords in that they were carved by glaciers and not by the encroaching sea. But they are in any case stunning.

We left Queenstown early Wednesday morning by bus for a two hour ride through beautiful snowcapped alpine landscape, along opal-colored Lake Wakatipu, past countryside replete with sheep, dairy, and deer (!) farms, and missing only Shirley Temple as Heidi. As everyone knows by now, New Zealanders proudly advertise for reasons known only to themselves that the country has more sheep than people — by about a factor of three, in fact — and a ride through the countryside makes that very easy to believe.  There are sheep everywhere, and it is lambing season in the bargain, so there are adorable little lambkins frolicking all the hell over the place, leaving Alice to nearly deflate for all her expostulated awwwwwwws. She determined then and there that, New Zealand or not, she would not eat any lamb on this trip, declaring this with a steely resolve that lasted a solid eight hours until dinner that same evening.

Sheep may still be king in the Kiwi economy, but cows are up and coming.  The were a fair number of dairy farms en route as well, and we were told that dairy’s relatively recent and sudden rise has made a lot of money for some people and created a class of ostentatious nouveau riche dairy farmers, which is a phrase you probably never thought you’d read.

This leaves us with the deer farms, a concept that I had never even heard of until yesterday. Deer are prized for a variety of things, as you know: venison, their hide, and (I had never thought about this one) the velvet on their antlers. Antler velvet has a big market in Asia where the Chinese and others use it for various herbal remedies and (predictably) aphrodisiacs. The locals decided to try harvesting them systematically a couple of decades ago, capturing them in the wild and breeding them in captivity. This was successful to the point that after a while there was enough spontaneous captive breeding going on that a wild harvest was no longer needed, and so we now have deer farms. Right now it is molting season, or whatever it’s called, and so we saw large herds of fenced-in, mangy-looking deer.

The bus took us to the shore of Lake Manapouri, a large island-dotted lake about 40 miles long known in part for having at its source an 800 MW hydro power station, the largest in the Southern Hemisphere. The weather was beautiful, sunny and in the  60’s, and the scenery serene:

Lake Manapouri

The trip across the lake — the name means “Many Islands” in Maori, by the way — took about two hours, towards the end of which a thin layer of clouds had moved in.  If this journal were a work of literature you would call that last phrase “foreshadowing”.

At the far end of the lake, right next to the power station, we boarded a bus for the final hour leg to Doubtful Sound. The route took us through Wilmot Pass over the lower end of the Southern Alps across the spine of the island. More spectacular scenery, of course, but no less interesting was the change in vegetation into a sort of antediluvian rain forest, with tree ferns and hanging moss. It’s a unique biome insofar as it looks kind of like tropical vegetation but is not, the climate being much too cool. But it made for a surreal ride, as we waited for dinosaurs to appear around the next bend.

Alice is not Doubtful

No stegosaurs made an appearance, but Doubtful Sound did, most impressively (photo at left). It is the largest of the sounds in this region, which is appropriately enough called Fiordland.  It is a mile or two wide and the main channel is roughly 20 miles long, emptying into the Tasman Sea, which, though actually part of the Pacific, is the name given to the stretch of water separating Australia and New Zealand. However, it has a number of major branches that effectively double or triple that length

As you can see from the photo, it’s a typical glacial fjord, narrow with steep granite walls — though not nearly as steep as the rock cliffs of Milford Sound — with many small fingers reaching in along the shore. The walls are coved in conifers and tree ferns, painted with countless narrow waterfalls, marred by the occasional patch of bare granite, a few tens of yards across.  Those patches, as it turns out, have some history of their own.

The density of the vegetation means that the root systems of the trees are heavily entangled. But the steepness of the cliff faces, and the hardness of the granite, means that those same roots are anchored rather precariously.  So when a big storm comes along it is not rare for one or more trees to become unmoored…at which point the interwoven skein of shallow roots causes the arboreal victims’ windblown plunge down the cliff face to be shared by a large number of their illfated neighbors. A whole area is uprooted at once, and an entire copse plummets down the wall. This is aptly called a “tree avalanche”. (It seems to me that a phenomenon that interesting deserves its own word.  I propose either “treevalanche” or, since we have come so very far to see it, “travalanche”.) The result is a denuded patch of granite, which over the subsequent few years reforests itself.

There are hundreds of waterfalls, as I mentioned, but only three have permanent sources, the rest fed by frequent rainfall. And indeed, you can see in the photo that in the few hours since our boat ride across Lake Manapouri, the sky had become overcast (more foreshadowing).  Did I mention that the upper elevations of Doubtful Sound can have 400″ of rain a year? As in 33 feet?

What you cannot see in the photo is that the water itself is a thousand feet deep (!) and has a surface temperature in the intimidating low 50s. The latter gave us a moment’s pause when they announced that kayaks were available once our boat  anchored in an adequately sheltered area perhaps 10 miles down the fjord — but only a very brief moment’s pause, because how awesome would it be to kayak past waterfalls on a New Zealand fjord? And the answer is, entirely awesome:

Hiawatha Alice

Rich contemplates a dip

Alice and the mighty Fiordland Navigator

We emerged from the water about an hour later, a bit chilled and a bit wet but well satisfied that the other kayakers we know can now be suitably envious.

Dinner on board the Navigator was excellent, one of the best buffets we have ever had.  The cook was a cheerful local named Kelly, an attractive 40-ish woman with short blonde hair whose distinguishing feature was an array of colorful tattoos that completely covered both arms. She was an amazing cook whose lamb course shattered Alice’s earlier pledge. Gamboling kids were no match for this dish.

We motored on down the sound as we ate, and by the end of the evening had anchored near the mouth, at the edge of the Tasman Sea. We retired to our room, small and simple but comfortable, with a queen bed, an ensuite bathroom and shower (thankfully with plenty of hot water) and little else save two windows that looked out on the towering granite walls. And while we sailed on, the real weather moved in.

We awakened this morning to find ourselves in a deleted scene from “Master and Commander”, smothered by pendulous grey clouds, shrouded in mist, pelted by driving rain, and serenaded by wind howling across the decks and between the masts. All in a day’s work for the crew, who have seen a lot worse. Indeed, the naturalist among them stood the whole time on the front deck, clad in a rain slicker and armed with a wireless microphone, exhorting us to come out on deck to get a really good view of the waterfalls. Incredibly, we did this, and had to admit is was worth it, at least for brief periods of time.

The walls were now alive with cascading water, countless cataracts tearing hundreds of feet down the cliff faces, sometimes not even making it to the bottom before being shredded into curtains of mist by the gale. Here is a view of the channel behind us, and a shot of one of the falls in a moment of relative calm:

Not a good day to work on your tan


About 0.01% of the waterfalls

We sailed right up to the cliff face and the naturalist held out a 30 liter (~8 gallon) metal bucket under a small cascade and asked a volunteer to time how long it took to fill, which turned out to be 9 seconds. The water in the bucket had a slight brown tinge from tannin leaching out of the dissolved vegetation on the cliffside but was, needless to say, extremely pure.

As the boat turned into the wind to head towards our next destination, I went out on deck to shoot a panoramic video of the surroundings; I will upload it in a few weeks when we are home. It was one of those decisions whose wisdom you question a few seconds into making it, because with the changing bearing of the ship, the wind and rain had become fairly ferocious and as soon as I stepped out of the lee of the observation lounge I found myself being batted around with more force than I expected. So I staggered around the front deck like a drunkard, panning the camera whilst being blown to and fro, keeping one eye on the camera display and the other on the waist-high railing that encircled the deck, nervously wondering whether it was high enough to keep me from cartwheeling overboard if the wind blew me into it. Happily I did not find out, and was rewarded with a rather shaky but suitably evocative short video. (And I was once again grateful for my new going-away-gift waterproof point-and-shoot camera, which shrugged off the elements.)

We stopped adjacent to one of the many small islands that dot the mouth of the sound. This one was inhabited by a colony of fur seals, lounging about in large numbers and indifferent to the monumentally crappy weather. Their neighbors on the next rock over were a couple of crested penguins, whose tuxedo coloring made them challenging to spot against the dark granite whenever they turned their backs to us. The seals did not excite us much — the damn things were practically pests at the La Jolla beaches during our sojourn in San Diego — but penguins are always cool since you don’t see many of them in the Chesapeake Bay.

The weather stayed bad the whole time we were on the sound, and made for an entirely too exciting bus ride back through Wilmot Pass on the spine of the mountain range, where visibility was close to zero and the bus driver seemed to be driving by radar on the switchbacks. It stayed raw and misty but was far less dramatic as we retraced our steps and descended down to the dock at the power station on Lake Manapouri. But mirabile dictu, it got nicer and nicer as we sailed across the lake back towards the interior of the island. Things were looking pretty decent at the far end of the lake, and by the time we stepped off the bus a few hours later back in Queenstown we were strolling in 70 degree sunshine, with some photogenic cotton-ball clouds scudding around the snow caps on the mountains. Helluva range of weather for one day; the climate variations across short distances in this country are astounding.

Dinner this evening consisted of a visit to Queenstown’s most famous burger joint: Fergburger. It’s a teeny tiny place that can seat maybe 15 people inside and another 8 out on the street in front of the store. If you don’t get there early, forget it; you won’t even see the place except for the mob milling around outside, mostly eating their burgers standing up. We know this because that is exactly what happened to us two nights ago. But this time we were prepared, and the burgers were indeed outstanding, albeit a little on the large size: a little shy of 7″ in diameter. But you gotta love a place that offers a venison burger called Sweet Bambi; a veggie burger called Holier Than Thou; and a felafel patty called (wait for it) Bun Laden.

Tomorrow we begin our three day excursion to a more northerly part of the western coast of the island. Got that? That’s the northern part of the west coast of South Island. There will be a quiz. But the main thing you have to know is that we are going on a hike on Fox Glacier. Not sure what the wifi situation will be at our hotel there, but I’ll report back when I can.


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