Previous Page


Fiordland & Stewart Island

Having celebrated the New Year properly with iced fizz, Vicky bussed to Te Anau to buy new walking boots, hers having failed on our last walk in the Bay of Islands. They were tested on a couple of short walks around Milford, and Wally and Shirley Gross, who live in the village, helped us recover. Wally and Shirley, like all those in Milford, work catering for the tourists to the Sound; Wally is Senior Skipper for the largest of the tour boat lines. There are as many as 4000 visitors a day to Milford, all bussed in and out the same day. The fiord is very striking. Not surprisingly, the scenery is very like Norway, with sheer cliffs plunging straight into deep water and some of the mountains snow-capped even in mid-summer. Though all the northern fiords are similar, Milford is the most striking.

From Milford there are a series of easy day hops down the coast from sound to sound. Some like Nancy and Charles have few safe anchorages. The predominant fair weather winds are SW, giving a beat into increasing breeze as the day goes on. At Anchorage Cove, in George Sound, we tied snugly fore and aft between an islet and the shore next to 'Arawhiti', Geoff Golding's yacht from Nelson, with Phil and Barbara aboard. It was a lovely spot, but the sandflies were truly persistent. These bugs were the only major downside of Fiordland cruising. We generally managed to keep them out of the cabin, hunting them down ruthlessly if they did get below. New Zealanders seem fairly casual about sandflies, though we noticed them itching as much as we did. Unlike mosquitos, sandflies like calm, sunny weather, just as much as we do, and are happy to keep you company right through until bedtime. Not surprisingly, sandflies and varnishing are not compatible - or perhaps they are, but the corpses don't do much for the finish! The only advantage is the temporary, slight reduction in the population. The sandflies are worst close to shore and along rivers and streams, where they breed. They don't bother you walking through the bush, or in the middle of the fiords, and a bit of breeze blows them away. The commercial fishermen in Fiordland put down moorings in deeper water away from the shore where they can, or come to inshore moorings only after dark. Our second anchorage in George, the cove at Alice Falls, was pretty, sheltered, and gave a good base for the hike up to Lake Katherine, with a three-wire bridge and a steep climb along a boulder-strewn river.

From George Sound, a long day sail took us into the Thompson, Bradshaw and Doubtful Sound group. Precipice Cove, in Bradshaw, was one of our prettiest anchorages in the Sounds, with steep, wooded mountains rising above the island to which our stern line ran, while our anchor lay in a deep but sheltered cove. A gentle motor and exploration of the sounds, brought us to Deep Cove in Doubtful, the only place in Fiordland, other than Milford with a road connection - in this case a gravel track. There is a hostel catering for educational visits, as well as showers for occasional smelly, visiting yachties. There are a variety of hiking tracks from the easy to the arduous. We walked several, including the steep climb up to Huntleigh Falls, which were almost dry as Fiordland was experiencing a drought - no heavy rain for two whole weeks. The tail race for the Manapuri power station emerges at Deep Cove and they are building a second, but taking great care to landscape both, so that they blend with the surroundings.

At Blanket Bay near the entrance to Doubtful, we were lucky to meet Trevor and Debbie Willett, who work Dusky Sound for cray aboard 'Golden Star'. They kindly helped us fill a key gap in our chart coverage of the west coast of Stewart Island. Like so many Southlanders, Debbie referred to Fiordland as 'paradise'. Not everyone would agree, but we could certainly see what she meant. Of course, if it's nice, sunny weather, they also tell visitors that they aren't seeing it at its best - when it's pelting with rain and the myriad waterfalls are spouting like gargoyles!

Vicky was determined to walk one of the tracks between the sounds, so we popped round into Dagg from where it's only about 5km across the low neck from Southern Arm to Haulashore Cove in Crooked Arm of Doubtful. A spanking beat, including the catch of 15 lb albacore tuna, took us round to the next sound complex, Breaksea and Dusky. We expected to spend some time in Breaksea, but found that most of the anchorages were both uncomfortably deep and windy. We did spend a night at Harbour Island, where we first made the acquaintance of Keas, the New Zealand mountain parrot, which are friendly, inquisitive, fearless and destructive - if given the opportunity. For a time we thought one would make off with the B&G wind sensor, but fortunately dusk fell before it could work out what to do. After a long fine spell, the weather broke. Fortunately, Stick Cove in the Acheron Passage was close at hand, with total shelter and beautifully clear water, but lots of sandflies.


Dusky Sound was our favourite. The scenery is more varied than the other sounds, with lots of islands, of varying sizes and heights, as well as the steep, surrounding mountains. There are also many anchorages and wonderful wildlife, including lots of seals, deer, huge pods of dolphins and albatross, unusually coming in from the open sea. After a night at Shark Cove we settled for a few days at Pickersgill Harbour, tying up with two anchors and three shore lines in exactly the spot where Capt. Cook moored 'Resolution' in 1793, when he came in to refit after one of his Antarctic explorations. It is a cosy corner, and it is remarkable how Cook managed to work his 100' ship in and out of it.

At Luncheon Cove, we met up with Noel and Richard, skipper and deckie respectively of 'Southern Star', a cray boat out of Bluff. The next day they took us out with them and gave us an experience which has to be one of the highlights of our cruise so far. It was an easy day for Noel and Richard. They had nearly used up their quota, so they were only going to haul 40 pots, about half their normal. The wind was 20-25 knots with only 1-2 metres of SW swell - or 'roll' as they call it. In Fiordland craypots are laid singly, very close inshore because of the depth of water. Many of Noel's pots are among the rocks at the tip of Five Fingers Peninsula, where the SW swell sweeps in from the 'furious 50's' not far away. There are times when 'Southern Star' is worked only 20-30' from the rocks as the swell surges through the kelp and over the jagged ledges or breaks against the steep granite. Squadrons of albatross wheel around the stern. Skuas screech and chase gulls. Noel and Richard work calmly. Richard grapnels the pot line and starts the haul on the hydraulic hoist with an elegant flick and twist of the line around the two sheaves, then he passes the tail to Noel, who has stepped to the after engine controls from the wheelhouse. Rich swings the pot inboard and both open its side.To spill out - sometimes a dozen cray, but mostly one or two and a few fish. Sometimes there is nothing, others, a 6' conger eel or the cursed starfish, which prey on the cray. The plastic bait cases are refilled, Noel manouevres delicately to the spot for the drop and on the signal Rich gives the pot a shove, clearing the line as it pays out. Between lifts, Richard is constantly at work, cleaning, measuring cray, filling tanks, cutting bait and scores of other chores, while Noel works his ship around, between and sometimes close over the rocks. Just before lunch, Noel takes us to one of his favourite fishing spots, where Vicky, who has never fished with a rod in her life, catches ten large fish in ten minutes. After a beery lunch and afternoon, we return to Luncheon for scallops, cray fritters and a few more beers. Luncheon is a very social place that evening as two other yachts have also arrived. A day to remember, thanks to Noel's and Richard's kindness.



The weather had settled into a pattern of vigorous fronts, each followed by two or three days of moderate to fresh SWlies. So the next day we took our window and beat down to Preservation Inlet, the southernmost of the sounds. On our way out of Dusky, we passed Peter Foster on 'Reliance' making his way in. We had talked to Peter on the radio and hoped to meet him - some other time. Peter has cruised Fiordland and Stewart Island many times and is one of the major contributors to The Mana Cruising Club's excellent guides for the areas.

The mountains around Preservation Inlet are a little lower than the rest of the sounds. Like Dusky, there are numerous wooded islands. Preservation was heavily exploited during the 19th century for its resources, seals, coal and even gold. From Kisbee Lodge where we visited with the caretaker, Geoff, we walked past the rusting boiler for the old sawmill and up the tramway line toward the Golden Site Mine. Traces of human attempts to tame and harness this area are everywhere - most of them rotting or rusting away. The end of January loomed, so we decided to take an opportune window in the weather for our night sail to Port Pegasus on the SW corner of Stewart Island. We could see on the excellent Australian met charts that the fronts were lining up for the next week to ten days. Puysegur Point marks the southern end of Fiordland and the most SW point of the South Island. We left it astern with some reluctance after a wonderful spell in this isolated and striking setting. On the other hand, Puysegur also gives its name to the NZ forecast area which receives the largest number of storm warnings, winter and summer, as the fronts sweep in against the end of the Southern Alps. Fortunately only a gentle westerly saw us on our way.




Our passage was a gentle one, but we still got a flavour of the southern ocean from the incredible profusion of bird life. We had seen plenty of Albatross, including Royal, Wandering, Bullers, Greyheaded, etc., but in the calm dusk near the rocky Solander Islands, there were great rafts of Albatross carpeting the sea. Cape Pigeons, or Pintado petrels, were everywhere, as were the Sooty petrels, locally known as 'mutton birds', as the chicks in thousands are gathered by certain Maori tribes for food.

Fiordland had seemed isolated, but there were always fishermen about within a few miles. In Port Pegasus, though we did meet two other yachts, the sense of isolation was somehow much stronger. When we went hiking on two occasions, we were very conscious that there would be no one else coming along any time soon. Ironically, at one time in the first half of the 19th century, Stewart Island was home to the largest community of Europeans in NZ, now the only town, Oban at Paterson Inlet, has a population of 360 and can barely support a one class, all-ages primary school. Because the local weather is so volatile, the many snug anchorages are a blessing. Unlike the Sounds, the anchorages in Stewart island are mostly shallow, and with shore lines, it is possible to tie up very snugly even in heavy weather - as we did at Disappointment Cove, better and rightly known to local fishermen as Peacehaven. As in Fiordland, the fishermen have rigged permanent stern lines in most of the well known anchorages, which makes the process of anchoring much simpler, once you get used to being very close to the shore.


One of our best 'tramps' in NZ was from the northern arm of Port Pegasus up to the top of the 'Tin Range', named for the tin mining which went on there briefly. The track was very varied and challenging, even where it followed the old tramlines for the mining operations. Like the Scottish landscapes of which it is reminscent, Stewart Island's hills and moors can be tricky if the weather closes in, as much of the track, especially along the ridge tops, is only sketchily marked. As usual with such treks, there are spectacular views from the top over the whole of the Island and the surrounding sea.

We had hoped to stop at Port Adventure on the way to Paterson Inlet, but could see that the weather was due to break up soon and decided to go straight to the Inlet. The other factor was that after six weeks away from any form of shop we were running low on essentials, such as beer and Pringles, and even the gas was running out. A fast sail up the coast took us to an anchorage in the Inlet, under the lee of three islets, Faith, Hope and Charity, from where we could walk into metropolitan Oban and savour the delights of the one shop and one pub. We also managed to phone Tom's Mum on her birthday and send/receive a considerable backlog of email. In Fiordland, not only are there no landline phones, there is no cell phone coverage and neither VHF nor broadcast radio penetrate either. After six weeks, fresh food, ice and electronic communication were quite a treat. In Paterson Inlet, we visited the remains of the old Norwegian whaling station and on Ulva Island saw both Weka and Kaka, indigenous NZ birds which have been threaten with extinction by the introduction of rats and stoats. Fortunately these predators have been eliminated on Ulva and a few other islands in the country, where the birds can be protected to breed in safety. Our visit to Stewart Island would not have been complete without at least one really furious blow. At the very sheltered Kidney Fern Anchorage, we put down three anchors to feel secure as the wind blew 40-50 knots for most of one afternoon, whipping spray off the surface of the water in a cove with less than 100 yards of fetch. That evening, Meri on Bluff Fisherman's Radio said that it had been blowing 50-70 at Bluff. Meri is one of the great Southland institutions, giving weather morning and evening. She also keeps in touch with the area's fisherman and visiting yachts, helping with all sorts of arrangements - in our case, kindly getting a couple of charts and sending them over to Stewart Island with the relief policeman.

Our six weeks in Fiordland and Stewart Island were a wonderful contrast to the months in the Pacific islands. The obvious elements were the radical differences in climate and scenery. However, the opportunity to have anchorage after anchorage to ourselves underlined the unvisited nature of the area. We saw only six visiting NZ yachts during those weeks and no foreign sailing yachts. The only foreign flag vessels were two large power yachts. We had mixed feelings about this. We were sad for friends who missed this cruising opportunity, but selfishly pleased that its isolation and untouched beauty continue to be preserved from excessive numbers of visitors. The small number of yachts also made for a special relationship with the professional fishermen of the area. There seems to be a genuinely shared comradeship of mariners which we have seen in few other areas. We recalled with amusement that whenever we had talked to New Zealanders about coming south, all those who hadn't themselves said, 'Go by car.' Those who had been cruised south themselves said, 'You'll love it.' The latter were right.

Next Page