MAIKE VAN DER HEIDE discovers the spectacular silence and pristine beauty of Fiordland's Doubtful Sound.
"In our busy lives, we don't have much time to stop and enjoy the silence. So right now, that's what we're going to do, enjoy the silence. Just as soon as Bruce gets the boat into position."
Standing against the railing on the bow of a large boat in the middle of Doubtful Sound with tourists literally packed around me, I could not imagine how I could possibly enjoy the silence. Around me was some of the most spectacular scenery I had ever seen, but engines were rumbling, raincoats rustling and people coughing and talking. Perhaps silence is a nice idea, I thought. Several minutes later we're all quiet, but Bruce is still manoeuvering the boat to stop it sliding into nearby rocks.
Finally the engines are turned off and everything goes quiet. The silence is so complete it's almost tangible. A couple of birds chirp, tiny waves lap a nearby rock. I try to move, but my raincoat sounds like sandpaper, so I just stand and try to enjoy the moment by gazing into the bush.
And then somebody farts.
I can feel people - people of all ages and nationalities - shake with barely suppressed mirth. Finally the rumble of the engine cuts through it all and people around me explode with relief and giggles.
I find my sister, who was trapped down the side of the boat earlier by people piling outside to see a pod of bottlenose dolphins, and we head to the back to enjoy what is left of our cruise with Real Journeys through what is arguably one of the most amazing pieces of scenery in New Zealand.
Doubtful Sound is very, very deep and the water is eerily black and still. Hardly any light can penetrate the layer of fresh water which floats on top of the salt water underneath: The two don't mix. Because of this, a lot of deepwater fish, plants and other marine life live unusually close to the surface.
Of course, because the water is dark we can't see this life but we saw the pod of bottlenose dolphins who thrilled everyone simply by swimming past. Away from the water, the spectacular steep mountains which plunged into the fiord at nearly 90 degree angles kept our attention. The bush was thick and the hills were impossibly steep. The unique hanging valleys gathered water which trickled in tiny silver streams straight down into the black depths of the fiord. It was hard to believe we were still in New Zealand.
Having to watch all this glide by from the decks of a crowded tourist boat was a small sacrifice in return for being allowed to visit one of the country's most isolated and untouched regions.
The Real Journeys tour takes in much of the Sound, motoring in and out of arms and paying a brief visit to the choppy open sea entrance where hundreds of seals basked on exposed rocks.
Doubtful Sound is south of the smaller but more popular Milford Sound, which is accessible by highway.
Getting to Doubtful Sound is more of a mission. My sister and I drove from her home in Queenstown and stayed the night at Manapouri ready to board our Real Journeys boat at 8am. It took an hour by boat to reach the road to Doubtful Sound, then another hour or so by bus - photo stops included - and then another boat trip through the fiords.
Our day began cloudy and, being Fiordland, we expected rain. But it didn't, much to the disgust of the locals who said they needed a bit of rain after a dry spell: Not a complaint you often hear in that part of the world.
Our guide Russell Smith - who said he was retired and just doing the job for fun, which showed in his enthusiasm - stopped the bus near the top of the pass to Doubtful Sound to present us with the much-photographed view of the slither of water below.
Doubtful Sound is actually not a sound by definition, it's a fiord. It was named Doubtful Harbour by Captain James Cook, who didn't actually go into the inlet as he was uncertain whether it was navigable under sail. His decision was not a popular one with his crew, who had hoped to get ashore to find fresh food.
Eventually a Spanish scientific team who were researching the force of gravity entered the fiord, which was later renamed Doubtful Sound by whalers and sealers.
When the boat journey ends, I'm reluctant to leave. I want to stay and enjoy the silence that comes back when the voices, cameras and motors are gone. But Doubtful Sound is a slice of New Zealand that's better off alone, and I follow the line onto the bus home.
Real Journeys runs day and overnight cruises through Doubtful Sound and to the Manapouri Power Station.
Contact 03 249 7416, freephone 0800 65 65 01 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
- The Marlborough Express