Into the sounds of silence
At our evening briefing over drinks in our cruise ship lounge, we're told we're lucky.
Nearly seven metres of rain a year falls in Fiordland. Only last week, the ship had been up there and the rain was so hard, the visibility was nil.
The day of our visit is expected to be cloudy but fine and it looks like we can get into the Zodiacs and see what there is to see. Still, I go to bed wondering why anyone would bother even trying to see this southwestern corner of the South Island, when the odds of actually seeing anything are so stacked against it.
But then, our little expedition ship arrives as dawn breaks and though there is low thick cloud, there is no rain, allowing the landscape to reveal its grandeur. I realise why people come.
There's nothing else like it in the world. Norway's fjords are glorious. But there is an otherworldly, eerie intensity to these ancient glacial bays, where the ocean meets high cliffs. It's Middle-Earth-on-sea.
And unlike Norway's fjords with their settlements, accessibility and burgeoning tourism, most of New Zealand's Fiordland is untamed, uninhabited and rarely visited.
Hardy hikers may approach Fiordland National Park from the land. Less hardy, but still pretty determined types will visit Milford Sound only, by far the best known and the one sound in this series of 14 with direct road access.
Cruise ships offer not just easy access to other sounds, but also a privileged perspective on a very special, World Heritage part of the planet.
Sailing from Dunedin, we are to visit three sounds all up. The first we encounter is Dusky Sound. Named by Captain James Cook apparently because of the time in which he arrived there, it lives up to its name for us as a place of gentle gloom and silence.
There is a lack of birdcalls due to the devastating European introduction of predatory mammals, our expedition guide, Craig tells us, as we tour the remarkably still waterline by Zodiac adventure craft.
Because of all the rain and run off from the surrounding cliffs and forest, there is a fresh water layer on top of the seawater. Craig says tannins in the fresh water layer make the conditions below so dark they are similar to deep ocean, hence there are some amazing species about.
"Black coral usually exists around 100 metres but here it's at around 20," he says. "The sound is a diver's delight."
But he says very few visit here and we encounter no other people for the entire 45-minute experience of exploration, until we arrive at Astronomer's Point where we tag team a landing with other groups from our cruise.
Captain Cook spent five weeks in Dusky Sound on his second voyage in 1773, while his crew recovered after crossing the Southern Ocean from Australia.
They were mostly here, at Astronomer's Point.
Sand flies are a huge issue in Dusky Sound, particularly when we are on land. The expedition crew has made a big deal of it the night before and that's apparently put a few people off going ashore. It shouldn't do. The right clothing and insect repellent are sufficient to keep things tolerable and besides, it's a once-in-a-lifetime landing. What's a few flies between friends?
We climb a steep, slippery trail canopied in ferns to where Cook's astronomer had trees felled so he could get an accurate fix on the stars. The stumps are still there, almost as if Cook and his crew had just left.
As we traverse the sodden forest back to our Zodiac, the ship's botanist talks about all the plants we've seen. The filmy fern is his favourite, "It's a single cell thick," he says awestruck despite seeing it often. "The forest looks pretty much as Captain Cook would have seen it."
One of Cook's crew, William Hodge, painted Dusky Bay. And looking at a replica of his wonderful painting later, we see the truth in that.
As we depart Dusky Sound, we see one lonesome fishing boat. I'm envious. I wish I could sit there in a little boat and soak in the silence like that.
But in the afternoon, after a couple of hours at sea, we reach Doubtful Sound.
The bridge navigates the ship through a narrow channel titled "The Gut" and we enter a wonderland.
Here are all the hallmarks of a fjord land as I knew it from my visit to Norway - rock giants rising sharp and high out of the sea, waterfalls and avalanche trails, rocky peaks crowned in cloud and wondrous amounts of all of that.
But there is uniqueness here again, even different from Dusky. Doubtful Sound has a series of four hanging valleys with amazing symmetry, all the more so as we pass by, by virtue of four identical clouds sitting in the valleys, one apiece.
There are tiny islands along the way. In one section I think I see tiki-like faces in the rocks. Everywhere there is a breathtaking scene, each different to the next.
Our final visit is to Milford Sound, and as we enter we pass from one tectonic plate to another. You can clearly see it starboard. The fault line is a valley lying between two small beaches. It's remarkably distinct.
The weather remains very kind to us and the aqua of glacial waters shines. The intensity of the beauty is difficult to take in, even more so the scale. It's not till a small plane or boat come into view that the immensity of the mountain landscape is revealed in contrast.
A highlight is the 100-metres high Stirling Falls. The crew lets us down to an area at the front of the ship so we can get close to the base of the waterfall. We're no more than 100 metres from it.
Up to 80 buses a day come by land to Milford and you can see why. Not only is it the most accessible, but the most majestic, awe-inspiring in scale, a humbling in the poetry of its forms, romantic in its array of colours that change from one moment to the next. We see seals, birds, even dolphins.
Knowing how inclement it can be, it feels an amazing privilege to have seen it all like this. But even so, I think I might like to come back and see what the sounds are like in the rain.
The writer was a guest of APT.
MORE INFORMATION newzealand.com
GETTING THERE Air New Zealand flies to Dunedin via Auckland or Christchurch. See airnewzealand.com.
STAYING THERE For a stop in Dunedin, The Brothers Boutique Hotel offers beautifully decorated accommodation with great city views. From around $215 a night including breakfast, Wi-Fi, parking and an evening drink; 295 Rattray Street; +64 3 477 0043; brothershotel.co.nz.
SEE AND DO
Several bigger cruise lines travel into New Zealand's Fiordland, but not all visit all three sounds.
Celebrity Cruises sends the Celebrity Solstice down all three on cruises; celebritycruises.com.