On board the Mildford Wanderer: Worse things happen at sea
As it turned out, getting shipwrecked was the high point of the cruise. The mere fact that we called it a shipwreck, referred to ourselves as evacuees, and developed a taste for tots on the rocks is an indication of the fun it all was.
In fact, we just ran aground for a few hours during low tide on one of Stewart Island's many uncharted rocks. We'd been gliding along in Port Pegasus, down in the south of the island, admiring the view and peering at the sea lions, when there was a sudden grinding noise, a lurch, we stopped, and silence fell. It was definitely an Oops! moment, and there was a flurry of crew activity as the hull was checked inside and alerts were sent out – but for us passengers the programme proceeded, initially anyway, as normal.
It was our first full day with Real Journeys onboard the Milford Wanderer, a 30-metre replica trading scow, which offers a variety of cruises through Fiordland and around Stewart Island. We had boarded in Oban for a five-night Conservation Expedition, and three Department of Conservation staff were sailing with us to give an insight into their work, and a chance to get hands-on with it.
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This morning, though, it was to be all about the scenery and, leaving the crew to sort out the grounding, we tendered ashore to climb Bald Cone. This is the typically understated name given to a striking granite peak rising to 230 metres from the bush. Or, at least, what used to be bush.
Climbing a ladder up the steep rocks of the shoreline and plunging straight into dense, prickly vegetation, we fought through to emerge into an unexpected burn-out. "Fireworks," said Richard darkly. He was our onboard nature guide, and was as disappointed as us to find that even this remote area wasn't safe from stupidity. The sooty stumps were useful hand-holds, however, and we pulled ourselves steadily upwards, the sodden ground squelching as we went. Designated by Richard as "slippy", conditions then became "grippy" as we crossed sheets of granite veined with quartz, piled high here and there with improbably-balanced boulders.
After an hour of moderate effort, we were at the top, enjoying long views over Stewart Island's green hills, rocky peaks and distant beaches. The sun brightened the colours as rainbow-pierced curtains of wintry showers briefly blotted out the Wanderer far below, now floating freely on the silver waters of Port Pegasus.
Returning muddy but triumphant to the ship, we were disappointed to learn that despite reassurances from divers who had been helicoptered in to do an underwater check, Real Journeys would not allow us to remain on board until further inspections had been carried out. Glumly, we packed up and boarded the boring catamaran sent to take us back to Oban.
Arriving in the little town – instantly increasing its population by 10 per cent – we settled into the hotels and lodges Real Journeys had arranged for us. Regrouping that evening at the South Sea Hotel, we were won over by the open bar provided by the company and the communal dinner at which, to even greater joy, we discovered that the set menu's starter trio of oysters was actually four and, even better, the main's version of six was really nine.
Reassured that everything possible was being done to ensure our cruise continued, we went to our various beds full of hope and wine-fuelled merriment, the potential disaster already having morphed into an adventure.
We all agreed that our Village and Bays bus tour next morning was a real bonus: being driven around most of the island's 27 kilometres of narrow roads by Bevan, we got an invaluable insight into local life. He not only informed and entertained us, but did such a good job of selling Stewart Island that we weren't surprised to learn some of his former passengers were now part of this tight community. They'd migrated from what Bevan unselfconsciously referred to as "New Zealand".
Nevertheless, we were delighted to leave Oban again, cheering as the Milford Wanderer, now given official clearance, arrived at the wharf. Sailing back south, we dropped anchor at Prices Inlet. There, under the guidance of Jen, Dan and Bec, we snipped, sawed and wrenched at the vegetation encroaching on a historic site. This was once a busy shipyard that repaired Norwegian whale chase boats a century ago, ringing to the clanging of hammers and steam-powered machinery. Now bellbirds provided the soundtrack to our work as we helped to reveal the edges of the buildings' foundations once again.
Down on the beach, massive rusted propellers lay in a pile, broken by icebergs in the Ross Sea; and beyond the well-preserved slipway, the sunken wreck of the whaler Othello was clearly visible as we kayaked over it later.
The rest of the cruise was pure play. We enjoyed the easiest kayaking ever, slipping off a platform onto smooth, glossy waters, to nose into coves, around islets, over beds of kelp, watching birds and the setting sun colouring the sky. We went ashore to wander along empty beaches of squeaky white sand, spotting the tracks of kiwi, and also of feral cats. Weka came to investigate us, pleased to have rocks lifted for them so they could pounce on the crabs beneath.
We played beach cricket with a driftwood bat and an astonishingly bouncy ball carved from bull kelp; collected sand-polished paua shells; and just stood and stared at the tropically turquoise, air-clear water, dreamily detached in what Richard aptly called "screensaver mode".
Sandy came aboard with Detector Gadget, her cute rat-seeking terrier, to give us the once-over. Then we went in groups with the DOC people back-stage on the Ulva Island sanctuary, racking up the bird spottings: 14 species including a daytime kiwi fossicking through the bush just 3m from where we stood.
There was envy back in the saloon of the Wanderer as we reported this triumph to the others; but a special pre-dawn outing to Ocean Beach next morning restored convivial relations, with all of us seeing another kiwi, torchlit as it prodded the sand for insects.
Actually, the passengers were a consistently sociable bunch: aged from mid-50s to late-70s, we were professionals, business people, farming folk, some retired, some not – and all, apart from a few Aussie family ring-ins, Kiwis. We felt like privileged insiders, seeing a secret side of New Zealand that few foreigners experience.
Many on the cruise had already sailed on the Wanderer, and highly recommended the ship's Fiordland explorations for scenery and staff – but us novices were already won over. We were impressed by the crew's friendly professionalism and calm efficiency – which was best illustrated, of course, when handling what Richard termed "the whoopsie" . Equally important, we were in daily awe of the magnificent meals Stef the chef produced from his galley: roast beef, lamb, venison, a fabulous blue cod ceviche, inventive salads, indulgent desserts.
In fact, the only real downside to having to abandon ship for one night was missing one of Stef's dinners. On the other hand, though, it did mean we got to eat those oysters…
More information Real Journeys offers a range of cruises in the Milford Wanderer: the Stewart Island Conservation Expedition, costing $2150 per person, is an annual five-night cruise in July with onboard DOC staff demonstrating their work. Other cruises of varying lengths with a history and nature focus explore Stewart Island, Dusky and Doubtful Sounds, and Preservation Inlet. All cruises have nature guides on board, and an evening programme of informative talks. See discoveryexpeditions.co.nz.
The writer was a guest of Real Journeys.