When I tell you that the Fiordland National Park naturalist said that today’s weather was the best he’s seen in his 17 years working in the park, well, you know we’ve had one heckuva perfect day.
Fiordland is the largest National Park in New Zealand and comprises 5% of the country’s land mass. The park was formed 500 million years ago by the intense heat in the earth’s core causing the crust to thrust upwards and forming jagged peaks. Over the past two million years, glaciers have periodically covered the area, gouging, deepening and rounding U-shaped valleys, many of which are now lakes or fiords.
Fiordland was well known to the indigenous Maoris, and many legends pertain to its formation and naming. Demi-god Tuterakiahwhanoa is said to have carved the rugged landscape from formless rock. Still, few Maori were permanent residents of the region but did use the land for seasonal food gathering. Captain Cook and his crew were the first Europeans to visit Fiordland, making several trips beginning in 1770.
I was bundled up and on the open decks shortly after 6am this morning. It was light, though the sun had not yet risen over the mountains of Fiordland National Park. The deck over the bridge was open already, and several of us braved the wind that only intensified as we cruised closer to the entrance of Milford Sound. Milford is the northernmost of the park’s 14 sounds, or fiords (the British called them Sounds because the word Fjord did not yet exist).
Milford Sound was actually missed the first several times Cook sailed past, as it is so well hidden that he assumed it was just a small bay. The Golden Princess picked up the National Park pilot about 6:45am and the ship proceeded to find its way between the two semi-overlapping mountains at the entrance to the fiord. That early in the morning, the sun only penetrated the deep gorge walls on the west side.
Tall peaks towered over the top decks of the Golden Princess, and the highest peaks were topped with snow (which excited the Aussies to no end; us, not so much). Though the park has had a fairly dry winter, there were several thunderous waterfalls, some nearly 1000 feet high. The water in the fiords is clear to a depth of about 40 meters, and is over 1000 feet deep in places.
Milford Sound is a closed fiord, so, after about an hour, we reached the end and the Golden Princess circled around and sailed back out to the Tasman Sea, and then continued to sail south close to the western side of the park. Though we had temporarily left the fiord, the scenery continued to be spectacular. It was just after 9:30am then, and we joined the hoards of passengers going to the Horizon Court Buffet for breakfast. At 10am, the park naturalist, who had boarded the ship with the pilot this morning and narrated from the bridge while we were in Milford Sound, gave a presentation in the Princess Theater about the history, geography and geology of Fiordland. While it was tough to pull ourselves away from the view, we are glad we did, as it was very interesting and educational.
11am found us in loungers on the Terrace Deck, still bundled up with fleeces, coats and hats. The day was brilliantly sunny with not a single cloud in the bright blue sky. It was actually fairly comfortable in the sun, but it was quite windy. Fiordland National Park gets 200 days of rain each year. When we had been here 11 years ago, we saw only two fiords and even then couldn’t see any of the high peaks because of the misty rain that fell (but we had those incredible double rainbows). But today the visibility was endless and we were able to cruise through four fiords. We were so fortunate.
Just before noon we started our approach to Thompson Sound, and I ran back up to the deck over the bridge to watch as we entered the fiord. It was still very windy up there, but not as much as it had been five hours earlier (I didn’t have to hold on to the railing with one hand while I took pictures with the camera in the other hand). The entrance to Thompson Sound is considerably more open than Milford Sound, and it was immediately obvious that this end of the park was geological much older, as the surrounding mountains were a bit lower and less jagged. We had learned from the naturalist that the highest mountain peaks, over 9000 feet, are on the northernmost end of the park.
Thompson Sound has several side canyons, and it is also open to Doubtful Sound, so named because Captain Cook was doubtful he would find a way out of it. We had been told that we would pass the Celebrity Solstice, traveling northbound through the park, as it turned from Doubtful Sound into Thompson Sound. It was an amazing thing to see that huge ship so dwarfed by the fiord; it’s hard to get that same sense when actually on a cruise ship. There was much horn blowing as the ships closely passed each other, and then the Golden Princess made the sweeping curve into Doubtful Sound. The scenery at the intersection of the two fiords was jaw-dropping.
We exited Doubtful Sound about 1:30pm and, after another short sail down the western coast of New Zealand (and the park) in the Tasman Sea, entered our final fiord of the day, Dusky Sound. This was again geologically different than either of the first three sounds, much wider and more open, with tiny islands dotting the widest parts of the fiord. It would be a kayakers dream, and I imagine that some places would be suitable for overnight camping. I stayed on the Terrace Deck the entire time we cruised through Dusky Sound, and don’t recall the ship ever turning around, but I could feel the wind suddenly grow intense, and then we were back out in the Tasman Sea. It’s possible the fiord has two entrances.
We had four wildlife sightings today: three fur seals winning themselves on a rock in Milford Sound; two albatross (albatrosses?) that are so huge they look like flying dinosaurs, and spouting whales while cruising down the coast; and a pod of bottleneck dolphins while in Dusky Sound.
It was nearly 4pm then, and I made tracks back to the cabin for the first hair coloring exercise of the season. I know the routine well: move the white towels in the bathroom, tuck the shower curtain behind the shower head, and don’t move for 30 minutes so I can complete the task without any disasters. G had retreated to a hot tub while I undertook this project, and we were both sitting at dinner by 5:30pm, enjoying the view of the southwestern coast of New Zealand outside our window. (I had eaten just fruits and vegetables all day and so had salmon and more veggies for dinner).
Steven Larkins is still on board and the entertainment tonight in the Princess Theater was Mercury Rising, his tribute to Freddie Mercury and Queen. The day just kept getting better and better...
...and better. When we returned to our cabin on Aloha Deck after the show, we could see through the glass in the door at the end of the corridor that it was still light. We went up to the Horizon Court Buffet to watch the sunset and then, when I checked Maps.Me on my iPhone, I could see that we were rounding the southernmost tip of New Zealand. There is a very small town there and I took my phone off of Airplane Mode and we actually had a good cellphone signal. If tonight was any indication, our cellular internet speed in New Zealand will be at least 10 times faster than in Australia.
It was a very good day. :-)