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Fiordland

Cruising in Dusky Sound, New Zealand

Dusky Sound is the largest of the 14 ‘sounds’ (that are technically fjords) of the Fiordland National Park in southwest New Zealand. Forty-four (44) kilometres long from its head to its mouth in the Tasman Sea, and eight kilometres at its widest, Dusky Sound is vast, containing more than 500 islands and islets, and making it a rather complex fjord than what tourists might expect after seeing the more straightforward – and most popular – Milford Sound.

The fjord’s landscape, as described by Captain James Cook’s astronomer, is dominated by “a heap of mountains piled upon another until you lose their heads in the clouds.” Since Dusky Sound sits right in the path of winds blowing from the Antarctic, it often gets overcast and expectedly receives an unusually high amount of precipitation. Heavy rains maintain its native vegetation in lush condition and results to hundreds of temporary waterfalls cascading from sheer drops.

Named by Capt. Cook in the late 18th century for its visibly sombre character, Dusky Sound hosted him and his crew aboard 'Resolution' – hence, the name of the largest island there – for five weeks as they replenished the ship and made repairs.

Unlike Milford and Doubtful Sounds, two of New Zealand’s well-trodden fjords, Dusky Sound is as isolated as a wilderness should. Since Cook’s ‘Resolution’ left in May 1773, nothing much has changed (except for the large population of rodents that have since bred after escaping from Cook’s ship); the very tree stumps that his astronomer felled so he could get an accurate reading of the stars remain in their place.

Dusky Sound’s isolation is heightened by the absence of vehicular roads from the nearest towns to the head of the fjord; going by the tramping track could take 8 to 10 days in favourable weather even for the fittest of hikers. So getting to Dusky Sound is mostly via cruises from Doubtful Sound 40 kilometres to the north; ships enter via the Breaksea Sound and wind down through Acheron Passage which separates Resolution Island from mainland South Island.

Unpredictable weather further places Dusky Sound beyond the usual reach of cruise passengers who may want to include it in their Fiordlands itinerary. But a determined effort to get to New Zealand’s largest fjord is amply rewarded, not least by the mind-bending scenery that unfolds as one cruises past mountains created by the Indo-Australian plate diving beneath the Pacific’s. Add to that the unbelievably rich wildlife that lives off its lands. As part of the UNESCO-listed Fiordlands National Park, Dusky Sound is the breeding ground of the rare Fiordland crested penguins and bullers mollymawk. While not as plentiful today as they were during the time of Capt. Cook, the birds in the fjord can easily be found in places named after them: hence, Parrot, Petrel, Shag and Curlew Isles; and Woodhen, Duck and Goose Coves. Crayfish also has an island named after it. Dolphins, seals and whales, the latter two once hunted to extinction, are regular visitors to its waters.

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