The grey dawn was breaking around the huge ship. It’s not a boat, Captain Thassos had explained. A ship is much bigger than a boat… you can fit several boats into a ship. Later on in the cruise he would provide a wonderful illustration of this. For now we were about to have an experience of a lifetime, and it was ironic that the very landscape dawning around us was very similar to the one on the other side of the planet that we were supposed to have visited…
Two years prior, we had booked our first ever cruise as an experimental holiday. We love landscapes – especially dramatic ones – and thought that a week’s trip to see the Norwegian fjords (from the inside) would be a wonderful holiday. We had never been cruising, and, frankly, I was doubtful that being kept prisoner on even a well-fed ship was going to be my cup of tea. With a week to go, our cruise was cancelled – due to overbooking. At first we were enraged; but the compensation package offered by Celebrity Cruises was so good that we accepted their sincere apology and, banking the voucher for a free cruise of the same value (plus our money back and all expenses), we looked at the forward calendar…. and wondered…
My eldest son and our daughter-in-law; plus our two grandchildren, live in Australia. Once every two years, we try to get out to see them. So, we thought, why not combine the two and spend November – one of the dreariest English months – having a combined Australia/New Zealand trip, with the replacement cruise being the first part of the experience. We are retired from a long life in IT, and happily, we can do this sort of thing – but not too often, as cruising of any form is expensive.
We had left Sydney two days before. It was such a beautiful experience that I blogged about it at the time – from my iPhone. But Milford Sound, the most primeval landscape on the whole of New Zealand’s South Island, was now up ahead, and Captain Thassos was waking the whole ship, early, to allow us time to get ready for this very special experience. ‘Once in a lifetime experience’ is overused but in this case we had reason to believe it would be so. Much depends on the weather… You can travel to this, one of the most southerly places on the planet, and see nothing because of the mist. New Zealand is a beautifully misty place…
But, as our luck with the Norwegian cruise had been bad, so this was was good – more than good, because, as my first sprint to the upper deck showed, we had the perfect combination of wispy mist and a clear morning – not always present in Milford Sound.
It was still before seven in the morning, yet just about every able-bodied person was on one of the upper decks. The Solstice is one of the largest vessels on the seas. It dwarfed the other tourist boats going past us, as can be seen from the above photographs.
Milford Sound is a misnomer. A sound is an outlet to the sea formed by a river system. Milford was created by a glacial system – the mountains all around give the clue. Because of this the ‘lip’ of Milford Sound is quite shallow; something that would have produced problems for large vessels until the latest generation of low-draught ships (such as the Solstice) came into service.
The highlight of the experience came when we had penetrated Milford Sound to the end of its navigable depth. The Solstice is equipped with twin giant propellors that can be rotated through 360 degrees. This enables complete turns to be made within the length of the ship: the vessel simply rotates in the water on its horizontal axis. Captain Thassos made a point of stressing how much control it gave the crew in tight or difficult situations.
The ‘doughnut’ turn complete, it was time to visit the last of the vast waterfalls that tumble from the highland peaks into Milford Sound. Then we made one last turn before heading back into the open waters of the ocean. There were two more locations to visit on the ‘Fjord Coast’ of New Zealand’s South Island, but none compared to Milford Sound. Visitors from inland face a difficult car journey or many days on foot to get there. We had arrived in the comfort of the huge Solstice, which also offered us her height from which to see the whole of glacial landscape.
The captain took care to explain that the apparent fumes given off by the Solstice-class boats are not polluting. The engines have catalytic processes that convert what would be diesel smoke to harmless vapour – that is what is seen emerging from the giant funnels.
The trip of a lifetime? It most certainly was. There were many other stopping points on our ten-day cruise around New Zealand. I will be writing about the best of them in posts to come.
Stephen Tanham is a Director of the Silent Eye School of Consciousness, a not-for-profit organisation that helps people find a personal path to a deeper place within their internal and external lives.
The Silent Eye provides home-based, practical courses which are low-cost and personally supervised. The course materials and corresponding supervision are provided month by month without further commitment.
Steve’s personal blog, Sun in Gemini, is at stevetanham.wordpress.com.
You’ll find friends, poetry, literature and photography there…and some great guest posts on related topics.