A surfeit of lobster? Doubtful!


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Published: July 25th 2008
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Sounds of silence...

A tour of Fiordland.

You lookin' at me?You lookin' at me?You lookin' at me?

One of the half dozen rock lobster in Chris' lobster-pot.
A Maori legend has it that long ago a god-like being, Tu-te-raki-whanoa, wielded his axe to carve out the landscape of South Island. If you look at a map of the southern end of South Island, you might well believe it. Indeed, the island's southwestern coast, facing Australia and the Tasman Sea, does look like it has had an axe taken to it - convoluted and narrow inlets seemingly hewn out of the spine of the Alps. Southland's dozens of fjords are in fact the result not of a cosmic axe but of millions of years of erosion by immense rivers of ice - glaciers. Now retreated, the glaciers dug deep V-shaped valleys into the mountain rock. Fiordland (with an i...) is the result.

Our gateway to Fiordland is Manapouri, a small settlement that has played an important role in New Zealand's modern history. It's a three hour drive from Queenstown through an ever-changing landscape, but with the towering mountains a constant backdrop. Manapouri is perched on the shores of the lake which shares its name and is well known to Kiwis. The thing about Lake Manapouri is that although it is a mere 10km away from the sea at
Lake ManapouriLake ManapouriLake Manapouri

Against the backdrop of the Southern Alps.
its closest point, it is - thanks to South Island's rugged geography - considerably higher. Indeed, the surface of Lake Manapouri is not far from 200m above the surface of the Tasman Sea. "So what?", you might well ask. This difference in altitude did not go unnoticed by early surveyors of the area, who concluded in the early 1900s that the lake had great potential for generating hydroelectricity.

Due to the extremely difficult terrain, it was many decades before Lake Manapouri was exploited - and when it did happen it was for the most bizarre of reasons. In the mid 1950s, massive deposits of aluminium ore were identified far, far across the Tasman Sea in Northern Queensland - these deposits had huge economic potential, but turning aluminium ore into metal takes electricity, a lot of electricity. So much current is in fact required (a quarter of a million amps!) that identifying a source of cheap electricity is a vital consideration in choosing a construction site for a processing plant. Comalco, the company responsible for exploiting these huge deposits of bauxite (now part of the much better known Rio Tinto), together with the New Zealand government, came upon the idea
Sandy shore of Lake ManapouriSandy shore of Lake ManapouriSandy shore of Lake Manapouri

Taken from the track around Pearl Harbour.
of using hydroelectric power from Lake Manapouri to run a new smelting plant. Initial plans involved the building of hydroelectric dams that would raise the level of Lake Manapouri by a massive 30 metres and cause the lake to merge with its neighbour, Lake Te Anau a little further north. New Zealanders didn't like the idea of Fiordland being vandalised for the sake of industry or economics, and the Save Manapouri Campaign was born. While construction of the power station began, the campaign collected thousands upon thousands of signatures to petition against the raising of the lake's water levels. By the late 1960s the campaign had the signatures of nearly 10%!o(MISSING)f the country's entire population. Lake Manapouri became a big political issue, and pledges not to raise the level of the lake became part of political party manifestos. Eventually - and satisfyingly - people power prevailed - the surface of the lake stayed where it was. The campaign and its outcome is widely remembered by New Zealanders.

The power station is the most extraordinary feat of engineering: the station's immense turbines are housed in a cavernous underground machine hall hewn out of solid rock two hundred metres below the surface of the lake. These turbines are powered by huge volumes of fresh water from Lake Manapouri thundering down through two tailrace tunnels, each ten metres across, and into the sea. Building the station was a most monumental task: materials and machinery, including massive tunnel-boring machines, had to be brought in by sea through the fjords. The construction of the service road leading from the head of the fjord closest to Manapouri - Doubtful Sound - up over the 671m Wilmot Pass to the shore of Lake Manapouri was a huge feat in itself. Today, the Manapouri Power Station's output is completely gobbled up by the aluminium smelting plant at Tiwai Point, 150km or so southeast of Manapouri in Bluff. The plant consumes an astonishing 15%!<(MISSING)/i> of all the electricity produced in New Zealand. Mind-boggling. The logistics and economics of the entire operation are incredible: after being mined and refined in Queensland, the ore is shipped across the Tasman Sea to Bluff, in the far south of South Island. After being converted to pure metal thanks to electricity from the Manapouri Power Station, the aluminium is then loaded back onto cargo ships and transported to Japan, the main export market, and to the rest of Asia. The plant produces almost 350,000 tonnes of aluminium a year - with a tonne of aluminium selling for more than US$3000 per tonne, that's a lot of money.

Not that you'd guess any of all this standing on the sandy shore of Lake Manapouri, gazing out over the waters to the mountains beyond. It's scarcely believable that this tranquil lake is instrumental to world metal markets...

Our accommodation in Manapouri is - as we have come to expect - a comfortable and brilliantly appointed hostel, comprising individual wooden chalets scattered on a steep hillside overlooking the lake. We pop into town, which is little more than a Four Square (New Zealand's answer to the local Co-op) and a post office. The postmaster also rents out rowing boats for a couple of dollars an hour, and with the nice calm weather we take one and row across the interestingly-named Pearl Harbour, where a small river opens out onto the lake. Across the river from town is the bulk of Fiordland National Park: south and west of here there is nothing but forest, mountains, fjords, rivers and lakes. Not a settlement, not a road. Only open spaces, wilderness. We tie the boat up at a little wooden jetty and follow a nice walking track around some native forest: the circular track skirts the edge of the lake, and you can step off it onto small sandy beaches covered with rata bushes. We don't see another soul - and it's mid summer! Perhaps this is one of New Zealand's drawcards for us - there aren't very many people here. Hard to imagine that a year ago today I may well have been stuck on an overcrowded tube like a sardine in a tin.

After a good night's sleep at the hostel, we take the car down to Pearl Harbour the following morning. A few days ago we booked a trip to Doubtful Sound, one of the National Park's larger fjords, with a small local operator going by the name of Deep Cove Charters, run by a charming man going by the name of Chris Lemin. We'll be spending the night in the fjord aboard Chris' boat, the Flyer, returning to Manapouri the next day.

Actually getting to Doubtful Sound is an adventure in itself: after meeting our fellow travellers at the jetty in Pearl Harbour, we board a small boat and set off across the lake, passing a number of small, rocky islands boasting waterfalls and large rata trees covered in bright red flowers. Lake Manapouri is large, and the trip across takes nearly an hour. We enter a small side arm of the lake, the West Arm, where the huge switchyard for the underground power station - two hundred meters beneath our feet is the cathedral-like machine hall with its huge turbines. We step off the boat on the far side of the lake, where there is little else but the switchyard, a small collection of buses, a visitor centre chronicling the Save Manapouri Campaign, and an elevator to take power station workers down a deep shaft to the machine hall. No sooner are we on dry ground that we start feeling small but painful twinges on our arms and faces: the air is swarming with tiny black flies, New Zealand's deeply infamous sandflies. These creatures are especially abundant along South Island's west coast...and guess where we are? Fortunately, Jim and Julie in Opotiki has given us a Christmas present of nuclear stength DEET gel, the only thing that will keep them away. We quickly coat our arms, hands and faces with the caustic stuff. We run to take refuge with Chris and the others in the small minibus which is to take us down to the fjord over the Wilmot Pass. In the seconds it takes for us all to get in the bus fills up with the dreaded flies, and a satisfying but bloody swatfest ensues. Chris explains that during the construction of the power station, workers received an additional NZ$1 a day by way of compensation for the sheer misery of having to put up with them!

The road linking the west arm of Lake Manapouri and Doubtful Sound was built in the Sixties to carry equipment for the construction of the power station. Despite being only 20km long, it was a vital cog in the project, and took two years to build. Surprisingly for its out-of-the-way location, it was laid to an extremely high standard in order for it to cope with the weight of the huge machines that were hauled over the pass to the construction site. The highest part of the road - the Wilmot Pass - offers a gorgeous view down a deep, forested valley to Deep Cove in the fjord below. The huge trees lining the road are covered in moss of every conceivable variety. As we descend, Chris points out the subtle but definite patterns in the water of the fjord: the tailrace tunnels from the lake open out in Deep Cove, disgorging millions of litres of fresh water into the sea.

The jetty that a few decades ago saw the unloading of giant tunnel-boring machines and turbine parts now sees only visitors to the fjord. The MV Flyer awaits us there - quite a small vessel which to my eyes doesn't look like it can sleep six or seven people! However, the Flyer is a nautical TARDIS: really quite spacious and comfy, with bunks in the bows, a proper galley (I nearly typed kitchen) and a nice aft deck from which to admire the scenery. We soon cast off and begin our tour of the beautiful Doubtful Sound.

The fjord (for it is a fjord, and not a sound) was named "Doubtful Harbour" by none other than Captain Cook - apparently because he was unsure of the inlet's navigability. He was sufficiently unsure, it seems, not to explore
Rata flowersRata flowersRata flowers

From the Southern Rata, Metrosideros umbellata.
it, and the fjord was first visited by Europeans (the Maoris had known about it for a long time, of course, calling it Patea) in 1793. Particularly odd is that the first expedition into the fjord was Spanish - indeed, astonishingly, Spanish place-names abound around Doubtful Sound, completely unique in New Zealand - it's even odder than the French place-names in Tasmania or the Prussian ones in South Australia... The Spanish surveyed and sounded the fjord - Marcaciones Point; named features after crewmembers - Bauza Island, Malaspina Reach; marked the time of their visit - Febrero Point; and even conducted a few physics experiments on gravity while they were there - Pendulo Reach! The Flyer takes us past these unique places, Marcaciones Point marked with a plaque commemorating the Spanish expedition.

Doubtful Sound is a convoluted fjord, the product of intense glacial activity long, long ago. The mountainous walls of the fjord fall precipitously to the water - beneath the surface, they carry on down, down, down. Chris has great big nautical charts spread out on a table for us to look at - the fjord is more than four hundred metres deep, quite a long way down when the fjord is a kilometre or so wide. It's simply a deep glacial mountain valley, except it happens to be filled with water.

Shortly after leaving Deep Cove we sit down for a spot of lunch Chris has prepared for us. Alex's and my eyes glaze over when we see the centrepiece of the meal, a giant dish of beautiful white, succulent and juicy-looking lobster. Lobsterlobsterlobster. Fortunately for us, rock lobsters abound in the clear, cold waters of the fjord. Even more fortunately for us, Chris has a lobster licence and a fair few lobster pots down here too. Restraint is gaily thrown to the wind as everybody dives in like gannets. Gorgeous. I discreetly try to find out if there will be more lobster for dinner. Or for breakfast. Or both.

We spend the afternoon alternately admiring the stunning scenery, poring over charts and histories of the fjord, and steering the boat (or rather attempting to, it's bloody difficult). Later in the afternoon, Chris asks if we fancy a spot of fishing - why not? I can't say I've ever really fished before (I think I caught a baby minnow on holiday once) and don't quite see
Manapouri Power StationManapouri Power StationManapouri Power Station

Or rather just the switchyard. Beneath us is a cavernous turbine hall, hewn out of solid rock.
the point of angling, but apparently if we catch anything interesting we're going to have it for dinner. Caveman (and cavewoman!) instincts kick in all round and everyone is suddenly up for fishing. There are three or four rods on the Flyer, and while still in the confines of the fjord, Chris sends down a fishing line to catch some bait. It isn't long before he lands a couple of small fish which look a little like gurnard (but aren't). Balancing his wooden board on the rail Chris quickly stuns and fillets the fish: this will be the bait for the bigger critters. To catch these we head westwards past the rocks - peppered with sunbathing fur seals - guarding the mouth of the fjord, and out into the open Tasman Sea. If you were to sail due west from the entrance to Doubtful Sound, and keep that course unerringly, you wouldn't make landfall before Argentina. A long, long way away...The weather is excellent for fishing, with little wind and practically no waves. After a quick tutorial on technique, we bait the hooks with juicy bits of sashimi and down they go. Within a couple of minutes we feel a
Mossy treesMossy treesMossy trees

On the road from West Arm to Deep Cove.
faint but definite tug on the line - excitement! Furiously, we all simultaneously reel in, peering over the edge. The water is so calm and clear that you can see the fish on its way up, which is quite an amazing sight. Blue cod all round. The blue cod - Parapercis colias, according to the fish guide - is not a cod at all but more like a perch. Either way Chris says it's tasty, which is of course what matters. He also takes charge of unhooking and donging the fish over the head, a task which none of us really feels like performing. We rebait the hooks and have another go - it is oddly compelling, and quite addictive. A fellow guest brings up a "Maori chief", of which Chris memorably says - "You wouldn't feed that to your mother-in-law". It gets thrown back - a lucky escape. Someone else gets a big grouper, a strong fish that takes quite some reeling in, while Alex and I keep getting more and more blue cod. There's enough fish to feed us all tonight, with some to spare for Chris' onboard freezer (for when the weather isn't good enough for fishing).
Fiordland wildernessFiordland wildernessFiordland wilderness

On the road from West Arm to Deep Cove.
As the leftover bait fish is tossed over the side, a beautiful albatross lands on the water and gobbles it down as we look on in amazement.

We turn around and head back into the fjord, where we'll lay anchor for the night. On the way, we make a couple of short stops to inspect the lobster pots - I stand in the bows and watch Chris as he uses a winch to bring the pots up. "Bah, no good today!" he complains, the pot containing "only" half a dozen fat lobsters. "Yesterday there were 25!". How much are these licences and where do I get one? The lobsters are piled up in a bucket, the pots rebaited and lowered again.

That night we feast on blue cod, which Chris has poached for us in beer - delicious. It turns out the fish is just a starter, and he later brings out slices of gorgeous venison: he shot the deer himself not long ago on the wooded shores of Lake Manapouri. Here in New Zealand, deer - all introduced - are a real pest and shooting them is encouraged. We make no protest and tuck in - after all, we are contributing to the protection of New Zealand's indigenous species...

That evening we see a much, much larger vessel far ahead of us in the fjord - belonging to the big operator, this one carries not six passengers but a hundred. How glad we are to have opted for this wonderful family-owned business! After the excitement of the fishing we are all zonked and it's not late when we retire to our bunks. It's very comfortable indeed - perhaps more so than our overnight cruise in Ha Long Bay, where I had the pleasure of ice-cold water dripping onto my legs from a dodgy air conditioner...We wake up early to the sound of Chris winching up the anchor. Today the weather is very different, and much more typical for Fiordland: low cloud hangs in the valleys, clinging to the walls of the fjord, giving it a spooky, ethereal appearance. After a light breakfast, we head back to Deep Cove where our the van is waiting to take us back to Lake Manapouri and pick up the next group of guests. It's been a wonderful experience, without doubt (ha, ha) a highlight of our trip so far.

Just before we hop off, Chris hands us each a large bag filled almost to bursting with lobster meat from yesterday's pots. That's what I call a goodie bag.








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The FlyerThe Flyer
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Our cruise ship!
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Doubtful Sound

Of most definite beauty...
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Doubtful Sound

A misnomer - this is actually a fjord, cut by glaciers and incredibly, incredibly deep.
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Welcome aboard!

A light lunch to kick off our visit of Doubtful Sound.
Oh. My. Goodness.Oh. My. Goodness.
Oh. My. Goodness.

Lobster heaven - the fjords are crawling with them. It is our duty to prevent the populations getting out of control!


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