I’ve just had the most magical week with a group of 12 friends, hunting, gathering and playing in Dusky Sound and celebrating a 60thbirthday.
It’s not a destination you drop in on by chance. In fact, it’s so remote it takes some planning to get there. But, don’t let that be a deterrent as this little piece of New Zealand is very special.
And, so our journey began. Flying to Queenstown, busing to Te Anau and helicoptering from nearby Manapouri to the Dusky Sound. Just the sound of a chopper makes me excited. Flying over the mountains and dropping into the valleys, then over the water to our destination was an incredible experience in itself.
Landing in Supper Cove there was no obvious heli-pad, but ‘what was I thinking?’ We’re in the wilderness. Unloading our luggage (and alcoholic supplies) from the chopper, we piled into the tender with just a short distance to ‘M.V. Flightless,‘ our home for the week.
‘M.V. Flightless’ is an ex-NZ Navy vessel owned and operated by New Zealanders Sean Ellis and Maria Kuster and their company Pure Salt. Their patch is Dusky Sound, hunting, gathering and playing. They take charters or you can join a group to explore the fiords. They also run a number of themed niche charters based around photography, culinary, history and more.
As well as providing a dream outdoors adventure for city slickers like me, Sean and Maria are passionate about the Tamatea / Dusky Sound Restoration Project. It’s a conservation project to renew the ‘bio-bank’ of birds including Kiwis. Their goal is to eradicate the rodents Captain James Cook bought on his expedition voyages to New Zealand and to bring the bird life back to what it was in the 1800’s.
So how did we spend our days in the middle of nowhere, with no cell phone coverage, internet or even Netflix?
Soon after arriving our delightful crew and skipper Sean discussed with the team the activities we’d like to do. Hiking, snorkelling, fishing and kayaking were all high on the agenda as well as a little hunting and diving. So, after delicious seafood chowder made by Chef Anna we donned our 7mm wetsuits, gloves and hoods and set off in the tender with Brad, our ‘go-to’ activties man to find a good snorkelling site to gather dinner.
The fiords are renowned for their plentiful, oversized crayfish and the thought of eating the rich, white flesh until we could eat no more was fast becoming a reality. As fanciful as it may seem, we soon had a dozen crays in the catch-bag all retrieved by snorkelling and a little free diving.
Back on board our haul looked impressive and Courtney (Anna’s sous chef) went about preparing our dinner. Soon our entrée appeared and we were feasting on legs, legs and more legs, eventually slowing down although we barely did justice to the hidden flesh.
Then the main, sautéed lobster tail with potatoes and salad. Oh, now I’m home I yearn for this meal just one more time.
The sleeping quarters on ‘M.V. Flightless’ are below the main deck. Cabins for couples and larger cabins for four people all worked well, with everyone snuggled in together. With three spacious bathrooms to share and a daily laundry service we were kept clean and odourless!
Up early the next morning, the continental breakfast was self-serve. However, hunger was not on my radar as I was still processing the crayfish.
Not long after breakfast were kayaked to explore Pigeon Island. On route, a pod of dolphins passed us with a mother and calf trailing behind, teaching it how to forage.
On the island, we saw the remains of Richard Henry’s house and his aviary. An Irishman, he moved to Australia and eventually found his way to New Zealand. In the latter years of the nineteenth century he lived and worked, often alone, in the Dusky Sound. His extraordinary efforts to save the Kakapos and Kiwis from extinction has been an invaluable contribution to wildlife conservation in New Zealand. He is revered by Pure Salt and many other conservationists, now carrying on his great work.
Back on board it was time to catch dinner. At the bow of the boat the lines went down and it wasn’t long before perch and blue cod were being hauled in. Quantities are carefully gauged and when a ‘feed’ has been caught the lines come in. With the fish literally hours old, Anna choose to dust the fillets in flour before sautéing them in butter. A more delicious way to eat the freshest of fish would be hard to find.
Before we ate the blue cod, we feasted on an entrée of sizzling paua. Tenderising from the day before in salt water, the paua like the crayfish looked oversized.
Another day in paradise and today we are exploring Indian Island, dear to Pure Salt’s heart. It is part of the Tamatea Project. Pure Salt have been granted the rights to manage this island (as well as Long Island and Pickersgill Harbour) by DOC (Department of Conservation) to reduce the pest numbers. Before more birds can be introduced to the island from a bird ‘bio-bank’ it must be proven the pests are under control. In turn, when the bird life flourishes on the Indian Island, it will become a ‘bio-bank’ to provide birds to other pest free islands.
On Indian Island, about 100 of the required 200 ‘Good nature A 24’ traps have been installed to kill stoats, rats and mice. The next 100 will be mounted to trees in June 2019 during a conservation charter completing this stage of the project. While on the island we had a ceremonial trap installation as Courtney had used her tips to purchasing a trap for island. It was great to see the trap installed and the care taken in positioning the device to ensure it maximizes rodent deaths.
To gauge the success of the eradication project several cameras have also been installed to monitor the rodent and bird activity. Once the camera has detected movement it takes several photos, then a short video is filmed. When we visited the island, we took the SD card from the camera and back on ‘M.V. Flightless’ we watched the footage. To everyone’s amazement, two flirting kiwis were clearly visible as well as Kereru and several rats. This data proved Kiwis are on the island and will continue to provide invaluable information regarding the declining pest numbers and hopefully increasing bird life on the island.
As the day is closing in and it’s time to forage for dinner again. Back on board the lines go over the bow of the boat and wham, a strike so huge it has us all guessing. Our fisherman struggles as rod bends deeper. After a good fight, he eventually he pulls in a 14.5 kilogram Hapuka. Dinner sorted…
With a catch, this size we eat Hapuka steaks for dinner, the wings are smoked for lunch the following day and Anna creates the most delicious crayfish and Hapuka curry from the left overs. What I love about Pure Salt’s philosophy is there is no wastage.
While our hunter is up at first light and was nowhere to be seen at dusk the elusive deer were not to be found. But we knew they are there as on our hike to Moose Lake we found multiple fresh hoof imprints in the bog, fresh poops and also witnessed the roar of the stag. But thanks to the previous guests on ‘M.V. Flightless’ they had kindly left venison from a kill so we had a hearty meal of red meat.
A highlight for me on this Dusky Sound adventure was the diving. With visibility exceeding 15 metres and so many varieties of kelp, it looked like a pasta shop as it sloshed around in the ocean. On the ocean floor Sean cracked open a large kina which had the blue cod swarming to feed and as Anna sat quietly with the catch-bag, she very nearly caught one.
As we ascended from the dive we stopped at about six metres to watch a gathering of crayfish. More than 10 crays were sitting on a ledge, some near their holes, others just hanging out. It was incredible to see so many of these beautiful creatures at home.
And, so the hunting and gathering continued as our keen fisherman caught a shark. Pulling it on board Anna and Courtney had the evening meal sorted, fish and chips. But not before and entrée of cockles we had gathered in Cascade cove and the baked wings the blue cod.
Oh, to continue a life-like this. I can honestly say I did not miss one of my devices. The lack of communication with the outside world was calming. We ate like kings, played like children and had the most uplifting and refreshing break imaginable.
Thanks to Sean, Maria, Jeff, Brad, Anna and Courtney for an amazing week.