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Fiordland fling

The southern sounds are an irreplaceable treasure, a watery wonderland in need of protection.

The tail of the helicopter lifts before we do but Queenstown is soon left behind. We're plunging headlong above Lake Wakatipu, then over the vast plain that reaches out towards Te Anau. The weather is closing in, so pilot Chris Green keeps us low, darting around the valley below the cloud.

Having not long returned from six weeks in the US and Canadian Rockies, I am impressed at just how much more attractive the diversity of New Zealand's native forest is than the vast expanse of conifers that covers millions of hectares of those northern hemisphere lands.

However, possums have left their indelible stain here: white skeletons of rata that interrupt the canopy. And as we cross the conservation estate, I can't help but notice just how many dead trees interrupt the otherwise lush canopy forming the strip between farmland and the snowline.

A quick stop in Te Anau to survey the operations of the largest Department of Conservation (DoC) depot, respons-ible for the care of 1.3 million hectares of Fiordland National Park, and we're off again. We hurtle once more into the threatening weather, over the Manapouri Power Station, up the Spey River valley, across Wilmot Pass and down into Breaksea Sound, where our home for the next three days, the good ship Southern Winds, awaits. The bush here contrasts dramatically with that back near civilisation: we no longer see the skeleton testimonies to possum infestation. Mercifully, pockets remain that this pest has yet to scar.

The Southern Wind's first destination, Breaksea Island at the mouth of the fiord, is the first island to have been cleared of rats - as recently as 1988. Fiordland crested penguins perch above the wave line, while fur seals abound on another rock face guarding the sound from intruders.

Then it's down the Acheron Passage, past Wet Jacket Arm - the first of the marine reserves we will visit - and into Dusky Sound, with its myriad of historically significant islands at the mouth. Here the study of middens revealed the extensive range of foods that Maori could access to sustain themselves - including the kakapo, valued for its meat and feathers for cloaks.

After posing on the same rock on Indian Island that William Hodges, Captain Cook's artist, painted his famous Family in Dusky Bay, New Zeland [sic] of a cloaked Maori couple and their two children, we tiki-tour around to Astronomer's Point on Dusky's south banks, clambering up the hill Cook's crew cleared to allow astronomer William Wales to get his fixes of latitude and longitude.

For five weeks in 1773, the Resolution was moored here while Wales did his work. It was the first time the new "time machines" were used away from London to try to get a fix on longitude. Latitude was measured with uncanny accuracy, but the longitude measure was much less precise. Mounds where the trees were dropped still exist and the abundant kidney ferns cover a very different forest floor to ones we encountered on the mainland.

Indeed, the sheer proliferation of forest floor fauna is a major factor differentiating this part of New Zealand. The culling of deer has had an enormous impact, allowing the food sources for the native birds to reappear. Now all we need are the birds.

And it's the first of the birds that we encounter next - on Anchor Island, where DoC maintains a kakapo tracking and nurturing station. Daryl Eason, an expert on the subject and manning the station presently, has the cool but depressing distinction of knowing every single bird of the species.

Armed with his radio detector, he leads us into the bush to see if we can find one of the 47 members of this colony. Up and down and around and around, we finally come to a stop - Daryl's signal suggests the kakapo known as Rooster is where we're standing. At first nonplussed, we finally get it. There sitting above us in the canopy is the unmistakable silhouette of a bloody large bird well out of reach, but so near nevertheless.

For an hour we stay put, coaxing some communication from the big boy - who, although only 18 months old, makes a weka look like a sparrow. He's inquisitive all right, and every now and then pokes his owl-like face though the canopy to check out the intruders.

It reminds me of the hour we spent with gorillas in the Rwanda jungle. It's an enormous privilege to be here, but it's just so tragic that these species are in such small numbers now that our kids' kids may never know them. For the kakapo to survive on Anchor, the island has to be pest- and rodent-free; it's never had rats or mice, and DoC has cleared the stoats from it and surrounding islands.

The only threat, believe it or not, comes from the weka on nearby Seal Island, which can swim across and do eat kakapo eggs. But a cunning series of DoC traps lies in wait on the stepping-stone islands between the homes of each species, ensuring that weka so far have failed to complete the journey.

Whenua Hou, or Codfish Island, near Stewart Island, is the only place kakapo have bred of late; Doc removed them from Stewart Island because of the threat of cats. Kakapo have yet to breed on Anchor - they've been there just five years, and during this time the rimu has still not fruited; the fruit will be the abundant food source that encourages females to mate.

Finally it's into Luncheon Cove, site of the first European house built in New Zealand in 1792, and our first day in this wilderness wonderland draws to a close, with our enlightenment of the treasure this country has down here off to a rich start.

Second day and the weather's doing what Fiordland is famous for. It's wild out at sea and the cloud ceiling in Dusky is down to 100 metres max, so we start wandering. The dolphin monitors on board Southern Winds are keen to find the resident Dusky pod so they can get back to recording names and numbers. Both Dusky and Doubtful have resident pods, but the calf survival of the Doubtful community has dropped of late to about zero. What's going on?

That's the monitors' mission - is it water temperature or lowering salinity as the tailrace from the Manapouri station spews fresh water into Doubtful Sound, is it too much tourist boat agitation of the pod, is it genetic, is it a food problem? Any number of reasons can be postulated.

The father of conservation in Fiordland - Richard Henry - lived on Dusky's Pigeon Island for 16 years from 1894, focusing on the protection of the region's flightless birds. Visiting his kingdom, we're welcomed by robins, serenaded by bellbirds, saddlebacks, and kaka that swoop from rata to rata. And I thought the morning birdsong was just a precursor to radio's Morning Report.

Nearby Resolution Island, the fifth largest in the country, has virtually been cleared of stoats, thanks to a programme undertaken over the past few years. The predator-free areas DoC is creating will allow the birdlife to reach the density New Zealand bush was originally known for.

When you think about the infestation of predators and habitat destroyers - rats, mice, deer, rabbits, possums and stoats, which are responsible for the devastation of birdlife - it is difficult to come to terms with what our forefathers were thinking when they introduced such an invasive scourge.

That Richard Henry, having had his farm in Marlborough destroyed by rabbits, moved down to Fiordland to start his quest to keep kakapo numbers, in particular, intact - in a sort of conservationist's Custer's Last Stand - means we have a few of these birds left today. The conservation reformation that DoC and various groups of private individuals have spawned just over the past few years has its heritage in -Henry's work.

One of the most disappointing images of Fiordland in recent years has been that nauseating TV3 series Million Dollar Catch, in which a bunch of local cray fishermen rolled over and allowed themselves to be portrayed as cowboys and bad actors as they plundered as much of the resource as authorities would permit.

As we cruise past one of their floating sheds, we're reminded what a disservice such televised tabloid sensationalism affords the people of Fiordland. Contrast that television image with the unbelievable achievements of Fiordland Marine Guardians, a loose group of local stakeholders - fishermen, tourism operators, iwi and others - who in the mid-1990s became concerned that Forest and Bird and other groups were en route to close down access to Fiordland. So in their own interest, they got around a table and decided what they wanted and what they were prepared to give up. A sustainable future was the common goal.

The Ministry for the Environment funded the Guardians - now an incorporated society - to produce a strategy for Fiordland's fisheries and marine environment. The draft became the basis for the 2005 Fiordland Marine Management Act. Nowadays, the Guardians are formally recognised and appointed by the ministry. This groundswell of grassroots input is a unique model for protecting sustainability and should serve as a template for enlightened locals who want to be proactive in setting the sustainability agenda for their area.

Within the sounds, the day is all squall; out on the open water, it's 100% pure storm. Battling 50 knot winds, we decide to put the weather aside and get into it regardless. After donning thick wetsuits and finding a sheltered bay, we jump over the side and take a snorkel along the cliffside of the fiord where clear water gives up views of black coral (which is actually white under water), an abundance of kina, crays and paua, and plentiful schools of trumpeter, butter fish, moki and cod. As it's no wetter in the water than out, the thick wetsuit keeps me snug, though the mask isn't exactly moustache-friendly.

Day three is our last and the weather has cut up too badly for the chopper to come in. So, the call is made to take the boat up the coast to Doubtful Sound and into Deep Cove from where we can exit via the West Arm of Manapouri. The sea is rough, with 70 knot winds trying to biff us against the cliffs. The boat takes some superficial damage, but the hull and power plant are solid as, so there's no issue getting it north. But we're certainly all happy once we get back into a fiord again.

The open sea down these parts can cut up too turbulently for comfort. But now Doubtful is as full of waterfalls as Dusky was.

As we leave this wonderland, the only thoughts are that this treasure - which extends across the south of the mainland and takes in Stewart Island and the subantarctics of Campbell Island and the Auckland Islands - is something worth cherishing, and it's worth supporting all those who do the biz here to protect it, whether it be DoC, the groups of locals such as the Guardians or the various trusts established to stop the spoil getting worse.

In a world of ever-diminishing repositories of our natural history, we need to get in behind these efforts to ensure the heritage is never again so threatened. With the burgeoning world population, that is going to be terribly difficult; the number of sealed but empty drink bottles - from Japanese boats - we picked up bobbing in the sounds attests to that.

After visiting the subantarctic islands, I said the area was the Serengeti of the South. And now this dabble into Dusky has reinforced that view: that we have an irreplaceable treasure here to care for. No easy task.