When James Cook approached the South West Coast of New Zealand’s South Island in 1770, he took one look at the great humps of rock blocking his path and stroked his big old sailor’s chinny chin. “Hmmmm, bit bloody risky, this sound”. Midshipman Saunders’ eyes twinkle: “And henceforth, Captain, we shall call it: ‘Bit Bloody Risky Sound‘”
History suggests we ought to have predicted that something dubious would occur over Doubtful Sound. But it was a still and peaceful morning, hardly a breath of wind after several much gustier days when a chopper flight would’ve been a whole load of sick bags-worth of wrongness. We headed out over the mountain ranges that make up Fiordland National Park, John on my lap.
The first sign something was up was Kim the pilot saying ‘What’s that noise?’ A sizeably loud ‘thump thump thump’ could be heard from outside the helicopter. Kim was banking in for a closer look at a shipwreck that he’d just been describing in the north of Doubtful, a beautiful area of islands and inlets a couple of kilometres from the craggy mouth that so frightened Captain Cautious himself. For a second, I was calm as. But then I looked at my husband and we exchanged ‘a look’. Adam is the kinda guy that will step off a precipice with a rope round his waist as though he’s getting off a Routemaster, so when he looks worried, it’s definitely time to pee your pants.
I squeezed John John as Kim swung the helicopter round, heading for a strip of sand that looked not much wider than a cat’s litter tray. By a stroke of luck, this was near where we were meant to land anyway. We were on Resolution Island, the home to conservationist Richard Treacy Henry for about 15 years in the early 1900s. He devoted his life to saving flightless New Zealand bird species (particularly the kakapo, which is a big chunky green parrot with a beak like a witch’s thumbnail) and lived in total isolation apart from an old stove and an aviary made of palm trunks, that still sort-of survives to tell the tale (unlike the South Island kakapos… the tubby, satisfied-looking Resolution Island stoat population will tell you where they went).
As we explored, Kim checked his chopper. He gave us a (not particularly hearty) all-clear and we got back in the bird. But we’d only been airborne for a few minutes when he frowned and shook his head: ‘No. We have to land. Right… HERE.’ He literally circled and set down on the first flat bit of land that wasn’t covered in trees, a mossy patch with a wooden hut a few hundred metres away, on a rocky inlet lapped by dark green water. There was some damage to the fibreglass from a loose flap, nothing major, but apparently it’d been giving off ‘bad vibrations’ and thank Jesus and all his little wizards, he wasn’t the sort of guy to tough it out and carry on flying anyway.
Hey, it could be worse: January 21st is a perfectly lovely date but not one I was particularly keen to see on my headstone. We were safe, we had lunch at 11am and we checked out our new home. ‘Won’t be long kids!’ I chirped. And then we waited. Kim put in a distress call for someone to rescue us (there he is trying to get a satellite signal in the background of the picture above).
We were castaways on Anchor Island and Adam and the kids wasted no time in getting their kits off and jumping into the ice-cold sea, a unique combination of freshwater layer on top of salt-water underneath. Quite idyllic really. ‘We must get involved in a slightly anti-climactic emergency helicopter landing another time soon!’ I thought to myself… that is, until the SANDFLIES INVADED and BLOOD WAS SPILLED.
Fiordland is a place of great natural beauty but there’s a reason why the population levels remain roughly what they were when Captain Cook rocked up here: it’s literally infested with the blighters. By now we’d been on Anchor Island two whole hours, windmilling like lunatics trying to keep them away. Kim got back in the chopper, promising us help was on it’s way and disappeared into the sky. Now we really were alone. I sat around contemplating drawing a face on a football for company and the kids watched Despicable Me 3 for the 8000th time and fought over a piece of chewing gum. And then: salvation.
A genuine rescue helicopter arrived, a <geek alert> BK-117 twin-engine, 9-seater Messerschmitt, no less (we didn’t mention the war) and we said goodbye to our home for three hours. The pilot, Nick, had been dragged in on his day off and was utterly thrilled to see us. He’d been ordered to salvage something from the rubble that was our extremely expensive day out in Fiordland so he took us to Chalky Island, mainly because it’s the only place in the area that’s free of sandflies.
John John found some gravel to play with, Eddie found some baby seals, the girls found tonnes of pāua shells and I found that the white cliffs made me suddenly, startlingly homesick for old Blighty. I think it might have been the late viewing of Dunkirk the night before.
We’d been planning on a leisurely day exploring Milford, Dusky and Doubtful Sounds but wound up spending three hours on Anxious Island battling blood-sucking insects instead. But as the cloud-shadows drifted across the mountains on the way back home, the boys had a little snooze in our big German flying machine, no worse for the drama.