A damp, drizzly day in February 2011 and I am standing on the open deck of The Navigator on Doubtful Sound, Fiordland National Park, New Zealand. I have come to one of the world’s great wildernesses to drink in this majestic landscape. Doubtful Sound is an unspoiled wilderness of many moods, today eerie and mysterious with the cloud hanging low about us. Mountains loom out of the waters, shadowy in the swirling mists, scars of dark granite rock revealed by tree avalanches. It is a beguiling place; a landscape that truly makes me feel small.
The Navigator’s skipper, Rex, has invited us to share in the sound of silence. He shuts down each of the ship’s vital systems one by one. Firstly come the engines, making the vibration of the deck beneath my feet shudder to a halt. Next he stops the generator, causing the whirr of the fans to fade and falter as the saloon lights flick off, thickening the apparent gloom of the mist. The metal beast had ceased to breathe and it feels like it is now just me in this world. I grow more aware of the movement of the boat, a gentle swaying with the motion of the water.
As the groans and hums of the ship fade away, there is only the sound of the bush that fills the air. Here, there is no distant drone of road noise, or aircraft in the sky. I am truly experiencing the sound of silence.
Doubtful Sound is the natural home to dense temperate rainforest, with native bush clinging to the steep valleys carved out by the forces of the ice some 20,000 years ago. The forest is a marvel in its own right since no soil forms on top of the rock, and it does not seem possible that anything should grow, let alone flourish. The thick green canopy is evident before me, held in place by a network of roots – like fingers interlaced, grasping hold of one another to remain the mountainside in defiance of gravity.
As I stand taking in the sights, the first other sensation that I become aware of is the feel of the rain falling on my head. Cool rivulets are forming through my hair, reaching my scalp and sending icy shivers down my spine. I turn my head to the heavens and feel the water falling on face. Drop after drop. I hear the drops fall on the deck, the drip-drip on the metal, and at a different pitch, I hear the water falling in the Sound itself. I become more aware of the sound of water; of the rippling water washing the shore, and then somewhere in the distance, of a waterfall roaring down the steep sides of the black rocks gouged by the ice.
My breathing has slowed and my rhythm seems to echo that of the grey water lapping the shore. In the silence I notice a reverberation deep within me, and it feels like a magic spell from this mysterious land has been cast on me.
From the stillness of the bush, there is a lone bird song, the lyrical chimes of a bellbird piercing the air. I strain to hear it better, but it too seems to sense the silence and its song stops. That sweet sound is accompanied by the taste of sorrow as my mind wanders to the stories of devastation that I have learned of on my journey across New Zealand. The stoat, rat and possum, although not visible or audible, are discernable in the lone song of the bellbird; these introduced mammals have decimated the bird population. Once there would have been a cacophony, but now there is only the single haunting sound of a ghost-bird.