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2005-03-08 `Eight wonder of the world' will remain in my memory for a very long time

Recently I circumnavigated the globe. Like Ellen McArthur, it was my first time to do so. My plane lifted off from Heathrow at 12 midday on Tuesday, and landed in Los Angeles at 5pm local time after an 11 hour flight.

 

The next flight departed LA for Auckland at 8.30pm and touched down in New Zealand two days later on Thursday at 6am, local time. Because of the magic of the International Dateline, we had completely missed out Wednesday. And I had had great plans for that day too.

 

When I travel a long distance by land, air or sea, I am always astounded by the courage and determination of the explorers who had set off into the unknown centuries ago.

 

When Abel Tasman departed the Netherlands in the 1630s for Indonesia, and eventully for Tasmania and New Zealand in 1642, he was put off actually landing by the hostility of the natives. Tasman, Cook, Columbus and all the others must have been truly fearless as they explored previously uncharted areas of the globe. But they were not the first.

 

In the 1300s, thousands of Polynesians arrived in New Zealand in canoes. Information is now being unveiled to prove that Chinese explorers in their `junks' had set off into the open ocean to discover new lands, lands for all they knew, which may have been inhabited by cannibals or even monsters.

 

Who knew what lay at the far end of this seemingly flat world? When these intrepid sailors reached the horizon, who was to say they would not simply plunge forever down a bottomless waterfall? But of course, often the reward would have been beyond the wildest dreams of these adventurers.

 

I was totally blown away when I first travelled through the Beagle Channel - I can only imagine how awestruck those early voyagers must have been on first seeing the South American glaciers, having journeyed for months, not really knowing where they were going.

 

On my most recent trip to New Zealand, a country which is a bounty of rivers, lakes, fjords, forests and peaks, I had the privilege of fulfilling a lifetime dream of journeying through Milford Sound in Fjordland National Park. The nearest town is Queenstown, about a five-hour drive away. We arrived by sea, and the
view of this World Heritage Site from the water is, as I expected, beyond awe-inspiring.

 

Three million acres of pristine unspoiled natural grandeur means that one soon runs out of superlatives. White clouds cling to lofty mountain peaks, which rise vertically from out of glacial basins, stretching all the way back to the Southern Alps. Cascading coruscate waterfalls tumble down sheer vegetated rock-faces exploding into the green-blue waters below, upstaging the thousands of wispy veiny ribbons of water and spume which drift mistily down the mossy valley-walls.

 

A succession of massive glaciers carved out this 10-mile long inlet which is less than a mile wide at its widest. Fjordland has one of the world's most complex eco-systems.

 

The climate is spectacularly wet, about 20 ft annually, and so a permanent layer of freshwater about 10ft thick rests on the salt water below. The rich marine life from the sea bed, including red and black coral, floats at times to the freshwater surface, fur seals bask on the narrow shorelines, while playful dolphins tease tourist vessels. The vertical cliffs are soil-free, but nonetheless luxuriously vegetated. Tiny patches of lichen and moss have spread through the centuries.

 

Much of the vast lush rainforest behind magical Milford Sound is remote, off-the-beaten-track, and remains innacurately charted. Mitre Peak, at almost 6000ft high, is almost permanently snow-capped. Bowen and Stirling Falls roar over 500ft down the rock-face into the dark thousand-foot-deep waters.

 

That is the main memory I will hold onto from my day in Milford Sound - its vastness. One loses one's sense of scale, until a bird, or helicopter even, flies past a waterfall and disappears after moments into one of the many tributary hanging valleys. Unsurprisingly, Rudyard Kipling named this unspoiled and natural rainforest wonderland as `the 8th Wonder of the World'.

 

Whether you walk it, or see it by plane, helicopter, boat or kayak, this chocolate-box scenery will remain etched on your memory for a long time. For Captain Cook, and all the others, it truly must have been a reward, having travelled half-way round the world.