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A tourist operator’s faith in Fiordland pays off for Alina Suchanski.
As each of its three fiords is bigger than Milford Sound and just as spectacular, Lake Te Anau has a vast area of water to explore. Yet despite all the surrounding beauty - it is located on the edge of Fiordland National Park - this second largest of New Zealand lakes seems highly underutilised. At the end of last year a new tourist attraction was added to what Te Anau has on offer, cruises on Faith, a historic 66-foot (20m) motor sailer ketch.
It's a special feeling,
sitting on board the beautifully restored old vessel, moored in a secluded bay in Lake Te Anau's South Fiord. The mighty Murchison Mountains shelter us from the norwest-wind that ruffles the water of the main body of the lake, so that here its surface is glassy.
We are surrounded by the primeval Fiordland forest, bird-song the only audible sound. A crew member wearing a naval uniform from a bygone era offers me a cup of tea and a selection of tasty morsels. It is as if time has stood still.
A little mystery shrouds her beginnings. Designed by Alfred Mylne of Glasgow in 1935, Faith was built in Scotland on the River Clyde and registered in Falmouth, England where she spent the first 40 years of her life as a pleasure craft for an English gentleman, whose identity is unknown. What is known, is that he named the boat after his wife.
Lord Shawcross, the British chief prosecutor at the Nuremberg war trials, was the second owner of Faith, in the early 1960s. He sold the boat in the 1970s and a few years later she sailed from Falmouth to New Zealand via Venezuela and the Panama Canal.
The voyage took nearly a year and was full of drama. In Panama, a bent shaft disabled her engines and the rest of the journey to Aotearoa was under sail.
In New Zealand, Faith had four further owners. She has spent her time in Whangarei, the Bay of Islands, Wellington and the Marlborough Sounds, before she sailed to her new home in Fiordland, a journey full of surprises and obstacles that piled up causing delay after delay.
''Unexpected repair work, problems with insuring the vessel, availability of the sailing crew and bad weather were just a few issues we had to contend with,'' the boat's owner, George Garden laments.
Originally from Waikaka near Gore, Mr Garden spent many years in the UK before shifting to Te Anau in 2007 to become the manager of Te Anau Lodge. Eight years later he retired from that job and committed himself fully to developing the Faith in Fiordland lake cruises business.
''It took more than two years to obtain all the necessary permits and concessions from the Department of Conservation, Southland District Council and Ngai Tahu. We had to jump through some hoops to meet the Maritime New Zealand Safeship Management requirements. In the meantime we have put a lot of effort into restoration work,'' he says.
Someone else could have suffered a crisis of faith, but Mr Garden's unwavering belief in this business venture drove him to work tirelessly until he turned his vision into reality.
Today Faith in Fiordland offers three cruises a day, seven days a week. I was privileged to experience one of them.
The adventure starts before you even board the vessel. As passengers walk down Te Anau's old government wharf they are greeted by the crew lined up, all dressed in naval uniforms from the last century.
Everything on the boat matches the period of its origin, from teak and mahogany joinery to red velvet upholstery and brass fittings. The attention to detail is meticulous.
Three bells and the horn announce our departure. We leave Te Anau at 9am and head for South Fiord across the choppy lake. Being prone to seasickness I look at the waves with apprehension.
But the skipper, Max, handles the boat with expert ease, like a good rider handles a horse. To my great relief it's smooth sailing. The boat can take up to 22 passengers, but on this trip there are only five of us plus three crew.
At the entrance to South Fiord we pass two picturesque Dome Islands before arriving at the secluded Hidden Lakes wharf. We disembark on to a floating jetty to go on a guided walk along the Department of Conservation's Hidden Lakes track.
Ten minutes of hiking in beautiful Fiordland National Park beech forest takes us to one of the Hidden Lakes. This track is accessible from the water only, so there are no other hikers around. On our return, a scrumptious morning tea awaits us with savoury and sweet treats.
George and Max chat with the passengers, while our guide, Yelena disappears into the kitchen.
On our way back to Te Anau the crew hoist the sails and Faith suddenly picks up speed. She lists to one side under the pressure of the wind, but I'm relaxed, comforted by the thought that this yacht sailed halfway around the world, sometimes in much stormier conditions than this.
As I leave the boat, I hear another passenger say ''That's the best thing I've done in Fiordland''.