A Doubtful Detour: Chapter One Excerpt

The shriek made Seth jump, and Zoe looked around too. But it was only the seagulls, fluttering around the massive catamaran. And they’re harmless. Seth hadn’t seen seagulls fly around in a pattern like that, sort of in a funnel shape. He studied them, trying to work out what they were shrieking about. But then he switched his attention to the Waiau River. Lake Manapouri was so close. He couldn’t wait to be out on the water, but he was a bit nervous too, even though they’d decided, as a family, they needed to return to Fiordland. Otherwise they were just at home, in Dunedin. Dreaming. And wondering, even though it had been over a year. Or longer than that, depending on…when we’re counting from.

Mum stayed close, concern in her eyes as she put her arm around him.

“It’s alright, Mum. I know it’s only the seagulls squawking. Maybe they’ve got a fish or something.” He hadn’t realised seagulls also lived inland, on a lake.

 “Yes, Seth, but there will be reminders. For all of us.” Mum glanced at Dad and Zoe.

“We know, Mum,” Zoe said. “But we’ve agreed, and we’re here. And we haven’t been to Doubtful Sound before. I really want to see it. Young Bob Murrell told me about the Wilmot Pass, and the Spey River…”

Zoe sounded sad. And it wasn’t like her to stop talking like that. He moved closer. “This jetty is bigger than I thought. And it’s steel, not wood. It must be new.” He’d meant to try to get Zoe talking again, but Dad heard him.

“It is a new one,” he said. “I think the one Young Bob Murrell helped build in 1903 was further along the river. This one here had to be extended, when Real Journeys launched the MV Titiroa.” He gestured to the catamaran, and Seth’s eyes were drawn to the green in the logo. It reminded him of the colour of a native fern.

“Thanks, Dad,” Seth said quietly. Zoe didn’t say anything else. Instead she walked over to look at an information board. Seth followed. It was about the power station and the compromises that had been reached because of conservation concerns. If the original power station plans hadn’t been altered, the water level of Lake Manapouri would have risen and completely changed the entire shoreline and national park landscape.

Zoe pointed to a section of the display. “Now there are guardians appointed, to look after the lake and make sure that the water level stays in the right range. That’s a good idea. And the power station’s owned by Meridian Energy, now.”

“The power station’s not part of the tour though, is it?” Dad had been talking about that too.

Zoe shook her head. “No. I wanted to see the tunnel, but Dad said we’ll only be able to see the outside of the main building at West Arm. When we stop at the Visitor Centre.”

Zoe wants to see the tunnel. It wasn’t until Seth studied her carefully that he realised she was nervous too.

“We’ve already seen one of those anyway.”

“Yeah.” Zoe’s smile was unexpected. “And I definitely want to see Doubtful Sound. Not to come back to Fiordland…it would be like chickening out.”

“Or being sensible,” Seth blurted out.

Zoe’s smile widened. “There is some risk, I guess. But what are the chances of it happening again?”

Seth shrugged. “Who knows? It’s not like we can predict it.” He lowered his voice. “But I hope it does, then maybe we can see everyone again.” Admitting it, even to Zoe, made him take a deep breath.

Zoe hesitated, like she wanted to agree. She still looked sad, and Seth understood why. He missed everyone he’d met, and it was hard to explain to anyone who hadn’t actually been there.

“We’re going to see Doubtful Sound,” she said eventually. “It’s a totally different place to where we were last time, even if it is still Fiordland. So if we do go back in time, we won’t see the same people.”

“I guess not. I just…”

Zoe put her hand on his arm. “I know. Believe me, I know.” She tilted her head towards Mum and Dad. “I don’t think they really understand though.”

“They’re trying.” Seth wanted to be fair. “Except sometimes I think…all that stuff they said about how they nearly lost us and everything, and then it all, I mean…” Saying what he thought felt disloyal.

“We nearly lost them too,” Zoe pointed out. “But it’s like they’ve forgotten or something. ’Specially Dad.”

“Yeah.”

Other people were moving across the jetty, and the staff were unhooking the rope across the ramp. Dad had their tickets, and they boarded the catamaran. The staff were counting each person as they stepped onto the deck. So if we do disappear, at least the staff will realise… He tried to see the funny side. I hope we’re not gone too long, otherwise we’ll hold up the entire tour.

“We’ll hold everyone up,” Zoe whispered.

“Exactly what I was thinking.”

“Twins, please. There’s no reason to think that.” Mum was smiling.

They found seats in the main cabin, but Seth was restless. He’d hoped coming to Fiordland again would help him work out what to do about everything that was happening at school, instead of worrying about it. Sometimes it was hard to talk to Mum and Dad, even though they kept asking how school was going. Maybe looking out at the water would help him feel more settled.

This was the Waiau River, which flowed from Lake Manapouri. Dad had shown him and Zoe a map before they’d left Dunedin. The Waiau River did flow out to sea eventually, but the Titiroa was a lot bigger than he’d imagined. It was unlikely to have sailed all the way up the Waiau to get here. He stood up to ask one of the staff about it just as the safety briefing started. Seth sat down again as Brendan, the skipper, started to explain the emergency procedures and talk about the Titiroa. The crossing to the West Arm jetty would take about an hour. There would be plenty of time to ask questions. In the meantime, he could admire Lake Manapouri and listen to the engines. The intense blue of the lake shimmered in the early-morning sun. It was irresistible. He made his way outside and up the stairs onto the viewing deck.

The seagulls had followed them out onto the lake, and all at once a strong breeze came up, blustery and bringing a small chop to the water’s surface. But from this vantage point, all Seth could think of was the lake and the backdrop of mountains. Not just a backdrop…they were everywhere. He gazed across the water, trying to orientate himself. Grand View House was behind him, so he was looking at almost the same view he had admired from the lawn…last time. Whenever that was. That means…Cathedral Peaks are across there. Where Jack Murrell went climbing. He exhaled, remembering the way Jack had helped him on the Milford Track. I’ve tried to get fit…and I can carry my own pack now. Instead of going back to the main cabin, Seth sat on the nearest bench seat, his mind filled with the brilliance of the lake and the mountains that soared around him. And memories.

#

Eventually Seth climbed back down the stairs, leaving the view of the lake only reluctantly. But he wanted to see Mum and Dad, and find out more about the Titiroa. He still couldn’t figure out how such a big boat had ended up on an inland lake. He glanced out the window of the main cabin. There was another boat in the distance now! It must have sailed out from behind one of the islands or coves. Talking to Mum and Dad could wait. He wanted to know about the other boat.

A Real Journeys staff member was standing next to Brendan at the front of the boat. They might be able to tell me more. Seth walked forward.

“Joining us at the wheelhouse, are you?”

Seth smiled. He saw the man’s name badge. “Yes…Neil.” The same as Dad. “What’s that small boat up ahead, please?” There were no other boats around. Maybe the people on it were fishing, because the seagulls had flown over to circle it. Seth had never seen a boat like it. The wood was painted such a bright white, and big glass windows lined the side. At first Seth had thought it was travelling slowly, but he realised the Titiroa wasn’t catching up. “In the briefing when we boarded, Brendan said the Titiroa has a top speed of twenty-five knots,” Seth said. “That other boat’s travelling really fast too.”

“Tell me about it.” Neil grabbed binoculars from the ledge.

The smaller vessel forged on, staying well ahead. Like it’s leading the way…

Brendan was shaking his head. “The workshop boys never said anything about taking her out…and she’s berthed on Lake Te Anau. Not through here, on Manapouri.” He was frowning. “Bringing her all the way down the Waiau…how…” He reached for the radio and spoke into it urgently. Seth couldn’t hear any response, only static. “It looks like an old boat. It won’t have a radio,” he said.

“She is an old boat,” Neil said. “The MV Pilgrim. Built in 1910. But she’s been restored to survey standard, by Real Journeys. And that includes a radio. I can’t understand it. She shouldn’t be here, and even with a Yamaha engine…” He was studying the radar screen.

“But I heard the briefing. We have two big Yamaha engines on here. It doesn’t make sense.” He tried to ignore his sudden uncertainty, but the more he studied the Pilgrim, the more obvious it was. “The Pilgrim is right in front of us, isn’t…she.” Ships and boats were referred to that way, like the men had been saying. “I mean, it’s like she’s on exactly the same course.”

Brendan rubbed his face with his hands. “She is. And here we are. Two V12 engines with over one thousand horsepower each. Specially painted aluminium hulls for streamlining. Five years to plan and build. Getting our tail whupped by the floating glasshouse. I’ll never live this down.”

“Is that name…because of all the Pilgrim’s windows?” Seth asked.

“It is indeed.” Brendan grinned at him. “Still, they were a bit of innovation at the time, no doubt.” He tapped the console affectionately. “Like our latest one here.”

“We should be fine,” Neil said. “We’ll just head for the distant mountains, turn left, and go until we run out of water.”

It was like the two men were sharing a joke Seth didn’t understand. He looked around for Dad but couldn’t see him or Mum or Zoe. That was strange, but there were lots of people in the cabin. There’s nothing to worry about. Maybe they’d gone up to the top deck to admire the view, like he had earlier. He turned back to the two men. “But we’ve got the GPS…and all the technology you explained before.” And sailors don’t say left and right, they say port and starboard instead.

Brendan grinned. “It’s an old story…about the Pilgrim. Real Journeys was founded by Sir Leslie and Lady Olive Hutchins. The Manapouri-Doubtful Sound Tourism Company. They purchased the Pilgrim and the MV Constance from the Murrell family back in 1954. Les Hutchins and some mates took the Pilgrim for a test run from Manapouri. Over to West Arm. Really, the same route we’re travelling today. Apparently, those are the directions Burton Murrell gave him. Head for the distant mountains, turn left, and then go until you run out of water.” He shrugged. “Must have worked, because they found their way.”

“Oh.” Seth smiled too. “We’re staying at Grand View House tonight. I’ll have to ask Robert and Philippa Murrell about it.”

“Yes—” Brendan turned away as the radio crackled to life. Seth listened. Maybe it was the Pilgrim, finally responding. But it sounded routine, like the office was checking on their location. So that means the radio is working, for the Titiroa at least. Both men were focused on the radio conversation, and Seth moved over to the windows at the side. The starboard side. They were in West Arm now, and there was a mist. He hadn’t expected it. Hopefully it’ll clear soon. Once they berthed at the jetty, they would catch the bus to Deep Cove. It looked like the Pilgrim was heading for the jetty too. They could check why the radio wasn’t working and, maybe  there would even be time to go onboard.

The lake still looked rough. It didn’t matter on a boat as stable as the Titiroa; Seth barely noticed. The Pilgrim ploughed on in front of them, and Seth winced as it pitched in the swell. I hope the people on board aren’t getting seasick. But the small wooden boat righted itself immediately, on course for the jetty.

Neil was next to him. “That’s some good seamanship on display there,” he said. “Whoever’s at the wheel has their work cut out for them, with this wind. There’ll be some explaining to do when we see them at the jetty though. If there’s anyone left standing. They won’t need to be told her other nickname.”

“What’s that?”

Neil laughed. “The Grim Pill. Seasickness was…known to happen. With her narrow beam.”

Seth couldn’t help laughing too. “I saw her, just before—”

“Exactly. The Titiroa is so much more stable.”

“I was wondering too…how does a boat like the Titiroa get here, I mean, on to the lake? I can understand the Pilgrim—”

“Well, they both came in on trucks.” Neil looked serious, but Seth could tell he was joking. The Pilgrim on a truck made sense, but… He looked around the Titiroa, trying to calculate how wide she was. How would she fit on a road?

“Seven and a half metres across,” Neil said. “Almost the entire length of the Pilgrim.” He gestured at the Pilgrim. “She came in here, to Lake Manapouri, in the early ’20s, on what would have been a dirt road. Doctor Burns and his family had a holiday home here. A huge undertaking to get her here, back in the day.” Then he pointed up at the roof of the Titiroa. “As for this one, she came up from Bluff, on a specially imported trailer. With the wheelhouse roof and props removed, of course.”

“On the road.” Seth couldn’t believe it.

“Yes. Apparently, she was the largest cargo on the roads around here since the power station days.” He smiled at Seth before he returned to the wheelhouse. Maybe they would need to manoeuvre, now that they were approaching the jetty. It would be safer to have two people at the wheel. Seth glanced back, looking for Mum and Dad or Zoe. He still couldn’t see them, but he would find them on the jetty. They’d all been counted onto the Titiroa, after all. For now, he wanted to focus on the Pilgrim.

But when he looked out the window again, the mist was all around. Seeing the Pilgrim was impossible, and he couldn’t help a trickle of unease. He moved over to the wheelhouse. “Is the Pilgrim still…alright?” he asked. “Can you see her on the radar?”

“Even with a radar reflector, small wooden boats are hard to spot,” Brendan said.

The modern navigation technology on the Titiroa was obvious. “Could you see her on the radar before?” Seth asked.

Brendan glanced away. “No,” he said eventually. “I’ve called it in…to the office. They thought I was having them on, so I’ve left it. But I will personally ensure the radar is checked. We have backup systems, but even so…the Pilgrim should be easily visible, even more so because she has a radar reflector.”

Both men were concerned, but Seth knew. There was nothing wrong with the Titiroa’s radar. Or their eyesight. It was like when Dad’s personal locator beacon wouldn’t work after they went through the Homer Tunnel. Technology didn’t work the same, in the past.

“Seth, is everything alright?” Dad was there.

It was hard to know what to say. “Yeah…Dad, we’ve just been watching the vintage boat that was in front of us.”

Dad looked confused. “What boat is that? We didn’t see another vessel here in West Arm.” He went to the window to check. “The mist is clearing…thankfully. There’s no other boat out there. It must have gone into one of those coves.”

Seth couldn’t look at Brendan or Neil. “Dad, it reminded me of last time we were in Fiordland.”

Dad’s eyes narrowed,  and he craned his neck to look up on the hill. “The power station’s still there,” he said. “And the Visitor Centre. Look.”

“Dad…” It was easy to doubt what he’d seen, but at the same time, he knew. “I’ll talk with Mum about it,” he said quietly.

“We’ve just been sitting over there,” Dad said.

No you haven’t.

“I don’t know where you got to,” Dad said. “But the Titiroa’s a big boat. You must have been exploring.”

“I was upstairs for a little while,” Seth said. Or a long time…

“Can’t blame you,” Dad said. “The scenery’s incredible.”

Dad was glossing over stuff again, instead of being serious and really listening. Great. Sometimes it was like Dad really hadn’t learned anything from their last trip. Seth would definitely have to talk to Mum. He let Dad lead him back to his seat, but not before he cast a final glance out the window. Lake Manapouri rippled a deep blue in the sunlight, mesmerising and calm once more. But the Pilgrim was gone.

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