143 Days on the Road
Doubtful about whether you should go to Doubtful Sound? We think the pictures show enough to say: “Don’t be!” Always in the shadow of it’s brother Milford Sound, we often forget there’s a longer fiord with a more adventurous journey to get to exists in the World Heritage Site, Fiordland National Park. We’re going to check it out today!
The journey begins in Te Anau like most Fiordland journeys. We drive 20 minutes from the Te Anau Kiwi Holiday Park along Lake Te Anau until we reach Lake Manapouri where the the Real Journeys boat is waiting to sail us off-the-beaten-track seeking travellers across the lake. That’s only the first part of a 2-3 hour journey to get to Doubtful Sound!
Sun and snow at Lake Manapouri
We check in, grab our “picnic lunch” from the downstairs cafe and wait to board the large ferry. A semi-open top deck, back-middle deck and a indoor ground floor deck gives us plenty of options for mixed weathers – something that is especially needed in a national park that receives rainfall around two out of every three days. The odds are definitely in our favour today with clear blue skies. It’s such contrasting colours to the snowy mountain peaks thanks to the snow dump we got a couple of days ago!
Those mountain peaks get more and more dramatic as we smoothly glide on the still waters of Lake Manapouri closer to the famous Fiordland.
We haven’t even got to the main attraction yet and we can’t help but snap up this incredible scenery.
Lake Manapouri underground power station
Our skipper slows down under a huge overhanging cliff face for a closer look at the mountain that appears to have risen from the lake. Behind lies the Manapouri Underground Power Station, an impressive feat of engineering which we have the opportunity to learn more about at the West Arm Visitor Centre, an information centre situated at our landing point on the other side of Lake Manapouri.
Crossing the Wilmot Pass
After a walk around, a read of some of the power station displays, as well as information on the flora and fauna of Fiordland, we are gathered to get on the bus for the next leg of our trip, crossing Wilmot Pass.
Our driver, Alan, shares a real wealth of knowledge about the area we are passing through, from how the road was the most expensive road built in New Zealand at $2 per centimetre to information about the wildest of wilderness surrounding us. The bus journey is about an hour along gravel road among mossy beech forest – 100% native New Zealand and unlike anywhere else on this earth.
There’s nothing like the forests of Fiordland!
Thick moss hangs onto beech trees where their trunks and branches get more crooked the higher we go. Every so often a break in the trees will reveal a waterfall casually gushing along the side of the road. This is definitely not an uncommon sight in one of the wettest places in the world!
As we cross over the highest point of the pass (which isn’t very high considering this is the lowest mountain pass in New Zealand thanks to the mountains being so close to the sea) we are given amazing vantage points across untouched forested mountains.
A cheeky visitor
The bus parks up at a view to reveal our first glimpse of Doubtful Sound! Wow! This is what makes the long journey to get here worth it: seeing the fiord from different perspectives, one that’s more breathtaking than the last.
However, believe it or not, there is actually something that takes the attention away from the Doubtful Sound view ahead of us: the cheeky kea! Four or five of these alpine parrots land on trees around us, making noises that sound more like cats than parrots. Even a fluffy infant kea distracts us away from the two parrots that have landed on the bus determined to pull the roof apart with their beaks!
After the kea show, we hop back in the bus down to the waterfront where we board the Patea Explorer. The large catamaran has viewing areas on top, up front, out the back and floor-to-ceiling windows inside. We won’t miss a thing!
Cruising on Lake Manapouri
So this is it. Doubtful Sound, show us what you’ve got!
To be honest, the towering and steep glacier-carved mountains are captivating from the get go! How can they not be?! Just when the landscape can’t get more dramatic, it somehow does as the boat takes detours into vast inlets with higher mountains, steeper cliffs and thicker forest.
We move just over 40 kilometres from our starting point at Deep Cove out to where the fiord meets the Tasman Sea. The waves get a little choppier as the boat sails around some rugged islands. It was around this point that they witnessed a rare sighting of a whale yesterday, so Neil, our guide giving commentary on the boat, has us keeping our eyes peeled for whale and even penguin sightings.
Penguins, dolphins and seals
We might not see whales but we do see the Fiordland-crested penguins, another sight exclusive to this national park!
Three of them waddle to the side of an island then jump in, one after the other, hopping in and out of the water in a graceful dance.
Further along Doubtful Sound, the boat slows down so we can get a closer look at a pretty huge pod of bottlenose dolphins! At first, it’s just their fins we see emerging in the distance. Then we hear the release of air shooting from their blowholes – they are right beneath us. They swim and emerge around the front and sides of the boat giving us great photo opportunities. Just as the boat starts to gain speed, the dolphins use this opportunity to end their show with a splash! Two of them leap out of the water directly in front of us, belly-flopping their huge bodies back in the water. We get SOAKED! To say we got soaked because we are that close to a dolphin is something we really don’t mind!
To end the wildlife performance, we see one lone New Zealand fur seal rolling around on a rock doing what seals do best: sleeping itself silly!
Drinking from waterfalls
On the way back down the fiord, we take a detour down an arm of the fiord. The sheltered still water helped by the tannin making the water appear really dark, gives the most vivid and glassy reflections. We are seeing the mountainous fiord twice… How lucky are we?!
Now, all these waterfalls have been very enticing so far. We’ve got close to one of them, but now we are literally about to get under a waterfall! Thankfully, it is not a powerful waterfall we are going to be submerged in, but some trickles of water that we are encouraged to drink from! Staff members hand out paper cups to us eager sightseers at the front of the boat.
We reach out with our cups but hilariously get more water down our backs than our cups!
Alone in a land locked in time
Throughout the whole three hours of the trip, we only see another Real Journeys cruise, a small fishing boat and a smaller catamaran. That’s it! We really do feel like we are alone in the wilderness here. That fact is emphasised when we find ourselves in a circular inlet, surrounded by mountains thick with undisturbed forest. The skipper stops the boat, switches off the engine, and asks everyone to be quiet. The only sound our ears are filled with is the echoes of native bird calls. It feels like we are witnessing a moment that never changes. A land frozen in time over millions of years.
One the way back to Deep Cove, we take the opportunity to get a coffee and eat our pretty packed picnic lunch: a fresh sandwich, grapes, an apple, cheese and crackers, a honey muesli slice and a chocolate mint. From Deep Cove, we have nothing but a quiet journey back to Manapouri to enjoy soaking up the last glimpses of this World Heritage Area.
Woah, what a day in paradise! We have more to look forward to tomorrow when we go horse riding and quadbiking in Te Anau. Join us then!
Panoramic views of Doubtful Sound!
Really?! After all that? What a trooper you are. Here is some more literature to please yourself with:
- Fiordland National Park – Guide for Backpackers
- 20 Places Off the Beaten Track in the South Island
- 11 Stunning Backpacker Cruises in New Zealand
See you tomorrow!