The magic of Doubtful Sound

14 / 15 November 2019

We’re off on another cruise down one of the fiords that grace the coastline of this part of New Zealand, and this time we’re staying on board overnight. But Doubtful Sound is more remote than its cousin Milford, which we visited a couple of days ago. It’s about 50 kilometres (31 miles) from the nearest inhabited place, the small town of Manapouri, and is surrounded by mountainous terrain with peaks typically reaching 1,300–1,600 metres (4,300–5,200 ft). Along the coast, there are no settlements for about 200 kilometres (120 miles) in either direction.

Crossing Lake Manapouri

To reach Doubtful Sound we must first take a 45 minute boat ride to the far end of Lake Manapouri. When we disembark squadrons of murderous sandflies circle around us. Not many people come here, so when these wretched mini-Draculas catch our scent they swarm all over us in their thousands, all hoping for a blood-fest.

Waterfall and rainforest at the Wilmot Pass

Our specially commissioned minibus arrives to rescue us from our sandfly misery, and soon we’re off on the next leg of our trip. We travel for around 60 minutes on a gravel road, climbing up a mountainside to cross over the Wilmot Pass through Fiordland’s rainforest, and then descending on the other side to the wharf at Milford.

The gravel road does not connect with South Island’s main network of highways. It and the wharf only exist courtesy of the hydro-electric company that generates power on Lake Manapouri. The outlet pipe for the power station discharges into Doubtful Sound, and its construction and maintenance has resulted in the limited developments that has made tourism possible here.

Our first view of Doubtful Sound, viewed from the Wilmot Pass

This cruise is billed as an exclusive, luxury experience so there are just 10 passengers, plus the skipper and a chef who will attend to our every culinary need for the next 24 hours.

Of course “luxury” is difficult to achieve on such a small boat, but at least Mrs P and I are staying in the relatively spacious master cabin at the bow (or the sharp, pointy end, as Mrs P likes to call it.) We can feel the eyes of our fellow passengers boring into us as we make our way forward, past their lowly cabins to our own floating palace.

Our ‘palace’ at the ‘sharp pointy end’ of the boat.

Do we feel slightly awkward or embarrassed? No, not a bit. In life you win some and lose some, and this time we won big. Thank you to our agents, New Zealand in Depth, for being on the ball and making sure our name was at the top of the list.

By the time we’ve got ourselves sorted out in our cabin, a welcome lunch is being served upstairs on the main passenger deck. The skipper casts off and sets sail up Doubtful Sound, passing towering waterfalls along the way, while we dine like royalty.

Our cruise along Milford Sound took place on a glorious, sunny day. We thought that was great, but old Milford hands told us that the place has more atmosphere in gloomy weather. We visit Doubtful Sound on just such a day: grey, dull, and misty, and the place does indeed have a brooding, slightly eerie atmosphere.

A perch for our supper

One of the advantages of being on such a small boat is that it allows passengers to get closer to the water than was possible on the Milford Sound trip. Some of our fellow passengers enjoy a spot of kayaking, and there’s an opportunity to fish for our supper.

This handsome dogfish was released after the obligatory trophy photos

Personally I’m uncomfortable with the taking of any life for sport, so am delighted that the handsome dogfish is released from the hook and put back continue his life in the Sound. However perch make good eating, so I have no objections when it is despatched quickly and humanely, and served up to us a couple of hours later.

A rainbow stretches from side to side across the Sound

After a peaceful night’s sleep anchored in a sheltered cove we set off along the Sound again. Rain has set in, but it brings an unexpected bonus in the form of a bright, iridescent rainbow.

One of the very few other boats on Doubtful Sound

While in Milford Sound there were large numbers of tourist boats, here on Doubtful there are only a couple of others and although we see them briefly they are soon out of sight and forgotten. It feels as if we have the Sound to ourselves.

A shag in search of a late breakfast … or maybe an early lunch?

Except for the birds, that is. Mrs P is delighted to take this photo of a shag in flight, its head thrust forward as it makes its way along the water, presumably in search of a late breakfast or an early lunch.

Fiordland Crested Penguins

Bur pride of place must go to the Fiordland Crested Penguins. These birds are very rare, but this is now the third or fourth good sighting we have enjoyed in recent days.

Finally, after almost 24 hours on board, our Doubtful Sound cruise comes to an end. It’s been a magical experience, with majestic scenery, some great wildlife and superb hospitality from the crew. Definitely one of the main highlights so far of our visit to New Zealand.

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Scenery overload: the road to Milford Sound

11 November 2019

We’re off to Fiordland on the south-western coast of South Island. This is one of New Zealand’s main tourist hotspots on account of the majestic scenery, but before we get there we drop off at a little known tourist attraction, the Kingston Flyer.

It’s sad to see a vintage steam train parked up in the sidings, plainly going nowhere any time soon. It’s been here, gathering dust and growing rust, since 2013 when tourist excursions on the 14 kilometres line were suspended only two years after they were launched. A report in the Otago Times from December 2018 said that the owners hoped to have the line up and running by November 2019, so that deadline’s been missed.

Meanwhile the café on Kingston station platform looks forlorn. No trains means no tourists, and no tourists means no mocha for me, and no hot chocolate for Mrs P. Time to move on.

The drive to Milford Sound takes, a few hours, partly because it’s a long, steep, and twisty road. But mainly because it’s so scenic, and we keep stopping for photos.

Many of the peaks are still dusted with snow, adding to their visual appeal.

This place gets a lot of rain, so we get to cross lots of rivers. We do a couple of short walks, and one of these takes us across a swing bridge that lives up to its name, swaying lustily to the stamp of our feet.

There are views of the mountains around every corner, and as we wend our way towards the Sound those views get steadily more impressive.

The key landmark on the road to Milford Sound is the Homer Tunnel. It’s 1.2 kilometres long and took around 20 years to build, World War 2 and a major avalanche both greatly interfering with the project.

Either side of the Homer Tunnel are stern warnings not to stop, as avalanches are frequent. We do as we’re told, and are pleased to get through without a problem. Others aren’t so lucky, and a few days after we leave the area the road is closed for three days by a massive avalanche.

The road down to Milford is surprisingly busy, mostly with tourist buses conveying groups to meet up with the ships that will take them for a cruise along the Sound. It’s apparent from the bus traffic that these cruises are a large and lucrative part of the local tourist market.

We are fortunate that after days of indifferent weather things are looking up. The sky is blue and the sun sparkles off the water cascading down the countless falls, from raging torrents to tiny trickles.

The scenery is breath-taking. Milford Sound itself has a superb reputation, but I hadn’t expected the approach road to be so spectacular.

At last we’re nearing the end of the road. We’re staying the night in a Lodge next to the Sound, and tomorrow join a cruise to enjoy this magical landscape from a different angle. And I won’t even have to drive!