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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On Milford Sound

12 November 2019

We open the curtains at our lodge accommodation with some trepidation. Milford Sound gets an average of 641 centimetres (252 inches) of rain a year, and is the wettest inhabited place in New Zealand, and one of the wettest in the world. Given our bad luck with the weather so far this trip, we could be in for another deluge here.

But, joy of joys, the sun’s out and the sky’s blue, so we make our way down to the harbour with a spring in our steps. We board our gleaming catamaran with a few dozen other fellow travellers and prepare to head out along the Sound.

Here’s a little question for you: when is a sound not a sound. Answer: when it’s a fiord (fjord). Sounds are carved out of the landscape by rivers, while fiords are scraped and scoured out of the bedrock by glaciers. Milford Sound was formed by the process of glaciation over several million years and should therefore more properly be called Milford Fiord. But what’s in a name? However it was created, Milford Sound is pretty damned impressive, with sheer rock faces on either side that rise as high as 1,200 metres (3,900 feet).

Within a few minutes of leaving the harbour we are alongside one of the Sound’s most spectacular features, the Lady Bowen Falls. As one of only two permanent waterfalls in Milford Sound, the falls provide electricity for the Milford Sound settlement by feeding a small hydroelectric scheme. It’s also the source of their fresh water.

As well as the two permanent waterfalls there are many others that appear after heavy rain. Because there’s been so much rain recently there are plenty of falls along the length of the Sound for us to admire. Our boat noses underneath one of them to give the passengers a closer look.

A plucky crew member, kitted out in waterproofs and wearing a long-suffering expression, is despatched to collect water as it cascades on to the bow of the boat. Glasses are then passed round, so we can all try mountain fresh, ice cold water. It’s a kind offer, but one I find I can resist without too much trouble.

The boat ploughs on, and we continue to enjoy the scenery. Rudyard Kipling came here, and reportedly described this place as the 8th Wonder of the World. That’s probably overdoing it a bit, but it’s easy to see why Milford Sound inspired him.

But it’s not just the scenery. The wildlife here is special too, and we are pleased to meet up once again with our friend from earlier in this trip, the Fiordland Crested Penguin. At first we encounter one paddling past our catamaran, seemingly unperturbed by our presence.

A little later on, close to the mouth of the Sound, the skipper edges close to the rocks where these penguins have been seen on previous trips, and we’re pleased to see one. The waves are crashing into the rock on which he sits. He looks uncomfortable, but I guess it’s all in a day’s work to a bird that’s adapted to live most of its life in the ocean.

Having reached the end of the Sound we turn, and edge our way back towards the harbour, passing waterfalls large and small. Stirling Falls is a massive 151 metres high.

We’ve opted for the super-deluxe trip, so we break our journey at the Harrison Cove Underwater Observatory, for a glimpse of life beneath the surface of Milford Sound. Here’s how they describe their operation:

You’ll descend 64 steps (10 metres) underwater into a large, fully air-conditioned viewing area where windows with excellent clarity open your eyes to this underwater haven. Unlike an aquarium, the fish are free to come and go; it’s the people who are contained.

SOURCE: Southern Discoveries website, retrieved 24 November 2019

The Observatory certainly adds a whole new dimension to the Milford Sound experience. The “black coral” – which is actually white until it dies – is delicate and beautiful. Occasionally a fish swims past, and we are told that if you’re lucky – we aren’t, sadly – you may even catch a glimpse of a penguin or a seal.

Milford Sound is regarded by many as New Zealand’s most famous tourist destination. It’s certainly big business. During our morning on the water we spot a number of other vessels undertaking similar cruises. But the Sound is huge and can easily accommodate the numbers, and I’m sure that all the visitors leave happy with the experience they’ve had. Milford Sound is a very special place.

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!