Monday morning was very exciting. We were to take a cruise to one of the most beautiful and pristine places on earth, Doubtful Sound. Part of the protected Fiordland National Park and a World heritage site, Doubtful is less known and visited than its sister, Milford Sound. And that made it a prime target for our visit.
Doubtful Sound is in reality a fiord, a valley formed by glaciers and filled by sea water. But locals gave it its current name and that has stuck. Captain Cook, in 1770, got close to its entrance but did not enter the inlet as he was “doubtful” of being able to back his ship out of it. Thirteen years later, the most detailed expedition to this area was completed by the Spanish and to this day, many of the areas in the Sound bear Spanish names. One of the wettest places on Earth, with an average 200 days of rainfall, and about 7 meters of rainfall annually, a trip to Doubtful is an adventure in itself.
The trip starts from Te Anau where the coaches pick up day trippers from their accomodations to the Real Journeys Visitor Center at Manapouri, and transfer to a boat that takes them across Lake Manapouri to the West Arm Power station area. From there, they board a bus to get across Wilmot Pass and then transfer to the explorer boats to start the actual cruise. This is a full day outing. Real Journeys does offer an overnight cruise to Doubtful Sound, if one has the budget and time to spare.
Our original cruise was booked with Go Orange but upon landing in Te Anau, we found out that their boat had broken down and hence, they had arranged for us to travel with Real Journeys, who is the leader in these cruises for nearly 50 years. The Real Journeys coach would pick us up from our motel and deliver our pre-ordered vegetarian lunch. The entire transition was seamless and done without any effort from our part, something we greatly appreciated.
The coach showed up at exactly 9:20 am with our packed lunch. We,then, made our way across town picking up other guests and then headed to the Visitor Center where we were given tickets for the Patea Explorer, the catamaran that would take us across the Sound.
The weather turned quickly as we waited to board the boat for the first leg across Lake Manapouri. The sun went hiding behind clouds and it started raining a little. Doubtful Sound is one place where one has to dress in layers and come prepared for sun, rain and cold, all times of the year. This area, as in many parts of NZ, is also famous for its sandflies and its a good idea to get some repellent on before the trip.
The trip across Lake Manapouri itself was very interesting, the lake being very picturesque. It’s the second largest lake after Lake Taupo. At the very end of the journey, one can see the Manapouri hydroelectric power station. The largest in all of NZ, it is set 176 meters below lake level and produces an average annual output of about 5000 GW-h. It took 8 years to put this together, creating a tunnel that is 2 km length and 9 meters wide. Generally, the trip includes a tour of this innovative power station but its currently closed for maintenance and not accessible to the public.
From there, we boarded a bus to travel across Wilmot Pass. This Pass is NZ’s most expensive road, estimated to have cost about $80 NZD per sq m (about $60 USD). The Pass road is 22 km and at its highest is 671 m above sea level. It was originally built with the aim of helping to transport machinery from Doubtful Sound to the Manapouri Power Station and took two years to complete. It’s also the only road on the mainland that is stand alone with no connection to the rest of the road network.
I thoroughly enjoyed the drive along the Wilmot Pass road. Depending on the amount of rain the area has received, there are plenty of waterfalls on the route, but only three that are permanent. The driver mentioned that it’s considered a drought in this area if they do not receive rainfall on three consecutive days!! Hmm, imagine living in an area with that much rain. As beautiful as the area is, I’d go crazy having to deal with that much rain.
The area boasts of several beech tress, some of them nearly 500 years old. The glorious waterfalls add a sense of majesty to the Pass. The moss that grows bright green and clings to the sides of the rocks and trees has good antiseptic properties and is used by locals for wound healing. The falls themselves were full and roaring as we clicked photos to our heart’s content, not allowing the now steady rain to detract us from our surroundings.
Finally, we reached Deep Cove where we got off the bus and embarked on the Patea Explorer. There was a sense of curiosity mingled with awe. The Maori name for Doubtful Sound is Patea, “the place of silence”. Why would they choose such a name?
Once the Patea got under way on its three hour journey, we ate our sandwiches hungrily. The Patea is well designed with plenty of large glass windows overlooking the deck, allowing a good view of the outdoors from the cozy comfort of the inside.Toilets are available on board as is a bar for snacks and sandwiches. Coffee and tea were complimentary and well made use of. Then it was onto the deck to take pictures of the journey into the sound. The beauty of the land is in the water, in the surrounding vegetation, the cold wind and the cloudy skies. The captain pointed out a pod of dolphins that were playing in the distance. The animals are all well protected and the Explorer maintained a respectful distance, not disturbing their daily routine. Fur seals and penguins are also residents of the area but we did not have an opportunity to see them.
As we approached the Tasman Sea, the wind roared at high speeds, rocking the boat and making it difficult to even catch our breath on deck. It was one of the best moments of my life, a moment when I felt so alive, holding onto the railing and trying desperately to maintain my balance as the wind buffeted us around. On our way back, the captain stopped the catamaran for a few minutes and switched off the engine. He asked everyone to maintain silence and pay attention to the surrounding noises. There were none other than dripping rain. Complete and absolute silence!! Just each human being with their thoughts and feelings. Oh how peaceful and serene it felt. A moment to hold onto for ever! Patea, the place of silence!
The trip back saw the sun come out of hiding, making for a glorious afternoon. After being dropped off back at the motel, we enjoyed some down time before heading to Te Anau town center. After walking down the main street from one end to the other, we decided to eat at La Toscana, a locally popular restaurant with a few vegetarian options. There was a good sized crowd in there but there were a lot of take-outs as well. Service was efficent and the food tasted good.
We decided to do laundry at the motel and this was one of the few places we needed coins to operate the machines. The following morning, we would drive to Milford Sound for the second cruise and then drive back via Te Anau to Queenstown. Which meant a long evening waiting for clothes to dry and packing up! What better way to spend an evening in Te Anau?!!