The Sound of Silence

Published: April 11th 2020
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Although enjoyable, the trip to Milford Sound was a little underwhelming, given its rank in the pantheon of world travel destinations. Lots of waterfalls, but small in size and little else to see on the Sound itself. However, the next day went the other way. Our day started with a short drive to another lodging in Te Anau with a large parking area, where we parked the car and took our small overnight bags for our overnight cruise on Doubtful Sound.

Doubtful Sound is much more remote than Milford, perhaps accounting for its second place among South Island attractions. To get there, we took a van about 20 km from Te Anau to Manapouri, boarded a boat which took us about 35 km across Lake Manapouri to the Manapouri Hydro Station, then boarded a smaller van for the 20 km trip to Deep Cove along a twisting gravel road. Along the way there were wonderful vistas of the surrounding mountains and valleys, until finally we were able to look down on the tailrace of the power station where it entered the Sound. For purposes of consistency Doubtful Sound will be referred to here as a sound, although it is actually a fiord (glacial carved rather than an inlet from the sea filling a drowned river valley). That etiology is evident as you cruise through the waterway, with U-shaped hanging valleys evident everywhere.

It is worth pausing here to talk about the Manapouri Hydro Station. There was a long-standing vision of utilizing the height of Lake Te Anau and Lake Manapouri above the Tasman Sea as potential energy for a hydroelectric station.Even early planners realized that the extremely remote location coupled with the very mountainous topology and rain occurring about 200 days per year would make this site unsuitable as a power station for general utility use. In 1926 a company was granted rights to build a power station and connect it to a factory complex at Deep Cove which would produce nitrogen for fertilizer and munitions. Lack of investor interest eventually doomed the enterprise (thank good ness), and the idea was abandoned until 1955. At that time, a geologist located a large bauxite deposit on the Cape York Peninsula of Australia, the second largest in the world. Construction contracts were awarded to Bechtel in 1963 to construct the power station. They built the gravel road from Deep Cove to the location of the above-ground site of the power station, then began drilling out and removing 1.4 million tons of solid rock, including 7 200 m shafts to carry the water down, a machine hall measuring 111m long, 18 m wide, and 34 m high, a shaft for the elevator that descended 193 m, a spiraling vehicle access tunnel measuring 2042 m long and 6.7 m wide, and a tailrace tunnel measuring 9817 m long with a diameter of 9.2 m. The station was commissioned in 1972 and it was immediately recognized that calculations of the friction between the walls of the tailrace tunnel had been incorrect, and the station was not able to reach predicted power output. 25 years later they completed a second similarly sized tunnel and the station now generates up to 850 kw, somewhat lower at high tide in Deep Dove because the tailrace terminates at sea level and a higher tide creates more back pressure. The station generated considerable political turmoil, because the original plan was to raise the level of Lake Manapouri up to 30 m and thus join it to Lake Te Anau. Environmentalists raised enough opposition that it was a decisive factor in the general elections, and now there is agreement that both lakes will be preserved as they are.

Upon arrival in Deep Cove, we boarded the boat and showed to our small cabins, each with en suite bathroom facilities, the re-convened in the salon where we ate a delightful lunch consisting primarily of lobster from the boat's previous day's catch. We then headed to onto the Sound. Doubtful has a few large waterfalls, and many smaller ones, but here the attraction is the Sound itself. Like Milford, it is a low salinity layer on the surface, with dark cold waters underneath. Doubtful is the deepest fiord in Fiordland at 1831 m depth. The day was beautiful and nearly windless, so the deep blue surface barely shimmered. Early on we saw the local pod of bottlenose dolphins. This is the southernmost such group in the world. They were monitored carefully for several years, and none were observed leaving the Sound or any new members joining, so they appear to be a more or less captive group of about 70 animals. There is concern that their numbers appear to be dwindling, although we did watch at least one baby swimming and jumping with its mother.

We stopped at two points and pulled up lobster traps that the boat maintains. The idea is that today's passengers and crew pull up the traps and collect the lobsters that are then used for the next day's passenger lunch. The are has been a productive lobster fishing spot, but at the time we were there the cut-off of commerce with China due to covid19 had stopped that trade in its tracks, and the lobsters they had already caught were being held in underwater holding pens. I have heard since then they they simply released them since they could not sell them. We also went fishing, with all passengers getting to use a rod, and I think just about everyone caught a fish, mostly sea perch. I caught the prize, a blue cod that was big enough for all of us to share (along with the perch) at dinner. In late afternoon those who wished to do so went kayaking from the boat, but we chose to remain on board.

After our fish dinner (delicious, by the way) we watched a video on the building of the power station which I found fascinating. The boat did not provide alcohol, but we had brought wine on board which we certainly enjoyed.

The next morning there was a planned6 AM departure back to Deep Cove, after a night anchored in Hall Arm. I awoke early and used the enhanced low-light capabilities of my new camera to capture some spooky pictures before we headed back into Deep Cove, by way of a few more sights such as waterfalls.

We always talk about magic travel days, with the paradigmatic example being the wonderful day where we started at the Bilbao Museum, had a protracted lunch at Asador Etxebarri, drove down to Elciego through beautiful mountains, watched the crush of the grapes being brought in that day, then sat out on the patio of the beautiful Frank Gehry-designed Marques de Riscal hotel and watched the sun go down as the lights came up on the lovely small cathedral across the ravine from where we sat. This day on Doubtful Sound was not that. But it was definitely one of the most fun and memorable days we have had traveling.

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