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Published: March 20th 2010
Doubtful Sound 1
Waterfall on our way to Doubtful Sound
Our New Zealand word of the day is once again . . . "REMOTE". And with good reason. Here is yet another entry about just how away-from-it-all you can get in this country.
If you have been to New Zealand, then you already know that Milford Sound is one of the top tourist attractions. It is located in Fiordland National Park, a 4-5 hour drive from Queenstown. As the park's name implies, Milford Sound is actually a fiord and not a sound (a fiord is a valley carved by a glacier that is filled with water from the sea; a sound is the same but carved by a river).
Here is what to expect on your visit to Milford Sound. It will look like a big pretty lake with glimmering blue waters surrounded by tall rocky peaks and lush beech forest. Not surprisingly, given its popularity and relatively easy access, it will be packed with tourists. Tourists fly over it in helicopters and airplanes, take buses and then boat cruises on the tourquoise waters, kayak in circles to get pictures of postcard veteran Mitre Peak and also hike (one of the nine Great Walks of New Zealand ends at
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Cloudy day at Doubtful Sound.
Doubtful Sound is Milford's bigger (by 10x), more remote, less-crowded cousin. Getting to Doubtful Sound is an adventure in itself. The locals and the guidebooks gushingly recommend it as a more peaceful alternative to Milford. Since we've already seen Milford (we did the Milford Trek three years ago - highly recommended!), we decided to see if Doubtful Sound is, indeed, a better overall experience.
There are three ways to "experience" Doubtful Sound:
1. A very long day trip (expensive)
2. An overnight cruise (very expensive)
3. Fly over it in plane or helicopter (sell one of your lesser-used organs)
We decided on the day trip and arranged to spend the night before in the cute but small town of Te Anau, which serves as the base for most trips in/around Fiordland. Te Anau is a 2-hr drive from Queenstown.
Our adventure began at 9am when we found ourselves in the tiny fishing village of Manapouri, about 20 minutes from Te Anau. We checked in and boarded a tiny boat belonging to the Fiordland Explorer Charters company, one of only two companies that offer day cruises on Doubtful Sound.
There were 20 people on
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Penguin hiding on an island in Doubtful Sound
our cruise and we were packed in like sardines, all smiling a bit nervously at each other for our 50 minute boat ride across the dark waters of Lake Manapouri. This was just the first leg of a very long day.
At the end of Lake Manapouri, we disembarked for the land part of our journey - up and over the Wilmot Pass with a brief stop at an (in)famous hydroelectric power plant, the Manapouri Power Station. With the sudden rush of interest in renewable energy sources, we found this tour more interesting that we would have otherwise and worth a few sentences here.
The idea for the hydroelectric power station came about when some enterprising Kiwis realized that the natural drop in height from Lake Manapouri to the Deep Cove area (in Doubtful Sound) was a staggering 580 feet and therefore could become a convenient way to harness energy. The basic idea is that, as the water drops from a high point to a lower one, it generates power that can be converted into electricity. As luck would have it, a vast amount of bauxite had just been discovered in Australia and, as we all know (as
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Sky beginning to clear up a bit - Doubtful Sound
if), bauxite can be coverted into aluminum, by means of a process requiring a good deal of energy.
So the Kiwis drew up the plans for the hydroelectric station and built a fancy new aluminum smelter plant in Bluff (a town about 100 miles away). The hope was that the electricity generated by Manapouri could be used to power the entire aluminum plant and maybe, just maybe, have a bit left over for the national grid (it does: today 85% of the power generated goes to Bluff; 15% goes on to the rest of the country).
The funding came together and the plant was built by an American contractor in the late 1960s. We can't pretend to understand exactly how it works but we can tell you that it involves at least one extremely large underground room housing a whole gaggle of turbines. Access to this room is via a very long, very dark, very wet and creepy tunnel carved out of solid rock. The power plant has been described as an engineering marvel and it certainly impressed us.
Now the infamous part: the group in charge of the power plant got greedy and decided that they
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One of many waterfalls that appeared after a brief rain shower.
could make even more power (and money) if the water fell an even greater distance - which could be accomplished by raising the level of Lake Manapouri by nearly 100 feet (think about that - that's pretty darn high!) and merging it with nearby Lake Te Anau. The hitch is that this would flood several surrounding towns and destroy countless wildlife habitats. At first the locals and, soon after, people throughout the country were outraged. This led to the Save Manapouri Campaign, a history-making and highly effective grassroots initiative that is generally seen as the beginning of New Zealand's well-known commitment to the environment.
After our history lesson, we drove up and over the very steep pass to Deep Cove, the launching point in Doubtful Sound. It was raining during our drive and visibility was about, let's see, ZERO. We spent three hours on the Sound (this time in a larger boat). The weather improved and, by the end of the afternoon the sun was shining.
Doubtful Sound is, indeed, very beautiful and, because of the rain, we saw many waterfalls cascading down the rocks. The tall mountains that encircle Doubtful Sound are covered in the most extraordinary
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Looking down at Doubtful Sound from the pass.
trees: they somehow grow on only the thinnest layer of soil which sits right on solid rock. Because of this, there are often rockslides and entire sections of forest will slip down into the Sound after bad storms.
Not too many wildlife sightings during our visit. We had been hoping to see some dolphins but only saw a few fur seals and one shy little penguin. We did enjoy (not!) several visits by sandflies. Sandflies are particularly evil/nasty and their bites are much worse than mosquitoes - the bites itch like crazy for weeks. No kidding. The sandflies were everywhere on the boat, even biting us through our socks. We were amazed and then terrified to find that they have little respect for our mighty picardin (Avon Skin-So-Soft). This seemed odd because we noticed that the much tougher mosquitoes (big bruiser gals in Southeast Asia carrying malaria, dengue fever and even Japanese encephalitis) live in fear of picardin.
One of the great things about being with a smaller group (we had 20 on our cruise; the other tour company takes 150 people on their boat) is that you get to know your fellow passengers. Our favorite co-passengers were
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Leaving Doubtful Sound and heading back to Lake Manapouri.
an 83 year old woman and her 24 year old granddaughter, both from Utah. The woman's husband had passed away recently and, to keep busy and help with her greiving process, she decided to take each of her four older grandchildren on a trip. This was her first trip. She and her granddaughter were spending a month in New Zealand, mostly staying at youth hostels, and were having a fabulous time. Grandma was lovely and spunky - she spent most of the time on the front/rear deck of the boat, not wanting to miss a thing.
We returned to Manapouri around 6pm and were back at our fabulous apartment in Queenstown by 8pm. It had been a long day. We wouldn't necessarily recommend a cruise on Doubtful Sound above one on Milford. Instead, we think the best way to experience Fiordland is by trail. You can make it as long or short and as remote or social an experience as you like. Note: there is an exceptionally remote and, by all accounts, staggeringly beautiful trek in Dusky Sound (an even more remote wilderness south of Doubtful). For the Dusky trek you need to take a weeks' provisions and an emergency locator beacon - a good option for anyone wanting to disappear from civilization for a while.
Our days in beautiful Fiordland and Queenstown are running out. We have time for just one more entry and then we're heading north to the sunny little hamlet of Nelson.
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