Sounds Amazing

Published: February 26th 2011
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The panorama is of Redcliff Wetlands

February 14-19th 2011

A boat trip on one of the sounds was high on our list of things we wanted to do on this trip. We'd been asking around as to whether we should go out on Milford or Doubtful Sound. Most people said either would be good, but the overall impression we got was that Doubtful was better. It was certainly more expensive, but we treated ourselves – went totally for broke! - and booked an overnight cruise with Fiordland Expeditions.

Doubtful Sound

Doubtful Sound is the second largest of the 14 fiords in Fiordland NP (Dusky Sound is the largest). It is three times longer than Milford Sound and has a sea surface area of roughly 10 times that of Milford Sound. It has three arms – Hall, Crooked and First, and all three are on the southern side of the fiord. Two other sounds, Thompson and Bradshaw Sounds, connect to the north.

Doubtful Sound has one of only two marine reserves in Fiordland (all the land in Fiordland NP is protected, but not the water, apart from these two reserves, we think this is wrong and that everywhere within the park boundaries should be protected – or that the park boundaries should include the fiords). The marine reserve here covers the narrow passage called Te Awaatu Channel between Bauza and Secretary Islands. The water is relatively shallow, 30m in places. Doubtful Sound reaches 430m at its deepest and there are sills near the entrance that are around 90m. The waters are subject to tides but with only a moderate range, between 2.5 – 3m. The water isn't that warm (hence we didn't swim!), averaging 11C. It can reach a slightly warmer 15C in shallower water and during warm weather, but the deeper parts maintain 11-12C.

Maori legend tells that the fiords were created by a godly figure or atua who came wielding a magical adze and uttering incantations. Tu-Te-Raki-Whanoa, the creator of the fiords, aimed to create long winding inlets that would serve as refuges from the sea. He began in the south and worked his way north applying his immense strength and splitting the rock with his adze. As he opened up the land, the sea rushed in. When Tu created Doubtful Sound (Patea) he was helped by four young sea gods named Taipari who created the arms, First Arm / Taipari-poto (short), Crooked Arm / Taipari-nui (big) and Hall Arm / Taipari-roa (long), and Deep Cove / Taipari-tiki (little).

There is little evidence though of Maori occupation of Fiordland. Venturing into the region usually meant a perilous journey by canoe or larger vessel and lead to an isolated time exploring or living in the fiords. Maori made seasonal journeys into the region for pounamu (greenstone / jade) either by sea or across what became to be called the Wilmot Pass. Captain Cook met a Maori group in Dusky Sound and sealing and whaling captains reported meeting Maori living in the wilds of Fiordland.

Doubtful Sounds was originally called Doubtfull Harbour by Captain Cook as he sailed past in the Endeavour on his first circumnavigation of NZ in 1770. Cook went past the inlet wondering if there would be sufficient wind to manoeuvre his ship in the narrower reaches. So it was up to the Spanish 23 years later to explore the sound, under the command of Alessandro Malaspina.

Our trip started from Manapouri, where we had spent the night in a lovely little camp ground called Possum Lodge and Camp. We met up with the rest of the people (14 in total, including the three of us) at the dock on the Waiau River and were loaded on a Real Journeys shuttle for the trip across Lake Manapouri. Lake Manapouri is often considered NZ's most charming and beautiful lake, renowned for its 34 islands, deserted beaches, clear water and stunning (but unimaginatively named) arms – North,South, West and Hope Arms. It is the 5th largest lake in NZ and is quite deep (max 444m, well below sea level) due to the grinding and scooping actions of glaciers in various ice ages. The ride across the lake takes us past Stony Point Light, Hope Arm and Mt Titiroa (1710m), the “Channel Islands”, Pomona Island and into West Arm where we can see the transmission lines from the power station and the power station itself. The power station is an impressive feat of engineering, carved out of the granite between Lake Manapouri and Doubtful Sound. The water drops 176m from Lake Manapouri to the turbines before going out into the sound.

From the jetty at the power station on West Arm, we got on a bus to take us the 45 minutes over Wilmot Pass to Deep Cove, Doubtful Sound. It was an impressive drive through the rainforest. We were really lucky and had a beautiful clear day and so could appreciate the views. Wilmot Pass is 600-and-something metres a.s.l. and gave us a stunning view down Doubtful Sound.

At Deep Cove, 40km from the Tasman, we had to wait while the Real Journeys boat was loaded and pulled away before we got on our boat, the M.V. Tutoko II. We were served bubbly and nibbles as we pulled away, getting our briefing as to what was going to happen over the next 24 hours (relax, enjoy, fish, kayak, eat basically!)

I'll give a rough list of some of the places we visited but I wont spend too long on descriptions. Just take our word that this place is amazing. It didn't matter whether the sun was out or the clouds had lowered, the scenery was stunning. We saw dolphins and seals, emptied the skippers cray pots, went fishing (Colin) and kayaking (Karen), and generally had a great time. It was well worth the money and we'd highly recommend a trip here to anyone.

From Deep Cove we went past Lady Alice Falls, Rolla Island, Commander Peak (1274m) and Elizabeth Island to Crooked Arm. Here we saw Browne Falls, which would be the worlds highest waterfalls if they weren't a cascade not a waterfall. From Crooked Arm we went up Malaspina Reach to First Arm, then out past Bauza Island (named after Don Felipe Bauza, the hydrographer with Malaspina) to the Nee Islets (named after Luis Nee, botanist on the Spanish expedition), where on Shelter Island we saw a large colony of juvenile male NZ Fur Seals. Not a bad bachelor pad! We headed back up the sound to Cascade Bay where the fishing began, then Secretary Island and Blanket Bay, where I went kayaking. The cray pots were at Richard Point. We visited Precipice Cove and ended up in Bradshaw Sound for the night. The spot the crew found us was very sheltered and we got some good reflection views of the mountains in the water. The following morning we dawdled our way back to Deep Cove.

So, the crew. The skippers name was Fjord (his parents apparently met in Fiordland and he was conceived there), and he was ably assisted by his partner Jen, a very good cook. Fjords mum, Helen, was on a “working holiday” visiting them and helped out in the galley.

The food was good, very seafood oriented, with crays and whatever fish was caught for dinner, along with soup and sticky date pudding. I had salad, roast veggies and a stuffed pepper. There were snacks available all the time, and cheese & biscuits late afternoon. Breakfast was cereal, toast and sausage, egg, bacon etc.

There is probably so much more we could tell you about the trip and about the lakes and sound, but we wont. Go there and find out for yourselves. We loved the small boat experience, 14 people was a good number and we had a great bunch on our trip with us. The other trip we looked at was with Real Journeys, their ship takes 70-80 people (and would have cost us more) and would have been a lot less personal.

Milford Sound

After getting back to Manapouri, we went back into Te Anau for petrol, food and water, then started along the Milford Sound road. Samara had been awesome for the whole Doubtful Sound trip, but hadn't slept as much as she should have during the day, too much going on, and so was tired. We decided not to do too much that afternoon and only drove a short way along the road to a DOC camp, and gave her the chance to sleep as much as she wanted (which was less than we wanted her to!!). We just parked up and relaxed for the afternoon, covering ourselves with sand-fly repellent and putting up both insect nets. The bugs were swarming!

On advice from the people we borrowed a water hose from in Te Anau, we got up early the next morning (6am when Samara woke for a feed) and headed straight to Milford Sound as soon as Samara had finished feeding. There were already cars and vans in the car park when we got there, but nothing like the amount that came in after us. The car parks filled very quickly and the tour buses roared in. We sat and had breakfast gazing at Mitre Peak, and by the time we were done and cleared up, the car park we were in was full. We walked down to the ferry terminal but decided against joining the masses for another cruise. There was a short walkway to a viewpoint by the terminal, but better views were from the foreshore walk, back through the car park. Dodging the ever-present sand-flies, we walked round the foreshore track and out onto the rocky area by the river mouth. Yes to the great views of this end of Milford Sound and Mitre Peak, but no to all the boats passing in front and the planes passing overhead. We likened the planes taking off to an old WWII airfield with small plane after small plane taking off in the shortest interval possible and all heading in the same direction. Then there were the helicopters. As Colin said, Milford Sound would be a great place if you were deaf, you'd be able to enjoy the scenery much better without all the noise. Theres no doubt that Milford Sound is stunning, but it was spoilt for us by the commercialism and sheer volume of people, bus load after bus load plus all the cars and vans. We'd probably feel the same if we'd been out on a cruise, we'd just have a little more beauty to rave about.

The drive there and back though is worth it, particularly if you can avoid the tour masses at the various stops along the way. The first place we stopped was the Chasm. We timed it almost to perfection, arriving to a nearly empty car park, just a few other cars / vans but leaving as the last tour bus spot was being filled. The Chasm is a series of dramatic waterfalls on the Cleddau river. Thousands of years of swirling water have sculpted shapes and forms into the rock. The water charges along impressively cutting the chasm ever steadily deeper.

From there we headed up a dead end valley, the only way out was through the Homer tunnel, another impressive feat of engineering. Over a kilometre long through solid rock, started back in the depression in the 1930's and not finished until 1991. At the inland end of the tunnel we stopped at the East Homer Nature Walk, a self-guided trail showing some of the plants and insects that grow in the alpine region. It was quite neat, you look at the landscape and don't really see much apart from rocks and a bit of scrub, then you follow this trail and suddenly there are plants and flowers everywhere! We had lunch at the walk parking area before heading off – no sand-flies! - and weren't really sure what we'd see. OK so we didn't see all the insects and birds that were mentioned, but it was the middle of the day and quite warm out. Talking of not seeing the birds, we do keep seeing “Dont feed the kea” signs everywhere, but have yet to see a kea to feed. We have heard them but they remain elusive for us at the moment. (For those using this as research for a trip here, please be careful at this parking area, the tour buses can be lethal and seem to ignore other road users, they come flying out of the tunnel and pull over on the edge of the car park, disgorging their passengers and blocking other people in. Mind you, we also saw a small campervan do the same!)

Samara fell asleep as we left the nature walk, so we missed a couple of other stops to give her chance to nap better. Thats one of the down sides of travelling with a baby, you are slightly more limited in where you go, how fast or slow you go, and what you see. But we wouldn't be without her though even if some days it takes us twice as long to get anywhere. Travelling with Samara is far easier than some people told us it would be though, we were told we'd never travel again by some! Its just different now, and in many ways more enjoyable, and it'll only get better as Samara gets older (we are really hoping she lives up to her 'travelbug junior' name!)

Anyway, back on track. We did the Lake Gunn nature walk, mainly because it was buggy friendly. It was a lovely walk through the trees and alongside Lake Gunn. Then the last stop was at Mirror Lakes, a 5 minute stroll along a board walk next to a series of small lakes. You could see why they were called Mirror Lakes, but there was enough of a breeze to ripple the waters surface. There were good views of the Earl Mountains, and with the water being so clear, we could see the Scaup ducks diving again.

But apart from the stops we made, the drive itself is through some simply stunning scenery. Lakes, mountains, wide flat valleys, forests, snow, waterfalls...the trip is worth it for the drive there if not so much for the destination. Though as we said, maybe a boat trip would revise that opinion slightly.

Hitting the end of the country

From Te Anau we drove south on the Southern Scenic Route towards Invercargill. We stopped at a car park overlooking the Redclif Wetlands and sat outside for dinner for the first time in weeks. We sat with great downs down over the lakes and across to Fiordland NP, listening to the birds and sheep settling down for the night.

We kept driving to the coast the next morning, stopping briefly at the Clifden suspension bridge and Tuatapere before getting to the south coast of NZ. We had lunch at a place called McCrackens Rest, which claims to be the most south-westerly point on the NZ public highway system. Great views of Te Waewae Bay, but a chilly wind! Next stop was Gemstone Beach, where we, not surprisingly, went looking for gemstones. We met a local who showed us what to look for – basically stones that are still shiny when dry, and also slightly translucent. We paused briefly at Cosy Nook, admiring the view, before stopping for the night at Colac Bay and a welcome hot shower. Samara had a bath out in the open – no bugs! - and got to look at lots of chickens, a goat and a miniature horse.


Invercargill was all about Samara, and will be when we revisit after Stewart Island. Problem was it wasn't all good things. The poor girl was due for her 5 month immunisations, so we found a friendly medical centre for those. We also took her to the animal park in Queens Park (she did sleep through some of it though 😊) and to a Sport Southland Active Movement session in the park. We won a spot prize there, a bonus treat, a mini football. When we get back from Stewart Island next week we are taking her to Plunket for her 5 month check up, but that is just a weigh, measure and general check out, so all painless. The rest of the time here has been slow and quiet, letting Samara get over the injections before we leave tomorrow morning. After all the excitement over Fiordland, here we are again trying to write about the past few days which have been back to the nice but normal travelling we struggled with in the last blog. We could leave it out, and many people might, but there are folk reading this that are interested in all we are up to, lunch breaks and doctors visits included, and those are the people we are writing this for. (At least we don't write about every meal break!)

We found a nice little reserve off the road to Bluff to spend the night. We stayed here last night and are back again tonight. We did look at a couple of camp grounds in Bluff but they seemed to charge a lot for what they offered. At the Omaui Reserve, we have met some locals – one guy stopped for a chat and offered us the use of his shower, another group had maybe a few more paua than they are allowed – and have great views over the estuary. There is an old ship wreck that appears at low tide and we can hear the motor racing at Teretaunga Park 10-12km away. Its a lovely night for a walk along the beach, but there is a cold wind blowing. We are beginning to wonder if summer ever reaches this part of NZ!


Not a lot to say about Bluff. Bluff is meant to be the oldest European town in New Zealand, having been continuously inhabited since 1824. It was bleak – cold and windy – the afternoon we spent there. We went down to Stirling Point to look at the end of State Highway 1, though here they claim its the start, but being Northlanders we claim the start is at our end of the country! We went up Bluff Hill, the highest point for miles around, but could only see inland a short way as it was hazy / cloudy everywhere else. Stewart Island was reduced to a small peak poking above the clouds.

Now we are back at Omaui Reserve watching the tide go out, waiting for the carloads of people to turn up ready to collect paua at low tide. The sky is clearing a little, but its cold out. Samara is wearing a snug Arran style jumper her Grandma knitted her for winter (we are glad we brought it with us!) as we head out for a quick walk before bed. We are all packed, apart from Samara's bedding, ready for our trip to Stewart Island tomorrow. We have an early ferry, and aren't always the quickest at getting going in the morning these days! Fingers crossed that our kiwi hunting goes better than our kea hunting!!

Additional photos below
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26th February 2011

for taking us back to Doubtful sound! We really really miss NZ, we had a truly awesome trip with the boys last time and hope to come back someday. It is closer from Japan than from Sweden after all, but this year we will only make it to Australia and camp for 2 weeks between sydney and brissie as Jenny can not use up more vacation days. Too bad. Sounds like a great trip you're on. We loved the Catlins and the wildlife just outside Dunedin (the albatrosses especially). If you are couchsurfing make sure to contact Southlander in Pukerau, fantastic people on a gorgeous farm outside Gore. Take care, we will follow your adventures and maybe some day they will take us to tha same place again... :-) / Jenny, Oskar, Mårten and Mattias
27th February 2011

Thank you for letting me "see" South Island. We never went there when we lived in New Zealand ie to Elis work.

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