“ Country: New Zealand / World Region: Australasia / Pacific „
We were travelling around New Zealand in January 2009, which is New Zeand's summertime, the weather was perfect, not too warm. We stayed at a hostel called 'Barnyard backpackers' which is at the gateway to fiordland, you must stay here its not like a regular back packers, you have private ensuite cabins with shower, toilet, there are tea making facilities in the room, it was very clean and the views were stunning, there are communial cooking areas, in the form of a large kitchen with 3 cooking/sink stations, plenty of equipment. The backpackers is 5/10min down the road from Te Anua, where we caught our day drip to doubtful sound from. We used a company called 'Adventure Manapouri', they are a really great, small company, they have a maximum of 10 people in any one group. Its a very personal experience. You start the day by boarding a small boat to cross the most beautiful lake in the world, Lake Manapouri, this is about a 30 min crossing, its just breathtaking! you then reach the mainland where you change into wetsuits in the information center, it has good changing rooms and lots of fantastic information on the wildlife, history and scientific background of the area! You join with your Kayak instrutor who takes you on a 30 min bus ride through the most untouched rainforest, you are served complimentary tea/coffe or hot chocolate and biscuits on the way, you arrive have a simple instruction on how to get into the Kayak etc then off you go, you are kayaking for about 2 hours till lunch, when you leave the kayaks and eat your lunch on a boat, remember you fly repelent, you dont realise there are any sandflys there until you stop! You then kayak for another couple of hours in the afternoon. The guide is extremely knowledgable and can answers all your questions. You then meet up and head home.
Take a waterproof casing for your camera, to take on the kayak, we got sound amazing shots! We saw fur seals! The whole experience was one of the best things I have ever done, you must do it. Doubtful sound cannot be reached by road easily, if at all, there certainly arent any cars, just an old track which our bus took us along. You have to reach it by boat and bus, that means unlike Milford sound which is swamped by tourists this experience is toatoly peacful and unspoilt, we saw one other kayaking group all day! It really is like Jurrasic Park, moss dripping off the vast ancient trees! Take spare warm clothes and wooly hat and gloves as the boat ride home is a bit chilly! Oh and dont be put off if its raining as thats when you see the sound come to life, all the cascading waterfalls fill and flow wildly into the sound! A must see in New Zealand! Take me back!!! Oh I also nearly forgot to say, I hadnt Kayaked before, it doesnt matter if you have or not, its easy to pick up and they are very experienced instructors, you feel very safe, its also not a strenuious kayak, very steady!
So there you are, having travelled nearly the full length of New Zealand north to south, arriving at Queenstown or Te Anau with just one day left of your holiday. What, apart from cursing your stupidity at not having allowed yourself more time, are you going to do with it?
Most people would say "Visit Milford Sound," and, for all I know, they might be right. Milford is the most famous of the many Sounds - fjords - that carve deep furrows into the mountainous coastline of Fiordland National Park. You can reach Milford by car or by coach, or by helicopter from Queenstown, saving yourself a four hour drive each way. You can even - if you apply early for one of the limited number of permits - spend a few days hiking to it along the reputedly spectacular Milford Track. Once arrived, there are many boats that will take you out on the water to admire the scenery and spot the marine wildlife.
Being of a contrary nature, I chose not to go to Milford Sound. Instead, I spent my final full day in New Zealand seeing Doubtful Sound, which lies about fifty miles further south. Doubtful's reputation for natural beauty does not quite match that of Milford, but the map made it clear that Doubtful is longer and more varied, with more subsidiary channels branching off it and more islands.
But for me the clinching consideration was that it is much less heavily visited, being inaccessible by air or directly by road. When you have come to see nature in the raw - or at least as near the raw as is practical - nothing could be more compelling than that.
According to Maori legend, the fjord was burrowed out of the mountains by the god Tu Te Raki-Whanoa with the assistance of four young sea gods, whose contribution accounts for its branching arms.
The Maori called the fjord Patea, but this name was superseded when Captain Cook, exploring this coastline in 1770, declined to risk sailing in on the grounds that he was "doubtful" as to whether he would ever be able to sail out again. Later navigators were less sceptical, but Doubtful Sound remained accessible only by sea until as late as 1959, and since then only by a private track. The track was laid to facilitate construction of a hydro-electric project designed to harness the power of water flowing from inland Lake Manapouri to the glacial valley that descends into Doubtful Sound.
Mention of the resultant power station may provoke an immediate sigh of despair, on the assumption that yet another remote wilderness has been despoiled. Indeed, a long battle was fought by environmentalists to resist the hydro-electric project and if they failed to prevent it entirely, they were highly successful in limiting the damage. The power station is largely located underground, and from Doubtful Sound itself, none of the workings or installations can be seen.
There is rather more sign of them as the visitor approaches from the other side of the mountains that surround the Sound, by cruiser across Lake Manapouri on the first leg of the journey, although only during the last few minutes of the crossing and even here they do little to intrude on the beauty of the lake.
My wife and I were booked onto the earliest visit of the day, which entailed driving to Manapouri before dawn. The only way to see Doubtful Sound within a day from Te Anau, where we were staying, is on a tour organised by Real Journeys, a branch of Fiordland Travel. They lay on two trips a day in the peak season, one a day at other times, each catering for about 100 visitors.
By the time the cruiser had left the jetty at Manapouri first light was silhouetting the surrounding peaks. Despite the early morning chill and the constant churn of the engines, I spent most of the fifty-minute crossing standing outside at the stern of the boat, watching the mist clear from the lakeshore, the steely surface reflect the early morning light and the sombre slopes turn green with trees.
Disembarking, the visitors pause briefly in an interesting Department of Conservation Visitor Centre, before being transferred onto coaches to cross Wilmot Pass to the Sound itself. The first, uphill stretch of the coach journey is somewhat blighted by views of the power station and its ancillary pylons and cables. There is a variant of the tour on offer that enables you to see the underground control centre and machine room - by all accounts very impressive, but we had decided to dispense with that. We were there to see the works of nature, not of man.
The works of nature don't come much better than the vista that greets the visitor on the descent from Wilmot Pass when the Sound first comes into sight. By now, apart from the track itself, all trace of human habitation has been left behind and there is nothing but the mountains, forests, waterfalls and the deep cleft of the fjord ahead to be seen.
Hidden by the overhanging greenery as one winds down through the forest is an inlet called Deep Cove. Here there is a wharf, where we boarded another cruiser, a catamaran, and soon we were out into the Sound itself. From Deep Cove to the sea is a distance of just under twenty miles, mostly along a deep furrow between the mountains, known as Malaspina Reach.
It was still early morning, and the eastern bank was in black shadow while sunlight slanted its way down to illuminate the slopes opposite. Both banks are precipitous, climbing straight up out of the water, so that necks and cameras are constantly craned back to take in their scale. If I describe the scenery in detail it will sound repetitive: torrents tumbling down rockfaces, dark patches of dense forest in the clefts, distant snow-capped peaks. Again and again. The words would be the identical, but the reality as seen from the water is infinitely varied and exhilarating to behold.
Nearly at the sea, an island almost blocks the mouth of the Sound, like an ill-fitting stopper in the neck of a bottle. The boat finds its way seaward down one side of the island, to return later via the other. Emerging from the narrow channel, it is suddenly caught by the surging waves, and buffeted as the helmsman tries to hold its position close in beside the many rocky islets crowded with basking seals. Bottlenose dolphins and rare penguins are apparently also often seen, but not by us on this occasion.
If you take this trip, try to find a corner of the upper deck where you can brace yourself against the guardrails and keep your footing while the boat rolls to and fro. Also, be sure to wear a sturdy anorak against the wind and spray. And the rain. We were lucky not to meet any; in this area, there is rain on at least 200 days a year. It's a good idea not to be prone to sea-sickness, too.
Of course, it's all worth it for the views along the untamed, majestic coast, but after half an hour or so in the grip of the surging swell at the mouth of the Sound even the sturdiest-stomached sea-dog is ready to head back into calmer waters. In places, very calm. At one point on the journey back, the boat pulls off the main channel into a narrow side arm, and the engines are switched off for a while. The boat sits becalmed between two towering cliff-faces, and nothing can me heard except the mewl of soaring sea-birds and the distant splash of waterfalls finding their way into the Sound.
An hour later we are back at Deep Cove. Here we meet the only other vessel we have encountered during the entire voyage, the larger Fiordland Navigator, that undertakes overnight cruises, also organised by RealJourneys. Two hours later, having paused on the way up Wilmot Pass to stretch our legs and take in the panorama from above, we are back at the Visitor Centre near the power station. Three hours later, by mid-afternoon, we are sitting on the beach beside the lake near Manapouri, eating a belated picnic lunch and reflecting on what we have seen.
Why go? Doubtful Sound is a spectacular scenic experience, but in a land of spectacular scenic experiences perhaps it is not that exceptional. It is remote and untouched, but because of its very remoteness it's very difficult to reach except on one of Real Journey's organised tours. This means you are likely see it from the windows of a coach on the approach, or the crowded deck of a cruiser once there, with the chatter of your fellow-tourists and the noise of diesel engines in your ears. When you are not there it doubtless lives up to its reputation as "The Sound of Silence", but not much while you are.
Nor is it cheap to reach. For the tour as described, we paid NZ$185 (approx £67) each. Scanning the RealJourneys website (www.realjourneys.co.nz), the base price now seems to be NZ$215 (approx £78). If you have time, it might be better value to do the overnight cruise, for which the tariff seems to start from NZ$260 (approx £95) for a berth in a 4-berth cabin - singles or twins are quite a lot more. The overnight cruise also seems to give you the opportunity to do some kayaking from the boat.
Indeed, investigating further since my return, I find that it is possible to do a guided trip kayaking in Doubtful Sound that takes 2 - 5 days and also includes some camping out in Fiordland National Park. (See www.fiordland.nz.com.) Freed from the crowds on board and the noise of engines this might be the ideal way to experience the Sound. I only regret that we didn't know of this possibility before we went.
Even the way we did it, though, I believe our visit to Doubtful Sound was more than worthwhile, because it is an extraordinary place in an extraordinary part of the world.
Doubtful Sound is not, for all its remoteness, anything remotely like the remotest place in the Fiordland National Park. Breaksea Sound can only be reached by sea, Dusky Sound only by sea or by a three-day trek on foot along the Dusky Track. The National Park, and the South-West New Zealand Heritage Area of which it is part, encompasses a vast tract of pristine wilderness, and New Zealand is intent on keep it that way.
Nowhere was it more brought home to me what a wonderful job that country has done in keeping its natural splendours natural. It has kept its paradise unpaved and unencumbered by parking lots, let alone pink hotels and swinging hot spots. This is partly the result of the strenuous efforts of the Ministry for the Environment, which, unlike its UK counterpart is actually concerned with preserving the environment, and the Department of Conservation. This has a role that is taken seriously in New Zealand. It is no coincidence that the current Prime Minister, Helen Clark, was at one time Minister of Conservation. Here such a job would be a backwater for a political nonentity; there it is a viable step on the career-path of a rising star.
Of course, it is a lot easier for the New Zealanders to conserve their natural heritage than it is for us in Britain. They do not have the accumulated mess of our industrial history, and above all they have the space. With a land area rather larger than ours, their population is barely 4 million, whilst ours is approaching 60 million, a density advantage of 15:1. Yet, almost paradoxically, they have the will and desire to conserve in a way that we do not.
You do not need to be a pessimist to believe that Britain is already over-crowded. So much so that not only is its natural beauty blighted but its ability to sustain a tolerable quality of life is also under threat. Yet those who govern us seem entirely complacent, only too ready to pursue policies designed to encourage still more over-population and still more over-development. In the face of any environmental crisis we would find that we have left ourselves very little room for manoeuvre.
Unlike the cautious Captain Cook, we have irrevocably committed ourselves to uncertain waters, and there are good reasons to be doubtful whether we will be able to sail safely out again.
© First published under the name torr on CiaoUK, May 10th 2005.
For a review of what is to be seen elsewhere on the west coast of the South Island, see:
Doubtful Sound New Zealand is part of the Fiordland region located in the south-west corner of New Zealand's South Island.