serene Doubtful Sound

Posted from Fiordland National Park, Southland, New Zealand.

2015-09-20 16.09.42

Welcome to Doubtful Sound. Stay the night?

There are moments when I travel. Moments so real I know leaving my house, taking time off work, and making my way halfway around the world to explore some minuscule location were the right choices. These moments are what we live for, aren’t they? Well, they’re one of the things I live for.

The journey to Doubtful Sound, while not straightforward or short, is an impressively stunning trip filled with New Zealand’s never-failing eye-popping scenery and a few surprises. But what I’m really looking forward to is sleeping overnight on a boat in one of the most enchanting and uninhabited fiords along the country’s southern west coast. There are other ways to see Doubtful sound, but a multi-day kayak trip didn’t sound too alluring after I heard how bad the sandflies could be, and a day trip just didn’t seem long enough.

For me, the excursion began from Queenstown, a picturesque mountain town on the shores of Lake Wakatipu. Real Journeys, the company operating this particular overnight tour will also collect their customers from Te Anau, transporting them to Manapouri, the embarkment point to the only inland access to Doubtful Sound.

The trip across Lake Manapouri begins to prepare you for the wilderness you're about to see.

The trip across Lake Manapouri begins to prepare you for the wilderness you’re about to see.

We had a brief stop at the Five Rivers Cafe for coffee and a toilet break during the three-hour bus ride from Queenstown. New-born lambs dotted the paddocks along the way as we passed through the Remarkables into deer-farming territory, and then into view of the Kepler and Hunter Mountains. This was the end of civilisation.

In Manapouri we boarded a large vessel that quickly transported us across New Zealand’s fourth largest lake, weaving through islands and silhouettes of looming mountains that foreshadowed the adventure we were about to embark upon.

The road over Wilmot Pass at the end of this boat ride was built more than 40 years ago as an access for the vessels and workmen building the country’s largest hydro power plant. The Manapouri Power Plant, completed in the early 1970s, is an underground station run by man-made tunnels that harness the 230m water-drop from Lake Manapouri into Deep Cove, one of the branches of Doubtful Sound. The bus driver prattled on about the construction of the power plant and the endeavours it required. We learned about the southland beech forest around us and how 50 years ago it was razed to the ground during construction. As with the previous bus and boat ride, we are imbued with history and facts about the countryside we are passing through. It’s hard not to listen and stare out the window in awe. Years ago when Captain Cook’s crew stumbled across the entrance to Doubtful Sound, this land was untouched, teeming with wildlife and native trees. While he never ventured this far inland, it sparks a sense of allure and makes me wonder of bygone years when life was much simpler and New Zealand’s most inaccessible areas were only seen by the brave and daring.

Our first glimpse of Doubtful Sound.

Our first glimpse of Doubtful Sound.

At the top of this glacial trough the bus driver stops the coach to let us all get an eye-full of our destination.  A beautiful glimpse through the valley shows us Deep Cove, the mooring point of our cruise ship, the Navigator. The entire bus was abuzz. We’d not yet reached the boat, but it was fairly clear everyone felt their money was well-spent.

The Navigator operates eight months out of the year and is one of only four cruise ships that inhabits Doubtful Sound – and the only one operating at this time in September. The boat sleeps 72, but when current construction is completed it will sleep a few more. As it was three weeks into opening season, our trip was only half-booked, but the trips before and after ours were fully-booked. It was kind of a blessing.


Fiordland usually sees 200 rain-days a year with close to 7m annual rainfall. We had unusual east winds and the warmest (and driest) of early spring days. The quad-share room I had booked only had one other person in it, to my delight, and there was extra dessert after dinner. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

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From the dock we board the massive three-masted ship. this towering multi-storey boat was constructed solely for the purpose of voyaging through Doubtful Sound. We quickly departed, travelling up Deep Cove toward Crooked Arm, another branch of the fiord. We’re all shown to our sleeping quarters and given a run-down of what we can expect during our short stay on the boat. It doesn’t take long for everyone to trickle outside to the observation decks. Standing in the warmth of the sun we can barely feel the nip of wind as we careen our necks in every which direction taking in the stunning mountain-scape and untouched wilderness encompassing us.


The massive boat looking dwarfed in the fiord. We’re out on the tenderboat.

What is Doubtful Sound like? Towering mountains that fall into the sea. Old beech trees and southern rata running up the mountainsides. Waterfalls cascading down sheer drops or tricking through crevices barely visible through the lush vegetation. Bird calls echoing across the waters. Dolphins splashing alongside the boat. Dark ominous-looking waters. If only they could talk.


Kayakers venture out from the boat to explore the seashore.

After reaching a calm place in Crooked Arm we were given the option to either kayak or go on a tenderboat ride for 45 mins. I chose the boat ride as I was feeling a bit under the weather and couldn’t be bothered with a physical workout. I also wanted to hear the commentary about the area foliage and wildlife. This is when I first noticed the sandflies. These critters are an integral part of the Maori mythology of how Doubtful Sound and Fiordland were formed. I didn’t get bit!

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When we returned to the Navigator some people chose to go for “brief” dips in the fresh 10C water. I was told it can get up to 22C in summer, but I’m skeptical. Fortunately for the swimmers there was a delicious hot soup service while we began to make our way out to Secretary Island, and then past the Shelter Islands to the fur seal colony at the mouth of the fiord.


Seals seem lazy to me, so I kind of envy their lives. I watched them laze on the rocks while we drifted past onto our next opportunity to see penguins. Unfortunately, it seemed too early in the season to see these elusive birds. We even took a poke around to spot some whales, but alas, it was not our time. We all stood outside as the heat left the air, clinging to our scarves and jackets watching the sun slowly slip down the sky towards the horizon. The boat crept along to First Arm to anchor for the night. It was time for dinner.


I’m not going to tell you about the food, except that it was amazing. I didn’t even take a photo of it. You’ll have to take my word for it. I almost couldn’t eat anymore except that someone at my table had seen the desserts in the kitchen, so I stopped eating to save some room. As previously noted, I’m glad I did.

Before bed one of the knowledgable staff members gave a presentation on the area, but having eaten far too much cake and pie and pudding I skipped it as I was ready for bed. But first I went out to the observation deck to look at the stars without any light pollution. To my dismay every spotlight the boat had seemed to be on. The captain, noticing a few of us were out to look at the stars, did a marvellous duty and turned each and every outside light off that could ruin our view. I laid on my back and gazed into the cool night air until the cold and my fatigue told me it was time to go to bed.

Breakfast comes early on a boat. The engines start churning at 6:30 a.m., a wake-up call so no one can be late for the 7 a.m. breakfast bell. Again, I’m not gonna go on about the food, but I was stuffed until at least noon.

This little guy just had to say hi, belly-flopping his way to get our attention.

This little guy just had to say hi, belly-flopping his way to get our attention.

Copious cups of coffee later we were drifting through Hall Arm towards what I can only call the most magical and serene moment I’ve experienced in a long long time. Even though the pod of resident bottlenose dolphins came by to say hi again, they had little to do with this moment. Towards the end of Hall Arm, the water becomes impressively calm and glassy. It’s a photographer’s dream spot with all the amazing reflective images of towering green mountains upon crystal blue-sky backgrounds. It’s here, in the middle of this paradise that the Real Journeys crew gives their only major instruction of the trip. Be quiet. Listen. Don’t move. Don’t take photographs. Just for a few minutes. Just be. Then they turned off the engines completely and we all sat or stood outside and listened to one of the most real and magical noises left on this planet – nature. Water cascading and lapping, birds calling, leaves rustling, wind whistling, and the space in-between it all. This was that moment. As we all listened you could feel each person tune in to some ancient frequency I think our bodies know all too well and miss way too much.

Glassy water makes for great reflections.

Glassy water makes for great reflections.

We never leave the water on this excursion, something I’m happy for after seeing the sandflies swarm the tenderboat, but also something that makes me a bit sad. It would be amazing to hike in these hills and see what early explorers saw – get down to nature, as the saying goes.


This little hut has a helicopter pad attached to it. Blanket Bay Hotel is for fisherman and other voyagers who need a place to stay after being out at sea.

After our harmonic rekindling we headed back to Deep Cove and to the pier to disembark from the Navigator. A bus ride over the pass, a few sandfly bites (they got me in the bus,) and then a boat ride back to Manapouri saw most of us going our separate ways, still mesmerised by our encounter with nature. I had to catch a coach back to Queenstown (still part of the Real Journeys package) while many went back to their campervans parked by the dock.

You hear about majestic journeys in New Zealand. Travellers jabber away all rosy-cheeked and exhausted, exuberantly extolling their latest checkmark on their lengthly world-to-do-list – another jealousy-inducer – another mission accomplished.

I think Doubtful Sound is one of those ticks for me.


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