03 August 2011

Doubtful Sound

Doubtful Sound is the bridesmaid to Milford the bride. Before we started planning our trip to New Zealand, I (like countless other potential visitors) had never heard of Doubtful Sound. That iconic view of Mitre Peak reflected in Milford’s glassy
waters pretty much comprised the totality of my mental image of the South Island’s enormous Fiordland area. After visiting both places, we both agreed that we had a better time at Doubtful Sound. Here’s why.

The drive to Milford Sound is amazing, and arguably includes more scenic beauty than the subsequent cruise. Our journey to Doubtful Sound was less spectacular, but included a boat ride across Lake Manapouri, then a short but scenic drive up and over Wilmot Pass, down to sea level and the headwaters of Doubtful Sound where we boarded a comfortable boat. This is amazingly vertical country: the banks here are so steep that the small wharf from which our boat departed doesn’t rely upon traditional pilings. The water is so deep, even a scant 20 feet from shore, that the wharf is cantilevered from the shoreline.

When you sail on Milford Sound, you’ll experience that iconic view of Mitre Peak immediately after embarking. After that, you’ll sail for another hour or so with a lot of other boats, out to the Tasman Sea and back. It’s undeniably beautiful, but hardly a pristine experience. A comparably-priced cruise on Doubtful Sound will last two or more hours, and you’re unlikely to see another vessel.

Milford Sound is a single narrow body of water, extending some 15 km to the Tasman Sea. Doubtful Sound is nearly 45 km long and includes several distinct arms that we explored during our tour. Fewer visitors, fewer boats, and ten times more area adds up to a solitary experience.

The steep mountains and deep water aren't the only things that make this an unusual ecosystem. See how dark the water always looks? The hundred of inches of rain that hit the region every year collect tannins as they cross the rock. By the time it reaches the fjord, the freshwater is the color of tea. This thin, very dark layer of freshwater changes the marine environment below. It allows creatures (like coral) who usually live in much deeper water to thrive near the surface.

About a half hour after we departed, the glassy waters in front of our boat were suddenly disturbed by the churning antics of a pod of thirty or so bottle nosed dolphins. Our skipper killed the engines and we drifted quietly as the pod drew nearer. It’s only in my imagination that their approach was accompanied by a soundtrack of “Love Shack”, but that’s how it felt: an exuberant frat party in the water! The dolphins roiled the water, often in pairs, and swam around our boat. Except for orcas, these are the largest dolphins in the world, reaching up to 12 feet in length.

After the party… er, pod, departed, Melissa went to the stern of the boat to take a photo of the view – and by sheer luck, just as she snapped her photo a dolphin jumped out of the water. Best photo bomb ever?

We continued, sailing beneath range after range of snowcapped peaks and countless unnamed waterfalls, out to the mouth of the sound. More good luck, as the weather was unexpectedly fine and the swell (which can reach over 10 meters here in the Roaring 40s) was gentle. We sailed through intermittent sunshine and showers out to the barrier islands where we saw dozens of fur seals basking on the rocky shore.

Doubtful gave us a rainbow.

Lots of fur seals.

Somewhere among the rocks where Doubtful Sound meets the Tasman Sea is nature's original design for the Sydney Opera House. See it?

Glassy waters. Fewer boats, fewer wakes.

After we left Doubtful, we headed to the power station at Lake Manapouri. Every minute, enough water flows though these generators to fill eighty Olympic sized swimming pools. This hydro station provides electricity to a significant portion of the NZ population. To reach it, 700 meters below the lake's bottom, our coach spiraled 2km through a dark, narrow tunnel blasted through solid granite.

We traveled with about twenty to Doubtful, and for the most part, they were more low-key than the Milford group. For the most part. Meet Dutchie, unofficial ship's photographer and potato chip philanthropist. Hi, Dutchie! Dutchie lives along the French-German border, and his favorite Beatles song is Revolution. When not distributing crunchy snack foods to his fellow passengers, Dutchie can be found schmoozing with the crew, or shooting video of them as they add hot water to the "free coffee" dispenser.

We said goodbye to Doubtful Sound and Dutchie, and returned to our B&B for a delicious, homemade meal with our hosts, Brent and Gilly. Gilly made a feast!

Brent's a fascinating guy. He spends a month at home, and then spends a month on an oil platform in Chad. Then back to NZ, and back to Chad. In 2007, while on a platform in Nigeria, he was kidnapped by a band of separatists who hoped to use western prisoners as political leverage. They held Brent for five days before the government negotiated his release. He seems remarkably okay with what happened. "Those guys have no power. No choices. If I were a young Nigerian, I'd have been right there with them!"

The following morning, after we packed, Brent and Gilly took us out on their boat to see more remote parts of Lake Te Anau. It was our last glimpse of Fiordland, and it was magnificent. Thank you, Brent and Gilly, for your incredible hospitality!

How often do you see a rainbow, much less the secondary rainbow, from horizon to horizon? New Zealand gave us it's finest ear-to-ear smile.


Penghinlady said...

I've only seen one ground-to-ground rainbow, on Maui, years ago. And one complete secondary and part of the tertiary, too - same time. Fabulous sight.

Did I understand correctly that you went to a power station UNDER the lake-bed? And drove through a looong tunnel to do it? I'd have died right there on the bus. Claustrophobia is a terrible thing.

GibblesNBits said...

These pictures are gorgeous!

Thanks Steve and Melissium for the wonderful overview of the places you've been and the things you've seen.

Some day we will watch the dolphins romp together... and we'll bring a little of the B52's with us to celebrate their freedom and joy.