25 July 2014

The fjord less traveled

Milford Sound, a remote fjord in the southwest corner of New Zealand's South Island, is the most popular tourist destination in the country. The iconic image of Mitre Peak rising above Milford's deep, dark water is a photo that every visitor snaps.

I snapped one in 2011.

What you don't always see in that iconic image, though, is the other boats. Milford Sound is like a ride at Disneyland: it's a thrill you share with a thousand other strangers all yearning for the same solitary moment.

When we visited Fiordland three years ago, our hosts told us not to miss Doubtful Sound. Doubtful is more remote than Milford, and gets far fewer visitors. To reach Doubtful Sound, you have to drive from Queenstown or Te Anau to Lake Manapouri, sail across the lake, and then board a bus that navigates the steep, winding gravel trail for 22km to reach the dock. Harder to reach, but what a payoff. When we sailed through Doubtful, here's what we saw: a kea, giant dolphins, fur seals, Fiordland crested penguins, mountains, and waterfalls.

Here's what we didn't see: another boat.

When we planned this year's trip, we decided to skip Milford entirely. This felt like a risky decision because the weather in Fiordland is chaotic. You never know what sort of conditions you'll have from moment to moment, much less the night before. We worried that if the weather was terrible in Doubtful, Daniel wouldn't get a real sense of what the fjords here are like. 

Weather tangent: we have been (knock on fern wood) so fortunate. It's the middle of winter here, but with the exception of light snow and poor visibility on our approach to Queenstown, we've had mild, clear conditions absolutely everywhere. Doubtful too! 

We sailed across Lake Manapouri, got on a bus, and took an educational detour through a subterranean hydroelectric power generating station. When we reached Doubtful at noon, we were delighted to see... no one. There were no other buses, and no other boats. We shared a boat meant for 150 visitors with only 13 other people. 

In the fjord, we saw dolphins and an albatross. Way off in the distance, we saw a group of little blue penguins (their actual name) bobbing along the water's surface. As we left the fjord and entered the Tasman sea, we saw a group of massive fur seals sunning themselves on the rocks. Here's Daniel, just as we hit the roaring forties.

Daniel gets motion sickness in the car, but he handled the large swells near the open ocean like a trooper. When things got really wild, he braced himself with one hand so he could take pictures with the other. For much of our time on the water, Daniel was a blur. He explored every inch of the boat's three decks, always racing from one spot to another for the best vantage point. 

In the fjord's "Crooked Arm," our captain cut the engines and asked for silence. Even Daniel was still. The only noise was the soft trickle of a distant waterfall. It was the perfect placid moment that you'll never have on Milford Sound.

After three hours on the water, we boarded the bus and headed back to Lake Manapouri to meet the catamaran. In a Steven King-ish moment of déjà vu, the same wild kea (alpine parrot) that we saw at the end of our bus ride back to the lake in 2011, identifiable by his bum knee, was there to greet Daniel. 

The bird is obdurate.

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