New Zealand’s Fiordland National Park and Doubtful Sound

18 02 2013

We spend the better part of a day driving the South Island between Twizel and Te Anau, which is the gateway to Fiordland National Park and Doubtful Sound, and Milford Sound. We will be visiting three of the South Island’s largest lakes, Lake Wakatipu (New Zealand’s longest at 50 miles), Lake Te Anau (New Zealand’s largest lake by volume), and Lake Manapouri. We’re bypassing outdoor tourism hotspot Queenstown.


Lake Wakapitu

For a good portion of today’s journey we pass along Lake Wakatipu – which twists with the mountains. The area near Queenstown has lots of sailboats plying the waters nearby, and the mountains rise up straight out of the lake.

In mid afternoon we arrive in Te Anau and check in at the Red Tussock Motel. We’ve got an apartment – two bedrooms, kitchen, bath, and living room. It’s quite nice. Once more Angelique gets the queen and Elwin and I get the two twin beds in the other bedroom. On arrival it’s about 80 degrees with fair weather clouds. The Red Tussock Motel is 10 minutes walk from the shore of Lake Te Anau and the downtown area. It’s a very walkable town – and seems pretty much tourism dependent from what we can see. Paul Lepper and other Kiwis we’d met insisted that the best fiord to visit isn’t the famous Milford Sound, but rather the 10 times larger and less busy Doubtful Sound. To see Doubtful Sound, though, one cannot go alone. This is because one must cross Lake Manapouri, then take a lengthy road down to the sound. You can’t just walk or drive to it, like Milford Sound. We were set on seeing Doubtful Sound and booked a trip for the following day. There are two ways to see doubtful sound. You can book a trip with Real Journeys or you can book a sea kayak trip.

These are two entirely different ways of experiencing Doubtful Sound. We were 100% set on kayaking in New Zealand. Either way to see the Sound is expensive, $200-$300 a day. But we could kayak up north, either in Abel Tasman National Park, or/and in the Bay of Islands, where it is W-A-R-M and down here it’s guaranteed to be chilly and rainy part of the time. The Real Journeys trip isn’t private and of course noisier with a motorized craft. The choice was to be moot, because all the kayak tours were booked up. So Real Journeys it was to be. It was an ultra modern multi deck motor catamaran, and as such it could get around and cover most of Doubtful Sound in a few hours. Kayaking would be quiet – but you’d only explore one of the Sound’s fiords in a day.

So, Doubtful Sound Day Dawns. It’s going to be an all-day affair! The weather is sun/rain/cloud/sun all day, and that is exactly what we’ve been told it’s like in the fiords most of the year. It rains 236 inches a year in the fiords!

IMG_0127Since we stayed primarily in kitchen-equipped apartments, a typical day began with coffee or tea and then either muesli and fruit topped with yogurt, or sometimes eggs and toast. And we often made sack lunches which we ate during the day.

We take a boat across Lake Manapouri. Looking across this giant lake from the top deck, I’m reminded of my trip on Argentina’s Lago Nahuel Huapi in Argentina. It is rimmed with gorgeous peaks, many draped in fresh snow.

Once ashore we board a coach which climbs its way through the lush forest to a 700-ft high pass before steeply descending to Doubtful Sound’s Deep Cove, our embarkation point. The forest is super lush with waterfalls urgently relieving the mountainsides of their liquid burden.

View down to Deep Cove

Taking a trip with Real Journeys, I’m reminded of traveling with an airline. It’s a family-run company founded decades ago taking tourists to Doubtful Sound. In those days, guests walked 11 grueling hours all the way from Lake Manapouri to Deep Cove. Today, we ride a coach. The company has grown, and seems to have a near-monopoly on tourism in Fiordland. Uniformed staff sell you tickets at their terminals, and the boats are absolutely 21st century craft. It’s a far cry from some of the 3rd world adventure of on-your-own arranging to see an area. Still, as New Zealand is a magnet for throngs of visitors, I can understand – there is a need to manage the crowds! For example, the famous Milford Track sees 14,000 visitors a year! The Milford Sound itself sees 400,000!


Fiordland National Park’s seven fiords are all drowned glacial valleys. In past ice ages, ice thousands of feet thick moved off the mountains, carving these fiords to the west, and the steeply sloped arms of the lakes to the east. The underlying rock sits not far below the roots of the forests – the soil is not nutrient rich, nor thick. The plants, such as the famous 20-foot high black tree fern, have adapted to make use of the huge amount of rainfall.

IMG_0129Captain Cook, the British Global Explorer, named the place Doubtful Harbor because he did not think it would be possible to sail inside. Later Whalers gave it the present name.

It has a fascinatingly eery feeling with all the mists billowing off the impossibly steep valley walls.IMG_3414

Part of the Real Journeys itinerary was to visit the Manapouri Hydroelectric Power Station. It is frequently cited as New Zealand’s greatest engineering achievement. It is a completely underground power station – they dug giant tunnels connecting Lake Manapouri to Doubtful Sound. Water runs through turning turbines. It is the largest hydroelectric plan in the country.

Ironically, the reason it was built may cease to exist. The project was commenced to provide electricity to an aluminum smelter – but that smelter may be closed due to cheaper aluminum from China. We were told the power station can supply enough power for the entire South Island, if necessary. The other irony is that while the production of electricity from Manapouri does not produce greenhouse gases, the Tiwai Point aluminum smelter at the other end is one of the worst polluters in New Zealand.



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