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.

Mount Cook and Twizel, New Zealand

14 02 2013

Stupendous view from Lake Pukaki, near Twizel!

Elwin, Angelique and I departed Christchurch for our exploration of New Zealand’s Southern Alps, lakes and fiords. We were looking forward to stunning views, sapphire lakes, hikes, and glaciers. Our first stop would be Twizel, which is the little gateway town for Mount Cook, at 12,316 ft the highest peak in Australasia.

Now, New Zealand is beautiful. You may have heard. But it is the compactness of the country, and variety of climates, that makes it so different than any other in the world. On the road to Twizel we drove through plains, mountain passes, through an infinity of multicolored lupine fields, from the palms of the semi tropical coast to majestic glaciated peaks – in a matter of hours! What you may not know, is that so much of it has been cleared for agriculture. We were surprised that sometimes it seems every scrap of land not part of a reserve seems to be converted to agriculture. Even the forests covering the mountains are often all second generation pines grown for wood production. The Kiwis are acutely aware and have ramped up preservation on land and in coastal marine reserves as well.

We arrive in Twizel. Twizel, population 1,065, is definitely ground zero for Mt. Cook exploration. This town was originally founded entirely as housing for construction workers for the hydroelectric projects on the dams nearby. Today, the remaining houses and “dorms” serve as places for the outdoors crowd. Still small, Twizel has a limited lodging landscape, and I made reservations only a few days ahead. As such I had to make do with a hostel room for all three of us at High Country Lodge & Backpackers, shared unisex bath down the hall. And parking? Outside your window – literally – on the lawn. We did make friends with some other travelers. But, the place was dirty, the beds lumpy, and it was generally noisy both at night and in the morning. If you can imagine beer drinking buddies, showering backpackers, a woman voicing her orgasms behind the wall, and people outside your window unpacking their SUV all at the same time, that describes a night at this place! And at 5:30 a.m.? Cars loading up for a day on Mt Cook, engines running and doors opening and slamming. At least we made do watching “The Lord of the Rings, The Two Towers” during all of this. So, if you plan on staying in Twizel, I recommend reserving your lodgings earlier and don’t stay at the backpackers hostel! You can, however, stay at their “lodge,” and have a real room and small porch / bathroom to yourself – IF you book further ahead.

Aside from our lodgings, Twizel is perfectly fine. It has a few restaurants, it’s quiet, there are two grocery stores, it’s walkable, and generally OK.

Left sided driving to Mt Cook...

Left sided driving to Mt Cook…

The plan is to hike some of the valleys near Mt. Cook. Unfortunately Elwin comes down sick, and decides to sleep it off. So, Angelique and I head up in 100% blue bird perfect weather to hike the Hooker Glacier area near Mt Cook, and hopefully the Tasman Glacier, too.

Like the glaciers in Patagonian Argentina we saw last year, these too create miles long sky blue lakes to the east. What we saw in Patagonia, by comparison, is almost unimaginable. Lake Argentina is 1,466 sq km, and Lake Pukaki is 179 sq km.  Still, these are impressive-and beautiful.

So we head out. The trail to the Hooker Glacier is really close to the tourist center in the valley, including the Hermitage Hotel, so there are lots of folks on the way. But that doesn’t matter. It’s really gorgeous.


It is so pretty. It’s really HOT, and we seek shelter from the sun in a little hut. There are “rivers” literally spouting from the sides of the mountains. That tells me that the rock is porous, allowing underground streams to form from the melt-water from the glaciers above.

We meet lots of Australians – something that would be repeated over and over during my month in New Zealand. And they’d always tell me that, though Australia is beautiful too, it’s so expensive that they fly to New Zealand for their holidays.


Across suspension bridges, up and up Angelique and I go, with the Hooker Glacier the goal. The trail has been re-worked a few times, and there’s an old suspension bridge, plus a to-be suspension bridge we pass as we go.

Down under the area closer to The Hermitage, there is a lake with ice bergs melting from the glaciers. It’s nowhere near the size of the Patagonia lakes – but it’s still cool!


Rod and Angelique

I wish Elwin were here because it’s really spectacular. He and Angelique spent the last month in Australia, and there’s nothing like this there. Well, he’s going to just have to see the pictures I guess.

The Hooker Glacier, at the terminus, is not spectacular. It is small (relative to the massive glaciers in Patagonia we saw) and covered in an insulating blanket of rocks. But it’s still a glacier!

So Mt Cook did not disappoint. If you head to New Zealand’s South Islands, definitely check it out.

IMG_3388Angelique and I also headed to the Tasman Glacier Terminus. On the way I realized O-M-G we are smack in the middle of The Lord of the Rings Battle for Gondor! There is NO question. I looked it up and verified. I don’t have pictures. But wow! They did film those scenes right there.


Spectacular Mt. Cook, and the Hooker Glacier (covered in rocks) underneath.

When we reach the trailhead I realize just how much of a magnet Mt. Cook is in January! The parking area is completely filled up and people are competing for spots. I actually got angry and left in a huff. I didn’t go on vacation to engage in an urban combat situation. Perhaps I should have been more patient! But I’d read that the Tasman Glacier’s terminus, like Hooker’s, is also gray and less-than-spectacular…that was my only consolation.

Back in Twizel, Elwin was improving! He’s a super hiker and I knew h0w hard it was for him to miss today’s hike!

Next up – road trip past Queenstown, New Zealand, to Te Anau and Fiordland National Park!