The prow of the boat cut through the waters of Lake Manapouri like a knife through as much butter. Gusts of frigid, pre-dawn air buffeted us as we fought for balance on the viewing deck, and the sun broke over the hills in the East. It was a fine day, and my coworker Marketa and I were setting off for a cruise in Doubtful Sound…
My eyes are filled with tears at the sight of the mountains of Takitimu and the mountains of Manawapouri. Would that I were a bird, that I might fly forth; would that I might obtain for myself wings.
– Maori song
Despite the wind, the ride across the lake’s surface was smooth, the boat seeming to glide over the chop as the mountains encircling the lake slid past. Vast arms of the lake branched off from our route, deep valleys carved out ages ago by the passage of glaciers.
A brief stop at the visitor center — home to a few kea and the ubiquitous sandflies, as well as a few staff-creatures — allowed us to stretch our legs before we boarded a bus and trundled up the unsealed road over Wilmot Pass.
The pass is notable for being the only road in New Zealand disconnected from the rest of the roading network, and needs to be cleared and repaired each year. Before its construction, access to Doubtful Sound was only possible by foot or by sea.
Our driver let us out by the roadside, directing us down a ramp descending a wooded bank. Below, a small boat was moored at the dock, where several crew welcomed us aboard. Much to my delight, there was a machine providing unlimited coffee and hot chocolate. Unlimited…
Marketa and I took our steaming mugs to the roof as the vessel made its way out of Deep Cove. Much like Milford Sound, the mountains plunge into the water and rise to the low-hanging mantle of clouds. The water was still and calm, but the landscape and the roiling sky above us lent an increased potency to each successive moment.
Luck was with us, and as we were still leaving Deep Cove, a pod of dolphins intercepted our path for a spell. A baby kept close to its mother’s flank, but gleefully flung itself out of the water several times with more fervor than its less playful family. We passengers watched in delight as the creatures broke course and headed back the way we’d come, presumably bidding us so long and thanks for all the fish.
We passed through the titanic landscape, the true scale of it only realized when we passed another vessel in the distance. The boat — with its humans upon it — was nearly insectile in comparison to the cliffs beyond.
Charles John Lyttelton, a former Governor-General of New Zealand, had this to say about the Fiordland area:
There are just a few areas left in the world where no human has ever set foot. That one of them should be in a country so civilized and so advanced as New Zealand may seem incredible, unless one has visited the south-west corner of the South Island. Jagged razor backed mountains rear their heads into the sky. More than 200 days of rain a year ensure not a tree branch is left bare and brown, moss and epiphytes drape every nook. The forest is intensely green. This is big country… one day peaceful, a study in green and blue, the next melancholy and misty, with low cloud veiling the tops… an awesome place, with its granite precipices, its hanging valleys, its earthquake faults and its thundering cascades.”
As we passed through Doubtful Sound, his sense of awe was completely understandable. Massive hanging valleys fringed in verdant green, waterfalls tumbling down cliff faces to the sea… each shift of perspective brought another stunning sight to bear.
We passed the mouth of Thompson Sound, just visible through the jigsaw terrain. The sun had begun to break through the gloom, and its beams lit the landscape in splayed pillars of light. Marketa asked for my camera, and returned with this gem:
Huge waterfalls made to seem small by their surroundings cascaded down along the arms of the Sound. The walls are so sheer in places that the boat captain was able to bring us within inches of the rock, to where the spray misted our faces as we leaned backwards over the railing to stare up at the deluge.
“Just trust me,” the captain encouraged us as we leaned towards the wall of rock…
The Shelter Islands — aptly named for their function — were as far as we got. The waters there were still and peaceful, lapping against the sides of the boat as we coasted close and looked for wildlife. But beyond, the sea broke upon monoliths rising from below, the spray giving testament to the violence of it all.
The journey back went quickly. Marketa and I retreated below-deck for some respite from the incessant wind and to drown ourselves in free hot chocolate. The day had started early, and the excitement of all that we’d seen was starting to wear at our energy levels. But our smiles… those didn’t fade in the slightest!
Would I see it again? I certainly hope so.
But like Fiordland itself, the future is cloaked in shadow, and nothing is certain.
Have you been someplace amazing which you’d love to go back to? How likely do you think you are to return? Let me know in the comments below!
Thinking of doing a cruise in Doubtful Sound? I’d recommend Go Orange — they operated our cruise and it was amazing! Not a sponsored plug or an affiliate link, just a recommendation 🙂