Stunning reflections on a Doubtful Sound Overnight Cruise - Real Journeys

Discover Doubtful Sound – Kiwi Guide Stories

MoaTours Kiwi Guide Andre shares his experiences at one of Fiordland’s real gems, Doubtful Sound. A handy guide to anyone wanting to visit Doubtful Sound, including history, wildlife, environment and the highlights of a Doubtful Sound overnight cruise.

Many travellers to Fiordland, who have enjoyed the grandeur of both Milford Sound and Doubtful Sound, rate Doubtful as just as impressive, if not more so, than the famed Milford.

Is it the spectacular valley sides, the drive over Wilmot Pass, the wildlife that abounds within the fiord? Or is it the complete silence that envelopes everyone when we just sit and listen? Read on to find out more for yourself… 

Doubtful or Milford Sound, which to visit?

Doubtful Sound did not receive the publicity that Milford did in the 1950s and 60s as the Government, was keen to promote its investment in the Tourist Hotel Corporation hotels at Te Anau and Milford Sound.

Consequently, people’s knowledge and appreciation of Doubtful Sound was derived from news releases, stories and photos of the huge Manapouri Power Project, leaving an impression of a huge work camp and an industrial complex.

The beauty, grandeur, wildlife and character of Doubtful Sound were overlooked by all but a few intrepid explorers and early walkers. Even today, the numbers visiting this sound are far less than those venturing to Milford, perfect if visiting “off the beaten track” spots is your thing.

While Milford Sound is spectacular, awe inspiring and an iconic image for the geographic beauty of New Zealand, Doubtful Sound combines so much more – the Māori knowledge and European discovery of the waterway, the amazing Manapouri Power Project, the stunning achievement of the Wilmot Pass Road, the stories of its beauty and abundant wildlife – it goes on! 

History of Doubtful Sound

To Māori, the 40km long sound has always been known as Patea, a name given equal status with Doubtful Sound following the 1998 Ngai Tahu settlement Act. The fiord was named Patea by Māori, meaning “place of silence”.

British explorer, Captain Cook gave it the name Doubtful Harbour in 1770 and did not enter as he was unsure if he could sail back out.

Twenty three years later, Spanish navigator Malaspina did explore the sound and left a cluster of labels on features, especially near the western entrance, the only such collection of Spanish names in New Zealand.

Most New Zealanders, and those of the Baby Boomer generation in particular, will be vaguely familiar with the story of the building of the Manapouri Power Project. This was a bold, inspirational plan to take water from Lake Manapouri, drop it down 200 metre shafts to run seven generators housed deep underground and then discharge it via a tailrace tunnel to Deep Cove at the eastern end of Doubtful Sound.

Quite a few will be aware of, and possibly even signed the petition, for the 1970s “Save Manapouri” campaign, in which the old NZED was restrained from its bid to raise the level of the lake to provide additional water storage for the scheme.

The campaign is regarded as the first nationwide, environmental protest, alerting New Zealanders to the need to protect our natural resources.

Many will be aware of the stories regarding the use of the old transtasman ship, the Wanganella, as a floating hostel, moored at Deep Cove from 1963 to 1970. It is claimed that when the time came for her to be moved and towed to Hong Kong where she had been sold as scrap, the tugs had difficulty moving her initially as she rested by then on a mountain of beer cans thrown over the side in the intervening years.

Others will no doubt have heard of the Wilmot Pass Road, from West Arm on the shores of Lake Manapouri, over the 2,200ft (670m) pass to Deep Cove. It was one of the toughest construction jobs in New Zealand at that time (and probably still holds that claim), that it was certainly the most expensive road per kilometre to be built in this country.

Or maybe you recall stories of a brash, long-haired student protestor who in 1967 took a year off his University studies to work on the tunnel at the Manapouri Project. Tim Shadbolt was later mayor of Waitemata City, where he towed his concrete mixer behind the mayoral Daimler during the Christmas Parade, and is still mayor of Invercargill. 

Lake Manapouri

Lake Manapouri, known to Māori as Moturau (many islands), with over 30 islands studding its waters, is where the journey to Doubtful Sound begins.

Les and Olive Hutchins, the founders of Fiordland Travel, began this iconic New Zealand tourism company in 1954 transporting and guiding walkers across the lake and over Wilmot Pass to Doubtful Sound. In 1966, they became Fiordland Travel, expanding to Milford Sound, Te Anau and Queenstown where they bought and restored the TSS Earnslaw in 1969. They subsequently rebranded as Real Journeys in 2002, and it is Real Journeys who host our tours on their overnight cruise.

The 45-minute launch trip with Real Journeys will take us from Pearl Harbour across the deep waters of Lake Manapouri, opening up magnificent mountain and forest views as we thread through the islands and pass bays and headlands.

You will see the imposing powerhouse clinging to the rock wall above West Arm as the launch brings you into the bay prior to the bus trip over Wilmot Pass.

Once upon a time, bus trips regularly took visitors down the long spiral tunnel to the huge generator house carved out of solid rock 200m (700ft) underground. However, Health and Safety concerns have stopped these excursions, and a dwindling number of Kiwis recall their astonishment at the sheer scale of the cavernous “machine hall”.

At the wharf buildings at West Arm is a complex of buildings with excellent diagrams, graphics, photos and story boards explaining the details of this project, the largest HEP (HydroElectric Power) station in New Zealand, capable of generating 800 megawatts of power annually.

However, it wasn’t always so. While the seven generators were capable of producing 90 megawatts each, the original 10 km long discharge tunnel could only handle the output of six generators at any one time. In 1997, work began on a second tailrace tunnel, completed in 2002 and, along with other improvements, enabled production to ramp up to 800 megawatts in total. Almost all of the power from here is used at the Tiwai Point Aluminium smelter near Bluff. 

Wilmot Pass

The 21km unsealed road up and over Wilmot Pass was constructed between 1963 and 1965 to accommodate heavy equipment transporters moving equipment loads of up to 97 tonnes from ships off-loading at Doubtful Sound for the construction of the Underground Power station.

It remains the only way to haul equipment to and from the Manapouri Power Station that would be too heavy for ferrying across Lake Manapouri. The road is notable as being the only road on the New Zealand mainland which is disconnected from the rest of the roading network.

It is a spectacular drive to the top of the pass and down into Doubtful. The road winds, or clings, to the steep, glacial valley sides, washed by waterfalls and even in fine weather, sprayed by riverlets and streams. The banks are covered in ferns and mosses of many colours but the theme is green!

Once at the top, what a view! Here you’ll gaze down the long length of Malaspina Reach, the main arm of Doubtful Sound, stretching away westward. The lushness of the forest, the vast extent of mountains all added to by the knowledge that this is the largest, most remote, untouched area of New Zealand – and you’re now seeing it for yourself!

The coach descends rapidly down the western slopes of Wilmot Pass, with your driver adding interesting and pertinent comments on the building of the road, the geography of the place, its history and stories. 

Your Doubtful Sound Cruise starts at Deep Cove

Once at Deep Cove, you’ll transfer to the ship Fiordland Navigator and be allocated your well-appointed bunk rooms. Then it’s “cast off” and away we sail out into the Sound. The crew onboard are super helpful and look after us well.

There is an onboard guide who provides commentary and information about the features seen from the boat, while relating stories of the Sound’s discovery by Maori, English, Spanish and others.

But it is the epic grandeur of the landscape which leaves the deepest impression on visitors. The bush-freckled, granite cliffs rising hundreds, thousands of feet up from dark waters; the imposing bulk of mountains reducing all else to insignificance; the density and variety of the bush and the epic vastness becomes apparent.

Our vessel will cruise right out to the western entrance, to Bauza and Shelter Islands where there is an abundance of fur seals. And binoculars will be much sought after. Although the Captain will, sea conditions permitting, nose the boat in close to the rookeries, being able to see close up the lounging seals is a real bonus.

My advice to those venturing onto our MoaTours trip to Doubtful Sound is to pack binoculars. The vastness of the landscape means the fauna and flora can be reduced in scale. Binoculars can reveal the intimate detail of waterfalls, dolphins, seals and birds as well as the general landscape. Hint: if you haven’t already, purchase a pair of self-focusing binoculars – easy to use, compact, and with excellent clarity, they remove the problems of adjusting focus, and can be readily shared with others.

When I did this trip two years ago, we encountered the most perfect setting sun near the entrance to the Sound, the Captain lingering longer than usual to enable all aboard to capture on film the colours of a sea-setting sun! It was just magic with many guests expressing their joy at such a wonderful occurrence of nature – and we were there! 

Flora & Fauna at Doubtful Sound

Probably the most notable wildlife we encountered in Doubtful Sound was the resident pod of bottle-nose dolphins.

Believed to number around 70, they seem to spend their entire time within the confines of the sound, a year long study finding no evidence that they went out to sea. They are the most southerly pod of resident dolphins in the world, but their numbers are declining, with the causes unknown.

The discharge of freshwater into the head of the Sound at Deep Cove from the Power Project is considered to be a possible contributing factor. Nevertheless it was an exciting photo opportunity when the pod came in close alongside the ship and followed us for some distance back up the Sound.

Other wildlife to be found in Doubtful Sound includes fur seals and penguins, or even large whales. Southern right whales and humpback whales are the most frequently seen, especially the latter, but other whales are sometimes noticed.

The Sound has also been identified as an Important Bird Area by BirdLife International because it is a breeding site for Fiordland penguins. Secretary Island and Bauza Island are some of the most important sanctuaries in New Zealand for critically endangered birds.

The waters of Doubtful Sound are perhaps best known for the black coral trees which occur in unusually shallow water for what is normally a deep-water species.

The aspect of the cruise I particularly enjoyed was seeing the southern rata in flower. As they don’t always flower profusely every year, we were lucky to be there when they did, their bright, red flowers making a wonderful contrast to the green of the forest. Sometimes whole trees would be absolutely covered in flowers. 

Activities on Doubtful Sound

There will be an opportunity to use the kayaks carried on board enabling those who want an added adventure to paddle along the shoreline, enjoying the freedom of exploring the sounds under their own power.

All the equipment is supplied and nature guides will assist anyone keen to have a go. It’s fun, safe and liberating to have an experience that others dream about – paddling in the sheer-sided valleys of Fiordland.

For others, the tender trips, (the small Zodiac craft that services the boat and takes passengers ashore), are a treasured memory.

Skippered by the attentive crew, it’s a chance to get close up to the forest edge, where the knowledgeable guides can point out the interesting features of the bush and unique plant life. If weather and sea conditions permit there may be a chance to step ashore. 

Super service and comfort on the Doubtful Sound Fiordland Navigator

One of the most impressive aspects of a trip on Fiordland Navigator is the crew and facilities aboard.

Without fail, the crew are watching out for all their passengers, answering questions, directing them to appropriate facilities, serving meals and drinks, with cheerfulness and courtesy.

In the evenings, a presentation by your onboard specialist nature guide will help you appreciate, in a little more depth, the rare beauty of the region. And they’ll welcome your questions as a chance to assist you to discover more. This aspect of the voyage is a fond memory and a real pleasure to encounter.

And the ship itself is designed to cope with the conditions in which it operates – the high rainfall, often blustery weather of Fiordland.

Many of the viewing spots have overhanging decks sheltering visitors from the occasional passing shower (!), there are ample spots – front, back and sides – from which to get glimpses of wildlife and an open deck above is just perfect for appreciating the all-about enormity of the landscape.

And don’t forget, complimentary tea and coffee is available all day. 

The Sound of Silence at Doubtful Sound

Another aspect I enjoyed immensely (aside from the views, the meals, the seabird and seal encounters) was the moment when the skipper hove to under the impressive rock wall of Commander Peak in Hall Arm.

He requested everybody to be seated and silent, and shutting off the engines of the ship, we bathed in silence. There was little to be heard; maybe a far distant bird call, a slap of water against the hull, a rustle of wind, and it highlighted why Maori called the Sound Patea – the place of silence. 

Visiting Doubtful Sound with MoaTours

We have been running trips to Fiordland for many years now but only one of our itineraries visits Doubtful Sound, our Doubtful Sound & West Coast Odyssey 7 day tour.

The highlight of the tour is of course, our overnight cruise on Doubtful Sound. This has to be one of the most stunning wilderness experiences in New Zealand – the high, snow clad peaks of Fiordland rising above the grey, granite mountains growing out of the ancient forests that rim the Sound. And all of it reflected in the beautiful blue, deep depths.

Your Doubtful Sound overnight cruise will leave you with a greater appreciation of the majesty and beauty of one of the most remote parts of our country few Kiwis get the chance to visit.

It will also touch you with its sense of awe, its foreboding presence and its untouched spaces that project a quiet power.

While our overnight excursion on the Sound is just one part of a fun filled seven day trip, to me it is the most impressive of all the highlights in a great itinerary. 

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Doubtful Sound & West Coast Odyssey 7 Day Tour

An unforgettable Doubtful Sound overnight cruise then discover the glaciers, lakes and rainforest of Te Wahipounamu World Heritage Site.

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