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Cruising Doubtful Sound in New Zealand

Fiordland National Park sits on the 45th parallel of the southern hemisphere, halfway between the equator and the South Pole in the southwest region of the New Zealand’s South Island. The park is about the size of Wales. That probably means nothing to you unless you’re Welsh—and I’m fairly certain my readership is not decidedly Welsh—or maybe Scottish or English. At 2.9 million acres, it’s a pretty big chunk of land to still have no one living on it. Here’s why it’s so desolate (besides it being a park): the landscape is made up of mountains, lakes, rainforests, and, you guessed it, fiords. Where there isn’t water, the land is stunningly green, with moss, ferns and beech trees making up much of the thick vegetation. Waterfalls cascade down from high mountain peaks in every direction and the air smells like plants. For all of the above to be the case, you need rain. Lots of rain. And in Fiordland National Park, one of the wettest regions on earth, they measure rainfall in meters. That makes it a tough place to set up shop without a permanent snorkel and a world-class poncho. I learned that the hard way on a cruise aboard the Tasman Explorer with a tour company called Go Orange.

After a couple of early-morning breakfast pies—yes, that’s a thing in New Zealand and Australia—we set out early from Te Anau, a small town about a 10-minute drive from the dock at Lake Manapouri, where the mosquitos outnumbered the tourists roughly 10,000 to one. And there were a lot of tourists. Once sufficiently bitten, we hopped aboard a ferry that took us across the beautiful, tranquil lake to the Manapouri Power Station at the West Arm of the lake. The hydroelectric power station was built from 1964-1971 and is the largest of its kind in New Zealand. Water passes through the station from the lake and then into two tunnels that carry it to the Deep Water Cove branch of Doubtful Sound, 6.2 miles away and 750 feet below. There is no road access to the power station from the outside world; workers access the site the same way we did, on the ferry.

When we reached the power station, we offloaded from the ferry into a small welcome center that also opened its doors to an inordinate amount of what the tour guides called sand flies. “The females love warm bodies and blood,” said one of the guides. Ordinarily, you’d welcome hearing a line like that; not so much in this case.

DSC02456.JPGOnce the tourists and sand flies had boarded the bus together, we embarked on a 13-mile ride over Wilmot Pass Road toward Doubtful Sound. One of the country’s most remote roads, Wilmot Pass Road took two years to build. At a construction cost of $2 per centimeter, it is New Zealand’s most expensive road, which is saying something when you see some of the other places roads have been built in New Zealand…and also when you ponder that this one had no pavement. The air conditioning on the bus was killing flies at a pleasing rate and a small colony of the deceased formed at my feet, which made me quite happy, as I had grown weary of slapping myself in the face and neck. The bus driver told us something about a two-kilometer tunnel being built in the early days with no turnaround circle, meaning that trucks had to reverse out of the tunnel, taking 7-12 hours to go the two kilometers. And that’s why engineers get paid the big bucks, I guess.

After a couple of stops for photos, we wound our way down to Deep Water Cove at the easternmost end of Doubtful Sound, which is actually not a sound at all, but a fiord. (The sounds in the area were misnamed by early explorers. According to Fiordland.org, a true “sound” is a river valley that has been drowned due to the land sinking below sea level, while “fiords” are created by glacial action that produces u-shaped valleys with steep cliffs.) Now that we all know that, let’s continue, shall we?

If one word describes Doubtful Sound, it’s Imposing. At Deep Water Cove, they get 17 FEET of annual rainfall. (Although saying “they” get rainfall gives the impression that there is a population there to receive it. It’s awfully desolate at Deep Water Cove.) As the rain travels from rivers, waterfalls and streams into the Sound (err, fiord), it becomes stained by tannin and other organic matter in the forest floor. The tannin is less dense than seawater and forms a layer on the surface that floats and mixes with the salt. Depending on how much rain has fallen, the top 5-25 feet of Doubtful Sound is actually fresh water. Fascinating, right?

As we hopped aboard the Tasman Explorer to make our way out toward the Tasman Sea, it became even more apparent how far off the grid the place really is. The 65-foot Tasman Explorer felt tiny and it was clear we were far from human contact. A cell phone is as useful there as a bottle of sunscreen. Except you can’t take photos with your sunscreen, so I guess your phone would be kind of handy in that regard. The Tasman Explorer was dwarfed by the giant green mountains that rise straight out of the water, some to over 5,000 feet. It’s fascinating to think that such places still exist in the world and that humans have managed not to screw them up. In fact, the Sound is home to some spectacular wildlife, including one of the most southernmost populations of bottlenose dolphins, fur seals, penguins and even wales and orcas. There are species of plants and animals that have evolved in order to survive here and, by doing so, are unique to the area. There are not many locations that can be impressive on a cold, rainy, grey day, but Doubtful Sound is one of them.

The ride out to the mouth of the Tasman Sea was downright violent. It rained heavily and the wind whipped up in spurts, making it hard to stand on the top deck of the boat. A number of the passengers didn’t seem to want to go outside and expose themselves to the elements. I’m happy to report I was the first one out the door…exposing myself to the elements, so to speak. The elements seemed impressed. Along the way, dolphins zipped through the water alongside the boat and huge waterfalls cut white paths through the green mountainsides from thousands of feet above. We saw just two other boats. At the end of the Sound, where it met the sea, seals, penguins and various birds shared real estate on huge rocks that jutted out from the water.

By the time we turned back for home, my pants were drenched by the sideways rain and my fingers were frozen from wiping off my camera–although from the accompanying photos, you may not believe that. The next day, we spend the morning on an eight-mile hike on part of the Kepler Track in Fiordland National Park. The weather was much dryer and the bugs were less persistent, I’m happy to report. When you visit places this remote, there’s a tendency to say, “I’ve checked that off the list.” But one trip into Fiordland National Park left me thinking I need to go back. With bug spray, of course. Lots of bug spray.



Hiking in Fiordland National Park the next day.

I’ll leave the final word to Charles John Lyttelton, Governor-General of New Zealand from 1957 to 1962, who wrote the following about this part of Fiordland:

“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.”




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