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Doubtful Sound Revisited

Published
December 22, 2019
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IN January 2018, my father and my editor took a day-trip to a remote southern fiords of New Zealand called Doubtful Sound.

You get to this fiord by first crossing Lake Manapōuri and then catching a bus over the isolated Wilmot Pass.

Location of Doubtful Sound/Pātea, public domain map by ‘Grutness’ via Wikimedia Commons

Their adventure led to a post called ‘No Doubts about Doubtful Sound’.

It’s hard to get there but worth it when you do. Some sixty-odd years ago, a Briton temporarily resident in New Zealand wrote that:

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.

That quote was apparently inspired by a trip to Doubtful Sound. It was even harder to get there in those days. Until 1965 there was no road across the Wilmot Pass, only a walking-track. But people made the effort all the same.

Vintage New Zealand Government tourism poster (displayed at Auckland Public Library, 2018)

We have it easy now. And so, this September last (2019), I decided to make the same trip. But to treat myself to an overnight cruise instead of a day trip.

The weather is really changeable in this area. Apart from being pampered, one of the advantages of spending a night in the Sound that in a landscape “one day peaceful, a study in green and blue, the next melancholy and misty, with low cloud veiling the tops,” you’ll have more of a chance to get a view from the Pass summit and see sunshine on mountains still snow-capped in September on one day, and then on the other, the “thundering cascades.”

A wet day followed by a sunny day was exactly the experience I had. And I’m going to share it with you in this post and the one to follow.

But first, here’s a section of a more detailed New Zealand Department of Conservation map, on which I’ve sketched the route across Lake Manapōuri with red dots, the route across the Wilmot Pass with a continuous red line, and the journey along Doubtful Sound with more red dots. It doesn’t show exactly where the boat went among the islands at the mouth, it’s more of a guide. I’ve also indicated a side-trip into Crooked Arm, where the boats often go for a change of scene. When the strong westerly winds that prevail south of the fortieth parallel South — the ‘roaring forties’ — are blasting down the main part of Doubtful Sound, Crooked Arm is likely to be sheltered and serene with still, reflecting waters.

Doubtful Sound is indicated on the map as Doubtful Sound / Patea. The second name, properly Pātea, is the historic Māori name for the fiord and part of its official name of Doubtful Sound / Pātea since 1998.

Māori place-names are quite commonly used in New Zealand. But in the case of Doubtful Sound / Pātea the tourist literature continues to give prominence to the fiord’s English name in view of its long familiarity in the trade, and perhaps because there is a well-known locality in the North Island called Pātea as well.

Whatever we call it, the fiord is forty kilometres long, that is to say, twenty-five miles. The boat trip across Lake Manapōuri to get there is nearly as lengthy. And as for the Wilmot Pass between, that would have been a long slog before the road went in. It’s “big country,” alright.

But that’s enough of an introduction. Here are some photos of the trip across Lake Manapōuri. There isn’t any tourist-boat jetty on the lake. Instead, you start out on the Waiau River just south of Manapōuri town, from a place with the interesting name of Pearl Harbour. The other Pearl Harbour, obviously.

Pearl Harbour, New Zealand

The Waiau River drains Lake Manapōuri. You head upriver a short distance and then you are on the lake, hooray!

Heading up the Waiau to Lake Manapōuri. Another boat is also preparing to leave.

On the lake. Now they can open up the throttles!

Lake Manapōuri has lots of islands, which you can see in the last photo, and in this one.

The lake’s historic Māori name is Motu-rau, which means ‘hundred islands’ in a rather loose, figurative sense. I don’t think there are actually a hundred islands. But there are quite a few.

Though obviously a Māori name also, Manapōuri, wasn’t bestowed by any Māori but by a Scottish explorer named James MacKerrow, who seems to have got himself lost.

Manapōuri was the historic Māori name of a far smaller lake about fifty kilometres to the north-east, a lake now called the South Mavora Lake. This is a lake hardly any larger than a duck-pond, a lake so small that it stood in for a river in one the Lord of the Rings movies. I really don’t know how MacKerrow could have got the two confused.

Anyhow, proceeding further along Manapōuri as I suppose we must now call the hundred-island lake, we sped past increasingly epic-looking mountains that pressed in from the sides.

Until eventually we got to the power station, the impetus for constructing the road over the Wilmot Pass. There’s not much to see above ground. This belies the fact that the Manapōuri power station is one of the most heroic engineering achievements in the history of the world. For one thing it’s in the middle of nowhere. And for another thing it’s just about all underground, in caverns blasted out of the heart of the mountain range.

The power station takes water from Lake Manapōuri at an elevation of 178 metres or nearly six hundred feet above sea level, drops it straight down into a turbine hall close to sea level, and then discharges it through a lengthy tunnel under the mountains into Doubtful Sound at a place called Deep Cove, where the road also terminates and the tourist boats tie up.

The bottom of Deep Cove is apparently carpeted with all the leftover explosives from the vast construction job, since tossing stuff you didn’t need into the nearest body of water was standard operating procedure in those days. That’s something to think about as you board the boat. Fortunately Deep Cove is, indeed, rather deep.

And so we crossed the Wilmot Pass to Deep Cove. I didn’t get much of a view going over as the weather was bad. I got a good view coming back, though, so I’ll include some photos from the pass in the next post.

The thundering cataracts that that bloke mentioned, were in full spate.

At Deep Cove, I boarded the ship that would be my home overnight. I’d booked a bed in a four person bunkroom and discovered to my delight that I was the only person in the bunkroom. As it was I was only paying half price for an off-season special available only to local residents. So things were getting better and better from my point of view, though probably not that of the company.

Here’s a video taken on board, as I wander through the bridge and out onto the foredeck.

Travelling out into the sound, was a study in monochrome. Only a bit of yellow fabric at the bottom left makes it clear that one of these images is a colour photo. In my father’s Scots dialect, it was a dreich day.


Dreich or not, we stopped for a while to go kayaking in the still waters of the Crooked Arm, where the last photo was also taken.

Here’s a video I shot from the kayak, being careful not to drop my cellphone into the briny.

Or not so briny, as there is a layer of tea-coloured, mostly fresh water that floats on top. Screening of the light allows many comparatively deep-water species to flourish within the range of recreational divers, and this is something else that New Zealand’s fiords are famous for.

At a place called Harrison Cove on Milford Sound, which is north of Doubtful Sound and fully accessible by road (though Harrison Cove itself requires a boat trip), you can even descend into an underwater, air-conditioned viewing chamber to observe species normally seen at a depth of 500 metres, though in reality you are only ten metres down. This facility is called the Milford Discovery Centre and Underwater Observatory.

Paddling about in the Crooked Arm was also good chance to get some better photos of the ship, which is quite funky-looking. It was operated by Real Journeys, one of three firms that operate cruises on Doubtful Sound right now, the others being Fiordland Cruises and Go Orange.

Eventually we got to the end of the fiord, where it joined the open sea.

Doubtful Sound is about four hundred metres deep for most of its length, shallowing to about a hundred metres near the entrance, after which the coast drops away to

about a thousand metres and then two thousand metres, just like that.

Though the land inshore was all once above sea level, with glaciers flowing along the surface, the fiords of south-west New Zealand were scraped out to deptsh of hundreds of metres below sea level by mountain glaciers that flowed along them during the ice ages, a phenomenon called overdeepening.

That’s what a fiord is, by the way. An overdeepened inlet of the sea created by a vanished glacier in a country that was once heavily glaciated or perhaps still is, such as Norway, southern New Zealand, Southern Chile, Iceland or Greenland. Such an inlet normally has very steep sides that keep going down to the bottom, which normally as flat as the sides are steep: a form that is called a U-shaped valley if the bottom is above sea level, as it is at Yosemite for instance.

No matter what country it’s in, the entrance of a fiord is usually shallower than the main part. One reason for this is that glaciers start running out of puff toward the end. Another is that the end also gets choked with rocks that the glaciers have transported down from the hills and scraped up from the bottom of the fiord, a great heap of boulders and gravel called the terminal moraine. In the case of Doubtful Sound, much of the end of the fiord is actually above sea level in the form of a multitude of rocky islands.

Captain Cook named the sound Doubtful Bay because all these rocks made it look a bit dubious. He wasn’t sure if there was a fiord there because he didn’t dare come close enough to check. Later on, when European sailors came to realise that Doubtful Bay was was a fiord (though they called it a sound), the honour of mapping its interior fell to one of the last explorers in the pay of Spain, an Italian named Alessandro Malaspina.

And so Doubtful Sound / Pātea has all these Spanish-sounding names like Febrero Point, Bauza Island, Marcaciones Point, and so on: almost as if you were in Chile, which has similar fiords.

Here’s a high-sided island

The islands that are a bit easier to clamber onto have an abundance of seals on top! The main species in Doubtful Sound is the New Zealand fur seal, which also occurs in Australia. Known as kekeno in Māori, these fur seals were nearly hunted to extinction in the 1800s. You can see the seals on the rocks in the next video and photo.

Here’s the deck of the ship by the way.

And so the sun went down.

And we tied up in a sheltered spot where we were served a lovely and social dinner: another highlight of the overnight trip!

My next post will be about Day Two. A much less dreich day as it was to turn out . . . By the way, my first book, A Maverick Traveller, is available on the front page of this website as a free PDF or Epub download, if you sign up for the mailing list.

Notes: The quote about places where people have not yet set foot is attributed to Viscount Cobham, the ninth Governor-General of New Zealand (1957–1962). It is widely circulated online and has probably been taken from a book called Lord Cobham’s Speeches, perhaps the address called ‘Science as an aid to Understanding’ (Cobham seems to have been more of a public intellectual than most Governors-General). As for the detailed map with the route marked upon it in red, it is taken from a map showing the location of the huts of south-west New Zealand hanging in my hallway, dated 2009. I removed the images of a few huts that are superimposed upon the blue sea in the original.

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