No Doubts about Doubtful Sound

January 8, 2019
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Vintage New Zealand Government tourism poster (displayed at Auckland Public Library, 2018)

IN January 2018, almost a year before my car blew up, my editor Chris Harris took my father, Brian Walker, on a cruise along Doubtful Sound in the dramatic fiord country of south-west New Zealand.

This part of New Zealand, known prosaically in colonial English as Fiordland and more poetically in the Māori language as Ata Whenua or Shadow Land, bulges westward into the Tasman Sea in the same way that the south-west corner of Norway around Bergen, bulges westward into the North Sea.

Both regions are cut through by fiords (or fjords, if we are talking about specifically Norwegian ones): deep valleys carved by glaciers during the Ice Ages and now flooded by the sea.

Doubtful Sound and the Lakes to its East. Background map data ©2019 Google (north at top).

Lots of people live in and around Bergen and the massive Søgne and Hardanger fjords to its north and south respectively. On the other hand, New Zealand’s Fiordland is just about uninhabited, a vast national park / World Heritage wilderness.

Also, in Norway, the sea fjords penetrate a long way inland. New Zealand’s Fiordland has sea fiords on the west coast and fresh-water fiords and long lakes that mirror the sea fiords on the east side.

The two systems nearly join together, but not quite, as we can see from the relation between the Gaer Arm and the South Fiord, and Deep Cove and the West Arm. If these were linked, we would have equivalents of the Søgne and Hardanger fjords in New Zealand. But they aren’t, quite.

Here’s a trailer for the 2005 documentary Ata Whenua, a half-hour movie about Fiordland which screens continually at the Fiordland Cinema in Te Anau, the region’s tourist capital.

The name of Doubtful Sound was officially changed to Doubtful Sound / Patea in 1998, incorporating Doubtful Sound’s Maori name. However, it seems that Doubtful Sound / Patea was seldom visited before the rise of the modern tourism industry. There appears to have been no permanent habitation in the deeper parts of Ata Whenua. Māori who lived in this area in traditional times inhabited the shores of the lakes to the east, all of which retain their Māori names in common usage. From the lakes, seasonal tracks led to Milford Sound / Piopiotahi, the only major fiord in the area which is easy to get to overland, where Bowenite greenstone — a form of jade — was also found.

Here’s an 1850 painting of Milford Sound / Piopiotahi depicting a large, seagoing Māori waka (canoe) in the foreground and the survey vessel HMS Acheron in the background, dwarfed by the sound’s mile-high walls. The steam-powered Acheron was able to explore the fiords in safety. Earlier sailing ships often had to anchor offshore and send in boats, for fear of getting becalmed in the lee of some giant cliff.

Evans, Frederick John Owen (Sir), 1815–1885. New Zealand — Middle [South] Island. Entering Milford Sound in H M S Acheron — Captn J. Lort Stokes 1850. Ref: B-062–019. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/23251765

The purpose of the Acheron’s visit was to update the maps made by Captain James Cook, the first European explorer to map the whole of New Zealand, some eighty years before. The Acheron’s captain, John Lort Stokes, established the practice of naming each of Fiordland’s major fiords a ‘sound’, replacing a grab-bag of earlier terms such as ‘bay’ and ‘harbour’ which didn’t convey their true character.

And so that’s the area that Chris visited with my father, Brian Walker, in January 2018. There are several classic excursions that tourists can go on to see Fiordland. The one they took was the Manapouri-to-Doubtful Sound one, sticking with the more common name for the latter.

They checked in at a motor camp in Manapouri, and took a day’s sightseeing, first, at nearby Lake Te Anau. Like all the lakes on the east side of Fiordland, Lake Te Anau is vast, cold, deep, and pure.

My father, Brian Walker, on the eastern shore of Lake Te Anau
Looking over Lake Te Anau’s Centre Island, westward to the mountains of Fiordland

Along with Māori placenames like Manapouri, Te Anau and Ata Whenua, the region has an overlay of British and European names that reflect successive waves of explorers. The boiled-beef Britishness of Resolution and Breaksea Islands is matched by names bestowed in higher places by German geographers and Austrian alpinists such as the Haast Pass and the Humboldt mountains, not to mention the Franz Josef Glacier some distance to the north.

Doubtful Sound was initally named Doubtful Harbour by Captain Cook. On his first voyage Cook was prevented from exploring Fiordland too closely by the region’s usual bad weather, and seems to have missed the fact that the coast contained many fiords. On his first voyage Cook also called Dusky Sound, which he would map more fully on his second voyage, ‘Dusky Bay’, and missed Milford Sound altogether.

The honours of mapping Doubtful Sound fell to a Spanish expedition under an Italian captain, Alessandro Malaspina, which explored Fiordland in February 1793. Past Bauza Island — named after one of Malaspina’s officers, Don Felipe Bauza — Doubtful Sound opens up to reveal the highly navigable Malaspina Reach. Other place names like Point Febrero remind us of Malaspina’s visit.

On the day of the Doubtful Sound trip, Chris and my dad crossed Lake Manapouri, from the Manapouri township’s intriguingly-named Pearl Harbour (with a u) to the West Arm. These photos of the boat ride across Lake Manapouri were taken on the way back, as the weather wasn’t so fine on the initial crossing.

When Brian and Chris got to the West Arm, they got on a bus to cross the Wilmot Pass, which is very scenic in fine weather but cloudy that day. Underneath the Wilmot Pass and West Arm there is a massive hydroelectric power station built in the 1960s, hidden entirely underground in an artificial cavern in the rock. It discharges its spent water into Deep Cove.

Originally, the plan was to raise Lake Manapouri by up to 30 metres, which would have inundated a large area of more or less flat terrain of great ecological sensitivity that lay just above the natural level of Lake Manapouri. It would have merged Lake Manapouri and Lake Te Anau into a single super-lake; a prospect that rather understandably alarmed many people.

A view from the prospective bottom of the super-lake, between Manapouri and Te Anau, looking westward toward Leaning Peak

Overall, the scheme had a lot in common with Tasmanian government plans to enlarge Lake Pedder for hydro-power in the same era. In Tasmania, Lake Pedder was destructively enlarged in the end. But in the case of Lake Manapouri, a compromise was reached, in 1973, between the New Zealand Government and its engineers on the one hand, and environmentalists united behind a banner reading ‘Save Manapouri’ on the other, whereby the lake would only be raised by a couple of metres. Here’s a photo of Brian, back at the Manapouri township, climbing up from the lake toward a plaque showing the originally-planned level.

The Save Manapouri campaign is regarded as the first great ecological campaign of recent times in New Zealand, and the origin of contemporary marketing slogans such as ‘clean green’ and ‘100% Pure’ New Zealand. These don’t always stand up to close inspection. But, certainly, at any rate, the New Zealand Government’s approach to the management of Lake Manapouri circa 1970 was less philistine than that of the authorities in Tasmania, who were quite happy to destroy Lake Pedder and its surrounding wilderness in the same era.

Before Chris and Brian went over the Wilmot Pass, they checked out a small government hydro museum at the West Arm. It’s also possible to tour the power station, but they didn’t do that on this trip. After going up and over in the fog and hearing everyone say how scenic it was on a good day, they dropped down to Deep Cove, which is as far as the salt-water fiord penetrates inland. Deep Cove was a mysterious and misty place.

The blue vessel hosts overnight tourists; Brian and Chris went on the daytripper boat

And so the boat headed on out into the Sound.

The boat went on, all the way to the entrance of the sound, where seals basked on rocks and it was possible to look back inland and see the view that Cook would have seen.

On the way back, the boat stopped for a while in the tranquil waters of the Crooked Arm, the better to listen to the birdsong.

Along the way, Chris snapped some rather shocking images of a smoke-belching cruise-liner.

Chris also made a video of several scenes filmed along the way, including a lucky shot of a leaping dolphin in the Crooked Arm.

Another peculiarity of Fiordland is that, due to high rainfall, the sea-fiords are usually covered in a layer of tea-coloured runoff from the forests, water that is fresher than the seawater and takes a long time to mix into it. Nearly all the sunlight is absorbed by this surface layer, and the result is that deep-water marine species, such as deep-water corals, live at depths accessible to scuba divers. Indeed, at Harrison Cove in Milford Sound, there is an underwater observatory ten metres below sea level, where people can walk down from the surface in shirtsleeves and get the sort of view of the underwater realm that they would normally get from a deep-diving submersible.

You can see from the photos and the video in this post that although it’s supposed to be midsummer, it sure doesn’t look like it. In fact that’s quite typical of New Zealand’s far southwest. This area is fifteen degrees closer to the equator than Bergen. But on the other hand there’s no Gulf Stream in the Southern Hemisphere, and nothing much to impede the cold winds that blow more or less continuously around Antarctica in a great icy vortex that also whistles up New Zealand’s kilt, as we might say, either.

Continual westerly winds colliding with the mountains make for cloudy skies, and account for the high rainfall that blankets the fiords in tea-coloured runoff.

However, I think that chilly and fickle weather actually adds to the grandeur of a place like Fiordland (a.k.a. ‘Shadow Land’), and makes you appreciate it all the more on the occasions when a fitful sun comes out. Just remember to keep your puffer jacket handy!

If you liked the post above, check out my new book about the South Island! It's available for purchase from this website.


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