Paul Rush catches a vision of nature's timelessness in the mystical coves of Doubtful Sound.
Has the iconic Southern Man of the stoic, laconic, Speight's-drinking breed, with his expression of pithy humour on our television screens, gone bush?
I crossed Cook Strait recently and headed for the deep south where I expected to meet a bunch of strong, earthy blokes who like to boast of feats of endurance in a drizabone coat and akubra hat, while immersed in a swill of good humour, beer and testosterone. Instead I meet Jen, an aspiring boat skipper, who possesses all the same southern attributes. She can tell intrepid stories of growing up in a hunting, fishing, shooting family, bagging her first bunny at age 6, a wild boar at 10 and two red deer within a couple of weeks of her recent coming-of-age party.
She talks in that quiet, understated down-to-earth machismo style that I had come to associate with southerners. All that's missing is the deep, gravelly voice that produced the classic Kiwi approbation, "Good on ya mate".
I meet Jen and her skipper, Richard Abernethy of Fiordland Expeditions, at Manapouri's Pearl Harbour base. With a family of four from Melbourne we set out by ferry across the island-studded Lake Manapouri. We hear about the calm, overcast weather prevailing on Doubtful Sound and the succulent lobsters that are chilling out in the 11 degrees Celsius water, waiting for our arrival.
An air-conditioned coach is waiting at West Arm to shuttle passengers over the pass to Deep Cove. The Wilmot Pass Rd is an experience in itself, especially today as one metre of snow has just been ploughed off the gravel surface. The coach driver assures us the vehicle's brakes are reconditioned regularly as we descend the last few kilometres on a one-in-five grade.
As our overnight vessel, Tutoko II, steams away from the wharf I get my first view of Doubtful Sound's deep waters snaking their way to the sea. The dark, brooding scene is pure magic.
I'm struck by the vast scale of the landscape in this archetypal wilderness. It is a pure vision of nature's timelessness and wonder, in a designated World Heritage Area.
In Maori legend, the Fiordland sounds (actually fiords), were created by the god Tu-Te-Raki-Whanoa as a refuge from stormy seas. When he split open the rock to form Patea (Doubtful Sound) he was aided by four young sea gods who swung their adzes mightily and formed the four arms of the sound – Deep Cove, Hall Arm, Crooked Arm and First Arm.
Captain James Cook, who sailed past the entrance in 1770, felt unsure whether it was safe to enter the narrow reaches given the prevailing westerly winds, so named it "Doubtfull Harbour". Twenty-three years later Captain Malaspina's Spanish expedition also exercised caution and sent a longboat in to accurately chart the sound and name several features such as Bauza Island. No other part of New Zealand has a group of Spanish place names like this.
Our skipper's public address system starts up. "I'm really sorry you're here on such a fine day as you're missing all our famous waterfalls. On rainy days the area erupts with a thousand spectacular falls cascading down the rock faces. With a seven metre annual rainfall that's a regular occurrence."
We cruise down the sound, negotiating a narrow entrance to enter the Tasman Sea. I notice that the depth sounder records a water column of only 22m at one point.
As we pass the Shelter Islands we catch a glimpse of a bottlenose dolphin and a Fiordland crested penguin with a distinctive yellow stripe above each eye. We nose into the lee of the Nee Islands to view the languorous colony of New Zealand fur seals stretched out on the smooth rocks.
Richard tells us 40 females are now resting up and working on their suntans. "The male seals have a tough time defending their harem, fishing to build up their energy and then sleeping. It's a stressful life, rather like being a cruise boat skipper."
Re-entering the fiord we stop for a view of the Blanket Bay Hotel, which sounds like an upmarket luxury retreat. However, this version is a refuelling stop for the local lobster fishermen.
They work their pots along the wild, exposed coast and come in for a welcome respite in the Jailhouse Cafe and plug into Sky TV to get the news and weather.
In a quiet cove we cut the engines and intrepid Jen gets suited up to brave the cold water in search of our crayfish dinner. We watch her telltale scuba bubbles ripple the smooth surface as she moves slowly along the vertical rock wall.
Finally Jen emerges from the depths triumphantly holding her catch bag aloft with its precious contents. She lays a cluster of bright red crustaceans on the deck, which are not pleased to be plucked from their carefully chosen crevices.
Jen explains that the cool depths of Doubtful Sound reveal a great variety of marine life including colourful sponges, corals and sub-tropical fish. A dense layer of fresh water stained by tannin blocks out the sunlight and deepwater species like red and black coral are fooled by this and migrate closer to the surface to get ultraviolet light. The rare corals can be found 10m deep here instead of the normal 30m elsewhere.
Our overnight anchorage is in a sheltered cove within Hall Arm, where we enjoy a kayak excursion and a spot of fishing. There are restrictions on taking the tasty blue cod here but we bring up a terakahi that is perfect for the pot. The rest of the catch is a potpourri of ugly creatures like sea perch, dogfish and the really obnoxious reef dweller known as a jock stewart or granddaddy hapuka. After a hearty meal and a very satisfying day I'm happy to retire to my comfortable ensuite cabin and drift off to sleep.
Hall Arm has outstanding scenic values and it's a joy to wake at dawn. I stand on deck and hear faint bird calls, the gentle plop of raindrops and the rustle of foliage.
Tutoko II is dwarfed by the sheer rock walls rising 1000m to glistening, snow-capped peaks. My breath clouds the still air as I gaze at wispy reflections in the lazy waters of the fiord; all my senses immersed in its natural splendour.
The cruise ends on our return to Deep Cove. We retrace out steps over the Wilmot Pass and visit the machine hall in the Manapouri underground power station.
The coach driver carefully guides his vehicle down the spiralling tunnel. From a viewing platform we see the giant turbines spinning merrily away, generating 750 megawatts of power primarily for the aluminium smelter at Tiwai Point.
Arriving at my overnight accommodation, the lovingly-restored Te Anau Lodge (a former convent with sublime lake and mountain views) I reflect on my thoroughly enjoyable overnight cruise.
Doubtful Sound has exceeded expectations, being equally as impressive as Milford Sound.
The overnight cruise has enabled me to experience all the changing moods and nuances of the scene and I've enjoyed great scenery, food, comfort, hospitality and company.
It has been a privilege to capture this unique vision of nature's timelessness and wonder, in the mist-shrouded waterways of Doubtful Sound – the sound of the sea gods.
NEED TO KNOW
Fiordland Expeditions operate overnight cruises in Doubtful Sound year round for up to 14 passengers.
Winter cruises are longer, departing at 9.30am and returning to Manapouri about 5.30pm the next day, whereas in the summer (Nov 1 – Mar 31) the return to Manapouri is at noon.
Doubtful Sound is 10 times the area of Milford Sound with similar landscape features and wildlife. The access involves a 40-minute crossing of Lake Manapouri and a 30-minute coach trip over the Wilmot Pass to the wharf at Deep Cove.
While staying at Te Anau there is an opportunity to round off an enjoyable overnight cruise by taking a jet boat ride down the Upper Waiau River to Lake Manapouri on the Luxmore Jet.
Paul Rush travelled to Fiordland courtesy of Fiordland Tourism.
- © Fairfax NZ News