Fiordland calling

TRANQUIL: Late afternoon Manapouri.
TRANQUIL: Late afternoon Manapouri.

Tourism came to Fiordland soon after Scottish ex-soldier Quintin Mackinnon discovered the overland walking route to stunning Milford Sound. Within years "The Finest Walk in the World" along the four-day Milford Track was being promoted.

That description still holds true today, but at least there's more options for Fiordland visitors, some 353,000 overnight stayers last year.

Lakeside town Te Anau is the logical base from which to explore the area. Nearby Doubtful Sound and Lake Manapouri also hold huge appeal and in recent years the options to explore this area have increased as visitors and tourism operators discover the delights of this lesser known area.

Manapouri township offers a range of accommodation and some of the most spectacular views you can get.

I check into a motor camp which the Nicholson family have stamped their eccentric character on since 1971. Among the cabins, old Morris Minors line up all forlorn amid toadstools and fir trees. An old style games room let me refresh my pinball skills. In the outdoor playground there is even an underground tunnel system for children to play in. This style of accommodation is becoming a rarity in New Zealand as owners succumb to skyrocketing property prices and sell out one by one.

Lake Manapouri is often described as New Zealand's most beautiful lake, with a soft and feminine feel. I hire a kayak to explore along banks dense with bush and then paddle out to the scattering of wooded islands, big background horizon being the Kepler Mountains. The best advice to save a big paddle is to slip your kayak through the old 200m-long Maori canoe trail between Surprise Bay and Circle Cove.

To think the intricate coastline of this 142 square kilometre lake and many of its islands very nearly got drowned. The fight to stop the lake level being raised 12 metres for hydro-electric generation ended with a "Think Big" National government thrown out by an uproar of public sentiment in 1972.

The hydroelectric station still got built though, a massive subterranean undertaking in a wilderness where 16 workers lost their lives. Visitors are welcome to view the Manapouri Underground Power Station. A 40-minute boat trip across the Lake Manapouri gets you to West Arm. The bottom here is 414m deep, well below sea level. Departing our boat over floating pontoons, we transfer to one hardworking bus for our 2km drive down a tunnel bored through the superhard bedrock of gneiss.

A solemn silence descends on our bus load of passengers as we head down the tunnel that seems barely wider than our bus.

Water seepage glistens on bare rock-hewn walls lit by the occasional electric light marking our spiralling descent. At a widened junction, workers in hard hats await, ushering us up steel staircases and into the heart of the cathedral- sized underground generation hall. Apart from a group of engineers bent on overhauling some machinery, there is little visible action, but the sustained roar of the seven huge turbines each driving a 121.5MW generator let us know we are at the heart of the action, an awesome experience.

Our driver somehow manages a 20-point turn in the tunnel. Once again we're all quiet for the drive back up, with collective relief audible as we re-emerge into daylight. Man's biggest intrusion into this great wilderness may be an astonishing feat, but to witness it is in some way a humbling experience. Under these great mountains, we all seem so truly insignificant.

Our bus strains in low gears over the lush Wilmot Pass (671m) and down to the suspended pier at Deep Cove, where we depart for a cruise along the 20-kilometre Doubtful Sound.

Six metres of rain is the yearly average here. The sheer volume of water that falls means these fiords can have a top layer of dark tannin- stained fresh water several metres thick over the seawater.

As a rainstorm sweeps ahead of us, waterfalls cascade off hanging valleys all around. With terrain so precipitous, the tumbling torrents appear to fall even from the mountain tops, enveloping whole swathes of clinging forest below in misty shrouds. It is invigorating and at times relentless.

In tranquil Hall Arm, our skipper thankfully cuts the engine for a couple of minutes to let us appreciate "the sound of silence".

It's like visiting an enchanted, lost world.

The Press