Doubtful Sound – its name evokes an uncertainty that belies the definitive presence of the fiord itself. With granite cliffs plunging into the depths of the black water, and soaring upwards into the clouds, Doubtful Sound is majestic and mystical, a massive, unpeopled space saturated with the spirit of prehistory.
Broad waterways flow ponderously between sky-scraping rainforest-blanketed mountains which rise precipitously from the cold water, the tannin-stained deeps of which have formed a unique aquatic habitat for unusual and ancient creatures; sponges, black coral and brachiopods.
There are a few places left in the world which make you feel like you’ve truly left humankind behind, and New Zealand’s fiords, deep and remote, cloaked in rain-soaked primordial forests, are some of them.
The Gateway to the Sounds
About 7 hours drive south of Christchurch is the town of Te Anau, gateway to the fiords. On the shores of tranquil Lake Te Anau, the area has a rich history of its own, one of settlement and conflict, Maori explorers and European whalers; the land here down in the Roaring Forties has been hard on settlers, and only the toughest survived. As such, a certain respect is due this small town, which could easily be mistaken for a mere tourist destination and stop off on the way to the Sounds.
Portal to Prehistory
And while Milford Sound, with the draw card of spectacular Mitre Peak, is probably the most popular of the sounds, Doubtful Sound, so named by the explorer Captain Cook, who was uncertain as to the navigability by his craft of the inlet he bypassed, is the road less travelled – with its wide, moody tributaries, entering Doubtful Sound is like slipping back intosome remote past;the silence of this huge,uninhabited place envelops you gradually, as you leave Te Anau behind and cross Lake Manapouri and Wilmot Pass. The sense of leaving civilisation behind is strong; so much so, you have the feeling you might see plesiosaurs break the surface of the water, or pterodactyls wing down from the low sky, and in fact, the area has been used as a backdrop for the BBC’s Walking with Dinosaurs, so authentically primeval it is.
Wildlife in the Sounds
Instead, bottlenose dolphins, New Zealand fur seals, Fiordland crested penguins and little blue penguins are often spotted around cruising boats. Indeed, seals are hard to miss, populating, as they do, the rocks near the sea entrance to Doubtful Sound, the playful sleekness of their activities delighting visitors as much as if they were paid for their time.
Broodings and Benefactions
Fiordland receives an average of 7200 mm of rain a year, making it one of the wettest places on earth, but the low, brooding clouds and the mists draped across the shoulders of the peaks only augment the sense of other-worldliness.
Water is everywhere in the Sounds; below you, above you, and cascading beside you, down the almost perpendicular sides of the mountains; not so much waterfalls as runoff from the constant flow of water from the heavens.
A favoured device of cruise captains is to bring vessels hard up alongside the towering granite cliffs, in order to shower passengers with the cold spray from these cascades. No one minds, in fact, it feels like some sort of benefaction from ancient gods; a baptismal blessing to take with you back to real life.
Tips and Options
Visitors have a range of tour and cruise options available, from day and evening trips to overnight cruises and kayak adventures, according to inclination and budget. Any choice would guarantee satisfaction; the only disappointment is having to leave at all. Ideally, at least a couple of days would be required to fully experience and absorb the atmosphere of the Fiordlands, though if short on time, visitors can squeeze in memories for a lifetime in a day trip.
Tours to Doubtful Sound depart from Te Anau, which can be reached by car, plane or bus from the nearest centres of Christchurch, Queenstown or Dunedin. As the temperature in the Fiordlands remains low most of the year, a few layers of clothing as well as wet weather gear are recommended. It’s worthwhile visiting the area any time of the year, with winter in fact having a lower average rainfall and more sunshine hours, as well as the advantage of being quieter than the busy summer months.
Whatever time of year or tour option you choose, you will hoard up memories you will savour for the rest of your life in New Zealand’s remote Fiordland.
Accommodation and activities: About Fiordland: Doubtful Sound
Cruises: Cruise Doubtful Sound
Fiordland information, including how to get there: Getting to Fiordland