The beautiful solitude of Doubtful Sound


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Doubtful Sound.

Heard of it? Most people haven’t, even those who’ve spent a bit of time in New Zealand. It’s a much larger, more beautiful and far more secluded version of its famous cousin, Milford. Much like the Catlins, it doesn’t make it onto the itinerary of most visitors to the area. Because it’s a bit of a hassle to get there – you need to take a boat from the small town of Manapouri, then a bumpy bus or shuttle ride over the mountains – it only sees a fraction of the visitor numbers of Milford Sound.

And that is a truly wonderful thing.

Hostelbookers had put us up for four nights at Manapouri’s Lakeview Motor Inn. It’s the biggest game in town when it comes to accommodation, with several rows of clean, generic rooms of various sizes. Wi-fi is included with some room rates, but was prohibitively expensive otherwise, so we ended up using our XCom devices instead. The attached pub was a good place for an afternoon beer and did decent meals, although the best value was definitely found on the takeaway menu.

Oh, and we had this view from our terrace…

Lake Manapouri

There are only a few companies running any kind of tourist services to Doubtful Sound and since I prefer not to share my slices of paradise with dozens of other people, we went with Fiordland Expeditions. It’s a little family-run company that runs overnight and charter trips, and the small-group feel seemed much more our kind of thing than what the bigger players offered.

Fog shrouded the lake as we stamped the morning chill from our feet, the coffee from the dockside cafe more useful as a hand warmer than a beverage. Within minutes of getting out on the water, though, the sun managed to push its way through the haze. By the time we approached the large hydro-electric power station at the western edge, it was another beautifully hot and sandfly-filled day.

We were met by Dave (I think every water-based tourism operator in New Zealand is called that), our typically laconic coach driver / boat captain / source of all knowledge for the next 20 hours or so. Our small group soon headed up the Wilmot Pass Road, a 21km gravel track that was created for the power station construction in the 1960’s and remains, metre for metre, the most expensive roading project in New Zealand history.

Life preserver

Deep Cove, the kick-off point for our time on Doubtful Sound, has a resident population of 1. The guy runs a hostel used mostly by school groups – the only accommodation option in the area – and must really love his own company.

Once on board we met Alex, our hostess / cook / expert crayfish diver, dropped our bags in the shared cabin and settled in for a day of slowly exploring one of the more beautiful parts of the country. The boat was set up perfectly for this kind of trip – a big upstairs deck for taking photos and chilling out, private cabins and dining area downstairs, and a small area at the back for fishing, drinking beer and talking rubbish.

Doubtful Sound

We made our way out of Deep Cove and into the main part of the sound, Dave’s cheerful voice on the loudspeaker pointing out the mountains and coves, birds and marine life that surrounded us. There was barely another boat anywhere, the area so large that the few other vessels soon disappeared from view.

Dolphin

Passing through the narrow gap between Secretary and Bauza Islands, we made it all the way up to the appropriately-named Shelter Islands before turning around. These little lumps of rock are pretty much the last piece of land before the open ocean, and dozens of fur seals had opted for a snooze in the sun rather than battling it out in the chilly water. Can’t say I blame them really…

Shelter Islands

Making our way into Bradshaw Sound where we’d ultimately anchor for the night, we passed the luxurious Blanket Bay ‘Hotel’. This ramshackle-looking building only serves as a supply depot for commercial fishermen, unfortunately, just in case you were planning on booking a couple of nights there for your honeymoon. Surprisingly enough I chose not to trade for my warm cabin on the boat…

Blanket Bay Hotel

With the seas calm and the afternoon drawing on, it was time to break out the fishing rods. After all, it’s pretty hard to have delicious fresh fish for dinner if you don’t have any delicious fresh fish. In between snacking on cheese and crackers, we all dropped our lines in the water to see what we could hook.

My memories of fishing as a child seemed to involve sitting on the end of a pier with my father for hours and catching nothing except a cold, so I was shocked when, after a few minutes, I felt strong tugging on the line. Wrestling manfully with my catch, I eventually hauled it aboard to see … a bloody dogfish.

That phrase was to be repeated a lot over the next couple of hours.

Fishing rods

Eventually though, we managed to pull together enough of a haul to make starvation unlikely. Red snapper and perch were on the menu that night … as if the soup, bread, vegetables and big pot of crayfish that Alex had caught weren’t going to be enough.

While we had been soaking up the last of the sun’s rays and throwing dogfish back into the ocean, a few of the more motivated members of the group had pulled out the kayaks and gone for a paddle. For some reason, though, Lauren and I had developed a new-found love of fishing – there’s no way we were giving those rods back before we had to.

Kayaks

The food had been touted as one of the highlights of the trip, and that night I could see why. Our little group sat around for several hours once night fell, stuffing ourselves with great seafood. Fresh fish and crustaceans like these are best when the cook keeps things simple, and this meal was a prime example. I definitely ate too much – but in my defence, I wasn’t the only one. It was all just too good to waste.

I think we covered just about every possible conversation that night, the stories getting better as the bottles of booze got fewer. A proposed monorail into Milford Sound, the politics of local business, life on the west coast and, of course, plenty of fishing tales. I think the conversation – and the alcohol – finally dried up sometime after midnight, leaving only a quick clamber up the ladder and several minutes gazing at the millions of stars above us before collapsing into bed.

The rattle of the boat’s engines woke us early the next morning. My initial muttered complaints turned to a grudging happiness when I peeked out the window and saw my first sunrise in months. And what a sunrise it was…

Sunrise, Doubtful Sound

The choppy water of the day before had been replaced by a perfect stillness. Without a breath of wind, the only noise was the quiet churn of the motor and the occasional squawk of a seagull on the hunt for breakfast. Our own hunt for sustenance wasn’t as much of a challenge, though – just heading downstairs for sausage, eggs and coffee.

Morning on Doubtful Sound

Nearing the end of our cruise, we passed a small waterfall on our way to Hall Arm. There are apparently hundreds of temporary falls that tumble down the steep slopes after heavy rain, but there hadn’t been much of that in recent weeks.

Waterfall, Doubtful Sound

And then, in our final few minutes on Doubtful Sound, the most magical part of the entire trip. Dave cut the engines, leaving us floating gently on the flat water. Nobody spoke, instead letting the quiet solitude envelop us like a silent blanket. All of a sudden, I felt the appeal of a life off the grid in a place like this. A simple existence, far from highways and hipsters, shopping malls and social media.

Morning in Doubtful Sound

I’m not sure how long I could do it for, but damn it, I’d be more than happy to try.

Compared to Milford Sound, there’s no doubt that this trip takes more time, effort and money. That, of course, is what makes it special. If you’re short on those things, by all means take a day trip with everyone else to Milford, tick it off the bucket list and carry on. If you want a far more immersive, enjoyable experience that you’ll still be talking about years later, though?

Give the folks at Fiordland Expeditions a call and head out on an overnight cruise on Doubtful Sound instead.

 

Hostelbookers provided our accommodation in Manapouri, and Fiordland Expeditions generously offered our trip free of charge as part of the Tourism New Zealand ‘Explore’ media program.

2 Responses to “The beautiful solitude of Doubtful Sound

  • I’ve only been to Milford Sound in NZ. Never heard about Doubtful Sound before. Looks so pretty and serene 🙂

  • Looks lush. Sadly I didn’t even make it to Milford Sounds when in NZ. Tragic!

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