Feeling Tearful At Doubtful Sound

On Tuesday 23rd March, we began one of the most amazing experiences of our lives. While parked at Monkey Island, a chance meeting with David and Alison inspired us to investigate walking the Humpridge Track AND an overnight cruise on Doubtful Sound with Real Journeys. We accomplished both. Neither had previously been on our list of places to see—a huge shout-out to these people for crossing our path.

Real Journeys

We’ve had some fantastic experiences with Real Journeys – and Doubtful Sound is where their journey began in 1954. The year before Barry was born. We booked with them for our ferry to Stewart Island at the end of February and their Ulva Island and Bays and Villages tours. More recently, the Te Anau Glowworm Caves.

Having trained and worked for Calendar Club in the UK, whose highest priority is customer service, we were highly impressed with every detail of this company. Every member of staff we’ve encountered have been welcoming, friendly and informative. Well done, Real Journeys.

The Journey To Doubtful Sound

Our first leg of our journey to Doubtful Sound took us from Te Anau to Pearl Harbour, Manapouri, where the cruise across Lake Manapouri was scheduled for 12.30 pm. Doubtful Sound is the second-longest Sound in Fiordland and not terribly easy to reach. The longest is Dusky Sound. Milford Sound is minuscule in comparison – Doubtful Sound is three times as long with ten times the surface area.

We passed predator-free Paloma Island, where I was thrilled to hear that kiwis have done so well they overpopulated it! Some had to be taken off and placed on other predator-free islands. It’s the largest island, on a lake, in NZ.

At the end of our journey across the lake, we saw the hydroelectric underground Manapōuri Power Station. We discussed the amazingly successful public outcry in 1972 when moves were afoot to raise the levels in Lake Manapōuri in the previous post. Sadly the public is no longer allowed to visit here, much to Barry’s disappointment. I didn’t even bother taking photos as I could see Barry snapping away. Check out his slideshow at the end for images of our journey across the lake and the power station. And watch the video below for the full story – it also gives some spectacular views of Doubtful Sound.

Real Journeys transport the workers to the power station, and takes them back home again. Crossing Lake Manopōuri by boat is the only option.

A Precarious Coach Journey

We left the first boat near the Manapōuri Power Station and were divided into two groups onto two coaches to cross Willmott Pass to Deep Cove in Doubtful Sound. We had a most amusing, droll driver who seriously suggested we wear fitted seatbelts. It may not save your life, he stated, but it will help to find your body. When they built this road, it was the most expensive road in the country, taking two years to build, opening in 1963. Its other claim to fame is that it’s the only road on the New Zealand mainland disconnected from the rest of the roading network.

He described some of the histories of the road and described the sphagnum moss covering the rock surfaces. Sphagnum moss was apparently used to soak the blood from wounds in the Second World War, as it also has antiseptic properties.

The Real Journeys Doubtful Sound tours operate 365 days a year. With snowploughs available to clear the road as necessary, only ‘weather accidents’ stop the trip. By that, I suspect he meant tree or rock avalanches blocking the road. It’s happened only three times in the 15 years John had been driving the coach. Halfway along the Pass, we stopped at the viewing point for our first glimpse of Deep Cove and Doubtful Sound. Breathtaking beauty.

The Fiordland Navigator

The Fiordland Navigator has been running overnight cruises on Doubtful Sound since Oct 2001. From October to May, there’s the option of an overnight cruise that we were on. The shorter days mean it’s impossible to fit in all the activities on a one-night stay, like the water activities. It really was jam-packed with amazingness. Their two-night cruises run 365 days a year.

The boat has only a 2-metre draft as it was designed for the Milford Channel, which isn’t nearly as deep. Consequently, they carry lots of lead in the hull and extra fuel and water just as ballast. The sails on it are mostly decorative. They are cosmetic only, though they add a bit of stability. There’s no keel on the boat; it’s four inches of steel plate. Other facts about it are:

  • Sleeps 72
  • Private cabins with ensuites (twin or double bed configuration) 
  • Quad-share bunk-style compartments with shared bathroom facilities (mixed gender)
  • Spacious viewing decks, dining saloon, licensed bar and observation lounge
  • Carries kayaks and tender craft onboard 

The private cabins were fully booked by the time we decided to do this, so we went for the quad-share bunk-style compartment. We’d have done this anyway as it cost $150 each less! We had no idea who we’d be sharing with yet weren’t in the least perturbed by this. We’d been successfully sharing bunk rooms with far more than two people recently!

The itinerary was extensive. Full-on yet we never felt ‘rushed’ or overwhelmed. The cuisine was plentiful, varied and delicious. The crew were delightful, each with a specialist area, but all working as a team too. We believe this reflects a special style of leadership – we noticed this aspect on all our Real Journeys experiences. If only all businesses were led in such a way.

Our bunk buddies turned out to be Ben and Jenny, who live near Glenorchy and run Dart River Adventures there in association with Ngāi Tahu Tourism. Sort of competitors of Real Journeys, where they organise jet boating and kayaking trips on the Dart River. They’d previously lived for years in Japan, where they ran similar ventures. They obviously love kayaking! They’d come away without their three sons aged two, three and five, and generously gave us the option of the two top or bottom bunks, so we weren’t looking across at a virtual stranger. As they were far younger and fitter than us, we went for the lower bunk. Our cabin was half underwater, which wasn’t an issue for us. Narrowboat Areandare’s sleeping quarters are too. 😂

The Captain And The Tender Boat

Barry soon visited the ‘control room’ and chatted amiably to the Skipper Blake frequently during our cruise. He discovered that there is no ‘wheel’ to drive. Just a knob that Blake moves around depending on the direction he wants to go (you’ll see it on his right in the last photo below). The boat has two rudders and two propellors. That’ll interest some of you reading. It means very little to me! Blake did say it makes the boat challenging to steer in the sea, especially when it’s rough. We were fortunate to have chosen a fairly calm day, and he did rather well out in the Tasman later on. The pictorial underwater maps in the control room and viewing room during the journey were amazing:

I chose the ‘tender boat’ option for the Crooked Arm’s water activities, rather than kayaking, which I was thrilled with. The sandflies were prolific, and knowing me, I’d have been swatting them and turned the kayak over! It also meant I could get some cool shots of the boat from the water. In contrast, Barry stayed and got some even better pictures of us in the boat – and the kayaks!

Fiordland Navigator 23rd March 2021

Then some crazy passengers went for a swim in the sound, jumping off the back deck. One ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ experience we thought we’d pass on!

An Eventful Evening

The three-course dinner began with two hot soup choices in the late afternoon, after the water activities. Blake then took us out to the wild Tasman Sea. Thankfully the sea was a bit choppy compared to the Sound, but apparently about as calm as it gets according to the Skipper – and he lingered longer than usual, enjoying the rare event, which we didn’t mind at all. It’s the area of the infamous and feared roaring forties.

Along the way, we saw spotted a few NZ fur seals ducking and diving – too quick to take a photo. They were ‘blobbing’ contentedly on the islets islands. I took a couple of hopeless shots, one through the binoculars. Luckily I ‘pinched’ one from e Real Journeys brochure! These fur seals are relatively safe now, no longer being hunted to near extinction by early Maori initially then sealer settlers, thank goodness.

We caught glimpses of tiny Fiordland penguins; not a chance of a photo of them.

Passengers shrieked with joy when bottlenose dolphins frolicked at the front of the vessel. Skirting the stern, swimming underneath the boat to keeping both sides entertained. Barry has a fabulous shot of one in his slideshow.

Bottle nose dolphins 🐬 come to play

Overnight At Hall Arm

After the thrill of the wildlife and open sea, Blake dropped the anchor at First Arm. By now, it was almost pitch black outside and very eerie! The next two courses as a buffet dinner were outstanding. Salads, vegetables, pasta dishes, mussels, salmon, beef, lamb, chicken. It was a challenge not to be greedy! Once all the guests were served, the crew took their turn. Whatever was remained was open for seconds. I doubt there was much left after that.

After dinner, there was a fascinatingly informative talk given in the viewing room by their nature specialist. I’d love to give his name and correct title, but it eludes me! We heard heaps of history about the area and flora and fauna. The uniqueness of the underwater life – which we’d get to experience on our next adventure on Milford Sound.

We have to thank earthquakes for New Zealand as that what raised the islands on the opposing tectonic plates. The surrounding mountains of Doubtful Sound continue to grow at about the same rate as your fingernails.

Captain Cook never ventured into Doubtful Sound – he was ‘doubtful’ that there’d be room to turn his sailing boat, so he went past and named it ‘Doubtful Sound’. How hilarious.

It was early to bed for everyone on board, in readiness for the sound of the anchor being lifted at 6.45am!

An Early Start

I woke up before 6.30 am and took the chance to shower while everyone else was sleeping. Then I went up to the front deck to watch the raising of the anchor at 6.45 am. Two nimble ladies were already there doing their morning T’ai Chi. Marvellous. The darkness was all-encompassing.

The crew work a seven days on and seven off shift pattern. There’s absolutely no internet or phone signal. Consequently, unlike other trips, you don’t see anyone sat on their phone. Well, apart from one table before dinner who were all sat playing games on theirs! We were astounded. Not young people, mind you. Now that feels like an addiction! You’re in the middle of Fiordland. Surrounded by silence. In delightful company with camaraderie galore. Yet your priority is looking at a screen! Unbelievable.

One of the crew found a tiny fish, they think a colourful type of mackerel, on the back deck that jumped on board and died overnight.

Tearful In The Presence Of Beauty

After a yummy buffet breakfast and packing our bags, the Skipper moved us expertly from our overnight mooring to Hall Arm to listen to the ‘Sound of Silence’. The scenery and reflections on the way made me tearful witnessing the magnificence of this place. This was a prime example of why I’d yearned for decades to live in NZ before my first arrival in October 2001.

Tree avalanche scars were starkly apparent.

Tree avalanche scar at Doubtful Sound

The Sound of Silence is a unique feature of this trip. Even the boat engines are cut out. Everyone is requested not to take photos or videos. To be silent and ‘be’ in the moment without distraction. It was other-worldly. Indescribable. Magical.

We captured the beauty of the place after this special time with a few couple shots. I love them! Here’s just one of them.

What a wondrous place; so many precious memories. Worth every single cent.

Te Anau Top Ten

After the cruise, we paid $86 for two nights at the Te Anau Top Ten park. I wanted to see the Fiordland film Ata Whenua, which was on locally. The NZMCA camp is way out of the town. The film was magnificent. You can watch it on iTunes – search for ‘ata whenua’. It’ll blow your mind. If you ever get an opportunity to come to Aotearoa, make this place a priority to experience:

We also went to the Te Anau bird sanctuary on Thursday 25th March (see the previous post), and in the evening, we relished our free half-hour hot spa for being Top Ten members. I had a work call, so we walked the short distance to Bao Now and dined ‘al fresco’ before logging on.

Our next destination would be Milford Sound. How would that fare in comparison? Wait and see …

Barry’s Brilliant Photos

Click on the first image to start the superb slideshow …

7 thoughts on “Feeling Tearful At Doubtful Sound

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    • Kia ora Dave. Thanks so much for that! They said it could be a mackerel. It certainly wasn’t anything like the mackerel I’ve seen in the UK! Very pretty little fish 🎣

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