No doubts about Doubtful Sound (even on a wet day)
Summer 12/13 roadie, day 6
One of life’s most appalling sounds is that of one’s alarm going off when you instinctively and to your very core know that it is way too early. It was a bit like that on New Year’s Day. We didn’t have the luxury of snoozing further as we had a two-hour-something drive south for our Doubtful Sound cruise.
The situation was not as bad as it could have been. Thoughts of this day had acted as an alcohol handbrake the night before. Also, there didn’t seem to have been any disturbances at our lodge. I had been a little concerned about this knowing it was NYE and the sort of place which attracted a younger demographic. We overheard a young woman being unwell the morning before in one of the adjacent rooms (another of life’s appalling sounds), and were expecting more of the same carnage. I wasn’t holding much hope for the young ladies on a hens night we had watched playing throw-the-hoop-over-the-plastic-penis in the carpark.
Nonetheless, we greeted the wet New Year’s Day with tired and grim demeanours. Down in Queenstown we topped up the car and while it was definitely a pie-for-breakfast sort of day, I couldn’t yet face one. Mike was made of sterner stuff.
Our route took us south and then west. It was a very quiet morning and the roads were all ours.
We made it to Manapouri, a small town (NZ’s western-most) beside its namesake lake, originally established for tourism and sustained by tourism today. Not too far away is the larger more well-known township of Te Anau, gateway to one of NZ’s flagship tourism experiences, Milford Sound.
We found the car park but given the amount of vehicles it was almost as though we were the last to arrive. However not only were we in good time to check-in, but they had a food shop with one hot mince pie left. With amazing speed I snatched it off the shelf.
I haven’t really explained the tour. Yes the Doubtful Sound cruise is less famous than its smaller more glamorous cousin over at Milford Sound, but it is very, very highly regarded in its own right. We opted for the day cruise but there’s also an overnight option. There is a uniqueness with how the tour is configured (boat-bus-boat-bus-boat) including a feature that I was really looking forward to: a stop at a hydro power station.
First up we would motor across Lake Manapouri, NZ’s second deepest lake and, just possibly, its most beautiful.
It was going to be hard to form an opinion on the latter as the weather was, shall we say, BLAH. Grey, drizzly, low cloud. Fiordland does have very high rainfall after all. But we looked at this positively, remembering what the tour commentary said when we went to Milford a few years ago: lots of rain = lots of waterfalls!
With the green light given to board, the couple hundred of us jostled on and we were soon pulling away out onto the lake.
From the sheltered outside deck we looked across to the occasional island and the hulking mist-covered silhouettes of hills and mountains lining the lake. Hard to visualise the glaciers that flowed here several thousand years ago. But easy to see the temporary waterfalls tumbling down cliff faces.
Lake Manapouri is 230m higher above sea level than Doubtful Sound. This natural differential made it a perfect place to create hydroelectricity. If extremely difficult. We pulled into the West Arm of Lake Manapouri where the top of Manapouri Power Station was visible – deceptively small on the surface
Manapouri Power Station
To get to Doubtful Sound from here at West Arm a bus ride is necessary over a road that is not connected to any other roading network. The journey takes you by the Manapouri Power Station which is integral to the story of Lake Manapouri and Doubtful Sound. We chose a cruise that included the unique side trip to this, significant because it is NZ’s largest hydro generation plant, and it is underground. I work in the industry which probably influenced my interest.
The power station was in the mountain, so guess where we needed to go? Minimal effort was required on our part with the bus taking us through the 2km long spiral tunnel. We reached the end and applauded the driver when he turned the bus around – no small feat!
The power station took eight years to build before it was commissioned in 1972 to supply electricity to the aluminium smelter at the bottom of the South Island. It stands as one of NZ’s greatest engineering achievements.
A road was needed from Doubtful Sound to deliver the heavy equipment needed for the power station. The Wilmot Pass is only 22km long but it was regarded as one of the most difficult and expensive roading constructions in the world. It took two years to build at a cost of around $2 per cm.
This was not the day to see the road at its best. Most of the time all I could see was fogged up windows but we did pile out at one point to see a waterfall. It’s an incredible climate and it has been documented that more than 500 varieties of moss and lichen grow in Fiordland. Sounds a lot but I’ll take their word for it.
We arrived at Deep Cove, so named because the depth of the water meant there was no anchorage possible to start with. This is the head of Doubtful Sound and annual rainfall here is about 50 metres per year. Blimey. We transferred to another boat.
So why ‘Doubtful’? This is down to one Captain James Cook who sighted the entrance in 1770. While keen to investigate, he wasn’t sure he’d be able to get back out to sea and dubbed it Doubtful Harbour. I bet he’s kicking himself.
Deep Cove is 40km from the open sea and the tour aims to go right the way. This wasn’t the case today as the weather was too rough so we turned around earlier, but to compensate they took us down one of the arms. Mike was up for the weather experience and went to the top open air deck a couple of times for some horizontal rain.
While visibility was poor it produced dramatic views of a different kind into Fiordland National Park, and we saw an untold number of waterfalls, the majority of which dry up when the weather clears.
It was a big day and deserving of a big post. By the time we got back to Manapouri we were knackered and glad to be staying locally. From what we could see of the town, a quiet night was going to be a pretty sure thing!