Doubtful Sound Tour – Day 3

My alarm goes off at 6:30am. I’m trying to decide if this was a good idea. I don’t think it’s raining, it’s starting to get light outside, but I don’t think I have missed the sun coming over the mountains just yet.

Yep, I’m going to do it. I get out of bed, throw on several layers of clothes, grab my camera and head out on deck to see who else has decided this is a good idea. Who knows when or if I will be here again, I want to see the day in.

The boat is still anchored, the morning is still and quiet. It is of course cold and fresh, but the lighting is simply stunning.

What a magical morning.

I stay outside for ages, a few people join me and we all wear a secret smile. Those of us who have been willing to endure the inconvenience of getting up early and face the cold have seen a perfect morning come into being. It’s a shame so many others missed out on this in favour of a warm bed and sleep in, something they can have on so many other mornings.

I watch the anchor be drawn up out of the black water. The sun is now tinting the clouds gold and the sea is mirroring the snow dusted mountains. Over the speakers, the Captain starts playing “Here comes the sun”. What a way to start the day.

I remain outside for as long as I can before heading back inside to defrost. It’s not long though before I am back out on deck. There are more people here now and we are joined by our nature guide. As we approach a small island, she points out a penguin. It’s another Fiordland Crested Penguin. I feel quite privileged to have seen 2 on this trip. I don’t have my zoom lens on me, so instead of rushing back inside to grab it, I take memory photos and enjoy the moment.

It is sitting on the rocks, just under the tree line. We get to watch it for quite some time, dipping its webbed feet into the water, looks around, sussing out the environment. With a quick graceful manoeuvre it slips into the water. I see it just below the surface of the water for a couple of seconds, then it’s gone.

Breakfast is next on the agenda. After a hot meal and a cup of tea, I have regained the feelings in my fingers. The Milford Mariner has taken us into Hall Arm this morning and we are surrounded by huge snow covered peaks. We learn that the rounded peaks would have been under the glacier. Most are rounded, very few are jagged. Looking around you get a sense of how massive the glaciers here were. Some of the rounded peaks are 1400m high!

We explore all the way up into the arm and then the Milford Marina parks up in the cove. The crew turn off the engine and the generator and we sit there in silence. Birds, waterfalls, that’s it. No other sounds. How rare and special it is to experience so much remoteness.

As the Milford Mariner slowly drifts around, the sun comes out. I can feel it on my face. Complete stillness and peacefulness, I even start to feel warm.

We begin making our way back to Deep Cover, the tour is nearly complete.On the way back, the crew raise the sails. There is barely any wind, they are just for show, but it’s still great to see. We dock and depart the vessel that has been home for the last 22 hours. The crew were amazing, so friendly, knowledgeable and went out of their way to make it a memorable experience. Despite the trip being cut short due to the weather, we still had a really rich experience. I feel like we have journeyed to the end of the earth.

Back in Te Anau, we have lunch at Sandfly Cafe. We sit outside in the sun, reflecting on the epic adventure we just had. It’s another scenic drive back to Queenstown through green pastures, snow capped mountains and vast lands of dry tussocks. We have some time before our flight, so we make a detour to Kingston. It’s a small town, right at the bottom of Lake Wakatipu. We have never been here before, but have driven past a few times. It always seems to be drenched in sunshine. We take a look at the Kingston Flyer, a vintage steam train that used to connect Kingston and Invercargill, before heading down to the lake for a short walk.

A woman is coming off the lake with her dog and paddle board. The water is so still, and there are just the sounds of nature. I quickly slip into fantasy mode dreaming about living here. What would it be like to live in this little slice of paradise with it’s relaxed lifestyle and space for our dogs to roam.

But the dreaming must come to an end, so we head to the airport to wait for our flight. Our flight is delayed, so we treat ourselves to an ice cream (and some sneaky chocolates I don’t tell Daniel about) from Patagonia Chocolates.

An overnight tour in Doubtful Sound has been plastered to my fridge on my bucket list for a number of years. It was such an incredible experience and was all I had hoped it would be. I think this tour should be on everyone’s bucket list.

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Doubtful Sound Tour – Day 2

Today I wake up to patches of blue sky and no rain or wind. I am disappointed I am not waking up onboard the Milford Marina but today is Doubtful Sound tour take 2 and so far it is looking promising.

Aside from getting a discount on the price, Real Journeys are also starting the tour a couple of hours earlier so we can get out on the water sooner. From what I saw yesterday, I know this tour is going to be great!

Today is such a a different day. The lake is still. The day is peaceful. We are ready for the adventure to begin. We check in and I take a few minutes to look around at the other passengers, there are a lot here I recognise from yesterday. (I later learn that 30 of the original 36 people took up the 1 night offer, it’s great to see so many people here.)

We board the boat to take us across Lake Manapouri. We all started bonding yesterday so today as the tour begins we can pick up where we left off. Its pretty cool again outside on deck but the views are much clearer. Snow is on the mountains and I can see channels twisting down the sides of the mountains, scars from yesterday’s plentiful waterfalls, I imagine. Fiordland has a changeable climate. There are only 3 or 4 permanent waterfalls in Doubtful Sound, all the rest come and go with the weather, sometimes appearing as little as 30 minutes after rainfall and drying up just as quickly when it stops raining.

The coach ride over is just as beautiful as yesterday and this time when we stop for the views, we can actually see them! Including our first glimpse of Doubtful Sound.

We arrive in Deep Cove and prepare to board the Milford Marina. It’s such a great feeling to stepping onto the boat after yesterday’s drama.

We are warmly welcomed by the crew and seated in the dining room to go over house keeping, Covid rules and then get shown to our cabins. The rooms are small, but they are tidy, comfortable and have everything we need, including a private bathroom. We have a small, high, window, we are quite low in the boat and look out about 0.5 meters above sea level.

Once unpacked (and welcome chocolate eaten) we head back to the dining room for lunch and to get acquainted with our table companions. The Captain wastes no time setting sail and before long we are full steam ahead, venturing out into the Sound. After a delicious lunch, I head outside to take some photos. The first thing I notice is how quiet it is. I love real silence, I find it so energizing. In our busy city life there are few opportunities for it.

Our journey takes us all the way up to the end of Crooked Arm. It’s the perfect spot for some water sports. We have the option of going out in kayaks or a tender craft. Daniel and I choose the kayaks (We are happy to see all the kayaks are single, no double kayak for us today.) We have perfect weather for paddling too. The rain is holding off, there is no wind and the water is so flat and still. In one of the wettest places in the world, I can’t believe our luck! Kayaking in this stillness is food for the soul. I am at the back of the pack because I keep stopping to just look around and soak it all in.

I paddle up to a waterfall and look up. The sheer size of the mountains is captivating, but what takes my breath away is watching the water droplets falling. Its like everything else around me has stopped as I watch each individual drop falling towards me in slow motion. It was such a spiritual experience. A simple moment that was so peaceful. One that I will remember for a long time.

We continue paddling around the edge next to the mountains. The rock is black and looks so solid, it amazes me how plants can grow here. But grow they do. There is such a variety of plants, trees, shrubs and mosses. Layers and layers of textures and shades of green. I also note how black the water appears to be. I later learn that this is from all the tannin that runs off the mountains straight into the sea. So much rain water runs down the mountain in fact, there is always a layer of fresh water sitting on top of the salt water. Our guide reckons there is currently about 4-5 meters of fresh water sitting on top. How incredible is that? I have never heard of anything like that before. And because of this unique layering, deep sea creatures and plants can be found much closer to the surface because it tricks them into thinking they are much deeper than they are.

As usual, when I am out in nature, I get lost in my thoughts and in awe at how marvelous creation is. So I am in that state when I hear our guide say ‘Lets just keep our distance from the seal’ “hmm, what seal?” Then I notice a little head popping out of the water only a couple of meters away. It looks around for a bit and then slips gracefully into the water.

How wonderful.

Our time for kayaking has ended and we all make our way back to the boat. For those who are brave, it’s now time for the ‘polar swim.’ Am I one of those brave ones? You bet I am. I know it will be cold, but when am I going to get another chance at this? There are 5 of us that take up the challenge. The only way to do it is to jump.

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I plunge into the water. My first thought is, ‘this isn’t as cold as I was expecting’ and this water is really brown!’ Then I surface and try to take my first breath and that is when the cold hits. Even swimming the couple of meters back to the boat was a real effort. And just because I am a bit of a nutter, I jumped back in a second time, just to make sure I got it on camera! I can now officially say I have swum in Doubtful Sound, I reckon that’s pretty cool!

I then head straight to the shower to warm up. For the first few minutes I can’t even tell if the shower water is hot or cold. I am that numb! But the feelings slowly return and after a hot drink in the dining room I am back at human temperature. I wrap up warm and head back outside. The Milford Marina is heading out to the Tasman Sea, I don;t want to miss this. We make a couple of stops along the way to see the seal colony and are lucky enough to spot a Fiordland Crested Penguin.

As we get closer to the Tasman Sea, the swell gets bigger. One of the crew members tells us they haven’t been out here in a while as the weather hasn’t been good enough so we are pretty lucky! The boat is rocking up and down, side to side. I almost feel like I am on a ride in an amusement park! We are all holding on tight. I feel the boat rise, then pause for a second while I wait for the fall and the feeling of leaving my stomach up in the sky as the boat crashes down into the waves. Then it repeats again and again. I am lucky to be pretty tolerant of motion sickness! But also, this is pretty awesome. We even see an albatross, gliding above the ocean.

Daylight is fading and the lighting is beautiful. As we make our way back into the Sound, we watch the sun slip behind an island. We find a quiet place to dock for the night in a sheltered cove. After enjoying another delicious meal and table chats with the other passengers, we head to the saloon with a generous helping of dessert to watch a presentation from the onboard nature guide. This is quite a spectacular place with an amazing and unique eco system. I fall asleep listening the the gentle hum of the generator, thankful for all the amazing experiences of the day.

Doubtful Sound Tour – Day 1.

Our picturesque views of snow capped mountains and still lakes has been replaced with horizontal rain and mist. No spontaneous helicopter ride today then, our wallets will be happy about that!

We head down to the dining room for a leisurely breakfast. I enjoy being able to watch a good storm when there is a roof over my head. From the large, panoramic windows we watch the day unfold. I am slightly nervous about the weather. Today we depart on a 2 night boat cruise in Doubtful Sound – an activity that has been plastered to my fridge on my bucket list wish list for the last few years. I am hopeful that it will all be OK and we will be rewarded with epic waterfalls from the amount of rain that is falling.

We make our way to Manapouri and stop at the little Manapouri store. It seems to be the town’s one stop shop. It’s a cafe, fish & chippy, dairy, general store and post office. We order some lunch and eat at the table while listening to the thunder storm rolling in. When we went to Milford Sound there was a thunderstorm. It was an amazing experience so I am still hopeful that all is still well with our trip.

We check in at Real Journeys and I take a look around at the other people who will be our fellow travelers for the trip. We always like meeting new people on these types of experiences. We board the boat that will take us across Lake Manapouri. To get to Doubtful Sound, you first have to cross Lake Manapouri and then take a coach across Wilmot Pass. All up, its around 2 hours of travel.

The ferry has large viewing windows and again we can watch the wild weather from the warmth of the boat. The engine makes a rumbling sound and then we are off. I actually head outside for a bit (I know, a bit crazy, but it’s covered and I enjoy inhaling the fresh, cool air.) It’s not actually as cold as I had expected, but when I move to the railing I get hit with the full force of the weather. Lucky the Captain had warned us about removing our hats first or I would have lost mine!

There are lots of little islands dotted about the place, they create layers of silhouettes. The close by islands look lush and green, the others fading into the distance. I wonder what lies beyond what the eye can see?

Our Captain provides some interesting commentary along the journey. There are 33 islands in Lake Manapouri. At 444m deep, it is the second deepest lake in NZ (Lake Hauroko is the deepest at 462m and is also found in Fiordland) Fiordland is also one of the wettest places in the world. As I watch rain flying horizontally across the land and then hit me in the face, I believe it!

As we approach the shore, waterfalls are everywhere, white lines twisting their way down the mountains. The Manapouri Powerstation is located here. It is the largest in New Zealand. A tour used to be included in the Doubtful Sound trip, they would take you on a bus deep underground. While the station is still in operation, the tours are no longer running due to Health & Safety reasons. You can still see the exterior of it though.

Our boat docks and we all make our way into the West Arm Visitor’s Centre. There is a lot of information in here about the history, marine life, and a detailed model of the power station which is rather impressive when you see what is going on under the ground.

We board the coaches, it’s an hours drive to get to Deep Cove where we will board the boat for our 2 night cruise. Rain is pelting down but our driver tells us he has just done a test run out to Deep Cove and the road was clear, but, it can change very quickly.

I think this has to be the most stunning coach ride I have ever done. The forest is unbelievably lush and so green. I am loving the colours, every shade of green you could imagine, layers upon layers of different textures and shades.

Our coach driver shares some interesting commentary on the trip. The road we are driving on is New Zealand’s most expensive road, at the time of construction (1960’s), it cost $3.00 per cm and the road is 22km long. Fiordland is New Zealand’s largest National Park, and as mentioned, it is very wet. In 1983 there was 17m of rain.

From my window I watch large waterfalls pouring down the cliffs. Trees are gnarled and dripping in moss. It feels like a ‘lost world’. If a Brontosaurus was to step out of the forest, it wouldn’t seem out of place here.

I am in love with this place.

And then the driver says 2 words that you don’t want to hear:

“Oh no”

I look out the front window to see the road washed out by a waterfall. We all clamber out of the coach to take a closer look. Our hearts all sink as we realise there is no way we are going to be crossing it. It is so disappointing, we are only 15 minutes from the Milford Marina, our floating accommodation for our 2 night adventure. We all climb back in the bus to head back. Somehow our driver manages to turn the bus around on a road barely wide than the bus itself. We are all pretty impressed with how he manages to navigate that!

The mood on the coach has changed. The excited chatter from before has dulled with families now discussing what they are going to do. There is no reception out here so we can’t even start looking for accommodation.

It’s a long wait for the ferry at the visitors center. We still have no reception, so I take the time to look around the center and read up on all the information. In the back of my mind I am wondering what we will do. Maybe head to Queenstown and enjoy the last 2 days of our holiday there? I step outside under the porch and watch the lightening flash and light up the sky, the booming thunder is so impressive.

On our way back to Manapouri, the Captain announces our 3 options: Get a full refund, rebook for another date, or, if they get 15 people, they will run a 1 night tour departing tomorrow at half the price of the 2 night tour. We decide to go for the 1 night tour, this is what we came here for and it’s quite a remote part of the country, it will take quite a bit of effort to get down here again.

The Real Journeys team were really helpful, booking us accommodation for the night. Now we just have to wait for a call from them to confirm they have enough people so the tour can go ahead. We settle into our hotel, it’s quite a change from the luxury lodge we had been staying at, but it’s warm and comfortable.

Our tour is confirmed so we decide to head out for a nice meal at The Fat Duck in Te Anau. If you are down this way, I highly recommend them. Great food and great service. Just what we needed after a long travel day where we ended back up at the start.

Tranquil lakes, lush forest and total R&R

I wake up to views out across Lake Te Anau looking so flat and tranquil. Behind it, a snow dusted mountain range with golden hues from the morning sun. Dawn’s chorus is playing, including some songs that I am not familiar with, perhaps a bellbird.

How lovely is this place?

I pop outside to go for a little wander and come across a couple of private hot tubs with exceptional views. I will certainly be coming back here later this afternoon for a soak.

The sky is blue at the moment but there are big black clouds looming in the distance, I am not worried though, Fiordland is one of those places that are truly remarkable in the rain, but for now, I will enjoy the stillness and the sun.

Heading back to our room, I stop to look at the artwork and old photos around the place depicting the area in times gone by. Some are not even that old, but there has been huge transformation. Fiordland is a very remote place, a lot of it wouldn’t have been that accessible too long ago.

Breakfast is enjoyed in the hotel restaurant next to the huge glass windows looking out across the landscape, including the Murchison Mountains where the thought to be extinct Takahe were rediscovered in 1948. Over breakfast we spend time chatting to the owner Andy about the history of the lodge, recommendations of things to do in the area and the impact Covid has had on the business. He is warm and friendly and we talk for quite a long time. It takes a special sort of person to run a place like this. Not everyone is gifted with that level of care and hospitality.

We decide to head out towards Milford Sound today and stop a various points of interest along the way. We make our way along State Highway 94, the same one I wrote about 2 posts ago in Memorable Moments of Te Waipounamu. I know I said in this post how beautiful it was and really worth the drive but I had forgotten just how stunning and breathtaking it is – I was delighted and surprised all over again. There is fresh snow on the mountains and lush green pastures. I get that same great feeling of just how awesome nature is. We stop in the area where dry grassy fields meet huge mountains. We stopped here last time (around 10 years ago) and I just had to get some more pictures.

We then make a stop at Mirror Lakes. I’m not sure I would really call it a lake, more of a pond or wetland, but regardless, the reflections are incredible. It is only a short walk from the road, an absolute must to stop at. I love how remote this part of the country is and having just come out of a lock down, we pretty much have the place to ourselves.

We carry on to Cascade Nature Walk. I saw a picture of this walk in a magazine at the lodge. With vibrant green forest dripping in moss, I knew we needed to come here. And it doesn’t disappoint. The moss is everywhere, on the ground, all over the tree trunks and branches. Everywhere you look is vibrant and green. There are predominantly Beech trees here and the forest has a very old feeling to it, like it carries secrets of times long ago. The only unusual thing I noticed was the lack of bird song. It is meant to be a nature walk and while we heard the odd bird, it wasn’t the melodic chorus I was expecting.

We head further a long State Highway 94 but can’t get all the way to Milford (although that wasn’t the plan) as the road is closed. This is a regular occurrence so if you are making a trip to Milford, be sure to check if the road is open before setting off. We make a stop at the entrance to Routeburn Track and head along the path for 5-10 minutes before heading back (Lunch in Te Anau is calling) Routeburn track is a 3 day hike through Fiordland and is one of Aotearoa’s Great Walks. I am yet to get into hiking but I think it’s something I would like to do!

Back in Te Anau, I find the town to be a ‘quiet sleepy’ place. All the blossoms are out though and it looks so pretty. We had planned to go to the Vintage Machinery Museum after lunch, but it is closed. Never mind. There is a very sweet little old school house on the grounds that I just have to photograph so it wasn’t a wasted trip.

We head back to the lodge to relax with a book and the open candy bar. Yes, you read that right, I am in sugar heaven! It’s then time for the hot tube with some exceptional views. The water is warm and relaxing. There is a cool breeze, but this mostly goes unnoticed as I soak in the beauty around us.

Early evening we head to the local cinema to watch a short film Andy had recommended at breakfast. It’s called Ata Whenua Shadowland and plays a couple of times daily. We have the cinema to ourselves, with a glass of wine and spend the next 30 minutes completely in awe. The film explores Fiordland through the seasons by aerial view with informative commentary. We leave wanting to book a helicopter flight so we can see more of this extraordinary place. (Conveniently, there is a helicopter tour company right next door to Fiordland Lodge where we are staying)

Our night concludes with a game of darts over wine and canapes. Daniel wins and I manage to get a dart into the carpet. This is followed by a lovely dinner as we watch the fading light. As we head back to our room, I make a quick stop at the candy bar.

Gateway to the Fiords

We hit the runway with a bang.

I have been on bumpy flights before, this wasn’t one of those, we just made contact with the ground with considerable force. Enough that it gave most of the passengers a fright.

“Ah, apologies for rattling all you folks with that landing, I don’t really have an explanation for it, so we will just blame it on covid.” The captains announcement gets a few laughs from the slightly startled passengers.

Today we are heading off on a little adventure I booked back in February when I thought covid was behind us. I have been looking forward to this for a long time, diligently putting money away each week. However, for the last 3 weeks, we weren’t even sure we would be able to go. Sitting on the plane, prepping for take off, it is all a little surreal, given that only 3 days ago we were in a lockdown.

All the passengers are wearing masks, it’s mandatory now to wear masks in public. Social distancing is also required. As I look around the plane at all the people, I wonder if life will ever look like our pre-covid days again. We are social creatures. We are not made for isolation.

I look out my window at the clouds. They look like big fluffy marshmallows. Like a plush, soft duvet and I just want to wrap myself in it an take a nap.

It has been a busy year with work and home renovations. I also took the majority of my leave in the first few months of the year when the weather was better, so It’s been a long time since I have had a proper break. I am looking forward to disconnecting from city life and technology and recharging my batteries by submerging myself in nature and a good book. Everyone needs this now and again.

We pick up our rental car, but before heading south, there is one stop I want to make.

Balls and Bangles.

It was closed when we were here last, so I am excited to finally get here. My bagel is great. Simple. Fresh. Done well. That’s how it should be. But the main event, donuts! OMG, the range is amazing. Daniel points out a simple cream filled one on the top counter and suggests I get that, ‘ah, no Daniel!’

This is what I am here for.

The choice was a difficult one, but I settle on a salted caramel, chocolate brownie donut to take away. (I will nibble at it in the car once I have given the bagel time to go down.)

With my donut safely stowed away, we begin the 2 hour trip South. We are heading to Te Anau. We pass The Remarkables with their peaks engulfed in cloud. They are, majestic, as always. Our route actually takes us quite close to the base of the range. I have only really seen it before from across the lake. Up close, they are just as spectacular, you get a real sense of the scale and I am intrigued by how black the rock is.

The rest of the drive is spent enjoying my sugar overloaded donut (so good) and the gorgeous scenery. There really is no limit to the inspiring beauty of the land in this area. I am pretty sure Central Otago it is my favorite place in all of New Zealand. Although, we are not staying in Otago, we are heading deep in to the south, to The Southland Region.

We arrive at Fiordland Lodge. Perched up on the hill, it has uninterrupted views out across Lake Te Anau and the mountain rage behind it. It’s raining, but the views and location are so perfect that it really doesn’t matter. We enter through the grand doors and step into what I would describe as a luxurious log cabin – timber walls, floors and ceilings. It exudes warmth and elegance. Soft, plush, blankets and cushions drape across the sofas, the huge, river stone fireplace sits in the heart of the lounge and very high, floor to ceiling windows brings the outside in. Yes, this is the perfect place to relax and explore the heart of Fiordland.

After getting a warm welcome and a tour of the property by our friendly host, Cristina, we make our way back down stairs to the lounge. I snuggle up by the fire with my book and Daniel wastes no time relaxing into holiday mode with a glass of local pinot noir. How easy it is to sit back, relax, and watch the world roll by here.

There is a break in the rain so I pop outside to listen to the birds, enjoy the stillness and breath in the fresh clean air. I can’t wait to see more.

Are you ready to come explore Fiordland with me?