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.

A Nostalgic Cruise on the TSS Earnslaw

1912.

The year the TSS Earnslaw set sail on her maiden voyage.

A twin screw steamer based on Lake Wakatipu, she is one of the oldest tourist attractions in Central Otago. It is also (according to Wikipedia) the only remaining commercial passenger-carrying coal-fired steamship in the southern hemisphere.

When we were in Central Otago earlier this year, we made a trip up to Glenorchy. In the old boat shed, there are pictures and stories about The Earnslaw. I learnt that it used to travel between Queenstown and Glenorchy, transporting sheep, cattle and passengers to the surrounding high country stations. (The road to Glenorchy wasn’t built until the 60’s)

Today, she is still cruising Lake Wakatipu, showing off the beauty of Queenstown to local and international tourists.

And so we climb aboard for a nostalgic evening cruise on the lake with Real Journeys.

Instantly I am taken back to a bygone era. We are welcomed aboard with a glass of bubbles. The decor is what I would describe as ‘old elegance’ – timber floors and walls with art nouveau styled fixtures and pictures. A band is playing and we settle into our booth seats to enjoy the experience. There is a rhythmic banging coming from the engine, combined with the water lapping at the hull of the boat, it’s all very soothing.

It’s 6pm and the sun is going down.

Fast.

I head out onto the deck to enjoy the view of The Remarkables while I can. Lights are reflecting off the water. It’s dreamy and beautiful.

The Earnslaw is coal powered and I make a stop above the engine room. It’s an open floor with a walkway suspended above so you can look down. Watching the pistons move up and down and staff shoveling coal, for a moment, I feel like I could be on the Titanic. It’s a strange thought to think both ships made their maiden voyage in 1912.

It’s a cold evening, but I head outside again and take a few moments to myself, remembering my Granddad. Knowing that he too stood on this deck warms my heart.

It’s a clear sky tonight (no wonder it’s so cold) the stars and milky way are beautiful though. I remind myself that I should really start learning about astro photography.

I really enjoyed my trip on the Earnslaw and I would certainly recommend it, but perhaps not the evening cruise. Seeing the light slip away behind the mountains and the lights reflect off the lake is lovely, but there is so much beauty in this area. Most of this cruise was in the dark. I would have been able to enjoy a lot more of the scenery on a day cruise.