Doubtful Sound

The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only a page.

Saint Augustine

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Milford tour canceled

What a day. We woke up at 6 o’clock in the morning, a bit earlier than what was becoming our usual time, because we were nervous about our Milford Sound plans. The weather was quite unsettled all night. We heard the wind and debris from nearby trees pelting our campervan throughout the night. Down at our elevation it was raining a lot, so we thought maybe the snow forecast wouldn’t be as much as was predicted. However, we know that the weather at higher elevations and along the Milford Road was likely very different.

After breakfast we went straight to reception at 8 AM, when they opened. At first there was no report, so we had one last hope that Milford would be open, but the receptionist told us less than a minute later that Milford Road was closed all of Saturday because of the snow and possible avalanches. Trip canceled. It was a bit of a bummer, of course, but we had little time to be disappointed because we had a good plan B.

We immediately drove down to downtown Te Anau and rushed into the Southern Discoveries office, where Marie, the kind receptionist from the day before, was already working. She re-booked us on Real Journeys’ Doubtful Sound tour while simultaneously giving us a refund for the canceled Milford trip. (The Doubtful Sound trip was more expensive than the Milford trip, but at least we wouldn’t be losing all the money we paid in advance for the Milford tour.) She worked really quickly, and told us that we had claimed 3 of 11 empty spots on the Doubtful Sound tour. In one sense, though we knew we would be missing out on all Milford entailed—Milford Road, Milford Sound, Mirror Lakes, and Mitre Peak, and perhaps more or different wildlife—but in another sense, we wouldn’t ever know what we’d be missing. (Just another reason to re-visit New Zealand!) The Canadians we had met at the campground had a more flexible schedule than us, so we figured they would stay another day and try again tomorrow, as they had told us the day before.

Marie had told us it was too late to order lunch with our cruise, but we had plenty of groceries in our campervan fridge, so we made pastrami and cheese sandwiches on the go, threw in some apples, chips, and bottles of water, and we had our our packed lunch ready. Coffee and tea were free on board.

Doubtful Sound

And it turned out that Doubtful Sound was amazing!

The trip to Doubtful Sound is split into three legs. First, you must take a ferry across Lake Manapouri from Pearl Harbor (same name as the place in Hawaii, oddly enough). Second, you must cross Wilmot Pass—22 kilometers of snow-covered mountainous rainforest. And finally, the cruise on Doubtful Sound and its many arms and inlets. It’s pretty much as remote as you can get in New Zealand and still be on a tour.

On our cruise, we met a father and daughter from Brisbane, Australia, Sailor and Alana  (although we are not sure of the spelling of their names, that is what they sounded like). They were friendly companions at our table, and we talked to them on and off throughout the cruise. Alana was also helpful when we wanted pictures of the three of us. It had sounded like they had traveled a lot of the world, and hopping over to New Zealand for a week or weekend seemed like no big deal to them.

Lake Manapouri, the first leg, is almost a proto-fiord. The lake is quite scenic, filled with islands and surrounded by many peaks. The mist and fog made the peaks mysterious. Everything looks layered or flat in the fog, but when we started to look closely, or the boat got closer, individual trees and shapes appeared. In that way it was an eerie, ancient, but enchanting landscape.

Crossing the lake took a good hour and a half. We disembarked at a loading station for the coach, from which we could cross Wilmot Pass. The entire road up there exists primarily for a power station for Manapouri and Te Anau, and thus is a private road, but Real Journeys pays to use it. The bus drive rattled off some astronomical numbers for the cost of the road, which was a stunning drive that winds up and down through an ancient beech forest. There are predominantly two varieties of beech and lots of ferns and moss, too. It looks like a scene out of Jurassic Park. Again, the combination of the rainforest and the bluish-green layered peaks and folds in the mountains had a very eerie but beautiful effect.

The trees twist together and almost look like one giant organism; it’s hard to see where one tree ends and another begins. The forest seems so ancient and untouched. In fact, that is what we were told: Fiordland looks much like it did when the first European explorers came. Not much has changed (except for the addition of the road and power station).

At the climax of Wilmot Pass, there was about seven inches of snow, which sat in clumps on the branches of the trees like white fruit. The drive let us out a few times to take pictures and slowed down at scenic outlooks—the most spectacular of which was our first sight of Doubtful Sound, grey and mysterious hundreds of feet below.

The boat ride on Doubtful Sound was a real treat. We all felt like a maniacs taking photos. Turn after turn, new vistas opened up. Islands that resembled turtles appeared. And rainbows, rainbows, rainbows. We at one point saw a crested penguin on a rock near the opening to the Tasman Sea. Apparently crested penguins are a pretty rare to see, so we got lucky. We also saw fur seals and plenty of birds. We had hoped to see some dolphins, perhaps, but they did not come out to play.

By the way, if you’re wondering why it’s called Doubtful Sound, Captain James Cook doubted he could navigate in and out of the fiord safely, because the passage was deceptively narrow. That’s another thing, technically it’s not a sound at all, but a fiord. (Incidentally, William was reminded that as of this day, he has been in Captain James Cook’s hometown of Whitby, England, and in a place he came to in New Zealand: Doubtful Sound, though he went to many other places in New Zealand as well.)

At one point, the captain went deep into one of the canyon-like arms of the fiord and turned off the engine and asked all aboard to be completely silent and to take no photos. And we just listened, listened to the sound of the sound—the waterfalls and birds and still waters of the fiord. No human intervention. It was wonderful. Nature as pure and remote as you can find it—and hear it!

Most of the waterfalls are are like white, thin cracks in the mountain sides. At another point, the boat went right under a waterfall. Philip and Jessica caught water in paper cups they provided. William stayed on the upper deck as to not get his camera equipment wet. There are a lot of tannins in the water because of the roots of the trees—like the Tahquamenon Falls back in Michigan—which makes it brownish.

One cool thing we learned is that there are such things as tree avalanches. These trees cling to the steep sides of the fiord with interlocking root systems, but sometimes (dead) trees give way and fall, taking all the trees below them in their path.

In the end, it’s hard to summarize an our nearly eight-hour journey to Doubtful Sound and back on a cruise-coach-cruise, but Fiordland is definitely a magical place. It’s hard not to use the M-word. We left with no question of why this is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. We never even had time to be disappointed about Milford. This place definitely speaks of the absolute majesty of our God!

Back in Te Anau for the night, we made ramen noodles, chicken sandwiches, and apples for dinner—and more L&P. Yum. We also journaled again and took showers. We did do a few star pictures down by the lake shore before retiring for the night, but it was very cold, so we could only do it so long.

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