Today we spent the day in Fiordlands National Park visiting Doubtful Sound. According to Maori legend, the demi-god Tu-te-raki carved out the fiords with his adze, Te Hamo. Doubtful is the second largest of the fiords and is not as carved out by glaciation as some of the other fiords, since its sloping hillsides put up greater resistance. In keeping with the bulk of the Fiordlands, it is also fairly inaccessible. Getting to Doubtful requires a boat ride and then a bus ride along a landlocked road.
We started our trip to Doubtful Sound in the morning, with a boat ride across Lake Manapouri. Lake Manapouri is a beautiful glacial lake. In keeping with glacial lakes in this part of the country, the water is so clear and you can see quite deep. We staked out a place for ourselves on the covered deck and enjoyed the passing scenery as we headed 45 minutes west across the lake to West Arm.
West Arm is the site of New Zealand’s largest hydroelectric power plant, the West Arm Underground Power Station. It was built in the 1950’s & 1960’s to provide power for a huge aluminum smelter in Bluff, on the southern tip of the South Island. When the power station was completed, they determined that it couldn’t produce the amount of power necessary unless they raised the lake level 30 meters. This would have meant wiping out huge swaths of the local environment, created one super lake out of both Lake Te Anau & Lake Manapouri, and flooded the bulk of the towns of Manapouri and Te Anau.
This controversy gave birth to the Save Manapouri environmental campaign in the 1960’s, which galvanized the fledgling environmental movement in New Zealand. In 1970, a petition against raising the lake levels, with almost 265,000 signatures (10% of the NZ population), was presented to the Manapouri Commission of Inquiry. The argument became political in the 1972 election year, where the Labor party promised never to raise the lake levels and the Conservative party promised only to do so if necessary. That year Labor won the election with an overwhelming majority. True to their word, they created an independent body to monitor the management of the lake levels, a committee which still exists today. The lake levels remained the same and it turns out that level did generate the necessary power.
We arrived in West Arm, and boarded a bus for the power station. We drove down a huge spiral tunnel into the mountain. When we entered the power station, all I could think was that we had just walked into the secluded lair of a villain in a James Bond movie. Next up, Kyle and I (um, I mean 007) had to destroy the power station before the villain destroys the world. We had great fun in there!
And on the way out of the power station, we saw this sign along the walkway, which aptly summed up our time there.
After our quick stop to see the power station, we headed out on our 45 minute bus ride to Doubtful Sound. The road we took is only accessible by boat, from either Lake Manapouri or from Doubtful Sound. It was build in the 1950’s in order to get the necessary building supplies to the power station. It is 22km long and, at the time it was built, cost $2 per centimeter of road. The road winds through Spey valley, past thick bush, rushing rivers, and waterfalls, and then climbs up to cross over Wilmot Pass, where we got our first glimpse of Doubtful Sound. She didn’t disappoint, with her clouds and her moodiness. From Wilmot Pass it was a short drive down to the dock at Deep Cove, where we transferred to our boat for a 3 hour cruise of the sound.
Doubtful Sound is the deepest of the fiords, at 421 meters. She has three beautiful and distinct arms and breathtaking rainforest that comes down rounded hills right to the water. Many of the trees and plants are growing on mosses that have attached themselves to the granite hills. Treefalls are common when the mosses detach and everything tumbles into the water.
We spent hours cruising in and out of arms of the fiord, marveling at the amazing scenery. As we approached the head of the fiord and the Tasman Sea, the water got choppier and the surge picked up. The wind blew off my hat as I stood on the upper deck. It landed on the roof of the lower deck and hung on there for a bit before the wind took it and blew it into the water….my own personal sacrifice to the gods of the Fiordlands.
Soon, it was time to head back. But first, the captain turned off all the motors and the engine on the boat and we all sat in silence for several minutes and listened to the wind and the waves as our boat drifted along. It was a magical moment.
On our way back, we were lucky enough to see Doubtful Sound’s resident pod of bottlenose dolphins. The bottlenose dolphins here are living at the edge of their ecological range. They are slightly larger than their cousins who live elsewhere. We watched them feeding along the shoreline and playing in the waves from our boat. It was a fun end to our time in the fiord.
From Doubtful Sound, you get back to Manapouri the same way you got here. Back on the bus to cross over Wilmot Pass to West Arm, and then back on another boat to head back across the lake to Manapouri. As we waited in West Arm for our boat, the sandflies tried to eat us alive and we watched a Kea (alpine parrot) try to get into the trash and a few backpacks that were waiting for our boat.
Since it was a prime number day, we enjoyed a beer on our cruise back across the lake. It was also the first time we were inside all day. We were exhausted from the wind and the motion of the boat, but it was the good kind of tired.
Tomorrow, we head to Milford to experience a different kind of fiord. Can’t wait to see how Milford and Doubtful differ.