Friday, 4 April 2014

Doubtful Sound- Part 1

One of our “must-dos’'’ before leaving Manapouri was to take a cruise on Doubtful Sound, David also wanted to visit the Manapouri underground Hydro Power Station. Doubtful Sound is reached by taking a boat across Lake Manapouri to West Arm where the power station is located and then being transported by bus over the Wilmot Pass and down into the Doubtful Sound deep in heart of the Fiordland National Park.

After a relaxing week at the Manapouri Motorhome Park with brilliant hot & sunny weather, we finally decided we’d better do the Doubtful Sound trip before it was time to leave for Milford. And wouldn’t you know it, the weather turned & it became overcast and cool with low cloud & passing showers. The beauty of not having a fixed itinerary is that we were able to hold off booking the cruise over the next three days while we waited for the weather to clear. Finally it looked like we had a small window of opportunity where the forecast was for fine weather followed by rain again the next day.

It rained heavy overnight but the day broke crisp & clear. We only had to drive a couple of kilometres down the road to the Real Journeys Visitor Centre located at Pearl Harbour on the lower Waiau River just below it’s outlet from Lake Manapouri. We were booked on the 8am sailing and were first in the queue (surprise, surprise) as we waited for the bus to arrive from Te Anau with the remainder of the passengers. The mid morning & early afternoon sailings are always busier as buses arrive in from Queenstown loaded with day-trippers. Our sailing was about half full so we had plenty of space to move about.

The lake was flat and calm, the water like thick oil smoothly parting as the boat glided through. Low cloud clung onto the Hunter Mountain Range with the unusual Monument spike clearly visible. A full moon was on its way west & soon dropped behind the range.

Just as the sun rose above the eastern horizon and fog settled over the village of Manapouri.

Before long we were cruising down West Arm to the wharf beside the hydro power station. Cables carrying 220,000 volts taking the power away from the switchyard were clearly visible as we approached.

We disembark and make our way into the information area and then onto the waiting buses that will transport us over the pass and into Doubtful Sound. The Wilmot Pass is New Zealand’s most expensive road at $80 per square metre & is also one of the remotest roads in NZ. The Pass is 22km long and was built in the 1960s to provide heavy equipment access for the construction of the power station. It passes through rainforest, waterfalls & towering cliffs and deep canyons. We get our first glimpse of the Sound just over the top as we start to wind our way down a very steep section of the road. The cloud hangs low but our bus driver tells us they’ll stop for a clearer view on the way back later in the morning.

We arrive on the tiny cantilevered wharf at Deep Cove (too deep for anything else) where our next boat is waiting and file on board. For such an isolated and not so easily accessible area there are a surprising amount of people about, including 40 or so children that are on a school camp at an education centre located near the wharf.

Across from the wharf at anchor is another Real Journeys boat, this is the yacht on which guests stay overnight in the Sound.

One of the staff members on board our boat was a nature guide who obviously had the experience and knowledge to locate any wildlife ahead of us as we quietly cruised down the sound. And as luck would have it one of the first birds he located was the rare & endangered Fiordland Crested Penguin. He was a very long way in front of the boat, just a ripple on the water and disappeared below soon after being spotted but I managed to zoom in & grab a shot that at least shows he was what he was meant to be. Another bird to add to my list. Only a small percentage of the cruises get to see a Crested Penguin.

Doubtful Sound is the second largest fiord of the 14 fiords located in the Fiordland National Park and is in the heart of a designated World Heritage Area. Deep Cove at the head of the fiord is 40kms from the sea. Doubtful is three times longer than Milford Sound and has a surface area 10 times larger. The fiord is 430m deep at it’s maximum, it is remote, wild & imposing and the scenery is stunning with the sheer sides of the mountains draped in cloud and climbing dramatically straight out of the water.

Before long we could see the entrance at the far end of the Sound.

And then to everyone’s excitement the call went out “dolphins ahead!” I had positioned myself at the bow of the boat with a couple of other hardy souls for most of the journey so far (it was very brisk) when suddenly we were swamped with people jockeying for a good position to see them. I held fast and got a good view of the mothers & calves playing and riding our bow waves & racing up and down the tunnel between the catamaran hulls; “Bugger if I am going to move” I thought. “I have earnt my spot!”. This pod of dolphins are resident in Doubtful Sound but hadn't been seen for a couple of weeks so again we were on the “lucky” cruise.

Ahead of us just outside the entrance was a rock looking like a large cupcake sprinkled with currants. As we got closer the currants started moving & revealed themselves to be dozens of seals, mostly pups that had been left on their own for the day while their mothers were away feeding.

The skipper eased the boat out into the rolling ocean swell so we could our first look at the West Coast before carefully turning and returning to the the sheltered waters of the fiord. Away in the distance we spotted a cruise ship making it’s way up from the bottom of the South Island, we later saw it inside the fiord.

To give you a sense of scale; a large launch (white dot) can be seen to the left of the entrance

To be continued.......Part 2

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