Before she put the bus in gear to head up Wilmot Pass to Doubtful Sound, our driver Cat (and she was a cool one), said
Use the toilets now because there are none on the bus and I know every pothole.
Before our hair turned grey, Magellan and I considered hiking the iconic Milford Track, New Zealand’s most famous trek, a 54-kilometre journey that 100 years ago Spectator magazine declared “the finest walk in the world,” a pronouncement that’s held true. By the time we started planning a trip to NZ, all we wanted at Milford Sound was a day hike but that plan was sidelined by a snowstorm. So we went to Doubtful Sound, Milford’s very different sidekick, as Quttinirpaaq National Park is to Banff: harder to reach, bigger, and very much quieter.
You cannot travel independently to Doubtful Sound. We parked Kohanga and took a Real Journeys/Go Orange tour that included a boat across Lake Manapōuri, a bus to the power station at the West Arm and over Wilmot Pass, and a transfer to a smaller boat into Doubtful Sound. “A day’s journey to the end of the world” as it’s described. It’s fair to say we were disappointed in not getting to Milford Sound. But as you our readers know, we try to have a good time wherever we go and on this trip we had good help.
The humour began soon after boarding the boat to go across Lake Manapōuri. Remember the cruise ship that struck an underwater rock, capsized and sank in shallow waters off an island in Italy? As we headed out, the guide assured us we were in good hands.
Your safety is assured. The captain has taken the Italian correspondence course for ship travel.
Lake Manapōuri is NZ’s deepest and prettiest with more than thirty islands and many sandy beaches. Not that we could see much of them. Rain was sheeting Kohanga’s windows earlier that Sunday morning and showed no signs of relenting. At least it wasn’t stormy; no reason to be concerned as our skipper’s helper said.
There’s no reason to panic. We’re trained to do that for you.
The foul weather continued and on the bus, Cat reminded us just how much it rains at Doubtful Sound:
We usually say it rains twice a week: the first time lasts three days and the second time lasts four days.
Doubtful Sound gets 6 metres of rain per year. Vancouver, by comparison, gets only a dribble, 146 centimetres.
We were encouraged to see the benefits of taking this trip on a rainy day.
You can always try to count the falls and cascades. In rainy weather, there are about 500!
Browne Fall (836 metres), on the Hall Arm of the fjord is the ninth highest waterfall in the world. Many aren’t named but Cleve Garth Falls, Stella Falls, Helena Falls and Alice Falls were pointed out.
Doubtful Sound is ten times the size of Milford, twice as long and the deepest fjord in NZ at 421 metres. Its name came from Captain Cook. Doubtful the winds would be sufficient to blow his ship back out to sea, he continued up the coast. Spanish explorers in 1793 were the first outsiders to explore Doubtful Sound and in subsequent centuries, only the most intrepid sailors and trampers entered its inner reaches. As one of the guides explained:
New Zealand is one of the remotest countries in the world. In fact, on average, we have about five remotes per household.
The number of earthquakes, about a thousand a year, might also scare people off. At our campsite, one registering 3.2 occurred an hour or so after midnight.
On the boat trip across the lake, we’d already been treated to a description of wildlife in the area:
New Zealand has wildlife like you see on safaris in Africa. Look at that giraffe over there on the rock face.
On a good day in Doubtful Sound you might see bottlenose dolphins, fur seals, even penguins. Cat said we’d be certain to see one animal that day: possums on the Wilmot Pass Road, as ubiquitous there as on most roads in the country.
And you know what to do when you see a possum on the road, don’t you? Drive as fast and hard as you can toward it and run it over.
An introduced species with no predators, possums are a huge problem in New Zealand. Hiking, you notice the silence—an absence of birdsong because of the country’s thirty million possums. As a zoologist explained in The Atlantic,
They chomp on wide swaths of forest, kill millions of birds and chicks a year, and go around spreading bovine tuberculosis to cows. They’ve whittled our wildlife away. Plus, they’re Australian.
The tour stops at Lake Manapōuri Power Station, the largest hydroelectric facility in the country. Built between 1963 and 1971 to supply power to an aluminum smelter, the project tunnelled 176 metres below the lake. (Trucks had to reverse out of the tunnel which took up to seven hours!) Water from the lake drops through intakes to turbines and out through a ten-kilometre tailrace. In such wilderness isolation, everything had to be shipped in. And a 22-kilometre road had to be built over Wilmot Pass—at a very high price: $2 per square metre—eight times more than expected! Or, as Cat quipped,
For you Americans, this road cost $5 for every inch so enjoy the ride.
This is the place, a decade before the Rainbow Warrior, where New Zealanders first recognised the importance of the greater environment to the country. In 1973 the government created Guardians of the Lakes, on which Les Hutchins from Real Journeys served for the next 26 years. He has since established a Conservation Foundation that distributes funds from Doubtful Sound operations toward programmes for research, protection, education and conservation.
On the way back, Cat reminded us to wear our seat belts.
They may not save your life, but they’ll help us find your body.
As our seven-hour wilderness journey came to an end, we were left with these parting words:
We’re hope you’re met with kindness and courtesy wherever you travel next in New Zealand.