For weeks, we had been looking forward to our full-day Doubtful Sound tour. The Doubtful Sound is part of the Fjordland National Park – a huge park occupying most of the southwest part of New Zealand’s southern island. Huge mountains have glacier-carved valleys which are now occupied by lakes or or water from the seas. The mountains are covered with rainforests in the summer, and snow in the winter. The waters to the sea are usually filled with marine life, penguin, dolphins, and occasionally whales. Waterfalls are seen nearly everywhere since the area gets great quantities of rain – usually raining two out of every three days.
We reorganized our trip according to the weather in order to increase the chances of good weather on our Doubtful Sound tour. The weather forecasters had shown a high pressure system moving in the area a week later than our original plan. So, we went to Stewart Island first. Our bet on that forecast paid off. We had great weather during our Doubtful Sound tour! It was sunny most of the day, and never rained!
The full-day tour of Doubtful Sound is comprised of three main phases: Part 1 has you riding on a boat to the other end of Lake Manapouri. Part 2 has you visiting the huge hydro electric plant at the other end of Lake Manapouri and then take a bus over a steep road to the other side of a mountain to the east end of Doubtful Sound. And Part 3 has you on another boat to do the tour of Doubtful Sound.
We arrived at 8 AM to catch the first boat through Lake Manapouri. I was initially worried because there were many low-hanging clouds enshrouding the nearby mountains around the lake. But, the check-in lady said they already had reports and the water was clear and expected to be nice at the sound. In fact, as we proceeded at 18 knots west on the lake, the clouds were already lifting and we could see blue sky ahead. Meanwhile, we were admiring these beautiful mountain peaks on either side of us as we proceeded across the lake. The ride across the lake was about 1 hour.
As we arrived, our guide told us a bit about the power plant. An engineer conceived of using the power of the huge lake waters to form electric power. Manapouri lake is many meters higher than Doubtful Sound. The west end of the lake is just a few kms from the east end of Doubtful Sound, but with a mountain in between. The engineer decided they could “just” drill a tunnel through the mountain and let water drain through their hydro-electric plant to generate power. So, with hundreds of miners, dynamite, and a lot of ingenuity they did it. They drilled a series of tunnels for the water, and for the people and machinery to install the generators below the lake level. The machinery tunnel had to be big enough for the big turbines – and is big enough for a greyhound bus. The tunnel goes 2 kilometers below the mountain. Meanwhile, an even longer tunnel was built for the water to get to the other side. Later, they had to build another tunnel to increase the water-flow to reach full capacity for the system.
So, now you can take a bus to the machinery room and see the turbines in action. They have been taking tourists to see this engineering marvel since the 1970s. I was a bit nervous given the recent quake activity, but figured it must be pretty stable since the tunnels have been in place for over 40 years. We also marveled at this unique plant and enjoyed learning more about it.
Next we took the road the engineers built to get to Doubtful Sound. It is quite steep on both sides, but not too steep for well-maintained buses. We got our first look of Doubtful Sound on the far-side and they let us get out at a lookout point. Karen spotted a Kea in the trees and the bird later flew over us before landing on a dead tree right in front of the main view as we were leaving.
Finally, we reached the east end of Doubtful Sound and our main part of the tour began. The sound was pristine and beautiful. It was everything we were promised, and more. We saw two varieties of penguins – the yellow crested penguin, and the rare blue penguin (who we also saw at Akaroa). We saw dolphin who went up the sound to feed at the exit waters from the lake into the sound. And, since the weather was so nice, and the seas so calm, we were able to go out to the small rocky islands at the mouth of the sound. There we got up close to the fur seals basking in the sun, or playing, on the rocks. Thank goodness we had Tahina’s binoculars with us, giving us 15X image stablized close-up views of the scenery and wildlife! And, the 300mm zoom lens on the camera also came in handy for sharing some of the views with you.
At one point, down Crooked Arm of Doubtful Sound, the skipper turned off all the engines of our boat and let us drift in silence for a few moments. He asked everyone to be quiet and not take any pictures so we could hear the sound with no unnatural sounds. You could hear the waterfalls, birds, and the gentle lapping of the waters around us. You could hear the gentle breeze through the trees. A nice touch that gave us perhaps our best taste of the true Doubtful Sound.
This tour was definitely one of the big highlights of our trip to New Zealand. We loved the beauty and majesty of the sound. We felt honored to be able to see so much protected wildlife and natural wonders. It was also good to be out on a boat and near the sea for a little while. Thank goodness New Zealand has had the foresight to protect this environment from exploitation. We took over 500 photos during the day. Please review the slideshow below to get a taste of what it was like (click on full-sized to see bigger images).
Also, here is a map showing the GPS track of our full-day tour:
View DoubtfulSound in a larger map