February 1, 2023: Fjordland National Park. Without a doubt, one of our favorite stops on the New Zealand Trip was Doubtful Sound in Fjordland National Park. Breathtaking!
“To Māori, Fiordland is known as Te Rua-o-te-moko or Shadowland. A place of towering peaks and plunging valleys and a place where light and shadow create beauty and intrigue.”
Fjordland is by far the largest of the New Zealand National Parks, covering the entire southwest corner of the country. Here massive glaciers carved deep U-shaped valleys to the sea as the ice slid off the mountain peaks. Today those peaks wring 10-20 feet of rain from the sea breeze each year, watering a lush temperate rainforest on the valley walls.
The run-off from all that rain, stained brown with tannins from the forest, fills the top 20-30 feet of Doubtful Sound. The dark tannins in this upper freshwater layer make it difficult for light to penetrate the salty sea water below. As a result, many deep-water creatures (e.g. lobster and black coral) are found here at relatively shallow depths.
Captain James Cook was the first European to explore the area. As he approached the mouth of the fjord, a cacophony of birdcalls rose from the lush hillside rainforest. Eager for fresh water and game, his crew wanted to land. Cook was wary that his sailing ships would stall in the flat-clam waters. He named the fjord “Doubtful Harbor” and continued his journey – much to his crew’s dismay.
Doubtful Sound is, by any measure, remote. It is 30 miles as the crow flies over the mountains to the nearest town, Manapouri. Along the coast, there are no settlements for 120 miles in either direction.
The fjord can be reached only via a multi-day hike, a long boat journey down the coast, or an organized tour from Manapouri. Option 3, please!
Our tour began with a ferry over Lake Manapouri and to the end of its West Arm. From there, a bus took us up and over the rough gravel Wilmont Pass Road to Deep Cove, where the tour ships dock.
Our overnight cruise included an onboard Nature Guide who explained local geography, history, and wildlife as we cruised. A kayak excursion and fjord swim filled the afternoon. After a nice buffet dinner, we enjoyed a lecture on the Fjordlands.
The next morning misty clouds draped the peaks, and the calm waters gave a dizzying reflection. Deep in Hall Arm, the captain shut off all systems on the ship, and we experienced utter silence, save a few bird calls in the distance. I half expected to see King Kong rising from the trees, or perhaps a pterodactyl soundlessly gliding among the peaks.
As we turned back towards Deep Cove, a pod of dolphins joined us, riding the bow wave and leaping ahead of our ship. What a fantastic way to cap our brief tour of this magical place.