Entering Another World
On visiting any of the sounds you would be forgiven for thinking you’d stepped into a Jurassic park style world. The cliffs here run straight into the water, continuing some hundred of metres below sea level. The water is dark, stained by the tannins carried in the water that runs off the trees on the hillsides. Bizarrely, this run off also means that the water is far less salty than imagined, forming a freshwater layer on top of the sea water. The dark water filters much of the sunlight, allowing deep water species to live much closer to the surface than usual.
Fiords or Sounds?
Trees hang precariously from the vertical faces, intertwining their roots with their neighbours in an attempt make up for the poor hold they get from the rock face. When a dry spell precedes heavy rain, trees can pull away from the surface, triggering a landslide and causing whole sections of trees and bushes to plummet to the fiords watery bed, hundreds of metres below. Interestingly the 14 so called “sounds” in the area, are in actual fact fiords – being formed by glaciers and not rivers – but were misnamed by early Welsh and English settlers. The region was renamed fiordland to correct this area, whilst preserving the original names of each Sound.
The drive to Milford is an attraction in itself, with numerous road side photo opportunities and car parks offering walks anywhere from ten minutes upwards. Just shy of 120km, this “dead end” road is a minimum of two hours of driving, without allowing time for stops. Maps of the route are available from the i site or tour companies in Te Anau and detail the best stopping locations along with walking distances. We chose to split the highlights between driving there and back.
We chose to stay in Milford itself, booking a powered site at Milford Lodge. This is the only place in Milford you can stay – so book early if you are considering staying for more than a day. There are numerous campsites you can stay at along the Milford road, but these are all a good distance back along the road. Staying at the lodge meant that we were able to attempt sunset and sunrise photographs more easily, although the sky didn’t quite produce for us this time.
Go Orange Cruise
We decide to go with a Go Orange morning cruise, as they provided the cheapest option (and threw in a free bacon roll). Most companies offer some kind of food depending on the the sail time, so it is worth finding out which gives you the best option.
The cruise itself was quite pleasant, with the skipper giving the odd bit of commentary along the way. The scenery was simply stunning, quite unlike anywhere else in the world. We saw a fair bit of wildlife, including seabirds and seals, although the highlight was definitely some bottlenose dolphins.
There are five or more companies that all do tours starting at the similar times, so you can see a little procession of boats ahead and behind you, which does take the magic of the place away a little. Most cruises will take you “under” one of the waterfalls – so make sure your your pack a waterproof if you want to experience this from outside!
To get to Doubtful Sound you must first cross Lake Manapouri, before climbing aboard a bus that takes you over the top of a mountain, before finally arriving into Doubtful Sound. Most tour companies offer pick ups in Te Anau and Queenstown, shuttling guests into Manapouri.
Once in the fiord, you are rewarded by its isolated beauty. The lengthier journey time and added complication of crossing lake Manapouri means that Doubtful is a far less popular choice, meaning there are less people and less boats, allowing you to enjoy the scenery that little bit more.
On the way back from Doubtful, the skipper took us on a little detour round Lake Manapouri as we had some time to spare.
We were able to see some spider rocks and refrigerator gully. The spider rocks are formed when the softer rocks wear away leaving behind the harder wearing granite. Refrigerator gully earned its name back when deer hunting was a way of life, with the deer carcasses being hung here to keep cool, as the crevasse never sees the sun, causing it to remain cool even on the hottest days.
We had a wonderful time on our overnight expedition. Perhaps our only regret was that we didn’t stay for longer (although had weather been different, we might not have felt the same). We were blessed with two days of good weather – the first two consecutive dry days of the season. We were also lucky to have a good group of people that gelled together well, with conversation flowing easily. Our guide, Mop, did a wonderful job of balancing our differing paddling abilities as well as providing interesting information about the general area.
Relaxing at the end of a hard day
The particularly warm weather on the first day meant swimming was on the cards, which I took full advantage of, swimming when we stopped for lunch time, mid afternoon from the boat and again in the evening. The campsite we stopped at had a beautiful view, and a permanent insect shelter – useful against the swarms of sandflies that beset our camp as soon as they got a whiff of human meat! Some insect repellent is a definite must for any foray into the “wilds”!
Wildlife in Doubtful
We got a treat on our first day, when following a group of birds on the water they dived instead of flying when we got too close! Closer inspection revealed them to be a raft of little blue penguins – perhaps around eight or so – quite a rare sight to see so many together. We saw very little wildlife, apart from a few fish the second day as we paddled round Elizabeth Island. The water here was clearer, allowing us to glimpse some of the underwater world, and see the cliff faces plummet through the water and on into darkness.
Having fun with the sea kayak
Our trip would not be complete without at least attempting a roll, which we tried after off loading all our kit at the end of the second day. Our first attempt failed when we didn’t quite get our timing sorted and Ian fell out the boat before being able to attempt a second go. We self rescued, and set up for try number two; this time success! A great way to round off our journey, check it out in the video below .