Imagine yourself on the deck of a ship cruising slowly, blanketed in silence and surrounded by imposing, steep-sided mountains that seem to burst up out of the tranquil waters. At times, their snow-covered peaks reach straight up into the clouds. It’s almost a spiritual experience, reminding you that the most spectacular things in life still cannot be found on the screen of a smartphone.
Doubtful Sound, New Zealand is more than a pretty place, though. There is a great deal of history and legends from the Maori people woven through the tapestry of the area. Once you’ve recovered from the jaw-dropping view, you’ll realize why this is one of New Zealand’s most popular tourist destinations. There is plenty of fun to be had here as well.
The History of Doubtful Sound
The British explorer Captain James Cook was the first European to view Doubtful Sound in 1770. He was circumnavigating New Zealand at the time, and he had a quick peek at the Sound as he sailed past. From that first glance, Captain Cook decided not to chance taking his ship into the Sound as it appeared it would be “doubtful” that he would be able to navigate its waters by sail. Thus, he named it Doubtful Harbour. Whalers and sealers came along later and gave it its current name, Doubtful Sound.
Doubtful Sound, located in the southwest of New Zealand’s South Island, is technically a Fiord and not a Sound at all since the valleys were carved by glaciers and not rivers. Together, along with the more famous Milford Sound and eleven other Fiords, they make up the Fiordland National Park.
Long ago, glaciers cut jagged pathways through the mountains and left one of the world’s most stunning scenes of natural beauty in their wake. If you travel south from the main area of the Sound, you will find three more distinct areas, known as arms. The first you will come to is the aptly named First Arm. About halfway through the Sound, you’ll find Crooked Arm, followed by Hall Arm, which branches off at Deep Cove.
Impressive waterfalls can be found at Deep Cove and the Browne Falls, which are located within the Sound. During the rainy season, you are likely to find hundreds of waterfalls cascading off the steep hills all around you.
Water Sports in the Sound: Diving and Kayaking
The waters of Doubtful Sound are one of New Zealand’s favourite spots for diving. This is primarily due to the two-layered nature of the water. The top layer of freshwater is about ten meters deep and appears naturally stained by the tannins of the decomposing vegetation found in the area. Below the freshwater lies the somewhat warmer seawater. Here, you can find sea life at thirty meters that you will only find in much deeper waters elsewhere.
Sea kayaking gives you a whole new perspective on the Sound. Away from noisy boats and ships, you’ll quickly notice the overwhelming quiet and serenity of the Fiord. The Maori originally named this place Patea, which translates to “place of silence,” and this name makes perfect sense. The loudest thing you’ll hear is the gentle splash of a paddle and the awed murmurs coming from your fellow kayakers.
Cruising the Fiord
One of the most convenient ways to tour the Sound is, of course, by boat. There are both daytime and overnight cruises available, depending on the amount of time you want to spend in the area. Once you take a look around, you won’t be in a hurry to leave. Overnight tours originating in Christchurch or Auckland, for example, will take you throughout the Sound while providing meals and accommodations, so you don’t have to worry about any of the details.
Manapouri Underground Power Station
You may not think of power stations as a top tourist destination, but once you visit the power station underneath Lake Manapouri, you’ll reconsider. This hydro-electric plant is buried deep below the Fiordland, and the only signs of its existence visible above ground are a small control building, a switchyard and few transmission lines. Daytime excursions originating from the Te Anau Visitor Centre will begin with a cruise over Lake Manapouri where you will then board a coach and travel down a 2km spiral tunnel. Once inside the cavernous machine hall, you’ll learn the story behind the building of this engineering marvel.
Maori Legend and the Sound
According to Maori legend, Doubtful Sound was created by the godly figure Tu-Te-Raki-Whanoa. With the aid of four younger sea gods, Tu made his way south to north, splitting the jagged rocky landscape with his adze as he went. Where the land was opened, the sea rushed in to fill the space. In this way, he created a refuge from the stormy seas and named it Patea, the place of silence.
New Zealand is filled with stunning scenery and beautiful locations, but few can compare to Doubtful Sound and Fiordland National Park. You will undoubtedly want to stay longer than the guided tour will allow, and the best way to deal with this is to rent your own car. That way, you can explore at your own pace. Besides, the road to Milford is one of the world’s most beautiful drives and not to be missed. Your best bet, if you choose to go this route, is to rent from a reputable company like Europcar New Zealand.
Image courtesy of nomadjim/flickr.com