In 1770, while sailing around the extreme isolation of what we now call Fiordland, Captain James Cook came across a foggy inlet that appeared to recede into the coastline. With time against him, and uncertain whether he would be able to safely navigate closer, he sailed on without further investigation. He marked the inlet on the map, naming it – in line with his thinking – Doubtful Harbour.
Had he investigated, he would have discovered New Zealand’s deepest fiord, stretching inland over 40km from the Tasman Sea. This vast and wild environment is now known as Doubtful Sound, although technically it’s a fiord and not a sound, as it was forged by glaciers, not rivers. It’s three times the length and ten times the area of New Zealand’s most famous fiord, Milford Sound, but much, much less frequented.
Milford Sound is accessible by road (and also by air from Queenstown) – tourists flock to it by the thousand, and the harbour at Milford bustles with over a dozen different boat companies making numerous trips a day. I enjoyed Milford in the summer but now I want to make it to Doubtful. In stark contrast to its traveller-friendly cousin, only one company (Real Journeys) will take you to Doubtful Sound, and it takes all day.
The journey starts from the peaceful village of Manapouri, tucked away amidst snowy mountains and fields of deer in the heartlands of Fiordland, deep in New Zealand’s south-west. A forty-five minute boat ride takes you all the way across the sprawling Lake Manapouri to a huge hydroelectric power station that provides approximately 10% of all New Zealand’s electricity. Indeed, the transport infrastructure for reaching Doubtful Sound only exists because of the power station.
Upon disembarking on the far side of the lake, legions of sandflies march upon you, wave after wave distracting your attention while their special ops forces sneak aboard your bus. There’s just one road on this side of the lake, and the bus had to be transported here by barge. It chugs its way up a gravelly track, away from the water-side insects of death and deeper into the wild, where gnarly New Zealand beech trees rise up from the tangled canopy like bonsai trees with elephantitis. It crosses over Wilmot Pass – the highest point of the road – and then descends steeply to Doubtful Sound. This journey takes close to an hour, until finally the fiord unfurls before you, like nothing else you’ve seen in New Zealand.
Whereas much of New Zealand looks its best under bright-blue skies, such an occurrence is dismally rare for the wettest part of the country. Instead, Doubtful Sound provides a gorgeous case study in melancholy. Mist settles across the surface of the dark, deep water. Clouds hang low, so that snow-speckled cliffs and verdant green trees emerge in a rush out of the fog. Unlike Milford Sound, there is no-one else here, and when the boat turns its engines off, the silence is intense. Eventually you can pick out birdsong in the wind.
Doubtful Sound is part of Fiordland National Park, a World Heritage area that’s protected for its natural beauty and the importance of its history. The world contained here, past the reach of most of the public, has been preserved for millions of years – indeed, for about 85 million years, since New Zealand broke away from the supercontinent Gondwana. With the boat engines switched off and your eyes closed, you can just about imagine that it’s all still there. All that history, all that time, submerged out of sight in the black, rippling water.
Snapshots of NZ
NB: Some of the photos at the end look like they’ve had a filter applied or were taken in black and white. Nope. Doubtful Sound just exists in moody greyscale.