Doubtful Sound

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Doubtful Sound from above
While doing research on Milford Sound, I read about this place called Doubtful Sound, which wasn't name-dropped nearly as much, but when it was, fantastic things were being said. I read that it was larger than Milford Sound, quieter, calmer. When I tried to choose between the two (I was fearful of terrible weather in the South Island while I was there), every review I read said to do both, if possible. And I had the time.

I chose to do the Doubtful Sound tour with a company called RealJourneys, which had gotten pretty good reviews online. There weren't too many Doubtful Sound tours to choose from, I think because the demand just isn't as high. Because RealJourneys is a well-established travel company, I found the tour in general to be a lot more regimented, with less heart.

I was picked up by a taxi van free of charge early in the morning to bring me down to the RealJourneys office in Queenstown, where I had to check in and obtain my boarding pass. One of the girls working was clearly new on the job and didn't give me the full information I needed, so I needed to get back in line just to ask her which "coach" I would be boarding. By the time the bus arrived, the small office was packed.

We were taken across the road and asked to board the RealJourneys bus, which I have to admit was pretty cool. They said they were specially designed for RealJourneys, with the chairs tilted towards the windows at an angle for better viewing out the windows (the bus, like the InterCity bus, had huge windows and even ceiling windows).

Unlike the InterCity driver, this driver (Paul, this I'm sure of) was much older and much chattier. Except his chatter was all historical trivia ... at 7am, before the sun had risen, and when everyone still wanted to sleep. I found myself irrationally annoyed with him and was so glad to be transferred to a separate, smaller bus for the ride to Lake Manapouri, where we would take a catamaran ferry across to meet our guide for the rest of the day.

The driver of the smaller bus was much friendlier, though he served more as a chauffeur than a tour guide like the others had. The ferry across Lake Manapouri -- the second deepest lake in New Zealand and also carved out by glaciers -- took about an hour and a half and we were given free boxed lunches (a winter special), and then we met "Curls," a chipper female tour guide-driver who took us through a mountainous region (Wilmot Pass) to the landing point for the cruise around Doubtful Sound.

First dolphin sighting! In a dolphin protection zone in the fiord.

Then after about five minutes, a whole pack of dolphins sidled up alongside the ship, jumping happily in and out of the water. It's said that they like playing in the pressure/currents that the ship creates.

At around the midpoint of the 3+ hour cruise, the captain turned off the engine completely to give us an idea of what life in the fiord was like without human interference. For about 5 minutes, we floated on the fiord and listened: first I heard the sound of water crashing against rock, and I saw a small waterfall streaming down the mountainside. Then I heard calmer lapping of water against rock. And then I hear birdsong. The still fiord full of life.

After the cruise, we were taken to the Manapouri Power Station, which is an underground hydroelectric power station, under Lake Manapouri (I believe). It's the largest hydroelectric power station in New Zealand and second largest power station in New Zealand. The tour was quite boring, and the highlight was probably the drive downwards into a tunnel leading us to the station's entrance.

And then it was back on the bus, back to Lake Manapouri, back on the catamaran across Lake Manapouri, back on the coach driven by chatty Paul, back to Queenstown.

The highlights of the trip down to Doubtful Sound were seeing the dolphins and having the opportunity to listen to the fiord in its "natural" state. I didn't think Doubtful Sound was as outstanding as reviews made it sound, and I think Milford Sound is still the must-see, but I don't regret going on the tour. Perhaps a different tour (overnight ones are also offered) would have afforded me a little more satisfaction, but the RealJourneys one was passable. 

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