Doubtful Sound

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This was the day we were waiting for. Our real purpose for being in Queenstown was our Real Journeys trip to Doubtful Sound.

I was awake at 5:30 am so I showered and dressed before waking Majella at 6:00 am. When she was ready we ate breakfast and were downstairs just before our scheduled pickup at 6:40 am. The taxi included in the tour was waiting and drove us the few minutes to the bus departure point. We checked in and waited in the warm for departure just before 7:00 am.

The bus made three stops on the way out of Queenstown to collect the balance of our 20 passengers. As we left town along the front of The Remarkables mountains it was just light enough to see that there was a heavy frost alongside the road. That was not surprising since the air temperature was hovering around zero. As we drove on south along Lake Wakatipu small patches of sunlight lit the snow on the highest peaks as the sun rose.

There was no scheduled stop before Manapouri but about an hour out our driver, Hudson, pulled over briefly and called ahead to the cafe at Five Rivers. He then announced that we were making good time and could stop for 10 minutes for coffee. He advised getting takeaway. We had both brought our ‘keep cups’ and were happy to do that. We had visited Five Rivers cafe in 2014 and remembered it well.

Our journey continued with mostly clear skies and sunlight progressively lighting up the distant snowy peaks. We arrived at Manapouri about 9:30 am, just in time to collect our prepaid picnic lunches and board the boat for the crossing. There was already a crowd on board from a couple of buses that had arrived from other directions. It was an international crowd with strong representation from Australia and China. 

The good weather held as we crossed Lake Manapouri. The air was cold and with the breeze generated by the boat we appreciated the multiple layers we were wearing. 

As we approached the other side of the lake there was more and lower cloud. Our destination was the far end West Arm near the hydroelectric plant that powers an aluminium smelter near Invercargill. We disembarked and boarded one of three buses that drove in convoy over Wilmot Pass to  Deep Cove. The gravel road was built to facilitate development of the hydro by bringing heavy machinery over the mountains from Deep Cove at the head of Doubtful Sound. The road is steep in places and winds up to 1500 metres so there were remnants of snow along the high sections. In places it runs beside a deep gorge of the Spey River which runs into Lake Manapouri.

At Deep Cove we stepped off the bus into misty rain and boarded the Patea for our 3 hour cruise on Doubtful Sound. As we came over the pass the cloud had lowered so that we could see the steep walls of the fjord but not the higher peaks above. Such conditions are probably not uncommon for a place that typically records 8 to 9 metres of rain in a year. The cloud seemed thin so we were hopeful the sun might break through eventually. We found seats inside, declared midday near enough to lunch time and opened our picnic boxes. They each contained a salami and salad wrap, bowl of fruit salad, piece of cake that seemed derived from muesli,  square of chocolate, and small pack of nuts – enough to sustain us.

The Patea is well set up with seats in the middle away from the full height windows. That makes viewing from the warm inside possible but for a clear view free of rain or spray on the glass, important for photography, it is best to go outside onto the roofed deck. I did that often during the cruise and each time I was glad of the thermals under my shirt and trousers and the two part jacket and coat I bought in the USA in 2001.

Despite the low cloud and occasional misty rain there was much to look at and attempt to capture in photographs. There are numerous waterfalls, some very tall, varying from trickle to powerful gush. There was misty cloud wrapped around the fjord walls at varying heights. We saw occasional birds and a dolphin. At one point where the sun was trying harder a full rainbow appeared low in the mist.

As we progressed toward the seaward end the cloud seemed to lift and thin and we caught glimpses of blue sky. There was even a rare patch of sunlight to be seen.

Our cruise took us past the Blanket Bay Hotel,  a fishing clubhouse built over water from an island to step around National Park restrictions. Then it was on out to the small islets at the mouth of the fjord where we paused to look at the fur seals. The swell off the Tasman Sea was more than some passengers could bear. 

On the way back the cloud lifted sufficiently that we could see up to snowy heights though possibly not the peaks. Along the way the boat deviated into two side arms of the fjord. At one the more sheltered location allowed a better view of reflections. At the other the motors were switched off and we had a few minutes to appreciate the silence, punctuated by sounds of waterfalls and birds, that gave the place its Maori name.

Back at Deep Cove we transferred to a bus and retraced our path over the pass, across the lake, and along the road to Queenstown. The skies were clearer on the Manapouri side of the pass and we enjoyed sunlight in the peaks as we crossed the lake. We left Manapouri in daylight which faded as we drove east and north to arrive in Queenstown in darkness after 7:00 pm, a bit more than 12 hours after leaving.

It was dinner time. Majella had a recommendation on Facebook from Tony Machin for the Botswana Butchery. Google said it was 6 minutes walk so we headed there but found they were booked out. We backtracked to the mall and looked for the place where we had eaten with Pat and Laura Ryan in 2008. We did not recall the name but remembered the outside stairway and walked upstairs to The Fat Lamb. Majella selected lamb chops with a collection of greens. I looked for the dish with the least objectionable vegetables and settled for the osso bucco on couscous. She had mulled ginger beer and I had a glass of pinot noir. Both meals were very good. We were back at Lomond Lodge before 9:30 pm.