Fiordland is one of the most stunning parts of New Zealand. And having seen so many incredible photos showing its beauty, Doubtful Sound has been on my bucket list for a very long time. In August, I finally got to experience the magic of Patea – “the place of silence”.
As a photographer, I often chase the weather and make short notice decisions on where I am headed next. But you can’t visit Doubtful Sound like that. It’s a conscious decision you must make because there are several steps to the journey, and you can’t just drive a car there. This is one of the things that make it so special to visit. Booking my trip back in May, I was counting down the days until I could go – the anticipation levels were high!
Read on and I will tell you a bit about an amazing three days in this special part of the country.
Real Journeys as a company actually started back in 1954 with trips Doubtful Sound – fulfilling a vision to take visitors to one of the wildest and most remote parts of New Zealand. Back then, the trip involved a very slow boat ride, followed by a 20km hike in either direction, up and over the formidable Wilmot Pass. These days it’s a whole heap easier, with the long journey replaced by a comfortable one-hour boat cruise and forty-five-minute coach ride.
Our journey to Doubtful Sound started at the edge of Lake Manapouri. We took the opportunity to enjoy some morning photography at the lake before we headed to the visitor centre. Having snowed the night before in Fiordland, the ride across Lake Manapouri to West Arm was spent admiring the stunning surrounding snow-capped mountains.
After disembarking and a short stop at the West Arm visitor centre, we boarded our coach for the ride over Wilmot Pass. Our bus driver kept us entertained with informative and hilarious commentary. The road over Wilmot Pass was built in the 1960s to provide easier access for the construction of the hydro station, and passes through lush rainforest, past roadside waterfalls, stunning river gorges and beneath the towering mountains. At the top, the coach stops to take in the first, distant view of Doubtful Sound. We were lucky to see this view after the recent snowfall, which made it even more beautiful and unique.
Arriving at Deep Cove, you immediately get a sense of the isolation. Deep Cove is nothing like Milford Sound, with its huge visitor terminal and expansive parking lot. There were just a few fishing boats floating in the cove, and a small, cantilevered wharf. There is also an outdoor education facility and a small hostel located in Deep Cove, although both were completely quiet the day we arrived. We boarded the boat (we sailed on the Milford Mariner, as the slightly larger Fiordland Navigator was having its annual maintenance) and started our cruise.
Here are five highlights from my time cruising the beautiful Doubtful Sound.
1) GETTING TO EXPLORE THE FULL AREA OF DOUBTFUL SOUND/PATEA
Doubtful Sound is actually a fiord rather than a sound. It is carved from huge ancient glaciers, that created massive U-shaped valleys stretching to the sea. Towering peaks stretch steeply up to 1,000 meters into the sky and carve to a depth of more than 400m below the surface of the water. And it’s huge – the fiord is three times longer than Milford Sound and has a sea surface roughly ten times larger. This is where the one and two-night cruises shine – there is just no way to take everything in on a day trip. During our time on board, we were able to cruise up all five arms of the fiord, travel the full length of the main channel twice, and take two trips out beyond the entrance and into the rolling Tasman Sea.
We spent our first night anchored at the end of First Arm – although close to the entrance of the fiord, this is the place to shelter from a southerly. On our second night we anchored in Precipice Cove. During the two days we sailed Thompson Sound, both sides of the massive predator-free Secretary Island, and along both Crooked and Hall Arms. The cruise also twice took in the tiny Seymour Island, where we had a lot of our wildlife sightings. We were able to really appreciate the enormity of Doubtful Sound and also stop and relax for periods of time without feeling like we would be missing out on seeing something incredible.
2) OUR NATURE GUIDE & THE WILDLIFE
Ok, I am being sneaky by putting these two together, but they would be hard to separate. I was so looking forward to experiencing the wildlife on this trip, but what was an extra surprise was the quality of the information and commentary on board. Our nature guide was Courtney, and she was first class. Such an asset to Real Journeys, she struck the perfect balance with her informative and educational commentary, funny stories and trivia and being available to ask questions and chat during the day. Courtney also held a thirty minute talk each night on the boat – one about the natural wonders and history of Doubtful Sound and one about the history of Real Journeys, the Manapouri power scheme and the conservation efforts occurring in the Fiordland area. I learned so much from Courtney over our trip. Of course, the rest of the crew were also awesome and deserve praise for looking after us during the journey.
We managed to see an impressive amount of wildlife on our trip. The highlight for me was seeing several Tawaki, the Fiordland Crested Penguin. These birds are thought to be the rarest of NZ’s mainland penguins and they spend months at sea at a time, returning to Doubtful Sound in winter (perfectly timed with our trip!). I didn’t have the zoom lens needed for quality photos, but the memories are special. We also saw fur seals, mollymawk albatross and a large number of the resident bottlenose dolphins. The dolphins joined us a couple of times, riding the bow wave of the Mariner as we sailed past Seymour Island. We learnt that the Fiordland bottlenose is significantly larger than other bottlenose dolphins, due to the colder waters of the area in which they live. As the speed of the boat increased, these beautiful creatures did a few dives for us as well.
3) THE EXTRA ACTIVITIES
On our first morning, we had the opportunity to get off the boat for a short period. We had anchored in a sheltered spot in First Arm the night before and after breakfast we could opt for either for a self-guided kayak, or for a trip in the tender boats. I opted to go in the tender boats, mostly because I wanted to take photos without the fear of drowning my camera gear! This became another highlight due to the interesting commentary by crew member AJ. Although the morning felt completely windless, we had not yet experienced the perfect reflections I yearned for. AJ explained that these were rare, which is understandable when you consider the area being close to the exposed Tasman Sea, the long arms for the breeze to funnel up and the huge surface area of the fiord. I wasn’t really disappointed, but still hopeful that we might get those perfectly calm moments (spoiler alert – we did!).
After returning to the Milford Mariner, a special activity awaited just those braver and hardier than myself – the Polar Plunge. You want to really experience Doubtful Sound? Then jump off the back of the boat, into the icy cold waters. With a water temperature of around 5 degrees Celsius, I can’t say I am too disappointed to have missed out in favour of watching those who experienced the resulting gasp effect!
On our last morning, the captain edged our boat right up to one of Doubtful Sound's permanent waterfalls so we could all taste a glass of some of the purest, freshest water you will find in New Zealand. Is it even a trip to Fiordland if you've not had a glass of water direct from a waterfall?!
4) THE WEATHER AND THE VARIETY OF CONDITIONS WE EXPERIENCED
It rains in Doubtful Sound. A lot. Each year the fiord receives an average of between 3,000mm and 6,000mm of rain, making it one of the wettest places in New Zealand. So, we went to Doubtful Sound knowing that we could have a lot of rain, and our forecast was not looking the best in the lead up to our trip. But that didn’t bother me too much – because Fiordland rainfall leads to epic Fiordland waterfalls, and they are something particularly special to see. In the end, we had an enormous variety of weather, but not any persistent heavy rain and so perhaps the waterfall game was not at its highest. However, the variety of weather was an absolute highlight in terms of experiencing this wonderful place.
We were lucky enough to experience calm, sunny weather, light rain with rainbows, strong wind and big swells, and a magical, misty monochrome morning. The conditions at the entrance of the fiord can be quite intense (Captain Cook was 'doubtful' his boat would get back out to sea if he entered, and that was how this area earned its name). I won’t soon forget captain Dave telling us how the Milford Mariner is not really the ideal boat for rough weather, as we laughed and held on for dear life while riding an ocean roller coaster out in the Tasman Sea. Although exciting, I was thankful not to spend too long out in the open at that point!
And yes, (so, so grateful!), we also were lucky enough to experience stunning perfect reflections in Crooked Arm, for just a few minutes. These fleeting moments were definitely a highlight, I will always remember those surreal minutes of absolute stillness and know how lucky I was to have that experience in Doubtful Sound. Crooked Arm instantly became my favourite place in the fiord.
It was misty and raining for our whole last morning, and so a good raincoat and a plastic covering for the camera was an absolute must! It was often quite pleasant out on deck, except for when it was really windy. When the wind was up, or when outside of the fiord on the Tasman Sea, I kept layered up and with a woolly hat on. Over our trip, I spent many hours outside with my camera taking in the scenery. Being the middle of winter, I had expected it to be much colder, but you are sheltered a lot of the time given the height of the surrounding mountains.
The last morning, with all the beautiful stillness and floating low cloud, ended up being one of my favourite parts of the trip. Such moody weather really epitomises Fiordland, and it gives it a mystical feeling that is fitting with the fact that its location feels a million miles away from anywhere else.
5) THE FOOD!
So, almost every review I read about this trip before going highlighted the food, and so I couldn't possibly leave the eating situation unmentioned. Given all the positive reviews, my expectations were already high, but I certainly was not disappointed. We were so well-fed on board, it became hard to get hungry in time for the next meal. The delicious food was a real talking point aboard the Milford Mariner!
Fir, our chef, prepared us a huge nightly feast – Stewart Island salmon, Southland roast lamb, Bluff mussels, gourmet salads, roast vegetables and delicious curries. Hearty meals beautifully prepared were followed up by several options for dessert each night – if you had any space left! There was also a hot and continental breakfast each morning, and a generous lunch on the middle day. Fruit was always available, and muffins came out for morning and afternoon tea. Tea, coffee and water was also always available and there was also a bar to purchase beer, wine and spirits. Dietary requirements are well-catered for.
So - make no mistake, despite being on a boat about as far away from civilisation as you can get, the food is amazing and you will definitely not go hungry. It's funny to think of the snacks I packed, just in case. Not one of them touched. Your tummy will be happy.
I feel so grateful to have been able to experience Doubtful Sound. It really is an incredible place, that feels like true, untouched New Zealand. The effort to get to Doubtful enhances the experience, because you gain an appreciation for just how tucked away this part of the country is.
Making changes to suit the New Zealand market, Real Journeys began offering three-day/two-night cruises in Doubtful Sound over the winter months in 2021, and these may continue in the future. Over the summer months, where the days are longer, you can do a single night cruise and still enjoy the full expierience. When I saw the two-night option, I knew the time had come for me to tick this off my bucket list and I am really glad to have not rushed our trip. I had such an amazing time that actually, this experience remains on my bucket list – I will definitely come back at some point in the future and take my husband.
My trip to Doubtful Sound really did exceed my expectations and I had a wonderful time onboard. Real Journeys was kind enough to host me at no cost for my trip, however my recommendation to add this to your list is genuine.
Please visit the Real Journeys website for more information about the options for visiting, or feel free to contact me if you have any questions. I hope you enjoyed hearing about my time in Doubtful Sound!