Doubtful Sound offers tranquil beauty

Amid the sensory overload of life in the fast lane and the voices of doom telling us that our planet has gone to hell in a handbasket, one can get a bit discouraged. A trip to Doubtful Sound in the heart of New Zealand’s Fiordland National Park is a sublime destination. It is the antithesis of the morning rush hour, of the flash and trash of prime time and the misery of the evening news. This natural world of glorious quiet allows you to truly hear yourself think.

Captain James Cook sailed his ship The Endeavour to this craggy coastline in 1773, and his quick assessment of the inlet caused him to name it Doubtful Harbour. He reasoned, quite correctly, the prevailing westerly winds would make it difficult for ships to manoeuver to sail back out.

Fiord is buffer
Somewhere along the way, a misconception about the essence of this watery refuge arose when it was renamed Doubtful Sound. It is not actually a sound-a narrow stretch of water created when a valley is flooded by rising sea levels-but a fiord, a long narrow inlet of sea between high cliffs carved by a retreating glacier.

When the glacier retreated, it left a lip at the entrance of e sea inlet, where the shallow waters serve as a buffer between the peaceful waters of Doubtful and the wild outer ocean.

Doubtful Sound is one of 14 magnificent fiords on the southwest coast of South Island, part of the 1.2 million hectares of Fiordland National Park. Fiordland was declared a World Heritage area in 1986 because of its unique flora and fauna and its geological and landscape treasures.

Fiordland, in turn, is part of an even larger World Heritage area, Te Wahipounamu. It contains 2.6 million hectares, about 10 per cent of the land area of New Zealand. 

Getting there
At the peaceful village of Manapouri, we board the Fiordland Flyer boat. Lake Manapouri is the fifth largest in New Zealand and the deepest. It’s also a symbol of a successful environmental revolt against a plan to raise the level of the lake as part of a gigantic hydroelectric project. The lake was left in its natural state, its shoreline and 34 islands protected from a manufactured deluge. It is grand and unsullied, continually cleansed by wind and frequent rain showers.

We travel up the lake, then disembark to go 22 kilometres by coach along a rough-hewn road up and over the Wilmot Pass to Deep Cove. En route we pass through a botanist’s dream. The mountains we cross are inset from the Tasman Sea and form a rain shadow of prevailing westerlies, creating a remarkable rain forest.

As we climb, we pass through clouds, emerging into semi-light. On the right, granite walls are overlaid with rich alpine mosses in multiple hues of red, green and blue. These high vertical gardens are splendid.

Suddenly as we come over the pass, we gaze down on Doubtful Sound. From this height, we’re awed at the depth and expanse of the fiord-40 kilometres in length and more than 400 metres deep. When a chain of volcanoes shattered Fiordland 500 million years ago, the sediment layers hardened by the earth’s deep heat and pressure fractured and were thrust up from the earth’s floor. The resultant rocks were submerged below the sea. It took another 40 million years of shifting tectonic force, 20 ice ages and one monumental glacier to carve out Doubtful Sound.

Maori legend
According to Maori tribe legend, the demigod Tu-te-raki-whanoa shaped Doubtful with his ko, or digging stick. Working from south to north he sculpted long, meandering inlets and towering cliffs, all the while singing a powerful chant. As the great walls shattered and acquiesced to the god’s labours, great waves of sea water flooded in, creating a deep body of water, untroubled by the raging waters beyond.

At Deep Cove, we board the Commander Peak for a three-hour cruise through this stunning geological phenomenon. In contrast to the more popular, theatrical and better-known fiord, Milford Sound, Doubtful is less frequented by humans. Except for a small research zodiac and a couple of rock lobster boats, we are the only vessel on the Sound.
The dense forests on the high granite cliffs funnel the annual average of 5,200 millimetres of rain through the vegetation into the fiord, creating a top layer of fresh water that is between three and four metres deep. This water is like a layer of dark tea and restricts the entry of much light. Marine life is restricted to the top 40 metres. Below is darkness.
Slow passage
Our passage through Doubtful is slow and deliberate. There is ample time to appreciate the great vistas and the abundant flora and fauna. The towering sides of the fiord are covered in native beech and tall conifers, prefaced at the water’s edge with lichens, ferns and mosses.

The scarlet-blooming rata trees interspersed high up among the beeches and conifers are like blushes in the green. Cascading waterfalls continually feed the Sound. Splashing water falls from great heights, looking like delicate sheer draperies.

The fabled Lady Alice Falls commemorates a real lady who made the trek to Doubtful in the company of two male guides – a scandal that cost her considerable social standing.

Tasman Sea
The Commander Peak weaves its way through the branching arms of Doubtful and around small islands, and then there is an abrupt change of temperament in the waters as we have a brief encounter with the Tasman Sea.

At the Nee Islets, a large colony of New Zealand fur seals spreads over the rocky outcroppings. Life is abundant and protected here and always on the edge of two disparate but connected marine worlds where the turbulent Tasman Sea meets tranquil Doubtful Sound.

Losing one’s sense of time is to be expected during a passage through Doubtful. Time, after all, in an environment like this has quite a different meaning from the digital world that is now so far away. Gliding along the smooth surface at the base of the ponderous cliffs, we begin to feel rather alone, somewhat forgotten-and yet it is we who have been able to forget.

Cascading water
As we enter narrow Hall Arm, the walls of the fiord seem to rise even higher, an optic trick owing to its narrowness. The captain turns off the engines, and all human sound ceases. The splash of cascading water is amplified by the natural acoustics of the high granite cliffs. The flute-like notes of bellbirds resonate like moistened fine crystal. The whisper of the soft breeze is felt as much as heard. It is a lesson in sound sensitivity. The captain restarts the engines.

The captain slowly turns the vessel and we begin to head back to Deep Cove. Just before we reach the wharf, Blue Dolphins appear, seeing us safely on our way.