Doubtful Sound: Ausgezeichnet!

On the list of “101 Must-Sees of New Zealand,” compiled by AA (the Kiwi equivalent of AAA), Milford Sound ranks as number one. Been there, done that (and nearly killed Karl in the process, as you may recall).

Number two is Doubtful Sound, and, after seeing it, I’d argue for a recount.

The only way to get to Doubtful Sound is on a tour. I suppose you could kayak in on your own from the open sea, or saunter in with your private yacht, but for the likes of most visitors, it’s a tour or nothin’. And it is expensive. I wavered about doing it, because prices started at more than NZ$250 for a quick cruise and quickly rose from there. But in the end, rationalizing with the old “this is probably the only chance you’ll have,” I forked over the funds for an overnight cruise, which was actually not that much more than the quickie cruise.

Even getting the cheapest ticket, in steerage – oh, excuse me, “shared bunks,” it was NZ$365, though that did include dinner, breakfast, transportation, nature commentary and, rather important, unlimited free tea and coffee. In the end, while it was steep, I’m glad I did it. Because really, how many times does one have the chance to sail end to end of New Zealand’s second largest and arguably most beautiful fiord?

(Yeah, as with Milford Sound, Doubtful Sound is misnamed and is actually a fjord, which they spell here as “fiord.” Fjord, fiord, no matter. I got a thing for them, ever since the first fjord I saw in Newfoundland, and have a hard time saying no.)

Our trip began with a boat across Lake Manapouri, one of the largest, and the second deepest, lake in New Zealand. I’d skirted it on foot doing The Kepler Trail, but motoring across it gave such a greater and more impressive sense of scale.

At the west end of Manapouri is a power station, the building of which, back in the 50s and 60s, is considered one of the greatest NZ engineering achievements. It’s almost entirely underground, where the power of water flowing from Manapouri (considerably above sea level) into Doubtful Sound (sea level) is channeled and used to power something ridiculous, like 14% of all electricity in the country.

What impressed me most, however, reading the small interpretive signage at the dock while waiting to transfer to a bus, was that the original plan involved raising the level of Lake Manapouri a good deal but New Zealanders said hell no and forced builders to find a way to generate power without messing about too much with the natural order of things. Good on ya, Kiwis… remember, this is back in an era when I’m pretty sure Americans would have been willing to microwave their children in the name of progress. I’m jus’ sayin’.

The bus ride was less than half an hour, just up and over Wilmot Pass on a road built to bring in the heavy machinery required to build the power station and burrow out the enormous tunnels through which the water flows (the roads and bridges to Manapouri were judged inadequate to carry the weight of all the borers and such, so they shipped them in through Doubtful Sound and then up and over Wilmot Pass).

As the day went on, weather was deteriorating to fog and mist and gloom, but it somehow made the fiord even more beautiful and atmospheric. We boarded the Fiordland Navigator, about 75 of us, and set off along the fiord, named by the good cap’n himself, Captain Cook. Cook looked in from the entrance and said “nah, don’t think so” and kept sailing.

Actually, Cook studied the entrance from about four miles offshore and said that with the prevailing westerlies, it was “doubtful” he could get his ship out if he entered the place, hence the name, which is not to be confused with Doubtless Bay on the North Island, which Cook also named because, sailing past it, he noted it was “doubtless a bay.” You sometimes get the feeling the good captain was running out of people to name things after.

Anyway, we motored along for several hours, stopping near Secretary Island, near where the fiord opens into the Tasman Sea, where we had the option of kayaking or going on a powerboat. Feeling lazy, I opted for the latter, though it wasn’t very exciting. Afterward, some people went swimming but I, perhaps surprisingly, did not. I’d brought my wetsuit but the water was too warm for it, believe it or not. Also, I had read up on Doubtful Sound a bit before the trip and had learned that tiger sharks are often spotted in the sound, particularly near the Tasman Sea. Yeah, tiger sharks. One of the four shark species considered dangerous to humans (the others being the bull, the Pacific white-tip and, of course, the Great White, which is also occasionally spotted in the sound).

So, swimming in warm, murky, shark-infested waters less than half a mile from a seal colony (prime shark hunting grounds)? Uhm, no thanks. Though I did hang out on deck watching a bunch of Germans in their speedos splash about, my camera at the ready, just in case I did have the chance to shoot some footage worthy of Shark Week.

Which brings me to: Germans. It seemed that about half the people on the boat were German. There were a few Kiwis, including an older couple from Christchurch that I chatted with a bit; I really liked them, as they were interesting and interested and intelligent but not pretentious, to me the best possible combination.

There were a couple Brits and a few Aussies, of course, and a handful of Americans that, quite frankly, irritated me to no end. Three were med students from Boston, who were in the same quad bunk nook as me (I call it a nook because it had no door and opened onto the common steerage area, like all the other bunk nooks). Wow. It’s been a while since I’ve been around people quite so high-strung and full of themselves. The other Americans were a couple in their 50s; the woman had a horrible, loud, flat bray and her husband kept trying to talk to people about how the emails hacked from the University of East Anglia about global warming or lack thereof were proof that climate change was a liberal conspiracy to force us all into socialism.

I’m so sorry, New Zealand. We’re not all like that. Really.

In any case, I ended up eating both meals with assorted Germans. And loved it. They were all so patient with me. I’ve had bad experiences in the past with Germans telling me “my English is much better zan your German so vee vill speak ins English” and such, so I was a little nervous dusting off the old Deutsch, but they were encouraging and pleasant about it. And speaking German just tickles me in a way that Russian most definitely does not. Even if, when I get frustrated because I can’t think of the word I want, I have the urge to sputter whatever German word comes into my head, which is often, inexplicably, “Gegenabteilung,” one of the vocabulary words for chapter five of my second year German book in high school. It was the chapter on political protests and demonstrations, and on the first page had a grainy photo of a mob attacking police in riot gear.

Don’t ask me why I remember this so clearly, but I do. And don’t ask why there would be such a photograph in a high school language textbook. This is German we’re talking about, after all.

So, amid all the ausgezeichnet Landschaft und kein Gegenabteilung*, I got to speak my favorite foreign language and meet some neat people. In addition to your basic gobsmackingly gorgeous fiord scenery, we saw “catastrophic forests”** and a seal colony and the rare Hector’s dolphins. I didn’t get a picture of the latter, alas, because they were too darn fast, but they were amazing to see, much smaller than bottlenose dolphins and with neat black and gray coloration. No sharks were spotted, which is in a way disappointing, though not so much. The seals were awful cute, especially the pups who were just learning to handle themselves in the water, and I would have hated to see the whole bloody, cruel circle of life play out in front of me.

Unless the shark took down one of the other Americans on the boat. That would have been awesome.

* My German-speaking friends will no doubt shudder at the lack of gender and case in my nouns, but you know what? I learned something when I lived in Moscow… with these crazy case-happy languages, you can do what the locals, or at least the drunk locals, do and slur your words, leaving off the endings, and still be understood. When I speak either German or Russian now, I almost always use just the roots of words, and I am understood way better than when I would fuss and fumble to achieve perfect grammar and syntax. Sure, it’s ugly, caveman-sounding, but I’m understood, and isn’t that what matters?

** Catastrophic forests are common in fiords, where steep cliffs and little or no soil cover mean that trees and plants grow together by knitting their roots to create their own ground cover. That’s how you’ll see whole forests clinging to near vertical surfaces. Problem is, whether earthquake or heavy rain or some other stress, sometimes a couple trees lose their grip and fall… and wind up dragging many others with them, because of how they’re all knotted up together. That’s why you’ll often see scars of bare rock like claw marks on the sides of fiords.

After the sun set, one of the crew, our “nature commentator,” did a slide show highlighting the fiord’s history, flora and fauna, including the introduced fauna. Because New Zealand’s whacky wildlife evolved with no mammalian predators, a lot of the birds, like the kiwi, takahe and kakapo, are flightless. So, when the Maori and then Europeans came and brought with them assorted rodents and other critters, they wreaked havoc on the native birdlife (the only two mammals native to New Zealand, by the way, are both bats).

He put up a slide of a stoat that was missing only a handlebar mustache. The thing looked evil. It looked Daniel-Day-Lewis-villain evil. Stoats are enemy number one around here and I often keep track of distance on the trails by counting stoat traps, which are set every 200 meters. In addition to having nasty personalities and voracious appetites, stoats can climb trees, meaning even the native birds that can still fly are in danger. According to the guide, stoats having a resting heartbeat of 153 beats per minute. They are that riled up with the Devil inside.

The next morning, after waking to a brilliant dawn over the still water and towering mountains, we cruised up Hope Arm, reportedly the most picturesque bit of the fiord, though it’s hard to choose from all the beauty on offer. Eventualy we sailed back to Deep Cove, at the end of the Wilmot Pass Road, which we covered again by bus before cruising back along Manapouri, the weather clear and fine the whole way.

Doubtless the doubtful Cap’n missed out when he passed on by.

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