Fiordland: Sounds fabulous

By Justine Tyerman

Deep in the heart of Fiordland National Park, Justine Tyerman explores a lake, an underground power station, an alpine pass and a sound - or fiord.

Looking up Doubtful Sound from Wilmot Pass. Photo / Justine Tyerman
Looking up Doubtful Sound from Wilmot Pass. Photo / Justine Tyerman

THE LAKE
The weather looked as dubious as the name suggests as we headed for Doubtful Sound early one autumn morning. We sped smoothly across a calm Lake Manapouri in the high-speed catamaran, Titiroa, in misty grey drizzle. Massive, glaciated peaks and ranges peered above the clouds which filled the steep-sided valleys and cirques, masquerading as glaciers of the last great Fiordland ice age 20,000 years ago.

I had visited Milford Sound many times but Doubtful Sound was always elusive - just out of reach due to time, distance or budget. On this occasion however, it was planned and booked well ahead as a post-Milford Track treat. The tramp was magnificent, but after four days and 53 kilometres of lugging packs, we were looking forward to being taken care of on a guided trip which required minimal use of our legs and involved no carrying of weights.

Halfway across the lake, a hint of pale gold on the horizon heralded sunrise, casting a shimmering path across the water and illuminating the dark clouds, hopeful signs that the weather might do what Fiordland is so famous for - the unexpected.

One of the world's wettest regions, Fiordland's annual rainfall varies from a mere one metre at Manapouri township, to three metres at West Arm, eight metres at Deep Cove, and in 2009 a staggering 16 metres at First Arm on Doubtful Sound.

We were prepared for the worst, wearing our full wet-weather tramping kit (I vaguely thought snorkels might have been a prudent addition to the day pack), but the mist obligingly continued to lift revealing wonderful wooded islands and a lake shore fringed by dense beech forest.

THE POWER STATION
Arriving at West Arm on the far side of the lake, we were ushered into a visitor centre where I could have happily spent the morning, reading about the fascinating history of the area and the Maori legends of creation with their mellifluous place names which always sound so much more poetic than the English versions. Manawapore or Manawapouri, meaning Lake of the Sorrowing Heart, was formed by the tears of two sisters, Motorau and Korowae, daughters of an old Maori chief in the region.

I also refreshed my knowledge of the valiant Save Manapouri campaign (1959-72), credited as the birth of New Zealand's environmental consciousness. The original Manapouri Hydro Power Station scheme involved raising the lake level by 30 metres, which would have flooded the shoreline beech forests and drowned most of the lake's 34 islands. There were huge, widespread protests and in 1972, the government of the day confirmed that, while the power station would go ahead, the lake level would not be raised. An entity called the Guardians of Lake Manapouri, Monowai and Te Anau was created to oversee management of the water levels.

The power scheme at West Arm was extraordinarily audacious. Built inside a mountain 200 metres below lake level in a cavern excavated from solid granite, the station is New Zealand's biggest. The project took 1800 workers eight years to complete in extremely harsh conditions and 16 men were killed underground or during construction of the road over Wilmot Pass linking West Arm on Lake Manapouri to Deep Cove on Doubtful Sound.

Completed in 1971, the power station was largely built to supply electricity to the Tiwai Point aluminium smelter near Bluff as well as feed into the South Island transmission network.

The word earthquake kept fighting to be heard inside my head as we boarded a bus and headed two kilometres down the dark spiral tunnel to the machine hall deep inside the mountain. I knew the trip involved going to the underground power station but I had somehow pretended it was not really underground. So I made a deal with my fear. I locked it in a box and said I would let it out at the end of the trip if it didn't spoil the experience for me. I also reasoned that if 45,000 people were brave enough to visit the power station each year, the majority being overseas tourists, I must not be a wimp.

The bus was driven by our guide, the delightful Chris Hughes from Fiordland Explorer Cruises, one of those incredibly capable, multi-talented, Kiwi blokes you instinctively trust with your life. Chris, a born story-teller, had done everything from guiding and DoC (Department of Conservation) rangering on the Milford Track to bridge building. Had it not been for his calm, jovial manner I might not have been able to focus on the experience of learning about and actually seeing for myself one of New Zealand's greatest - and most controversial - engineering achievements. The station utilises the 230-metre drop between the western arm of Lake Manapouri and the Deep Cove end of Doubtful Sound 10 kilometres away to generate electricity.

My fear stayed so well locked up, I was the last to leave the massive 111-metre long, 18-metre wide, 39-metre high cavern with its seven shiny, blue "exciters" which sit on top of the power generators. It was an awesome experience and felt rather like being on the set of a James Bond movie, as Chris suggested.

Turning the bus around in the tight confines of the tunnel was a masterful feat which was loudly applauded, especially by a German lady in the front seat who was quietly freaking out and wanted to be out of there in a big hurry.

Once back above ground I asked Chris about earthquakes and he said despite the close proximity to the alpine fault where the Indo-Australian plate dives beneath the Pacific plate - a fact I should have also locked in the box - a powerful 7.8 Fiordland quake in 2009 caused no damage to the power station and was barely felt by the men working underground.

THE PASS
The next part of our adventure was the bus trip over Wilmot Pass, another incredible feat of construction. Surveyor Ernest Wilmot gave his name to the pass although the Murrell family from Manapouri, at whose lovely historic Grand View House we stayed the previous night, claim their ancestor Robert Murrell discovered the route in 1888 and helped build the track to Deep Cove in 1901.

The 22-kilometre road between Doubtful Sound and Lake Manapouri, one of New Zealand's most remote roads, was built in the mid-1960s to provide heavy equipment access for the construction of the power station. Floods, snow, mud and landslides lengthened the project from 12 months to two years. Chris said it was the most expensive gravel road ever to be built in New Zealand, at something like $2 a centimetre.

"Maybe it took so long because half the time the workers would have been swatting sandflies," he said.

He reminded us that sandflies were technically a protected species in a national park so we were obliged to watch the fiends as they sucked our blood and refrain from killing them - technically.

Fiordland's legendary sandflies - and rain - got the better of the Jurassic Park film crew when they went to film there a decade ago. They evidently high-tailed it to Hawaii to complete the movie.

To compensate for the fact there was zero visibility over the pass, Chris kept us entertained with amusing anecdotes, largely based on fact.

During construction of the power scheme, 300 married men boated to work each day from Manapouri, 900 single men lived at West Arm in a village with a post office, gym, pub and very busy police station, and 500 men lived on the Wanganella, a converted former cruise ship, anchored in 45 metres of water at Deep Cove.

"After the power station was finished, divers found a 40-metre high mountain of beer bottles under the ship so the lads nearly drank themselves aground!"

An English mate of Chris's pestered him for months to take him tramping in Dusky Sound, even more remote than Doubtful Sound. Chris finally relented so off into the bush they went.

"Within two hours I was carrying half Dave's pack and after four hours, I had his whole pack and mine. After four days of three-wire bridges and waist-deep mud holes, he succumbed to droopy- bottom-lip syndrome and total sense-of-humour failure and wanted out."

Going down the steep pass, Chris pointed out the huge variety of trees including rimu, shrubs and ferns in the temperate podocarp rainforest. The fuchsia was a personal favourite of his - he had seen many a drunken tui falling out of a tree after drinking the fermenting nectar of the fuchsia flower. He also credits the fuchsia with helping him give up smoking. When he was a ranger on the Milford Track, he had to carry a dead body down from Mackinnon Pass and was desperate for a cigarette that night. He had no tobacco so tried smoking dried fuchsia bark and never smoked again.

He also drew our attention to the AA signs on the steepest part of road which a witty grader driver had amended to read Danger Mice and Trucks Use Low Gear, Buses Free Wheel.

At the foot of the pass at Deep Cove, Chris showed us the bridge he had helped build above where the two 10-kilometre tailrace tunnels discharge their water into Doubtful Sound "at rate of about 500 small elephants a second".

On a more sombre note, he explained DoC's heroic campaign to trap vicious predators like stoats and bring birdsong back to our forests.

"Stoats are natural killers and the females have incredible survival mechanisms like reabsorbing embryos to limit their litters if there is not enough food around. Most Kiwis don't know what they're missing - waking up to birdsong is magic."

THE SOUND
The cloud was dispersing and the sun was breaking through as we cruised down Doubtful Sound in the Fiordland Explorer Cruises boat, Tasman Explorer, skippered by Russell Dore. Another Fiordlander with encyclopedic knowledge of the region, Russell's forebears operated the original steamer, Titiroa, on Lake Manapouri in the 1880s.

Deep Cove at the head of the sound is 40 kilometres from the open sea, making Doubtful the second largest of Fiordland National Park's 14 fiords after Dusky Sound.

About then, I experienced a repeat of my fiord/sound confusion. Although Fiordland's fiords are officially mapped as sounds, strictly speaking, they should be called fiords. A fiord is a glaciated valley - typically narrow and steep-sided - that has been flooded by the sea after the glacier's retreat. A sound, on the other hand, is a river valley flooded by the sea following a rise in sea levels or depression of the land, or a combination of both. All three arms of Lake Te Anau are called fiords - North Fiord, Middle Fiord and South Fiord - which they are not. Very puzzling.

As the clouds cleared, I felt somewhat overwhelmed by the immensity of the landscape unfolding around us and the colossal tectonic and glacial forces that had shaped the fiords and sculpted the towering mountains.

Myriads of waterfalls, replenished by the rain, plummeted straight to the sea from staggeringly-high overhangs or danced down the mountainsides in multiple tiers, disappearing deep into the forest and emerging with greater force further down, finally gushing with great gusto into the sound - or fiord.

Due to the sheerness of the mountain walls, Russell was able to nudge the prow of the Tasman Explorer right under the waterfalls in Crooked Arm giving those at the sharp end a Fiordland shower, and allowing Chris to collect a saucepan full to make waterfall tea. The water held special powers, he said, claiming he was actually 75 years old. I drank some, but obviously not enough.

Rock and tree avalanches scarred the steep mountains, some fresh and raw, some beginning to regenerate, a process taking 150 to 200 years.

Depending on rainfall, a two to 10-metre layer of fresh water floats on top of the sea water, stained brown from the tannins in the forest. The dark tannins make it difficult for light to penetrate so many deep-sea species such as black coral grow in the comparatively shallow depths of the sound.

The endangered Fiordland crested penguins, one of the world's rarest penguins, and the resident pod of 60 bottlenose dolphins, were playing hard-to-get the day we called by but we cruised very close to a colony of New Zealand fur seals at Nee Islets near the entrance to Doubtful Sound. It was a thrilling sight especially for the overseas tourists on the boat. As usual, we were the only Kiwis present, just as we had been on the Milford Track and the Kepler and Routeburn before that.

With the weather improving, Russell took us right out to the Tasman Sea where the vastness of the ocean, the power of the surging swell even on this most docile of days, and the knowledge of what fury these elemental forces were capable of unleashing, engendered in me a huge sense of respect and awe.

Captain James Cook was responsible for naming the sound. He sailed by in the Endeavour in 1770, calling it Doubtfull Harbour, after being uncertain whether, if he entered the inlet, there would be sufficient wind to manoeuvre his ship out of its narrow reaches.

In 1793, Italian explorer Captain Alessandro Malaspina sent cartographer Don Felipe Bauza into the sound in a long boat. Bauza produced a remarkable map resulting in many Spanish place names, including a large island named Bauza.

Doubtful Sound is home to one of two marine reserves in Fiordland, Te Awaatu, the narrow passage between Bauza and Secretary Islands, a popular place for divers.

On our return journey, the cameras were out in force as the sound, the pass and the lake sparkled under a clear blue sky. In the space of 10 hours, we had experienced a great adventure and accomplished, in comfort, what used to take early travellers a week or more in sometimes appalling conditions.

Fiordland smiled on us that day, and despite her moody, mysterious and sometimes inhospitable nature, I just can't seem to get enough of the place. So entranced by the wild, remote landscape, I went to see the stunning movie, Ata Whenua Fiordland on Film, for a second time in Te Anau.

And once again, we were the only Kiwis in the theatre. We are indeed a rare species in this most beautiful neck of the New Zealand woods.

- nzherald.co.nz

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