There’s no doubt what you get at Doubtful Sound: undoubted beauty.
We call our country “the Land of the Long White Cloud” but it’s really Green-land: olive green, bottle green, emerald, jade, lime, sage, the shades of the bush and mountains and, in our most remote corner, the green water of Doubtful Sound.
It’s a dramatic place: deep, placid, waveless waterways, steep-cliffed mountains, ancient trees, gushing waterfalls; humans seem out of place in this primeval world. It’s quiet - no sound, apart from the occasional, gently pulsing strum of a boat engine, and still – little or no wind. Few people come here, apart from cray- and cod-fishers.
Richard Heyward does, as often as he can. He’s a nature guide for RealNZ (formerly Real Journeys), the Fiordland tourism business founded in the 1950s by Les and Olive Hutchins.
Seventy years on, the family company offers tourist experiences in the Deep South, from Stewart Island to Queenstown, including world-renowned cruises through Milford and Doubtful Sounds and Lake Whakatipu’s heritage steamship TSS Earnslaw.
The one- and two-night voyages on Pātea Doubtful Sound are, Heyward says, “bucket-list trips”. Sometimes called the “Sound of Silence”, it’s the deepest (421m) and second longest (40km) of the South Island’s 14 fiords and has no direct road access. From Te Anau, guests travel to Manapouri, cruise across the lake and then take a coach over the 670m Wilmot Pass, a rainforest road carved out of the mountains, to their ship at Deep Cove.
That’s where they’ll meet Heyward, who’ll make them feel at home and, as they’re cruising the fiord, talk them through the vast wilderness, part of Te Wahipounamu Unesco World Heritage Site.
“It’s a real journey compared to Milford Sound. You can go in there and see it relatively quickly. Doubtful Sound is huge – it’s 10 times the area of Milford and three times the length.
“It’s absolutely stunning. There are lots of waterways, all carved by glaciers over 2½ million years. It’s incredibly steep, mountains rising 1300-1400m out of the water. And it’s one of the wettest places on Earth (up to 7m a year on 200 days, average) but that means you’ll see dozens of waterfalls,” Heyward enthuses.
Native birds and marine life come out to play here, rather than hiding until nightfall. “There are so many different types of wildlife in Doubtful Sound – rare penguins, fur seals, dolphins, other marine life, as well as the birdlife, and you’re right amongst them,” Heyward points out.
Designed along the lines of a traditional scow, RealNZ’s Fiordland Navigator blends old world charm with modern comforts like spacious viewing decks, a dining saloon with a fully licensed bar and an observation lounge.
The Navigator is compact enough – it sleeps only 72 passengers – to allow the crew to drop anchor in a sheltered cove for passengers to explore the shoreline by kayak or tender boat. For the adventurous (or very brave), there’s even a chance to go swimming in the sound’s…er, bracing waters.
Small, but perfectly in form. As with cruise vessels many times its size, guests enjoy a three-course dinner prepared by the onboard chef, served in the dining saloon. They can mingle with fellow travellers, savour local wines at the bar and, if the skies are clear in the evening, spend time on the upper deck gazing at the stars.
Next day kicks off with a hearty cooked breakfast and exploring other parts of the fiord before returning to Deep Cove and on to Manapouri. It’s only then you’ll turn your phone back on and realise how much you’ve enjoyed being disconnected from emails and modern life, tuned into the natural world in the Sound of Silence.
For a first-person account of the Fiordland Navigator experience, read Herald travel editor Stephanie Holmes’ story here: NZ travel: Doubtful Sound overnight cruise is the perfect break from busy lives
Perhaps one of the most surprising things about this untamed, unspoilt taonga is that so few New Zealanders know about it, and even fewer have visited it.
Heyward says: “It’s really remote and that’s one of the things that makes it incredibly special. There’s nowhere else like it in New Zealand. You’ve got to visit it to appreciate it.”
There’s another good reason to cruise with RealNZ: a proportion of your fare goes to the Leslie Hutchins Conservation Foundation, set up by and commemorating the company’s visionary founders.
Les and Olive Hutchins were instrumental in the 1970s’ campaign to protect lakes Manapouri and Te Anau from hydro-power generation, which would have threatened the region’s unique landscapes and wildlife habitats, and conservation projects have been at the forefront of the company’s mission ever since.
The foundation supports dolphin research, endangered bird protection and sanctuaries, track and interpretation signs, outdoor education camps, wilding pine eradication and other projects designed to preserve Kiwi, and world, heritage in this special place.
More information at Realnz.com