Undoubtedly Beautiful Doubtful Sound

Trip Start Nov 10, 2013
Trip End Apr 02, 2014

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Flag of New Zealand  , Southland Region,
Saturday, February 1, 2014

Today we left Te Anau at first light and made the short drive to the nearby town of Manapouri, where we joined a small tour that would take us to one of the most remote, yet semi-readily accessible places in Fjordland National Park (southwest corner of the south island of New Zealand).

We met at the headquarters of "Adventure Kayak & Cruise" and checked in with an older, less-than-friendly woman - presumably the owner - before being bused from the company office to the first of a number of shuttles that would carry us over the course of the 10-hr tour.  We stepped aboard a 28' aluminum inboard/outboard vessel that shuttled us across the incredibly large Lake Manapouri, to West Arm.  Travelling at 23 knots, it took us 45 minutes to cross the lake.  At this point in the morning, the cloud cover was low, the air was cool, and the lake was totally calm (almost-glassy); there was an almost eerie-feeling in the air.  As the boat ride came to an end, the skipper - presumably the other owner - did a fine job of absolutely crushing the dock.  For supposedly having done this for over 20 years, the cantankerous, old fellow only seemed capable of rough, gut-wrenching dockings.

From here, it was another 45 minute shuttle - this time by bus over an incredibly rough, slow-going, pothole filled gravel road.  This winding, narrow road took us from Lake Manapouri up and over the Wilmot Pass (670 meter, 2,200 feet), before beginning the steep descent to sea level and our ultimate destination.  Lucky for us, as we crested Wilmot Pass, the fog and cloud cover broke momentarily and we were granted a rare (according to our guides) view.  Words can't do justice to what I saw at that moment (and I'm not sure the attached picture does much better), but it was truly breathtaking.  A few minutes later we had completed the transit to the awe-inspiring Doubtful Sound!

Named as such by Capt. James Cook because he doubted the winds in the "sound" would carry his vessel back to sea, should he explore it in depth.  Doubtful Sound isn't actually a Sound at all.  In the technical sense, Doubtful Sound is actually a Fjord (which is a Norwegian term to describe an area of water that flows out into the ocean, which was once carved by glaciers), as opposed to a Sound (a non-glacier-carved ocean inlet).  The confusion in terminology arises from the fact that the Norwegian term was unknown in the English lexicon back in Cook's day.  But I'm rambling...   

There we were!  Doubtful Sound!  New Zealand's largest, most impressive fjord!  And we were moments away from exploring this remote, little-visited treasure!  

After a few minutes getting kitted out and given directions, we hopped into our tandem kayaks just as the last of the cloud burned away.  Almost immediately a pod of between 6 and 10 Bottle Nose Dolphins approached to within 50 feet of our boat!  These exciting, playful mammals were fun to watch, but they didn't hang around for long.

Within moments the pod had moved further down the fjord, and we began paddling through the black-looking, brackish water.  The water appeared the way it did, because there was some fresh water (the previous day's rain) sitting on top of the salt water.  As we moved out onto the main branch of Doubtful Sound, the dolphins approached again!  This time, however, the moved to within feet of our boat!  They literally came upon one side and then swam directly underneath our kayak!  They appeared to be headed in the same direction as us, so we followed their lively, playful antics into the Hall Arm of the sound.  

After a brief lunch stop where we pulled our boats out of the water and up onto a sheltered, rocky beach, we continued paddling deeper into the fjord.  On this particular day, there were few waterfalls to be seen, as our guide informed us that the area hadn't received rain in 4 days; and even 48 hours without rain in this area will cause some of the waterfalls to begin drying up.

Nonetheless, we had perfectly clear views of the steep-sided mountains around us.  Our guide, Cloudi, talked about some of the human history (Maori and early European), and the natural history (everything from NZ's split from Gondwanaland, up to now; geology; glaciology; flora and fauna).

As we neared the end of Hall Arm, we began to turn around and start our return trip.  Suddenly, we heard this loud, wild-sounding squawk!  There, ahead of us was a lone, fat Fjordland Crested Penguin!  We were incredibly lucky to see one of these rare birds, as a population of about 2,000 exists only on the southwest corner of NZ's south island.  Furthermore, these birds rarely make their way this far into Doubtful Sound  We managed to get incredibly close to the penguin; we were able to distinguish the dark-colored back and head, white underbelly, thicker-set bill than other penguin species we'd seen in New Zealand up to this point, and of course, the easily visible and very distinctive long, yellow "eyebrows" that extend way back along both sides of the head!

I was stoked to have seen one of these!  He (I'm not sure if it actually was a he, or a she, but...) squawked a little more and just kind of floated around, as we left the penguin alone and slowly paddled our way back to the main arm of the fjord, where a boat picked us up and shuttled us the rest of the way back to Deep Cove.  From there, it was the same series of shuttles back to Manapouri.     

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