Day 20: DOUBTFUL WEATHER AND SOUND
When Julie and I awoke in our room at the Anchorage Motel, Te Anau, the weather appeared to have improved somewhat from the strange four-seasons-in-a-day type weather we had yesterday. That was a good sign since today was the day we were going to go on a pre-booked Doubtful Sound day tour with Real Journeys, and decent weather was essential to keep the clouds from sinking to the point we couldn’t see jack.
At 8:30am, the Real Journeys coach driver showed up in front of the Anchorage Motel. I had thought we were going to get picked up at 8:45am, but it didn’t really matter to us that he showed up early. Anyways, we hopped on the bus and headed to Manapouri – just a 15-minute drive to the south of Te Anau.
At Manapouri, we waited anxiously for the full day tour. There were other folks who came from Queenstown so that pretty much made the tour fully booked.
And so the tour began at around 9:15am. We headed across Lake Manapouri for the 75-minute ride to the West Arm of the lake. Over there, they had a visitor center where coaches awaited our arrival.
The boat ride was mostly uneventful – at least in terms of waterfall viewing. We could see bits of snow sprinkled atop the rainforested mountains surrounding the lake. I had never been in a rainforest with snow so this was kind of a weird juxtaposition, I thought.
Finally at 10:30am, we arrived at the West Arm Visitor Center. Greeting us there was a building with interpretive signs, some toilets, and sandflies. We picked up some maps and brochures of the tour so we could anticipate what we would see. Of course, waterfalls was the primary reason I wanted to do this trip so I paid special attention to them in the literature and looked forward to seeing them – many of which I hadn’t realized were there during my research. It was 10:40am when we boarded the coaches and were on our way up the unsealed Wilmot Pass Road.
Wilmot Pass Road was the access road built when work was being done to construct and maintain the Underground West Arm Power Station. In one of the most successful compromises between man and nature that I’ve seen, they built the power station a mountain and have strict regulations regarding the maintenance of the lake levels. I believe the energy harnessed by the facilities here powers some aluminum smelter in the town of Bluff. The silver lining to the existence of the power station was that Doubtful Sound wouldn’t have been accessible to ordinary folk like us had it not been for these blokes who made this road (which was surprisingly smooth for an unsealed road).
The bus driver seemed to be in a hurry. It was almost as if he had to get through a schedule where the priority was to fit in the Underground Power Station tour before the day was done before time was up. This was a pity because it was difficult to get a decent shot of Cleve Garth Falls. He said the waterfall was temporary and therefore he wouldn’t slow down or stop for it.
However, he did stop minutes later for a brief stretch and a walk near some ferns. I didn’t know what was so special about this stop, but we took a brief moment to get out of the bus and check out the Spey Valley below us.
A few minutes later, we were all back in the bus and continued the climbing unsealed road. The skies had darkened again and it started to precipitate.
Snow was coming down as we made our way into the Doubtful Sound. It was the last week of November, which is like the last week of May back in the States, but it was really weird to see snowflakes piling on top of dense rainforests. I was concerned that the unseasonable and unstable weather would kill our viewing experience, but as the bus driver turned into pullout, we were blown away by what we saw…
The bus stopped at the highest point on the drive between Lake Manapouri and Doubtful Sound – Wilmot Pass. From here, we could see the obvious fiord-like contours of a calm body of water surrounded by tall and steep-walled mountains. The snow around us really decorated the scene and made the landscape unique from all previous photos I had seen of the area.
After getting our fill of this view, we couldn’t wait to get to the Doubtful Sound.
As the bus wound its way down towards the Deep Cove section of the Doubtful Sound, we noticed another surprise waterfall along the unsealed road – Stella Falls. Once again, however, the bus driver refused to slow down for this and kept rushing his way over the anchorage where our cruise boat awaited. When Helena Falls was visible, the bus driver proceeded as if it didn’t exist.
Some of us were annoyed at the way the bus driver rushed through the waterfalls. Still, there wasn’t much we could do about it and I tried to get the best shots that I could of the falls when they came into our line of sight.
At 11:40am, we boarded the cruise vessel on Deep Cove. While we waited for everyone to board, I took the opportunity to get to the upper deck and check out the scenery. Up ahead, I could see the profile of Alice Falls tumbling down the mountain and ultimately into the calm waters of the fiord. Behind me, I could barely see the profile of the powerful Helena Falls as the contour of a thickly-vegetated mountain slope blocked most of it.
Fortunately for us, the weather wasn’t getting rough and the ship merrily cruised into the deeper parts of the fiord. As a matter of fact, the snow subsided somewhat and it was back to most cloudy conditions, but at least the clouds didn’t sink low enough to ruin our touring experience. Even Alice Falls could be seen reflected in the calm waters as we passed in front of it.
The Doubtful Sound was the longest fiord in New Zealand. It was certainly wide too. Some of the side valleys had dramatic narrow passages lined with very steep mountainsides. In fact, some of the terrain was so steep that we could see evidence of tree avalanches.
This strange occurrence results when a tree or two gets knocked over, which can happen in any number of ways due to the dense rainfall the area gets. Since the vegetation here is so dense and intertwined, it doesn’t take much to cause a domino effect when a tree falls and tumbles down the steep mountainsides. I reckon you wouldn’t want to be caught in any of these things when they occur. Anyhow, when the damage is done, you can see the barren path left behind by the avalanche. Then, they sometimes become channels for new waterfalls when it rains.
It wasn’t much longer before we passed before Browne Falls. Frequently claimed as the tallest waterfall in New Zealand at 615m, I’d have to say you have to be really observant to even distinguish it from the other ephemeral waterfalls lining the fiord.
A few minutes later, there was commotion on the cruise as the driver seemed to spot the fins of some dolphins. Then, when we got close to them, the engine shut off and the intelligent marine mammals put on a show for us. It was almost as if they knew we were there when they started doing backflips. This delighted everyone, especially those folks with the telephoto lens and fast SLR cameras.
Then, the cruise continued out further into the fiord. We went towards one side of an island in the fiord, which happened to be a penguin sanctuary. Fortunately for us, there were a few penguins on that island. And once again, the folks with the good camera equipment were having a field day. But the rest of us also enjoyed the wildlife viewing experience.
After this, the cruise continued out towards an area called Grono Bay. I particularly remembered this spot because there was an old shack as well as a boat dock. I didn’t remember what the driver was saying about this structure, but it was certainly weird to see it in such a remote and isolated place. Nearby, there was also another interesting waterfall, but I didn’t think it was permanent.
Then, the boat headed out into the open seas. The water got increasingly rough. The cruise boat was bobbing up and down with tremendous amplitude. It was at that point that the cruise boat turned around. I think this was part of the normal tour route anyways, but certainly we were no match for the Tasman Sea.
On the way back, we visited a couple of the side arms that joined the Doubtful Sound. We didn’t really spend too much time in any one of these arms. But they each had memorably steep walls and ephemeral waterfalls. In some cases, we saw other kayaks and boats being dwarfed by these tall cliffs and waterfalls.
The last arm we visited was the Hall Arm. Given the cloud cover, we didn’t go as deep as the driver said he would’ve liked. Apparently in there were steep U-shaped valleys that he thought would’ve been real photogenic for our viewing pleasure. Oh well, Mother Nature said no to that one.
However, the driver did get to one point on the arm where he shut off the engine and allowed us to experience the sound of silence. At that moment, everyone cooperatively didn’t say anything loud so we could enjoy the chirping birds, the clapping water against the cruise boat, and the sense that we were indeed in a special place in the world.
When about five minutes were up, the cruise was turned back on and we headed back into the Deep Cove. By now, we started to see some blue skies and it really seemed like the weather tremendously improved.
It was 2:30pm when we were back on the coach and that bus driver in a hurry. True to form, he headed straight into the Tailrace and Causeway Tunnel area where the outflow from the Underground Power Station left a tunnel and headed into the Doubtful Sound. When he stopped and let us have a look around, it was probably the one time I could take Helena Falls without stressing about a blurry shot from the moving bus.
With the continually improving weather, the bus driver proceeded to get back on the Wilmot Pass road and head towards a junction between the West Arm Power Station and West Arm Visitor Center. He even said told us if we weren’t interested in doing the Underground Power Station tour, we could walk from here to the center and wait.
During that drive, I tried to get a few more moving target photos of Stella Falls and Cleve Garth Falls.
I don’t think anyone opted not to do the Underground Power Station tour so we left the sunny afternoon into the dimly lit depths of the circling tunnel going ever deeper into the mountain.
Finally, the bus driver made a tricky U-turn at a dead-end and then stopped the bus so we could get off and walk to a viewing deck. It was quite a bit crowded here, but it basically overlooked a series of giant turbine engines and generators. Near us were 3-D models and interpretive signs describing just about everything you wanted to know about the power station. I was particularly interested in one of the photos showing Cleve Garth Falls flowing fully behind the early West Arm Power Station. Our view of the falls was a little more disappointing due to the unseasonable cold snap that refroze the watercourse and choked off a good deal of the falls’ flow.
At 3:15pm, we were back at the West Arm Visitor Center and boarded the boat to return to Manapouri. With the suddenly fine weather, we could now see blue skies contrasting the white powdery snow on top of the brocoli-like vegetation covering the mountains.
The rest of the boat ride occurred uneventfully and it was nearly 5pm when we returned to land. The beautiful weather was encouraging since we were going to do the Milford Track tomorrow.
Anyhow, we returned to the Anchorage Motel in Te Anau at a little before 6pm. We were just in time to get some laundry done while dining in at La Toscana. No the food didn’t come close to the Italian gourmet stuff by Giorgio and Margherita at Villa Toscana, but it hit the spot and was a good way to end the day touring the sound of silence…