Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Beautiful Doubtful and Milford Sounds

Doubtful Sound

The mighty Chris Fisher had recommended an overnight trip in Doubtful Sound as one of the best trips in New Zealand, and who can disobey Chris? He was right, it was amazing!

We booked the trip at iSite, the NZ Tourist Information Service, in Te Anau, the afternoon before. Given a choice between different companies, with 6-person boat, 10, or 80, we went for the smallest. The company, Deep Cove Charters, is run by a couple, Chris and Diane. Cost was about 350NZ$ per person, all inclusive. We were told to be at Manapouri the following morning at 9am.

Next morning was cloudy, but the weather forecast good. We met Chris and Diane at the pier on Lake Manapouri. Chris is coming with us as our skipper, guide and cook, as are a nice Dutch couple, Nico and Nini. They booked over two months ago.

Tea Tree Cream for sandfly bites. It doesn't work

Chris' boat, the M.V. Flyer is a 12.2m (42 foot) Dorado boat with 450hp engine, and was build in 1993. To reach it on Doubtful Sound, we first have to take the RealJourneys ferry across Lake Manapouri. This is the 5th largest lake in NZ, at 142 sq km. It has 33 islands, is 444m deep, and is regarded by many as the most beautiful lake in NZ.

Many years ago, after a tribal raid of Maori savages in the area, the survivors expressed their sadness through this poem, about Manawapouri, the Sad Heart Lake:

My eyes are filled with tears
At the sight of the mountains of Takitimo
And the mountains of Manawapouri.
Would that I were a bird,
That I might fly forth;
Would that I might obtain
For myself wings.

It's rather nippy on the crossing, which takes about 30 minutes, before we arrive in West Arm, where there is a hydro-electric power station.

Hydro-electric Power

This was built 30 years ago or so, and works by taking water from Manapouri and Te Anau lakes, and dropping it through turbines into Doubtful Sound, about 170m lower at sea level. To build the power station, they made the road over the mountains, Wilmot Pass Road, to bring in raw materials. Good for us as this opened up access to Doubtful from this end.

This is a hold-up, surrender or face the beak!

Chris picks us up under the watchful eye of the kea parrots (we were allowed to pass as we didn't have any cookies), and takes us over in a minibus, explaining things to us along the way to Deep Cove, the access harbour for Doubtful Sound.

First view of Doubtful

We arrive, and on to the boat. It's a reasonable size, we all have bunk bed accommodation at the front with clean bedding, there's a galley area with all one would need, a fishing area at the back and an upstairs area with seats where one can sit and take in the view.

We head off from the pier to escape the crowds and sandflies, and potter round to the inlet Hall Arm for some beautiful falls, passing Commander Peak on the right, an enormous solid vertical lump of rock.

No hurry

These hills don't seem big, until Chris tells us the heights. They're generally taller than the tallest peak in the UK, Ben Nevis. But they look like small hills. It's just so difficult to judge scale here. Trees look like shrubs. Mountains look like hills. And there were whales up in this inlet a week ago! But not today.. or maybe..

Which way up?

Which way down?

Back out of Hall Arm, we head along past Elisabeth and Fergusson Islands, and find a pod of bottle-nosed dolphins.

These guys are much bigger than the Duskies we swam with at Kaikoura, up to 3m long, and they look it.

They're still playful and acrobatic though, and as we head off, Chris puts on some throttle, which delights the dolphins, they whizz along next to us, surfing on the wake of the boat, jumping, and riding the pressure wave at the front of the hull.

So Doubtful is a Sound? Well actually no, it's a fiord. A sound is where a valley is cut out by a river and is then back-filled by rising sea. These valleys were cut by glaciers, which makes them fiords, hence the whole area now being called Fiordland. However the earlier explorers didn't know anything about fiords, being from England, Spain and Holland, so used the name sound. In the same way they didn't know what on earth kangaroos were, so they described them as giant mice! The feature of the fiords that makes them interesting is their depth (3-400m), with a very shallow entrance where the ice left the terminal moraine, sheltering the sounds from any big swell out in the often-violent Tasman Sea. They also have special conditions which enable deep-sea creatures to be at relatively shallow depths. More on this later..

The name Doubtful Sound comes from Captain Cook, who was heading up the coast, took a look at Doubtful, was pushed for time and was "doubtful" that they would find enough wind to sail back out in time, so he skipped it. The Maori name of Patea, meaning Shadowlands, is used because the valleys are so steep that at times the sun has difficulty reaching them at all.

We have our first opportunity to fish. I'm excited but don't really know what to do! Chris hands down rods from the upper deck, then gives us bits of bait, which we squeeze on to our hooks, before dropping our lines. As soon as the weight hits the bottom, which is pretty far down, there are tugs on the line. A yank, bring the hook back up, and I've got my first ever catch! My god, is it this easy? I bring up a rather ugly orange sea perch, which are really common here.

First catch

Then on my second attempt pull up a much bigger Tarakihi, which is silvery grey and according to Chris, is a good one and great for sashimi! Dinner is sorted!

Don't let it eat me!


Next a Scarlet Wrass, which is pinky-orange and native to NZ.


Is fishing always this easy? I love fishing! To be fair, I think Chris is positioning us in the places that are best, which probably explains the ease with which we're pulling fish up. Still amazing though. Chris encourages me to take the fish off the hook myself but I'm a bit squeamish at the moment. Need to build up to it. I know, I know, I'm rubbish!

Would you put your fingers in there?

What the hell is that, Nico?!

Lunch of fresh crayfish sandwiches, then onwards out on the sound, passing a Blue Penguin, which is small and shy - in fact the smallest species of penguin. Chris says we're lucky to see it at all. We head along Malaspina Reach, and past Matai Island on the right, where we will moor up for the night later. It looks lovely and sheltered. Next we approach what looks like a small house, in a totally isolated position. It's what is called "The Gut Hut", and significantly has a fresh water supply, through a pipe coming off the nearby waterfall, which we use to fill up our boat's water tank.

Incoming view

We hop off and potter about, then head off again.

Twenty minutes later or so, I head up on the top deck to join Dad. He's not there. Hmmm, strange. Oh well, he must be in the toilet. A bit later, Nini asks me where he is. In the toilet I think, though he's been a while. We go check. He's not. Man overrrrboarrrrd! We turn the boat round and head back, taking about 15 minutes before finding a grinning Dad sitting on the platform outside of the hut. He thought I had bribed Chris to leave him there!

On to Te Awatu Passage and out to the Tasman Sea, passing round the Shelter Islands and Nee Islets, where we find seals flopping about on the rocks, looking extremely cute and enjoying life.

It's apparently an amazingly calm day, but the boat is really dipping up and down, especially when we try fishing and it seems to turn side-on to the waves. We're trying to catch Blue Cod, which we aren't allowed to catch in the sound, for dinner. I pull one in! Yeeehaa! Nini isn't enjoying the waves, and to be honest neither am I, though of course I'd never admit it. We head in anyway, catching (as in watching, don't worry!) some seals on the rocks before we reach calm water again.

At this stage I should mention the, and there is no other word for them, or perhaps a whole lexicon of other unpublishable words, the bloody sandflies. The Maori believe that sandflies, or namu were liberated by the goddess of death to stop humans wanting to live in the beautiful fiordland forever. It's fairly true, Fiordland is so incredible that you do want to stay, but the sandflies really do but you off the idea. Dad and I had considered the sandfly threat over-rated as we headed through Abel Tasman and down the West Coast, but here in Fiordland they're positively evil.

What are they? They are actually black flies not sandflies. They're usually so small you can hardly see them, but you certainly feel their teeth! Actually they don't have teeth. The males are harmless vegetarians, the females are bloodsucking demons who want your blood so she can lay eggs. They bite with an anti-coagulant which is what we find so itchy, then actually drink from the pool of blood that then finds (as opposed to mozzies which suck the blood directly). Although you can hardly see them, the bite is strong enough to make you yelp and go looking for the source of the pain. The bites seem to take a day or two to come up and get unbearably itchy for a week after.

We head to Malai Island for dinner and to sleep. Chris is cooking up the cod we caught earlier, and an enormous slab of venison that a friend of his caught here a couple of weeks ago. He prepares the tarakihi for sashimi, slicing off two fillets, then cutting them at an angle into individual pieces, and serving with soy sauce and wasabi.

Dammmnn it's good! There is nothing like sashimi that you just caught yourself a couple of hours ago. I'm soo taking up fishing when I get back to the UK!

The fish is great too, Chris is a really good cook. I thought that was all, then Dad reminded me that the venison was coming. Brakes on for the side-dishes. Chris serves the venison up with thick gravy, it looks great, and is. I wish I had more space. What a dinner. Washed down with some local Otago wines. We finish up enjoying the tranquility and darkness on the top deck, before hitting the sack.

Day 2

In the morning, after breakfast, during which Nico and Nini try Vegemite:

We head round for a peak at the beautiful Crooked Arm inlet which is shrouded with mist, and has another nice waterfall

Then it's back towards Deep Cove as the fog burns off via a quick bit of fishing. Chris has caught loads of crayfish in his pot.

I yank in the old favourite, sea perch, before pulling in something else which was really fighting coming up. I pull and pull, getting tired as I wind it in. The rod is flexing as a SHARK comes out of the water!!! Chris tells us to get it in quick before it snaps the line. As he says this, it twists madly, winding the line around its body. I yank it on-board as Chris grabs it to help me out. He tries to unravel it, but it's fighting madly, so he clobbers it around the head to stun it.

Shark. Shark? SHARRRRRRK!

It sits still on the deck, bleeding, as he pulls the hook out of his mouth. We're all in shock of course, and desperately taking photos. It moves slowly back and forth, still stunned, though starts to wiggle faster as Nico and I take photos holding it.

Help! He's woken up!

By the time I take my last shot, it's going mad again, and I'm seriously nervous holding him. Can he twist around and bite my arm off? I'm not sure and don't want to find out the hard way.

Effortlessly and without panic I deal with the "situation"

Apparently he's a "school shark", and is about a metre long, though he has the classic shark look and teeth. There are mako sharks, the clever nasty ones, in the sound occasionally, and up to 3m long. These are the ones that jump on to the boat and eat you. This guy is more than enough for me though. I chuck him back in.

The trip has come to an end. It has been marvellous, even resulting in a few smiles out of grump!

If you want to come to New Zealand, I would honestly suggest booking this trip with Chris and Deep Cove Charters, and structuring everything else around it. Sure we had good weather, which undoubtedly made a difference, but Chris is such a good guy, and Doubtful is such a wonderful mystical place, that I fail to see how anyone could do the trip without coming away very very happy.

We say goodbye to Chris as he meets a new group at the power station, and head back over Lake Manapouri

The top bloke Chris with his bouncers

Milford Sound
The Maori name for Milford Sound, Piopiotahi, which means "a single thrush", is said to be drawn from the legend which told that when Maui lost the treasure of immortality to the goddess of death, Hine-nui-te-Po, a thrush flew to this place to sorrow for the death of its mate.

We leave for Milford after a reluctant breakfast at the Olive Tree Café. The drive, about 2 hours, heads along Te Anau Lake, before veering off along a parallel valley. We start in thick cloud and fog, but this soon clears, and the view is very pretty.

One lake, Gunn, is so beautiful and calm that Dad panics and swerves, because he thinks a thousand foot drop has suddenly opened up next to us - it's the reflection of the tree-lined mountain in the lake. We head up and reach the Homer Tunnel, the one which cuts through the range and enables access to Milford. It's one way and traffic-lighted, the signals switching every 15 minutes.

Into the tunnel, it's dark, we need lights, and very roughly cut. There are a couple of passing points inside and it slopes down. We emerge the other side and a 4x4 heads in through a red. I guess two cars could just about pass each other.

Park up and down to the wharf, via a severe dose of anti-sandfly DEET, suggested by the (as the book says and is the case) swarms of ferocious sandflies that attack us as soon as we open the car doors! We buy a ticket for the "boutique" boatline, the one with boats smaller than about 200 people, and head down to wharf 7 whence it departs.

On to the boat, and we head out on the sound with a cup of tea. The sound is very different to Doubtful. There are higher peaks surrounding it, like the iconic Mitre Peak at 1692m, but these form sheer rock dropping down to water, so there's little greenery, and there are almost no outlouts, it's straight up and back. I had suspected this from the postcards available everywhere, all showing one view.

The iconic Mitre Peak

Along and we find some seals enjoying the sun. They're seriously cute, flopping about on the rock with their arms. One steps on the other's backside, and an objection is raised!

Gerroff my sunbathe spot

We head out to the Tasman Sea, then turn around and head back. Apparently Captain Cook missed Milford on two occasions as he sailed along the Fiordland coast. Difficult to see how as it's pretty obvious, though the guide says it's completely hidden from the sea. There are big waterfalls all over the sound, despite no rainfall for several days. Imagine what they'd be like with a decent amount of rain!

The Stirling Falls, dropping an incredible 146m

We arrive at the Underwater Observatory in Harrison's Cove, so situated as it's the only spot which is "avalanche-safe" in winter. Dad and I are the only two on the boat to get out. This is a floating aquarium where we are the ones behind glass looking out. Down a spiral staircase, we are 9m underwater, looking out at all sorts of marine life, including the white tree-like "black coral", which lives for hundreds of years, and various fish and other strange underwater things.

The human obervatory. Look at this strange hairy thing through the glass.

The unique environment existing in these sounds is because lots of water runs through the valleys above picking up tannins from the foliage and trees. It then dumps into a sea-water sound (or fiord actually). Because freshwater is less dense, it sits on top of the salt water, forming a layer that is usually about 3-5m deep. This, dark with the tannins, blocks off light creating a shallow salt-water area beneath it that sea-life believes is much deeper because of the lack of light. Hence some weird stuff floating about!

Grump meets Grump Fish

There was a fish hiding away in the vegetation which looked especially grumpy. Dad and him seemed to experience synergies.

You say that, but..

Powering through Milford

Byeeee to Milford

We get back and head over Homer Tunnel for a sandwich next to the gorgeous Gunn Lake. Gorgeous except for the swarms of bloody sandflies! Time to head home, to Refcliffe Restaurant, another of Chris' recommendations, and another good experience. Time to say good-bye to NZ tomorrow. It's been good, dear New Zealand.

Make Safe Your Home!

The day starts with some excitement. There are two ways to Queenstown from Wanaka: SH6, the main road, which is longer, and another lesser-known highway, which goes a more direct, straight over the mountains route. We've cut it quite fine for our flight from Queenstown, and it's about an hours drive, and the petrol is fairly low so we need to fill up. Where is the petrol station? We're bound to hit one as we head out of town, says I. Hmmm. Never mind, there are a couple of towns along the way, they'll have petrol. Ermmm. No. We pass through Cadrona, seeing no fuel, and the fuel gauge is well through the empty box, and we're climbing up steep hills. We're in trouble. Dad is grumpy, and is now driving at about 50km/hr to conserve fuel. The gauge hits the bottom of empty.

Over the pass, and we're heading downhill. Perhaps we can roll down. Engine is still ticking over, but the worry is that even when we reach the flat, Queenstown is still a fair way up the valley. We creep along, and lo! Behold the gauge creeping up, two thirds of the way through the empty gauge! Hallelujiah! We meet SH6 and creep along. I have visions of abandoning the car at the side of the road and running the last few yards. It's not necessary.. the airport turnoff roundabout has a BP station! Thank the lord! I joke with Dad, saying that after all this, the flight will be cancelled. It is.

Apparently fog at Christchurch has screwed all of the flights. We've got a few hours leeway, but I'm glad I keep harassing the customer service personnel, as when they finally get flights going, I get rebooked on to the 12:55. Others are put on planes later in the afternoon, which would have meant missing some or all of the match!

In Christchurch, we take the shuttle bus again, this time we get a free (almost) tour of almost every other bloomin' hotel in Christchurch before he drops us at "the Jail". Yes, we're staying at the Jailhouse Hostel again, which Dad is far from pleased about, but as I'd arranged it, and he had no alternative, here we are. I took some photos this time, so you can see what we had to endure:

How the cells used to look

And today's offerings

From outside

The inside hall

So, into town, and we have some beers and pizza at Dad's choice, Dux De Lux, which sounds great in the guide book, and is a nice outdoor spot, but the beer and food wasn't up to much. So much for a Neapolitana pizza, have these people not been to Naples?!

Then we walk across town and stumble into the Twisted Hop, which supposedly brews real English-style ale. As in not fizzy and hopefully not served at sub-zero temperatures. And indeed it's more or less true, hurrah! The beers are good, and the front of the building has hop plants growing up it (the "Twisted Hop", remember), which looks nice.

Posters across town warn people..

The area it is in is the "Shoreditch" of Christchurch - obviously formerly rather industrial, and now home to lots of trendy bars and apartments. A venue for decent beer after the game secured, we head down to the stadium, which is about a 15 minute walk from where we are. Suspiciously the streets are very quiet. In fact, the whole town is quiet. Almost all the shops are closed already at 4pm on a Saturday afternoon. When do these people get out of bed?

At Jade Stadium we collect our tickets (37NZ$ each for almost the best seats) then wander round to a bar. The area is full of car showrooms and workshops, so this is not as easy a task as it sounds.

Don't worry, the Stadium's out of shot on the right

I'm wearing a red top for today's game, i.e. the Crusaders' colours, though I'm slightly worried about coming over as one of those cheapskates who doesn't want to fork out for the official kit. The bar we find, which is right outside the stadium, is moderately full, but not what you would expect an hour before a big league game. A rude woman doesn't let us sit down at empty tables that are reserved for people to eat up to half an hour later, so we leave and head into the grounds as they open the gates.

One person allowed per stand, Sir, no more

The stadium is fairly big, but we appear to be in an older benched stand. We start to wonder whether there will be anyone else watching the game, but slowly it does start to fill up. The taxi driver estimated there would be about 10-20,000 people here tonight.

Lights come on for pre-match "fun"

Pre-game music turned out to be a middle-aged gay duo dressed in fluorescent colours singing 80s classics, which sounds like it might be fun, but wasn't, and certainly didn't seem appropriate for a rugby crowd! I pick up a 4-pack of plastic bottles of beers, choice is Export Gold or Tui, neither of which are particularly nice. Next the "Crusaders" charge out, costumed types on horses, galloping around the pitch with swords. An enormous sword sits vertically in the middle of the pitch.


The Stormers from Cape Town are big lads, as is the usual South African style.. brawn without brain! The match starts. We have high expectations, having watched the Auckland Blues thrash the NSW Waratahs on TV the night before with an incredibly fluid display of rugby. This was also good, but the number of handling errors was just a joke, and really upset the otherwise fast play. The Crusaders' Dan Carter kicked some perfect chips forwards to create two tries as the incredibly fast backs latched on to the balls. This game had high expectations as 6 All Black players were back in the line-up for the Crusaders after being out for half the season for "reconditioning". They were expected to be a bit rusty, and perhaps were. Richie McCaw was also playing, but didn't seem to stand out especially.

The ball soars between the posts. Lovely.

Of course we looked forward to every try as a group of rather attractive cheerleaders were on a bench in front of us, and would leap up every time Christchurch scored. Flipside was injury time, when they would switch on some generic rock at incredible volumes to keep the crowd entertained. Why? The two teams also seemed completely incapable of keeping scrums up, almost every one collapsing.

Scrum "down" being taken literally

Final score: Canterbury Crusaders 36 Western Stormers 11

After, back to Twisted Hop for a couple more beverages, and sitting outside watching a stream of girls head into the Vespa Bar. What are we doing in the Twisted Hop? Drinking decent beer, that's what, how dare you ask me such a question!

Back to airport the next morning painfully earlier after a night "in Jail". We pick seats on the right this time to get a view of the New Zealand Alps as we fly back to Queenstown.

Could be Cook or Tasman. Or both even!

From Queenstown Airport, we drive straight along a pretty but uninteresting valley to Te Anau, the walking capital of the world, and the base for our next activity… an overnight trip on Doubtful Sound.