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Kia Ora from New Zealand! Have you ever truly experienced the sound of silence? It’s just one of the experiences that made our Doubtful Sound overnight cruise so magical and memorable. The vast, pristine wilderness is another. Read on for a complete review of our epic adventure with Real Journeys…
Cruise Doubtful Sound
We met up with 70 others who would join us in Manapouri—located at the edge of Fiordlands—at noon on a Friday. While remote, a Doubtful Sound cruise makes this beautiful area easily accessible for those of us who aren’t backpackers.
It’s an easy and beautiful two-hour drive from Queenstown through bucolic pastures of grazing llamas and sheep. (Or you can request bus transport when booking your visit with Real Journeys.)
After arrival, we hopped aboard a motorboat for the 50-minute cruise across Lake Manapouri, where we boarded a bus for an incredibly scenic ride into the mountains. As we passed through dense old-growth silver beech rain forest, we looked for the bright orange underbelly of kea birds (once invasive, now endangered) flitting amongst the ferns.
Then, over the next 45 minutes, we labored up steep Wilmot Pass on an improved dirt road to finally emerge at the summit and this stunning view:
After dropping down the steepest commercial road in New Zealand, we arrived at last at the marina in Deep Cove, where our boat, the Fiordland Navigator of Doubtful Sound, awaited.
And immediately I felt like I’d arrived at the grown-up version of summer camp. Have you ever dropped off your 12-year old camper for sleepaway camp? Been overcome with nostalgia as you thought about all the new friends and magic moments that awaited them?
Within an hour of boarding the Fiordland Navigator, I felt like I was getting a second shot at just this kind of the wide-eyed wonder and adventure.
First, Soup to Warm Up
It was misty, brooding weather on the Sound. So naturally, once we’d stowed our daypacks in comfy cabins, it was all hands on deck for soup! Delicious belly warming cauliflower red pepper or potato leek soup while we motored into the sound.
We met many fellow adventurers who shared our same nature-fueled high…and had so much fun exchanging oooh’s and ahhhh’s with the delightful Potter family from Boston.
Liza, a geology major with the most contagious enthusiasm ever, is about to begin a semester abroad at Dunedin, on the south end of the South Island. Lucky, lucky, LUCKY girl!
Kayaking Doubtful Sound in Fiordland
After soup, it was time to kayak Doubtful Sound. And, for those who preferred to leave the rowing to others, a tender—a small motorized craft—was available.
As an inexperienced kayaker, I almost yelped when I immediately sat down in cold water, but then, since I proceeded to shovel in even more water with each paddle stroke, I decided to enjoy being wet.
In fact, I soon forgot I was getting chilly. I was completely absorbed in the mesmerizing experience of rushing waterfalls, glassy water, trilling birds, and the occasional crested penguin popping up as puffy white clouds veiled the vivid jungle green mountains. It was like a giant hug for the soul.
I dipped in a hand, expecting frigid water, only to be surprised by the slightly cool fresh water which is layered on top of the deeper sea water in the Sound.
Doubtful Sound offers a “cloistered serenity” (as the Fiordlands website puts it) that both humbles and uplifts its visitors. At 421 meters (1,381 feet) deep, it is the deepest of the fjords and winds more than 24 miles along several thin arms that empty into the vast Tasman Sea…a distance we’d cross in the Navigator over the next 24 hours.
The weather is changeable on the west coast of New Zealand. The day before our cruise, travelers enjoyed bright sunshine on the water. We, however, were bundled up in sweaters and hooded rain jackets against the intermittent wind and sprinkles as clouds gathered.
Yet, the rain was good fortune. It unleashed the majesty of rushing waterfalls all around us.
A Catastrophe Forest
All in all, there are more than a dozen falls in Doubtful Sound, including the larger Helena Falls at Deep Cove and the Browne Falls.
In New Zealand’s Fiordland, lichen and moss give way over time to small growth plants that eventually give way to ferns to eventually result in a thriving mature rain forest. Wild fuchsia flares in the summer where blooms give way to fermented berries which give way to drunken pigeons who can’t fly straight in the glorious ecosystem that is nature.
The naturalist on board explained that it’s considered a “catastrophe forest” because the lack of tap roots from plants cause continual landslides as they struggle to grip the soil despite the heavy rainfalls.
The Doubtful Sound Tour Continues: A Swim in the Fjord
After collecting kayaks, about half of us jumped (literally) at our chance to swim in a fjord. Diving from the boat was a thrill. And shockingly frosty once we’d plunged beyond the layer of fresh water.
Revived after a hot shower and a cup of tea, we gathered on deck for more marveling at the glacier-carved valleys and adorable brand new baby seal pups crowding a rock outcropping in the middle of the Sound.
Real Journeys offered up an extraordinary buffet dinner, replete with New Zealand lamb, wild salmon, and a bounty of fresh vegetable salads. A dessert buffet of dense chocolate cake, cheesecake, rhubarb crumble, and so much more rounded out the meal.
Post-dinner, your Doubtful Sound overnight cruise includes a presentation on the geology, marine life, and birds here, courtesy of an amazing naturalist guide.
A Moment of Silence on the Final Morning
On our final morning of the cruise across Doubtful Sound, as the incredibly scenic Hall Arm section of Doubtful Sound came into view, our guide urged us each to put down our cameras for a moment. To give our full attention to the majesty of nature for 10 minutes of silence.
It was a powerful experience. An almost sacred experience that brought tears to my eyes. In an era where most of us too often squander our time clicking through social media and feeling preoccupied with our trivial cares of the day, the wild Doubtful Sound is a powerful and welcome antidote.
“There are just a few areas left in the world where no human has ever set foot. That one of them should be in a country so civilized and so advanced as New Zealand may seem incredible, unless one has visited the south-west corner of the South Island.”
—Charles John Lyttelton, former governor of New Zealand
If You Go: Visit the Te Anau Bird Sanctuary
Steve and I were so fascinated by the birds of New Zealand after departing the cruise the next morning (post-breakfast buffet!) that we decided to stop for a walk in the nearby Te Anau Bird Sanctuary, home to native injured birds or those in a captive breeding and release program. Te Anau Bird Sanctuary is a 20-minute drive from Manapouri. Admission is free.
That’s where we met several of the unusual takahe birds, large flightless and endangered birds indigenous to New Zealand. As of October 2017, there are just 347 takahes left on the planet!
What to Pack for Your Overnight Cruise on Doubtful Sound
Real Journeys recommends you bring these things in a small carry-on bag:
1. non-slip walking shoes or boots. Personally, I love Keanes. They’re super comfortable, get great traction and you can even wear them in the water! You can get them on Amazon here.
2. waterproof jacket. Be sure yours has a hood and packs light. I bought mine from the Columbia outlet in Portland, OR but if I had to replace it, I’d get this one on Amazon.
3. warm sweater or fleece jacket. If I had to recommend my #1 favorite travel item, it would be my Columbia down sweater (which is actually a down-filled jacket). I bring it on every trip because it’s warm and takes up practically zero space in a backpack. You can order one on Amazon here.
4. change of clothes
5. sunscreen. Keep Doubtful Sound pristine! If you’ll be kayaking or swimming in the sound, choose a sunscreen without Oxybenzone. (That’s the ingredient that will kill off the black coral that grows here.) Click here to buy a safe sunscreen on Amazon. Beauty Counter makes another great one.
6. sunglasses. If you’re ready to upgrade your sunglasses, these tortoiseshell Kate Spade sunglasses just say wow! You can get a pair here on Amazon.
7. insect repellent. Somehow I missed the memo on New Zealand’s sand flies. They’re everywhere in the wilderness and gave me the worst mosquito-like bites I’ve ever had! So don’t skip the insect repellent. If you do your best to avoid Deet as I do on wilderness adventures, try this Eucalyptus repellent on Amazon.
8. swimwear (optional). Be sure to choose a swimsuit that won’t experience a wardrobe malfunction when you’re active! I like this vintage-inspired swimsuit on Amazon.
10. cash for bar and snacks
11. lunch and snacks for the first day (or pre-order a lunch box)
1. Where is Doubtful Sound?
Doubtful Sound is tucked into the far southwest corner of the South Island of New Zealand in Fiordlands National Park, just below its more famous (and far more traveled) cousin Milford Sound.
2. Should I do a Doubtful Sound or Milford Sound cruise?
Real Journeys also offers a Milford Sound cruise that gets excellent reviews. (I’ve only taken the cruise in Doubtful Sound, however.) Milford Sound is far more accessible than Doubtful Sound…which also means you’ll find more tourists there.
On the plus side, it makes a great choice if you’re looking for a New Zealand bucket list experience with less time. Doubtful Sound is a better choice for those looking for fewer crowds and peaceful, iconic wilderness.
3. What is the weather like in Doubtful Sound?
Changeable! Weather in all of Fiordland is unpredictable. You could be there on a beautiful sunny day enjoying calm water or you could find yourself under dark foreboding clouds in the middle of a squall, even in summer (December through February)!
Just pack for all options and be open to the experience. Rain means waterfalls! We were there under moody skies and it was all the more beautiful in the mist.
4. What are the Fiordland Navigator cabins like?
They are small, clean, and spare. There are 72 cabins. You can choose from cabins with a double bed and en suite bathroom or bunk in a cabin with four twin beds (bathroom down the hall) to economize. It’s up to you but book early! We booked six months ahead and found mostly only quads available.
5. How do you get to Doubtful Sound by car?
It’s a 2.5 to three-hour drive from Queenstown to Manapouri (where the cruise departs from) and just 30 minutes from Te Anau. If you’d rather not drive in New Zealand (the “wrong” side of the road for Americans), you can book transportation through Real Journeys when you reserve your Doubtful Sound boat trip.
6. What are other great adventure experiences in New Zealand?
New Zealand is the adventure capital of the world! From zip lining and bungee jumping to bicycling, long-distance trekking and glacier heli-hikes, there is something for every kind of thrill seeker. Sky’s the limit!
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