In the night, Katie told me she'd headed out to the bathroom to find the sky clear and the stars displayed to glorious affect. I was envious. So a deal was struck: When we were out on Doubtful Sound we’d stay up late enough to see the stars hanging in the sky. No towns, no people, no light pollution – just us and the heavens. It promised to be a beautiful sight to see.
Luck was on our side, as the day of our departure was sunny
and beautiful. Our hostel had a storage room which we took advantage of before checking
out and heading into town for breakfast.
The hostel owner, Jimmy, was a great guy who told us to say hello to his son, Warren, who worked on the cruise ship we were going to set sail on. We happily agreed.
In town we decided to eat at the Cathedral Café. It was a sweet little restaurant modeled after a church. We ate poached eggs and toast on the balcony overlooking the lake. The wind was a bit gusty but the view was sublime. Seeing as we had a couple hours before the first leg of our journey, we headed down to the lakefront. It was even windier, but the rocks were warm against our backs as we basked in the sunlight. A few rocks were skipped before turning to rock throwing challenges. From seated positions could we hit that big rock over there? Yep. How 'bout that rock? No problem. Alright, what about that rock out in the water? Blamo! With target practice complete, we switched to making a rock rainbow. Turning a keen eye on all the small stones surrounding us, we managed to nail a complete rainbow of rocky goodness. We even contemplated taking it with us, but decided instead on leaving it behind for future rock lovers to admire.
A bit down the road we checked in for our overnight cruise and got passes for the first boat across Lake Manapouri. This excursion is the most expensive thing we pre-booked for our trip. We'd read great reviews, some even saying it was the best thing they did in New Zealand, so it seemed like something we couldn’t pass up. The company we’d booked our cruise with was called Real Journeys, which turned into fodder for endless joke making: "Are you ready to take a real journey?" “We’ve done a lot on this trip, but this is our first real journey," and on and on and on. Yes, we’re a barrel of laughs.
Numerous adventure seekers (or rather elderly wealthy folk) were scattered across the lawn near the dock waiting to board. Yes, we did notice an age gap between us and the others awaiting passage. I’d never considered us to be spendthrifts, but there you have it – we’d gone from hostel sleeping to high seas indulgence. Money was flowing like champagne! Or maybe I should say, like tea, which was free and available throughout our voyage whenever we liked. I couldn’t wait to get aboard our vessel to enjoy the high life!
Crossing Lake Manapouri on a sun-filled day was quite splendid. We snapped a few photos, enjoyed the fresh air, and were quickly indoctrinated into the never-ending commentary covering the natural world around us – and I’m not kidding! First, the boat ride, which introduced me to the concept of tree slides (more on that later). Then, the bus ride, where I learnt only white flowers bloomed in the rain forests of the Fiordland because they needn’t attract the attention of bees – they use moths to pollinate! And finally our cruise on the Fiordland Navigator, where they had a full time Nature Guide broadcasting constant statistics regarding depth of water, height of mountains, amount of rainfall, etc. etc. Who knew the price of admission included Fiordland 101?
Our boat ride shuttled us across the water right up to the hydroelectric power station. Half the travelers got off here for a tour of the station while the other half boarded buses to go over the pass, through the rain forest, and out to Doubtful Sound (we were part of the latter group, of course). Our bus driver pulled over at a nice lookout where we saw Doubtful Sound for the first time. Even at a distance you could see strings of waterfalls plummeting from the surrounding mountains into the sound. Gorgeous. Continuing on, we cautiously drove down the hillside to the dock. (FYI – this is the steepest tourist road in all of New Zealand! You know how I know that? They told us! Even more fun facts and figures await you in this entry. Aren’t you excited? No? Well, get excited!)
The Fiordland Navigator awaited us at the dock. It stood tall and proud against a majestic backdrop of green mountains and blue sea. The crew was lined up on either side of the walkway welcoming us with smiles and nods. I felt like we were boarding the Love Boat. “All aboard…we’re expecting you…”
The captain gave us a brief welcome in the dining room; safety information was discussed and rooms were assigned. Normally we’d have a private room, but in order to afford this extravagance we’d booked a quad share to save money. This was to be our only shared room of the entire trip (thankfully so, but more on that later). We walked due south, slowly descending into the bowls of the ship. Would we be shoveling coal? Remember what happened to the engine workers on the Titanic? As far as I knew, there were no icebergs on Doubtful Sound…at least I hoped not.
Our tiny circular window was at water level, which granted us a cool view, and our two bunkmates turned out to be very lovely women. There was Meera, an American (!) from Philadelphia, and Joan, a Kiwi (double !!) from Milton, NZ. Yes, we had an authentic, born and raised New Zealander rooming with us. We could hardly believe it!
After dropping off our stuff we headed back to the dining room for some hot muffins and tea. The muffins were truly delicious. Raspberry and chocolate. While snacking, it finally dawned on me that our real journey had already begun! (See? It never gets old!) The hull of our ship was already coasting over the sound. Katie and I rushed out on deck to take in the view (tea in hand, of course). The water was choppy, the winds were high, but our large ship cut through those waves like butter. On either side of us immense cliffs rose up, covered from head to toe in deep green rainforest. Rivers of liquid poured through the thick vegetation like open faucets. The previous day’s rain had filled the mountains with an excess of moisture and we were enjoying the resulting waterworks.
It was around this time that I learned two interesting facts from our Nature Guide, Carole. First, Doubtful Sound is not a sound at all, it’s a fiord. Fiords exist in valleys created by glaciers, while sounds, on the other hand, sit in valleys created by water. We were riding on the waves of a glaciated valley cut millions of years ago. Secondly, Doubtful Sound is part of the Fiordland, which houses an extensive rainforest system. As you can imagine, the area gets a lot of rain, about 7 meters per year. That equals 23 feet! This is the reason it encompasses a hearty temperate rainforest which, strangely enough, resides on steep and stony cliffs. The hard rock of the mountains support lush forests but have no top soil to speak of. So, instead of taking root in the rock below, the trees grow their roots outward – interlocking like a giant latticework. Which brings me to tree slides: if one tree gives way it can trigger a domino effect, ripping vegetation off the mountain like a strip of wall paper. Without the use of soil, Carole said, the whole rainforest lives hydroponically, getting all its nutrients out of Doubtful Sound. Isn’t that fascinating? No? Well then, moving on…
Doubtful Sound was both gorgeous and secluded. Not a soul was around. No one lived on its shores and no other boats were on its waters. We were all alone out there, and it felt wonderful.
To escape the choppy waves the captain took us up “crooked” arm where the wind was calm and the water was placid. Here we were given the option of climbing aboard a tender craft (a smaller motor boat) or going kayaking. Katie and I, along with our bunkmate Meera, chose to go kayaking. We hopped to it, tossing on our swimsuits and raincoats (it was sunny, but not hot, and you can’t get more effective sun block than clothing). Apparently we didn’t hop to it fast enough, though, because we were the last ones to go topside, and it didn’t look like there were enough paddles for all three of us to go. Blasted! But then our knight in shining swim trunks came forward and offered up his spot. This effectively allowed us all to live out our kayaking dreams together. Bless him!
On the water you could truly appreciate the scale of the forests and mountains. Like little leaves floating on the water’s surface, we scattered about in our kayaks and marveled at the enormity of it all. Trees hunched over the water with crooked backs, and birds sang within their shadows. We tried our best to keep up with our guide, but it was difficult. Oftentimes you just wanted to stop and sit and look; bobbing up and down amidst the beauty.
Katie and I risked taking our camera out on the water and we successfully kept it dry. Our legs, on the other hand, not so much. But that was part of the process, part of the fun! The cold water (and it was cold) felt great under the warm sun as we skimmed over it stroke by stroke. I have to admit, my arms were getting rather tired by the end (Margaret, I did use my core, but my arms got tired anyway. I’ll do better next time, I swear).
At that point the Fiordland Navigator had turned around and moved away from us. We paddled towards it, and just as we inched closer to its puttering engine it moved even further away. Eventually it stopped playing cat and mouse with us. People taxied up and jumped on deck one by one. Katie and I stretched our time out on the water until we finally had to join the group.
We hurried out of our wet clothes and into dry ones while a few others opted to go for a swim. I was tempted but decided against it. From the looks on their faces, I didn’t regret my decision. Like I said, that water was cold. Plus, any disappointment I may have felt about not swimming instantly disappeared the moment I heard it was time for soup! That’s right, fresh piping hot soup was to be served at once in the dining room. We headed straight for it. There were two options: Vegetable and spicy pumpkin. Katie chose the former and I chose the latter. We both promised to share, of course; best of both worlds, and all that. As it turned out, the vegetable was nice but that spicy pumpkin was to die for. I was in love! Each taste was a dream. I gave several previously promised mouthfuls to Katie…grudgingly.
Post soup, the captain sailed us out to where Doubtful Sound meets the Tasman Sea. Usually, he said, the conditions are too extreme to venture out, but the weather was on our side. It literally looked like the land and water ended right there in front of us, as though we were going to drop off the edge of the Earth. It was an illusion, of course, but eerie nonetheless. The waves undulated long and high at the point where the rough sea met the calm fiord. And so we rolled, and rolled, and rolled. Our tummies started a roll of their own, but we endured, holding fast to the railing as the ship pulled alongside a craggy rock which was home to a large colony of fur seals. Mothers and pups were lumbering about, paying no mind to our presence. Since these cruises go out daily, I'm sure they were used to prying eyes at this point. We enjoyed the open sea air, took a look up and down the coast, and headed back into the fiord to drop anchor for the night. In the meantime…dinner was being served! What a life!
We bounded down the steps and into the dining room for our lavish buffet dinner. Four kinds of salads, varieties of vegetables, various sauces and creams, and not one but three entree choices: fresh salmon, tender lamb, and grass fed New Zealand beef! My mouth is watering at the memory. Which did I choose? Why, all three of course! It was a buffet! We could eat what we liked and go back for more! And more, and more, and more. Buffets will likely be the death of me...and what a sweet death it shall be.
The salmon was slightly smoked, and it was nice, but not my favorite. The lamb was also good, but didn’t knock my socks off. But that beef…that tender, juicy, succulent beef! It was divine! I had at least three servings. Katie is never phased by my strange ability to tuck away large quantities of food, but the other women, Joan and Meera, were perplexed by the amount I was eating. “Where does it all go?” Joan asked. My appetite was the source of much amusement, even more so when the desserts came out. Fruit salad, berry & apple tart, toffana (toffee & banana) cheesecake, traditional New Zealand cheeses, and a New Zealand dessert favorite – pavlova. I had it all and went back for more. The pavlova was so light and fluffly, I felt like I could’ve eaten the whole thing! I was well and truly stuffed by the end of that meal.
The sun was setting by then. Katie and I wanted to keep our promise, so we donned our coats and hats before heading to the upper deck to watch the stars come out and twinkle for us. But, alas, the daylight is slow to dissipate this far south of the equator. We realized we’d be out until midnight if we wanted to see a true night sky, and we were far too tired for that, so we contented ourselves with just seeing the stars given us round 10 P.M. and called it a night. We were going to be in New Zealand for another seven weeks, so we figured we’d have another opportunity at some point.
Off to bed we went. Both Joan and Meera were already tucked in at this point, so we slid under our covers and doused the lights. The ship was still and silent, worn out from a day full of discoveries. Both of us were were looking forward to a nice, long, deep slumber—
What’s that noise? It sounded like a low groan at first and then it started to get louder. Soon the whole cabin was vibrating with the sound of Joan’s snoring. Dear Lord, no! If there’s one thing I can’t sleep through it’s snoring. I tried not to panic. I figured it couldn’t last forever. These kinds of things often rise up and fall away once deep sleep is achieved. Yes, yes, I could wait it out. But sadly, Joan sawed that log all night long. I tossed and turned, throwing my arms over my head to deaden the sound. At one point, clothes on the end of my upper bunk fell down to the ground with a loud thud, and at another point my blanket slid so far off the bed it was a virtual curtain in front of Meera below. Yep, Joan snored her way through every minute of every hour of that long night until 6:30 A.M. when the engines ignited once more. My bleary eyes met Katie’s across the way. Hers were just as red as mine. It seemed we'd both suffered at the hands of a sleeping dragon.
A buffet breakfast awaited us at 7 A.M. There were all manner of hot and cold choices, but after the previous evening’s indulgences, I decided to go with the lighter fare of cereal and toast. Warren came by (the hostel owner’s son, remember?) and I related his father’s greeting. He told me to tell his dad to start practicing his tennis because next time he sees him he’s going to destroy him. They had a strong resemblance, both adorable.
Our second day on the fiord was promising to be entirely different from the first. The sky was thick with clouds and a light sprinkle was underway. You'd think this would be a disappointing sight but, to the contrary, I was quite excited. What fortune! To experience Doubtful Sound in both the sun and the gloom? Both were exquisite. The fiord took on a whole different dimension under grey skies. There was more detail to the trees and more diverse views. The waterfalls swelled and gushed anew while mist roamed idly over the peaks. Our ship cut through the still water slowly, our meager wake creating soft rolls upon the surface. What peace we’d found on Doubtful Sound the day before was multiplied that morning. Suddenly, we were floating on a bed of tranquility.
The stillness became even more vivid when the captain steered us into a cove, shut off the engine and generators, and asked us all to be still and silent for five minutes. They called this the “Sound of Silence.” Raindrops fell quietly as we experienced nature without cars rumbling in the distance; the roar of planes overhead. It was beautiful. That is, until three people got their cameras out and proceeded to point and click and move about the boat freely. I’m fairly certain they didn’t speak English, thus didn’t understand the announcement. However, one would think that even if you didn’t speak English you’d sense a change in atmosphere. The engines were off, an entire ship full of passengers stood stock-still, and no one was talking or taking photos. I think even I would be with it enough to notice such an obvious change in people’s demeanor. Even with all these clues, these people didn’t get the picture, or should I say they did get the picture, since they were the only ones taking them. Either way, I tuned them out as much as I could and enjoyed the stillness of the moment; a rare glimpse into what the world can be if we let it. It felt soothing, natural, and good.
The engines fired back up and we got an up close look at a brand new tree slide before motoring back to the main channel and turning home. Our feet hit solid ground and we retraced our steps, busing back over the pass and boating across the lake. Both exhausted from our adventure, we hardly looked out the window on our voyage back to Freestone Backpackers. There, a cozy bed awaited us, and there'd be no sleeping dragons to disturb us.