Tuesday, April 3, 2012

New Zealand's Fiordland: Doubtful and Milford Sounds

Earl and Livingstone Ranges surround the Eglington Valley between Te Anau and Milford Sound. © by Judy Wells.

Fiordland National Park ranks at the top of the ooh and aah scale with its high, snow-capped peaks and deep, deep bodies of water. Its treks - Routeburn, Milford and Kepler Tracks -  are famous, its residents are hardy and its seafood is tops, particularly those rock lobster.

No surprise then that after Invercargill I left my genial group of travel writers and photographers to join fellow travel writer Betty Woo Martin who didn't want to miss this part of New Zealand either. I'll never regret it.

You won't either, Levelers, if you make the trip, because there's a lot to see without climbing mountains or hiking along their tops.

There are 14 fiords in this huge park, Ata Whenua, Shadowlands, to the Maori, but Doubtful and Milford are the two with an infrastructure for tourists. Most choose Milford, we wanted to try both.

"Fern falls" fill the roadside over Wilmot Pass to Doubtful Sound. © by Judy Wells.
Doubtful is harder to reach and larger by far, its arms so wide it's hard to grasp the immensity as the peaks up to 8,858 feet high are farther away.
Entering Doubtful Sound. © by Judy Wells.

 With more places to go - arms, inlets, sheltered bays - it's best viewed via an overnight cruise.

Doubtful Sound. © by Judy Wells.
You'd need a lifetime to see it all.

Milford is by far the more popular and accessible. It's smaller, thus more fully experienced in a day or even a few hours. The peaks dive right down to the water so seem more dramatic. Many more boats ply its waters. There's a lodge to stay in if you want to try more focused trips. There's also an underwater Discovery Center where you can stop off, descend via stairs to see what's growing or swimming around below and pick up another boat back to shore.

Warning: There are 60 steps that spiral down from water level to the undersea viewing area. 
One view from underwater Discovery Center. © by Judy Wells.

We chose Fiordland Cruises of the three that offer overnight cruises in Doubtful Sound because we wanted the intimacy of a small craft - it accommodates 12 - with a modicum of comfort -  an en suite head.
Real Journeys has the largest ship, with room for 40, and Deep Cove Charters also offers a 12-passenger small ship overnight.

Tip: It can be bit dicey getting from road level down the steep bank to the boat via slippery stairs, but our young, cute and strong two-girl crew helped smooth the rough spots. If you're concerned, opt for Real Journeys which offers easier access from road to dock to boat.

© by Judy Wells.
All lines do the same thing - where you go is largely dependent upon the weather. Many times they wind up in the same anchorage overnight.

Betty chats with fellow passengers at one of two tables in the lounge. © by Judy Wells.
Doubtful Sound, © by Judy Wells.
It was a gray, rainy spring day and we were joined on Southern Secret by six other travelers. We filled the cabin and can't imagine how cramped it would be with a full complement of 12 guests. Doubtful gets almost 20 feet of rain a year so most cruisers will encounter some. As you can see, we had a bit of everything - rain, intermittent sun, bright sun, cloud cover.

Tip: Steps are unavoidable. To the forward cabins: six small ones, a landing and four more; an additional three up to the final forward cabin.  Aft cabins: 10 down.

Fishing for blue cod. © by Judy Wells.
We had an advantage over the larger craft as we could stop and fish; no blue cod bit but more rock lobsters found their way into the pot.
Jaimee with part of dinner. © by Judy Wells.

 It was cold so after catching a small John Dorey the tackle was put away for a warmer day.

Yellow crested penguins on Seymour Island. © by Judy Wells.
We cruised down arms, paused under waterfalls and at islands to watch the penguins.

The Southern rata is New Zealand's Christmas tree because it blooms red that time of year. © by Judy Wells.

It was too rough to venture into the Tasman Sea. We anchored at Snow Cove where Seafinn, a similarly-sized cruiser, joined us.
Our "neighbor" for the night, Seafinn, in Snow Cove. © by Judy Wells.

Jaimee and Rose took out the kayaks for the young couple from Australia. Too cold for us but they loved it.
Kayaking at Snow Cove. © by Judy Wells.

© by Judy Wells.
Dinner, lamb and the rock lobster, was wonderful, especially with two of our shipmates not liking lobster!

Another difference between the Real Journeys boat and ours: they don't turn off the generator which means you can read late but it's noisy. Ours did at 10 p.m. and the gentle rocking and silence made for sound sleep.

Blanket Bay Hotel. © by Judy Wells.
We woke to sun and Doubtful began to look less dreary. Loved our encounter with the Blanket Bay Hotel. Area fishermen wanted to build a small haven for themselves on the park land but were refused. When they learned the park service only had control of land above the waterline, they built just below it.

Heading back. © by Judy Wells.

Alas, too soon it was time to head back to the dock. Capt. James King-Turner drove us across Wilmot Pass to Lake Te Anau where we caught the launch for home.

Wildlife Centre. © by Judy Wells.
Our morning was spent walking around Te Anau Wildlife Centre.

A pair of kaka. © by Judy Wells.

This free bird sanctuary on the lake provides a pleasant amble and some of the world's most endangered birds.

Some are caged for their protection, others fly in and out.

A takahe, a specie once thought extinct. © by Judy Wells.
Loved the kaka, a comical parrot, and the takahe, a plump, iridescent dark blue chicken-like bird with a red-capped beak.

Glowworms fishing for food.
Glow little...
Then it was off to the Te Anau Glowworm Caves, humming that catchy old Mills Brothers song along the way.

A comfortable launch takes you across the lake to the caves' dock. You enter upon landing.

Heads down, tall people.
Tip: Five steps up to the dock, eight steps to the Cavern House, 22 steps up to the cave entrance. The hardest part is duck-walking through a couple of low passageways and assuaging the claustrophobia if you have it. Once inside, it's pretty open.

This is the fun part.
After walking farther into the cave you come to a landing where you get on a boat that takes you along the "Tunnel Burn" river to the grotto where the glowworms are.

Glowworm fly.
These fascinating flies live about 1-5 days during which time they mate and the female lays about 130 eggs. After 20-25 days the glowing larva hatches, builds a nest and begins "fishing" for food by spinning as many as 70 "lines" of sticky droplets of mucus that trap insects. It then covers itself in a protective skin and becomes a pupa from which it turns into an adult fly. Both sexes emit light but the female becomes much brighter before she hatches to attract males. Also, hungrier glowworms are brighter.

Fishing lines
They love humidity, hate noise and the "glow" is actually pupa poop!

After retracing your steps you go to the Cavern House for a hot beverage - it's cold down there - and a talk about these strange little critters.

Milford Sound
In a word, Milford is spectacular, especially when the sun shines. To Rudyard Kipling it was the 8th wonder of the world. We lucked out on sunny because Milford gets even more rain than Doubtful - 29.5 feet a year. (Washington State's Olympic Rain Forrest gets less than 22 feet a year.)

Betty at Eglington Flats. © by Judy Wells.
Reaching it required another bus or car ride through typically awe-inspiring New Zealand scenery - rushing rivers, reflective lakes, narrow passes, mountains arrayed against fields of simple grasses and a few shrubs, the only plants to survive hard winter frosts.

Mirror Lake. © by Judy Wells.

The road is another story: a government make-work project during the Depression, it took 14 months for every mile. The Homer Tunnel is another work of man's determination. It took seven years' digging and blasting to create one lane through these mountains, resulting in the only two traffic lights in the park.

Boarding for a day cruise at Milford. © by Judy Wells.
Cruising through the sound was a joy, a continuous voyage of beauty.

Milford Sound. © by Judy Wells.
Mountain peaks,

© by Judy Wells.
 spectacular waterfalls,

Fur seals sunning. © by Judy Wells.
fur seals sunning on the rocks.

Heading out to the Tasman Sea. © by Judy Wells.
It was even calm enough to get into the Tasman Sea, next stop Argentina.
Next stop, Argentina. © by Judy Wells.

We were on one of Real Journeys' big boats which regularly ply these waters with a variety of options, including overnights.
© by Judy Wells.

Tip: You have ramp-to-ship access from the dock; 14 steps between the first and second deck; 24 steps from mid-deck to top deck, which is where most of us gathered.

© by Judy Wells.
Many of the mountainsides are scarred by slashes. There is no soil there. Lichen grows on rock, moss on lichen, trees on moss and when it gets too heavy, all slide down.

Best lunch. © by Judy Wells.
Tip: Don't order one of the $15 prearranged boxed lunches. The panini with salad for $8.50 from the galley was much better.

On a dry day waterfalls are few but memorable. © by Judy Wells.
When it rains, the transformation is astounding as we discovered waking to rain the next day. On a dry day, the water falls are beautiful. On a rainy one, they are everywhere - 15 minutes from the first rain to a waterfall.

Morning's waterfalls. © by Judy Wells.

 On land in Milford Sound

© by Judy Wells.
The sand flies can be vicious on dry days, so limit your outdoor walks to midday if you can or hope for rain and bring all-weather gear.

Our view from a riverfront chalet. © by Judy Wells.
If you can snag a chalet accommodation at Milford Sound Lodge, do so; the views are wonderful.

Don't worry if you book from one company and a Real Journeys vehicle shows up. chances are it will because the various outfits contract for seats with RJ. This means that you might be able to snag a last minute spot if another company doesn't use its allotted seats.

Do have at least one meal at the Blue Duck Cafe and Bar. the food's decent, the drinks are good and thanks to the staffers and visitors, the ambiance is great. Always good for a laugh and some local insight.
En route to Milford. © by Judy Wells.

Many visitors rent cars or campers, Betty did, but I used public transportation which was surprisingly convenient and pleasant. From Invercargill's Southland Museum, InterCity Coachlines delivered me to my motel in Te Anau, our meet-up point, with one easy change of bus. Fiordland Cruises arranged our transport from their office in Te Anau to the boat across Lake Te Anau where our small ship's captain met and drove us over the pass to the dock at Manapouri and back.

Betty was heading to the Catlins after Fiordland so we took advantage of the cruise line's van to and from Milford, although I then took the bus from our Milford Inn to the Queenstown airport. All slick, easy and relatively inexpensive.


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December 28, 2017 at 3:39 AM

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