[Disclaimer : I am not an employee of Real Journeys nor am I paid to write this. I had such wonderful memories for every trip in New Zealand. This is dedicated to all the friendly Kiwis and the people I met on my journeys.]
The rain poured relentlessly while the boat glided amidst the valley of green mountains and hills. White and grey clouds blanketed the sky while occasionally the flap of wings criss-crossed the horizon and a melee of excited calls reverberated in the rain forest. Long, wispy white clouds tentatively touched the water while a short distance away, a grey head bobbed to the surface. Cocking its head to the left and wrinkling its whiskers, it started to bark – as if to say – “Welcome to my domain”. No traffic sounds or brilliant city lights – just the air of expectancy while nature called to one another. Remote and as far away from civilization as it could be. Come along and join me on a journey to the Doubtful Sound, New Zealand.
It was May when I arrived in Queenstown – a good time to avoid the summer crowd and winter skiers. Between May to September, Real Journey has discounted offers for their day tours to the Doubtful Sound. From Queenstown, current price is NZ $257 instead of the usual NZ $342 for adults. More expensive than a Milford Sound trip (NZ $198 during May – September) but was worth every penny, in my opinion. From my hotel, it was about a 2-minute walk to Real Journey’s office for my check-in at 6.30am. Bus departure would be at 6.55am. The signboard at the opposite hotel read “3 degree celsius”. Brrrrr….It was not even winter yet! When in New Zealand, please bring along a base layer, a jacket and a rain jacket as spare. It can be bright sunshine during the day but the temperature cools at night time. Rain and snow can come in any season.
The first part of the journey on bus was shared with the people going on the Milford Sound trip. Part way, those going on the Doubtful Sound trip would alight and join a smaller bus heading to Lake Manapouri. A couple from Australia and I were the only people heading there from Queenstown. Before alighting the first bus, the driver reminded us to leave something on our seat : a plastic bag, pamplet, whatever, to let others know that the seat was taken. There would be others joining the bus from Te Anau and the same bus would be picking us up at the end of our trip. Do remember to bring along something extra to “reserve” your seat!
Lake Manapouri - tranquil and quiet in the early hours. 9.30 am and nary a blue sky to be seen. A boat trip across the lake would bring us to the next chapter of our journey. As the boat crossed the lake, brilliant sunshine broke through the clouds – we were on our way! About ten minutes later, thick rolls of menacing looking clouds quickly covered the horizontal. The water took on a grayish sheen, choppy sprays of water rocked the boat and the rain poured! This is a good time to forewarn anybody with weak stomachs to please take an anti-nausea pill before stepping into a boat. Bon Voyage!
The first lake crossing was done, so onwards to a waiting van for a short journey on the Wilmot Pass – the sub-alpine road heading to Deep Cove. Midway, we stopped at a lookout. Down the valley, between sheer walls of mountains and hills, the ribbon of water was the Doubtful Sound. The van slowly nosedived and hands quickly gripped the head seats in front. Pebbles crunched underneath while the van twisted left and we caught brief glimpses of a blue and white ship. “Is anyone having fun yet?”, our driver asked when we stopped at the pier. Hehe….funny fellow.
The Patea Explorer would be taking us on a three hour cruise in the Doubtful Sound. Our driver joined the rest of the crew on board. Together with the crew, there were twenty-three people on that trip. Tea and coffee were served on both ships. Sheets of rain continued to pour. Some of the clouds were stretched so low and almost touched the water. I guessed that was why New Zealand was otherwise known as “Land of the Long White Cloud”.
Misty clouds played hide and seeks amidst the mountain and hill tops. Now and then, the melody of bird calls could be heard while the boat glided through the fiord.
Too excited to explore, I climbed the upper deck. “Whoosh!”. The wind chill was incredible. Kneeling, my fingers gripped a railing while I searched for my gloves. Luckily my yellow, white and blue knitted cap was already covering my head. It was time to pull down the edges, cover my ears and zipped up my
blue rain jacket. My skin was turning numb so it was time to head down to the lower deck.
“If you are lucky, the dolphins will make an appearance,” our guide enticed. “Not in this weather”, a white-haired lady laughingly replied. Not true I thought. I had been on wet weather trips and spotted dolphins before. But that was another story altogether. Sadly on this trip, the playful dolphins were on vacation too. But something else was in store for us.
“Up ahead. Seals Island”, our nature guide announced. At first, I cannot see anything. Then, moving shapes swayed fuzzily in than outcrop in the far distance. I had a Nikon 8700 at that time and zoomed in. Wow! Seals, hundred of seals, pups and adults, either moving about or lazily dozing on the rocks. Ohhhh….babies! The camera clicked crazily. How appropriate that the seals were at home on an island shaped exactly like their namesake.
White-greyish clouds covered the sky, drops of rain rapped a beat against the water surface and the boat while the engines droned on. Then…..a sudden dash of violet caught the corner of my left eye. Incredibly, a rainbow was slowly forming. Its light arch touched the water about 500 meters on the left corner of Seals Island – as if guardian to the seals. Few people were aware of the rainbow at the time. So I had the second deck bow (front end of a boat) to myself before someone shouted “A rainbow!!”. Time to change spot.
About ten minutes later, it was time to get to leave Seals Island and the boat headed to a sheltered cove. The captain announced “This is the best part of the journey. I am going to shut off the engine for three minutes. Everybody if you could just shut off your mechanical equipment – like the camera – and enjoy the silence”. The rhythmic murmur of the engine spurted to a stop…………blissful quiet ascended…………
Water trickled and splashed on the opposite cliff wall. Green moss and ferns lunged to sheer rocky edges. The sky shed gentle tears while wildlife crescendoed a nature symphony. Birds chirped to one another and somewhere in the rainforest, a tui sang a beautiful melody to its mate. A splash in the water and a fish surfaced briefly before diving back to the murky depth of the water.
Alas, the engine coughed to life and the boat speeded home. Heading to the back of the boat, the stern, I watched as white froths of waves bubbled – a bit sad as the journey was heading to an end. Up front, beams of sunlight broke through the dense clouds and put a glow on a spot of water. Too soon, we were back in Deep Cove, where the van awaited.
Climbing up, instead of down, on the Wilmot Pass was a whole different perspective. We actually stopped midway to appreciate the road travelled. The cliff walls were now on the left side while anyone leaning too close on the right edges could have gone skydiving without a parachute. The rainforest took on a misty outlook with the rain clouds as backdrop and green canopy of trees paraded in abundance. Seeing that I was alone, a kind lady offered to take a picture of me. That was sweet of her and I discovered later, she and her family were from Germany.
The van headed for one more stop, the Power Station. All too soon, it was time for a return trip across Lake Manapouri. True enough, the bus was waiting for us at the junction as promised. By the time we reached Queenstown, it was 8.30pm.
Tired and well-satisfied with the journey, I contemplated my next adventure. Little did I know the rainbow glimpsed that day, was just the beginning. It was practically rainbow season in New Zealand.
For a nature lover, New Zealand offers endless landscape to ease the soul and feast the eyes. Doubful Sound fits the bill and then some….
How to get there
Real Journey runs daily tour to the Doubtful Sound. There is also an overnight cruise during the warmer months from October to April. Winter months are colder but there is the incentive of discounted prices from May to September. http://www.realjourneys.co.nz