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Te Anau and Doubtful Sound

2010 July 24
by rob

February 25, 2009


So, after departing from Inna and going back to The Last Resort to pick up my stuff, I caught my 2PM Intercity Coach to Te Anau. It was a 2.5 hour ride through some spectacular country and the weather was beautiful. The bus driver thought he was a tour guide and kept blabbering about the crap we were driving by. I found it just annoying so I listened to my iPod instead.

I got dropped off at my backpacker’s hostel, Bob and Maxine’s, near the edge of town, before 5 PM. Bob and Maxine, themselves, were very friendly. Upon hearing that I was Polish, Maxine was very excited and showed me a jar of marmalade that was “Made in Poland”. I guess such things are very common in Canada, but maybe not as much in New Zealand.

The place was very small: only 18 beds in 3 rooms. The beds were all bunks, of course. As usual, most of the people were German and Israeli, which made it boring for me since these groups usually just associate with each other.

So, I left the place and walked into town. Te Anau is a very small town, with less than 2000 residents. The place was located on the shores of Lake Te Anau — the largest lake on the South Island — and was one of the gateways for nearby Fiordland National Park — the largest such park in New Zealand. There was nothing for me to see in Te Anau itself. I was here for two reasons: 1. to travel on a daytrip to Milford or Doubtful Sound, and 2. as a launching pad for my tramp on the nearby Kepler Track.

I hadn’t officially decided which of the two fjords to see. Milford Sound was world famous and renowned for its beauty. Doubtful Sound is lesser known, but reputedly bigger and more spectacular. Many tour companies run to Milford Sound and the cost for tours was only about NZ$100 (about CA$67). Only one tour company (Real Journeys) runs trips to Doubtful Sound and the cost was very high: NZ$265 (about CA$178). Milford Sound is apparently jammed with different boats, whereas Doubtful Sound is nearly empty. Normally, based on my well-developed backpacker principles — abhor what most people do and buck the trend — my decision would be simple: Doubtful Sound. However, I balked at the high cost and waffled instead.

The road that I walked into town was the highway from Milford Sound to Te Anau. The number of buses I saw roaring down this highway during my twenty minute walk was ridiculous. The number of tourists I saw going to Milford Sound made me feel ill. Most of them were probably on day trips from Queenstown itself — a four hour drive each way. Simply seeing these buses made me come to my decision. There was no way I could go to Milford Sound. Me, the travel snob, would pay the extra money and go to Doubtful Sound!

I walked to the tour office on the waterfront and booked my tour for the next morning. Some of the tours going through an underground hydroelectric power station (which would have been really cool to see), but these tours were all booked. I guess that’s the cost of attempting to be flexible and waiting to the last minute to decide. I was reassured that the tour without the power station would still be good, however.

After finishing up there, I was bored and considered going to Ash Wednesday mass (which I don’t think I’ve been to since I was a child), but the Catholic church in Te Anau was tiny and there was no mass that night. I stopped at the Fresh Choice supermarket to buy food for tramping and lunch for tomorrow. I stopped at a fish and chips place to get cheap cheap deep fried delicious dinner. Blue Cod is a popular fish in New Zealand, it seems. It’s very tasty!

That night, back at the backpacker’s hostel, I chatted with Annie, from Tampere, Finland. I asked if she was of the Sami people (in reference to the SAMI team I used to work with at NeoEdge), but she said she wasn’t. Her English was perfect and we had fun discussions. She gave me her email address just in case I’m ever in Finland.

February 26, 2009

I didn’t have to be at the Real Journeys office until 11 AM for my tour, so I had some time to kill. I had a light breakfast: salad. I was planning on stuffing myself during an early lunch so I didn’t need to bring much food with me on the tour itself. I didn’t want to pay for food on the boat.

I walked to the lakeside and to the Department of Conservation (DOC) office to pick up my hut tickets for the Kepler Track. I had to book these online. I had neglected to pick up my hut tickets before going on the Routeburn Track and the hut wardens chastised me. I wasn’t making that mistake this time! I wanted to buy patches for the tramps I had completed, but the shop there seemed to be out of stock. Oh well.

I walked along the side of Lake Te Anau for a while. It was in a beautiful setting. Fiordland National Park, with its many mountains, was located on the opposite shore. Mount Luxmore itself was directly on the other side. I’d be tramping there the next day. In the meanwhile, I took some pictures of the ducks and seaplanes on the lake. I guess a duck is like a miniature seaplane, right? It flies and lands on the water. It seems logical to me.

I headed off to Mile’s Better Pies for lunch. I had attempted to come here twice (1. when returning from my Routeburn Track tramp, since the bus stopped briefly in Te Anau, and 2. yesterday), but the place closed at 3 PM and I always failed. Today was finally the day! Kevin Terrell (the guy who had driven me from Fox Glacier to Queenstown about three weeks ago) had recommended it to me. After eating the venison steak pie and Cornish pastie here, I was convinced! I later recommend this place to Toni and Patrick McMorris, who also ate here and enjoyed it after their own trip to Doubtful Sound.

Lunch at Mile's Better Pies

Lunch at Mile's Better Pies

I had a ginger beer to wash it all down and got some lolly cake to take away with me. Lolly cake is a marvellous New Zealand invention: a cake filled with candies (usually soft gummy ones). I think I should try and learn how to make this.

After lunch I caught the bus to nearby Manapouri, where I waited for a while before being able to board a boat with many tourists across pretty Lake Manapouri to West Arm. There were plans here to build a huge hydroelectric power station here in the 1960s to smelt aluminum from Australia, but public outcry prevented the government from raising the lake level. So, the hydroelectric power station they built here was the first in the world that operates at normal lake levels. The power station, itself, is located underground under a nearby mountain. Crazy. From surface level, at West Arm, all we could see were the water intakes and the power transmission lines.

Instead of seeing the power station, we boarded coaches that drove us over a very rough 22 km over a mountain pass in Fiordland National Park to Deep Cove. The road is the most expensive ever built in New Zealand and the scenery was astounding. Fiordland gets so much rainfall that the mountains were covered with a lush, temperate rainforest. The vegetation was so thick that it formed two walls of greenery on bounding the road. We were driving through a canyon of life.

The view over the valleys below was stunning. I took many panoramic photos that day to try and capture the landscape. The valleys looked virgin and unspoiled. Several waterfalls tumbled from mountainsides. Click to see the full size!

Fiordland National Park

Fiordland National Park

This scene was located in Deep Cove near the dock:

Deep Cove

Deep Cove

Our cruise on Doubtful Sound itself was three hours long on a comfortable boat. The sky was grey and there was but the slightest drizzle of rain. The water was very calm. It hadn’t rained in the past ten days — it was basically a drought in Fiordland! The captain said that this weather was basically as good as it gets since brilliant blue skies are an extremely rare occurrence here.

We saw a couple of tiny penguins swimming and a colony of seals on the rocky islands at the end of the sound. The water where the sound met the open Tasman Sea was significantly rougher with waves tossing the boat around. Near the end of the cruise, the boat entered a stunning side-arm of the fjord with remarkably still water and sheer walls of rock dropping majestically into the deeps. The water was so still that it acted like a mirror. The captain shut off the engines of the boat so we could enjoy the serenity. This made it all worth it. Experiencing this felt very special and made me happy.

Doubtful Sound Panorama 1

Doubtful Sound Panorama 1

After the serenity in the side arm of the sound, it was time to go back into the bus over the pass, in the boat across Lake Manapouri, and in the bus back to Te Anau. It would take several hours and was rather boring. Most of the people on the tour were your very average sort of annoying tourists that I felt I couldn’t associate with and just irritated me. I tried to shut out all the people around me by listening to my iPod. I sat at the very front of the boat and tried to pretend the rest of the boat behind me didn’t exist. I was really getting tired of traveling. I had to comfort myself that I’d be home in a little over in a month.

I was dropped off at the backpacker’s hostel around 8:30 PM and had some chicken gumbo soup for dinner. There were some friendly German girls who had made brownies and gave me some. I guess nice things can still happen while traveling. I knew that I shouldn’t be feeling all doomy and gloomy. Things were going to get worse for me before they were going to get better, though.

Rob Szumlakowski
Toronto, Ontario, Canada

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