When people talk about must-do’s in New Zealand, if there is one place mentioned at the top, it has to be Milford Sound. Marketed as an epic day trip from Queenstown, the glitzy adventure capital of the South Island, Milford is considered one of the most beautiful places in the world, and rightly so.
I spent Christmas Day at Milford Sound this year with Haka Tours and RealNZ, and it was unforgettable. I had never seen anything like it before, and it still ranks high on my favorite kiwi spots in spite of being slightly worse for wear after partaking in the Qtown nightlife scene on Christmas Eve. Steep cliffs topped with thundering waterfalls and snowcapped mountains peeping between them among a dark fiord filled with seals and dolphins creates a magical place unlike any other. Of course, I am not the only one who has realized just how awesome it is.
This means people. Lots of them, well at least a lot by New Zealand standards, which I’ve learned to mean that if you see one other person, that means the place is bumpin’. And if you see a tour bus, holy crap is it popular. Let’s just say there are plenty of buses at Milford. But what about the 11 other fiords?
It didn’t take long for me to start hearing whispers of an equally magical place near Milford Sound called Doubtful Sound overlooked by, well, everyone. Confided in secret to me by only a few hardy locals and intrepid travelers, I decided this would be my first stop on my two week Jucy campervan roadtrip. Attempting to hit up all the lesser-known South Island spots in two weeks, I knew Doubtful Sound deserved a place at the top.
Picking up my van in Queenstown in the snow, I headed straight for Te Anau, the gateway to these famous fiords. I was one of two vans at the campsite that night, an indication of good things to come.
I was looking forward to enjoying these kiwi spots all on my own.
My first glimpse of Doubtful Sound with my ONA Camps Bay camera bag
Up with the rain the next morning, I made my way to the RealNZ’ dock in Manapouri to catch my boat to the sound, totally grumpy about the weather. While none of the fiords are particularly accessible, Doubtful is great because it’s an adventure to get there. First, you boat across Lake Manapouri which is a STUNNER then you catch a bus across Wilmot Pass down to Doubtful Sound, THEN you cruise. It’s a completely different experience from Milford.
On a boat built for around 80 people, I was thrilled to see I was one of about 15. Yes! Doubtful Sound is one of the most remote areas of New Zealand, and I was really hoping that I would get to experience it without a crapload of other people with me.
As soon as we got out on Lake Manapouri, the weather gods heard my prayers and the fog and clouds lifted to reveal clear blue skies, stark green mountains, and white glaciers. This part of New Zealand is one of the wettest, and I never imagined I would get so lucky as to experience the fiords on a sunny day! Well mostly sunny day.
By the time we docked to catch the bus over the pass to the sound, my phone reception was gone and I was forced to follow my own advice about disconnecting with the interwebs and reconnecting with reality.
If there is one place in the world that inspires a feeling of remoteness and a desire to be offline, it’s Doubtful Sound.
Because Milford Sound is so highly praised, I assumed Doubtful Sound would be less impressive. But I was completely wrong. The mountains were just as high, the cliffs were just as steep, the snow was just as sparkling, and the views were even MORE spectacular. In my humble opinion.
But what made me love Doubtful Sound wholeheartedly and with wild abandon was the complete lack of humanity there. That’s right, no other people. No other boats. Nothing. Just us and nature. In the winter months, the number of visitors drops dramatically, which means if you’re keen for a more one-on-one experience with New Zealand’s greatest natural wonders, get yourself over to this part of the world in July and August.
Yeah, it’s cold, I am not going to lie. But it’s worth it.
Like Milford, Doubtful Sound was created out by the god Tu-Te-Raki-Whanoa in Maori stories as a safe haven. He split the earth open to form Patea, Doubtful Sound in Maori with the help of 4 younger gods who helped carve the 4 arms of the fiord:
Deep Cove, Crooked Arm, First Arm, and Hall Arm.
And also like Milford, it’s infested with sandflies. But don’t think about that.
Later on when Captain Cook would sail around this part of New Zealand, he declined to go into Doubtful Sound because he was “doubtful” his ship could sail through the narrow entrance, giving the fiord its name today.
Like the other fiords, the water of Doubtful is very dark and still, which now that I’m a diver, I’ve learned is because a later of freshwater darkened by the tannins of the runoff of the plants sits on top of the saltwater below. It makes the fiords a cool place to dive because it makes the water so dark that it tricks deep-sea creatures into living close to the surface.
Which is either really cool or really terrifying.
At one point we pulled into one of the arms of the fiord, and the dark water was as still as a mirror. I know people talk about mirror-like reflections on bodies of water, and I’ve certainly seen my fair share of calm lakes and tranquil ponds, but nothing, absolutely nothing could have prepared me for the waters of Doubtful Sound.
Even from the moving boat, not a ripple was created in the water in front of us, giving us a crystal clear reflection of all the mountains and peaks around the fiord. Mesmerized, I stood at the front of the boat with my hands on the rail watching the reflection of the landscape instead of the mountains themselves, searching for some indication that it was just a mirror.
Once deep inside the arm of the fiord, the driver killed the engine of the boat and asked us to hush for a minute and just listen to the powerful sounds of nature without any static noise.
It was an incredible moment. There is just something so powerful and moving about experiencing a place so removed and disconnected from the rest of the world! I wish I could have been there completely alone, though I probably would have freaked myself out.
After I ducked inside for an obligatory coffee and to dethaw.
The Coffee Diaries in the remote Fiordland
I recently announced my new series with Starbucks about storytelling on the road over a cup of coffee, and sharing those private, special moments here on my blog. I was lucky enough to have not one, but two awesome stories on my trip to Doubtful Sound.
One of my favorite things about being a solo traveler is getting to meet people on the road. I’m often asked if I get lonely traveling 0n my own, but the truth is that I am almost never alone. I’ve also found over the years that when I am feeling lonely or if I’m in the mood to experience a place with new friends, the easiest way to make that happen is to pop onto a day tour of some sort.
Solo travelers tend to gravitate to these sorts of experiences.
Being winter after all, it was necessary to warm up and wake up with a hot coffee after extended periods of time on deck. I need to be recaffeinated by 2pm at the absolute latest.
Grabbing a mug of hot water, I added my packet of Starbucks VIA® Latte – Vanilla Latte and started to chat with one of the crew who clearly needed warming up too after being outside for most of the trip.
I couldn’t complain too much about the cold because it meant snow in the mountains, but still. Brrrr!
Because the boat was so quiet, it meant more opportunities to chat and meet new people, including my new friend Sarah. A kiwi local who has worked in the fiords for years, she was able to answer all of my pestering questions about penguins (because penguins are awesome!) and dolphins and diving, and tell me stories about what the fiords are like year round.
I just can’t help my curiosity!
What I was most curious about was the Manapouri Power Station that was built 50 years ago in one of the arms of the sound. It’s the largest hydroelectric power station in New Zealand, and to be perfectly honest, I was astonished that something like this was allowed to be built in one of the most pristine, special regions of the country, considering how environmentally nuts everyone is here.
Sipping our coffees, I learned that it was in fact quite controversial and there were protests and fighting way back when to keep the station from raising the water level of the fiords, which is what they intended to do. Luckily, it was the basis for the environmental conservation movement in New Zealand, and while the station was built, and we got to visit it underground, it didn’t effect Doubtful Sound.
Thank god for small favors!
Later on I was joined by an older fellow from the UK who was raised in Christchurch who travels to a new part of New Zealand every year. You know those people who just need to talk? We’ve all been there, me included, and this guy was definitely one of them.
On coffee number two we chatted for the return journey about getting off the beaten path in New Zealand and where the best secret spots around Christchurch are. While everyone went inside for the journey back, we stood out on deck with our drinks chatting as the sun set over the lakes and mountains.
New Zealand really brings out the friendliness in people, and it has certainly made me more open and trustworthy of people that would have never have happened if I stayed back at home.
We all get lonely on the road sometimes, and when you are in a beautiful place, it’s natural you want to share the experience with others, even if it’s just to say, “hot damn if this isn’t the most beautiful place I’ve ever laid eyes on” out loud. If you’re me, that is.
I’m already planning a return trip to Doubtful Sound. You know, once I dethaw.
Have you ever heard of Doubtful Sound? Have you ever visited a place that inspired you to totally disconnect and meet new people? What’s your best coffee diaries moment?