Fiordland fun

June 2022

It was road trip time again, and this was definitely a trip I had wanted to do before tourists start coming back in big numbers.  I have said it before, and I will say it again, as tough as it has been to be restricted to travel only in New Zealand over the last couple of years, it has been amazing to be able to explore the country without it being swamped with tourists. 

I headed off on a beautiful crisp winter morning and officially the first weekend of winter.  I had told myself I would not stop at Tekapo and Lake Pukaki for photos as I have a million photos of both those spots but I could not help myself, it was just so pretty. (I also had to do the mandatory stop at Lake Ruataniwha for the perfect reflection shot.)

I was spending the first night in Cromwell, just to break up the driving  – around 5 hours a day is pretty much my concentration limit when it comes to driving on my own, no matter how loud I play my music lol. 

Today, Cromwell is a small town with a population of around 7,000 and is known for its stone fruit orchards and vineyards, but in the past it was a thriving goldmining town know as ‘The Junction’ as it sat at the junction of the Clutha and Kawarau Rivers.  In 1992, with the construction of the Clyde Dam and the creation of Lake Dunstan, the town was moved to its current location.  This included moving the heritage precinct where you can still visit the original town buildings, some dating back to 1860.

I spent some time exploring the Heritage Precinct before heading in to the new town, where it seems the most interesting thing to see is the giant fruit lol!  It was only 2.30 on a Saturday afternoon and most of the shops were closed so I popped into the supermarket and topped up with fuel in preparation for tomorrow’s drive. 

My accommodation for the night was just a little out of town and was a lovely little studio room with views over a vineyard.  I settled in for a relaxing night with a local red wine and admired the amazing sky full of stars and the Milky Way – the kind of sky you can only get without light pollution.  I even managed to get some half decent photos on my phone which was amazing.

I opened my blinds early on a very cold and frosty morning so I could enjoy watching the day break from my bed – it was looking beautiful until I looked the other direction and saw it was even more stunning with red clouds and low mist hanging over the fruit trees and valleys.

It looked so beautiful, I had to jump in my car (jacket over pyjamas) and drive in that direction … unfortunately it could not happen in a hurry due to the heavy frost on the car!  I took a few photos from the road before it was safe to drive for a couple of other views.  Sadly the deep red had lessen by that point but what a stunning morning.

Day two’s drive started through the Kawarau gorge, famous for being the home to the first commercial bungy jump in the world and then I took a quick detour to the historic Arrowtown.  It was passed its autumn colour prime but it is still always so pretty and worth a giving it time even if just for a quick wander around the historic town or along the river.

From Arrowtown I headed towards Lake Wakatipu but instead of turning right towards Queenstown, I turned left and drove around the other arm of the lake.   The  road then took me through farm lands and on to alpine tussock.  The rain that was forecasted started about 20 minutes out of my final destination, Te Anau.

As it was too early to check in, I stopped for lunch in town and to admire a rainbow – though it was not a particularly pretty setting – over the local Four Square (small supermarket) lol.  Finally. After checking in to my very dated motel (it was really well priced, great location and the staff were lovely) the rain had subsided a little so I went for a walk and I am so glad I did – yet another rainbow, this time with a lovely setting and reflected in the lake.

Te Anau (Place of the Swirling Waters) sits on the shore of Lake Te Anau, the largest lake in the South Island and it is a great starting place for exploring Fiordland National Park.  With a population of around 3,000 people it is small but perfectly formed and in the summer welcomes thousands of holiday makers.

The morning dawned, calm and still, and although the sunrise was behind me but I still had to go for a quick lake front walk.  The forecast was for lots of rain so needed to make the most of any time it was not raining.  A lake front coffee was the perfect way to start the day.

I had a short 20 minute drive to Manapouri to join my trip for the day, but it was such a beautiful morning, I could not drive the  20 minutes without stopping multi times to admire the views and take photos.

If Te Anau is a small town, Manapouri is a tiny town, with a population of under 300 but is the gateway to Doubtful Sound, which is the reason I was there.  I was joining the Real NZ tour to the sound for the day and was pleased to see that there was only a small group of people on the trip today – great for people like me who doesn’t like crowds 👍🏻😂 (Probably not so great for the tour company.)

The famed Fiordland sandflies started to appear while I was waiting for the boat. The positive of coming in winter is that most of you is already covered up 👍🏻😂.

I had been to Doubtful Sound just a couple of years ago on the expedition cruise but from the sea end and his time I was to visit it from the landside which starts in the Waiau River – once the second largest river in the country before crossing Lake Manapouri. 

Created during the last ice age, 20,000 years ago, the lake is 440m deep in some place and considered one of New Zealand’s most beautiful lakes.  In the 1960’s the government proposed raising the level of the lake by 30m as part of a hydroelectric development, and this was meet with New Zealand’s largest conservation protest of the time.  The outcome was the lake level was not raised and an independent body called the “Guardians of Lake Manapouri” was created.  Still today, they monitor the lake levels to ensure its levels mimic normal fluctuation.

We travelled across the beautiful lake from west to east, in to the morning mist and out the outside.  It was bitterly cold on the top deck, but so beautiful.  Even more so when the sun came up over the mountains.  I took so many photos and we had not even reached the sounds lol.

On the east side of the lake we docked at the wharf near the underground hydro power station (which was still built despite them being unable to raise the lake level).  Completed in 1971, it utilises the 230m drop between the western arm of the Lake and the Deep Cove branch of Doubtful Sound, 10km away (and my destination).  Its hard to image such a massive construction project in such a remote location – smaller vehicles and machinery etc. came on a barge across the lake, heavy machinery came on road which we were about to travel, from Deep Cove.  

We had some time in the power station’s information centre before boarding a bus for the drive over Wilmot Pass, the lowest pass through the Southern Alps at only 671m.  The road was constructed to facilitate the building of the power station, and is the only road on the New Zealand mainland, not connected to the roading network.

The road across the pass was beautiful – views over the Spey Valley, waterfalls, lots of incredible moss covered rocks and native birds.   Our first look at Doubtful Sound from the Wilmot Pass look out was incredible.  Apparently, 2 out of every 3 days it is raining and/or the lookout is in cloud, today it was not. So much stunningness already ❤️💚 Mother Nature is AMAZING.

Just a little reminder – despite it’s name, Doubtful Sound (and in fact all the ‘sounds’ in Fiordland) are actually fiords and not sounds!  A sound is a flooded river valley, whilst these fiords are flooded glacial valleys.

Having reached Deep Cove (population 2), we boarded the next boat.  Big enough to take 150 passengers so just right for our group of 26 👍🏻.  We had almost 3 hours on the boat and it was stunning – beautiful calm water, beautiful reflections, incredible waterfalls with their own little rainbows.

As we travelled through the sound and out towards the sea it got a little rough, but we only stayed long enough to spot the fur seals chilling on the rocks.  They are so well camouflaged but the more you look, the more you see. We also saw Buller’s mollyhawks  (a small albatross species) and gannets soaring on the wind currents. 

Returning from the sea, the waters became calm again and there were reflections for days 💚.  We took advantage of this by having a 5 minute “sound of silence”.  We all chose a place on the deck to stand or sit, the boat engine was turned off and we just stood still taking in nature at her best, the silence broke by the occasional bird song from bush clad cliffs and the distant rush of water from nearby waterfalls. Personally, I could have stayed like that for hours.

We had time to stop and admire one last waterfall and see where the hydro power plant water outlet was, where the dark fresh water (from the lake on the other side of the mountains) pours into the sea water and too soon we were back on the bus over the pass (but not without having another stop at the lookout  point which was just as stunning as the morning) and then back on the boat across the Lake Manapouri. It really was 7 hours of blissful beauty and a trip I highly recommend. 


Unseen Fiordland and Stewart Island (Part 3) – Into the Sounds

November 2021

After a relatively good sleep despite the rolling (or pitching as we boat people say lol), we woke up in a perfectly calm inlet of Open Cove, at the entrance to Thompson Sound.  Of course, my phone still thinks I am in Vladivostok and after asking around, it appears this is the first time it has happened, and no one seems to know what’s up 🤔.  I continued my morning coffee with a view this morning, this time my view was of beautiful cloud topped mountains flowing down into the sea. 

We were out in the zodiacs by 9am and we zipped around the northern end of the sound and then down a beautiful Pandora River. As with yesterday, the tide was on our side, otherwise we would not have got very far down the shallow river.   It was beautiful and peaceful, and the river was lined with beautiful bush including flowering rata, kamahi and orchids.  We were welcomed to the wonderful Fiordland weather with sun, rain and hail all in about 30 minutes 🤔.  It seemed crazy as it was not that cold.  Another great Fiordland feature was also out to greet us – sandflies, so many sandflies!!  Luckily, we were pretty much covered from head to toe with our wet weather gear so there was not a lot of opportunity from them to bite.

From Pandora River, we continued on our expedition to Neck Cove where we jumped out in the shallows and went for a bit of a bush whack … a serious bush whack in some cases where there were no tracks at all. (FYI bush whacking normally refers to walking through the bush where there is actually no track – I guess it means you have to ‘whack’ away the bush lol.)  It was fun and the bush was beautiful though it took some time to find a decent route out to the beach (avoiding the swamp), but we finally made it back and on to the boat for time to dry off before lunch.  As we ate the ship headed into Blanket Bay, part of Doubtful Sound, where we dropped anchor.

After lunch we were back out in the zodiacs for a couple of hours zipping around the bays of Secretary Island with a short stop on one of the small beaches.  Secretary Island is one of New Zealand’s most important islands for conservation as it has always been free of possums and rodents.  Subsequently it has been cleared of deer and stoats (a great challenge given the very steep and densely forested slopes) making it one of the largest pest free islands and populations of endangered species have been relocated there.

It is interesting how localised weather is in this region.  We could watch the rain showers pass down the valleys and across the fiord (and across us too of course 🥴) but thankfully there was not too much rain and we did not get too wet.

We had another evening recap before dinner, and boy what a dinner it was.  We had passed a couple of small crayfishing operations during the day and the chef had taken it upon himself to negotiate a large number of crays for 2 bottles of Russian vodka (I did hear numerous versions of what it he actually swapped for the crays, but in every version, Russian vodka was gratefully received by these remote fishermen lol).  The fresh crayfish went down a treat with my fellow passengers – if only I liked crayfish lol.

Why are some areas called ‘Sounds” and others ‘Fiords” I hear you ask?  It is an interesting question, and I was keen to learn that a Sound is a drowned river valley whilst a Fiord is formed in a valley left behind by a glacier … of course in Fiordland, there was once many glaciers along the coastline.

After dinner I headed back on deck as it was a stunning evening to leave Doubtful Sound and head back out to the ocean as the sun set – but I did have to make sure I was back in my bed before we got out past the headlands and it got rough again 🥴

Day 5 and we work up in Cascade Cove in Dusky Sound, having travelled through the Acheron Passage during the night.  I had slept well again with only a few hours of rolling during the night and it was yet another beautiful morning, a perfect morning for the helicopter flight some of us had booked.

I was in the first group that set of in the zodiac to the floating helipad and into the helicopter.  We then flew up the sound and landed on the top of Mt Pender (at 1100m above sea level) where we were met by Ross, an ex-senior DOC ranger who told us all about the region.  From here there was spectacular views of Dusky Sound and some of the 360 islands it contains.

Despite being almost summer, there had been some snow on the peaks of the mountains around us and it there was definitely a brisk chill in the area.  Too soon our time on the top was over and we could also see a weather front coming in from the sea as we headed back to the barge for the next group to go up.  It was such a special experience, and I was certain that my photos would not do it justice (I was right)!

We had a quick zodiac cruise around Pickersgill Harbour and the historic Astronomers Point before heading back to ship.  Astronomers Point is the site of a temporary observatory set up during Capitan Cooks second voyage in 1773.  It is significant because they were testing new technology and it was considered the most accurately located place on the globe at the time.

Cook and his crew, having just sailed through Antarctica, cleared about an acre of forest and set up camp for provisioning and ship repairs.  They even set up a brewery, using Rimu and manuka leaves to make beer with the hope of preventing scurvy during their 5 week stay.

Having had an early start, we were all back on board before 10am and we set sail deeper into Dusky Sound It was beautiful travelling down the sound with snow-capped mountains in various shades of blue and grey.  We sailed through Cooks Passage and past Long Island, through water so clear you could see the Little Blue penguins popping up from time to time, as well as see them swimming under water!

We anchored just off Cooper Island in Sportsman Cove and had time for a pre-lunch zodiac cruise, passing the tiny but beautiful Shags Island which was covered in flowering Rata.  Have I mentioned the sand flies 🥴🤔🥴 – we were keen not to stop for very long as every time we did, the sandflies would swarm in!  Despite that, it was wonderful to be completely surrounded by native bush.  (It was frustrating that my maps were still showing that I was in a Russia as I had planned to use them to pinpoint our location in these small coves and bays 🤦🏻‍♀️.)

As we had lunch we started sailing again.  I must say, meals were always interesting as there was a great mix of people on board.  Most were very well travelled, many were very experienced trampers, other were birders and/or botanists and about half had been on Heritage Expedition trips before.

A weather front was moving in as we sailed down the Acheron Passage, the wind picked up as we watched the rain travel down the valleys.   Thankfully the sea was not as we were in still in the sheltered fiords and by late afternoon, we were anchored in the protected Duck Cove.
The day finished with a great lecture from one of our guides, Lindsay Wilson.  Lindsay has a long history of working with the Department of Conservation in the Fiordland area and gave us some wonderful insights into conservation in the Dusky Sound area.

Fiordland National Park is the largest national park in New Zealand, established in 1952 and it plays an incredibly important role in conservation in New Zealand.  In fact, it is considered the birthplace of conservation when in 1890, when Richard Henry set up a New Zealand’s first island sanctuary on Resolution Island and single handedly rowed more than 500 Kakapo and kiwi to this and other island sanctuaries in the area.    (FYI Resolution Island is New Zealand’s 5th largest island.)  He even used a muzzled dog to help him track down the birds on the mainland.

Unfortunately, he had underestimated the distance stoats, ferrets and weasels could swim, however his techniques of using conservation dogs and relocating endangered species to predator free islands is still key to New Zealand’s conservation efforts today.

Today a number of the islands in Fiordland have been cleared of pests and in fact Anchor Island today is home to half the world’s population of Kakapo!! (I should note that of course they are endemic to New Zealand and therefore the entire world’s population is in New Zealand lol)

I looked forward to exploring the area more in the morning.