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.