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The Silk Route - World Travel: New Zealand: Doubtful Sound
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New Zealand: Te Anau & Doubtful Sound
February 2017

Te Anau Doubtful Sound
Doubtful Sound, new zealand

Te Anau is a perfect base for exploring fiordland - visiting the glowworm caves across the lake is a magical experience not to be missed!

The spectacular beauty and peace of Doubtful Sound are embedded in our memories, a highlight of our New Zealand trip.

Te Anau

new zealand
Looking back to Queenstown from the southern arm of Lake Wakatipu on the way to Te Anau.

From Queenstown to Te Anau we drove through stunning scenery - New Zealand is like this almost everywhere!

We followed Route 6 along the southern arm of Lake Wakatipu, then branched off onto the 97 then 94 to Te Anau. It was a very easy drive and we arrived at 10:45. Too early to get into our room but checked in and booked ourselves onto the afternoon glowworm tour before walking into town to confirm our trip to Doubtful Sound tomorrow.

new zealand
Dramatic moody clouds en route.

The town stands on the shore of Lake Te Anau, New Zealand's second largest lake after Lake Taupo and the largest on the south island. It runs north-south with three long fiords on its western side and was gouged out by glaciers - the last ice age ended only 14,000 years ago. The ancient Maori name "Te Ana-au" means "caves with a current of swirling water".

 

Te Anau
Lake shore, Te Anau.

There are several information boards around which describe the geology, flora and fauna. For instance one of the fish in the lake is the enchantingly-named redfinned bully!

Te Anau
Early morning, Lake Te Anau.

Another board tells of the great Maori god Tu-te-Rakiwhanoa, who, according to Maori legend, carved out the rugged mountains, deep fiords and numerous islands of Fiordland.

 

Te Anau
Cloudy afternoon on Lake Te Anau.

The glowworm tour was great. Organised by Real Journeys we first boarded a catamaran to cruise up Lake Te Anau, disembarking on the western shore. The glowworm caves are part of the 6.7 km long, four level, Aurora cave system, which is quite young in geological terms, only 12,000 years old. Some parts of the system are over 250,000 years old! It's still an active system though, as the Tunnel Burn which flows through the caves is slightly acidic and continues to carve out space.

No photographs are allowed in the caves, in particular because light and noise cause the glowworms to switch off their bioluminescence, so I'm very grateful to Real Journeys for allowing me to use a couple of theirs.

Glowworms are only found in New Zealand and Australia. The glowworm species Arachnocampa Luminosa, found in the Te Anau caves, is unique to New Zealand.

Courtesy of Real Journeys: glowworm image
Glowworm "fishing lines" courtesy of Real Journeys.

A long walkway goes through some quite high cave sections and past a long drop of crystal-clear waterfall. Eventually we reached a boat dock and got into a small boat which the guide hauled through the glowworm grotto on a system of fixed ropes. It was pitch black, the better to see the glowworms - thousands of spots of green light in large patches on the ceiling of the cave. The spots are almost equidistant from each other as the creatures are territorial and will attack and eat any others that come too close.

Courtesy of Real Journeys: glowworm caves
Glowworm caves courtesy of Real Journeys.

They create long threads with mucous drops, nicknamed "fishing lines", then lure insects with their light to be caught on the threads. They can eat small insects whole, but larger ones are predigested with an injection of the glowworms stomach acid - the glowworms then suck out the body. The whole process can take up to four weeks!

Back at the lodge there was a really interesting presentation on the lifecycle of the glowworm, from egg, through larva (which is the glowworm stage) and pupa to adult Fungus Gnat.

It's a magical experience to see the glowworms, we were both so pleased we'd decided to do it.

Te Anau
Lake shore at Te Anau.
Te Anau Takahe
Adult and immature takahe.

 

On returning to Te Anau we walked up to the bird sanctuary along the lake, in particular to see the curious red and blue takahes. These indigenous flightless birds have suffered badly from predatory animals introduced by the first immigrants, such as ferrets and stoats.

Te Anau Takahe

Deer also compete with the takahe for food, so the birds are under serious threat in many habitats. An active conservation programme controls predators and deer and also breeds birds in captivity.

Te Anau Antipodes Islands Parakeet
Antipodes Island Parakeet/Kakariki.
Te Anau South Island Kaka
South Island Kaka - a large parrot.
There are lots of sparrows around, too, taking advantage of spilled feed if they can!

 

We ate well in Te Anau, though the pies we had from "Miles Better Pies" for our first lunch weren't the best we had in New Zealand. Excellent pizzas at Paradiso, superb venison ragout pasta at Dolce Vita, and we ate twice at Fat Duck having very good pasta, fish and chips and lamb.

27 km north of Te Anau is Te Anau Downs, also on the lake. It is the departure point for boats to take walkers to the start of the Milford Haven Track at Glade Wharf.

Te Anau
Looking west across Lake Te Anau from Te Anau Downs.

 

Doubtful Sound

Lake Manapouri
Lake Manapouri

On an absolutely glorious morning we drove the 20 km to Manapouri for our 10:30 sailing.

The trip, again organised by Real Journeys, starts with a cruise up Lake Manapouri itself, which has some not insignificant mountains and fine views.

Much of the information here comes from the Real Journeys' literature or guides.

At the West Arm power station we disembarked to board buses to take us to Doubtful Sound. It was almost impossible to get to Doubtful Sound before the power station was built. It was only in 1959 that a road opened across the Wilmot Pass to facilitate its construction.

Doubtful Sound

 

Doubtful Sound
Doubtful Sound

 

We had a very amusing driver and he stopped for views, a particularly stunning one of the Sound itself at Wilmot Pass.

The primeval forest here was the densest we'd seen, it looks impenetrable, like a wall, and you can't see very far past the outside trees. Peter Jackson wanted to film LOTR scenes here but it rained too much. It's said he modelled the Ents on these trees.

So then we came to the dock and, after a short wait for the boat to arrive, embarked for the journey through Doubtful Sound.

It gets its name from Captain Cook who was "doubtful" as to whether there would be enough wind within the Sound to blow his ship back out again, and so he didn't venture in from the coast.

Doubtful Sound
Doubtful Sound from Wilmot Pass.
Doubtful Sound

 

We travelled up the northern side first, passing forest-clad mountains as the Sound gradually widened

Doubtful Sound

 

 

 

Doubtful Sound
Doubtful Sound

The scenery is absolutely spectacular along the whole length of the Sound.

As we approached the Tasman Sea we were followed by albatrosses (I think the guide said white-capped and black-backed). These huge, beautiful birds effortlessly skimmed the waves and soared into the sky.

Doubtful Sound

 

Doubtful Sound
Doubtful Sound
Doubtful Sound
Doubtful Sound
Doubtful Sound
Doubtful Sound

We passed a colony of dozing seals, sunning themselves on rocks, as we emerged into the Tasman Sea. The sea was very rough here, though no huge waves to speak of, thankfully.

Sealing in Doubtful Sound began around 1800 but only lasted about 75 years. The blubber was used to make oil for lamps and the skin used for clothing, but hunting was so intense it began to be regulated in 1875 to prevent the seals from becoming extinct and was totally banned in 1946.

 

Doubtful Sound
Doubtful Sound



Doubtful Sound
Doubtful Sound
Doubtful Sound

 

 

We saw only one or two very small private boats in the fiord - essentially we had the wilderness to ourselves.

 

Returning we travelled down the southern side of the Sound, with more dramatic scenery as we explored two side arms of the fiord.

 

Doubtful Sound
Doubtful Sound
Doubtful Sound
Doubtful Sound
Doubtful Sound
Doubtful Sound

 

 

The Real Journeys guides were excellent and very enthusiastic - they obviously never lose their excitement or love of this magnificent place. They told us about the seals and birds we were seeing, facts about the formation of the fiord and its features.1

The fiord is glacial in origin and is roughly three times the length and ten times the area of Milford Sound. The water is fresh only in the upper few metres, below that it is salt water and the two layers don't mix.

 

 

Doubtful Sound

 

 

According to Maori legend, the fiords were created by the god Tu-te-Rakiwhanoa who split the land with his adze allowing the sea to pour in.

 

 

Considering that this is one of the wettest places on earth, with over 200 days of rain a year, we were amazingly lucky with the weather.


Doubtful Sound
Doubtful Sound
Doubtful Sound
Doubtful Sound

We had pre-booked a deluxe picnic lunch which was excellent and more than adequate for the day.

Doubtful Sound
Real Journeys' "Fiordland Navigator" on its way through Doubtful Sound for an overnight cruise.

Doubtful Sound
Doubtful Sound

In one of the arms of the fiord the engines were turned off and everyone asked to keep quiet - it was a quite magical experience with not a sound to break the silence and magnificent scenery all around. Doubtful Sound is aptly known as Patea - the "place of silence".

We did see waterfalls, but there weren't great torrents of water - I'm sure in wet weather the waterfalls are much more impressive!

Lake Manapouri
Lake Manapouri on the return journey.

 

And so, after a spectacular few hours cruising magnificent Doubtful Sound, we returned to the boat dock and back to Te Anau, crossing a tranquil Lake Manapouri still bathed in sunshine.

 

References

  1. Real Journeys: Doubtful Sound