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The Doubtful Sound of Silence

(Reprint from News: January 16, 2002)

January 16, 2002


I left Invercargill on an overcast morning and headed north to Te Anau (pronounced "Tay ANN-ow," pop. 2,000), a bustling summer resort town and the activity hub of Fiordland, a beautiful area of southwestern New Zealand with lots of... well... fiords.  If you studied geography in college like I did for eight years, you probably know that a fiord is a glaciated valley that's been submerged by the sea, and there are lots of fiordish things to do in this area during the summer time, such as fiord cruises and fiord aerial sightseeing. 


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Left:  The Fiordland National Park Visitor Center in Te Anau.


You can also go hiking, or "tramping" as they call it in New Zealand, on two of the most popular trails in the country, the Milford and Routeburn tracks.  These two trails are supposed to be spectacular but, on the other hand, they're immensely popular and you need to make reservations months in advance to hike on them, and even then your itinerary is strictly regimented. 


You can't camp on these trails; you have to stay in communal huts and can only spend one night in each hut, no matter how bad the weather is.  These kinds of Disneyland regulations are essential, I'm sure.  However, they don't appeal to me, so I didn't try to do any hiking there.  Plus, the idea of sharing a hut with 35 people I don't know, many of whom are drying their wet socks and underwear doesn't really float my boat.  Yeah, the guidebooks say that staying in New Zealand's tramping huts is a good way to meet people, but I've got this strange philosophy that says you go backpacking to get AWAY from people.  


Hiking, therefore, was out of the picture and I'm too cheap to go aerial sightseeing, but I really wanted to do the fiord cruises since I'd heard a lot of good things about them, so cruise I did.  I spent three days in Te Anau and took a cruise on Doubtful Sound one day and a cruise on Milford Sound the next.  They were two very different cruises and I'm glad I did each.


Doubtful Sound was named back in the 1700’s by Captain James Cook during his exploration of New Zealand.  As Cook approached the narrow sound on his ship, the H.M.S. Discovery, he decided not to enter it because the prevailing wind direction made him doubtful that, once inside the sound, he would be able to leave.  Today, Doubtful Sound is still pretty difficult to get to -- in fact, I had to do an all-day trip to get out to it.  First, our group rode a boat across a lake for an hour, then we hopped on a bus and rode down to the sound where we boarded another boat to cruise on the sound.  After a spectacular 3-hour cruise, we then repeated the whole procedure in reverse to get back to Te Anau.  I know it sounds complicated but it's definitely worth it. 


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Left:  During my three nights in Te Anau I stayed at the Alpenhorn Motel, which I highly recommend.  I had several nice long talks with Tony, the friendly owner.


The best part of the cruise was when the captain brought the boat right up to the edge of a precipitous cliff that plunged straight down into the water, cut the engines, and asked everyone to be quiet.  For the next three minutes, everyone stood still and we enjoyed what the captain called “The Sound of Silence,” hearing only the seagulls crying and the water dripping off the cliffs from three hundred feet above.


The only bad thing about the cruise was the group of a dozen or so retired Americans who went along.  A few of them were nice, but a lot of them were your typical and much-dreaded "Ugly Americans" -- very loud, rude, whining, and obnoxious. 


The 50ish woman whom I had the misfortune to sit next to on the bus ride back got really agitated about a single sandfly that was flying around inside the bus.  With a sadistic smile, she took out a can of insect repellent and proceeded to empty the entire contents of the can inside the hermetically-sealed bus.  I don’t know if the sandfly bit the dust, but several tourists on the bus nearly did and you could hear the coughing and wheezing all the way to Invercargill.  That group of Americans was something else, and being the only other American on board, I felt like putting a sign around my neck saying, "I'm not with them." 


Other than that, though, it was a terrific cruise and I had a great time. We didn't see any other boats during our cruise on Doubtful Sound and it was all very memorable.  So if you ever get a chance to see it, don’t be doubtful like Captain Cook – go for it.


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Above left:  I spent a few days in Te Anau and while there, took a day-long cruise to Doubtful Sound.  Actually, it's a four-part trip all crammed into 8 hours, with Part One being a boat ride across Manapouri Lake.

Above center:  Cruising with the Ugly Americans across Manapouri Lake in the morning.

Above right:  Part Two is a bus ride down to Doubtful Sound, which is on the Tasman Sea.


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Above left:  Part Three is a cruise on Doubtful Sound.  Captain Cook named this sound in the 1770s because, due to the winds, he was doubtful he could sail back out of it, so he never entered.

Above center:  Seal colony on some small islands in the Tasman Sea, at the mouth of Doubtful Sound.  Next stop, Australia.

Above right:  Part Four is a visit to the hydroelectric plant that links Lake Manapouri with Doubtful Sound.


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Left:  Here's a diagram of the hydroelectric plant, with Lake Manapouri on the left.  Our bus took us down in a tunnel (the yellow line) hundreds of feet below the surface.  I liked the tunnel ride almost as much as the cruise on the sound.



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