Bird’s eye view of Doubtful Sound

The massive Doubtful Sound fjord in New Zealand is where you can enjoy the sound of silence!

How often do you feel that your days and months are passing too quickly? While constantly trying to cope with the hurried pace of city life, you often feel the need to slow down, sense the nature deeply and relax in the present moment. Recently, I got an opportunity to get off the grid in Doubtful Sound – one of New Zealand’s largest fjords in Fiordland – and returned feeling the ancient connection with nature.


Divine, diverse landscapes
My trip to Doubtful Sound began as I boarded a coach from Queenstown to Manapouri. Little did I know that getting to the fjord was an adventure in itself? The two-hour road journey took me down wide valleys, treating me to breathtaking views of mountains, lakes, villages and classic Kiwi meadows dotted with thousands of sheep and cattle, with a quick stop at a quaint cafe on way. While finding a scenic route in New Zealand isn’t exactly challenging, very few can beat the beauty and diversity of the route that goes to Manapouri, via state highways 6, 94 and 95. As much as I wanted to hear the knowledgeable coach driver who kept narrating folktales and spilling interesting information about flora and fauna of the region, a part of me simply wanted to switch off, tune into soothing music and stare at the passing landscapes that seemed too good to be true.

The bus trip is followed by a 30-minute boat trip across Lake Manapouri and then another 45-minute drive over Wilmot Pass – a sub-alpine road carved out of the mountains and moss-covered beech trees and bushes of the Fiordland rainforest.

Just when I was starting to feel a bit deterred by the time-consuming travel required to reach the Deep Cove, the very first glimpse and the most breathtaking, bird’s eye view of Doubtful Sound came as a reward and inspiration. From the top of Wilmot Pass, I could see the massive, misty fjord in the form of a deep indentation in the coast of Fiordland. I instantly knew that I was in for a profound experience!

Many moods of the fjord

In no time, I was disconnected from the world and onboard the Fiordland Navigator that looks like a traditional scow and beautifully blends the old and new. My small yet comfortable private cabin had little windows that allowed me take in the pristine, unchanged nature at my own pace. Yes, very little has changed in this magnificent place over the years which means it looks today much as it must have done when Captain James Cook and early Maori visitors arrived.

My cabin onboard the Fiordland Navigator

Doubtful Sound, like many other places, was discovered somewhat by accident in 1770 when Cook ventured down the southwest coast of New Zealand until he reached a sound, which he named ‘Doubtful Harbor’ because he was ‘doubtful’ whether he would be able to sail back out to sea, once inside the sound. It was later renamed Doubtful Sound by the sealers and whalers who visited the area.

Enjoying the magnificent views from my cabin

Carved by glaciers, the fjord has many moods, largely dominated by the weather. On a sunny day, you see bluer-than-blue skies and sparkling waters while mist makes the landscape magical with hazy peaks and clouds so low that you want to fill them in your pockets and take them back with you. While I didn’t experience the rainy face of the fjord, our caption said that the wet season is when hundreds of waterfalls rumble into the sea!

Adventure in nature
Humbling in size and beauty, Doubtful Sound is one of New Zealand’s largest fjords – almost three times the length of the touristy Milford Sound. At a depth of 421 metres, this is also the deepest of the fjords. Like other sounds, it contains two distinct layers of water that don’t mix. The top few meters is fresh rainwater that runs off the steep mountains while the heavier, salty layer beneath is home to many species that would usually only be found in the deepest, darkest ocean layers. Daring souls can swim in its freezing waters to feel invigourated or dive and descend through the freshwater layer to discover the mysterious seascape filled with black coral, an abundance of crayfish trotting over the rocky terrain and unusual creatures of the deep.
While cruising the sound, you have good chances of encountering native wildlife including fur seals that slather the outer islands, Fiordland crested penguins that come to breed here in October and November and friendly, curious bottle-nosed dolphins that make an appearance by leaping out and quickly diving back in.

After the boat was anchored in a sheltered cove, one could choose to kayak or simply unwind at the deck. To explore the fjord, its hidden inlets and cascading waterfalls, I picked up a kayak and stepped into the vastness of the sea. I was not only overwhelmed with the sheer scale and magnitude of the Sound but also quite stoked to be silently paddling in what it felt like a forgotten world. Now and then, I was brushed by the very active and enthusiastic sandflies but that did not come in the way of my extraordinary adventure. The evening was spent watching the sun go down with a can of local beer and trying to the catch the giant, tumultuous waves of the Tasman Sea from the deck.

Moments of mindfulness

With no settlements and no direct access, Doubtful Sound is extremely isolated and this is what makes the fjord a very special place. After waking up to the calm and quiet of the fjord, I headed up to the deck to slow down in the company of nature. Turning engines off, the captain made a special announcement requesting all the travellers to maintain pin-drop silence for a few minutes and soak in the serenity of the surroundings. With no talking, activity or restlesness, I was a lot more aware of the bounties of nature. I could feel the fresh air on my face and listen to the sound of the wind in the trees and the sweet chirping of birds. These precious moments of mindful sensing and observing not only strengthened my connection with the natural forces but healed me in ways undescribable. I left DoubtfulSound with a unique inner glow and spiritual awakeing that normally come from hours of meditation!

In Maori legend, Doubtful Sound and the other fiords were created by the godly figure Tu-Te-Raki-Whanoa who split the rock with his adze (a tool similar to an axe) allowing the sea to pour in, creating safe harbours from the stormy sea. The Māori name of Doubtful Sound is Patea, the ‘place of silence’.

The undisturbed Doubtful Sound makes for a fabulous day-trip from Queenstown. If you have more time at hand and want to wish to take a break from the cities, opt for an overnight cruise that gives you quality time to enjoy nature in solitude.

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