An Unearthly Experience: Doubtful Sound’s Overnight Cruise

Every now and then you get a chance to experience something truly magical, this was one of those times. Even though it was a last minute decision, mid-May was really the perfect time to visit Doubtful Sound.

As covered in the previous post, the tourism in this part of New Zealand had drastically dropped off a few weeks prior to our trip. We ended up being just a handful of foreigners on the trip amongst mostly South Island locals, who knew to take advantage of the final voyages before the season ended. A smaller group was a perk, yes, but what made it really exceptional was the feeling that we, the group, were alone. From the moment we cast off across Lake Manapouri to the moment we arrived back, we didn’t see a single other person outside the Real Journeys crew. Getting to experience such an isolated place with such a small group of people was unparalleled.

Doubtful Sound

Doubtful Sound

Doubtful Sound with Real Journeys.

The tour is, essentially, broken into three segments: ferrying across Lake Manapouri, busing through Fiordland National Park, and finally overnight in the Sound. The former two sections are repeated the following day, returning everyone to Manapouri.

Check-in is required half an hour before departure at noon. The ferry crossing takes about 50 minutes, and the coach ride another 40 or so, stopping at a lookout point over Doubtful Sound.

Once reaching the sound, the real fun begins. We boarded the Fiordland Navigator, built specifically for the purpose of cruising Doubtful Sound. It was constructed to resemble a traditional trading scow. Sleeping 70 persons, we had loads of room, with around 2/3s capacity on our trip.

Onboard Experience.

Fiordland Navigator Doubtful Sound

Fiordland Navigator Doubtful Sound

As soon as everyone was aboard, the crew quickly cast off and ran us through some safety info before handing out our room assignments. Jason and I had a private room with an ensuite. It was very cosy and had a great heater, definitely necessary when traveling off-peak. Towels, linen and soap provided, which was good, because we literally only packed the bare necessities – toothbrushes, activated charcoal (for toothpaste), deodorant, contact case and solution (for me) and a change of skivvies for both of us. What can I say, we take minimalist packing to the next level.

You will not go hungry aboard this ship. Tea and coffee are available ’round the clock, and before we even had time to settle in, they were serving fresh muffins in the galley. As the daylight hours are shortened in May, before we had even finished our hot drinks and introductory conversation with our shipmates, the crew had begun sending the bravest amongst us out in kayaks.

The only downside to not bringing a change of clothes was that it kept us from kayaking. If my jeans got wet, I would’ve been screwed. To be fair, sitting in ice cold water would have deterred me even if I had a spare pair of pants. We opted, instead, to venture out in the zodiac. This way we were also able to get better photos. Neither of us would have dared take our DSLRs out on those little kayaks. We got top notch commentary from the crew member guiding our boat as well.

Each guest was allowed about half an hour on the water, before being herded back into the galley for hot soup and rolls. Once everyone had warmed back up, there was just enough sun left to venture out to a fur seal colony and then watch the sunset. We were given a bit of time to settle in and enjoy our surroundings before the dinner buffet was laid out.

Kayakers Doubtful Sound

Fiordland Navigator Doubtful Sound

Doubtful Sound

An interesting conversation.

We ended up sitting with a fellow American and a Kiwi couple for dinner. We had a very in-depth conversation with them, which, inevitably lead to Trump. Never in all my travels has the US President been such an ubiquitous topic. If a conversation gets around 10 minutes in, Trump will be brought up. It is a bit infuriating, as part of the reason we left the US was because of Trump, but at least most people we speak to have the same befuddlement that we do.

After dinner the lead guide gave a talk about the history and ecology of Doubtful Sound. We ended up missing the entire presentation due to our continuing discussion. We certainly enjoyed having a lively conversation with our new friends, as we don’t get to do that nearly as often as one might expect. But we were sad to miss all the information that was surely provided.

We were also about 10 Heinekens in, between the two of us, so we probably should have called it a night. There was an attempt at astrophotography, as the night sky was unmatched in its beauty that night. Unfortunately, the rocking of the boat prevented stability in shooting, so almost all of our shots came out blurry.

Doubtful Sound

Fur Seal Colony Doubtful Sound

Fur Seal Colony Doubtful Sound

Albatross Doubtful Sound

Day Two.

Jason, of course, slept like a rock. I got in some good rest before being woken by the pattering of crew members footsteps above our heads. Right around 6:30 a boat-wide wake-up assures that everyone makes the most out of their short time in Doubtful Sound.

After freshening up, we made our way to the galley for the breakfast buffet. With some food in our bellies, and a cup of hot coffee in my hands, we headed out to the bow to drink in the rising daylight and descending moon.

I am stunned by my memories of this beautiful place. Sitting here I have no words – there isn’t a single one that does it justice.

Doubtful Sound
Photo by J. Howell Photography

Doubtful Sound

Patea

This is the Māori name for Doubtful Sound. It is perhaps the only word that comes close evoking the feeling of being there, amidst that spectacular scenery. Translated it means “the place of silence.”

My favorite moment of the trip was when the crew shut down the engines and the Fiordland Navigator quietly glided to a stop. Everyone was asked to participate in a moment of silence. When you close your eyes, you can hear native birds welcoming the morning light and distant waterfalls rushing towards their eventual fate, joining the seawater in the sound.

Doubtful Sound

The return journey.

After the engines were powered up again, we chugged along, back to our starting point the previous day. The return bus ride had a completely different mood, either everyone was tired, but I suspect moved from our morning of peace. We were met at the ferry station by the same crew from the day before, and just like that we were back in Manapouri. Forever ingrained with the memory of the ultimate solitude, a moment in the place of silence.

Fiordland Navigator Doubtful Sound

Fiordland Navigator Doubtful Sound

 

Bonus Pics

Doubtful Sound
This one has a bit of noise, but you can see the moon!

 

Fiordland Navigator Doubtful Sound
I just really like this one, with the extremely odd point of focus.

 

Fiordland Navigator Doubtful Sound
Another beauty taken by J.

 

Fiordland Navigator Doubtful Sound
Shipmates at sunset.

 

Fiordland Navigator Doubtful Sound
I was a super creeper, sneaking photos of my shipmates that I thought looked awesome.

 


 

If you’ve made it down this far, I applaud you! Do you think I was able to capture at all the weight of the experience? Let me know in the comments.

4 comments

  1. You both look so alive! I am joyful reading your posts, you inspire me to great heights oh exploring eyes. grrrrrr, I will write more letter, I’m so proud of y’all, thank you for standing up and facing life, looks like you’ve jumped into a beautiful place. Xoxox

    Reply
  2. Gorgeous photos and you’ve inspired me to try this out on my eventual (read: hopeful) trip to NZ! Did you find the tour pricey?

    Reply
    1. NZ is a great dream destination! This tour was a bit on the pricey side, but definitely worth it. Unfortunately a lot of the “big ticket” draws in NZ can put a dent in the budget, but it is easy to accommodate spending a bit more on special experiences by cutting back on food cost by self catering, and if you choose to explore by camper (highly recommend) staying at free and low-cost campsites which are all across the South Island. Hope you make it here one day! And thanks so much for reading 🙂

      Reply

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