In January 2014 I had the privilege of guiding a group of Stray Journey-ers around New Zealand. I have been a Stray driver since 2012 but, as I normally drive the “HOHO” (hop-on hop-off) circuit, this was my first chance to experience the Stray Journeys’ itinerary.
One of the many differences between the two itineraries is where we visit Fiordland. I was excited to experience Doubtful Sound, an overnight stay unique to Stray Journeys, as this is truly one of the last frontiers of Aotearoa and also planet Earth.
Another significant distinction between hop-on/hop-off and Stray Journeys tours is that with SJ you have a smaller group and fewer pickup locations, which results in more freedom to plan and utilise your day. After two stunning days in Queenstown, where my crew had free time to enjoy the Adventure Capital, we departed at 7am, stopping for breakfast at a lovely café en route.
I had pre-booked tickets for the Te Atua (Shadowland) movie at Te Anau Cinema before our trip. Thirty minutes long, the breathtaking film shows stunning views of Fiordland’s scenery. I really wanted to share this experience with my crew because the region is such a vast wilderness area and certain places such as the epic waterfalls can only be appreciated on a big screen like this. Within the fjords (misnamed “sounds”) you lose your sense of perception because the landscape is on such a massive scale.
Here is the trailer for this movie, however, I highly recommend seeing it on the big screen:
After the film, we had some free time in Te Anau, the main hub for the Fiordland region (albeit with a population of just under 2000 inhabitants), so I took the group to the Department of Conservation’s Wildlife Enclosure where we were able to observe rare species such as takahe, kakas and keas. From here we drove to Lake Manapouri and checked in for our Doubtful Sound overnight cruise, run by Real Journeys (NB. unrelated to Stray Journeys!).
The cruise began with a motorboat ride which took us across NZ’s second deepest lake (444 metres). According to Maori legend, Lake Manapouri was created by the tears of two sisters, Moturua and Koronae, who were daughters of an old chief in the region.
We arrived at the visitor’s centre on the other side and embarked on a bus to traverse the 671m Wilmot Pass and take us to Deep Cove. The bus driver told us about the history of the area, including the road – the construction makes it the most expensive road in New Zealand and furthermore it is the only road on the mainland that is disconnected from the rest of the road network.
We arrived at the dock in Deep Cove and embarked on our schooner ‘The Fiordland Navigator. After a welcome by the Captain, we were invited to check into our rooms and then have afternoon tea. The schooner set sail and we headed out towards the Tasman Sea.
The great thing about visiting Fiordland is that it does not really matter what the weather is doing because it is beautiful in all climates. Which is good because this is the region with NZ’s highest rainfall. The boat includes raincoats for such occasions, as the scenery is too truly breath-taking to stay inside.
The scale of Fiordland is the thing that blows my mind; huge fiords carved out by massive glaciers from a bygone era, waterfalls hundreds of metres long. The Browne Falls in Doubtful Sound are credited as being the highest falls in NZ and 10th highest in the world at 618 metres.
Once we arrived at the mouth of the Tasman Sea, we were able to view numerous fur seals and pups. Sea birds including albatross, cormorants, and seagulls circled behind the ship. As we made our way back into the sound, this time to Crooked Arm, one of four branches of the sound, we were fascinated to have a pod of bottle-nosed dolphins join us.
This pod is resident in the sound and studies have shown they no longer go out to sea but reside fully within the confines of Doubtful Sound. This is in spite of it being much colder and with a freshwater layer on top of the seawater, which creates a truly unique habitat for these playful mammals.
We moored in Crooked Arm and were given the option of kayaking or taking a zodiac ride in the sound. I opted for the former and was stoked to be able to paddle over the dark tannin-rich waters of the sound. Surrounded by mirror reflections, it gave me a unique perspective of the landscape and a new appreciation for my place in the world. There are few places on this planet where I have experienced such a sense of vastness, timelessness, and mesmerising beauty. We returned to the boat to pristine, piping hot showers and white fluffy towels. Such luxury in the middle of nowhere.
There are few places on this planet where I have experienced such a sense of vastness, timelessness, and mesmerising beauty.
That evening we enjoyed a scrumptious banquet, which was definitely the best meal of the tour. Cheese platter, seafood, roast beef and lamb, salads, roast vegetables, gravy, sauces and the dessert was equally amazing. After dinner, we ‘rolled’ into the lecture room for a fascinating history lesson by the boat’s nature guide. He covered everything from the initial sighting by Cook who was doubtful he could enter, hence the name. Shortly afterwards came a Spanish crew and although they only spent 24 hours in the sound they were able to map out more of its nooks and crannies making it the only place in NZ with Spanish place names. He then discussed conservation challenges in the Fiordland National Park and New Zealand at large. All in all it was a thought-provoking discussion on what had already been a mind-blowing scenic bonanza day.
The next morning we enjoyed another scrumptious meal, a cooked breakfast with all the trimmings. As we made our way back to Deep Cove the dolphins joined us again, this time really playful with many jumping out of the water and surfing off the bow wave. We bid farewell to our crew and took the bus back over Wilmot Pass and the boat back across Lake Manapouri.
This overnight trip to Doubtful Sound is definitely one of my must-do recommendations for visitors. It is possible to book this as part of the hop-on/hop-off trip out of Queenstown, or you can just choose a Stray Journeys tour, where it is already part of the itinerary. I might even see you out there.