Drifting Down Doubtful

Like glossy green wrapping round a Christmas present, shrubs cling tight to their rocky core.  Water drips over the brink as ribbons spilling down a sheer face of emerald-green.  Meanwhile, my boat drifts along the dim water, stained a noble green with tannins and slipping sediment.

I have ventured into the most remote corner of New Zealand.  In the Fiords, it is possible to experience spring, summer, winter and fall all in one day.  It is a land of contrasts where sheer cliffs meet deep sounds.  In the Fiordland it doesn’t rain, it storms. The closest town of Manapouri receives 1 meter of rain a year.  Doubtful Sound receives 11.   Its hilly heights are a sloppy, bunchy, unkempt glop of goop glued onto the edge of the forest carpet.  Its icky roots are vulnerable to annual slides – whole mountainsides swiped to the sounds to gather again.  The lonely waters of Fiordland National Park are unlike any place I have ever been.

To get here I crossed the two-faced Lake Manapouri, setting out off the shores of a sunny pebble beach and emerging through a cloud into Jurassic Park.  I left the sloping foothills of the Southland behind at “Pearl Harbor” and entered into the violent landscape of the Fiordland.

This craggy corner of New Zealand receives more earthquakes per year than anywhere else in the country as the Australian and Pacific plates collide on the Southern Alpine Fault and join forces with ancient glaciers to carve this serrated stone.

At the far end of Lake Manapouri, our boat docked on the edge of on one of the world’s greatest engineering feats.  Wrangling the whirling lake water into pipes, Manapouri Power Station harnesses the local hydraulics with awing force.  However, its presence in Fiordland did not come without a fight.  The very talk of the power station’s creation sparked the nation’s first great environmental movement, galvanizing the nation as protests broke out over raising the levels of the regions two largest lakes.  In 1970, nearly 10% of the nation’s population and almost 1/3 of eligible voters signed the Save Manapouri petition.  The result: a power station built 700 ft deep into the mountain’s core.

Manapouri Power Station is the kind of place they make Modern Marvels specials about.  Deep in the dense stone of the Fiordland, this plant produces 1/5 of the nation’s power.  Yet, most of this goes directly to an aluminum smelter 160 km southwest in Bluff and the station’s above ground features remain an eyesore in this otherwise untouched land.

It was a dark, otherworldly landscape as we crossed the Wilmot Pass from the West Arm of Manapouri to Deep Cove.  We were like characters in a video game on a bus ride through some stoned animator’s dreamscape.  Beyond the foggy windows a fantasy forest drooped in the distance.  The bus driver rambled on a scratchy microphone about the waterfalls we might have seen had we come on a clearer day – about the 1000+ varieties of fern and the gaping cliffs.  He was coming off of a cold, but between each amplified cough, he painted a panorama of the mysterious mountain pass.

At Deep Cove we departed the rickety, cream-colored bus and paused on the dewy shore as our captain steered the dinghy to our waiting boat.  A bit of biscuits and tea and we on our way into the Sound.

“Doubtful Sound is not a sound at all but rather a fjord,” a tidbit we were reminded of throughout the journey.  Unsure whether or not the area was navigable under sail, Captain Cook named the fjord ‘Doubtful Harbour’ in 1770.  The area was renamed Doubtful Sound by seal and whale hunters and in 1793 a Spanish scientific expedition conducting experiments on the force of gravity using a pendulum coined many of the inlets and island’s names (the only cluster of Spanish cartography on the New Zealand map).

More than 200 days of rain a year ensure that this corner of New Zealand remains intensely green.  During a downpour, these abrupt hills can accommodate hundreds of waterfalls, some of which fall over 600 meters.  As this sediment-rich, forest freshwater reaches the Sound it creates a dark film on top of the cold, heavy saltwater blocking penetrating light.  As a result, strange communities of deep-sea species live in the comparatively shallow depths of the Sound.

There are virtually no roads and no human population in the whole of Fiordland’s razor-backed mountains and dusky passes.  Yet, there is one Hotel.  The Blanket Bay Hotel emerged from the fog as we motored around the edge of Secretary Island.  A drop off point for seagoing fisherman to store their catch in refrigerated containers, this beached barge sits on the edge of a tiny island in the heart of no-man’s-land.  In many ways, it is a relic of a bygone era in the Fiordland.

At the edge of the sound, the frosty green waves of the Tasman Sea lapped over thick fjord water while the looming, narrow passageways opened up to the familiar infinity of the sea.  Seals flapped about on small rocky outcrops and cliffs gave way to scraggly islands as we emerged from the miasma into a mist. Fiordland’s foggy furry, it’s feral, fickle ferns and shadowy submarine realm were surely a daydream – a hallucination lost to the stinging, sobering slap of saltwater.