Doubtful Sound and Fiordland National Park
James L. Amos  /  Corbis file
March 1971, South Island, New Zealand Doubtful Sound and Fiordland National Park.

Amidst the sensory overload of life in the fast lane and the voices of doom telling us that our planet has gone to hell in a handbasket, one can tend to get a bit discouraged these days. So let me tell you about one real and quintessential refuge from excess on this once lonely planet. Doubtful Sound, in the heart of New Zealand's Fiordland–in the south-west corner of the South Island–is a sublime destination that is the antithesis of the morning rush hour, of the flash and trash of prime time, and of the misery of the evening news. It is instead a natural world of glorious quiet where you can truly hear yourself think.

Captain James Cook visited this cragged coastline in 1773 and his quick assessment of this particular inlet caused him to name it Doubtful Harbor because he reasoned, quite correctly, that the prevailing westerly winds would make it difficult, if not impossible, to sail ships like The Endeavor back out. For great sailing ships requiring favorable wind conditions and room to maneuver, this would indeed have been the case, but for modern minds in search of another kind of haven, there is no doubt as to Doubtful's qualities and singular attributes. It should be noted as well that somewhere along the way throughout time, another misconception about the nature of this watery refuge occurred when it was named Doubtful Sound.

It actually is not a sound--a narrow stretch of water created when a valley is flooded by rising sea levels–but is instead a fiord, carved by the gargantuan and dogged labor of a retreating glacier–they were up to 2000 meters deep--awesome work that was completed between two million and 15 000 years ago. The U-shaped glacial valley became enclosed by soaring cliffs and was inundated by the sea, and when it retreated the glacier left a "lip" at the entrance of the sea inlet causing a shallowing of the water there, which now serves as a buffer zone between the peaceful waters of Doubtful and the wild outer ocean. In the process a realm of pure untroubled sound was created.

Doubtful Sound is one of 14 magnificent fiords in Fiordland (fiords are found only in Norway, western parts of Scotland, and New Zealand) that shape the jagged and deeply indented southwest coast of South Island. The entire 12 519 square kilometers of Fiordland were declared a World Heritage area in 1986 owing to the unique flora and fauna, and the geological and landscape treasures. And Fiordland in turn is part of an even larger World Heritage area, the 1.2 million hectare National Park known as Waipounamu. Fiordland or Te Rua o te moko (the Pit of Tatooing) is a realm within a realm, as is Doubtful Sound.

Slideshow: Explore New Zealand Like all wondrous experiences, the trip to Doubtful is a process, not an event. We begin in Te Anau, a tidy, quiet town on the shores of a glacial lake of the same name, in the heart of Fiordland. A perfect day's excursion begins lakeside. The air is cool but the brilliant sunlight of the southern hemisphere warms our faces. It also illuminates the high mountain ranges surrounding the lake; air and light coalesce to create clarity of the senses that will enhance our experience today. A mini-bus takes us on the first stage of our journey to Doubtful; our driver greets us with a hearty "Hae ye be?" and during the half hour trip from Lake Te Anau to its sister Lake Manapouri, his commentary is informative, respectful, and sparkles with the wry Kiwi sense of humor. Knowing when less is more, he rounds off his offerings on the road to Doubtful with a teasing "Enough of this interaction. I'll leave ye in peace and quiet." He in fact sets the tone and theme for the day, optimal interaction with nature.

At the peaceful village of Manapouri, we board the Fiordland Flyer and begin stage two of our passage. Lake Manapouri (in Maori "Lake of the Sorrowing Heart") is the fifth largest in New Zealand and the deepest; it is also a symbol of a successful popular and environmental revolt against a governmental and corporate plan to raise the level of the lake as part of a gigantic hydro-electric project. The captain and our nature guide do not hesitate to remind us of what might have happened to Manapouri. But the lake was left in its natural state, its shoreline and 34 islands protected from a manufactured deluge.

Today, Manapouri's deep blue waters reflect the Kepler and Hunter Mountains that surround it. This is a grand and unsullied environment continually cleansed by wind and frequent rain showers, the latter captured by the mountain ranges and fed to the lake. As a descriptor of the lake and its environs, magnificent would be an understatement. The aptly named Cathedral Peaks, however, ascending above and beyond the west arm of the lake verify the scale of the beauty and usher us into the arm. We pass the somewhat discordant but scaled down hydro-electric plant that was eventually built. It looks innocuous enough, is not a terrible eyesore, but does interrupt visually the natural flow of the landscape. Its seven massive turbines are actually hidden within an enormous granite-walled cavern inside the mountain, two kilometers underground. (We'll visit it on the way back from Doubtful.) Certainly an astounding piece of engineering, the plant is New Zealand's largest hydro-electric power station and supplies energy to an aluminum smelter 171 kilometers away. Water from both Lake Te Anau and Lake Manapouri is channeled through the turbines and then through a trail race (a total vertical drop of 178 meters) to Doubtful Sound and the sea. Lake levels are maintained within a natural range by control structures. At the nearby wharf we disembark and begin stage three of the Doubtful experience.

We now go by coach along a rough-hewn 22 kilometer-long road up and over the Wilmot Pass to Deep Cove and en route we pass through a botanist's dream. The mountains we are crossing are inset from the Tasman Sea and form a rain shadow of prevailing westerlies that in turn have engendered over the millennia a remarkable wilderness rain forest. As we climb the sinuous road, we enter clouds and from time to time emerge into semi-light. In these intervals, the clouds drift by below trapped here and there on the tortuous old growth to our left like sodden cotton batten. On the right, granite walls are overlaid with rich alpine mosses (bryophytes) in multiple hues of red, green, and blue. These high vertical gardens are splendid and astonishing in their eccentricity and purpose. When tree landslides occur as rain-soaked old growth in the minimal soil tears away from the granite, great gashes result and it is the luxuriant superabsorbent mosses that first appear, laying down a natural balm.

Suddenly as we come over the pass, we come face to face with Doubtful Sound at the lofty Lookout, a breathtaking view. From this height we gaze in awe at the depth and expanse of the fiord, truly understanding for the first time the scale and dimensions of our ultimate destination. And from this perspective it is visually quite accessible; the sensation is quite marvelous, quite enticing.

The fiord that fills our entire field of vision is 40 kilometers in length and over 400 meters at its deepest point. When a chain of volcanoes shattered Fiordland 500 million years ago, the sediment layers that had been hardened by the earth's deep heat and pressure fractured and were thrust up from the earth's floor. The resultant rocks, however, were submerged under the sea. It took another 40 million years of awful shifting tectonic force, twenty ice ages, and one monumental glacier to carve out Doubtful Sound.

  1. Don't miss these Travel stories
    1. Lords of the gourd compete for Punkin Chunkin honors

      With teams using more than 100 unique apparatuses to launch globular projectiles a half-mile or more, the 27th annual World Championship Punkin Chunkin event is our pick as November’s Weird Festival of the Month.

    2. Airports, airlines work hard to return your lost items
    3. Expert: Tourist hordes threaten Sistine Chapel's art
    4. MGM Grand wants Las Vegas guests to Stay Well
    5. Report: Airlines collecting $36.1B in fees this year

According to Maori legend, the demi-god Tu-te-raki-whanoa shaped Doubtful with his ko or digging stick and working assiduously from south to north he sculpted long meandering inlets and towering cliffs, all the while singing a powerful karakia (chant). As the great walls shattered and acquiesced to the god's labors, great waves of sea water flooded in creating a deep body of water, untroubled by the raging waters beyond. Tu-te-raki-whanoa fashioned a geological marvel as well as an enchanted shelter from the turbulent sea.

At Deep Cove–the place names are simple and precise–we board the Commander Peak for a three-hour cruise through this stunning geological phenomenon and primeval experience. Doubtful, in contrast to the more popular, theatrical, and better-known fiord, Milford Sound, is less frequented by humans. Except for a small research zodiac and a couple of rock lobster boats, we are the only vessel on the Sound. We become part of its moods, at times peering out at its beauty through rain, other times proceeding vaguely and uncertainly through its mists, occasionally reveling in piercing blue skies and shimmering tannin-stained water. The dense forests on the high granite cliffs funnel the annual average of 5 200 millimeters of rain through the vegetation into the fiord creating a top layer of fresh water that is between three and four meters deep, a layer of "dark tea" that like a colored lens restricts the amount of light entering the water. Marine life is in turn restricted to the top 40 meters; below is darkness.

Floating on the surface of the Sound in our vessel that is quite tiny in comparison to our surroundings, we feel as if we have merged with Doubtful. It is deceptively easy to feel proprietarily about the Sound; ownership is of course irrelevant, foolish, and in the past injurious. In 1793, the Italian navigator Malaspina was the first European mariner to actually explore Doubtful. The early nineteenth century saw extensive sealing and whaling by many nations, which depleted these species in the Sound. In 1910, a cruise ship hit an uncharted rock in Doubtful Sound and sank. Today, like the rest of the immense Fiordland National Park, Doubtful Sound is a protected environment, serene, secure, and removed from the threat of human excess.

Our passage through Doubtful is slow and deliberate. There is ample time to appreciate the great vistas that blend one into another and the abundant flora and fauna. The towering sides of the fiord are covered in native beech and tall conifers, prefaced at the water's edge with lichens, ferns, and more mosses. The scarlet-blooming rata trees interspersed high up among the beeches and conifers are like blushes in the variegated green. And as like meets like, cascading waterfalls continually feed the Sound. Splashing water falls in stages from great heights looking like delicate sheer draperies. The fabled Lady Alice Falls tells the story of a real "lady" who made the trek to Doubtful in the company of two male guides and in the process scandalized polite society and lost her considerable social standing. I suspect she saw the value in her audacity. Beneath us, we are told, is a companion marine environment sheltering corals, sponges, and numerous species of fish.

The Commander Peak weaves its way through the branching arms of Doubtful and around small islands, and then there is an abrupt change of temperament in the waters as we have a brief encounter with the Tasman Sea. At the Nee Islets, a large colony of New Zealand fur seals, looking like market day in a seaside village, spreads over the rocky outcroppings. While heavy adult males lounge or jockey for space, females coax pups into the water; adolescents slip and slide through the swirling eddies around the rocks. Life is abundant and protected here and always on the edge of two disparate but connected marine worlds where the turbulent Tasman Sea meets tranquil Doubtful Sound.

Early Maori traveling the coastline culled New Zealand fur seals here for food, skins, bones, and fat for preserving other food supplies. The later sealing industry was bloody and merciless, almost rendering the colony extinct. Adult bulls measure up to two meters in length, weigh up to 140 kilograms, and are extremely territorial and protective of their harems. The good news is they don't hang around all that long. The pups, fruit of their lumbering loins, suckle the protein rich fatty milk of their mothers and as they pass through several molts turn from black to silver gray and then darker again. These eared seals have elaborate behavioral idiosyncrasies; they posture and present themselves, pointing their noses to the sky and waving their heads from side to side or threatening with their gaping mouths and prominently displaying their teeth. Returning from their fishing expeditions, the hardworking females recognize their own pups by their individual calls. Watching the seals, we are reminded that Doubtful is a diverse, unique, and potentially vulnerable ecosystem.

Losing one's sense of time is to be expected during a passage through Doubtful. Time, after all, in an environment like this has quite a different meaning from the digital world that is now so far away. A different and powerful sense of time is felt; a transcendent time not devised or controlled by human ingenuity. Doubtful is timeless and out of time. Gliding along the smooth surface at the base of the ponderous cliffsides, we begin to feel rather alone, somewhat forgotten, and yet it is we who have forgotten, briefly.

As we enter the narrow Hall Arm, there is a crescendo of sensory stimulation, as the walls of the fiord seem to rise even higher; an optic trick owing to the narrowness. The Captain turns off the engines and all human sound ceases. We are contained and embraced by Hall Arm and we see, hear, and feel the cascading of pure water supplementing and accentuating the unfamiliar fabulous stillness. What we experience is not soundlessness but a natural lull. What we no longer hear is the residual noise of human civilization. We are hushed, listening to Doubtful. The splash of tumbling water is amplified by the natural acoustics of the still water, high granite cliffs, and absorbent foliage. The flute-like notes of Bellbirds resonate like moistened fine crystal. The whispers of soft intermittent breezes are felt as much as heard. It is a lesson in sound sensitivity and aural proof of life at its most eloquent. The Captain restarts the engines.

And then, as if on cue, a pod of bottlenose dolphins slips through the surface of the water, arching in unison; some quality interaction in the peace and quiet. With symmetry and a synchronicity that is inherent to Doubtful Sound and acting like goodwill ambassadors, they conduct us the length of the Arm. At a respectful distance, a zodiac of French marine biologists researching the interactive behavior of dolphins and humans studies them and us.

Among the largest known of their species, there are about 60 dolphins in the resident pod in Doubtful Sound. Bottlenose Dolphins are true dolphins given their peg-like teeth and short thick beaks. Their slender graceful bodies can reach almost four meters; their distinctive dorsal fin is tall and curves elegantly backwards. The light gray of their glistening backs gradually becomes lighter shades on their sides and white on their bellies. These exquisite creatures move with skill and grace propelled by large flukes that are deeply notched. Each member of the species has its own signature whistle and they form diverse bonding groups. It is seldom that they leave Doubtful Sound.

The dolphins dive, we wait and hold our breath, and then they resurface. They dive again, we wait for them, but this time they are gone. The captain slowly turns the vessel and we begin to head back to Deep Cove, and then, just before we reach the wharf, the dolphins reappear, this time much more playful, exuberant, and capering alongside us, now that they see that we are safely on our way, and they are home safe.

Getting to Doubtful
For more information on excursions to Doubtful Sound, follow the links on the New Zealand Tourism Board's excellent Web site at or contact Fiordland Travel in Queenstown, tel: 03-442 7500; fax: 03-442 7504; Te Anau, tel: 03-249 7416; fax: 03-249 7022; email or by accessing the Web site

Travelworld International Magazine is one of the Web's best and most visited online travel magazines, with over 75,000 visitors a month. Travelworld Magazine features articles, columns, and photos from members of the North American Travel Journalists Association. For more information on Travelworld Magazine, please contact the NATJA by phone (310) 836-8712 or email at


Discussion comments


Most active discussions

  1. votes comments
  2. votes comments
  3. votes comments
  4. votes comments