The day after my visit to Milford Sound, I wake up in a perfectly opposite weather to yesterday morning. It is raining heavily and the sky is completely overcast. I had in mind to take advantage of my second day at Te Anau to go for a walk in the village and go around the lake but I have to review my plans. I am having breakfast quietly watching the rain fall when Jill receives a phone call. It is Alan, who left for work earlier, who offers to accompany him during the day. Alan works at Te Anau Lakeview Holiday Park with Tracknet (Fiordland transport company). Today he has to take care of bringing sheets / utensils / food on the Southern Secret boat belonging to the campsite and making cruises on the Doubtful Sound! Doubtful Sound is another fjord in the region, much larger, wilder and more difficult to access than Milford Sound. Being able to see the fjord for free is a golden opportunity! Alan picks me up about thirty minutes later with a packed minibus full of things to bring on the boat. We go to Lakeview Holiday Park to pick up Clint, the owner of the campsite, the company Tracknet and the boat and we head for Manapouri. A small village south of Te Anau on the shore of Lake Manapouri, the gateway to Doubtful Sound. Along the way I chat with Clint, mentioning that I am currently working on Alan’s daughter’s farm until the end of September and that I am looking for work afterwards. Clint informs me that the campsite and the company are looking for employees and the idea of working in Te Anau settles in my mind.
After crossing hills and meadows, we arrive at Manapouri and I see the lake, also very large, as well as the snow-capped mountains of the National Park. We reach a tiny port where the Piopiotahi, a small boat used to cross the lake, is located. Piopiotahi is the Maori name for Milford Sound. The Maori name for Doubtful Sound is Patea. I meet two other employees, not that young anymore but very friendly and we transfer, in the rain that does not stop, all of the things on the boat. Sheets, duvets, pillows, kitchen utensils, food, cleaning equipment and a small canoe. I take a seat in the boat and here we go.
The crossing of the lake is impressive especially with the overcast weather. It is very dark and the mountains and small islands appear ghostly in the fog. The atmosphere is cold and wet and the place radiates something unreal. I spend the start of the crossing on the outside deck taking photos and enjoying the scenery, but the boat accelerates and I take refuge in the warm cabin. My four New Zealand companions are chatting with each other and I listen to the characteristic accent.
It takes an hour to cross the lake and reach the end of West Arm, the western arm of the lake. On one side of the arm is a small hydroelectric plant. Employees have to cross the lake every morning and evening to reach the plant or return home. We dock at a small pontoon where there are other boats belonging to other cruise lines. On Doubtful Sound, it is possible to do day cruises, “overgnight cruise” (two days with one night in the fjord) and even several days of cruising in the sound. It is also possible to go kayaking (1 day, 2 days, 5 days…). A large boat is preparing to leave to reach Manapouri. I see the passengers climb inside. They spent several days in the fjord. They seem a little tired. Or depressed by the rain. We unload our things to load them again in a minibus. And we continue our journey.
To reach Doubtful Sound from West Arm, you have to cross Wilmot Pass. Forty-five minutes journey on a small gravel road, to climb the mountain to reach a pass then descend again on the other side to arrive at Deep Cove, the beginning of Doubftul Sound. During the climb to reach the pass, it even started to snow! My companions discuss problems related to tourism. One of the big tourism companies, Real Journey, is in the process of swallowing all the small companies and taking away all the visitation rights within Fiordland National Park. Real Journey recently bought the maintenance rights for the road on which we travel, which means that very soon, other companies wishing to use the road will have to pay fees. Of course this is not to the taste of other companies, including that of Clint, who consider that the road should be managed by the government or the DOC (Department of Conservation, which deals with the cultural and natural heritage of the New Zealand) and not by a private tourism company.
Along the way, we come across some Wekas. Large native birds unable to fly and very curious. They are endangered. The descent is impressive (especially since the road is not wide) with a nice aerial view over the start of the fjord. We reach Deep Cove where there is a small harbor and a youth hostel. Almost all of Te Anau’s children come during school to spend a holiday camp in the youth hostel here and discover nature, flora and fauna. Luchy them. We park our vehicle near the Southern Secret, Clint’s small cruise ship, moored in the cove. Other small boats are present (fishing and cruising) as well as a large boat with three masts, the Fiordland Navigator belonging to the company Real Journey. A very small path descends into the creek to reach the pontoon where the Southern Secret is anchored. Despite the rain, the cove is magnificent. The mist, the perfectly still water, the multiple waterfalls, the steep mountains and the absolute calm. The atmosphere is incredible. If Milford Sound could be described as “beautiful”, I would give Doubtful Sound the qualification of “powerful”.
We unload our vehicle, taking small steps to avoid slipping on the wet path. The bags being heavy, the task is a little difficult. A weka appears for a second on the trail. Once all the bags are loaded on the boat, my companions disperse to start some engine repairs or to clean the kitchen. This is the first time in several months that the team has returned to the boat (no cruises during the winter) and it has to be refurbished for the tourist season which arrives soon. Alan shows me around. The six bedrooms are below the deck, spacious, with bathroom. On deck is the cockpit, the chef’s kitchen and the lounge. The boat also has an exterior upper deck. Alan begins to tidy up the kitchen he knows well since he has spent several years being a chef on the boat.
I take the opportunity to go take pictures of the fjord. After a few seconds outside, a small bite on my hand is felt. First meeting with the sandflies! Small insect, half fly, half mosquito, the sandfly is a blood thirsty being that lives near rivers. Doubtufl Sound is the perfect place for these tiny monsters. Attacking only immobile people, the sandflies melt in groups, gathering like a cloud of vampires on the entire body of their prey. The bites do not transmit any disease but cause strong itching. I hurry to make my photos, going back and forth on the deck of the boat to try to distance the sandflies, which does not really work. Once, the kitchen a little tidier, we sit around a table to enjoy the midday meal consisting of filled pies and toast. My fellow kiwis are chatting about the cruise and the team rotations and I appreciate this incredible chance that I have to be here. I would love to discover all of Doubtful Sound.
But alas, I have to go back. Alan and the other two team members stay on the boat for the night and finish tidying up. Clint and I leave in the opposite direction to return to Te Anau. The return journey is quiet. We talk about a lot of things. Passage of Wilmot Pass then boarding again on the boat to cross the lake. It is late afternoon and miracle, the clouds are finally clearing! Back in Manapouri, we change of transport again to return to Te Anau. Clint drops me off at the town center and I thank him warmly for allowing me to accompany him, Alan and the others during this day. I walk a little bit in the city center (tiny alley lined with shops), with a dreamy mind. The weather is magnificent now. I find Julie and Isla and I take the opportunity to go to the village cinema, (a very small room with only thirty seats) accompanied by Isla, to watch the small documentary Ata Whenua which presents the Fiordland national park filmed from a helicopter . This is an opportunity to see a landscape that I would probably never be able to see otherwise. Isla seems to enjoy the film, although thirty minutes is a bit long for her and whispers a lot of comments in my ear. The film is very nice, accompanied only by music but too short. Some images of the fjords seen from the sky are absolutely magnificent.
Back home where we all eat a very good pizza together (except Alan stayed on the boat). It is time to leave Te Anau and Fiordland since we have to go back to the dairy farm to get back to work early in the morning. The return is done at night and I doze, memories in my eyes, telling myself that the rest of my trip will be in Fiordland.