I woke and dressed in the dark trying not to disturb the peaceful slumber of my companions. Today I was heading out on an all day journey to Fiordland to explore the hard to reach Doubtful Sound.
After a quick stop into Mrs. Ferg Gelateria for a coffee, I set out on the two hour drive to Manapouri. By this point in my journey I’ve grown comfortable driving on the left hand side of the road, though I’ve never driven in the dark. The roads are empty and I take it slow as I sip on my coffee still waking up. I drive in the dark, winding around the mountain roads lining Lake Wakatipu listening to The Secret Life of Walter Mitty soundtrack.
As light begins to break I pause for a few minutes, pulling off the road into a viewing point at Devil’s Staircase looking back from where I came at the sun rising behind the Bayonet Peaks.
I could stay here longer but I must press on. Leaving the lake behind me I drive through green fields until I reach Real Journeys’ Visitor Center in Manapouri. Unlike the more easily accessible Milford Sound, it is not possible to drive to Doubtful Sound. The only options for visitors to visit Doubtful Sound are boat cruises. I’m early for my scheduled boat ride across Lake Manapouri. I take the opportunity to charge my gadgets and pick up my lunch for the long day ahead.
When it’s time to embark on our day, there is the familiar hustle as the crowd tries to politely push their way to what they’ve decided to be the best viewing spot. I land on the top deck at the rear of the boat.
“Are you from America?” a stranger asks me.
“You’re wearing North Face. Americans are always decked out in North Face,” he explains.
Thus begins the on again off again conversation I have with the small group of explorers who opted to be on the open deck for this expedition.
We cross Lake Manapouri with gasps of “ooooh” and “ahhh” as our eyes overflow with the stunning scenery, cameras shooting in every direction not yet aware of the beauty ahead.
We arrive at the Manapouri Power Station and file off onto buses that will drive us through the Wilmot Pass. At this point of the journey, travelers are still fighting for their space - groups working hard to sit by each other, the motion sick begging for a seat in the front, me rolling my eyes at the college boys behind me who don’t understand their muddy wet feet are not welcome on my armrest. We drive over one of the most expensive roads in New Zealand through the rainforest’s constant mist, passing The Disaster where Professor Mainwaring-Brown took his fatal stroll up the valley never to be seen again, stopping occasionally to snap a shot of waterfalls.
The bus pulls to a stop at a small wharf in Deep Cove. Filing off the bus, we wait in the rain for the earlier tour group to file off the boat and on to the dry warm buses we’ve just left behind. As we file onto the boat that will take us into the fiord, we find ourselves in the same groups we stared with -those who wished to stay dry inside and the small group of weather impervious strangers on the upper deck outside with only a small roof above doing little to block the rain as the boat pushes back and begins the journey into Doubtful Sound.
Doubtful Sound was named ‘Doubtful Harbor’ in 1770 by Captain Cook, who did not enter the inlet as he was uncertain whether it was navigable under sail. It was later renamed Doubtful Sound by whalers and sealers, although it is not technically a sound but a fiord. As I stare into the mists of the path ahead it is little wonder why Cook did not risk the journey in.
Grey clouds fill the sky tickling the tops of the sheer rock mountain walls of the fiord. The rain continues light and steady creating innumerable thin streaming waterfalls.
I notice the feet friendly college boys have left our group and curiously follow them up a slippery set of stairs to the completely uncovered and open tiny upper deck of the boat. I take the last step and brace myself as a wind stronger than any I’ve yet to experience attempts to push me back down the stairs. “Hold on to your hat!” San Diego College Boy #1 shouts.
Too late. The hat becomes an offering to the gods of adventure.
Together we play in the wind and the rain testing how far can we lean over and still be held up, pushing through, being flung back, my hair whipping frantically into a knot I will spend days trying to untangle. Behind me, the retired couple from San Luis Obispo join us. Together we cackle and shout nonsense at each other too caught up in our delight to really care we are saying nothing.
Drenched we retreat to the warmth of the inner cabin for lunch. Mrs. San Luis Obispo insists we all eat the extra snacks she’s packed. Inside, we dethaw over tea and coffee watching the seals’ shenanigans on the rocks. We’ve reached the outer reaches of the fiord and the waters have become rough so close to the ocean. Holding onto the bolted down chairs we attempt to keep the precarious beverages from spilling over the edges of our cups - an amusing sight.
Back at Deep Cove we reluctantly leave the fjord behind smiling at the line of passengers waiting for us to board the buses back to the Manapouri Power Station. The bus ride back has a different feeling. Still somehow all still together, my group of strangers that I’ve shared the day with chat about our lives back home and the insanity of the nature we’ve just experienced together.
Loading back onto the boat that will take us across Lake Manapouri to our cars and the end of our journey, we are still all together on the upper open deck only now calm and quite watching as the sky brightens more and more the further away we move from the fiord.
Ahead we spot a rainbow. What is it about a rainbow that causes all of us to act like children? They still excite us and feel magical though we’ve surely all seen many through our lives. Everyone scrambles to take pictures as fast as we can then seem to suddenly realize there is no rush. Taking turns, we snap pictures of each other in front of what is now a double rainbow. It’s as if the earth is saying “Tah Dah! I am glorious,” and we all know it’s true take selfies with the artist whose stunning performance we’ve just witnessed.
I drive back to Queenstown reflecting on my experience. I began the day with strangers, but by the time we arrived back in Manapouri we had shared an adventure that bonded us. We might not know one another, but we were no longer strange to one another. We’d all selected to be outside. We’d found a common bond in our desire to face the wild as close as we could possibly get. Without speaking much, we knew each other. We were kindred spirits sharing the desire to be a part of life, delighting in the perils, seeking adventure, and marveling in the magnificence of the world we live in. The day was long and wet and cold. The day was wild and glorious and will remain permanently ingrained in my soul.
The road is calling, must dash.
Holly Mann is an Independent Contractor affiliated with Vista Travel Consultants specializing in adventure travel, family travel, sustainable travel, and immersion travel. You can find her on Instagram, LinkedIn, or Twitter.
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HOLLY MANN: As an Independent Contractor of Vista Travel Consultants, Inc. a member of the Virtuoso Network, my access to the highest quality of vetted global travel partners allows me to create rich, culturally immersive, and liberating travel experiences.