Doubtful Sound is New Zealand’s second longest fjord has a length of 40 km between Deep Cove and the Tasman Sea and a depth of 421m making it the deepest fjord in New Zealand. The Doubtful Sound cruise between Deep Cove wharf and the Tasman Sea boasts numerous waterfalls, glacially carved valleys and beautiful native rainforest amongst granite, slate, and limestone mountains.
There are no direct roads to Doubtful Sound. In order to get to Doubtful Sound you must first cross Manopouri Lake by boat, take on a gravel road over 671m high Wilmot Pass, then descend upon Deep Cove, the Southern terminus of Doubtful Sound.
Many visitors base themselves in Queenstown and make Doubtful Sound a day trip. While this is a sound option for people on a tight schedule, be warned that it will be a very 12-14 hour long day with early 6:30am-7am pickups.
We would recommend basing yourself in Te Anau instead. This way you can be picked up around the luxurious hour of 9am and dropped off by around 5pm-5:30pm in town and still have enough energy for a walk around Lake Te Anau or a visit to the rare, native New Zealand birds at the Bird Sanctuary.
Doubtful Sound has two major tour operators, Real Journeys and Go Orange and a handful of private charter boats. We were hosted by Go Orange, a bright and energetic company with approachable, helpful staff who are great examples of New Zealand hospitality. We noticed in particular that their tour guides/bus drivers are particularly warm, good humoured folks who make the journeys pass quickly with interesting commentary and jokes.
We were picked up from YHA Hostel where we were staying around 9am in the morning and clambered onto the Go Orange Bus. Our tour guide and bus driver Sam handed us our Go Orange tickets and we were off to pick up the remaining guests departing from Te Anau.
The drive from Te Anau to Lake Manapouri is approximately 20-30 minutes long along a well-paved road. Te Anau was sunny with blue skies and thin, high clouds. One glance towards the mountains told a different story. Dark, low clouds hugged the mountaintops in the distance.
We alight at the Pearl Harbour Real Journeys Visitor Centre at Lake Manapouri to ferry across Lake Manapouri. You can also get your caffeine fix satiated at the little cafe underneath, next to the dock as the ferry will only have free instant coffee and tea.
Lake Manopouri is the second deepest lake in New Zealand, with the deepest point reaching 444m, and absolutely stunning part of Fiordland National Park. Previous names for the lake by the Maori people included Roto-au (the rainy lake) and then Moturau (many islands).
High clouds hovered above the Kepler Mountains, Turret Range and the Hunter Mountains around Lake Manapouri as we made our journey across to reach the West Arm Visitor Center.
West Arm – Lake Manapouri
New Zealand’s largest hydroelectric power station is found almost completely underground at the West Arm of Lake Manapouri and is the reason why the road to Doubtful Sound exists at all. The road between the power station and Doubtful sound was also the most expensive road built at the time, costing 2 dollars per cm! Our guide remarked that it was a good thing they built it back then as the current government would never undertake such a costly project with taxpayers’ money now.
We were immersed in low hanging clouds as we ascended Wilmot pass but soon escaped the misty shroud on the curvaceous descent to Doubtful sound. On clearer days, Doubtful Sound can be seen from Wilmot Pass.
Between 2017-2018 Doubtful Sound experienced a 100% increase in the population as the number of permanent residents jumped from 1 to 2! These two hardy individuals tend to the Deep Cove Hostel for school groups and casual visitors.
Doubtful Sound has limited mooring options but fewer boats mean less traffic on the fjord. Our bus picked up Go Orange Kayakers whose group decided it would be best to leave kayaking for a calmer day. We then pulled up next to the lake and clambered down the stairs past the native forest clinging to the lakeside and onto our 45 passenger boat, eager for the journey across Doubtful Sound to begin. On rainy days most passengers tend to stay inside, sheltered from the rain and wind. But if you come prepared with layers and waterproof clothing the upper deck certainly has the best views.
Doubtful Sound Cruise
Densely forested mountains reaching up to 1,600 metres (5,200 ft) are enveloped in fog and mist cultivating a mysterious atmosphere. This typical rainy Fiordland weather has another added benefit though as the permanent waterfalls along the mountainsides magnify in volume and force and hundreds of temporary waterfalls spring into existence. The U shaped hanging side valleys along Doubtful Sound are simply flush with waterfalls.
The aquatic environment in Doubtful Sound and the other fjords in Fjordland National Park is unique in that the saltwater in the fjord is overlaid by freshwater from the mountains darkened by the forest floor. The two layers do not mix and produce a dark environment wherein deep-sea species such as black coral which commonly are found at depths of 30m-40m, now exist within a shallow 10m below the water’s surface.
Later, our captain manoeuvred the boat close to one of the waterfalls streaming down the cliffside which encouraged more people to come up deck for a closer look and a photo opportunity. As the boat approached the Shelter Islands in the Tasman Sea, the waters grew significantly rougher and the winds more intense. You would think it would be time to return to your seats but we were accompanied by 8 other sea hardy folks who were enjoying the ride. The Tasman Sea marks the halfway and turning point of the Doubtful Sound wilderness cruise back to Deep Cove.
It was a fantastic journey that we didn’t want to end; three hours on the Doubtful Sound went by in a blink of an eye. The bus ride back to the West Arm Visitor Centre was quiet as we contemplated the day. We left the rain behind as we sailed back across Lake Manapouri, with tea in one hand and a relaxed grip on the boat’s deck railing on the other as we traversed over the calm waters.
What to Wear
Fiordland National Park experiences more than 7 metres of rain over 200 days annually. Summer runs between December and February and happens to be the wettest season, with average days of rain between 15-17 days per month. With this in mind, waterproof and windproof outer layers are imperative if you want to stay on the upper deck, which has the best views and provides the most immersive experience on the fjord. Bring layers to add on or take off if the weather takes a turn either for the worse or for the better.
How much does the Doubtful Sound Cost?
The Doubtful Sound cruise is a premium experience that justifiably comes at a higher price point than the Milford Sound cruises due to its remote position in New Zealand. However, you will spend considerably more time on the water as you must complete a return crossing on beautiful Lake Manapouri and have three luxuriously long hours on Doubtful Sound compared to the Milford Sound one hour cruises.
Prices for adults departing and returning from Lake Manapouri or Te Anau are $265 NZD and $119 for children aged 5-14. Queenstown day trip rates are $285 NZD for adults and $139 NZD for children.
Don’t let the rain and mist deter you from visiting Doubtful Sound with GoOrange. If anything, the weather conditions made the experience even more surreal and invigorating. Doubtful Sound lives up to its Maori name, Patea. It’s a wonderful slice of New Zealand and an amazing ‘place of silence’.