On a March morning in the fall of 1770, Captain James Cook peered through his spyglass at a meeting of land and sea that lay five miles off the port beam. Examining what appeared to be a passage between the sea cliffs, he considered for some time whether this inlet could provide a place to rest from the Tasman Sea. He concluded that this was a Doubtful Harbor and that the Endeavour would not be risked to explore it further.
These days you don't need to borrow a square-rigged sailing ship to experience the Doubtful Sound, but it may actually be one of the simpler options. Our trek began from Queenstown where an unseasonably early snow had overnight painted the peaks of the Remarkables white and set the stage for the first leg of our journey, a three hour drive through the Southern Alps. Our Destination, Manpouri, a small town on the shore of big lake. Parking our car at the town dock, we grabbed overnight bags and boarded a waiting ferry that carried us on the hour crossing to lake's West End - a place that despite being home to a hydroelectric power plant capable of powering the entire south Island is reachable only by boat and seaplane. The challenging commute may be one of the reasons why the power station is actually unmanned, and remotely operated by workers a hundred miles away.
While no roads lead to the West End, there is one that leads away from it. An unsealed and steep, single lane road that winds up and over the Wilmont Pass ending much as it starts, a place accessible only by boats or seaplanes, Deep Cove on the Doubtful Sound. Fortunately the driving on this portion of the trip is left to the professionals and we boarded a bus that for a ride up, over and down the mountain.
These days the Doubtful Sound remains much as it was in the time of Captain Cook. Hard granite mountains which withstood the grinding glaciers of the last ice age, drop thousands of feet into a cold, dark water whose depths can reach as high as the surrounding peaks. Layered on these mountains is a dense, green blanket of plants and trees rooted only in a thin layer of moss built up over centuries. And when it rains, the cliff sides explode with the sight and sounds of hundreds of powerful waterfalls cascading down from on high.
The complete absence of roads and homes within this National Park creates a refuge for wildlife. In our short time in the Sound we saw both seal colonies and bottle nosed dolphins and heard (rather than saw) birds rarely found outside of this park.
Not unexpectedly, our time on board passed quickly. Kathy and I took advantage of the opportunity to kayak along a small bay, while Shannon rode in the ship's tender to check out the plant life and waterfalls close up. Cameron was our resident photographer and snapped pictures of everything - water, mountains, the sunset, the full moon, seals, dolphins and even the passengers hearty enough to try a swim in the icy water. Board games in the Ship's lounge provided an opportunity to hang out while watching the scenery pass by. One of the most memorable experiences was the 5 minutes of silence. This was a time when everything on the ship was turned off, passengers were asked to remain still and quiet while the ship drifted and we were given the opportunity to listen to nature without the intrusion on any man made sounds.
I'd be remiss in ending this post without a tip of the hat to the The Real Journey staff. The small crew of our ship went out their way to ensure that everyone was able to make the most of their time onboard and from the guide who led us on a late afternoon kayak paddle to the captain who encouraged us to visit with him on the bridge at any time, enthusiastically shared this special place.