The driving just keeps getting more interesting and the scenery more spectacular as we make our way to the land of New Zealand's fiords, on the southwestern end of the South Island. We gave a lot of thought to which sound we would visit, Doubtful or Milford and what to do, i.e., take a day tour or book an overnight cruise of the sound. Doubtful Sound would be a more expensive and more involved endeavor compared to the popular Milford Sound, which would certainly be busier. Part of the decision was made for us when we discovered that all of the overnight cruise line operators were booked full. A day-cruise it is, so now, where to go? We drove into Te Anau, which seemed to be the jumping off place for either of the Sounds, and held the closest and most accommodations for Milford. After driving all around the town, which we found vaguely unimpressive, and finding no available rooms, another decision was made for us. There is a small village called Manapouri, which is the closest town to Doubtful Sound. It is rustic and incredibly beautiful! We stayed at the nicest place in town, which was akin to a backpacker's resort or a Holiday Park. The view from our balcony was worth a million dollars!
We booked the 6:30 AM tour for the next day, and then went hiking. We found a small grocery, bought supplies to pack our lunch for the tour and some grub for dinner, including great big steaks to cook on the community grill. Marsha and I went into the community kitchen to cook the sides and to scrounge up some plates, etc. We dined on our balcony to a picture perfect sunset. No one wanted to ruin the moment running for a camera, so we just relaxed and enjoyed ourselves.
Up at the crack of dawn the next morning we drove down to the wharf where we met the tour boat. The morning was very foggy, giving us a fabulous sunrise over Lake Manapouri. It is a very large body of water and is a wildlife & bird sanctuary. It is flanked by mountains and is simply beautiful. We could see the fog begin to slowly lift and beneath the edges a very blue sky threatened to reveal itself. The boat slowly made its way across the lake to an old power station where we boarded buses to take us on a very winding road through Fiordland National Park, over the mountain pass to Doubtful Sound. We managed to get a very witty and informative bus driver who either had us in stitches or had us "oohing and aahing" during the entire ride. We took heaps of pictures, praying that some of them would do the scenery justice. The fog continued to lift, revealing an incredibly clear blue-sky overhead.
At last close to 2 hours later, we arrived at Doubtful Sound where we boarded another large touring boat. We were told over and over again how fortunate we were to have arrived on the early tour and to have been blessed with blue skies. Apparently, since this was mentioned at least half a dozen times, this is very rare because Fiordland itself is usually cast in fog and overcast with chilly drizzling cloud cover. We were able to see clearly the top of every peak on every mount. The downside to this rare opportunity is that the hundreds of waterfalls that normally decorate the many hill faces were but a trickle for us this day. That's OK; we'll take the warm sunshine and the clear visibility. We rode out to the mouth of the Sound to touch the waters of the Tasman Sea. This we were told was an additional treat because normally the Tasman and this entire area is generally sloshing with turbulence. Toward the end of our tour, the Pilot informed us that the Sound was so incredibly becalmed today that he was going to give us one more special experience. He turned off the engines and let us drift, listening only to the sounds of nature all around us. It was an extraordinarily Spiritual moment. Alas the boat ride back across was just as incredible as coming out, as we had taken a circular route through the Sound.
When we arrived back at the wharf to board our bus, Frank and I felt a quiet sense of awe. In the bus on our return to Lake Manapouri, we were able to see sights that had earlier been obscured by the dense morning fog. WOW! The vistas were indescribably picturesque, like something we have only seen in a 3-D IMAX cinema. We couldn't believe it could get any better than this until we arrived at the lake for our final boat ride back to the village. The lake was intensely calm; so calm that the hills and mountains reflected flawlessly upon the surface of the water, only to be disturbed by our watercraft as sped back to pick up the next group. There is so much beauty here! No wonder New Zealand protects her lands and waters so aggressively. We were very pleased that we had made the decision to come here on this day. Serendipitous!
We returned to our motel to find that we had a message from our friends Jan and Dave (s/v Baraka), wondering where we were in our travels and letting us know that they were staying in Manapouri and were planning to tour the Sounds. Well, of all the places to run into someone! It turns out that they were staying in a campground right next door! Will wonders never cease? We had an after dinner get-together with them and made plans to meet for breakfast the next morning before heading out. They were going around the South Island clockwise, and we were going counter clockwise. Next stop Invercargill!