TE ANAU, June 12 — Travel these days can be a challenge if you enjoy solitude. Everywhere you can think of visiting, you also dread the hordes of other tourists, shoving for the best position to take their selfies with the Eiffel Tower or Great Pyramid in the background.
How wonderful if you can go on a getaway... and get away from others on their getaways.
If you seek the sound of silence, consider making a trip to Doubtful Sound, a serene and isolated fiord in the south-western tip of New Zealand’s scenic South Island. Doubtful Sound was originally named Doubtful Harbour by Captain Cook, who discovered it in 1770 and doubted – hence the name — whether it could be safely navigated.
Also known as Patea (its Maori name), whalers and sealers in the area later renamed it Doubtful Sound. Geographically, a “sound” is basically a narrow sea channel between two bodies of land though most experts agree today that it is more of a fiord due to its steep cliffs, created by glacial erosion over two million years ago.
To get there, your best option is to stay overnight in Te Anau, a small town nearby, which is what we did. Our day begins early as there is some distance — about 23 kilometres — to travel from the comforts of bucolic Te Anau to Doubtful Sound. This doesn’t mean we have to break our fast on cold cereal and milk. In the town centre, along Milford Road, is Miles Better Pies, a pie shop for those who are hungry and on the run.
Their pies are proclaimed some of the best in New Zealand, if not the best. We try their signature venison pies and happily agree. Made using local venison, either hunted wild (in the Fiordland National Park on the west of Lake Te Anau) or reared on farms (on the east side of the same lake), these pies are meaty and savoury without being gamey.
For those who are disinclined to dine on Bambi’s cousins, opt for their creamy steak and cheese pie or lightly herbal lamb and mint pie. Have a sweet tooth? Their apple and blueberry pie will satisfy.
Every pie has the same buttery crust and fill-you-up size, enough for two light eaters. Most customers will take them away in paper bags for a cold lunch later in the day. Good idea.
Our bus — operated by Real Journeys, the company that manages the Doubtful Sound cruise — picks us up from our hotel and takes us to Manapouri, the departure point for our excursion. Along the way, on the Wilmot Pass road from the Manapouri Power Station, we can see the fiord looming ahead.
And then we board our boat for the cruise, marvelling at the intensely green forests (courtesy of more than 200 days of rain a year) and the sheer, razor-sharp slopes of the mountains. There is a pervading fog over the water, and when it lifts...
“You are now entering Doubtful Sound,” the captain booms over the speakers.
Words fail to describe the natural splendour of Doubtful Sound. And no words are needed as few of the passengers are in conversation. Everyone is either busy snapping photographs or leaning over the railings, silently experiencing the view and the environment.
There are waterfalls around every bend (or so it seems). The largest of these, the Helena Falls and the Browne Falls, can have falls of over 600 metres, especially during the rainy season. Long and winding, the 40.4 kilometre-long Doubtful Sound is also the deepest of New Zealand’s fiords at 421 metres deep.
It’s magical and a little melancholic, the way the mists would roll down the cliffs on both banks of the fiord. There are no signs of human life, except for our fellow passengers on the boat (there are no other boats, adding to the lovely sense of seclusion) and a little hut we spot on an islet, possibly for the locals who work in park conservation.
You can head into the cabin at any time for a tea break or lunch at your leisure. Passengers have a choice of cold sandwiches for lunch or some Korean ramyum (spicy cup noodles). Go for the latter, incongruous as it may seem; it’ll warm you up, as it did us, after the chilly winds above, on the deck.
As we approach the open sea, the mists part and we hear the thunderous roar of the waves breaking on the rocks. This is where colonies of fur seals bask, even when there isn’t much sun. Their tremulous calls add an orchestral note to the sound of the waves, of Mother Nature.
Our boat turns around at Secretary Island, the largest island of the fiord closest to the sea. Slowly the waters get calmer again. Unusually, there are two distinct layers of water — fresh water above, from the rains, flowing from the surrounding mountains, and a layer of warmer and salt water from the sea beneath — that do not mix.
Suddenly we spot a fin in the water. Not a shark, surely? The strange creature surfaces and we realise it’s a dolphin! Doubtful Sound is home to one of the southernmost populations of bottlenose dolphins. They are an incredibly close group of friendly animals that will often go near boats and play around them, much to our delight.
According to our guide, there are other wildlife here in the fiord, including penguins and large whales such as the humpback and the minke, though these aren’t often seen. It’s enough to be here, to enjoy the silence and contemplate a world where so few humans have ever encroached upon. When it’s time to say farewell to Doubtful Sound, it’s with a heavy heart and a promise to return.
Once we’re back in Te Anau, we’re well-starved, not from actual exercise perhaps but from the copious amounts of fresh air. There are Italian and Chinese restaurants here; even an Indian takeaway shop inside the petrol station convenience store. But we’d like to have something more unusual (and making excellent use of the land’s bounty), so how about sushi... from a food cart?
The owner of the Fiordland Food Cart is Japanese and always up for a friendly chat, even as he prepares our dinner. (Everyone seems to be more relaxed in New Zealand — how wonderful!)
Every sushi is rolled to order and chock full of fresh seafood caught the same day in Milford Sound. There’s the standard filling of salmon and avocado but be adventurous. Try the New Zealand unagi (grilled eel) paired with cool cucumber; the venison with sea salt, a squeeze of lemon and red onions; or the indigenous Fiordland crayfish.
We also enjoy the latter grilled and served with raisin slaw, fresh salad and lemon wedges. So succulent and refreshing. Want something heavier? How about a steak roll with raisin relish, cucumber, red onion, jalapeño and spicy mayonnaise, all wrapped up in a toasted baguette?
To finish, we nurse a cup of belly- and soul-warming miso soup. Perfect for the chilly weather... and for sleeping like babies after that!
Miles Better Pies
164 Milford Road, Te Anau, New Zealand
Open daily 6am-5pm
Real Journeys: Doubtful Sound Cruise
Fiordland Food Cart
Hollyford Cafe courtyard, 63 Town Centre, Te Anau, New Zealand
Open Tue-Sat 11:30am-7pm; Mon-Sun closed