Exploring New Zealand’s Fjordland

Doubtful Sound and Milford Sound are renowned for their beauty. While trying to decide which one to visit we asked New Zealanders and often got conflicting answers. So, we resolved to try to see them both.

We made our way from the Catlins to the small town of Te Anau, which would be our base for a few days while we explored the area.

Doubtful Sound

On our first morning in Te Anau we woke up early to catch a morning cruise of Doubtful Sound with Real Journeys.

To get to Doubtful Sound we took a catamaran ride across Lake Manapouri, then caught a bus over the Wilmont Pass and down to the sound where we boarded a second catamaran.

As we set off across the lake, the morning clouds dissipated and brilliant blue skies appeared. The lake is dotted with islands, some of which have been cleared of invasive species so that the native wildlife can better thrive.

At the far end of Lake Manapouri there is a huge hydroelectric power plant where water from the lake flows through turbines on the way to the sound, which is several hundred feet lower in elevation. The plant generates enough power for every home on the South Island, but most of the power is normally consumed at an aluminum smelter.

After a bus ride over some scenic but curvy dirt roads, we reached the dock at Doubtful Sound and boarded the second boat.

Doubtful Sound was originally named “Doubtful Harbour” by Captain James Cook because he didn’t think it could be navigated safely. The sound is actually a fjord, having been formed by glaciers thousands of years ago.

After taking in the views from the outside deck for a while, we came inside to eat our packed lunch.

Our cruise took us all the way to the ocean where some gentle swells rocked our boat a bit. Here the captain stopped near a rock so that we could get a good look at the fur seal colony.

On the way back we entered an arm of the sound and our guide asked everyone to be silent while the Captain cut the engines of the boat. With no noises coming from the engines we could clearly hear the sounds of birds chirping and small waves gently lapping against the rocks. It was amazingly peaceful.

On the return trip the bus stopped at an overlook where we got out and enjoyed one last look at Doubtful Sound.

Milford Sound

We decided to explore Milford Sound on our own rather then booking a tour. The disadvantage of this is that we wouldn’t actually be able to get out on the water, but this would allow us to see some of the sights on the way to the sound at our own pace.

From Te Anau it is about a two hour drive to Milford Sound. The journey took us through beautiful valleys and we stopped often to take in the scenery.

One interesting stop was “The Chasm” where a stream had chiseled a deep hole through the rock.

In the late afternoon we finally reached Milford Sound.

Here we walked along a trail at the waterfront, watching as the setting sun cast long shadows across the water.

On our drive home we spotted a group of Kea. These clever parrot-like birds are notorious for stealing food and shiny small items from people.

Glowworm Cave

Te Anau is one of a few places in New Zealand where one can see glow worms. Getting to the cave where the glow worms live requires booking a tour with Real Journeys.

Our tour started with another catamaran cruise, this time across Lake Te Anau.

After a short ride across the lake we were given instructions for the tour – stay quiet, no photos, and stick with the guide!

Once inside the sound of rushing water met our ears; a stream flows through this cave on the way to the lake. Fortunately the elevated walkways kept us dry.

Walking through the cave we got to see some cool features including several waterfalls. At the end of the trail we climbed aboard a small metal boat and our guide used a chain to pull us along deeper into the cave in the darkness.

Soon we saw the glow worms; each one had a faint blueish light that they use to attract their prey. It almost felt like we were looking up at stars in the night sky.

After our trip through the cave, we went into the welcome center where a guide showed us a video on glow worms and gave a short talk about their life cycle. The kids quite enjoyed learning that the glow worms catch their prey on sticky threads made of spit, pee, and vomit.

Around Te Anau

Back in Te Anau we stopped by the park so that the kids could get some exercise on the playground.

There was also a rally of Ford Model As going on. New Zealanders love their classic cars; we saw quite a few during our trip across the islands.

In our next update, we wrap up our month long exploration of New Zealand with a stay in Queenstown!