Cruising Doubtful Sound. © Tony Stewart

Doubtful Sound: powerful serenity


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The most obviously dubious aspect of Doubtful Sound is its name because as everyone knows, it’s actually a fiord, carved from the mountains by the action of a glacier long since gone the way of a Fruju in high summer. It’s bigger than Milford Sound, both longer and covering far more area.

James Cook named the entrance to the Sound Doubtful Harbour when, after noting that it afforded a ‘very snug’ anchorage, he wondered whether the howling nor’-westerlies would ever let him out again if he ventured in.

Most visitors these days approach Doubtful Sound by land – not counting the launch trip across Lake Manapōuri from Pearl Harbour to its western arm, to rejoin an orphaned road where tour coaches have been strategically located to conduct you over the last few kilometres to Doubtful Sound itself.

On the way, you’ll stop to enjoy the amazing view over the upper reaches of the waterway from Wilmot Pass, one of the most photographed outlooks in the country, weather permitting. This is Fiordland after all, where it’s not uncommon for six or seven metres of rain to fall in a good year – enough to fill the deep end of a diving pool.

You’ll join your boat at Deep Cove, and venture past the stunning Helena Falls on your way out to the islets where the Sound joins the sea. On the way, you’ll more than likely share the water with seals or a pod of dolphins, both of which abound here.

Everything you hear – the thunder of the cataract, the throb of the launch’s engines, the birdsong from the beech forest clinging to the sheer walls of the Sound, the gasp of a surfacing bottlenose dolphin, the cheery commentary of your guide, the clatter of camera shutters – is laid over the cathedral-like silence, the true sound of the Sound, as it were.

At the Sound’s entrance, the lake-like serenity changes to the brooding, rugged drama of the Tasman Sea.

If of course, you want to minimise the risk of having the tall bits of the Sound obscured by misty rain clouds, the best thing to do is join an overnight cruise in the area. You won’t regret it. After all, with the sole exception of Captain James Cook, no one who visits this place is in a hurry to get away. 

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