Sounds, Doubtful or Milford?

February 2, 2012

No trip to New Zealand would be complete without a trip to the Sounds,  but which one should you do?

Milford Sound is world famous, what is less well known is the trip to Doubtful Sound. We decided that we would try and squeeze in both.

We’re glad we did as they’re both different experiences but on balance we think that the Fiord trip to Doubtful has more to offer than Milford, for one it’s larger, but why ?  Read on to find out.

Doubtful about Doubtful Sound

We were in Te Anau awaiting our turn in the weather which gave us ample time to look at what was on offer regarding the trips to Doubtful Sound.

As it turns out we did not need much time as Real Journeys pretty much have the monopoly on the one day trip there.   If you have the time and are willing to fork out NZ$450 (£235) for an overnight cruise on the Sound then you have more choices from smaller companies.  We only wanted the day cruise so we paid our NZ$250 (£130) and hoped for a turn in the weather for Sunday.

The Doubtful trips begin at Manapouri about 20Km south of Te Anau and all the companies will do coach pick ups from Te Anau and even further afield in Queenstown for a few extra bucks.  This was clear from the coaches that arrived not long after we got to the jetty.

The Doubtful Trip

The first part of this journey takes 45 minutes as you across Lake Manapouri where you are offloaded onto coaches for the 40minute trip to the sound itself.

This journey is part of the added fun of this trip as you get to see close up some of the spectacular rivers, waterfalls and more importantly the fauna of the Fiord’s surrounding landscape.

The road that takes you to this Jetty was built as a necessity for the construction of the hydro power station which takes water from Lake Manapouri and tips it into the Sound.  Thus generating megawatts of energy along its way as the energy of the gravity fed water is transformed into megawatts of electricity to provide 14% of New Zealand’s energy needs, which a fair proportion of which goes into the production of aluminium (NZ’s no.1 consumer of elecy power).  The trip includes a journey down the underground tunnel to see the turbine room, but can easily be missed and your life would be no poorer for it. Except for watching the coach driver manage a three point turn in a very small tunnel, very impressive, but as he told us, he has been doing it for eleven years. We’d tried to avoid visiting the power plant but there was no way around this unwanted detour, we just wanted to see the ‘fishy’ in the water!

You then board your second Catamaran of the day for your three hour journey through Doubtful Sound to the sea.  It is at this stage I should point out that although these waterways are called Sounds they are in fact Fiords.   A fiord (or Fjord not sure which is right) is created by Glacial carving of a waterway and a Sound by the force of River water.  They were misnamed by the earlier mariners and surveyors and I guess they couldn’t be arsed changing the names when the truth was discovered, mud or in this case ice sticks!

The journey is impressive as you take a slow meandering route out towards the Tasman Sea hoping along the way for sightings of bottle nose dolphins. Alas these creatures continued to allude us on both our trips.  What you do get are truly magnificent images of rising mountains with sheer never ending faces along with with the sunlight painting beautiful shadows against them.

What is difficult to express in words or even in the images is the sheer scale of what you are seeing, and the sounds that you hear.   As you look and photograph, from a distance along the centre of the fiord they seem big,  but when the captain steers the boat right next their edges you begin to get a sense of the enormity of the creations. We’d considered Kayaking, as this is  great option, but due to our current fitness levels and the fact that we’re so behind schedule due to unseasonable weather conditions this wasn’t an option for us. What seemed like a small trickle of water running down one of the faces of the rocks suddenly becomes a torrent as the boat’s nose nudged into the crevice underneath it and you are handed cups to catch the water to drink.  Have a look at some of the boats on some of the photographs and you will get a sense of what I mean.

Just before you head back the guide asks everyone to be quiet and they switch off the engines on the boat and for a few minutes you hear the roar of the silence as the boat bobs about on the movement of the water.  A nice little touch I thought.

So that was the Doubtful Sound trip, a great day out and for somewhere that averages over 200 rainy days a year and has an annual rainfall of around 10 metres per annum, we were pretty lucky, PERSISTENT, with the weather.

So why is it called Doubtful Sound, apparently the first surveyors marked the inlet as “doubtful” as to whether it could be used as a harbour and name stuck.

Milford Meander

So how does the Milford boat trip compare?  Well I don’t think you can compare them in a simple way.  Milford has the beauty and joy of the Milford Sound road trip.  The trips are definitely more accessible to more people due to the amount of vying suppliers in the newly built bookings centre (witnessed merely by the number of very large Catamarans moored at the jetty and the large number of coach parking bays in the car park).   They are both different experiences.

The views in Doubtful are more spectacular both in terms of the mountains and the fauna, but in Milford you have more choice of who to go with.  As we had been with a big company and a bigger Catamaran for the Doubtful trip we opted for a much smaller operator and boat at Milford, Mitre .

This boat carried about 20 people instead of the 140 that the large Catamarans haul about the fiords.  The smaller boat hugs the sides of the mountains on the journey so that you get a better sense of the scale of the landscape as you travel out towards the Tasmen Sea.    The smaller boats also let you to get up closer to the lounging fur seals that get themselves comfy on the rocks around the sounds.  There was no difference in the NZ pride and friendliness of either crew.

All in all two wonderful trips. if one not a little elongated, both with their advantages.  If you have the time you should do both, they offer something a little different.  In terms of the fiord experience Doubtful wins hands down, but with the Milford road journey to get you there this evens up the scores considerably.

Take plenty of insect repellent, the locals aren’t joking about the sand flies. Resistance is futile, and they make mosquitos look tame, we got off lightly compared to those unprotected wearing shorts – Ouch!!  Don’t let the bugs put you off they’re not that bad really if you’re prepared, but if you have the privilege of visiting NZ these places are a must.  If you are driving you’ll need to fill up with fuel before departing, as there are no petrol stations in Milford or the vicinity – be warned!

Filed in: South Island

Comments (3)

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  1. Peter Bull says:

    You two are so lucky!
    What fantastic scenery and your photos are excellent.
    Looking forward to the next installment!

  2. stuart Hickson says:

    Absolutely stunning, you must have run out of superlatives xx

  3. Terry says:

    Stunning photos, made me want to swim though I expect it’s a tad on the nippy side!

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