It was the building of the Manapouri hydro scheme that opened up Doubtful Sound to visitors. What was previously the preserve of the odd yacht and a few deerstalkers and trampers is now accessible to anyone prepared to take a boat across Lake Manapouri and a bus over the Wilmot Pass. Amid pristine beauty, wildlife is a major attraction, not least the resident pod of sixty-odd bottlenose dolphins, who frequently come to play around ships’ bows and cavort near kayakers. Fur seals slather the outer islands, Fiordland crested penguins come to breed here in October and November, and the bush, which comes right down to the water’s edge, is alive with kaka, kiwi and other rare bird species.
Like Milford, Doubtful Sound gets a huge amount of rain, but don’t let that put you off – the place is at its best when the cliffs spring waterfalls everywhere you look after a downpour.
Though the rock architecture is a little less dramatic than Milford Sound, it easily makes up for this with its isolation and far fewer visitors. Travel between Manapouri to Doubtful Sound takes two hours, so to fully appreciate the beauty and isolation of the area it really pays to maximize your time there by staying overnight. Costs are unavoidably high and you need to be self-sufficient, but any inconvenience is easily outweighed by the glorious isolation – you’ll see very few other boats or people out here.
Cook spotted Doubtful Sound in 1770 but didn’t enter, as he was “doubtful” of his ability to sail out again in the face of winds buffeted by the steep-walled fiord. The breeze was more favourable for the joint leaders of a Spanish expedition, Malaspina and Bauza, who in 1793 sailed in and named Febrero Point, Malaspina Reach and Bauza Island. Sealers soon decimated the colonies of fur seals and few people visited the area until the 1960s when the hydro scheme required the construction of the 21km gravel Wilmot Pass supply road, which links Manapouri’s West Arm with Doubtful Sound’s Deep Cove.