The Breathtaking Beauty of Doubtful Sound

Doubtful Sound

Te Anau is the stepping stone to many an adventure. A lot of people whizz through on their way to Milford Sound, Doubtful Sound, glow-worm spotting or the Kepler Track but it is worth staying a night, if only to prepare for the next adventure or recover from it.

The Cave of Swirling Water

There is much dispute over where Te Anau got it’s name. It could be the name of a Maori Chieftainess but Te Ana-au means “the cave of swirling water”, although there are no such named caves. Te Anau is on the edge of a huge lake – 65km long huge. It is our second visit here and, as with last time, our arrival is full of anticipation. Last time it was because it was Christmas Day we were on the verge of embarking on an overnight cruise on Milford Sound which was incredible. This time we were booked on a day excursion to the other larger Sound of Doubtful (which isn’t really a sound it is a fjord). Considering this western coast of South Island can have an incredible 200 days (8 metres!) of rain a year the anticipation is not just excitement about the trip but what will the weather and visibility be like. To be honest, there was also a little bit of unspoken fear about whether we were doing the right thing to go on another trip when we felt the first one to Milford Sound just couldn’t be surpassed. Would be be equally as impressive? Would it spoil our memories of our last trip, particularly if the weather was bad.

First of all though a walk from our Lakefront Backpackers accommodation to the small town was required. A visit to Miles Better Pies on the way to the supermarket was a must. Their homemade pies are packed full of filling and very popular. Making the choice of fillings is always the problem. I opted for the lamb and mint and Jonno tucked into a steak, mushroom and cheese. Not only was it a great pie but we spent less in the supermarket as we were full up!

Miles Better Pies Te Anau

The lake and mountains beyond make for lots of photo opportunities so here are a few.

Te Anau
Kepler Water Taxi

Doubtful Sound Te Anau

All Aboard!

A quick breakfast the next day and in the car by 7am for the 20 minute drive to Manapouri. We were due to pick up a 8am departure with the company Real Journeys. We had used this company before and it was so well organised and such good value for money that we didn’t hestitate to use them again. Making a 50 minute boat crossing of Lake Manapouri is the first leg in the journey to the Sound. Unlike Milford Sound, Doubtful Sound is only accessible by tour company due to it’s location. The weather didn’t look too promising as we crossed the lake. Lots of low cloud but the sun was battling it’s way through.


With commentary from the Skipper about the passing coves, islands and wildlife, the journey went really quickly and before long we could see the largest hydroelectric power station in New Zealand built in the 70s just in the West Arm inlet where we were due to dock. For any hydroelectric nerds out there, it uses the 750ft drop over around 6 miles between Lake Manapouri and Doubtful Sound to generate electricity. That is as far as my technical knowledge goes I’m afraid.

Manapouri Lake

Crossing through the Wilmot Pass

After ten minutes looking at the visitor centre, our three brand new coaches were waiting for us. Our driver, Gill, told us that they were only one month old so, “Please don’t squash sand flies on the windows!” Everything that arrives at West Arm has to come by barge, including these coaches. To be honest the wooden ramp looked a bit dodgy but I am sure they knew what they are and none of them looked like they had had a dip in the lake. Gill was a great at putting us at our ease. She explained that the gravel track we would be taking for 45 minutes to take us over the Wilmot Pass is a registered road so in line with New Zealand law we should be wearing seat belts. She added that if she went over the edge they wouldn’t help much but at least we would be legal. She had lots of little reassuring anecdotes and a few less so but it all added to the adventure.After about a 40 minute twisty climb on a track about the same width as the coach we caught our first glimpse of Doubtful Sound below us.

Doubtful Sound

As you can see all our fears about the weather were gone! Unusually for Fiordland (yes the Kiwis spell it with an “i” not a “j”) the weather was improving as we travelled west and the sun was lighting up the mountains and sea in all it’s glory. In true Gill fashion she explained that there were two reasons to park up. One was to get our first sight of the Sound from up high and the second was to pluck up courage for her drive down to our boat at Deep Cove. The track was originally built to get construction materials brought in by sea that were too large to be taken over Lake Manapouri on the barges. It supposedly cost NZ$2.00 per centimetre and it is about 23km long. If this road was not needed to access the power station, visitors, like us, would not be able to visit the Sound. Hooray for the power station!

The descent to Deep Cove was steep but not too hair raising and in about 10 minute we saw our boat waiting at the small jetty for the next part of our excursion – the cruise on Doubtful Sound!

Why is it called Doubtful Sound?

Thought I would just throw in a sentence about this. As usual with most coastal names in New Zealand, the names comes from Captain Cook’s exploits here in the 1770s. He called the flooded glacier Doubtful Harbour because he was doubtful whether he would be able to navigate his way out of such a narrow long inlet under sail so didn’t venture too far in. Whalers and sealers changed it to Doubtful Sound at a later stage.

Cruising the Sound

Three hours cruising on the Sound and hopefully out onto the Tasman Sea if the conditions were OK. The JWalking philosophy, regardless of the weather, is get to get the whole experience. A fair number, especially those with children, headed inside the large cabin but we managed to find a space to lean on the top viewing deck. Doubtful Sound is a lot longer and wider than Milford so less dramatic in some ways but compensated by the vastness of the views.

Doubtful Sound

It took about an hour to get to the narrow opening out onto the Tasman Sea and conditions were calm enough for us to head out a little way before turning back into the Sound. It gave us the opportunity to see the seals lounging around in the sun on the Shelter Islands. There probably aren’t many days that they can sunbathe.

Doubtful Sound

Doubtful Sound
Can you see the seals ?

As the boat turned to head back towards some of the “arms” of the sound, the wind took our breath away and this continued for the remainder of the journey. So much buffering and blowing was going on that I hung onto my prescription glasses just in case. The only casualty, apart from a wicked new hair do, was one of fairly tightly fitting stud earrings was ripped from my ear and now lays at the bottom of Doubtful Sound. Who knows it many turn up on a beach in South America in a few thousand years!

Doubtful Sound

In some places we just felt totally dwarfed by the steep rock faces and it was great when the Skipper managed to find a sheltered spot and turn all the motors and generators off so we could just enjoy the peace with just the sounds of nature. Impressively, they asked all passengers to switch off cameras, phones and any other devices and just enjoy the “Sound of Silence“.

Doubtful Sound

Homeward Bound

All too soon the three hours cruising was over but we still had the reverse journey of the Wilmot Pass and trip across Lake Manapouri. Despite our initial nagging doubts, the trip was different enough from our first one two years before to Milford Sound for it to be equally memorable, it was definitely worth the hole in the budget (NZ$250 each – about £125) for what was 5 hours cruising and 2 hours bus travel in such an inaccessible place that cannot be seen any other way as a day trip and the weather was good enough to see even the highest peaks! Of course I do need some new earrings if I don’t want to be mistaken for a pirate!

Sunset in Te Anau

The only thing left to do was sit by the lake to reminise on our brilliant day and watch the sunset. Oh yes, there was also the novelty photo opportunity.

Doubtful Sound

Te Anau

10/01 – 12/01/2018

The Breathtaking beauty of doubtful sound


  1. Looks like you had similar weather to me when I did that trip: low cloud over Manapouri, sunshine over the Sound. I personally prefer Doubtful to Milford. There was just one boat on the large sound compared to the multiple boats on the narrower sound. It felt so much more peaceful.


    • I think you are right Doubtful just pips Milford. Although we have special memories of an overnight cruise on Milford. Feeling like we had it all to ourselves, kayaking, swimming, sunset and in the morning the reflection in the undisturbed waters about 6am before there was any movement on the water was amazing.


    • That just about sums up New Zealand. If only it was a little closer to the UK we could glamp, cruise and consume a little pink!


  2. There’s no doubt it is undoubtedly a very beautiful place.Love the idea of the sound of silence. I’d say it’s well the worth the money and the loss of an earring.


    • Definitely worth every penny and we would have regretted not going I’m sure. It’s all good though….the earrings were old and had been superglued a few times. We are looking out for new earrings. I love it when a plan comes together.

      Liked by 1 person

    • When we compare the photos to the reality we are always worried it doesn’t capture the majesty of it all. So when you look at the photos always have in mind that it is about ten times better than the photo,

      Liked by 1 person

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