Yes, it was absolutely worth the wait in the cold rain to see the penguins, but we left them behind and headed to Te Anau. This small town is beautifully situated beside Lake Te Anau, which at 110 feet deep and 40 miles long is the largest lake in the South Island and the second largest lake in New Zealand. Most people come to Te Anau due to its proximity to Fiordland National Park.
Fiordland National Park , New Zealand’s largest, is one of the last true areas of remote wilderness in the world. It lies in the southwest corner of the South Island and is made up of three million acres. Fiordland National Park is an amazing combination of valleys, glacial lakes and magnificent fiords, having been carved by glacial action over thousands of years.
On our first day we drove from Te Anau to Milford Sound. Rudyard Kipling visited Milford Sound in the early 1900’s and called it the Eighth Wonder of the World. This Sound, located in Fiordland National Park, the northernmost fiord in the park, is a 10 mile long fiord over 1,312 feet deep. The area receives over 22 feet of rain a year (over an inch a day average). In the distance you can see mile high Mitre Peak.
We had to go through Homer Tunnel, a one lane tunnel built in 1954 that is a little under a mile long. We waited in line with all the tour buses and cars for the traffic light to turn green signaling we could enter the tunnel. It felt more like driving through a cave than a tunnel with dim lighting. So amazing how they blasted such a long tunnel through the side of the mountain. This ten percent inclined tunnel was carved from both ends simultaneously, and they met perfectly.
In Milford Sound we had our first encounter with the dreaded sandfly. We had heard they are very bad on the west coast of the South Island and fortunately brought bug spray with us. Within seconds of stepping out of the car I had five attacking one leg. They have an intense bite and leave itching skin. The bug spray has works pretty well so far.
The next day we had booked in advance a day cruise into Doubtful Sound. We were supposed to go on Thursday, but due to a doubtful weather forecast (pun intended) we were able to reschedule for Friday. Doubtful Sound, also in Fiordland National Park, is three times longer and ten times larger than Milford Sound. It is the second largest fiord of the fourteen fiords in the park.
The area was named Doubtful Harbor in 1770 by Captain James Cook because he thought it was doubtful there was sufficient wind to maneuver his vessel into the narrow reaches of the water. Early explorers wrongly called them sounds instead of fiords. Sounds are caused by river erosion whereas fiords are carved and gouged out by glaciers. This probably happened because most of the explorers were English and had never seen fiords before.
Our cruise started out early in the day when the tour company picked us up at our motel and bused us over to Manapouri where we boarded a boat for an hour ride across Lake Manapouri. It was a beautiful ride with gorgeous views of the lake and mountains.
Once we reached the other side of the lake we boarded a bus which took us through the rain forest over Wilmot Pass. The only way to reach Doubtful Sound is to cross Lake Manapouri and cross Wimot Pass. This steep, winding fourteen mile road is New Zealand’s most expensive road and one of its most remote. It was built in the 1960’s to provide access for heavy equipment during construction of a power station. Floods, snows, mud and landslides lengthened the project from 12 months to 2 years. We had a great bus driver who did a wonderful job maneuvering the mountainous road while keeping us entertained with information about the area.
The bus dropped us off at the dock at Deep Cove where we boarded a catamaran for a three hour cruise around Doubtful Sound. At one point we briefly entered the Tasman Sea. It was pretty chilly but we spent a lot of time on the deck enjoying the views. We saw a pod of bottlenose dolphins. There is a pod of about sixty that hang out in the Sound and seldom leave. These dolphins are among the southernmost in the world. They enjoyed playing around the boat, occasionally leaping in the air. They were quick and hard to capture on camera. We also saw one yellow eyed penguin swimming in the water. Now we know what those penguins do all day while we are onshore waiting for their return.
The catamaran then dropped us back to Deep Cove where we once again rode the bus over Wimot Pass to the boat which took us back across Lake Mansour then to the last bus and back to the motel. A marvelous ten hour day. The tour company, Real Journeys, did an exceptional job and all their employees on the buses and boats were very friendly and helpful They all truly seemed to enjoy their jobs. And since there is no tipping in New Zealand no one was waiting during any part of the trip with their hand out expecting a tip.
We enjoyed meeting and talking with couples from Australia and France on the trip.
Te Anau, Fiordland National Park and all the area around it is truly a beautiful beautiful place!
- Diesel fuel is cheaper than gasoline at the fuel pumps.
- The South Island is more mountainous than the North Island and has fewer people and more sheep, cattle and deer.
- The South Island is colder, rainier and has many more bugs, especially sand flies.
- The South Island has more tourists and Americans than we encountered on the North Island.
- The South Island has more souvenir shops but less fast food restaurants. Many smaller towns have a Subway restaurant but no other fast food.