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Fiordland 2 – Mysterious Doubtful Sound

Into Doubtful Sound - Deeper, Longer and Greener

To get to Doubtful Sound you first have to take a catamaran across vast Lake Manapouri, about 15 minutes south of Te Anau.  Next you take a hair -raising bus ride over the Wilmot Pass and finally board a second boat for the cruise through the 40 km (23 mi) long Sound. The expense and time involved make it a less popular attraction and hence it is both a more remote and a more intimate experience. Beyond Wilmot Pass, the Sound dominates. People are as insignificant as sandflies.

Looking down from the top of Wilmot Pass

 In 1770 Cook named this fiord Doubtful Harbour, because he was unsure whether he would be able to sail back out. The Maori who came here to gather eels and birds in summer, had their own names and stories. According to Maori legend, the fiords were created by the God Tu-Te Raki-Whanoa to provide shelter from the stormy sea.  While Tu – Te -Raki – Whanoa split the rocks, four young sea gods, cut its subsidiary arms. The Maori called it Patea, which means “The Place of Silence.”

Our Captain, bus driver, coffee maker and cup washer, was a former fireman who occasionally hunted here. When his wife, an airborne emergency medic, took up a position in the area, he took the opportunity to make a tree change and to work in a place which he had always loved. He now calls the Sound his “Office.”As we cruise along, he tells us stories about the Sound – about the Spaniards who mapped the area in 1793 and named some of the features such as Malaspina Reach and Bauza Island, about the sealers who came in the late C18th and almost wiped out the fur seals, about the deer wars, about the early conservation battles sparked by plans to build a power station on it, and about some of the characters who have made their home here.  

Lady Alice Falls are just visible from the top of Wilmot Pass

We travel between high mountains and pass richly clothed islands. The lower slopes of the mountains are a darker green.  “Beech Forest” says the driver, yet on closer inspection the trees look very like the Tasmanian myrtle.  Since the mountains here are made of granite and have virtually no topsoil, the trees survive by tightly interlocking their roots. Every now and then however, we come across a barren streak running all the way down  the mountain. This is what’s known as a tree – slip, since one tree losing its grip, can take all the lower ones with it to a watery grave. Occasionally we come across a place where such a slip is starting to be filled in by mosses.  Apart from the drone of the boat it seems very quiet, though we do see a little family of Weta - ground dwelling birds, not unlike our native hens, from the windows of the bus.  It turns out that they are distant cousins, most likely blown over by the winds in past millennia. The 21 Km road over Wilmot Pass (671 m) which connects Lake Manapouri with Doubtful Sound, was built in 1964 for the construction of the power station. Various sources put the cost between $80 to $10,000 per metre, making it the most expensive road ever built in New Zealand, so much so that the costs were hidden from the public for thirty years. 

The mountains are typically  between 1300 and 1600 metres and there are at least a dozen islands.

Sealers and Whalers
The Sound wasn’t always so quiet.  The first to come were the sealers. Seals were valued both for their blubber and  their skin. The Maori too valued seals before the arrival Europeans. Those around Coromandel and Canterbury had been well and truly decimated before 1700, so by this time seals were only found in abundance in the South West.  Captain Cook and his crew made use of them on his 1773 voyage to nearby Dusky Sound. He found them to be a tasty food, used their skins to repair rigging and their oil for lamps.  In 1788 the East India Company, seeking a return cargo, following the delivery of convicts to Botany Bay (now Sydney) landed a party of seal hunters there in order to be able to exchange the skins for tea in China. Although briefly disrupted by the opening up of Bass Strait Islands to sealers in 1797, these were soon exhausted and a Seal Rush began in the Sound in 1803. Over the next three years 140,000 seals were killed. By 1810, seals were becoming scarce and sealers turned to trading other goods such as potatoes, timber and flax. Some became farmers and others turned to whaling. The last legal sealing season was in 1946.

The cliffs here are not as steep as at Milford Sound, giving Doubtful Sound a greener  and more open look
Whaling followed a similar trajectory to sealing. The industrial revolution was hungry for oil, especially for trains and street lighting.  Whale oil needed no refining and candles made from spermacetti oil from the head of a whale, burned cleanly. The Ambergris from their stomachs was regarded as an aphrodisiac and was also used in the manufacture of perfume, while the baleen in their mouths was used to make corsets and whips.
At first sperm whale were caught using ships, with some 200 converging on New Zealand from America, Europe, France, Britain and Australia. The USA alone sent 392 ships in 1833 and 735 in in 1846, but as the sperm whales diminished, shore stations were established to catch the smaller right whales which came into harbours on their migrations or to breed. When one area stopped being profitable, the whalers just moved on the next. In the 1830’s whaling was New Zealand’s biggest industry and employed around 1000 men.  By 1840 even the right whales had almost gone.

Fortunately for the whales, Robert Dietz, an American, invented a clean burning kerosene lamp in 1857. Kerosene smelled better, never went rancid and was cheap to produce. Thirty lamp factories opened in the USA in quick succession and the race for "Coal Oil" was on. The price of whaleoil and with it the whaling industry collapsed almost overnight, although small numbers of humpback whales continued to be taken into the  In 1946 New Zealand became one of the founding members of the International Whaling Commission and these days people come to watch whales rather than kill them.

One of several other waterfalls  - to the right are two recovering tree slip sites
 Deer Wars

 The next assault on the Sound came from deer hunters. Remember those seven red deer which were released near the Lindis Pass in 1871. They were part of 300 or so species introduced including Australian possums, by the Acclimatisation Society, because New Zealand didn’t appear to have any mammals, much less game animals.  (This happened in Australia too, and soon both countries were plagued by rabbits).  

 Although other species of deer were also introduced, the red deer did particularly well. Initially protected  and  with no natural predators, they started becoming a nuisance to farmers as early as 1910, eating out pastures, destroying the understorey and causing erosion as well as wreaking havoc on native grasslands. To remedy this problem, the government began to employ cullers in the 1930’s, paying a bonus for each skin or tail brought in, but even this did not slow down the progress of the deer.  In 1956 the Forest Service took over deer control and through a combination of aerial poisoning, culling and allowing private operators in, some 1,400,000 deer were killed, with most just being left to rot after removing the necessary tail or skin. 

Browne Falls, the crooked one in the middle,  is 547 metres tall but doesn't rank in the highest waterfall stakes because it doesn't free fall, making it a cascade

The deer which remained were now mostly in difficult terrain and harder to get. This lead to the use of helicopters. “Heli – hunting” was a phenomenon unique to New Zealand.  Between 1970 and 1980 markets opened up for venison, leading to conflict between bounty hunters and those looking for deer meat to sell.  Then another front opened up. Tim Wallis (later Sir Tim) a helicopter pilot and entrepreneur, who had a monopoly on commercial hunting in Fiordland, could see the writing on the wall.  Instead of killing deer, he pioneered live capture and set up the earliest deer farms.  The Captain tells us about the hazardous occupation of “bulldogging” whereby men leapt from helicopters to jump onto the backs of deer, to immobilize them for transport.  Conflicts ensued.  Shots were fired. Sabotage, arson and fist fights were not unknown. Eventually the NZ Airforce had to be called in to keep the peace. 

 These days most deer are farmed –around 1.7 million of them in 2005 and venison production is a major industry, as is the sale of velvet and other deer parts. Specialised trophy hunting – wild or within private property, contributes another $20 million to the New Zealand economy and the helicopter pilots now transport tourists, not deer.

The Blanket Bay Hotel- fishermen defy the ban on building in the World Heritage Area by building over the water

Power to the People

The most recent threat to the Sound was the proposal to build a hydro -electric scheme on the West Arm of Lake Manapouri. The original 1964 plan involved raising the level of the lake, but because it was regarded as one of the most beautiful in New Zealand, local people began to object. Soon one tenth of the whole population of New Zealand registered their protest. Although this delayed the project for ten years, Guardians of the Lake were appointed to ensure water levels remained within natural fluctuations and the power station itself was built underground to preserve scenic values.

Commissioned in 1971, the power station  took two years to build  and sixteen people lost their lives during construction. Even then there were problems realising the power station's full potential until a second tunnel was driven through the granite to increase the flow through the turbines. Manapouri is now New Zealand's biggest power station, producing around 800 megawatts of power, with very little impact on the Sound. Our Captain/ driver is obviously very proud of this achievement. 

Mosses and Lichens do well here too
Island vegetation is richer because the deer couldn't reach it

Watersheds and faultlines

We putter past beautiful waterfalls – Lady Alice and another one, which at 547m would break all records, but since it doesn’t leap away from the mountain, it is classed as a cascade, not a waterfall.  Giant tree ferns grow on Wilmot Pass. At the other end of the Sound, near “The Gut” a narrow point explored by the Spaniards, there is a marine reserve which harbours black coral less than ten metres beneath the surface. It is also rich in marine life. Normally there are crested penguins, seals and dolphins here too, but they decline to show themselves today. As we pass one of the islands, the Captain remarks that is was to have been used for the filming of “Jurassic Park II,” but after three months of constant rain, the plan was abandoned, though they may have left a raptor or two behind. A dinosaur would not look out of place. We explore Thompson Arm, one of the northern branches of the Sound and on the way back we pause where a southern arm branches off. The motor is cut and we spend ten minutes or so in quiet reflection to drink in the vastness and stillness of the Sound. Then we return via the torturous route we have come.

Looking back

People are quiet and look a little dazed as they disembark. It has been a long day, but perhaps like me, they are thinking about what they have seen. For some reason I am reminded of a Civil War battleground I once saw, where the guns had long ago fallen silent and grass had grown sweetly over fields which had once run with blood. Doubtful Sound was the place where the New Zealand's wild frontier ended, where unbridled resource exploitation found its limits and its people took a stand and voted in favour of nature.