It may sound dubious, but Doubtful Sound in New Zealand’s South Island is no place to hesitate over. It is yet another display of the incredible, almost smug array of landscape that the country boasts, tucked snug into the mighty Fiordland National Park in the south-west corner of the South Island. Doubtful Sound (Patea in Te Reo Māori) lives in the shadow of its more famous big brother, Milford Sound, but it likes it that way- this is wilderness that prefers to stay uninterrupted.
Yes, this is the wild as you’ve never experienced it before; thick rainforest air that turns your lungs inside out, fog that becomes one with your awed breath and birdsong that fills every nook and cranny of your mind. The still, dark waters that fill these ancient valleys whisper of mystery, and the snow capped mountains stand eternally on guard.
Move over Simon and Garfunkel, Doubtful Sound/Patea is the OG Sound of Silence.
But, let’s start at the beginning – what actually is a sound?
What are the sounds of New Zealand?
Sounds, by definition, are sunken river valleys filled with sea water. Mountain literally plunges into sea, which makes the whole thing very dramatic. However, there is a slight naming issue to clear up, here – Doubtful Sound is pretty far from the sounds of New Zealand, most of which are found in Marlborough. In fact, it’s actually a fjord, and found (quite naturally) in Fiordland National Park, right down the bottom of the South Island.
What’s the difference between a sound and a fjord?
They’re both valleys that have been filled with sea water, but a fjord is generally formed by a glacier-carved valley (rather than a river valley, like a sound). That makes for steeper cliffs and narrower inlets, which adds massively to the vibe.
What is so special about Doubtful Sound?
Aside from the aforementioned thick rainforest air, fog and rainforest, Doubtful Sound has the moody and dramatic thing down pat. Much like the neighboring Milford Sound, it’s a gawk-fest of crashing waterfalls, plunging cliffs and still, dark waters just perfect for gliding through by boat.
And then there’s the silence, the glorious hush of this incredibly remote place. Remote apart from the wildlife, of course. Doubtful Sound shares its underwater landscape with bottlenose dolphins, fur seals and penguins, namely the rare Fiordland crested penguin. The bush is alive with native birds reminiscent of the Jurassic era, and as far as forest-dwelling wildlife goes, deer and other pests make up the majority.
Doubtful Sound/Patea is made up of three distinct arms which extend south from the main fjord – the First Arm, the Crooked Arm and the Hall Arm. One of the best ways to discover the magic of this place is to glide through on one of the organized boat cruises on offer.
A Real Journeys Doubtful Sound wilderness cruise, for example, is an awesome day trip which leaves from Manapouri, actually gets you to the sound (trust us, you won’t find it on your own), and then cruises for three hours on the Patea Explorer. By going with the experts on a Doubtful Sound tour, you’ll up your chances on crossing paths with dolphins and other sea-dwellers, too.
There’s no better way to fully immerse than to spend the night out here, waking to a dawn chorus of thundering waterfalls and birdsong echoing through the fiords, and standing bleary-eyed on deck at dawn, taking in the scenery over a steaming mug. Fortunately, there are multi day cruise options, like a Real Journeys Doubtful Sound overnight cruise. You can organize tours to both Doubtful Sound and Milford Sound through tour operators in Te Anau or Queenstown.
Why is it called Doubtful Sound?
Back in 1870, Cook hesitated and decided not to venture in by boat, as he wasn’t sure if it was navigable by sail. He named it Doubtful Harbour, which later got changed to Doubtful Sound by whalers and sealers. However, long before his days, the Māori settlers called it Patea, which means ‘place of silence’. In 1998, it was officially renamed to Doubtful Sound/Patea.
How do you get to Doubtful Sound?
It’s far harder to get to Doubtful than it is to take a cruise across Milford Sound, which suits most people who love it for its remoteness very well, thank you. In fact, there’s no direct access to Doubtful Sound. The only way, unless you’re entering by boat from the Tasman Sea, is from Pearl Harbour, by boat across Lake Manapouri to the West Arm. From here, there’s an option to go and visit the Manapouri Power Station, the largest hydro power station in New Zealand. From the West Arm, it’s a coach trip across Wilmot Pass to Deep Cove, which takes about three hours through deep Fiordland bush. The Wilmot Pass is a 670m pass, and until the 60s, was only crossable by walking track.
There are plenty of helpful tour operators based in Te Anau, Queenstown and Manapouri who can help get you out there – and get you exploring the jaw dropping southern scenery, whether that’s kayaking with dolphins or simply sitting on deck for hours, soaking it all in.
What is the closest city to Doubtful Sound?
In case you hadn’t gathered yet, Doubtful Sound is remote. Not like ‘can’t find a decent coffee’ remote, more like ‘hemmed in by mountains and 200 kilometers of uninhabited coastline in both directions on the map’ remote. It’s amazing.
The closest settlement, Manapouri, certainly couldn’t be called a city. The wee lakeside village is 50km away from Doubtful Sound/Patea, and the closest city, Queenstown, is 135km (and multiple modes of transport) away.
How far is Manapouri from Te Anau?
It’s a quick fifteen minutes between the two lakeside villages, both which offer an abundance of food and accommodation options, and between which bus trips regularly run. Te Anau is filled with local tour operators, making it the best place to begin your search for adventure. It’s here you can organize day or overnight trips into the fiords, find gear and information for hiking the Milford Sound track, or organize a coach back to Queenstown.
If you’re more the prepare-in-advance type (which is a good idea if you’re visiting in the peak season), simply search Doubtful Sound tours in the big wide web, and you’ll be able to find reviews and contact details galore.
Which is better, Doubtful or Milford Sound?
To start with, Doubtful Sound is the more southern of the two fiords, nestled deep in the heart of Fiordland National Park. While Milford Sound is close by, they’re actually pretty different – no two fiords are created equal, so it turns out. Milford Sound is one of the wettest places in the world, getting about 7 metres of rainfall a year, while Doubtful only gets about a third of that.
Doubtful Sound is far more remote, weeding out only those dedicated enough to make the trip across Lake Manapouri and over Wilmot Pass to Deep Cove. There may be more activities and cruises available in Milford Sound, but for the true nature purist, Doubtful Sound is the crème de la crème. Plus, there are still plenty of options to discover the nature of this magical place, be it an overnight cruise, kayaking or one of many day trips on offer.
What is the best time to visit Doubtful Sound?
For better weather, the summer months are a go. Be warned, though, this is the wet west coast of New Zealand, so unfortunately we can make no promises of dry weather, even if you pick your date for the height of summer. Having said that, the rain definitely adds to the mood of this place, with waterfalls bursting to life and the bush soaking it in with unquenchable thirst.