Another day, another natural masterpiece
Doubtful Sound, New Zealand
Vern: To visit the much less accessible sound, Doubtful Sound, we had to book a tour. This starts with pick-up from one's accommodation, which of course is our car, so we settled on waiting outside some phone-boxes on the main street.
The small bus found us and took us off to Manapouri where we transferred to a comfortable little boat with big windows which puttered across Lake Manapouri. It's another of New Zealand's gorgeous lakes surrounded by mountains covered in lush vegetation. Here and there though, there are streaks of bare grey/brown rock face - like the vegetation had been removed with an enormous wax-strip. Apparently, with all the rainfall (16m in 2009!) algae which is supposed to grow underwater grows on the wet rocks, moss then grows out of the algae and plants take root in the moss. So there is very little for the plant roots to grip onto and a minor disruption can cause a violent tree-avalanche which leaves these scars on the hillsides.
We disembarked at a small port on the other side and then climbed into the second bus which drove for two minutes before turning into a gaping tunnel. The 2km shaft accesses a hydro-electric power and is a snug fit for the bus. Apparently, when they were building the plant in the 1970s there was no place to turn around at the road end so the building-material trucks had to reverse all the way down which took up to eight hours. While we inched down in the near dark, the driver read us some facts: 550 cubic meters of water falls 180m from Lake Manapouri to sea-level every second spinning seven turbines and generating 530 mega-watts, or 13% of New Zealand's power. The water then escapes via a purpose dug tunnel into Doubtful Sound. The original tunnel was miscalculated and was too small to release all the water out to the sound so the plant ran at 50% capacity for twenty years until technology caught up and in the 90s a boring-machine was used to dig a new tunnel and the plant was notched up to full throttle. At this point Andrea turned to me and said, "They didn't need a machine to make this tunnel any more boring!" and the two of us collapsed in hysterics.
At the base of the tunnel a small path led to an immense turbine hall, with seven bright blue turbines lined up and little else. The plant is remote controlled from Twizel, a small town several hundred kilometres away, so there is only a small cleaning and maintenance crew which comes out every day. One of this crew doubles as a guide and though he'd worked there for decades, he read his speech from a sheet of paper, "The water falls one hundred and eighty metres and... uh... excuse me I've lost my place..." I hope the guys in Twizel know how this thing works. The desolate underground cavern is described in more than one place as a James Bond-like facility but that's buttering it up a bit. The little round device sitting atop each of the turbine-domes like a bottle-cap is called an 'exciter' and I looked to Andrea for another pun joke but she let that one go.
After the short tour, the bus made a twelve point turn and progressed out of the tunnel and along a paved mountain road. There are several islands in Lake Manapouri and in Doubtful Sound and do-gooders are trapping and hunting and doing their best to rid these of New Zealand's pests: possums, stoats, rats and red deer, and to turn those islands into avian reserves. As a rule of thumb anything on four legs is an introduced species - the only animals indigenous to New Zealand are birds. We passed a sign reading 'DANGER mICE' which made me smile. The 'm' was significantly smaller and a different font to the other letters which lead me to believe that the original letter had fallen off. "Mice must be a pest too" I turned and said to Andrea.
"What! No. Who would put up a sign on remote mountain road that warns of mice? And who has a mouse ever been a danger to anyway?! It says 'Danger Ice'. It's just been vandalised."
I started folding myself a dunce cap out of the info-sheet I'd picked up at the power station.
The road ran downhill and we were dropped of at a little wooden jetty which led to the small cruise boat. All aboard and the boat pushed out into the still water of the sound. Doubtful Sound is an ethereal geological labyrinth of fiords which has multiple arms and even against grey skies the peaks rising out of the calm waters were a striking sight. Doubtful Sound is larger and longer than Milford and islands pepper the waterway. The cruise out to the Tasman Sea and back took about three and a half hours and two hundred megabytes.
We did the trip in reverse to return to Te Anau and to our camper. As we left Te Anau back toward Queenstown, the rain turned to light snow. We heard that Milford Sound was expecting a powder dump of up to two metres and the road out there would likely be closed, and we felt rather lucky that we'd just missed this snow storm.