The southwest coast of New Zealand’s South Island is called Fiordland. It’s a remote, sparsely populated wonderland of mountains, forests and deep ocean sounds. This part of the trip entailed the most planning and probably engendered the most anxiety on my part. At the top of my wish list was a cruise on Doubtful Sound, but that was not to be. More on that later.
Te Anau is a small town of about 2000 on Lake Te Anau that pretty much exists only on tourism to Fiordland. Many (perhaps most) tourists to Fiordland use Queenstown, a much bigger city complete with nightlife, as a base, but we enjoyed the late autumn quiet of Te Anau. We stayed at the Anchorage Motel, a block off the lakefront, which had a very nice accessible unit.
Our first day in Te Anau we drove through the Eglinton Valley to Milford Sound, where we took a cruise on the Milford Sovereign. The drive was beautiful, and the weather on the Sound was clear. The Sovereign is large enough to accommodate wheelchair passengers pretty easily, although there is no accessible restroom, and once you’re in, you’re in – there’s no opportunity to go out on deck unless you can round up a couple of people to get you over the bulkhead partition. The pictures I took through the scratched plastic windows didn’t turn out very well. Still, it was beautiful and serene, and we were lucky to have nice clear weather.
On the way back, we stopped at The Chasm, which has a short, accessible nature walk through rocks and waterfalls.
The Doubtful Sound story: there is no public road to Doubtful Sound. If you sign up with one of the tour companies that provide Doubtful Sound cruises, you’ll be getting on a bus in Queenstown or Te Anau, driving to Manapouri, boarding a small boat to cross Lake Manapouri, and getting on another bus to cross the Wilmot Pass to Doubtful Sound, all before the actual Doubtful Sound cruise. Then you’ll do it all again to get back. I did find one company willing to take me (Go Orange), and even booked the tour. I thought I’d booked on May 2nd, our third day in Te Anau, but it turned out that Go Orange closed down its operations for the winter on May 1st, and I’d actually booked in October!
My sweet husband knew I was very disappointed, and came up with a super alternative. He’d noticed a float plane moored on the lake, and arranged a flight instead. We were hoping to actually fly over Doubtful Sound, but there was too much cloud cover. Still, it was awesome! Owner and pilot Alan had no qualms about hoisting me into the plane and provided excellent commentary throughout the flight. It was one of the highlights of our trip, and I went pretty nuts with the picture-taking.
We also checked out the Lake Te Anau Control Gates, which regulate water flow into Manapouri, and managed the first few kilometers of the Kepler Track, one of New Zealand’s Great Walks, which starts at Lake Te Anau. My husband marveled at the fact that anyone could just walk up to the control gates, figuring that in the US something like that would be fenced in and possibly guarded.
In the first week of May, many restaurants and businesses in Te Anau have closed for the winter. Of the restaurants that remained open, we much enjoyed eating at Ristorante Pizzeria Da’ Toni where we got to practice a little Italian, and engaged in a sign language show and tell with large group of Chinese tourists who examined our meal choices closely as we pointed to the corresponding menu items.