New Zealand 13 – Manapouri

By now John, Chris and I should have been embarking upon the three day Routeburn Track walk while Angela and Chrissie went on an overnight cruise on Doubtful Sound. We had enquired if we could all go on the cruise but there wasn’t the room for us. As a result, we all decided to go to Manapouri and the three walkers would find something else to do while the others went on the cruise.

It’s a very easy journey from Queenstown to Te Anau with long stretches of straight road. As we left Queenstown, driving along the shore or Lake Wakatipu the clouds created wonderful patterns on the mountain sides and summits.

Te Anau is on the shore of Lake Te Anau and while we were there I called in to the office of the Doubtful Sound cruise to check the girls in and find out last minute instructions. I also discovered that they could take Chris as there would be room in the cabin for three. This would mean that John and I were free to find something exciting to do.

On the waterfront we noticed a float plane, so we enquired if we could go out the next day. Float planes are very weather dependent: they need smooth, flat water. The best thing we could do was to try in the morning.

In Manapouri we were staying in the comfortable but rather dated Manapouri Motor Lodge. It was ideally situated with views across the lake. It was while we were exploring Manapouri, and there isn’t a great deal there, that I realised, with a little help from Angela, that it was our 25th Wedding Anniversary. In my mind, I knew that we were not to be together for it, as I should have been walking the Routeburn Track. The change in itinerary had confused me into believing that it was the next day when Angela would be on Doubtful Sound and I would be elsewhere. We happened to be in the Real Journeys offices on the wharf, allowing me the opportunity to make a sly purchase of a postcard, a little blue penguin and a fridge magnet! How romantic is that?

That night we celebrated with some bubbly and a meal at the restaurant bar attached to the motor inn. The service was poor and somewhere between ordering our food and delivering instructions to the kitchen the order was lost.

The following morning, I delivered the girls to the wharf for their trip to Doubtful Sound that required them to take an hour long boat trip across Lake Manapouri, a winding bus trip over a pass and down to Doubtful Sound in order to meet up with their boat for the overnight trip.

Meanwhile, John and I went into Te Anau to see what the situation was regarding going up in a float plane. We knew before we got there that it wouldn’t be happening, the water was far too choppy. While we waited to see if it would improve we found a very good cafe, the Olive Tree, which served excellent eggs Benedict, coffee and plenty of free wifi for John to conduct his business.

Needless to say, the choppiness of the water did not improve. We had missed our opportunity. The next day the plane was going in for servicing. With that decision made, we headed out to the little airstrip at Manapouri where we hoped to get a flight. They were waiting for cloud over the fiords to clear but, should flights occur, they did have space for us. Unfortunately, they could not fit us into the same flight, so it was decided that John would go first on a flight the concentrated principally on Milford Sound while I took a later flight that flew over Doubtful Sound and on to Milford Sound, slightly longer and more expensive. By now, I didn’t care, I was hooked on these scenic flights.

When it came to my turn to fly I joined with two American couples. Fortunately I was able to sit in the co-pilot’s seat. The flight took us over Lake Manapouri and over the pass before we came across Doubtful Sound. There was still quite a lot of cloud about, particularly around the summits and ridges but where we wanted views of the sound it was generally clear. Far below I could see the boat that the girls were on but we were far too high for them to realise, even if they saw me. There was a real sense of wonder and awe in flying over the fiords. You had a feeling that you were looking down on a land never trodden on. The slopes rising out of the fiords were so steep and so forested, it seemed impenetrable.

Towards the mouth of the sound the skies were much clearer but we had come to see the sounds in their entirety, so as we headed north, weaving over and around ridges, and cloud, we saw sound after sound. At one point I told the pilot that I was glad he knew where he was going. There were so many ridges and fiords that I felt quite disorientated. Each fiord we came across I was sure it was going to be Milford Sound but it was much further than I had anticipated. There was no conversation from any of my fellow passengers and the two women sitting in the back spent their whole time knitting!


From Doubtful Sound we flew over Bradshaw Sound, Nancy Sound, Charles Sound, Caswell Sound, George Sound, Bligh Sound and Sutherland Sound before reaching Milford Sound. Most of the sounds were named after some of the early seafarers who explored the fiords, finding most of them impenetrable once they reached the end. All the time we were looking down there were also fabulous ridges and mountains to look upon at our flying level. There was just so much to see, so much to take in.

Having sailed in Milford Sound a couple of times, it was very different to fly over it. I could spot some very familiar landmarks, waterfalls etc. but it looked so different from the air. Mitre Peak, which is so dominant, because of its shape at water level, was very difficult to distinguish from all the other beautiful peaks. Normally, Milford Sound has a dozen or more boats cruising along its length, but there was nothing. There were a few planes flying at a lower altitude from the small airstrip at the head of the fiord, but that was all. Milford itself was deserted with empty carparks and little sign of life.

On the return journey, we flew past the 580m Sutherland Falls before crossing the divide to Lake Te Anau, where we flew its full length before descending to the airfield just outside Manapouri. Our trip had taken us about an hour and a half and it was truly magical to have seen so much in such a short time.

Meeting up with John again, we went into the small hub of Manapouri where there is a cafe in an old church. As we approached we were greeted by Magda and Andrew Cullen and Rod and Julia Mackichan who were on their own grand tour of New Zealand. We knew they were in the area and we had plans to meet up with them the following day, so this was a surprise. We enjoyed the catch-up over a couple of beers on the rooftop terrace. John and I announced that we were planning a walk the next day and it turned out that they were planning the same walk. We arranged to meet at 10.00am.

That night John and I had a cosy meal for two in the same bar.

After another breakfast at the Olive Tree, we met up with Mags and co. at the jetty in Manapouri. Incidentally, there wasn’t a breath of wind on the lake but the float plane had gone for its service. We were taking the very short crossing across the Hope Arm or Lake Manapouri.  We were embarking upon the Monument Track, a circular walk through native bush to a high point with a view. The boatman was a bit grumpy as he took our small change fee from us. I think it was probably part of his persona and done for effect more than anything else.

Alighting the other side, we chose to follow the anti-clockwise route, climbing up through the bush. It was pretty hot and airless in there and quite tough going at times. There were no views, just lots of trees. However, when we reached the high point, at the top of an escarpment, the views opening out over Lake Manapouri were superb. Well worth the effort. Continuing our circle, the route down seemed much easier, bringing us, for the last kilometre or so, to the lake shore. Had we not been in a rush to catch our ferry back, not wanting to give the ferryman an excuse to be grumpy, we would have lingered more on one of the beaches. We made it in time for the ferry and he seemed much more cheery than he had been in the morning. He was a bit of a character.

Back in Manapouri we went to the Church Cafe where we linked up with the girls who had had a super time on Doubtful Sound. They even went fishing for their supper! We swapped tales while enjoying a pint or two on the terrace.

That evening we met up with Magda and Co. at their house in Te Anau before heading out for a meal. At the end of the evening we said our goodbyes as, in the morning, we were continuing south while the others were heading north.


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