This day started cool and misty as we left the camp to take the 10 minute drive down to the departure wharf to catch the trip boat across Lake Manapouri. We checked in early and there was only a handful of us but as the time drew closer to departure several coach loads arrived swelling our numbers. One coach had travelled all the way from Queenstown making for a very long day for those passengers.
As we set sail we were assured by the commentator on board that the very low cloud would lift and we would be in for a brilliant day. How right he was, it was really one out of the box. For those that don’t know New Zealand, Lake Manapouri is in the Fiordland National Park which is basically how early settlers to NZ would have seen the country. Prime Beech forests or Podacarp forests of Totara and Rimu trees standing tall and straight for decades or even centuries.
Reaching the Manapouri Power Station all you see above ground is the power house where the power is pumped into the National Grid to the Tiwai Aluminium smelter at Bluff. Dis-embarking from the boat we entered the visitor centre where everything was explained about the National Park and the power station. From here we boarded a bus to travel over the 22km long Wilmot Pass to Doubtful Sound. This road took 2 years to construct due to the constant wet conditions with flooding and heavy snow. The driver told us of an incident a few years ago where the convoy of buses got over the hill to Doubtful Sound but due to heavy rain the river ford crossings became impassable and everybody had to be air lifted out by helicopter. That would have been some experience for those who had never flown in a helicopter before.
Down at the wharf there was barely enough room for the 3 buses in todays convoy to get turned around and await our return. The views from the next cruise boat was even more breath taking as we headed out through the Sounds which are actually Fiords. The name Sounds came about from the names written on early navigators charts.
Travelling through the various arms we were lucky enough to spotted a Little Blue Penguin. some Yellow Tufted penguins and two different pods of Dolphins. The first pod was a cow and calf swimming close to the cliff face and the second pod put on a spectacular display by leaping clean out of the water and doing somersaults. As the weather conditions were holding favourably the skipper informed us to find somewhere to sit or hold on tight as he was going to leave the safety of the Sounds and head out to the entrance where we would be in open sea and the swell could be a bit heavy. Two days previously he had not been able to attempt this as the sea was far too rough.
Well the swell was reasonable, probably about 1 metre but not sufficient to make it uncomfortable. We headed out to an island at the entrance to the sound were NZ Fur Seals live just about all year round. Behind the shelter of the island the boat was settled enough for people to get photographs but once we moved out of that shelter photography became impossible.
In one sheltered cove the skipper turned off the engines and generator and asked everybody to keep perfectly quiet to be able to listen to the forest. It was most uncanny just listening to the few birds and the waterfalls. When early navigators first came here they reported that they could hear the bird song some distance out to sea but sadly with imported predators from early settlers this is no longer the case. However there is a constant war being raged against the Rats, Mice, Stoats and Weasels by the Department of Conservation and eventually the bird life will recover.
Back at the wharf we re-boarded the buses to take us back over the Wilmot Pass which incidentally has a gradient of 1 in 5 in places and is unsealed. Arriving back at the Lake side of the mountain the driver stopped at the entrance to the tunnel which was to take us down 2km below the mountains. After receiving the go ahead from the control centre the gates opened and we set off down the circular roadway which does one and half full circles over a distance of one and a half kilometres. All hewn out of solid rock and never lined the tunnel hasn’t altered since it was built. At one point a safety steel cage had been built as the rock face was suspect but there has never been any movement there either.
At the end of the tunnel the bus driver did a 4 point turn to turn the bus around. Previously buses with much poorer locks had been known to take a lot more swings at it before turning. Those drivers must have had good biceps after all that swinging on the steering wheel. A guide then took us a further 500 metre's down to a viewing platform above the generation floor where there are 7 generators at work.The power required by the Aluminium smelter takes probably 80% –90% of the generated power constantly as the smelter never stops.
With just the bus ride back to the surface and the return trip across Lake Manapouri we felt that we had certainly had our monies worth and would recommend this adventure to everybody. Tonight I don’t think we will be staying up too late as we are all exhausted.