Practically untouched by man, the “Doubtful Sound” is the deepest of all fiords in New Zealand’s Fiordland. The English explorer, Captain Cook did name this area “Doubtful Harbour”, since he was uncertain whether he would get enough wind in his sails to return to the open sea. Michi and I did choose the small town of Te Anau as our base, from where we then would explore the Doubtful Sound, located in the Fiordland National Park.
Although the weather forecast was not very promising, we did take our chances and booked a tour for the next day at our hostel’s desk. Although the place was very welcoming and charming, there was an unusual influx of group tourists. Being a bit elderly, they were debating loud about politics – something quite unusual for a hostel. Moreover, their statements were obviously geared towards accidental listeners in the lounge. Probably, they wanted to educate “youngsters”.
There is actually a code of conduct that applies whenever being in public – especially in international waters: Avoiding the topics of religion, sexuality and politics helps to avoid offending inadvertently conversation partners or other people overhearing the discussion. While not really being offended – the sheer absurdity and loudness of the old folks’ talk went to the point where Michi, I and some other bothered backpackers left the otherwise cozy lounge.
Being forced in such a way to stroll around Te Anau, I spotted repeated advertisings for “Gluten Free” food. Actually, I have been seeing this particular food diet outlined a couple of times in shops and bars throughout New Zealand. Even after reading through several medical papers – and the “Wikipedia” (If it ain’t in Wikipedia, it ain’t true), I still don’t get it as to why so many people here depend on food without the gluten. Probably there is also a good proportion of misunderstanding in the public perception involved, since promotions in the shops mix the terms “Gluten Free” and “Organic” food (voluntarily?). There might also have been a television show or newspaper story about the benefits of such a diet?
Obsessively, it seems that every nation has it’s own approach in labelling certain diets as being healthy. While Americans rave about food without “Trans Fat“, the Europeans value “Low Carb” – and the Kiwi’s go “Gluten Free”. But then I wonder, why obesity is on the rise in all of these countries/continents. Reasoning as such, we decided to order a solid burger with fries and salad in the local pub – after having been reassured that it would contain gluten, trans fats and high carbs. That definitely made us very happy.
The second day in Te Anau, we left for one of the journey’s highlights: A tour through the Doubtful Sound. It did rain most of the day – as forecasted. As part of the trip, we did a short excursion to the Manapouri Power Station, a magnificent piece of civil engineering which lies in between lake Manapouri and the Sound.
Obviously, given my Swiss heritage, I tend to like anything that comes in tunnels. Therefore, this was playground time for me. The architecture of this hydroelectric plant is both massive and complex as it lies 200m underground in tunnels carved out of granite rocks. The first plans to build a hydroelectric power station here would outline the construction of a (traditional) dam. This would have consequently flooded lake Manapouri and nearby lake Te Anau, with all the known negative impacts on nature in the area.
Consequently, opposition to this project formed and ten percent of New Zealands population signed a petition to save lake Manapouri. This was back in 1970 and the political pressures to revise the construction plans were enormous. Reading through documents about the public outrage and their environmental concerns is a good school book lesson about how well democratic processes are working in New Zealand.
While in other nations lobbyists would be in the driving seat pushing for their own agenda – the public opinion of the Kiwi’s finally pressured their government to mandate a different approach in construction. Now, the hydroelectric power is being generated through a 180m drop of water. This drop consists because of the difference in altitude between the lake Manapouri and the Tasman Sea at the Doubtful Sound. Therefore, most of the plant is invisible – being underground – leaving the natural habitat for animals, plants and humans mostly intact.
As if the unusual construction of the power plant wasn’t enough, Doubtful Sound itself also has particular features: There are two layers of water which do not mix, as the top few meters consists of fresh water from the surrounding mountains and the bottom of the water is cold and heavy saline water from the Tasman sea. Light does not easily penetrate such water and therefore a lot of deep sea species are growing here. It was absolutely stunning to learn about such special features in a scenic environment, combined with waterfalls, penguins, dolphins and fur seals.
No doubt, the Doubtful Sound definitely made its mark in our memories.