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Sunday, August 13, 2006

Doubtful Sound


One of the big places on my list of things to see here in New Zealand was Fiordland National Park. Within this park are many fiords, which are lakes carved out of mountains by glaciers. The one fiord I wanted to check out most is called Doubtful Sound. The more famous one is Milford Sound and it is very pretty, but Doubtful is supposed to be bigger and afford a much better chance of seeing wildlife.

I stayed in the small town of Te Anau the night before, right on the edge of Lake Manapouri at the entrance to the park. The park is huge, taking up nearly the whole southwestern tip of New Zealand's south island.

On the day of the trip, there was a blanket of fog covering the town and the lake, and as the sun came up in the morning the fog slowly burned away, making for some good pictures. Many of the lakes here give mirror reflections of the sky and mountains, too.

We started out by taking a boat across Lake Manapouri which was pretty impressive in and of itself. Once we got to the other side of the lake, we all boarded a tour bus and headed down the other side of a mountain to get to Doubtful Sound. Along the way I met an Australian couple named Roy and Val. They had done Milford Sound the day before and said that they actually enjoyed the 3 hour drive to the sound more than the sound itself, although both were very picturesque. They had three grown kids back home and sounded very glad to be away for a couple of weeks on their own.

The bus ride down had some good spots for taking pictures, and the driver on the way down told us that the boat on the fiord held up to 150 people but that there were only 37 of us that day. It was a clear sunny day, and he said that actually the fiord was best viewed on a rainy day because then there are dozens of waterfalls in action that you would otherwise never see. I could see his point, but all the same I was glad I could actually be out on the observation decks and able to see for miles as opposed to huddling in the cabin hoping for a glimpse of some waterfalls.

The Sound was awesome, and one of the best parts was when a pod of Hector's dolphins saw our boat and decided to swim over and check it out. There were probably fifteen or so dolphins, and it was very hard to get a still shot of them but I got a few videos of them as they swam by. They liked to swim with the boat and also to jump in the air whenever they got close. Soon after, they got bored with us so the boat pressed on.

The crew took us nearly all the way out of the Sound and into the Tasman Sea where, perched upon some rocks at the inlet, lazed a bunch of seals. They weren't half as impressed at the sight of us as the dolphins were, and I'm not sure they ever even noticed us, they were so sluggish.

They steered the boat back into the Sound after that and went up another branch of the fiord, called Crooked Arm. As we reached the back end of this branch, it formed a wide cove, with patches of ice floating on the surface. Here, they killed the engines and you could finally see the mountains and sky reflected perfectly in the water. Now you could also hear all of the birds singing and calling to each other, as well as the sound of a distant waterfall. It was a nice, quiet couple of moments, and aside from the boat full of us tourists there was no hint of civilization anywhere.

While moving about the boat taking pictures, a guy noticed the jacket I was wearing.

"So you went to the College of William and Mary, eh?"

This was Charles, and he and his wife Shannon were on a two-week tour of the south island before heading over to Australia. Shannon is from northern Virginia and Charles from Bethesda, Maryland, so they had heard of my school. They met in central Asia while in the Peace Corps several years back, and were now married and living in Vietnam. It's a curious thing, but these days Vietnam is rapidly becoming a popular tourist destination, even for Americans. Charles and Shannon told me that, by and large, most Vietnamese have moved on from the war and want to continue to become part of the global economy.

Charles is in the Foreign Service and is with the U. S. Consulate in Vietnam, and Shannon works for a non-profit encouraging the exchange of students in higher education between Vietnam and the United States. They have until April of 2007 in Vietnam and then they are going to spend a year in Pakistan. They seemed a bit uneasy about it, and I couldn't blame them, but I wished them well and they took the Pakistan assignment because that would allow them to have an even better pick for the assignment after that. They were thinking of actually coming to New Zealand for that one, and would probably be doing these Foreign Service assignments for another five years before coming back home to the States to start a family.

They were a really nice couple and after the cruise to Doubtful Sound was over, they invited me out to dinner with them that evening back in Te Anau. We ate at a great Italian place called La Toscana. Charles and Shannon were very curious about the veterinary profession. I wanted to ask them a lot more about the Foreign Service and where they had been but I spent most of my time talking about being a vet. I didn't mind in the slightest and was flattered that they were so interested in what I do for a living, but they felt bad and laughed when they realized they had both finished their meals and I had barely started mine because I was talking so much.

Before we parted ways, we exchanged email addresses and I gave them my copy of the map of the Southern Scenic Route, which they would be taking the next day. The next day luckily did turn out to be another sunny day for the most part, so I hope they got to see all they wanted to along the way to Christchurch.

It's funny that on my trip to New Zealand so far I've made more American friends than Kiwis, but then again I've spent more time vacationing here so far than actually working! I'm only too glad to have met such nice people and I look forward to staying in touch with all of them. I certainly will think twice now about visiting Vietnam, as it sounds like a really good place to go now (the dollar sure is strong there), and until next April I have some good contacts right there in Ho Chi Minh City.

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