Wake in heavenly peace
All is dark. The sky is an unbroken shroud of blackness into which the invisible outlines of mountains seamlessly melt. A few street lamps surround themselves with enveloping spheres of light, but otherwise the deep night remains unbroken.
All is silent. A lone truck Dopplers by, lit only by the flashes of isolated lamps, and in its wake a perfect stillness returns to the night.
All is anticipation. The weather is uncertain, the journey long, the destination unexplored.
It’s five a.m. We lock the door behind us, and disappear into the night.
Put me in coach
At half past six, the first blue-grey traceries of a gloomy morning cast Queenstown’s Steamer Wharf into chilly silhouette. We’re assembled amongst other early-risers at the Real Journeys office at one end of the usually bustling town, which this morning is still and quiet except for the rumbling and wheezing awakenings of coaches…like the one we’re about to board. It’s shaped like a wedge and done up in the company colors, with seats that ascend toward the rear of the bus along tall, clear windows, and an amusing rear exhaust grate with dozens of kiwi-shaped holes. Employees, themselves still working through their first few cups of degrogging coffee, assure us that the forecast is as opaque as it was the other three times we’ve dropped by to ask (which is as close to passive-aggressivity as a Kiwi will ever get). There’s nothing to do but board the coach.
The seats are comfortable enough for a long ride, and our part-Maori driver Paul – an affably friendly man who nevertheless tends to both ramble and pause at the oddest mid-ramble times – introduces us to the journey we’re about to undertake, giving us both the mythological and geographic history of our path and its destination. The road south of Queenstown is as rainy and gloomy as it is twisty, though the perilous turns along the eastern shore of Lake Wakatipu seem less stomach-churning in a large vehicle (that said, I wouldn’t want to be traveling in the other direction with our bus in speedy approach).
We stop in Mossburn – desolate except for one dimly-lit convenience store/café, clearly only open to serve the biological needs of passing coaches full of tourists – for a bathroom and sustenance break, and we begin to identify our problem fellow travelers; those who linger a bit too long, those who make the purchase of a bottle of water an inexplicable drama, those who ignore instructions to re-board the bus. Our ten-minute break becomes twenty.
Low-hanging clouds drizzle and spit sheets of rain for another hour. But then, just as we’re pulling into the haphazard hamlet of Manapouri, the clouds lift and brighten. While they continue to obscure the surrounding mountains, they no longer release more than brief bursts of precipitation. “Well,” I say to Theresa, “if we can’t see anything, at least we won’t get wet doing it.”
Real Journeys has another facility here, on the shores of Lake Manapouri, and it’s already abuzz with people delivered by coaches not unduly delayed by the dizzying wonders of Mossburn’s roadside cafés, who fill the warm interior seats of a surprisingly small boat and leave the stragglers from our coach to fill in the edges. We shrug and ascend to the top, bundling ourselves tight against the biting and misty morning air. Chugging away from the dock, our lake-crossing ferry makes slow and cold progress through a nearly-invisible inlet, emerging into the lake’s wider middle just as the clouds lift a little bit more. Now we can see halfway up the mountains (though we have to make frequent visits to our ship’s heated interior to survive the view). It’s as if we’re traveling through the lower half of an unfinished painting, with nary a revealing tease of the artist’s loftier intentions.
However, by the time we get to West Arm, the lake’s western terminus and the home to a rather jarring forest of electrical towers, the weather is looking decidedly better. Everything is brighter, warmer, more inviting, and the views now include the occasional glimpse at a towering mountain peak. We board another coach – still driven by Paul – and head up the shockingly non-precarious dirt road known as the Wilmot Pass. Impossibly steep mountains, heavily forested before rising further into waterfall-necklaced outcroppings and pearl-white tongues of snow, surround us in the distance, while mosses and ferns of every description form a lush embankment along scraped roadside walls. At the peak of the road, we disembark for pictures, and everyone soon crowds towards one particular sight. The moss-encrusted skeleton of a tree points towards the jagged blue line of a distant body of water far, far below us. It’s a picture we’ve seen so many times before – in guidebooks, on the web, on others’ travelogues – that it could easily be anticlimactic were it not for its shocking visual drama. But at long last, we’re finally here: Doubtful Sound.