Sea Kayaking in Doubtful Sound
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Feelings of anticipation slowly leech into my barely conscious mind as I load my gear into our boat in Te Anau, at a time the sun even deems too early to be up. Before the sleep has been truly rubbed from my eyes we are rushing full speed over the still waters of Lake Manapouri. In the east the sky lightens over the Takitimu ranges heralding the suns eminent arrival. The day promises to be a good one, something to be cherished in this wilderness area famed for its spectacular scenery, changeable weather and an annual rainfall that is measured in metres!
Whilst frantically swotting the little beasties we load our gear into the waiting 4 wheel drive which transports us the remaining 20 kilometres over New Zealand’s steepest and most expensive road, reputed to have cost around $2 per centimetre to build. It was designed to bear the weight of the huge generators that were taken from the cantilevered jetty in Deep Cove to the Manapouri Power station built in the late 60’s and early 70’s. The bonus from such development is that visitors can now access some of the most spectacular scenery in New Zealand with relative ease. The view from Wilmot Pass gives us an overview of the sound. Malaspina Reach, bounded by high peaks, mingles with the waters of Deep Cove, a mixture of fresh water delivered, by way of the 10 km long tailrace from the Manapouri power station and the salt water of the ocean.
Our group consists of myself, the token New Zealander, an American couple, two Canadian sisters, two Germans and one Englishman. For our guide, Daphne Taylor, the fine weather is a pleasant change from what has been a windy season. When asked about working in such petulant conditions she just shrugs and philosophically notes, “after all, this is Fiordland, you just have to accept the weather as it is and make the most of it.”
Hardly a breath of wind disturbs the crystal clear water as we paddle out from Deep Cove. The water is as flat as the proverbial pancake. I feel a part of the environment bobbing along in my sea kayak and reflect on what a perfect platform it makes for exploring the sound and for having chance encounters with the dolphins, penguins and seals that hang out in these convoluted waterways. Our journey takes us past Rolla Island, which stands at the narrow entrance to Hall arm, effectively the first on the left as you travel out of Deep Cove and into Malaspina Reach. A sudden downpour is so unexpected and ferocious that it has us all laughing at the pure power of it. The drops can be seen bouncing back off the surface. Fortunately it doesn’t linger, yet it serves as a reminder to all who venture here: the weather can and will change without warning.
The sea remains calm, the air hanging limp like our sails of nylon which we had optimistically raised on our paddles in the hope of help from the wind. Alas no such luck, as we continue to expend energy till we fetch up under the imposing mass of Mt Danae at the end of the arm. A short journey back along the north western side ends at the only campsite in Hall Arm beside Garnet Burn. We chat with some Department of Conservation staff who are here to check whether any possums have made it this far. Opossums (Trichosurus vulpecula) are a small furry Australian marsupial introduced to Southland in 1858 by early settlers to create a fur trade. Unfortunately the fur trade failed, but the Opossum, which ironically, is protected in its native Australia, has thrived, with around around 70,000,000 of them eating their way through approximately 20,000 tonnes of native forest every night! It was declared a noxious animal in 1956. Although not seen in this part of the sound before, the DOC workers tell us that they have seen possum scat on the other side of the river. A worrying find.
Camping is delightful amongst the ancient podocarp forest, albeit a little damp underfoot. A godsend is a sandfly shelter which is large enough to accommodate the whole group, complete with deck chairs and cookers: without it life doesn’t bear thinking of.
The following day dawns bright and sunny accompanied by the cacophony of birdsong. The glass like sea looks inviting as we launch and paddle beneath the sheer walls of Commander Peak. A thin veil of water, back lit by the morning sun, glistens and sparkles as it falls seawards. Into Malaspina reach, round Elizabeth Island, named after the Brig Elizabeth, captained by John Grono on his sealing expedition to the area in 1822. A few seals greet us with soulful stares as they sleepily look up from their slumber. The so called Browne falls (really a cataract) plunge 836 metres down the western slopes further up Malaspina Reach. After a relaxing, sun drenched lunch in Olphert Cove its time to head back to Deep Cove.
It takes time to ease into the rhythm and routine of this type of travelling before you can really find peace and comfort with the surroundings. As I unpack I realise that two days simply isn’t long enough to do justice to the beauty of this place. Clearly, I will have to come back.
The double kayaks used are extremely stable and comfortable to sit in and can accommodate a lot of gear. Although none of my group were experienced paddlers they all managed without problem, attesting to the claim that you don’t have to be an experienced kayaker to enjoy the experience.
Because of the sheer sides of the sounds, adequate campsites are few and far between. The campsites which are available have been painstakingly developed by Fiordland Wilderness Experiences. The changeable weather, strong winds, heavy rain and difficulty in finding campsites are all good reasons to join a guided group. Independent rentals are available; however proof of experience will be required before boats will be hired.
Gear: Most of the equipment needed is supplied, or can be hired from the operators. Check before going.
Fiordland National Park is New Zealand’s largest at 1,252,297 hectares. Situated in the far south-western corner of the South Island it covers some of the remotest and most dramatic landscape in the country. Visitors should go prepared for rain. Some areas such as Milford Sound boast annual rainfalls in the vicinity of 6 – 7 metres!