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Will Gray splashes out on three of New Zealand's best sea kayaking adventures
William Gray | Issue 72 | 72 june-july 2005
The squall rounded on us like a wet spaniel. In just a few exuberant seconds it drenched us with rain and whipped the sea into a frisky, unruly mood. Waves began to sluice over the bows of our sea kayaks, puddling in the neoprene spray skirts that clamped us to our cockpits like giant sink plungers. Ben White, our 21-year-old, weather-resistant guide, peered happily from under a bright yellow sou’wester and delivered his meteorological verdict. “Looks like it’s going to seriously crap out this afternoon,” he shouted over the maelstrom of wind and spray.
Perhaps Captain James Cook had similar premonitions when he peered into this corner of New Zealand’s Fiordland in 1770 and named it Doubtful Sound. The great mariner decided to give it a miss and continued his voyage along the west coast of South Island. However, had he sailed the Endeavour through the narrow entrance to this 40km inlet he would have found himself in New Zealand’s second-largest fiord and, at 421m, its deepest. Today Doubtful Sound lies in the 21,000 sq km Fiordland National Park, a majestic chunk of wilderness carved by glaciers and cloaked in ancient forest.
When it comes to statistics, however, it is Fiordland’s average rainfall that deluges the mind. Up to eight metres pelts the region every year – most of it falling, it seemed, during the two days I went kayaking in Doubtful Sound.
But don’t let me put you off. Sea kayaking is, by its very nature, a damp undertaking. “Real kayakers don’t mind getting their feet wet,” Bill Gibson of Fiordland Wilderness Experiences told me. I had nodded sagely. After all, by then I had spent all of two mornings nurturing my kayaking skills at some of New Zealand’s other renowned paddling spots.
The first was Otago Peninsula on South Island’s east coast. The sea was so placid when guide Matt McFadyen and I launched our two-person kayak that we could hear the sighs of breath from a sealion surfacing 200m away. Paddling out from Portobello we were surrounded by white-fronted terns plunge-diving for fish, each splash carrying clearly, like pebbles tossed in a pond. “It doesn’t get much better than this,” said Matt, as we settled into an easy rhythm, wavelets chuckling beneath our bows. “You get such a great perspective of marine life from a sea kayak.”
Rounding Taiaroa Heads, we met a brisk south-westerly, strong enough for the albatross that nest on the clifftop above to get airbourne. As they soared overhead, cradling the wind on three-metre wingspans, fur seals cavorted among writhing arms of honey-coloured kelp. Stewart Island shags streamed from their nests like the opening salvo of arrows in a medieval battle, while yellow-eyed penguins huddled nearby.
If anything, my second kayaking trip put me on even more intimate terms with New Zealand’s wild outdoors. The Southern Alps might not strike you as much of a kayaking destination, however a small iceberg-strewn lake at the snout of Mueller Glacier near Mount Cook proved an exhilarating setting for a paddle.
“High fun, low stress.” That was the philosophy of my guide, Chance, as we nosed about the glacial tarn, weaving between icebergs that varied from gravel-encrusted hulks to delicate sculptures of gas-flame blue. Hemmed in by Mount Sealy on one side and the ice-fluted cone of 3,755m Mount Cook on the other, we paddled in reverent silence, pausing occasionally to pluck small chunks of pure ice to suck on.
With two such inspiring trips under my spray skirt you can appreciate why sea kayaking was becoming my obsession. As I travelled towards Fiordland the opportunity to join a paddling expedition in one of the southern hemisphere’s great wilderness areas was irresistible.
Right from the start, however, my two-day adventure on Doubtful Sound struck me as a far more serious undertaking. For a start it would take three hours simply to reach our launch point at Deep Cove – crossing Lake Manapouri by water taxi before taking a 4WD across Wilmot Pass. Then there would be the unpleasant locals to contend with. “Your sandflies are gathering,” Bill Gibson told us at the briefing in Te Anau. “They know you’re coming and they’re looking forward to joining you in your kayaks.”
There was no shortage of freshwater on land when we pulled into a tiny rocky beach for lunch. The rain had restarted and, despite Ben’s best efforts to rig a tarpaulin shelter, we were soon soaked. Worse still were the sandflies. The tiny, winged menace soon had us slapping ourselves like a troop of Tyrolean dancers. They were especially partial to ankles, eyelids and the soft bits behind your ears.
When to go: Much of the country has warm, dry summers (December to February), but it’s also peak tourist season. For smaller groups and better deals travel in spring and autumn when the weather is fine for most outdoor activities. Fiordland sea kayaking runs October to April.
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