Will Gray splashes out on three of New Zealand's best sea kayaking adventures
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.”
At 6am the following morning our group of eight had dwindled to six – not because of the blood-sucking promise of sandflies, but the fact that gale-force winds, born and bred in the Southern Ocean, were hurling themselves at Fiordland. So much rain had fallen overnight that Te Anau’s famous glowworm caves were inaccessible and the road to Milford Sound had been closed.
“Rain in Fiordland is spectacular,” said our ever-optimistic guide, Ben White. “Nowhere does waterfalls like we do.”
The wind had eased, but it was still raining when we reached Deep Cove. A nearby waterfall beat its steady, ominous thunder, sheets of spray spurting like high-pressure steam where the cascade struck the surface of the fiord. I traced the gushing plume of water upwards for 500m or so, before it was snuffed out by clouds slumped on the forest-clad cliffs. Looking west, sea, mountain and cloud merged into an ethereal, monotone landscape, like a watercolour painting that had a life of its own, constantly evolving at the whim of rain, light and wind.
The effect was mesmerising, soporific – but not for long. Ben had a reality check for us. From two large holdalls he pulled a worrying amount of clothing that was to be our kayaking garb. First on was a lightweight base layer, followed by a 5mm-thick longjohn wetsuit and fleece jumper. Next came the spray skirt, hoisted to armpit level. Over this went a waterproof paddling jacket, leaving just a woollen hat and Paddington Bear-style sou’wester – the latter designed to prevent rainwater trickling down the back of your neck.
Having cajoled ourselves into these outfits (twice if you’d forgotten to visit the toilet beforehand), Ben gave us a safety briefing. “Your spray skirt is like an ejector seat,” Ben said. “Just pull this tag at the front and you’ll pop out and float to the surface.” And then what, I was wondering, but Ben was already explaining that our kayaks were the best money could buy; none were more stable or buoyant. And with that, we gathered our resolve and our paddles, launched the kayaks and started paddling.
Even with all our camping gear, food and spare clothing stowed away, the sea kayaks were remarkably easy to manoeuvre. Sitting in the stern cockpit, Rhalena, a photographer from Los Angeles, soon mastered the rudder controls and concentrated instead on plying me with cookies, convinced that I needed the energy.
In fact, we were only going to paddle for five hours that first day, covering around 15km. It sounds a lot, but sea kayaking is more about slow exploration – nosing about inlets, drifting with the current and ‘rafting up’ for a chat with other kayakers – than hell-bent blazing paddles.
Hugging the shoreline we made our way into Hall Arm, a narrow, fingerlike branch of Doubtful Sound. Never before had I seen or heard water in so many guises. From the constant rumble of cataracts and patter of droplets from saturated moss to the hiss of rain and rhythmic swish of our paddles, water permeated my senses.
But just when I thought it would also seep through my multi-layered clothing, the rain stopped. Clouds began to fracture overhead, a stubborn scrap snagging on 1,509m Mount Danae like sheep’s wool on a barbed wire fence. Sunlight bloomed among the thick tangle of beech trees that crowded the shoreline, backlighting the shaggy growths of moss and lichen that festooned their twisted branches.
Elsewhere, bare granite gleamed like slivers of bone through the verdant flesh of the forest. These great scars, Ben told us, were created by ‘tree avalanches’, where the thin layer of rich humus covering the precipitous cliff faces suddenly gives way, sending huge swathes of forest crashing into the fiord. Tannins leached from the decaying vegetation tainted the water a shade of well-brewed tea. “So much rain falls here,” Ben went on, “that it creates a permanent layer of fresh water.” To demonstrate his point, he scooped up a handful to drink.
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.
According to Maori legend, Fiordland was carved by the god Tuterakiwhanoa. But when the goddess of the underworld, Hinenuitepo, saw how beautiful it was she was concerned that people would want to live there forever, so she decided to send the sandfly to remind them of their mortality and frailty. Bless her. How thoughtful.
We took some consolation from the fact that only the female sandfly is a nipper (apparently she needs blood before laying eggs). Nevertheless, it was a relief to get back on the water where Hinenuitepo’s legacy was far less of a nuisance. A brief sighting of a pair of rare crested penguins proved a pleasant distraction before our minds focused on the logistics of spending a night under canvas.
Beaching the kayaks on a spit of land that jutted into Hall Arm, Ben led us into a patch of podocarp forest – a strange, twilight world of shrubs and tree ferns pierced by the tall, straight trunks of hardwood giants such as the rimu and totara. Strung across a raised deck in a small clearing was an insect-proof shelter, from which a narrow path meandered through the dripping forest to a few root-free patches where we could pitch tents.
By dusk, we had hauled the kayaks above the high-tide mark, erected our tents and changed into dry clothes. Huddled in the communual insect shelter we then set about our next wilderness challenge: dinner. I was quietly pleased with my culinary effort of pre-cooked rice and tinned pasta sauce with slices of ham (left over from lunch) cunningly added at the last minute. Then I noticed that some of the others had brought fresh parmesan cheese with them and were grating it onto spectacular creations of spaghetti bolognaise accompanied by red wine and fresh side salad.
Ben didn’t seem hungry. Instead he dished out some serious food for thought. He had just received the following day’s weather forecast on his satellite phone. A new low was heading our way; temperatures were expected to plummet; there would be strong winds and, of course, rain. Plenty of it.
There was a lull before the storm struck – a strained period of calm when the plaintive high-pitched cries of kiwis echoed through the forest. We emerged from our tents before dawn. During the night a tree had fallen near camp, waking us with a jolt and leaving us wide-eyed and twitchy.
Reluctantly, we stripped from our warm, dry camp clothes and braced ourselves for the sodden paddling attire that had been festering overnight in the kayaks. I will never forget the sensation of putting on that wetsuit. It was like slipping into the skin of a long-dead seal.
We repacked the kayaks and paddled furiously, desperate for the exercise to warm our cold, stiff muscles. There was fresh snow on the surrounding peaks and the sky looked bruised and sullen. “Remember to keep your bows into the wind,” Ben shouted. And then the squall bore down on us. Drawing a grey veil across the Sound it machine-gunned rain in our faces and swatted our paddles.
For a moment we were caught broadside, the kayak rolling dangerously on its beam. Thrusting our paddles out like the stabilisers on an outrigger canoe, Rhalena and I braced ourselves for a dunking. But somehow the kayak stayed upright. Surfing on waves we made for the lee of Elizabeth Island where the others were waiting, flushed with adrenalin.
We beached on Elizabeth Island to heat some water for coffee. Clutching mugs and stamping our feet to combat the cold, we stared at the billycan, waiting for the water to boil. Richard Henry wasn’t exaggerating when, in 1896, he claimed, ‘This is fine country for the waterproof explorer.’
But at that moment, we were far from waterproof. In fact, we were very wet and very cold. Ben must have read our minds. Grabbing the billycan, he poured the luke-warm contents over our numb feet. Never had water felt so good. And, what’s more, I was now a real kayaker. I had got my feet well and truly wet.
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.