In contrast to the more famous, more accessible and busier Milford Sound, Doubtful Sound – deep in the heart of Fiordland National Park – is secluded, tranquil and remote.
What better way to experience the grandeur, size and scale of this rugged area of incredible natural beauty, dramatic landscapes and pristine wilderness, than paddling a tiny kayak; dwarfed by towering peaks rising steeply skyward from the depths of the fiord. Down sheer rock faces, hundreds of waterfalls plunge to the sea below, in a torrent or trickle, depending on how recently it has rained.
Go Orange (previously Fiordland Wilderness Experiences) provides guided sea kayaking trips from one to five days with a maximum capacity of eight people (in four double kayaks) plus a guide. Stu and I opted for three days to explore this remarkable region, allowing some flexibility should we strike unfavourable conditions.
Previous paddling experience is preferable, although not essential, however you need a reasonable level of fitness to manage 4-6 hours paddling each day. Our group of Australians, Swiss and Kiwis ranged in age from early 20s to mid-60s, with varying levels of experience and one complete novice.
Prior to departure, a briefing covered safety and paddling techniques, and we were kitted out with warm, waterproof outer layers. Just getting to the starting point at Deep Cove is an adventure. Twenty minutes’ drive from Te Anau you reach the shores of Lake Manapouri – the ensuing boat cruise across the lake at dawn on a still, misty morning was magical and an opportunity to get to know our paddling companions.
On the western side of the lake, near the Manapouri Power Project, we board a bus for the journey to Deep Cove. Turn your back for a minute and cheeky keas swoop in to attack your luggage, while pesky sandflies are ever present.
Previously a walking track, Wilmot Pass is a 21km sub-alpine road through dense rain forest over the Southern Alps. It was constructed to transport heavy machinery and equipment, shipped into Doubtful Sound for the Manapouri Hydroelectricity project. Commencing in 1963 it took two years to build a road capable of withstanding loads of up to 97 tonnes, and while supplies can be ferried across Lake Manapouri, Wilmot Pass is still the only way to get heavy equipment to the power project. A quick stop at the 671m summit gave us our first peek over Doubtful Sound, sparkling in the distance.
No room for luxuries
Other than warm clothing, a minimalistic approach is required for personal items. With a stack of communal gear to be split between five kayaks, there is no room for luxuries. Individual tents, an insect proof communal cooking and socialising tent, cookers, gas bottles, sleeping bags and mats, spare clothing, togs and towels, footwear, food, wine, a comprehensive first aid kit – the pile on the beach grew to humungous proportions. As we eyed up the ever-increasing pile, everyone had to jettison some gear. Eventually the mountain of stuff was stashed and squeezed into watertight compartments or strapped to the outer decks of the kayaks. It almost defied belief that one chap managed to secretly stow a cake, which he gleefully produced one night to celebrate his wife’s birthday. Cake and candles – wow that was an unexpected surprise!
Doubtful Sound is three times longer than Milford Sound and roughly 10 times larger in surface area. With three arms: First Arm, Crooked Arm and Hall Arm, the guide can choose a route to suit the weather, wind conditions and the ability of the paddlers. An experienced guide is essential to ensure the safety of the group, as conditions can quickly change from calm and benign to wind howling down the narrow sounds, whipping up the surface to a frenzy of white caps. With sheer rock faces, there are limited places to land, so even as experienced sea kayakers, this is not a trip we would contemplate on our own.
Wildlife – and sandflies!
The guide may mix up the group to ensure even paddling speed, although with such awe-inspiring surroundings, it’s no great hardship to lay up and wait for stragglers. In addition to the dramatic scenery you can expect to see dolphins, fur seals, rare penguins and, on occasions, southern right whales, humpbacks and orca. While we didn’t see any whales, we did witness frolicking dolphins, seals and penguins.
The only negative aspect is the sandflies – sadly there is no escaping them – so the best plan is to be prepared. Sandflies are most active on windless, cloudy days, just before rain. As this region is noted for rainfall on approximately 200 days of the year, there’s not much chance of avoiding them, especially in the morning and at dusk. Luckily, they don’t bother you when you’re out on the water, but once you reach the shore, it’s game on as they lurk around the water’s edge and in the bush. So, invest in good insect repellent, cover up as much skin as possible, wear light clothing, and my best tip – spend $10 on an insect proof headnet. They stop sandflies going in your nose, eyes and ears, leaving your hands free to unpack and set up camp. Otherwise you are restricted to using one hand, while you vigorously wave the other hand around your face – the ‘Milford Wave’ as it is known in these parts.
The first job when you come ashore is to put up the insect proof communal shelter, where you gather to socialise and cook. The next task is to put up your tent, spray liberally with insect repellent then close-up until it is time to retire in the evening, by which stage the little blighters should all be dead or asleep.
Willie, our guide, had mentioned kayak sailing which sounded like fun. The first two days were calm and windless, perfect for paddling, swimming, and for spotting marine life, but not conducive to sailing. On the last day, we had a good stiff breeze behind us as we headed back to Deep Cove, but as it gathered strength, I figured it was too windy for sailing, especially for the novice paddlers. So, Willie’s instruction to raft up in pairs was met with surprise and some trepidation. The wind quickly filled the sail we hoisted and the next minute we were hooning down the sound unbelievably fast; knuckles turning white as the water surged between the bow of the boats trying to force us apart. As the wind continued to pick up pace, the height of the waves increased and we were flying along – exhilarating and loads of fun. A tremendous buzz to end our adventure.
Back safely at Deep Cove we reflected on our good luck; the weather gods had been kind. For the adventurous at heart, this is a challenging trip to be sure, but a hugely rewarding expedition and a memory to treasure.