Into the Mystic: Sea Kayaking Doubtful Sound In New Zealand’s Fiordland National Park
By Michael Lanza
A light mist falls as our small adventure armada of nine sea kayaks cruises along the shore of Deep Cove, the farthest inland extremity of Doubtful Sound in New Zealand’s Fiordland National Park. Around us, cliffs rise straight up out of the sea to 4,000-foot summits—sheer, Yosemite-like granite walls improbably sprouting a vertical jungle of podocarp trees and other indigenous vegetation that make these forests look like something from another planet.
The sun makes feeble attempts to break through the soupy overcast. But the clouds, mist, and intermittent rain will persist throughout our trip, as they do most days of the year here. When you head out into a place that receives upwards of 23 feet of rain annually—which is about ten feet more precipitation than falls on Washington’s famously saturated Olympic rainforest—you don’t bother looking at the weather forecast. You just bring good rain gear and think sunny thoughts.
Our guide, Simeon Grig, who goes by “Sim,” leads us to the lee side of tiny Rolla Island, to take a break out of the wind. In a pronounced Kiwi accent that could make him the star of an action movie or a really funny beer commercial, Sim tells us that Rolla, covered with a thick fur of impenetrable rainforest, is a breeding ground for native crested penguins.
I’m sharing a two-person kayak with a young Portuguese guy named Leonardo, whom I just met this morning. He and I paddle ahead of the others as our group circles the island. Sure enough, on Rolla’s back side, we surprise two penguins waddling along the short skirt of rock at the shore. Seeing us, the penguin pair scrabbles quickly up the wet rock and disappears into the jungle.
It’s the first morning of our guided sea kayaking trip run by Fiordland Wilderness Experiences. For two days, we will paddle around the upper reaches of Doubtful Sound, a remote, roughly 30-mile-long fjord in the vast wilderness of Fiordland, which sprawls over nearly three million acres of the southwest corner of New Zealand’s South Island, an area as large as Yosemite and Yellowstone national parks combined. Fiordland is also part of the Southwest New Zealand World Heritage Area, which spans four contiguous national parks (including Mt. Aspiring and the Rees-Dart Track), and covers 6.4 million acres—almost three times the size of Yellowstone, representing roughly 10 percent of New Zealand’s land area.
In 1770, when Lt. (not yet Capt.) James Cook explored the wild southwest coast of New Zealand’s South Island, where long, deep fjords probe like crooked fingers into mountains smothered in rainforest, he decided against trying to sail into this particular sliver of sea—he thought the prevailing westerly winds would prevent his big, lumbering ship from maneuvering back out around the islands in the fjord’s mouth. He dubbed this place “Doubtful Harbor,” and the first name stuck.
Lucky for us that Cook saw dim prospects for empire expansion more than two centuries ago—and that the unrelenting, vertiginous topography prevented civilization from ever establishing a foothold here. Because of that, the fjord we see today remains essentially unchanged from when the earliest explorers penetrated it. Besides the resident penguins, the sound is still home to bottlenose dolphins, fur seals, and indigenous birds like the kiwi, morepork, and weka.
But more than anything, Doubtful Sound awes you with its scale. And because reaching the sound still entails complicated logistics or a long journey by boat, relatively few people visit this landscape of severe right angles, where the often mirror-flat sea reflects soaring cliffs choked in rainforest.
As we paddle up Hall Arm on our first afternoon, the drizzle pauses for a breather, but clouds hover at the tops of the cliffs, making the fjord look mystical. One waterfall after another plummets hundreds or thousands of feet down green cliffs. We stop for lunch on a small, rocky beach, stretching our legs. It’s mild, probably around 70° F, a temperature that will not shift more than a couple of degrees, day or night, throughout our two days out here. We wear light layers underneath paddle jackets and spray skirts.
“It’s a shame we’re not getting more roin,” Sim muses in his sharp Kiwi brogue, “because the roin really moiks the waterfalls huge. And we’re gitting wit, anywoy.”
I can’t tear my eyes from the sound’s enormous cliffs, walls of greenery so dense that you rarely see the rock. The thick-limbed podocarp trees that predominate here on the west side of the Southern Alps grow to a hundred feet or taller, and produce pods of leaves that look like a dozen parasols. A fern called punga, as big as a tree, is also common. Moss covers everything. The rainforest seems to achieve the impossible, clinging to granite walls that have essentially no soil. Pioneer plants sprout from cracks and vegetation grows upon vegetation, nurtured by one of the rainiest climates on the planet.
But gravity has the final say. Vertical scars stripe the cliffs of Doubtful Sound, caused by “tree avalanches.” Once trees become too large for root systems anchored in cracks to support them, one or more trees will suddenly snap off and fall. With an explosive sound much like a snow avalanche on a mountain, a section of cliff forest will crash downward, ripping vegetation off the wall as it carves a path down to the water. We see numerous signs of these throughout the sound, ranging from bare rock to lighter green strips indicative of new forest quickly regenerating. The tree avalanches occur in regular cycles of about 75 years, the age at which a mature forest often can no longer hold its own weight.
Doubtful Sound averages 400 meters (approximately 1,300 feet) deep, making it one of the deepest fjords on the island’s West Coast; many of the other sounds are about 300 meters (1,000 feet) deep. Imagine taking Yosemite Valley, allowing the ocean to rush in to fill it to about one-third of the height of El Capitan, and dumping more than 20 feet of rain onto it every year, so that forests spring from its cliffs. Remove every road, building, campsite, parking lot, picnic table, sign, gift shop, and all other human infrastructure. Make it so that just reaching the entrance to Yosemite Valley required a boat ride and van shuttle on a road that begins and ends in the middle of nowhere—a road not connected to any other road—effectively restricting the number of visitors every day to just a handful. Then you’d have Doubtful Sound.
We paddle around the shore of Hall Arm, passing below more waterfalls so tall that their tops disappear into the fog 2,000 feet overhead. By mid-afternoon, Sim leads us to a small, stone-covered beach where we unload, carrying camping gear into the woods behind the beach. Here, Fiordland Wilderness Experiences has a communal mesh-sided cooking and eating tent set up, a refuge from the incredibly thick, biting sandflies. My GPS receiver shows that we paddled 12 miles today.
In the evening, as we lounge in the bug tent, a weka, a bird the size of a chicken, walks around just outside our screen, emitting a loud honk that sounds like a high-pitched Canada goose. We see a few of the smaller fantails flying around feeding on sandflies.
Sim shares stories about the guide lifestyle here: spending four or five straight days wet, going home to dry out for a day, then heading back out in his kayak for another stretch of living wet, and doing that for six or eight months of the year. He likes Doubtful Sound because it receives nowhere near the number of tour boats as world-famous Milford Sound, and private parties are rare. He likes to walk out to the beach on a clear night and look at the billions of stars.
In the morning, after a hearty breakfast, we pack up the kayaks in clouds of sandflies—which are only bad on land, never bothering us on the water—and launch into a sea as smooth as a pane of glass.
Paddling below yet more soaring, lush, waterfall-laced cliffs, we exit Hall Arm and enter Malaspina Reach. The main trunk of Doubtful Sound, it was named for the Italian nobleman Alessandro Malaspina, who from 1789 to 1794 led a scientific expedition commissioned by the Spanish royal family to explore and map much of the Pacific, including a stop in New Zealand.
A strong headwind, blowing in many miles from the ocean, raises a chop on the water—forcing us to paddle hard for the only time on this trip, to cross the open water of the reach. Gusts repeatedly lift the bow of the kayak into the air and slap it onto the water in the trough between waves, splashing frigid seawater into my face.
We pull into the lee of Elizabeth Island, a mile-long, jungle-covered finger of rock in the middle of the sound, and hug its shore to let it shield us somewhat from the headwind. Circling the island’s northern tip, we again paddle hard to avoid the wind slamming our kayaks into the rocky shoreline. But once around the island, with the wind now at our backs, our perspective changes dramatically.
Sim instructs us to raft the kayaks together—line up side by side—and he pulls out a small sail from his kayak. Using paddles and free hands, we raise the sail above our rafted kayaks—and it snaps in the wind, lurching us forward. In an instant, we’re speeding ahead at a clip of probably several knots, raising a wake behind us. The sun flits in and out between clouds, giving us a minute of warm sunshine for every several minutes of gray overcast, as we sail much of the way back to Deep Cove.
See my other stories and images from adventures in New Zealand:
River of Many Stories: Canoeing New Zealand’s Stunning Whanganui
Off the Beaten Track in New Zealand: Trekking the Rees-Dart in Mt. Aspiring National Park
Super Volcanoes: Hiking the Steaming Peaks of New Zealand’s Tongariro National Park
THIS TRIP IS GOOD FOR beginner paddlers, if you take a guided trip, which is the easiest in terms of logistics and expense. Fiordland Wilderness Experiences suggests or requires some sea kayaking experience for trips longer than two days. The protected waters of upper Doubtful Sound are frequently calm; although winds off the ocean are common in Malaspina Reach, many beginners would be able to manage paddling in those conditions. The water temperature is cold, but air temperatures in summer are usually mild.
Make It Happen
Season Summer (December through February) is the best time of year, with average daytime highs ranging from 66 to 73° F (19 to 23° C), and nights typically not much cooler. March and November highs average 60 to 66° F (16 to 19° C), and September, October, and April highs average 50 to 55° (10 to 13° C). Rain is common year-round and can be very localized.
The Itinerary The two-day circuit around upper Doubtful Sound entails paddling five to six hours a day at a leisurely pace. From Deep Cove, paddle about 30 minutes northwest to tiny Rolla Island, at the junction of Deep Cove, Malaspina Reach, and Hall Arm. Circle the island, and then swing southwest and paddle along the southwest shore of Hall Arm. While much of the shoreline is cliffs, there are rocky beaches where you can stop to eat and stretch your legs, like Olphert Cove. Circle around the head of Hall Arm, below the soaring cliffs of Mt. Danae, to a landing site on a rocky beach approximately midway along the northwest shore of Hall Arm, where there is potential camping in the podocarp forest behind the beach. On day two, continue along the northwest shore of Hall Arm, and then swing northwest into Malaspina Reach. If conditions permit, circle around Elizabeth Island before returning to Deep Cove.
Getting There Bus service from Queenstown to Te Anau is provided by Topline Tours, +64 3 249 8059, toplinetours.co.nz. The launching point in Deep Cove is very remote, reached via a one-hour ferry ride across beautiful Lake Manapouri (near Te Anau), followed by a 45-minute, 22-kilometer drive over the narrow, winding, gravel Wilmot Pass Road—crossing Wilmot Pass at 70 meters above sea level, the divide of the Southern Alps—to Deep Cove. Avoid the hassle, expense, and risk of bringing a vehicle on the ferry by taking a guided trip with Fiordland Wilderness Experiences ($399/person including transportation and food).
Map NZ Topo50 Deep Cove CD06 map (1:50,000), $9 NZ, sold at DOC offices, bookstores, outdoor stores, and information centers; see linz.govt.nz/topography/topo-maps/topo50/sheets. The Dagg Sound CD05 map covers the western stretch of Doubtful Sound, beyond this trip’s route but explored on longer trips.
• The water is dangerously cold, and winds can be strong and the weather occasionally extreme, creating a danger of capsizing; and there are few landing sites along the shore. Paddle close to shore whenever possible, cross open water only in safe conditions, and be aware of the closest landing sites.
• Extreme remoteness means that emergency help is hours or at least a day away and communication with the outside is impossible unless you have a satellite phone.
• Rain is common. Wear a waterproof paddle jacket and bring rain gear for camping.
• Sandflies are abundant in Fiordland, especially on beaches and in the bush (forest), though rarely a problem when you’re on the water. Use a DEET-based repellent and wear long sleeves, pants, a hat that shields your ears and neck, and a head net if preferred.
Camping Fiordland Wilderness Experiences has a campsite on the northwest shore of Hall Arm, one of few potential landing sites in upper Doubtful Sound. You sleep in tents and eat in a communal screened shelter.
Guide Fiordland Wilderness Experiences, +64 3 249 7700, seakayakfiordland.co.nz.
Contact New Zealand Department of Conservation, doc.govt.nz/parks-and-recreation/national-parks/fiordland. Fiordland National Park Visitor Center, Te Anau, +64 3 249 7924.