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.
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