Only a few hours northwest of the Catlins lies a place a world away from anything I have ever seen or experienced. This great land is known as Fiordland National Park and is home to famous Milford Sound. Before heading to Milford, we decided to take a day kayaking tour on the less touristy Doubtful sound. Just in case you are wondering why this place is called Fiordland, Doubtful and Milford Sounds really aren’t sounds at all. They are actually fiords and were named incorrectly as sounds when first discovered.
We were beginning to lose track of time during the days because it didn’t get dark until after 10pm. For the 3rd or 4th day in a row, we were arriving at our campsite after midnight. Thanks to park-sleep.com, we found a really cool dirt road leading to a cozy little spot by the river to camp for the night. We got up at 5:30am to a very cold morning! After a good deal of hesitation, we quickly jumped up and rummaged for our down jackets and pants all the while thinking, “are we really going to spend the whole day on the water in this fridged weather?!” We got up extra early to make sure we made our 7am tour time without having to rush. We made the 30 minute journey into Manapouri and found the kayak office by the lake and made ourselves some breakfast. The only problem was that the Fjordland Adventure company with which we had booked our kayak tour was not actually on the lake. We found this out 5 minutes before we were supposed to be at the office for check-in. In our usual rush mode, we tore out of the parking lot and made it just in time to hop into the shuttle van, our first mode of transportation on the tour.
We joined 7 other people from various places all over the world in the shuttle van and headed right back down to the lake we just came from. We quickly learned why Doubtful Sound is less touristy. It takes a long time to get there! We transferred from the van to a boat where we traversed Lake Manapouri and got acquainted with our tour guide named Cloudi. He claimed that he was born in Ireland and his mom looked out the hospital window and saw a rainbow coming out of some clouds and named him Cloudi Rainbow. We still can’t tell if he was joking or not. Nonetheless, we called him Cloudi. We also met a Canadian man who was teaching at UNC Chapel Hill – small world! After becoming friends with our kayak mates, we arrived at the visitor center in Doubtful Sound where we were given wetsuits, wool long sleeve shirts, a fancy red spray jacket, and a kayak skirt that shouted TOURIST! Oh yea, we were also given some nerdy baseball caps complete with furry earmuffs with a Fjordland Adventure logo on it.
Ten minutes later, Cloudi started shouting for us to hurry up because the next van had arrived. We all quickly departed the visitor center and got into another van which would take us on a 45 minute journey down a dirt/gravel road called Wilmot Pass to a dock where we would board our kayaks. It was already an adventure just getting to our kayaks! We were treated to a ‘bickie” (Kiwi for cookie) and some tea and coffee and instructed to not drink too much of it because we wouldn’t be able to use the bathroom for at least another 2.5 hours. Knowing my grandma like bladder habits, this was enough to convince me that one sip of my green tea was plenty. Glad I did because another guy in our group tried to quickly use the bathroom before getting in his kayak and the poor lad was told he couldn’t, as warned, and he would have to wait until we stopped for lunch.
We were briefed on kayak do’s and don’ts and taught how to “raft up”, which is when all 5 kayaks join together side by side and the kayakers hold on to each other’s oars to make a raft-like formation. If Cloudi gave us the signal, we were to immediately raft up. This was for situations like an earthquake happening (common in New Zealand) or dolphins swimming nearby (marine life is protected in the Fiords and tourists can’t go closer than 200 meters to a set of dolphins for fear that they will be afraid to return to the fiords). Cloudi proudly informed us that he has never had anyone capsize or fall in during his two years as a guide there. I was thinking, “oh jeez, we will be his first.”
By this point, we were glad to see that the sun had come out and it was actually getting much warmer. Doubtful sound gets more than 200 days of rain annually, stacking up to nearly 7 meters of rain a year, so we were told that we were extremely lucky to be going on our tour on a lovely, sunny, calm day. With that said, I have heard that rainy days are often some of the most beautiful because waterfalls pop up everywhere along the fiord. I think people just say that to make those who get a rainy day feel better. Kind of like when people say, “it’s good luck if it rains on your wedding day!” Psht, not if your wedding is outside! Bottom line: I just can’t imagine a rainy day being better than the clear day we had.
We carefully got into our kayaks, struggled with our kayak skirts, and practiced rafting up before setting off into wonderland. Pictures can’t prepare you for the beauty we saw in the fiord that day. Cloudi was such a fantastic guide. We all kayaked close to each other so we could hear him tell us the history of the fiord, point out wildlife, and tell us about the different species of trees all around us. One of the most interesting aspects of the fiord and the massive cliffs surrounding it is that tree slides occur fairly often. We were familiar with rock slides but had never seen a tree slide before. As we looked around us, we noticed long streaks of white rock from the top of the cliffs into the fiord with vegetation on either side. These were places where tree slides occurred due to earthquakes or really heavy rain. The trees literally just come off the rock. For all you Lord of the Rings fans, Cloudi also informed us that one of the scenes with hobbits walking along a cliff was filmed at the top of a peak in Doubtful Sound. Another cool fact about the fiord is that the first 30 meters of water is almost completely fresh water. Due to the amount of rain in the region, fresh water pours into the fiord and sits on top of the salt water. Cloudi even told us we could give it a taste!
After two and a half hours of mellow kayaking which seemed to go by in about 30 minutes, we turned a corner and the owner of Fiordland Adventures, Reg, was hanging in his boat, waiting for us. He was so sneaky, we had no idea where he came from. We boarded the boat and ate the lunch we packed and some tasty homemade chicken soup before heading back out into the water.
One of many very cool things about doing a tour in Doubtful Sound is that we were literally the only group of kayakers that we saw. We didn’t even see more than one or two boats. Most of the time, it was just the 10 of us cruising along in awe of our surroundings. Fiordland adventures does a really good job of making sure you feel alone out there.
The second part of the kayak trip was my favorite. We spent the last two hours basically floating along the fiord. The wind was in our favor and the water was extremely calm, so we could all sit in our kayaks, pull our paddles onto our laps, and ride. Cloudi also told us this is rare and he really appreciates days like ours. Most people are fighting against wind and sitting in the rain during the trip. We passed through some waterfalls and eventually reached the end of the fiord and made a U-turn to head back to Reg. Again, there Reg was, practically appearing out of thin air. Since the weather had gotten really warm, Cloudi gave us the option to jump into the fiord from the boat if we wanted to. John and I decided we were going to jump in. Only one other guy decided to as well, so the 3 of us joined Cloudi to jump into the freezing cold water. One…two….three…and I’m in. System shock! It’s COLD, but refreshing nonetheless. So refreshing that I decide I’m jumping in one more time. How many times will I be in Doubtful Sound with the option to jump in while the sun is shining? I’d wager never again. In between my two jumps, John took his leap of faith and came up out of the water with that “holy s*** that was cold” face. He scampered up onto the back of the boat and I followed behind him. I got back onto the boat and he calmly says, “I’m bleeding”. I say, “what, how?”. He managed to step onto some sort of metal plate sticking out of the bottom of the boat as he climbed aboard after his jump. It was a gaping mess. We spent the boat ride back to the dock bandaging up his bloody foot. The cut was unfortunately right between his toe and the ball of his foot, so it just kept breaking open when he tried to walk. We used the small amount of bandaids and gauze on the boat and thought we had everything under control. We got off the boat and started heading for the van to get back to our second boat at Lake Manapouri. John looked down and there it went again, blood everywhere. The van was a 5 minute walk so Cloudi forced John to get on his back so that he could carry him to the van where they had a first aid kit. We were all laughing, including John. I was carrying both of our bags, so I didn’t manage to get a picture of the piggy back ride, but it will forever be filed in my brain so that I can pull it out when I need a good laugh. We got John all bandaged up on the return van ride while we enjoyed coffee, tea, and more bickies. One more boat ride on beautiful Lake Manapouri and we were back to our Tim Tam. We cooked some yummy chicken stir fry along the lake front and made our way to Te Anau, the jump off point to Milford Sound.
From this point on, John decided we would keep Tim Tam the campervan stocked with chocolate chip bickies for the rest of the trip. And so we did.