You know those sunny photos of people kayaking happily alongside dolphins? This is not that trip. This trip was so much better.
Doubtful Sound gets more rain than any other place I have ever heard of. More rain, even than Ireland. Jurassic Park and Lord of the Rings were set to film here only to pull out very early in the schedule when production staff made a stunning realisation – the rain will not stop. Part of Fiordland National Park, it is an astounding landscape; with crenulated cliffs, pumping waterfalls and untouched forests.
You need to see this place in wild weather. At sea level.
Our 3-day Epic kayaking trip to Doubtful Sound (booked through Real Journeys, operated by Go Orange) began with a brief at the Go Orange shed in Te Anau at 4 pm the day before launch. The prognosis was not good: reports from the base at Deep Water Cove spoke of high winds and a tonne of rain. The unsafe kind of tonne. Staff were 100% convinced we would not be hitting the water the next day. They made announcement plain and simple. Saftey is paramount. Our 3-day Epic immediately became a trip salvage.
I had been drawn to the 3-day epic by the chance of getting up close and personal with the water and the small group size. Including the guide, there was to be 8 of us in four double sea kayaks. Now we were bonding by huddling over a map of Fiordland, trying to work out what we would do instead.
None of us wanted to leave Te Anau without giving the weather a real chance to pass. So we agreed to try again the following day and the guide talked us through the alternative route. Instead of the full paddle, we would head off on the overnight route instead, paddling up the sound and into Hall Arm, where we would spend the night. Since everyone was reasonably experienced and fit, the next day, we would try and get a little further up the sound before returning to base.
We committed to paddling over 20 kilometres a day and the very experienced kayakers were hankering for more.
Disappointed but thoroughly understanding, we returned to the ticket office to get our partial refund. We now found ourselves with a free wet weather day in Te Anau.
// Getting to Deep Water Cove
A day later than scheduled, we were waiting for a bus pick up at 6.30am. All but two of our group were staying in the same place – the Te Anau Lakeview Holiday Park.
It would take 2 and a half hours of travel to get to the launch site at Deep Water Cove and involved a bus ride, a ferry across Lake Manapouri and another bus. Because it is so difficult to get to, there are only a couple of licenced tour operators for Doubtful Sound. This is a massive plus – you are guaranteed to have this place to yourself no matter what part of the season you’re travelling in.
As the second bus rose over the saddle and made its way down toward Deep Cove I spied a speed sign announcing a 50km speed limit. A road completely cut off from the national network, unpoliced, and yet they remembered to install a sign.
“Could you get up to 50 kms here?” I asked a guide.
If a tree falls in the woods, right?
// The Launch
Once we had parked up near Deep Cove Hostel, we were given instructions by our guide Lisa on how to assemble our wetsuits (there were five parts). Next came our dry bags, a small one for our snacks and phones, a large one for our dry clothes and sleeping bags.
Equipped, we brought the kayaks down to the water and filled them with an even split of group gear and our personal bags. A quick safety briefing and we were ready to get going! When we did take to the water, the wind was against us and we had to really work hard to get up to the mouth of Hall Arm.
Rafting up to plan our tack, we rolled about, rain smearing our faces.
Once inside the arm things got a lot easier. The wind was gone. The waterfalls were pumping, tumbling kilometres down the cliffs. Do you want to know the great thing about the rain? No mozzies. Perhaps the only bite free leg of our trip (haha, leg) and it happened in one of the most mosquito ridden areas of the country.
As we were exploring the waterfalls and over hanging trees, Tiernan noticed a little bird fall straight out of the sky. We zipped over and found a little wax-eye bobbing on the surface of the water. Lisa joined us and scooped him up with her oar, sitting him in between her and Ellen, a Dutch traveller cycling her way around the country, on their kayak. Lindsay, from Canada, dubbed him Petey without hesitation and he became our Commander. Petey travelled with us for a while under the umbrella that was set up for him until we drew up level with our campsite. Lisa carved over to camp to drop off Commander Petey while the rest of us continued up the arm.
We took another hour to explore the arm and arrived back at camp to terrible news – Commander Petey was dead under his cap. He was given a funeral and buried under a pile of stones close to camp – he may even still be there.
Camp was erected in horizontal rain. Even holding a tarp over the tent while others worked to construct it was not enough to prevent the water ingress. We piled our things into the centre and changed into our dry clothes gratefully. They felt so much warmer for simply not being wet. Revitalised, we returned to the communal tent to make dinner.
The group sat around munching and chatting, reminiscing about Commander Petey and all the good times we had with him. But when the Canadians produced a bladder of wine and a block of cheese, I really appreciated that we had no idea how to do an overnight kayak. It’s nothing like hiking at all. I am so used to packing only what you need – what you can stand to carry on your back. A sea kayak, however, is another story entirely. Once the essential first aid kits and tents are aboard, there was still a wealth of space.
A wealth of space – for wine.
Next time, we’ll know better and then we can be the cool kids. I tell you: I was inspired.
// Returning to Base
The next day we were up and out early. It was not raining, but everything was sodden. We’d all had dreams of being swept away by a river. We broke camp swiftly and were soon loading up the kayaks. The water was inky black and perfectly still – everyone’s favourite paddle of the trip. Lisa regaled us with stories of how the Sound was formed: both in Maori leged and in geology.
Our aim was to get out of Hall Arm, turn west and complete a circumnavigation of Elizabeth Island before attempting to sail back to Deep Water Cove. Ben, the other half of the Canadian pair that brought the wine, spent a good portion of time trying to turn a tent fly into a sale. We rafted up, four kayaks abreast, and attempted to set sail… only to move at about 4km/h. Laughing we peeled apart and resumed paddling. If only the wind had been at our back the previous day – we definitely would have sailed then!
When we arrived back at Deep Water Cove just after 12 pm, we were shattered.
But also saddened that the trip had to be cut short. We definitely would have enjoyed spending more time on the water – as bruised as we were. Luckily, we had a Milford Kayak day trip booked for the following morning. A good nights sleep in a comfy bed back at Te Anau Lakeview Holiday Park gave us the energy to take to the water for a very different experience… read about that next week!
Both Tiernan and I want to do this trip again. 5 days next time!
// What to Bring
Go Orange provide a lot of the things you will need for the trip. But there are some things you must bring yourself:
- Food: Bring a bev. Don’t bring beer. Beer has glass. Glass can’t be folded up. I say wine. Maybe some hummus. You could do this very fancy and stay well within your baggage limit. Save the heroics of desaturated food for another adventure. I would have traded our powdered pasta for that block of cheese in a second.
- Eating Equipment: bowl, cup, knife, fork, spoon – these are BYO. Go Orange provide cookers and gas and if you let them know in advance, they can supply utensils for you.
- Clothing: You only need a swimsuit under your wetsuit. Go Orange provide all the outer layers. Yet I would still advise bringing an extra fleece that you won’t mind saturating if you are petite like me and prone to cold. You will be provided with a fleece, but I needed two. Since you’re more likely to be doing this trip with at least one day of rain – think about the worst case scenario.
- Camping Gear: Your tent and bed roll are provided. Indeed the roll was more comfortable than the ones we were carrying for camping. You must bring your own sleeping bag and headlamp. You can rent a sleeping bag if you need to.
- Extras: Plenty of plastic bags for wet gear.
- Honestly, I was so, so scared to take my ‘big camera’ on this trip. I did bring it along, but in the end, most of the pictures we took were on our GoPro Hero3 and a couple on our iPhone. Then we had problems with the memory card for the GoPro. After taking the videos off the card corrupted and all the stills were lost. And I was so sad.
Keen to try a Doubtful Sound Kayak? Let us know below.
Last updated: 25 July 2017 – Prices correct at time of posting. They probably won’t get updated again, so do visit the operator websites. Remember to download the operator’s suggested gear list as well, it is essential for this trip. Go Orange and Real Journeys have not sponsored this post. There are affiliate links to our accommodation through booking.com. Should you choose to book accommodation using one of our links, we receive a small commission – thank you so much for your support!