Fiordland Adventure Sea Kayaking
On 12th of August 2017, I completed a six-month solo sea kayaking journey around Fiordland, part of New Zealand’s very own World Heritage Area. Fiordland is known for its gales, situated as it is between the ‘roaring forties’ and ‘furious fifties’ of latitude. It thus makes for a highly challenging place to explore by sea kayak!
Inspiration for this journey came to me in 2014, when I completed a nine-month solo alpine traverse of the Southern Alps. While Fiordland’s mountains and views were fantastic, I also longed to explore the coastal fjords and could think of no better way of doing this than by sea kayak! It took me three years to train, including a one-month crossing of the Baltic Sea in Europe. To explore Fiordland and to traverse its coastline, I anticipated three to four months of kayaking. I therefore arranged two food drops, assembled the required gear including safety and communications equipment, and acquired a larger tent as I was going to spend most of my time camping. Meri Leask from Bluff Fishermen’s Radio and my weather contact Robert Taylor in Queenstown were going to keep an eye/ear out for me and to provide me with forecasts. Finally, by early February I was packed and ready and looked forward to a huge adventure in Fiordland’s Wild West!
My kayak journey started at Rowallan River Mouth in Te WaeWae Bay on the South Coast. I left on 9th February 2017. I was actually there three days prior, but large seas meant that the surf was too big to leave the beach. The weather was very unsettled that spring and was only reluctantly settling down. Snow still fell in the nearby mountains in early February - which is meant to be summer!
It was lovely to be greeted on my first day on the water by a pod of Hectors Dolphins, who stayed with me for half an hour during the fourhour crossing to Port Craig. Port Craig had a sheltered landing beach and was the site of a historic timber milling settlement. While the last of the spring storms were blowing themselves out, I explored the nearby historic sites and went for an overnight hike along the viaducts to Wairaurahiri River on the South Coast Trail. It was nice to catch up with Rose and Peter at Waitutu Lodge, who I had met on my alpine hiking traverse three years prior! Further waiting time was used for paddling and strength training. I also had one ‘false start’ that saw me turn back two hours out, when ocean swells rose significantly (to four metres) and made my planned landing impossible. I paddled the two hours back to Port Craig and called it a training trip! Finally, I was able to leave Port Craig more than two weeks after I’d arrived.
Swells and winds remained moderate to high most days, so I worked my way west in small steps. Long Point, with its reef-studded entry, hosted me for five days. I then progressed west via Green Islets and Gold Burn Beach. Both places I had visited before on my hiking traverse, and it was great to have familiar coastline to fall back on while paddling conditions were rough and uncomfortable. During that time, skipper Robert of the cray fishing boat Jewel was very helpful with weather forecasts and sea condition reports. I finally reached Point Puysegur and the sheltered historic Landing Shed on 27th of February, three weeks after setting out.
In very stable weather, the whole of Fiordland could potentially be paddled in three weeks, without any extra time to explore the fjords. Every few years one might be so lucky? During my paddling summer, the weather remained mostly unsettled and windy. There was also a period of strong easterlies, due to tropical cyclones passing down from the north. Strong Easterlies, despite giving sunny skies in Fiordland, were too risky to paddle in as they meant strong offshore winds. Swells remained moderate for most of last summer. The problem for me with even ‘just’ the standard three to four metre swells was that while they were no issue to kayak over (they were only problematic if they started capping), large swells prevented interim landing options on much of the rugged coastline and even in some of the smaller bays. High swells and unstable weather were therefore an unhealthy combination. On the water, wind and chop were an issue as these really slowed down progress and often steepened existing swells. When swells became large and breaking, if I was to get tipped and then didn’t succeed in Eskimo rolling back upright, it would potentially have been problematic to reenter the kayak with the paddle float technique. My own safety cut-off was therefore to be off the water before conditions became such that they prevented self-rescue. With the standard three to four metre swells, this meant waiting until the forecast was solid, and to start before dawn to be on land again before the sea breeze came away. On average, I had to wait seven to ten days for coastal paddling windows. I didn’t really mind as I had a lot of exploring that I wanted to do anyway – one might as well have a good look around whilst down there! The larger swells on the outer coast made for tense paddling though, and a lot of ‘looking over my shoulder’. The first time I felt more relaxed was three months into the journey, when I had lower two metre swells, and therefore plenty of potential landing options en route. During the months of paddling from Te WaeWae to Milford Sound, I had these two metre ‘relaxing’ swells on exactly two days.
Preservation Inlet, which leads into Long Sound, is the southernmost fjord and rich in both Maori and European history. The last time I had visited I was on foot and therefore limited in what I could explore! Now, with my kayak, I took two weeks to enjoy a good look around. A great help were Rusty and Sue, caretakers at Kisbee Lodge, and later Terry Nolan, who were all familiar with some of the more obscure historic sites. I enjoyed several day hikes to the old gold mines in the area, and paddled to the waterfall at the head of Long Sound.
In mid-March, I rounded Gulches Head with its crazy unpredictable seas and entered Chalky Inlet. Again, I stayed there for nearly two weeks. There were numerous fishing and charter boats, as well as some international yachts! It was a lovely area, with long fjord arms leading back from the sentinel white cliffs of Chalky Island. I found a number of sea caves with signs of former Maori occupation and managed to harvest my first ever paua in North Port!
On an overcast and rainy day with not too much wind, I left for Dusky Sound. There were whitecaps around the headlands, but with a tail wind, I made good progress north. Unfortunately, an ugly weather change arrived several hours earlier than forecast and caught me just short of (and within sight of) Dusky Sound! Waves suddenly reared huge and breaking, and I was
unable to make any progress into the wind which now came from the northwest. I therefore had to turn and run back to a beach which fisherman Robert had told me about. The beach was protected by reefs and a safe haven in the storm. I was very glad to land there indeed! Eventually, after nine days of practicing hermit life, I made Dusky Sound, arriving rather fittingly on dusk.
Dusky Sound and its neighbour Breaksea Sound form a vast interlocking maze of fjords and side arms. I spent five glorious days exploring the area which was rich in early European history, including first settlement, first ship built, and first shipwreck! A welcoming dinner and great company on the charter vessel Sea-Finn, care of skipper Chris, was lovely after the solitary existence on the beach. I also got to spend a night on the yacht Landfall, with American travellers Barbara and Dennis! It was my first time sleeping on a yacht. I visited Supper Cove, which I had first hiked to in 1995, and slept in old explorer William Docherty’s rock bivouac at the head of Wet Jacket Arm. I then installed myself at Disappointment Cove on Resolution Island to wait for a weather window to paddle north. I was there for a week and used the time ‘productively’ to rest, eat pancakes, and to read books! I also hiked above treeline to enjoy stellar views during the easterly winds. Paul Caffyn, the well-known sea kayaker based on the West Coast, started sending me additional forecasts during this time, and it was great to get his cautious take on the synoptic situation, which was unusual last summer with so many easterlies and nearby remnants of tropical cyclones.
Eventually, I paddled north and reached Dagg Sound, where I found myself a snug little cove to camp in. After two nights, despite a good forecast, the day felt dubious with a front just offshore. I was by then running low-ish on food, having stretched my initially packed six weeks of food to last for about nine weeks. Although I still had about one week of food left when I arrived at Dagg Sound, I was keen to get on with it. So I braved the notorious portage from Dagg to Doubtful Sound! The portage actually turned out to be not as bad as rumour had it. After some initial confusion about the route, which led high up and over an old landslide, it was quite straight forward. The most awkward section was the forest trail: despite having a path to follow, a five-metre-forty kayak doesn’t readily go around bends! I was all done the same evening, filthy but happy, with time to spare before dusk.
Crooked Arm in Doubtful Sound was the first fjord where the side walls felt impressively steep and towering. The Fiordland mountains were steeper further north, as I had already experienced on my alpine hiking traverse. Doubtful Sound was familiar to me, but I had not yet explored it by sea kayak! After a few days, I connected with the caretakers of Deep Cove Hostel, Billy and Vilma, who were keeping my first food drop for me. As the forecast was ratty for at least a week, I caught a ride out to civilisation where I changed equipment to warmer winter gear. I had lost about six kilograms on this first paddling section, so I stocked up supplies with additional fatty and energy-rich foods. As soon as my dry suit came back from repairs, I escaped back into Deep Cove. With an extra bag on top of the kayak, this time I carried nearly two and a half months of food – I wasn’t going to run lean again!
I stayed in Doubtful Sound for nearly two weeks and explored many of its side arms. Gaer Arm was particularly beautiful, and I had previously visited Hall Arm. I even met other kayakers: a foursome who had paddled up from Preservation Inlet! We shared Gut Hut for a couple of nights and hiked up to the ridgeline for awesome views. They called themselves the Tweedy Club, hinting at maturity, but I told them I thought they were definitely the Badass Chapter, and very adventurous and inspirational!
I left Doubtful Sound on 11th of May and paddled north up the coastline. Skipping the smaller Nancy Sound, I explored Charles Sound and kayaked up the Irene River as far as Marjorie Falls. It was my first experience camping by tidal rivers, and I was surprised at how much the water level rose overnight at high tide (it wasn’t raining) – just as well my kayak was securely tied on, and I was camped high above the bank!
The next fjord, Caswell Sound, had a historic hut at its head which was originally built for a Wapiti survey in 1949. I based myself there for eleven days whilst exploring an old marble mine and former settlement on the southern shores of the fjord. I also walked up to Lake Marchant several times, an hour upvalley from the hut. Lake Marchant had an inflatable kayak stashed nearby, so I paddled some way up Stillwater River! Being mid May now, this was also the nearest place where I could recharge my solar panels – Caswell Sound Hut itself was too shady and sunlight was hard to come by in the steep fjords. Maybe that was why the Maori called Fiordland ‘Ata Whenua’ (Shadowland)? It certainly felt like it in winter! Overall, I actually preferred the autumn and winter months for kayaking, as the weather seemed more settled (less thermal activity) and there were fewer sandflies. The trade-off was that it was harder to dry things – with everything being slightly salty, it had to be plastic bagged after being dried near the fire if I wanted it to remain dry. Otherwise, it would literally be dripping wet again by morning!
During a one-day weather window, I reached George Sound and its hut in one long paddling day from Caswell Sound. This newer hut at George Sound felt luxurious: while it still had the old-style open fireplace, it was better insulated and hence warmer and less damp than Caswell Sound Hut. It also had the luxury of several hours of sunshine each day, best enjoyed from a folding chair on the helicopter pad by the sea shore! With cold temperatures, sandflies were less active and I enjoyed several books out of the hut library. I still had plenty of food and was looking forward to living here for a while. I went for a day hike up Mt. Henry, which I had climbed on my alpine traverse – it was great to re-connect with my previous journey! I also took time to visit nearby Lake Alice twice. There was a fibreglass canoe stashed in one of the bays, so it was great to paddle across the lake and up Edith River! These side trips really added another dimension to my coastal kayaking journey – it was great to explore some of the hinterland. After two weeks at George Sound, a coastal weather window presented itself that seemed too good to miss. I left reluctantly, and with very fond memories.
At Bligh Sound, I explored the Cave of the Hawea. This leaning rock shelter was where the Maori tribe of the Hawea took refuge after having been pursued and ousted from their pa on Spit Island in Preservation Inlet by the rivalling Ngai Tahu. The Hawea later faded away and became known as the Lost Tribe of Fiordland. It was harsh living down there. The rock shelter in Bligh Sound felt lonely, a sad place of times past. I camped on a beach near the mouth of the fjord instead.
After two days, I continued north. Swells were too big to enter Sutherland Sound, which had a shallow river bar guarding its entrance, so I continued north towards Milford. Abeam Poison Bay, winds picked up again. So close to Milford, I had to be patient yet again! Luckily, there was a hunters’ hut at Poison Bay which provided good shelter and a base to explore the land behind the bay. There was a lovely river lagoon to paddle in, and gold flakes in the stream. Unfortunately, they turned out to be fool’s gold!
After nine days at Poison Bay, and with two chapters left in my last book, I finally made Milford Sound. The date was 17th of June 2017, 18 paddling weeks after I had set out. Despite having visited Milford Sound on numerous occasions, I was yet again impressed by its sheer walls – they seemed even steeper when viewed from a kayak! I arrived late, so the next day I did more local paddling in the rain. I had a food drop stashed with Rosco’s Kayaks – thanks to their team for hosting me! As the long-range forecast looked unsuitable for the coast up to Jacksons Bay, I hitched a ride out to civilisation. I made good use of the week-long break by updating my advanced first aid qualification and even squeezed in a quick hike to Welcome Flats Hotpools on the West Coast. I also met Christan Long, the Beansprout family’s son from Gorge River where I would paddle past on my way from Milford Sound to Jacksons Bay. Christan shared information about coastal landing options and weather patterns, especially sea breezes. I had hiked much of that coastline before, so was
keen to catch up with Christan’s parents at Gorge River, and to finish my trip with takeaways at the Crayfish Pot in Jacksons Bay. Now Christan had to tell me that his parents were going to be away for a month and that the Crayfish Pot was closed for winter! Meanwhile, the weather forecast remained unsettled and no good for coastal kayaking. I had an offer to hitch a ride back to the southern fjords with the Sea-Finn, the charter boat I had met in Dusky Sound, on its last trip south for the season. As there were several historic sites I had missed on my through-paddle, I opted to return to the southern fjords, and saved the Milford to Jacksons section for another day.
Catching a ride with the Sea-Finn (many thanks, Chris!) was a decadent and fast way to travel down the outer coast. I arrived back in Dusky Sound on 1st of July 2017. It was great to enjoy another more leisurely exploration of the fjord, and to meet several local fishing crews! The Loyal and Apollo cray boats provided great company. I was clueless about crayfishing, so learning more and watching the flyouts of crays was intriguing. I also took some of my best wildlife photos during that time – it really pays not to rush! There were adorable seal pups at Luncheon Cove, kakapo on Anchor Island, and penguins in Breaksea Sound. Breaksea was sheltered enough to have some ice on it on the coldest mornings! I spent two and a half weeks around Dusky and Breaksea, and there were still things left to explore next time.
In mid-July, the crew of crayfishing boat Loyal kindly offered a ride down to Preservation Inlet – many thanks to Rodney, Levi and Jimmy! Landing in the dark with strong winds and side-on swells was a little adventurous. Gales then blew for a week, so I relaxed in the newly refurbished Landing Shed which now boasted a potbelly stove – especially nice in winter! There was good local hiking to the lighthouse and Sealers Beaches, and I finally managed to find the old coal mine nearby. When the weather calmed down, I relocated further up the inlet to be closer to its many islands and sea caves. During a five-day weather window, ocean swells finally subsided enough so that I was able to visit the sea caves I had missed on my previous visit. Of special note was Tarewai’s Cave on Cavern Head, which was where a Ngai Tahu chief was rumoured to have died after the first battle with the Hawea tribe on Spit Island. It felt special to be allowed to visit here, nature finally consenting to grant passage, after spending months in Fiordland. It completed the stories of Spit Island and the Cave of the Hawea in Bligh Sound, both of which I had visited on my through-paddle.
In Preservation, I also found an awesome multi-branched cave with Maori midden on Cording Islands, and visited Prices Beach with its old grave near Gulches Head. The new caretakers of Kisbee Lodge, Tracie and Ralph, were ‘neighbours’ and great company, and I met the crews of the charter vessels Affinity and the large Milford Wanderer. There were also the cray boats Maverick, Diomedia and Glory Days. Fiordland is vast and lonely, but it can also be surprisingly social. I loved it!
Towards mid-August, it was time to leave before the arrival of the spring storms (and time to replenish the fun funds, alas). I was lucky to catch a ride with the Loyal again – many thanks to Rodney, Levi and Bradyn! The Loyal was the last cray boat to leave Fiordland while cray prices had temporarily slumped. It only took a day back to Bluff, which was much faster than the three weeks it had taken me the first time! It felt very strange to be back on land that night – in fact, the ground was heaving with a steady two to three metre swell! This faded to half a metre by next morning and then gradually disappeared altogether. Strange what it’s possible to miss!
My Fiordland sea kayak journey was a phenomenal adventure, and I feel very privileged to have been able to spend so much time exploring Fiordland’s natural beauty and fascinating historic sites - and to meet its people! I kayaked from Te WaeWae Bay on the South Coast all the way to Milford Sound, the northernmost fjord, over four and a half months. I then added another one and a half months of local paddling and exploration in the southern fjords. Six months is the longest time anyone has spent kayaking the fjords... since the early Maori, who of course lived there! But then, six months isn’t really that long in the big scheme of things. Can’t wait to go back... I already have ideas for future journeys!
Tweedy Club on Secretary Island Doubtful Sound: Stunning views of the fjords can be obtained from above bushline. Pictured here is a member of the ‘Tweedy Club’, four paddlers who I met in Doubtful Sound, looking east towards the Fiordland mountains. Steep trap line tracks on Secretary Island can be followed up from Gut Hut and lead to this stunning viewpoint.
Clockwise from top left: The critically endangered native kakapo can still be found on Anchor Island - Stirling Falls Milford Sound - The old mines at Wilson River - The Sealers Beaches where lighthouse keepers etched their names in the rocks. The earliest entry I found was 1894!
Clockwise from top left: Food tally at George Sound Hut with just over 1 ½ months of food. - The historic Landing Shed in Preservation Inlet was once the landing place for the lighthouse keepers’ settlement on nearby Puysegur Point.- Andrewburn Sea Cave South Coast - In the alpine tussocklands of Secretary Island, Doubtful Sound. It felt great to be able to stretch the legs! - Finished. Taken the evening I arrived at Milford Sound.