Fiordland Ad­ven­ture Sea Kayak­ing

Adventure - - Fiordland Adventure - By Har­ri­ette Beikirch

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.

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