Sea kayaking in Doubtful Sound  

So many people told us that we should go to Doubtful Sound to experience the quiet and serenity of Fiordland's second largest fiord that, despite a return to bleaker weather, we decided to go there after doing the Milford Track. The Maori name for this body of water is Patea, "place of silence", so sea-kayaking seemed the way to go; the gentle splash of a paddle seeming more appropriate to such a location than the rumble of a cruise boat motor.

Dawn over Lake Manapouri

Hence, despite my usual misgivings about group activities, we found ourselves skimming across the cold grey waters of Lake Manapouri just after sunrise on an overcast day, with Reg, the driver, Katie, our kayak guide and 7 others, heading for the western arm of the lake and a 22 km road link over a 600m pass to Deep Cove, the starting point for trips on Doubtful Sound. It is this degree of isolation that helps maintain the serenity of the fiord. The dense fog clinging to the mountains and the pass around the Sound isolated it from us for just that little bit longer.

All ready to go

Once at Deep Cove, we changed into our wet-suits and kayaking gear and boarded a second boat which would carry us and our kayaks out from the cove and up the long Malaspina Reach. The kayaking company keep a constant check on the weather and the start point is decided on the day to ensure a tail wind rather than a headwind and maximise the enjoyment of paddling. It gave us a chance to take in this deep narrow body of water with its steep walls disappearing into the mist and cloud and long side arms cutting deeply into mountainous wilderness beyond.

At last on the water, we received our final instructions from Katie, our guide, and our little flotilla of five double kayaks set off, the wind at our backs, towards Fergusson Island in the middle of the reach. It was a curious feeling; so much rain falls on and pours off the steep sides into the fiord that we were actually paddling on a layer of fresh water floating on the sea.

The interface of sea and salt several metres below us created a reflective lens that, combined with the tannins washed down, gave the water a black appearance despite its clarity. Coupled with the low light and cloud, Doubtful Sound had a very mysterious and otherworldly mood.

Heading off down misty Malaspina Reach

We rounded the rocky shores of the island. Across the water, the long silver stream of Browne Falls tumbled out of the clouds from its source at Lake Browne 800m above us. As we left the island the wind picked up and, with the waves building up from behind, we found ourselves surfing the odd wave - interestingly, we had less control of the kayaks with a strong wind at our backs than when we were pushing into a strong headwind and crashing into big waves at Abel Tasman. Katie led us quickly across to the more sheltered waters on the southern side of the Malaspina Reach. A distant vertical spray of water signalled the presence of a pod of bottle-nosed dolphins. We stopped and waited as they looped gracefully towards us, disappeared under our kayaks and resumed their looping journey behind us; they were obviously on a mission and did not plan to stop for our amusement.

Mist-shrouded gully

Heading for a hot soup stop

A bit of perspective

Katie led us around into the Hall Arm of the Sound, where Reg and the boat were waiting for us in a quiet cove. After a stop for hot soup and lunch, we set out to explore this secluded and protected arm. It was a magical place, the water became calmer and more limpid as we headed further up the arm. The 600m sheer rock cliff of Commander Peak rose out of the water above us, its top another 650m beyond that in the clouds.

Sheer face of Commander Peak and
the Hall Arm

Looking up the Hall Arm towards cloud-covered Mt Danae

The serenity of Doubtful Sound

Sheer walls and waterfalls

We passed several areas where recent tree avalanches had created long, narrow gashes in the vegetation on the steep walls and others where mosses and ferns were starting to recolonise the bare rock of old avalanche scars and continue the cycle. Waterfalls tumbled down the sides and the inky blackness of the water made it seem almost surreal.

The best moment though was just stopping in the middle of the deep and still waters of the Hall Arm to breathe in the silence of Doubtful Sound, as one of the kayaks disappeared out of earshot further on (see below for explanation) - it was like being in Nature's Cathedral for a brief moment.

Heading up the Hall Arm

The dark limpid waters of the Sound
  • We had not been kayaking for long before I realised why I don't generally like to go on group tours - you cannot choose your companions and, humanity being what it is, the chances of encountering someone who can diminish the experience seem high. We had a great guide and five pleasant companions, but within a few minutes of setting out in our kayaks, the other two (a pair of wise-cracking Belgian blokes) started what was to be a day-long of loud singing - one or two songs would have been fine, Doubtful Sound is a place that can bring joy to the soul, but even if it were Andrea Boccelli, we would have expected him to stop at some stage. Not for our poor group; this was to be the pattern of the day; despite requests to the contrary, we suffered a constant outpouring of songs as inappropriate as "Oh my darling Clementine" and "Hang down your head Tom Dooley" in a place that people go to to feel the silence and tranquility. Sorry guys, I generally don't bag people, but your disrespect for the spirit of Patea and the disrespect shown to our guide and other kayakers, makes you the first to get such a mention in a trip write-up. Katie, I greatly admired the professionalism and restraint with which you dealt with these turkeys.

  • Sing a little, laugh a little, talk a little, but if you come to Doubtful Sound, take the time to be still and soak up the serenity of this magical place. Enough said!

A final look back at Deep Cove

It was a long day, but it passed too quickly and soon we were loading our kayaks back on the boat, ready to retrace our track back to Lake Manapouri. The cloud had slowly lifted over the day, finally giving us a great parting view of Deep Cove from the saddle and creating a superb grey-on-grey panorama of Lake Manapouri and its mountainous backdrop, as we skimmed back home at the end of the day. Thanks, Katie and Reg, for a great introduction to a special part of the world.

Grey is beautiful - Lake Manapouri and the Cathedral Peaks