Fun in the Fiordlands


The last adventure, "check!" I ventured to the southwestern-most part of the South Island to the fiordlands. This is one of the largest national parks in the world, approximately the same size as Wales.

Another scale reference is that it's the size of both Yellowstone National Park and Yosemite National Park, combined.

Refresher: What's a Fjord?

My summary: A fjord is created when glacial melt cuts into rock, creating deep, narrow inlets, with water emptying into the sea.

From Wikipedia: A fjord is formed when a glacier cuts a U-shaped valley by ice segregation and abrasion of the surrounding bedrock. Glacial melting is accompanied by the rebounding of Earth's crust as the ice load and eroded sediment is removed

By Ulamm - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,
By Ulamm - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

When Captain Cook discovered this area in 1773, he didn't want to go up further to explore more, for the unknown was too risky. With his immediate view, he only assumed it was a Sound, which is characterized as being wider and more shallow than a fjord. However, that name stuck despite its geographical inaccuracy.


Milford Sound & Doubtful Sound

There are two main "Sounds" in the fiordlands: Milford Sound and Doubtful Sound. the latter being larger, harder to get to, and thereby less touritsy, which is the one I opted for. I chose to do a two-night kayaking overnighter with camping.

However, I was a little bit unprepared as I didn't realize I needed to bring my own food until 9 PM the night before the early morning departure.  I barely catch the tiny town outpost's general store before it closes at the late hour of 7 pm. To call it a "general store" is being generous. It also featured the town's post office, which really consisted of a row of mailboxes set on the outside of the general store's brick exterior.

I basically pick up canned tuna, crackers, and chocolate to sustain me for a couple of days. Good luck to me, right?

The Manapouri General Store
The Manapouri General Store

Getting Started

After two hours of traveling (1 hour across the lake, and 1 hour by bus over the Wilmot Pass), we arrived at Deep Creek, the launching point into Doubtful Sound. It was overcast, chilly, and windy. I knew that my luck with the remarkably good weather was to eventually run out, so this was it. I was bummed, but still had a grateful attitude for being able to explore Doubtful Sound in these conditions as opposed to a torrential downpour.

"Shoo, Sandfly, shoo!"

From the moment when I set foot off the bus, I continuously slapped myself -- my face, my arms, my legs -- because the sandflies were relentless. Sandflies are basically New Zealand's version of mosquitos. A "shoo!" wave does not suffice, so the relief is to obliterate it with a "smack." You should see may ankles from over the course of this trip, it looks as if I am recovering from Chicken Pox. I generously spray myself with bug spray as if is perfume, but it doesn't work. The species must have built up tolerance for Deet. Rather, it's the ritual I'm going for, hoping that performs some miracle. (Never worked).

My faux pas

My guide Blake, two others, plus me made up a group of four. We circle up to prepare our camping gear. Blake questions,

"What do you all want to do about tents?"

Without skipping a beat, I blurt out,

"I'd like my own tent."

Wait! What? Did I just come off as high-maintenance? I caught myself in this moment and wondered if I've turned into the fiancee from Parent Trap -- the antagonist of the story. I recall the scene where they are about to go camping and the soon-to-be-Stepmom is making a scene about everything she needs for the camping experience.

parent trap

Whups!! I don't know if I can recover from this, as the rest of the group voices an indifferent preference. So my guide declares, "ok, two tents it is." At that point, I assume I got outvoted, but I can't help but wonder -- is it going to be 2-and-2? or 3-and-1? I definitely did not want to ask to clarify in an attempt to eliminate my budding high-maintenance status. I just rolled with it, being perfectly fine if it ends up 2 to a tent!

Emergency Procedures

We packed everything tightly into waterproof bags and loaded up the two kayaks between the four of us. Blake went over exhaustive emergency procedures, more so due to the exceptionally windy conditions on the horizon. This has me concerned. I don't want to spend the time fighting against winds and falling into the water.

And we're off.

After about an hour of kayaking, we stopped at a small island to take a break and chart our next course -- whether to turn into a cove or keep paddling forward. The waters are very choppy and the wind has picked up considerably. My arms are tired and my seating position is cramped. I'm a bit over this already. Four more hours of this? I'm not so sure about this anymore.

"This doesn't look too good."

During this brief period of rest, Blake looks yonder and noticed whitecaps. He pauses for a minute and says, "this doesn't look good. We might need to turn back. If we do it now, we can catch the Cruise and still get a full tour of Doubtful Sound."

"this doesn't look good. We might need to turn back. If we do it now, we can catch the Cruise and still get a full tour of Doubtful Sound."


I excitedly shout in my head:

"Wait! There's a CRUISE option? YES! Let's go! I want to do that!"

Blake looks to the group for feedback: Of course, I blurt out first, chiming in cooly,

"I'm flexible, Blake. I'll defer to your judgment."

My forced relaxed tone is in attempt to project an image of go-with-the-flow-ness to recover from my earlier gaffe. 

Blake announces,

"Yeah. Let's paddle back. And hurry. We have an hour to make it."

I paddled with all my might. This was, in CrossFit (and all sports!) lingo: "an all-out effort" paddle. We paddled against a strong current and I thought we were going to tip over a couple of times. But we barely make it back. Blake announces we have 12 minutes to spare. I'm about to go change out of my wetsuit when Blake directs us to move the kayaks out of the water.

Of course! Duh!

I turned around, pretending that I wasn't really going anywhere.

We basically did a team "deadlift" + walk up a ramp incline. If there is such a thing as a deadlift walk, that was it. It was hard y'all! Heavy stuff in that kayak!

When we finally finish, I'm ready to bust out of that wetsuit and change for the leisurely cruise, however, my glee is halted when Blake announces that we have no time to change and we're getting on that Cruise in our wetsuits.

I clarify to Blake -- New Zealand accent y'all, I can't understand everything! --

"So we wear our wetsuits on the boat?"


"Kay." I respond with feigned approval. I think it's working. I'm probably seeming less high-maintenance by now. Or at least I think so.

All Aboard!

We board the Cruise with about 200 other casually-dressed tourists. Thanks to the wetsuits' low inseam, I waddle and feel like a penguin. Despite this slight discomfort, I still smile and delight in the notion that I'll be warm and dry on this boat cruise and I'll get to see much more of Doubtful Sound than on kayak alone. Blake soon informs us that we'll instead stay in a Hostel at the Deep Creek base camp and paddle out in the morning. This Plan B sure ROCKS! I get all of the experience of the Doubtful Sound

(Short) Long Cruise

For Camp Seafarer folk reading this, I definitely felt like I was on the Joy Boy Long Cruise. Same style of boat. Just awesome -- the cruise was fantastic! We cruised all the way to the 'end' of the fjord with stunning vistas all the way to the Tasman Sea. The high winds were bringing in a front and along with it, some clearing skies. We got to see a colony of seals and the boat captain announces that they'd never gotten this close to the seals, for they are usually hiding or on the other side of the rocks (inaccessible to the boat). To our benefit, the seals were shielding themselves against the high winds on the rock face that was on "our side." Opportune timing for this cruise!


The Next Morning

Slept 10 hours in my "own" room of the Hostel! (Yay!) However, I wake up to rain. Dammit, I think to myself. I quickly course-corrected my frame of mind in realizing that it's much better to have awoken in the hostel than a tent in the rain. I reflect on my gratitude for being able to have seen Doubtful Sound the day prior while it was not raining. Now this morning is about fitness -- paddling, so yay!

By the time we finish up breakfast and set the kayaks out on the water, the rain stops. I see a few breaks in the clouds. I can't believe my luck -- yet again, the weather gods grace me.

Within a couple hours of paddling, the clouds are gone and the sun is blinding. Not a cloud in the sky! It's beautiful here in Doubtful Sound! We are all giddy with excitement -- we have experienced the full spectrum of weather in Doubtful Sound, from the ominous low-clouds to the clear blue skies. See this picture below, for a side-by-side comparison taken 36 hours apart: on my journey in, and on my return home.


Tree Avalanche

We set out to paddle, this time at a much more leisurely pace and Blake is markedly more relaxed. He spends more time educating us on the ecology. In the picture to the right, do you see the "triangle" of rocks? That's the result of a "tree avalanche." These trees grow and attach its roots ON the rock. There is no soil in the fiordlands. These ferns and trees are made possible from the sphagnum moss. This kind of moss can hold up to 24 times its bodyweight in water. However when there is a drought (as marked by 5-7 days of no rain) and it rains, the moss is overwhelmed with water and washes off the rock face, taking one of the tree roots with it. This creates a chain-reaction of trees falling down, taking other trees in its path, creating this triangle.

Close-up to show how the trees and plants are spread along the rocks, gripping onto the moss.
Close-up to show how the trees and plants are spread along the rocks, gripping onto the moss.

What a cool experience that was! It was a great way to conclude my New Zealand adventures!

In closing

Thank you to all who read and followed along with this blog. Your comments were encouraging and inspired me to keep writing. It definitely gave me that creative outlet on this trip, so thank YOU!

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