Exploring the New Zealand Fiordland

By Chris Ord 1 September 2014
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New Zealand’s mighty southern fjords are great places to paddle, offering everything from big sea adventures to flatwater forays, all with spectacular mountain backdrops

THERE’S AN EASY WAY to paddle Fiordland, and there’s a hard way.

Easy: take a tour. Numerous tour operators host jaw-droppingly good kayak journeys suitable for everyone from novices to experienced paddlers.

Hard: choose a major fjord to explore and plot your own adventure.

Much, much harder: paddle the entire coastline, shimmying up each fjord as you head north, camping at isolated beaches and sheltered inlets that will make you swoon with a love for wild places.

In 2008, Israeli kayaker Misha Hoichman did it the most taxing way. He paddled the length of Fiordland, from southern Te Waewae Bay, west of Invercargill, all the way north to Milford Sound, the crowning attraction as far as big-walled fjords go.

His 600km paddle included a stretch of coastline often belted by the infamous Roaring Forties gale-force winds. As a solo undertaking, it was risky business that promised high adventure.

Misha writes of how the land and seascape seeped into his being as he soaked it up from the low-slung perspective of his kayak:

“It was scary and so wonderful at the same time…I was fully struck by the beauty of the big seas. The water mountains that surrounded me, jumping, running, changing, breaking, furious, noble – they were absolutely stunning. I felt the soul of the big ocean as it hosted me, allowed me to be in it. You just have to be there to understand.”

Misha’s sense of awe and isolation is understandable: Fiordland has never been permanently inhabited for any significant length of time – even Maori communities only dabbled with the idea of calling it home. This makes it is one of the most unspoilt patches of wilderness on the planet.

Today, Fiordland National Park covers 12,120sq.km, is the largest national park in New Zealand and one of the largest in the world. It’s also part of the Te Wahipounamu World Heritage Area.

Travel like indigenous hunters in Fiordland

“It’s like kayaking on a journey of creation,” says Fi Lee, manager of Sea Kayak Fiordland. “The most fantastic thing is that there is plenty of diversity from one fjord to the next. In terms of the landscape, the complexity of the fjords vary significantly: as you paddle north they get steeper and straighter.”

The iconic Mitre Peak in Milford Sound – one of the most photographed peaks in the country – shoots down 1692m, diving into the tannin-dark waters. It then plunges a further 300m into the depths of the glacially carved, U-shaped valleys that rising seas have filled over hundreds of thousands of years. Fiordland National Park also boasts some of New Zealand’s tallest waterfalls, Sutherland Falls and Lady Bowen Falls.

”Then there are temperate rainforests that adorn the vertical cliffs. You can paddle past and hear and feel the forest, unlike fjords found on northern continents,” says Fi, who has spent the past 12 years guiding in the region.

Fi says most paddling tours explore the more sheltered sections of famous areas such as Milford and Doubtful sounds, there is plenty more to attract the self-sufficient paddler.

“One expedition that sticks in my memory is a 10-week trip I did starting at the bottom of Fiordland at Puysegur Point and finishing in Milford Sound. We took all our own food, a rifle to hunt the deer and fished every day. We ate berries from the bush and very much felt a part of the landscape.

“Kayaking is like backpacking on the water and you can easily get into areas that are not easily accessible and you learn to travel like indigenous hunters from times long past, looking for food, water, a good place to land and a dry campsite.”

Fiordland’s immense presence

Alistair Child has spent more than 40 years living and working in the region as a fisherman, diver, researcher and artist (with the odd recreational paddle thrown in). He knows its character and moods well.

“Fiordland has an immense presence,” says Alistair. “At times it can be dark and foreboding, but it is always beautiful and changing and it draws you into its folds: its big valleys, huge snow-capped mountains, and deep and dark waters.”

He believes the attraction for kayakers – beyond the visual splendour of the big mountains – is the ability to be “intimately close to its nature”.
“Nothing prepares you – no photos or video – for actually being there. It is hard to put into words, but a kayaker can nudge their bow against a soaring rock wall and touch it, and be unnerved by the knowledge that there’s still another 300m disappearing into the depths below. It’s an up close and very moving experience.”

Fiordland is famous both for its beauty (Rudyard Kipling described Milford Sound as the “eighth wonder of the world”) and its extreme weather, with an annual rainfall of almost 6.5m. New Zealand naturalist Richard Henry observed that Fiordland was “fine country for a waterproof explorer or prospector”.

Alistair, a hobby photographer whose favourite time to capture the perfect shot is when it’s raining, says the rough weather is part of Fiordland’s charm. “The weather makes the place what it is. When it’s raining heavily and storming, it’s mind-boggling to watch it all happening around you. A bit of rain and mist amongst secretive valleys adds mystique to the place.

“A lot of people say: ‘Oh, it’s wet in Milford today, let’s not go.’ They probably miss out on one of the best days of their lives.”

Australian adventurer John Jacoby – four-time world champion marathon kayaker – agrees that “sea kayaking is a great activity to do in the rain”.

John has done several trips in Fiordland and on his last one in 2012 – an 11-day paddle from Tuatapere to Jackson Bay – he scored unusually good weather. But, he says: “I’ve heard a tale of one sea kayak trip where a paddler got held up at Puysegur Point for 10 days when the wind speed did not drop below 80 knots!”

John loved the journey’s contrasts. “I was attracted by the committing nature of the paddle, the rawness of the ocean, yet also the protection and beauty of the fjords themselves,” he says. “One minute you can be paddling in 25- to 30-knot winds and five-plus metres of swell and then all of a sudden you enter a fjord and the wind backs off and the swell disappears and you can relax!”

Tempestuous Fiordland weather

It’s a tempestuous environment to operate in. Fi guides hundreds of kayaking trips every year and, for paddlers headed to Fiordland on independent journeys, she advises caution.

“There is a profound difference between the inner fjords and the outer coast. The Fiordland outer coast and fjord entrances are really dynamic and should only be attempted by experienced paddlers as there are limited landing opportunities and the southern coastal swells punch into the steep coastline. Often you are paddling a long way offshore to escape the steep pitch of the swells as they bounce off the walls.

“The weather changes really quickly and can be unforgiving, and the isolation means you should talk to the locals about where you wish to paddle.”

Recalling his big paddle up the coast, Misha also warns about the extreme conditions, especially outside the sanctuary of the fjords.

“One must be a very skilled kayaker to paddle Fiordland outside the fjords. It requires careful planning and reliable forecasts as the weather deteriorates very quickly.”

In the 13 days it took Misha to paddle from Te Waewae Bay to Milford Sound, he experienced three storms with winds gusting above 40 knots.

“One day I was struck by 65 knots wind on the shore. The sticker of my paddle turned white as it was polished by the wind-blown sand. The whole night I was supporting my bomb-proof four-season tent from inside by laying on my back and pushing my feet against bending tent poles.

“In my normal life I am an atheist, but there in Fiordland I recalled the line: ‘There are no atheists in foxholes’. The mixture of constant tension and the beauty of the big seas and big-walled fjords was a sacred experience.”

The essentials

Park information including map links: http://www.doc.govt.nz/parks-and-recreation/national-parks/fiordland/activities/kayaking-in-fiordland

Contact: Fiordland National Park Visitor Center, Te Anau, +64 3 249 7924.

Comfort note: Sandflies are abundant and ravenous in Fiordland. Use a DEET-based repellent and wear long sleeves, pants, hat and a head net if possible.

Kayak Tours: seakayakfiordland.co.nz

Online: www.fiordland.org.nz; www.fiordlandlocalnz.com-

Read: Obscured by Waves, Paul Caffyn, 2005, Kayak Dundee Press;

The Fjords of Fiordland, John Hall-Jones, 2002, Craigs Design & Print.


Top 5 Fiordland kayaking adventures

Kayak guide Fi Lee selects her favourites:

1. Milford Sound – gives you a taste of Fiordland if you only have a quick visit.

2. Doubtful Sound – despite the limited accessibility, a two-day trip will give you a fair taste of the remoteness and splendour; for the more adventurous, I wouldn’t go past a five-day trip to explore the complex fjord system and to really experience what Fiordland is all about.

3. Dusky Sound – a six-day trip into this fjord with its many islands, exposed coastal areas and the intimacy of the steep walls: it’s a paddler’s gem and cloaked in history.

4. Lake Manapouri – three-day trip to this place affectionately known as “the Mediterranean of the south”, with its sandy beaches and fewer sandflies. It is a brilliant place to explore with the family.

5. North Mavora Lake – paddle and camp on the lake’s edge. Easily accessible by road, this area allows for a neat adventure as you meander down a slow-moving river between North Mavora Lake and South Mavora Lake. Sense a feeling of remoteness and openness that you only get on the northern boundary of the region.