At over 1.2 million hectares in size, Fiordland National Park is by far the largest national park in New Zealand. It’s beautiful, dramatic and the epitome of the great outdoors. There is so much to see and do in the park, that you could easily spend the entire length of your vacation in and around the area. One of the highlights of our trip to the South Island’s majestic park was a kayaking adventure in Doubtful Sound.
Doubtful Sound is the second largest of the 14 fiords in Fiordland National Park, but much less visited because of the extra effort it takes to get there. If you are travelling in the region you will likely be heading to the more touristy sister sound – Milford. Doubtful is triple the length of Milford and is ten times larger than Milford. As Milford is the only sound that is accessible by road – it is therefore the busiest. This is part of what I think makes Doubtful so special. The experience feels more secluded and authentic – especially on our trip out, as we hardly saw anyone else out on the water.
You will find that there is no shortage of companies ready to take you out to explore these great outdoors. We enlisted the help of Doubtful Sound Kayak and had a fantastic day out. Doubtful Sound Kayak is a small, family run company that focuses on trips out with smaller groups all while being guided by a kayak nature guide. I prefer to avoid the massive tourist crowds on adventures like these as sometime you just want to freely navigate the world around you. Another reason why we chose this company is because they offer the longest days out on the water. That means maximum amount of kayaking and exploring the gorgeous sounds.
Here’s a snapshot of a day out on Doubtful Sound.
A full day kayaking on Doubtful Sound means an early wake up call, but trust me – it’s worth it. The group meets at the Doubtful Sound Kayak office in the town of Te Anau at 6:30am. After completing the standard paperwork and sipping on a hot cuppa, the vans are loaded and you are off to Pearl Harbour in the town of Manapouri.
The adventure continues with a 30-km cruise across one of New Zealand’s most beautiful lakes – Lake Manapouri. As you navigate the waters you will see the numerous sandy beaches, islands and mountain vistas that make this lake so beloved. The boat continues past the West Arm Power Station – the largest underground power station in the southern hemisphere and docks at the West Arm Visitor Centre. The center itself was quite interesting as it actually had small exhibits inside that gave a bit of history on the area and more specifically how fiords are created.
It’s here at the Visitor Center that you will put on your long johns, wet suits and kayaking jackets. All the gear is provided by Doubtful Sound Kayaks. Word of advice – be sure to bring along a hat and sunscreen, oh – and bug spray to combat the pesky sand flies. Once you are kitted out in your gear, you will be transported 22-km to Deep Cove.
The ride is quite scenic and passes over the Wilmot Pass Road – 670m above sea level. Take the opportunity to hop out when the driver stops – if you have a clear day you can get some great shots of waterfalls and of course the sound from above. The weather was moody on our day out so we didn’t get a clear view until we were much closer to the cove.
After a quick kayak tutorial from our guide Cloudi, we hopped into our double kayak and started paddling away from Deep Cove.
While paddling out on the peaceful waters, Cloudi took the opportunity share with us history about the sounds, pointed out the different types of prehistoric flora gripping the sides of the steep sides, and helped us keep an eye on the wildlife. Except for a couple boats returning from their overnight tours of the sounds, we had the whole place to ourselves. You could hear the echo of splashing water ricocheting off the surrounding mountains every time the oars hit the water.
We navigated the waters towards Doubtful Sound’s Hall Arm and hopped back on the boat to have lunch under Commander Peak.
After lunch and another warm cuppa, you’ll hop back into your kayak and make your way into Hall Arm. This part of the sound is super scenic and quite sheltered. It means that in addition to being able to head further through the sounds, the waters are relatively calm and safe for most kayakers to navigate.
Navigating through Hall Arm gives you the opportunity to get closer to the rock cliffs and see more of the waterfalls up close. The shorelines of Hall Arm are also fun to explore as the visibility increases in shallower waters revealing submerged rocks and trees. Like many of the fiords in the area, there are two distinct layers of water in the Fiord – a warm layer of salt water deep below and tannic fresh water above.
The tannins in the water throughout the fiord make it very difficult to see anything that might be swimming below. Penguins, fur seals, bottlenose dolphins and orcas and said to frequent these waters. Hoping for the latter, our day out only gave us the former. This is what makes any animal related adventure great – you aren’t guaranteed to see anything and it makes it more special when you do. Hopefully you will be luckier than us and get to encounter a larger variety of animals swimming alongside your kayak.
After kayaking a solid 5 hours your boat made its way out to you and picked you up deep in Hall Arm. It’s this water taxi that allows you to maximize your time on the water. There are other tours where you kayak out and must kayak back. It means that you will spend half of your journey on the water backtracking to return to the starting point. This is not the case with Doubtful Sound Kayak. You’ll put on your warm clothes on the boat and made your way back through the waters to Deep Cove. Yes – you’ll still need make the journey back to Te Anau, but you will do so remembering your fantastic day out. 15km+ of kayaking is an awesome workout. You’ll be back by 5:30pm and have just enough time for a hot shower and an early dinner before heading off to sleep.
Fiordland National Park offers plenty for the adventure traveler – including fiords galore. Do what all the guide books say and take a visit to Milford Sound. We did and it was great. Check out Destinations // Milford Sound for more information on how to spend your day out there. If you are looking for a less touristy and more authentic sound experience, get to Doubtful Sound. The extra steps it takes to get to the sound is why most tourists only make their way to Milford Sound. Having been to both, I can say the contrast is fantastic – be sure to make the extra trip to get both perspectives.
For Doubtful Sound Kayak’s availability and booking details be sure to check out their website HERE.