TE ANAU, NEW ZEALAND — As much as the hiking gods have frowned on us, the kayaking gods have smiled on us.
It takes a while to get to Doubtful Sound, which is three times longer than Milford Sound and 10 times as big. The fiord got its name in 1770 because Captain Cook, looking at its narrow mouth, didn’t think he’d be able to turn around and sail out if he went in, though he was mistaken — even whales sometimes go into Doubtful Sound.
The Go Orange bus picked us up at our motel at 6:30 a.m. and drove us to the landing in nearby Manapouri. From there, it took an hour by water taxi to get across Lake Manapouri, and another hour by bus to get across the Wilmot Pass to Deep Cove, on the inland edge of Doubtful Sound.
The road is only there because of the massive underground hydroelectric station at the west end of Lake Manapouri. To build it, 1.4 million tons of rock had to be moved, and engineers decided to bring in equipment via the ocean rather than land.
Most people get on cruise boats in Deep Cove. We got into kayaks with six other people and our guide, Lisa, a sturdy young woman of Maori descent who looked as if she’d been born with a paddle in her hand but grew up on a farm on the North Island and took a course in adventure tourism, like most guides.
Our group included two young Australian women, a young German couple and two English men, one of whom had recently moved to Melbourne because it was “like England, except with sun and optimism.”
We pushed off in a light rain, which is normal for Doubtful Sound — it’s one of the wettest places on Earth, with 22 feet of precipitation per year. But like magic, the sun soon came out.
We wished our heads could swivel like an owl’s, because the scenery was breaktaking. As in Milford Sound, the mountains rise straight out of the water, with peaks like a jagged row of shark’s teeth and clouds hanging in the gaps. Waterfalls tumble down the rock from glacial lakes, some actually falling but most threading their way across the rock as vertical rivers.
We did notice one big difference between Doubtful and Milford: the silence. There were no planes or helicopters buzzing overhead, and just a few cruise boats in the afternoon.
Our kayaks were fiberglass this time, not plastic tubs, but they still weren’t fast enough to take us beyond Hall Arm, the first of five twisting passages off the main fiord. But Lisa assured us it was the prettiest part, with its views of Helena and Browne falls and Commander Peak looming alongside it.
How tall is Commander Peak, she asked? Guesses ranged from 300 to 800 meters except for Torsten (of course), who came closest with a guess of 1,120. Correct answer: 1,274 meters, or 4,180 feet.
We ate lunch on a rocky beach at the end of Hall Arm, where we counted 12 waterfalls. We also noticed a conspicuous crack, which Lisa confirmed is the fault line between the Pacific and Australian plates and was caused by an earthquake so powerful that it split the mountain nearly in two. We were paddling right on top of one of the world’s most active fault lines.
After lunch and some sightseeing, we paddled toward our campsite. Once we landed, we kicked into high gear, dragging our kayaks under a canopy, putting up our tents, changing out of wet gear and scooting into a screened gazebo with our food sacks, as fast as we could.
Why the hurry? Biting sandflies, which do their best to ruin paradise. For those of us who are used to mosquitoes, they’re diabolically anonymous, silently appearing out of nowhere, with no apparent wings or legs, showing up as just a small black smudge if you happen to slap one biting your flesh.
Unlike mosquitoes, they can lay their larvae in rushing water. They’re happy to bite you out in the open on a hot, sunny day, as well as the shade at dusk, and they sneak into houses and onto buses and water taxis so they can bite you there. But just like mosquitoes, their bites itch like hell.
They were at our campsite by the thousands, covering the screens behind our heads, and a few dozen came with us into the gazebo and our tents, where we slapped like mad. In the morning, Lisa woke us up at 6 a.m., hoping for an 8 a.m departure, and thanks to the sandflies, we did the same speeded-up routine in reverse and were on the water in record time.
The sun was still behind the peaks, but a few rays were slanting through the gaps, and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky.
“You’ll see a big, bright ball of fire in the sky when you round that corner,” Lisa joked. “You won’t recognize it, but don’t be scared.” Like our Milford guide, she’d been guiding for four years and did it well, but she was casual and seemed happy-go-lucky, laughing often and telling us stories about the wilderness exploits of her crazy guide friends, two of whom climbed Commander Peak in one afternoon wearing flip-flops.
She was happy to let us set the pace and often trailed behind. On our second day, she took us close to shore to pick berries off low-hanging fuchsia-tree branches. The berries look like skinny purple jelly beans, and they taste a little like grapes.
Instead of heading straight back to our landing, we paddled around Elizabeth Island. In one cove, we had fun watching a female paradise shelduck chewing out her mate in a high-pitched quack, as he hung his head and replied with an aggrieved lower-pitched quack.
It was so obviously a marital disagreement — shelducks mate for life — that it was comical. In the end, he and she stomped off to opposite ends of the cove in a huff.
We didn’t see any penguins, or fur seals, and all we saw of dolphins were their fins, speeding past in the wake of a cruise boat. But it was a peaceful way to spend a couple of days — except when the sandflies were nipping at our heels, of course.
Back in Te Anau, we cleaned up at the public showers and drove to Invercargill, where we checked into Leah and Tim’s Airbnb a block from the Colonial on Tay. Then we treated ourselves to dinner at the Bombay Palace — lamb pasanda and a pale ale for Beth, lamb tikka masala and a mango lassi for Torsten, plus an addictive Kashmiri naan stuffed with nuts, fruits and coconut. Delicious!