Kayaking in Fiordland

One intrepid reporter explores the foot of New Zealand's South Island the Maori God way

Feature by Ally Brown | 05 Apr 2012

The South Island of New Zealand is a canoe. That won't come as a surprise to all of you who know that the North Island is a stingray, but I was ignorant, so it was news to me. Captain Cook was the first westemer to land on and to circumnavigate the islands in 1769, but native Maoris had already circumnavigated the North Island, on canoes, and found that it was a giant stingray. When the South Island was found to have the shape of a 500 mile-long canoe, the conclusion presented itself: Maori god Maui had fished the North Island from the sea while on his South Island canoe. And if Maori gods can suffice with canoes, I certainly didn't need an air-conditioned luxury catamaran.

A million tourists every year visit Milford Sound in Fiordland, south-west New Zealand, almost all on air-conditioned luxury catamaran cruises. But I thought kayaking would allow for a slower and closer look at the scenery, and – in the more remote Doubtful Sound – allow for a brief eschewal of modernity, a retreat to a timeless world.

Unfortunately, in the timeful world, the three hours taken to get to Doubtful Sound necessitated a 5am alarm call, an unnatural o'clock to wake for anyone not being paid for the sacrifice. But all early Monday fug was swept from my mood on sighting Doubtful Sound for the first time: as if in a fairytale illustration, snaking into the distance, with steep mountainsides cutting into both sides and a thin layer of morning cloud hovering above it.

For the first of two days on Doubtful Sound we were blessed with perfect conditions: no wind and no clouds. With our guide KT, we skimmed along the immaculate surface, enjoying the serenity of remoteness, and gazing at the kilometre-high mountains rising above us. Despite their steepness, these mountainsides are covered by thick rainforest, because moss can grow in the cracks and provide up to a foot of soil, enough for trees to take root and grow for a century or so, before gravity dictates they crash down in catastrophic avalanches.

An abundance of native birdlife used to live in this rainforest, until mammals introduced from overseas, such as possums, weasels and stoats, took to eating them and their eggs. The result is startling quiet. We could chat on the water from 20m apart without raising a voice. A single bird call could be heard from a mass of trees a kilometre away. A handful of living creatures, us included, for miles around. The mountains are scarred by tree avalanches, landslides, and earthquakes, but not humans. Our careless vandalism is invisible from the water, presenting itself only as pristine peace. It's eerie, but it's hard not to enjoy.

Despite the names, Milford and Doubtful Sounds are not sounds, but fiords. A sound is a valley carved by river flow to the sea; a fiord is a deep valley carved by glaciers, which move slowly over thousands of years, grinding off hard rock. In Fiordland, glaciers have been advancing and retreating for most of the last two million years, grinding mountains down to sea level, and up to 400m below. Quietly floating between these towering mountain ridges, it's impossible to imagine the power, and the timescales, required for such magnificent engineering. Like looking at the Milky Way, which a clear night presents in luminous glory here in the untouched wild, gazing at a vast mountainous wilderness with that mindcurling creation in mind makes you feel not-a-little humble.

In the rainforest at night you can't always be sure whether your eyes are open or closed. Look up and you might find some starlight peering through the canopy; but I looked left and right, and couldn't see KT a foot left, or Marcel, from Switzerland, a foot right. At the camp, KT heard a kiwi call and immediately recruited us to go find it. The flightless kiwi bird is a national symbol of New Zealand, no less than their common demonym, but they're nocturnal, rare, and very shy. Most Kiwis will never see a kiwi in their lives. So we sat in a clearing, in silence, in darkness, and waited. KT used a piece of plastic to imitate the call – and it called back! – but it was far away.

Fifteen minutes passed. I gazed at and around a star to stay awake. Something cracked; we shone a light and saw great flopping ferns, moss-coated trees, still shrubs, fallen logs, and nothing else. Ten minutes passed: it called again, closer; we switched on and saw something trot from behind one tree to another. Was that it? Ten more minutes. I kept my eyes on the star. KT flashed her light on and scanned the scene from left to right: trees, ferns, bushes, a fallen log, trees, another log, wait: " there!" I whispered, pointing to an odd shape in the middle of KT's pan; and it heard me, spun its fat, round body on its skinny hind legs, and bobbed away back in to the bush.

A low morning cloud obscured our view the next day. It takes a few hours for the sun to rise above the mountain ridges, so our eyes had to adjust to taking in only the first 200m or so of each jungle slope. When the sun arrived, the low cloud began to burn off; slowly, the previously hidden mountain peaks were revealed again, far, far above the morning mist. On one new peak, KT pointed out the tenth highest waterfall in the world – the 836m high Browne Falls – and revealed that, absurdly, it's usually classified as a steep river, not a waterfall. A rare catamaran coasted by and blew its horn: it echoed forever. We returned to base past some more sky-high waterfalls and prepared to return to local base Te Anau: population 2000, a metropolis in the middle of nowhere.

Fiordland is one of the wettest places in the world, with annual rainfall in some parts amounting to 8 or 9m (Glasgow's annual rainfall is just over 1m). So, inevitably, a trip to Fiordland wouldn't be complete without at least one day of getting absolutely pissed on, and my day to bear relentless drizzle was Wednesday, Milford Sound day. We knew that rain was forecast: in fact, KT had persuaded me that wet weather was the best environment to see Milford in, so for a third successive day I roused my aching muscles from bed well before sunrise to go kayaking. She kept talking about the waterfalls, and when I saw the magnificent 160m high Bowen Falls, I thought I understood. But Bowen Falls and the distant Sutherland Falls are Milford's only two permanent cascades; it's more famous for its steep walls and sharp summits, which we couldn't see through the rain.

We paddled on wearily, struggling to look upwards at tree avalanche sites because of the rain in our eyes, but cheered briefly by an encounter with a seal pup, flipping, twisting and preening on the water's surface. Then, after landing at a rocky beach for a quick lunch, the clouds briefly lifted, and we saw the results of their presence. Peering through the mist from a few kilometres west, a slender new waterfall was gushing down a thousand metre high mountainside; just south, massive Mitre Peak unveiled its famous crooked spire and two new waterfalls rushing down its side; and as we reached the central point between three corners of the fiord, we found ourselves among five giant mountains, each taller than the highest height in the UK, each revealing their ridges, peaks and additional temporary waterfalls gradually, through rolling cloud.

That epiphanic moment was brief, as the rain returned and KT's attempts to keep the group positive were resisted by fatigue and saturation. After a 10km loop on the water we headed home, and found a highlight on the way. At the western entrance to the Homer Tunnel – a 1.2km tunnel blasted through the mountains in the 1930s – a huge natural amphitheatre of sheer silver granite was covered in spidery new cascades, spreading out along cracks and crevices and combining again into dramatic lower gushes. That's when I understood KT's enthusiasm about the waterfalls. We didn't see the postcard image of Mitre Peak, but we did see the spontaneous redirection of the rains through dozens of newborn waterfalls – each in that moment among the highest in the world – back towards the sea. It was a performance from nature, a special recompense for being rained on, and unlike a postcard of Mitre Peak, you can't buy that for a dollar.

Ally explored Milford and Doubtful Sounds with Fiordland Wildnerness Experiences, who run small group kayaking trips to both fiords, for $175 (£80) and $399 (£200) respectively (3-5 day trips to Doubtful Sound are also available). See www.seakayakfiordland.co.nz for details http://www.seakayakfiordland.co.nz