Early day today, earlier than any I've had so far on this vacation. I overheard some of the other guys in the dorm saying they had an early morning but they were still sleeping when I checked out for my 6:15am pickup.
Jess, our guide for the next couple days, showed up with a van and trailer. We, the 4 of us waiting outside the YHA, were the last ones to be picked up so after everything got put in the trailer we were on our way!
Our group, who's names I mostly already forgot since I'm so freaking bad with names:
Jess, our guide.
A couple from Slovakia, her a physics teacher and he does particle physics work for the LHC.
A couple from England, if I recall correctly she does English teaching and he does English workbook editorial work, both in Hong Kong.
Johan (did I spell that right?), an architect student from Sweden.
Our first stop was about 20 minutes south to Manapouri, which I had briefly stopped at a couple days earlier. Really nice lake, though I didn't get to see much since the sun had already set and all I could see was the outline of the mountains far off in the distance. Unfortunately, I didn't get to see much more of the lake this time either since the sun wasn't really up yet and it was raining. Yup, another day of rain, but at least so far it wasn't as bad as it was in Milford Sound the day before.
Lake Manapouri is on the edge of the Fiordland National Park, New Zealand's largest national park (about 5000 square miles), and Doubtful Sound is deep in the park so the lake is the quickest way to get there. Actually, from my understanding there's really only 3 ways into Doubtful Sound: come in from the ocean, from the air, or boat across Lake Manapouri and drive over the pass. The ride across the lake is an hour and the Wilmot Pass, which is a steep, windy gravel road that only exists to connect Lake Manapouri to Doubtful Sound (vehicles have to be brought to the road via boat) is about 45 minutes. As you can imagine, there's not much traffic around here, which I'll mention again later.
After the boat ride we arrived at the visitor center / docks at the start of the Wilmot Pass. The place was technically open but it was empty, so we had it all to ourselves, which is good since Jess decided we should change into our kayak gear in the visitor center so we have somewhere warm and dry to change. If we change on the other side of the pass we do it at the boat ramp in the rain. Not fun trying to get all that stuff on, even when dry. Thermal layer, wet suit, shirt, fleece jacket, kayak skirt, waterproof jacket, life vest and hats. At least it did somewhat keep you warm, so long as you were moving.
From the visitor center it was a 45 min ride or so over the Wilmot Pass to the docks where, after a brief safety and how-to lesson, we packed up and left. Johan was my kayak buddy, me in the front, him steering in the rear (we switched sides the next day). It was good to finally get moving since it was starting to get a little colder and wetter.
The good news about all this rain is, like Milford Sound, it created a much more dramatic landscape with many more waterfalls than there normally would be. All the beech trees growing up the mountainsides all around us also seemed to look more lush since they were soaked. Unlike Milford Sound, though, it didn't really matter too much for me since I actually had good waterproof gear this time and nothing on underneath I didn't want to get wet anyway.
Not really sure what to say about the view other than what I've already said, however I really feel as if I should say something else. They were magnificent, but really, there's not much more to say other than describing them and showing pictures, neither of which begin to explain what you'd see if you were actually there. Massive, towering granite mountains on both sides, rising strait from the sea all the way into the clouds thousands of feet above you. Large beech trees growing on the mountain sides all the way up, massive and tiny waterfalls flowing thru the forest, sometimes so you could see the entire thing but sometimes so you could only see small sections, the rest of the waterfall flowing under the canopy layer. Look strait up and you see the mountains on both sides of you peeking into the clouds, all this without needing to turn your head. Look strait ahead and you see the same thing continued along a giant granite hallway for miles. And here we are, a small group of seven in four kayaks and we have the whole thing to ourselves for two days. The first day we only saw one other boat, the next day we saw three boats and one helicopter. That's it. And beyond our campsite and the boat ramp we initially left at there was not a single sign of humanity anywhere. Not a cabin, not a power line, not a buoy, not a road, not a sound...nothing.
We kayaked down the main channel for a while, occasionally doing a group up (all four kayaks along side each other so we don't drift apart) to talk about some history or geography. We learned about tree avalanches, which is where all the trees on a part of the mountain lose their grip on the rock and slide into the sea, and how to spot where one has been and how to estimate how many years ago it happened. We also learned all about the history of the area, both from the Maori and European side of things. Apparently Doubtful Sound was named because Captain Cook was doubtful if he entered it he'd ever get back out, so he named it but never explored it. Also, he didn't know the difference between a fjord (carved by glacier) and a sound (carved by river), so Milford Sound and Doubtful Sound are technically Milford Fjord and Doubtful Fjord (same with the other Sounds in Fiordland).
Since the weather wasn't really great (cold, some wind and rain, even a few minutes of hail) we decided to not stop at the normal lunch stopping point and instead head off to our final campsite for lunch. Our campsite for the night is far inside one of the arms that branches off the main channel, called Hall Arm. We were all expecting to find just a beach we could get out of the kayaks on (very rare in Doubtful Sound) that was also large enough for a couple tents. Nope, it was a large flat area near a river that had a large bug net and a couple trails setup. At this point in the trip even that felt luxurious, especially since there was a porta-potty deeper in the forest!
Oh, I forgot to mention why they needed the bug net. Sandflies. I encountered a few of them on the trip so far but I thought they were just an annoying little bug and that's why everybody hates them so much. They are annoying, they'll fly right in front of your eye, around your ears, everywhere. Wanna know why? They're bloodsuckers, like mosquitoes. I think. Either way, they bite and leave itchy bumps just like them. Unlike mosquitoes, though, you can feel these things crawling around on you. And they swarm. Jess said, partly joking and partly in reference to the Maori legend about their creation, that they were created so people would be able to come and enjoy Fiordland but not stay long enough to destroy it. I used bug spray but my feet still itch (I wore sandals).
After lunch we got back in the kayak for another hour or so of kayaking deeper into Hall Arm. Thankfully it not only stopped raining but the wind also stopped, causing the surface of the water to look almost like a giant mirror. Johan and I thought we saw the end of Hall Arm so we kayaked out near the end.
And then it was time to go back. Since high tide comes up pretty far we had to haul all the kayaks into the forest, then we emptied everything from the kayaks so the Kea (smart alpine parrots) don't get into it and setup the tents. Oh, and we were able to also get into dry clothes so we could warm up. Yay! ...or so I thought. Remember, I just got back from Milford Sound the day before and was soaked. I put my clothes in the dryer, but evidently I forgot to check them before packing them. They were still a little moist. Not wet, but a little moist. Stupid, stupid thing to do while camping in the middle of nowhere in near freezing temps, I know. Anyway, I wasn't exactly warm while having dinner. Thankfully there were plenty of hot drinks to go around.
It's kind of funny that given the situation we were in we got into some pretty deep conversations during dinner. We merged the Slovakian guys and mine fields and talked about the programming practices at the LHC, or at least the section he works at, we talked about editorial processes, we talked about the merits and pitfalls of capitalism, etc. It was pretty nice. One thing I did find interesting was everybody's reaction when they found I was only traveling for 2 weeks. Everybody else I've met is traveling around for at least a month it seems. First they were wondering why I'd take such a short vacation, then they were shocked to learn 2 weeks was all I could get off after saving up for a year (minus a couple extra days for graduation and a small trip to Portland), and then saddened to learn that the vacation time my company gives is actually good enough to be used as a selling point when recruiting. New Zealand, for example, requires employers to give at least 4 weeks, and that doesn't count the fact there's more holidays you get off work than we have in the states. Oh, and if they land on the weekend then you get one day off in the week to make up for it. And there's bridge holidays, so if one lands on a Thursday then you get Friday off as well. After discussing what everybody in our group knew about benefits, hours and working conditions Americans worked it was agreed upon that working in America is akin to slave labor.
The next morning was busy. We had to be back at the boat ramp at 1:30pm so we could change, unpack, clean up, drive over Wilmot Pass, load and board the boat by 3:30pm. If we missed that deadline the boat would leave without us. There's no road out of there and there's no more boats for the day. But, Jess also wanted to give us as much kayaking as we could for that day so we needed to get on the water around 9am. I think we did ok, we all were doing something up until we were ready to go.
It's a good thing we hauled the kayaks all the way up near the bug tent. We all thought that was a little overkill, bringing them so far, but in the morning the tide was so far up we only had to move them about 15 feet. We could board and paddle out while still under the forest canopy even though the day before we had landed on a beach a good 30ft or so from the forest edge.
That morning the weather was much nicer. A little colder, but no rain and the sun was off and on shining. Apparently the night before the winds had shifted, changing the winds from coming in from, I think, the west to coming in from south, strait from Antarctica. This meant it was dryer, but it was colder. The tops of a lot of the mountains also had snow on them, making the view that much more dramatic.
We kayaked out to main channel and then took advantage of the wind by grouping up, trying some fabric to our oars and turning ourselves into a three kayak sailboat. It seemed to take about the same time to cross to the other side, but we didn't have to do any work other than just holding on. We sailed out to Elizabeth Island, back up the south edge (against the wind, which wasn't fun) and out along the east edge. After hanging around in there we found a beach to land for a small break and then started in on the journey back to the boat ramp.
In that last picture you can see, near the bottom right, the boat ramp and the only buildings in Doubtful Sound. That V shaped section between the mountains to the left is Wilmot Pass and, other than by sea or by air, it's the only way in or out.
On the way to the boat ramp it started raining a little, but thankfully it stopped when we landed which allowed us to unpack and change into dry clothes without the rain. Once all that was finished we loaded up the van and headed on up Wilmot Pass. We made one small detour to a viewing area that overlooked Doubtful Sound and portion of the area we'd been paddling. As we were about to leave, two unexpected things happened. First, three Kea landed a little in front of us. Earlier Jess had mentioned that some photographers spend their entire lives trying to get a photograph of them in flight because they have brilliant red feathers under their wing, but they like to walk and hop around. We got to see the red as they landed, and one of them even flew over and around us. I wasn't quick enough with the camera, though. Jess said she's never seen the Kea on Wilmot Pass before.
The second unexpected thing was it started snowing on us.
I tried timing my trip near the end of summer, when it would still be warm, but late enough so the tourists were mostly gone and things were more empty (for example, the hostel I'm typing this at is so empty it looks like I'm going to get the entire dorm to myself tonight). I was told by a number of locals that the weather would still be pretty good while I was here and wouldn't need to worry about snow. Well, they do say the weather in New Zealand, especially down south, is unpredictable. This cold front, I guess, is unusual. Still, seeing snow on the Wilmot Pass (especially since I don't know how high up we were or how high up the roads I'll travel in the next few days are) made me worry I might run into some later.
Anyway, we got back to the visitor center and boarded the boat for the hour long ride back to Manapouri. On the way I could finally see the lake in the sunlight and clear weather, and it did not disappoint. It seemed to me to be similar in "construction" to Doubtful Sound, except not a narrow channel but instead a huge lake. On the boat ride we all exchanged emails so we could share pictures when we got home, so hopefully later on I'll have better pictures than I have right now. My camera was still wet from Milford Sound so most of my pictures have wet spots on them or are blurry.
And that's it, the rest of the day was pretty much resting, getting dinner and returning the rented sleeping bag. I really enjoyed the trip, certainly one of the highlights of the entire New Zealand vacation. If you're down here for a couple days I'd highly recommend it, though do expect to get some exercise in. The first night my arms felt like they were going to fall off, though it did get better the second day. I think I twisted my left wrist wrong on a couple strokes, though, since for most the day today I couldn't move it in some directions. Still, a lot of fun and definitely worth it.
I'm not going to be getting my own kayak, though.