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"You don't know you're alive until you've almost died"

storm 12 °C
View Slow Boat to Mongolia on Serge78's travel map.

Or so the saying goes.

After slogging through three wind battered days in a sea kayak in Doubtful Sound, perhaps the most inhospitable yet beguiling corner of the Earth i've ever found myself in, I'd be inclined to agree.

Doubtful Sound, like it's better known cousin Milford Sound, is part of magical Fiordland. It's a vast wilderness of towering super-steep mountain sides, tight glacier-carved valleys, mighty waterfalls several hundred metres high and frequent rumbling tree avalanches that sound like bottled thunder.

Fiordland is also the spiritual home of perhaps the single most annoying insect ever conceived - the sandfly. The complete bastards.

As befits somewhere so remote, getting there is half the fun. My journey began well before sunrise on a chilly, drizzly Sunday. Our full compliment of six - me, a young couple from Paris, two Kiwi lads (one from Waiheke, one on a break from living and working in Miami), and our guide Will - headed sleepily out of Te Anau and down to Manapouri, a small settlement (even by South Island standards) on the edge of the lake of the same name.

Slumping out of the van, we lined up to pass-the-parcel our gear and supplies onto an awaiting vessel. Boating over Lake Manapouri is meant to be quite a cruise, passing sandy beaches, hide-away coves and more than 30 islands on the way across with the Cathedral Mountain range as a backdrop. I can't tell you much about it though as I spent most of the hour-long crossing crumpled on a bench, 'conserving energy' back in the land of nod.

I woke just as we reached West Arm on other side of the lake, right beneath the stonking great power lines of Manapouri Power Station. The birth of this power station back in the 1960s not only ticked the box labelled 'staggering feat of engineering', it also marked the awakening of environmental consciousness throughout New Zealand. The Save Manapouri Campaign galvanised both local and national support, so much so that a national election was won and lost on it's concerns.

There's a visitor centre here, as reward for making it this far, but we'd not come to walk among the exhibits. For us, it was a dry and warm place in which to get rubbered up in full sea kayaking attire (you know - base layer, wetsuit, fleece, rain jacket, three different hats, spray deck - the works).

Then followed a half-hour drive along the most isolated road in New Zealand (a title to be proud of when you think just how many out of the way gravel tracks this country has) to the dramatically monikered Deep Cove, and (finally) our awaiting kayaks.

Doubtful Sound is breathtaking, and utterly untameable. Whilst not quite unwelcoming, the natural forces at work here never fail to remind you that puny little humans - wetsuits or no wetsuits - don't really belong here. Nature has the upper hand at all times.

We began our first day of kayaking with a target of reaching Campsite 5, some 25km into the sound along a stretch known as 'Crooked Arm'. About an hour or so into paddling, just as we headed past an island somebody saw fit to name 'Elizabeth', an almighty wind kicked up, funnelling a mini-storm of pummelling rain and whipped waves straight towards us.

We'd no choice but to roll with the punches. Will, leader and guide, threw out the signal for us to raft up (a hand gesture that, to my eyes, looks mighty similar to the one divers use to represent "f@$*ing big shark") and we pulled our kayaks together and awaited for the weather to hit.

And boy did it hit. Whereas moments before we'd been cheerfully gliding up a softly rolling sound, we were now surrounded by waves angrily chopping at our sides and bottoms, and a wind wall that flipped our kayaks 180 degrees and was now pushing us back the way we'd come.

Holding on to each other in raft formation gave us a bit of stability, but it was taking considerable physical effort to keep from being pulled apart. Gradually, after perhaps ten minutes or so, the wind eased enough for Will to decide we'd better utilise the conditions instead of being totally at their whim. So out of his kayak he whipped a sail (handy), the corners of which we tied to our paddles.

Still in raft mode, now each of us had to tightly grip both a neighbouring kayak and our end of the sail. On Will's count we lifted our paddles, raising the sail and immediately caught a huge gust of puff, catapulting us along the water. It was bloody hard work. In an attempt to at least look like we were enjoying ourselves, we took it in turns to mock-roar in pain in a manner that resembled the scene in Point Break when confused Keanu Reeves unloads his gun into the air rather than shoot bad guy and best buddy Patrick Swayze (comparison copyright of Hot Fuzz).

And it was at this moment that somebody (one of the Kiwi lads I think) decided to utter the immortal line about knowing your alive = feeling like you're gonna die. Caught up in the drama perhaps, but they had a point. I would have taken a photo to illustrate his claim, but I was too busy trying to not capsize at the time.

Kayaking out here puts you at the total mercy of the weather. If the wind closes in, and decides that you're not meant to be heading in a particular direction, then that's the way it is. End of story. So Campsite 5 was off limits, but luckily Campsite 2 in Hall Arm was in our line of sight. And that's where we spent the night.

The conditions next morning were the exact opposite of the day before. Calmer than a Buddhist monk drinking camomile tea, Doubtful Sound on morning number two was as serene as can be.

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Perfect water for paddling, we glided out of Campsite 2 for gentle kilometre after gentle kilometre and into Crooked Arm.

The stillness was pierced only once, this time at the hand of humans. As we rounded Crooked Arm and bore down on Campsite 5, the distant chug of the Fiordland Navigator - a sight-seeing boat laden with crew and moneyed day trippers - crept from behind. As the Navigator drew closer, an audible collective gasp sounded from the boat. And ahead of us, drawing nearer by the second, was a pod of dolphins, playfully spouting, rolling and flipping along the sound.

As the massed huddle of passengers on the Navigator reached for their cameras, we stopped dead still and just waited for the dolphins to say hello. They obliged, passing not more than 10 metres in front of us (a close encounter some 150 metres more intimate than those on the boat enjoyed). The captain of the Navigator radioed Will to congratulate us on our luck (at least I think what he said was congratulatory). I would taken a photo of our water-borne friends, but I was too busy looking smug at the time.

Day three started early, with us leaving the camp bang on dawn break. We'd received word of another weather front closing in, and we'd a long way to go. Exiting Crooked Arm into the main straight of Doubtful Sound, with the opening to the Tasman Sea behind us, the wind and rain arrived bang on cue and with ferocious strength.

Instead of smacking us square in the face, this time we had the weather charging into us from our tails. It was like we'd been lifted onto an express travelator, our kayaks absolutely rocketing along. Although there was a lot of chop, forcing each of us into making passable impersonations of socks inside a washing machine, at least this time we we being blown back home.

Two-thirds of the way along, the conditions eased and the sun (having been absent for days) finally pushed past a gap in the clouds. Against the dark background of the sodden slopes, a perfect full rainbow appeared a few hundred metres in front of us. Both ends were clearly visible, and I swear we could have paddled through the middle of it had any of us been able to summon the composure. I would have taken a photo, but I was probably wiping a tear from my eye at the time.

Sometimes, just sometimes, the reward you receive is equal to the effort you put in. And in Doubtful Sound, that was without question. I doubt (sorry) that I've ever been as drenched, or as bone-shakingly cold, or have felt like my arm was about to straight detach itself from my torso, or been so bothered by tiny little flying bastard blood-sucking sandflies, as I have here.

But the payoff, the chance to see, taste, hear, smell and feel a world as far removed from human comfort as this place is... if that isn't living, I don't know what is.

Posted by Serge78 17:00 Archived in New Zealand Tagged boating

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Comments

What a fantastic description! Man, despite the cold and the sandflies, were you lucky...

by PJAmado

Sounds pretty real.

by Free-Jazz

Sounds might be other people's Music. Don't forget listening.

by Free-Jazz

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