Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Report from Down Under

Days spent in NZ: 9
Days spent kayaking: 3
Kayak trips blown out: 2
Number of sandfly bites: 40+ (about 20 on my hands, since the bug lotion kept washing off)
Photographs taken: in the region of 100

I spent the first 3 days with family in Auckland. On the Thursday I signed up for an evening trip from Auckland to Rangitoto, which is a 600-year old island created by a volcanic eruption, but the wind came up and the trip was cancelled. Friday I flew to Queenstown, and took a bus to Te Anau. Saturday and Sunday I took an overnight trip into Doubtful Sound in Fiordland. This consisted of a 6 am start, van to Manapouri, launch across Manapouri Lake, a huge lake greatly expanded by the construction of a hydro dam in the sixties, then van up over the pass, and down into the sound.

This is fiord country, and rainforest - 8 m or so rain a year, and a daily record of 50 cm [corrected] - and stunning is hardly the word for it. Because it is so wet, because the rain streams constantly down the slopes, moss, lichen and ferns grow almost to the vertical, infiltrating the rock; the mat can be a meter thick, thick enough to root trees, so the trees grow up slopes so steep they almost appear to be growing parallel to the slopes - when not jutting out at wild angles. As a result, Fiordland is prone to tree avalanches - a high wind, an earthquake, or simply age and time can cause a tree or trees to lose their grip and fall, and because the roots are interlocked and embedded in the moss, the entire mat and forest comes away, stripping a wide triangular blaze down the rock and leaving it bare, to be gradually recolonized over decades by moss, ferns, and then the trees. The landscape is classic glaciated valley, steep, steep sides, the scale not appreciated until you see a group of kayaks at the base of one of those slopes looking like painted slivers of wood - the peaks around are in the 1500 m to 2000 m range. There are multiple long, long waterfalls, which look like white threads down the slopes.

We loaded all the gear (which we had loaded and off-loaded at each transfer) onto four double kayaks, with the guide in a single, and headed out from a spot called Deep Cove towards the sea. Weather was a little windy, misty, rainy, sun the occasional watery glimpse, though we were seeing the peaks around us. We paddled about 6 hours the first day, allowing for stops, and my winter of sheltered flat-water kayaking had not prepared me for it. My arms began to complain within 15 minutes, and after a couple of hours I managed to shift the complain to the muscles where it belonged and stop fighting the water every stroke. We campled overnight in a basic camp in the rainforest, consisting of a permanent mesh tent on a platform for a cooking/recreation area, a series of linked gravel areas linked by a winding and very narrow path which led to the composting toilet, enthroned a story above the forest. We were only supposed to use that for solid waste and the forest otherwise - I have bites in places not normally exposed to the air! I haven't camped since tents were put together with a ridge-pole and supports, and I was short enough to stand upright in a tent. But I survived a largely sleepless night of wondering "what's that???" at each rustle, and because I was blundering around in the early hours with a torch, I glimpsed a kiwi scuttling around the mesh tent.

The next day we struck camp early because there were strong south westerly winds forecast, and although Doubtful sound is very long and we were well inland, we did not know how that would funnel. We paddled out of the side arm where we had spent the night, and turned up towards the sea, intending to go around a long island in the middle of the fiord, but as we beached for a bio-break, we saw the first darkening of the water up the sound, and we paddled out into a squall, about 15 knots. Quite enough for yours truly, who couldn't remember which side to apply a low brace on - fortunately it was needed. But as the seas got heavy, we rafted up, boats banging against each other, sorted out the steering - to stay with the wind and swell behind us, we needed to ply rudders, and raised sail, and cruised down the fiord towards the embarcation point on the wind and swell. After several hundred meters the sail expired and flopped across us, and we reeled it in, and kept paddling. Between the wind, the slow swell behind us, and the early start, we were in before 1 pm, although we were not caught by any more squalls, only drizzle that socked in the fiord between us. Then we off-loaded, re-stored the boats, loaded up the van and headed to the vantage over the outflow from the dam (two tunnels, draining into Doubtful Sound) and likely perturbing the ecosystem.

The ecosystem of the fiords is an interesting one, and it was the undersea aspect that originally got me interested in the area: the copious rainfall leaches substantial quanties of tannin and other products of vegetable decomposition into the fiords. The water is very deep and very dark, but even at the edges with pale rock underneath, it's the colour of weak tea, a dark brown. So this shades the depths, and there are sponges and corals in the fiords that grow at 40 m or less below the surface that elsewhere grow at 200 m down, under the standard photic zone.

On the Monday I was supposed to go to Milford sound, but when I dragged myself out of bed at 6:30 am I felt so trashed I phoned and cancelled, went back to bed and slept until 11 am. As it turned out, it bucketed all day, there was a 25 knot wind in the fiord, and all kayaking trips were cancelled. I couldn't rebook with the same group I went out with (all spots full), but there was another company, so I booked with them for Tuesday. Milford sound is the best known of the sounds because there's a tarmac'd road from Te Anau into the Sound, 2 h spectacular driving along the shores of Lake Te Anau (glacier lake about 60 km long), then up through beech (not your northern beach) forest, through the Homer Tunnel (site of the Homer Nude Tunnel Race), and down - and I do mean down! - into the valley. Completely different weather - whatever front had come through had blown itself out - and we had brilliant sunshine all day. The morning had been cold, and I didn't add much to my crop of sandfly bites, but I washed all the sunscreen off the backs of my fingers, so I've added scorched fingers to my plaints. Hardly any wind: the disturbance on the water was the wake of multiple tour launches, giving us the occasional half or so meter swell to ride. This time I was NOT the oldest person in the group, and my paddling was much better. Clear sight of the mountains, which are slightly drier and less moss-coated than Doubtful, but still steeply treed, and since it had been so wet the previous day, there were multiple waterfalls threading their way down from the heights.

And we saw dolphins. We'd were crossing at our midway point when we spotted the fins and soundings, and began paddling after them. They changed direction and charged past us, between us, on their way to meet up with a large launch behind us - we held no interest for them at all. Alas I was too busy watching the dolphins to press the shutter as two of them bore down on my kayak and surfaced almost within touching distance, and it was all over very fast. They intersected the lanch and were carried off with it, several of them literally riding its bow-wave. They're bottlenose dolphins. We didn't see the dolphins in Doubtful sound, which are supposed to be a distinct pod that only live within Doubtful sound - I have to look up the genetics.

We also saw juvenile fur seals, young batchelors kicked out of the herd to make their own way; a pair of moulting Fiordland crested penguins; a white gull of some kind which had obviously discovered kayakers as a source of food, hopped out of the water to perch on our kayaks; paradise ducks, with pure white head and red tail.

We pulled out at the start point after about 4 hours, and headed back to Te Anau at a very leisurely pace, stopping at multiple scenic points; got back to Te Anau just before 6 pm. I dithered, and then trotted along to go standby to see the Te Anau Gloworm Caves, which is a topic for another post, as I shudder to think how much I owe the Internet Cafe now (I started out to check my email, really ... and if Blogger doesn't save this, I will cry!)

Yesterday, in the pouring rain, I caught the 8 am bus from Te Anau to Dunedin, and here I am in Dunedin, with gale force winds forecast for later today. I didn't move very fast this morning, and so I missed the calm, if there was calm - I looked into kayaking out around the Otago penninsula this afternoon, but no go - too windy. Now I have to work out what to do for the rest of the day! Tomorrow morning I have an even earlier start, for a flight up to Blenheim at the north end, where I hope, if the weather cooperates, I will get out on the Malborough Sounds and along the coast of Abel Tasman park.

And even at this length, this is still an abbreviated report.


  1. Pictures! We need Pictures! :)

  2. Oh. My. God.
    Well, seeing as envy is one of the Seven deadlies, apparently I'm going straight to hell....

  3. Wow. Oh wow. You saw a kiwi. You paddled with dolphins. You have paddled in TWO hemispheres.
    We are not worthy.
    All hail Alison!