Armstrong Adventures travel blog

Morning haze at Lake Manapouri

Dawn on Lake Manapouri

Dana sitting with Helen and Dave in the cabin of the boat...

A view of Doubtful Sound from the mountain pass at the west...

Canadians John and Naomi show they're experienced kayakers

Warming up at lunch with hot drinks and kayak spray skirts still...

The view of Doubtful Sound from our lunchtime spot.

Our guide, Fi

Special Agent D shows off her camouflaged kayaking gear. Note the warm...

Special Agent S silently scouts for contraband M&Ms and GORP in Doubtful...

Enjoying the end of our first day on the water near our...

Now we're getting the hang of this!

Alone in the Sound. Silence and natural beauty.

Paddington Bear Dana freezes in her wetsuit during Day 2's lunch. Not...

One of dozens of waterfalls cascading down the sides of the Sound's...

Sailing our kayaks by holding up a sail with a paddle on...

A duck suns itself next to our lunch spot.

Springtime blooming

PB&J-fueled lunchtime jam

The mountains are perfectly reflected in the calm of the lake

Mt. Cook and the turquoise Lake Pukaki

Blown away by the mountain wind at Mt. Cook's glacial lake

A glacier on Mt. Cook

Hooker Lake at the base of Mt. Cook. We hiked in and...

The turquoise colored lakes are caused by 'rock flour' which is sediment...

Mt. Cook's many blues

Dear Friends,

Sea Kayaking in Doubtful Sound

After Queenstown, we headed southwest to Te Anau, the jumping off point for many tours of the Fiordland region. The southwestern corner of New Zealand's south island is filled with fiords, many that are named Sounds when, in fact, they are technically fiords. This area includes the most famous, Milford Sound, as well as Doubtful Sound, George Sound and Dusky Sound among others. For those of you planning to win on Jeopardy sometime in the near future, the difference between a sound and a fiord is that a sound is carved out by a river while a fiord is carved out by a glacier. When this is your winning Jeopardy question, please send a generous portion of your winnings c/o Snowden Armstrong.

Queenstown is famous for its sweeping variety of pricey adrenalin-rush adventure activities like bungee jumping, jetboating, paragliding, hyper wheelbarrow racing, and the "as-seen-on-ESPN" Xtreme Potato Sack Challenge. (Yes, I'm pulling your leg on the last two.) Quite honestly, Dana and I didn't feel a need to spend big bucks to turn green and feel nauseous. But we did have a strong hankering for some good old fashioned adventure. So we decided to do a 2-day sea kayaking trip on Doubtful Sound complete with bush camping. Thus far, it's been a highlight of our time in NZ.

The trip was run by Fiordland Wildnerness Experiences, , a very professional outfit run by an outdoorsy couple with loads of kayaking experience. Our guide, Fi (as in Fiona), was also superb and quite knowledgeable about all things outdoorsy and Kiwi. We even grilled her extensively about sheep farming and couldn't stump her since she'd grown up on a sheep farm. I learned that when a sheep goes to "The Works", you won't see that little fella again.

Milford Sound is far more touristed than Doubtful Sound because it's more accessible by tour bus and because it provides a more dramatic inlet surrounded by steep cliffs falling to the sea. Our tour went to Doubtful Sound because it is far less touristed and hard to get to. And we all know that for any outdoors adventurer, the harder it is to get to, the more it's worth visiting. While perhaps not providing the single best postcard shot, I think our photos attest that Doubtful Sound is in fact quite beautiful and striking.

Over the river and through the woods

We started our day at 6 am and went by bus from Te Anau to Lake Manapouri, about 45 minutes away. We then transferred heaps of gear, clothes and food to a speedboat and traveled by boat across the beautiful Lake Manapouri to a controversial hydro power station. From there, we transferred our gear to another van, and drove over Wilmot Pass to Deep Cove, our access point to Doubtful Sound. This all took about 3 hours which gave me plenty of time to wonder if I had signed up for something more hard core than I really am. Because we're all hard core outdoorsmen until we're actually outdoors, hungry, tired and surrounded by nasty weather. Then we realize that there's more to being "hard core" than leafing through Adventure magazine at the supermarket. Sometimes, there's actual hard core actitivies involved featuring ice cold hands, achey arms and an empty belly.

Our group included four Canadians: David, Kelly, John and Naomi, all originally from Alberta. David and Kelly are living in NZ and had just gotten married on Fiji which was why John and Naomi were visiting. David and John were both PhDs in ecology and very experienced outdoorsmen and kayakers. This group actually continued kayaking on their own for 2 more days after the end of our guided trip.

The group also included Helen, a Swedish woman who celebrated her 40th birthday with us on the sound; Craig, an American software developer from Colorado; and our guide, Fi. 8 tourists and a guide made for a full tour but a nice manageable size group.

It's all about the gear

As any of you who find yourselves magnetically drawn to REI will attest, whatever the sport, it's all about the gear. If it's fun, it's more fun with better gear. You'll need fabric that wicks, water bottles with rainbow-colored tops and loops, and performance food that turns sun into oatmeal-flavored, high carb mush.

Our gear included carbon fiber two-man sea kayaks with loads of internal storage, winter-weight wetsuits, polypro undershirts, fleece hats, a kayak spray skirt, and "pogies" which are hand covers made from wetsuit material. We also wore Tevas with newly purchased heavy wool socks to keep our constantly wet feet warm. While we were extremely lucky to have a clear, relatively warm day most of our first day, the water was very chilly given that it was mostly glacier melt water, and on the second day, we experienced some serious cold, windy weather and rough seas. Each time we had to get in or out of the kayaks, we soaked our feet in the icy water. Turns out the Kiwis are right, wool really was the first "performance" fabric. It's warm, even when wet.

Striking beauty

Our first day was sunny and warm with a clear sky much of the time. This made for relatively still water and amazing scenery. For the vast majority of our two days, we were completely alone in the fiord surrounded by sheer rock faces rising hundreds of meters above us. The water is clear and pure and safe to drink. Because the fiord itself is a mixture of fresh and salt water, we filled our water bottles from mountain streams rushing down towards the fiord itself, or from the many waterfalls cascading down the cliff faces.

We kayaked around a tiny island that yellow-eyed penguins nest in this time of year. Because penguins spend their days at sea foraging, we only saw a couple of the little guys at near range on the island but it's darned neat kayaking up to the shore to take a peak at them. They were shy and hid beneath trees looking out at us.

Camping with sandflies and fruitcakes

The days have grown quite long here with sunset not coming until after 8 pm, so we had plenty of water time on Day 1. We ended the day in a calm inlet where we slowly kayaked around and gossiped while at sea. The tour company uses the same camp area for each trip so it wasn't totally bush camping. They did have a composting toilet installed and a mosquito-screened eating area to protect us all from the merciless sand flies. The sand flies were everywhere but didn't seem to be that aggressive. I swore I had no bites at all until days later when I noticed several red spots along my wasteline.

We'd rented full camping gear for the trip so we set up our tent and sleeping bags before cooking up some tasty pasta. Given what Dana and my bodies have been through for the past few months, we're far from fit. I think I could walk or stand all day, but my strength and aerobic fitness levels are severely lacking. I was certainly not in shape for an entire day of kayaking against wind and currents. The winds can really wip up some intensiy as they race between the inlets and cliffs of the sound causing open sea like waves. Dana and I both fell asleep that night feeling plenty of aches. Turns out you don't train for a kayaking adventure by sitting in buses, planes, cars for 50% of every day for 8 months.

We sat around at dinner, drank hot drinks to warm up, told tales, and shared a one year old Kiwi Christmas cake to celebrate Helen's 40th birthday. My hypothesis on the evolution of the North American fruitcake (genus: fruitus, species: cakeus) is that at one time, millions of years ago, the land masses of North America and New Zealand must have been joined since America's fruitcake is clearly a close evolutionary relative of the Kiwi Christmas cake. Thankfully, somewhere along the evolutionary chain, the candied "fruits" ceased to appear in the Kiwi variety. My apologies to those who dream of fruitcake year 'round. I don't. Unless it's frosted. Frosting rights all wrongs. But enough science, my tale returns to kayaking.

Wind and waves

On Day 2, we experienced much more challenging weather as it was quite cold, drizzled from time to time, and the wind kicked up some sizable waves. We paddled across a few straights with big waves threatening to capsize our boat. By this point, however, we felt confident enough in our paddling skills and the boat's seaworthiness that it was more an adrenalin rush than it was frightening. We stopped at lunchtime and were freezing in our wetsuits while we nursed hot drinks. In this weather, we had to be exercising to generate body heat to stay warm.

Wind in our sail

Towards the end of Day 2, we were lucky enough to have the wind behind us so we could sail back to shore rather than paddle. At one point, we held all four kayaks together and raised a nylon sheet sail by raising the rear passengers' paddles. It worked surprisingly well though it required a great deal of strength to hold the paddle "mast" upright with the wind in the sail.

We then went ashore and reversed the long cycle of carrying gear between various transit vehicles to return back to Te Anau. Once back, we had pizza delivered to our campervan in the RV park. I couldn't help but feel a bit guilty when the pizza delivery chap pulled up to our campervan while in all the campervans around us, someone was hunched over a tiny pot attempting to cook a full meal in Little Tykes, teensy tiny RV kitchen. There is nothing hard core about having pizza delivered, which was just fine by me.

More adventures to come from the northern end of New Zealand's South Island, and the North Island.

Take care,


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