Long-time friend of Macpac and well-known Kiwi multi-sporter Sam Goodall was enjoying some time off last month. While many others might spend that time relaxing, Sam jumped into action, planning an epic adventure with his partner around Southland – exploring everywhere from Fiordland National Park, right down to the depths of Stewart Island. The pair experienced so much that many New Zealanders don’t even know they are lucky enough to have in their own backyards – glorious views, untouched wilderness, and inspiration aplenty. He re-lives his adventure for the Macpac Blog.
Being based in the middle of the South Island allows huge flexibility for some great off the beaten track exploring, I had a two-week window to the make the most of it. Being a Multisporter, I had the idea to do a decent session on foot, by bike, and also by kayak, over the two weeks.
After two days heading over Arthur’s Pass, exploring the Glacier region, and surrounding beaches and forest, we made our way Te Anau.
The main trip I had planned was a 3-day paddle; down the grade 2 bottom section of the Hollyford river and into Lake Mckerrow, down the lake to Martins Bay, and then following the coastline down to Milford Sounds, before making our way up the Sound.
I had been doing my due diligence for a few months prior to this paddle, gathering as much info as I could, and talking to anyone who had been in that area before. I also spent the two weeks prior watching the long range weather forecast and swell reports, to pick the weather window we would need for the all important final day. The paddle would be made up of a 35km section down the Hollyford river, staying at the Mckerrow Island hut. The next day we would make our way 30km down the Lake, before following a small creek into the lagoon at the southern end of the beach, tenting here, to hopefully give us a more sheltered entry out to the exposed coastline. The final day was the crux of the trip, with a 35km stretch out through the surf of Martins Bay, and down the coastline, with no option of exiting the kayak, until inside the sound. The last 18km would be inside the sounds.
Go day was Monday 18th April, so after dropping the double kayak at the end of the Hollyford road end, and driving the car over the Homer saddle, I managed to hitch a ride back to the Hollyford road entry, and ran the 15km to the road end, an appropriate warm up!
The kayak was packed, our gear included 3 sets of Geothermals, Traverse Tights, Equinox Down Jackets, Latitude sleeping bags, Air Core Mats, MSR cooker and gas, pot set and sporks, Nautilus Tent, ACR Personal Locator Beacon, Bivvy bag, first aid kit, multiple dry bags, Outdoor Gourmet freeze dried foods, Sparc head torches, Mini Lantern, and kayak specific gear including spare paddles, helmets, throw bags, paddle jackets, neoprene booties and spray skirts.
The weather was ideal, no wind, blue skies, and one of the most spectacular valleys you could imagine, with huge mountains either side, glaciers, and tumbling tributary rivers completing the spectacle. Our 8 metre racing double kayak made things exciting in a couple of spots on the river, with huge log jams giving a clear indication of the power the rivers in this area can have after rain. Small wave trains kept things entertaining, and it was important to keep track on the Topo maps of our location, as there is a compulsory grade 4 portage. This turned out to be very easy to identify, and the portage trail well worn, being commonly used by jet boaters. We even managed to paddle a section in canal like water. A quick lunch stop at the bottom end of the portage trail, then pushing on past the entrance to Lake Alabaster, the nature of the river changing, with more water, and less gradient, creating a mellower slower moving current.
A deer sighted on the river bank just prior to the hut was a great way to top off the day of paddling. Up to the hut greeted by a roaring fire, a good meal, and comfy spot to lay the head down.
The morning brought perfect weather again, the lake was like inky glass, with reflections of the peaks around us, the stuff of dreams really. An amazing paddle down the lake, the bird life loud and clear, fish breaking the surface as we got nearer the coastline. We made our way up through the Raupo and flax wetlands at the edge of the lake, to the head of the lagoon at the southern end of Martins Bay. It was great to see a grassy trail leading toward the corner of the bay, although slightly concerning was the roar of the surf, which we could still not see. After an hour of boat carrying, we found a secluded spot to throw up the tent, get a fire started and get dinner going, the wind dying off right on cue.
A before dawn pack-up happened quickly, with the focus on a safe passage out through the surf, which had dropped overnight, but was still around the 2m size, with 4m swell off the coastline. The commitment and exposure factor of this paddle was quite intimidating, but it was now or never, and conditions were as good as could be expected in this area of New Zealand coast. Punching through the white-water, we timed it nicely, and made it safely through the break, four to five hours of solid paddling on the cards, before reaching the Milford sound heads. Two early seal sightings kept the anxiety levels up, especially as one had a bite out of it. We kept well fuelled with muesli bars, and ticked off the distance, the spectacular coastline a constant companion. The need to keep focused was enforced every time we neared offshore reefs, with crashing swell resulting in explosions of white-water and bull kelp. The final stretch into the heads was against a strong tidal flow, and katabatic winds coming off the steep sided entrance. Once inside the sounds it was a great relief to find a small beach, have a stretch, get some blood flow to the rear end, and a warm drink was more than overdue!
It was an odd sight after 3 days of not seeing another soul, to suddenly have multiple large tourist boats ploughing their way up the sounds, commentary blaring from exterior speakers, it seemed a real pollution of a pristine environment. We did however get a long stretch to ourselves, floating in the deep waters, gazing around at huge waterfalls cascading from every angle, it was almost a disorientating experience, the size and scale quite mind blowing. It was also a great reward, and end to the 3 days, and completion of the circuit.
Next up we had an overnight mountain bike planned one of only you can do in Fiordland National Park, leaving from Manapouri Power Station, over Percy Pass, down to the Grebe Valley, and up and over Borland saddle to Monowai, before completing the loop the following day back to Manapouri, a total distance of 110km, but with over 2500m of climbing.
I kept gear to a minimum, a Weka 40 Pack, chosen for its ruggedness, one set each of spare thermals, down jackets, sleeping bags, a bivvy bag, mats, PL beacon, torch and food. We rode in Sabre Softshell Jackets, Traverse Tights, Geothermals, Cycling Bib Shorts, and Flurry Gloves.
An early start on the ferry, Manapouri to the power station, and we were off, our constant companion on this ride would be the high voltage power lines, leaving from the station, and leading us through to Monowai. The first climb was steep, and consistent, on a rough gravel access road, and as we gained in altitude, the temperature dropped, and the wind increased. We were rewarded with stunning views back over Lake Te Anau, and once onto the tops with some impressive tarns and waterfalls. A final push up over the Pass, revealed what the guidebook had described as ‘an hour long bike carry’. It was exposed, steep, loose, and did not leave any room for error. The wind also added to the excitement factor, when only one hand is free, whilst the other hand and shoulder is occupied carrying the bike. Thankfully we made it through and down into the bush line, which while being less exposed, didn’t give us any respite, with plenty of wind fall, and an almost non-existent route. It was a relief to hit the gravel access road coming up to meet the pylons from the other side, it also gave us some expansive views down to the Grebe Valley ahead of us. Over the Grebe river bridge, and we were into some easier riding, great gravel road, a howling tailwind, the kms rolling under the tyres quickly now.
The Borland Saddle loomed in front of us, our final challenge for the day. Grinding our way up we passed through different flora indicating we were making progress, and after nearly 2 hours, we crested the saddle, and could enjoy a long and fast descent all the way to our accommodation, what a day! A challenging day, with a huge amount of climbing, and with the tricky bike carry, added all the elements needed for an epic day out. The next morning, I rode back to Manapouri, a final 40kms, on classic Southland roads, collecting the car for the shuttle back!
Following the shuttle, we were onto our last challenge of the trip, blasting down the road to Bluff, for the ferry over to Stewart Island. The Southern Circuit was chosen, to get away from the crowds, have a challenge, and see some untouched wilderness. Also renowned for its mud, the circuit delivered on all counts!
Starting off the ferry ride over reinforced the fact we were in the deep south, 50 knot southerlies, rain, and 5m swell contributed to it being an ‘exciting’ trip to the island. Transferring over to the water taxi, the scheduled 15 minute trip to Fred’s camp, the track start, took almost an hour. A late start, at 2.30 didn’t leave us with much margin for error, the 12km section to the hut expected to take the DOC stated 5 hours. Some stunning bush, sticky mud, plenty of standing water, pushed us through to the last ‘boggy’ section. Unfortunately, this was the slowest going, down to 1 km an hour, waist deep in mud, and now dark. Route finding became difficult, but we pushed on, and felt very lucky to stumble across two separate kiwi in the final half hour before the hut. I believe we are very lucky in this country to have access to an amazing array of backcountry huts, and the etiquette involved was encapsulated by the great and welcome supply of dry tinder and wood when we arrived.
Weather throughout the night continued to batter the hut, wind and rain greeting us at dawn. Back into the bog sections straight away, we battled on, and mercifully the trail relented a bit, with an increase in gradient, allowing us to cover some reasonable distance. Stands of Matai and ladder fern, tannin stained creeks, and moss covered ground kept us mesmerised for the long climb, as we gradually hit the tops. Deer sign was frequent and it was no surprise to see a large white tail bound off in front of us. It was also incredible to see a mind blowing amount of kiwi sign once out of the true bush, probe holes, and amazing print details in the soft mud. Southern winds blasted us across and off the tops, squally showers rolled through, and it looked like we may not be rewarded with a view down to the coastline. Just as we hit the bush line and technical slippery descent the cloud cleared, revealing Doughboy Bay below us, stunning. Onto the beach, sand underfoot a foreign feeling after two days of mud, and into another ‘hut with a view’.
Doughboy Bay climbed steeply up root packed, muddy ascent for two hours the next morning, nothing like easing into a day. We were looking forward to reaching the long beach section along Mason Bay, distracted again by kiwi sign all day. Mason Bay delivered the experience we sought, windswept, remote, dramatic, backed by some huge sand dunes, so large, they even had a ‘sand saddle’ marked on the maps.
The following and final day saw the completion of the circuit through to Freshwater hut in the morning and was the easiest of the days, a large amount of boardwalk, some interesting historic homesteads to visit, and a flat gradient. There was some nice varied fauna, tussock, reed, and stands of tea tree. Once again we were kept entertained by searching the track ahead for Kiwi prints, and again, plenty on show, a real treat to see. A last white tail deer, who indulged us by standing on the track for a few minutes, and down to our water taxi at Freshwater landing.
We had a lot of interest and many comments on our gear by those we met along the way, all swallowed by two Weka 40 Packs. Carrying all the gear needed to safely be self-sufficient was important, so even though we planned to stay in huts each night, we carried a PLB, Bivvy Bag, Air Core Mats, sleeping bags, Gas cooker/pot set/sporks, first aid kit, maps and compasses, lights and spare food. All gear was in Lightweight dry bags, even though the AzTec® canvas of the Weka packs repelled everything we threw at it. We carried traverse tights, down jackets, geothermals, softshells, a pair of socks for each day, freeze dried foods, and snacks for throughout the day. We even had room for a couple of magazines. I think this was testament to the quality of gear available, its small compact, light, and you do not always have to compromise on comfort, or ultimate safety, people were impressed by how much we carried, what we carried and how small our bags looked.
The last three days of our trip, we visited the Catlins, checking out the Cathedral caves, lighthouses, expansive beaches, and spectacular bush. Wildlife here was a highlight, seeing yellow eyed and blue penguins emerge from the surf, and climb the hills to nest, endangered Sea lions, Fur seals, Hector dolphins and Albatross.
Explore your backyard! As a country, I think we are often guilty of heading offshore to explore. Missing out on what people from all over the world travel huge distances to experience here in NZ, there are plenty of guides out there to give you the ideas and inspiration to fulfil any desire for adventure at any level, you may have!