One of the best adventures you can have in the South Island of New Zealand – Doing a 2-day trip camping and kayaking in Doubtful Sound!
If you’re the kind of person that loves being in the outdoors, exploring epic scenery and seeking out cool adventures, New Zealand is as close as you can get to paradise.
During our 5 weeks hanging out on the South Island of New Zealand, we kept on having one awesome experience after another. Friends had told us 5 weeks was plenty of time to do both islands, but we were already stressing about missing activities just on the South Island!
After an incredible 5-day hiking and kayaking trip in Abel Tasman National Park we knew we wanted to have at least one more paddle journey before we headed back to Australia, so we started researching where would be the best place to do it.
We spent a few days hanging out in Queenstown, which surprisingly lived up to our high expectations as a great place to visit despite the hype.
We had already planned to visit Milford Sound, a location on almost every traveller in New Zealand’s bucket list.
We joined a magnificent overnight Milford Sound cruise, arguably one of the most popular activities in New Zealand.
Spending the night on the water of Milford Sound was a true highlight of our travels, but it was a fjord further south that kept grabbing our attention, and would eventually be where we’d get a chance to jump back in a kayak.
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What Could Be Better Than Milford Sound?
The west coast of New Zealand is home to Fiordland National Park, a spectacular region filled with glacier-carved fjords and jagged mountains.
The harsh and rugged beauty of Fiordland National Park is what makes spots like Milford Sound such an attraction, and it’s little wonder that nearly a million people flock there every single year.
The downside of Milford Sound is its popularity, as it’s one of the top places to go in New Zealand and has pretty big crowds. Those looking for an offbeat experience need to search elsewhere than the bays of Milford Sound.
Check out our guide to help you travel to New Zealand.
Luckily New Zealand knows how to deliver, and heading south of Milford Sound in Fiordland National Park leads you to the mesmerising Doubtful Sound, boasting nearly as much visual splendour as Milford Sound with a fraction of the crowds.
With a reputation that spread to intrepid travellers all across the country, we knew that we may have found our perfect adventure destination in Doubtful Sound.
Off To The Sound
We kept the gorgeous little lakeside town of Te Anau as our base after the Milford Sound cruise, and signed up for an overnight kayaking tour with Go Orange, one of the leaders in fun adventure trips in New Zealand.
For two days we’d paddle around this epic fjord, spending the night in a designated campsite that was used exclusively by the company. Every part of it sounded simply awesome
We were given a packing list to help us get ready for the trip. The tents and sleeping mats would be supplied by the company, but we would need to bring our own sleeping bags if we didn’t want to rent them.
Seeing as we travel with all of our own camping gear and backpacking tent anyway, this wasn’t much of an issue.
The rest of the list was pretty standard, with one notable exception – we were to provide our own food and snacks for the trip.
At first we thought this was a little strange for a fully-guided tour, but the sense of it would come once we arrived at camp that night.
On the morning of our trip we packed our day packs and camera gear, parked the rental car on a backstreet in town, and headed to the Real Journeys headquarters in Te Anau, the starting point for the tour, to meet the bus.
Getting to Doubtful Sound is quite the excursion in itself, and just after 6am we took a shuttle bus to Manapouri and met our guides.
Afterwards we transferred to a boat and took a wonderful trip across Lake Manapouri. It was cold and windy outside, but when the sun started to peak over the mountains we all rushed out to the deck to enjoy such a beautiful view over Lake Manapouri.
The last part of the leg was to take another bus ride over the Wilmot Pass towards Deep Cove, the launching point for our trip.
It was here in Deep Cove we did the proper introductions to our small group of overnighter kayakers, who were now beginning to properly wake up after the early start.
We were a young group, all under 35, from different parts of the world, and were attracted to Doubtful Sound’s reputation of crowd-free adventure and world class vistas.
Our guides were Aidan and Scott, two awesome Kiwis with a passion for kayaking and outdoor exploration. They gave us a thorough safety briefing, and handed out our kit for the two days.
We were given life jackets, wetsuits, thermal jumpers, rain jackets, large dry bags for our clothing and Pelican cases for our electronics.
Once we got dressed and repacked our gear (leaving our backpacks behind in the locked storage shed), we carried it all down to the kayaks.
Aidan showed us how to get in and out of the kayaks properly, and taught us solid paddling techniques. Despite the grey clouds above there was no wind, so she was anticipating a smooth trip.
Excitedly we finished loading up the kayaks, jumped in, and headed out of Deep Cove and into the fjord.
Looking for another adventure in New Zealand? Don’t miss these awesome things to do in Queenstown.
Day 1 – Welcome To The Fjord
Our group paddled out of Deep Cove, gliding almost effortlessly along the still water. The sky was dark above Deep Cove but the clouds were high, meaning we were granted splendid views of the towering mountains around us.
It didn’t take long to get into a rhythm, and soon we were all making great headway through Doubtful Sound.
The scenery was spectacular, and while it wasn’t as dramatic as what we saw in Milford Sound, it was still overwhelming to be floating quietly down the seas of what felt like a forgotten world.
We kayaked for a few hours without seeing another soul. The only sound was of our paddles breaking the surface of the water and our good-natured chatter.
Aidan found a clearing in the forest and we came ashore to have lunch. It was a picturesque spot and we were looking forward to the little break.
Dragging the kayaks onto the rocks we immediately were attacked by thousands of relentless sandflies. Unfortunately these horrible beasts are an annoying reality of travelling on the coast of New Zealand, and we kept our wetsuits on to give us protection from them.
We had brought some leftover pasta from the night before in Te Anau, and ate it sitting on a log while Aidan and Scott prepared hot water for tea and coffee.
When everybody had finished we decided to get back on the water as soon as possible to escape the sandflies, and all breathed a sigh of relief as we got further into the fjord away from their pinching bites.
Our campsite was only a short distance away, but as we had plenty of daylight hours left Aidan guided us towards the end of the inlet we had found ourselves in.
Beautiful waterfalls tumbled down from the cliffs above, and we pulled up alongside them to fill our water bottles straight from the cascades.
There wasn’t a breath of wind in the cove, and we would find ourselves just sitting in the kayaks, looking around and soaking up the magnificent serenity of Doubtful Sound.
How this fjord got its name was actually due to the lack of wind. In 1770 Captain Cook refused to enter as he didn’t believe it was navigable under sail. If he entered he felt it was doubtful they could leave again.
He named it Doubtful Harbour, later changed to Doubtful Sound by whalers who mistook it for a sound rather than a fjord.
These days the only thing doubtful about it is whether you will see any other people there.
We followed the edge of the shore around, circled back on ourselves and eventually arrived outside our campsite for the night.
Parking our kayaks on the rocks we gathered 6 people at a time to pick up the vessels and carry them the 50m into the campsite. It was low tide, and the last thing we wanted was to wake up in the morning and find our kayaks floating away.
Once we got onto the path that led to our forested home for the night it opened up into a beautiful, lush environment, with a hand-made shelter to cover the kayaks.
Up ahead was the dining tent; a fully-sealed enclosure to keep the bugs out which would also be our sanctuary in the evening.
We grabbed our camping gear and Aidan showed us the area to pitch the tents. Small clearings in the rainforest had been made to keep the impact to a minimum, and we got to work setting up for the night.
A bit further on was the elevated long-drop toilet, with everything contained to remove any chance of leakage in the forest.
With everything ready we got out of our kayaking gear, dressed in warm clothes that would provide protection from the relentless sandflies, doused ourselves in insect repellent, and walked around the site.
A gorgeous river flowed down from the mountains and we sat by the side of it chatting for a while before darkness began to fall.
The group all started to gather in the dining tent, and Aidan and Scott set up the gas cookers, pots, pans and plates so we could prepare our dinners.
Most of us had brought along freeze-dried camping meals that only require boiling water to make, so it didn’t take long until we were all tucking into supper.
We asked Aidan why Go Orange decided not to provide meals during their tours. She told us that they used to in the past, but with the increase in people travelling with dietary restrictions, it was getting harder and harder to make food that was satisfactory for all guests.
It also helped keep the costs down, and it allowed the guides to focus on providing the best personal service possible, rather than needing to set aside a lot of their time to food preparation and cooking.
What seemed odd at first now made sense, and with everybody having their own choice in food and quantities to eat for the night, nobody complained at all.
Sure enough some bottles of wine made an appearance, and we laughed, chatted and shared stories until we were all too tired to stay up any longer.
We did our dishes, packed away the food scraps so no animals would get into them overnight, and retired to our tents for a quiet evening in the rainforest.
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Day 2 – Misty Mornings And Sunny Peaks
We set the alarm early so we could eat breakfast and get on the water as soon as possible. The forest was peaceful, and other than the birds waking there wasn’t another sound to be heard.
Aidan had already boiled water for coffee, and our group gathered in the tent to snack on muesli and fruit before packing our camping gear up.
The sandflies started to rise from their slumber, so we quickly changed clothes, loaded up the kayaks, and carried them to the edge of the shore.
It was an incredibly still morning, with mist rising off the water and the mountains rising in a haze of fog.
With such perfect conditions we were amped to be paddling across the glassy sea, and even with the low cloud Doubtful Sound was looking glorious.
A few boats passed us as we made our way towards the main channel, and seeing other signs of human activity was a strange occurrence.
Unlike Milford Sound where you can hardly escape the crowds, here we had managed to go an entire day and night without so much of a glimpse of another soul.
As quickly as they came the boats were gone, and we were back on our own making good time towards the other side of the fjord.
Suddenly we started to see a break in the clouds above, and the peaks of Doubtful Sound’s jagged mountains shone through in stuttered glimpses.
The views kept getting better and better as we entered another small inlet, and eventually parked up at another small clearing to stretch our legs and have a quick snack.
This would be the last cove we would get a chance to explore, and we paddled towards a river pouring out of the rainforest.
Magically the sun broke out completely, illuminating all of Doubtful Sound. The only thing that shone brighter was the smiles on all of our faces.
We kayaked around the serene landscapes, in awe of the majestic fjord, with our camera shutters going wild as we tried to capture its magnificence.
Drifting slowly towards our starting point, we passed a number of towering waterfalls that we had missed the day before.
As much as we wanted to stay on the water for the rest of the day, it was sadly time to put an end to our kayaking in Doubtful Sound and head back to Deep Cove.
We returned to Deep Cove, unpacked the kayaks and swapped out our loaned clothes for the fresh ones we left behind in the storage shed.
There was a bit of time to relax and eat lunch before our bus arrived to take us back towards Lake Manapouri.
On such a beautiful, sunny day it was hard to leave, but we knew there was plenty more epic adventures to be hard in New Zealand.
A few hours later and we had made the bus and boat journeys back to Te Anau, and we said our goodbyes to Aidan, Scott and the rest of the group.
Kayaking in Doubtful Sound was a truly remarkable experience, and we were counting our lucky stars at seeing two of New Zealand’s most beautiful fjords in a matter of days.
The crew at Go Orange had done an impeccable job at providing a high-quality service, and we know that whenever we come back to this gorgeous country we’ll be signing up for some of their other spectacular adventures.
Tips For Kayaking In Doubtful Sound
If you’re ready to skip the crowds at Milford Sound and instead would rather take part in an awesome Doubtful Sound kayaking adventure, then you’re in for a real treat.
Milford Sound is more popular, but Doubtful Sound is definitely worth visiting!
There are a few ways to do this experience, and it all comes down to how much time you have. There are day tours you can do from Te Anau, overnight group trips like we did, and even private tours.
Just like Milford Sound there are also opportunities to do cruises on Doubtful Sound, which is a great option for those that aren’t feeling up for the paddling.
These are some of our tips for kayaking in Doubtful Sound.
- Bring Insect Repellent: The sandflies in New Zealand suck. Really, really suck. In fact they may be the only annoying thing about the coast here (although reportedly they keep the water clean, so at least they have a purpose). Bring lots of insect repellent to keep them off you.
- Bring Good Food: You can buy excellent freeze-dried camping meals from most supermarkets in New Zealand, and these are a great option for any overnight trip. Also bring lots of snacks, and things that won’t get crushed (sandwiches and bananas aren’t a great idea).
- Warm Clothes For Night: Once you get out of your wet kayaking gear you’ll want to put on some clean, comfortable, warm clothes. It does get cold at night in Doubtful Sound, so come prepared. Bring warm clothes even in summer!
- Have A Waterproof Camera: The weather can change quickly in Doubtful Sound, and unless you want to risk damaging your phone or camera, even in dry bags, it’s best to have a waterproof action camera with you. We recommend GoPros. Click here to read our article on how to take awesome GoPro photos.
- Don’t Be Scared: The kayaks Go Orange supply are heavy duty sea kayaks, designed for long touring trips and are very stable. And while there’s a very small possibility that you could capsize, it’s highly unlikely. Even if you do end up in the water your items are placed in dry bags and Pelican cases so they’ll be fine. The guides will teach you what to do in case you do end up overboard, and they are never more than few metres from you in case of an emergency.
- There’s No Phone Service: Don’t bother trying to Instagram your adventure, you won’t find any phone reception anywhere near Doubtful Sound. Take this opportunity to enjoy a digital detox.
[box] Our overnight kayaking in Doubtful Sound was done in partnership with Go Orange. All thoughts, opinions and hundreds of sandfly bites we received are, as always, our own.[/box]