Kayaking in Doubtful Sound

Fiordland, New Zealand

Fiordland in New Zealand has been on my bucket list ever since I saw the below image of Milford Sound on Pinterest about two years ago. The fiords are found in the Southland district of the South Island, and look like huge hills and mountains that rise up out of the sea. In actual fact, they are the valleys carved by glaciers many years ago. I hadn’t heard much of Doubtful Sound before I started researching the area, but I’m so glad we discovered it.

Milford Sound (Source: Pinterest)

There are many sounds in Fiordland: Dusky Sound, Doubtful Sound, Milford Sound… Whilst they are all a beautiful sight, each is slightly different. Some are still relatively untouched by humans, while others see coach load after coach load of excited tourists every day.

While James and I were HelpX-ing in Colac Bay, our host gave us two days off, so we decided to drive up to Fiordland to see the Sounds. Although we are budget travellers, there are some things we really want to see while we’re in New Zealand, so we’re prepared to spend a bit more for exciting experiences we wouldn’t have the chance to do elsewhere.

Doubtful Sound, New Zealand - spinthewindrose.com
A tick off the bucketlist!
Doubtful Sound, New Zealand - spinthewindrose.com
Beautiful, peaceful waters in Doubtful Sound

Milford Sound or Doubtful Sound?

We chose to visit Doubtful Sound over Milford Sound because it’s much quieter – it sees far fewer tourists on a daily basis, perhaps because you cannot simply drive up to it like you can with Milford Sound – you have to cross Lake Manapouri and drive across to Deep Cove.

Unfortunately, because it’s so difficult to get to, and also because it’s part of Fiordland National Park which is protected by the Department of Conservation, the only way to visit the sounds is with a tour operator. If you wish to travel there independently, you have to apply directly to DOC for a permit.

A second reason that we chose Doubtful Sound over Milford is because we (mostly James) wanted to go kayaking. It’s possible to go kayaking on both Milford and Doubtful, but we opted for Doubtful because there are less tour boats on the water, and less tourists in general, meaning the Sounds are generally really quiet and still (apart from in the rain!)

Doubtful Sound, New Zealand - spinthewindrose.com
Not another person in sight – the Sounds were ours
Doubtful Sound, New Zealand - spinthewindrose.com
Snow-capped mountains and still seas

Touring with Fiordland Adventure

When it comes to choosing a tour, there are loads available with a variety of companies. We chose the Full Day Kayak Tour with Fiordland Adventure, a small company based in Manapouri, who offered a tour that seemed more suited to us, and was reasonably priced. We didn’t want to do an overnight tour, and we wanted a decent amount of time in the kayaks!

An early start

Our tour group (of four people – James, me, and two Kiwi women) met at the Fiordland Adventure office at 7:15am and took the minibus to Lake Manapouri, which we crossed on a small boat named Adventurer 1, built for around 10 people. Once we had crossed the lake, we stopped at the public toilets in West Arm to change into our wetsuits (easier said than done!) – all provided by the company.

Doubtful Sound, New Zealand - spinthewindrose.com
Aboard Adventurer 1 at around 7:30am
Doubtful Sound, New Zealand - spinthewindrose.com
Misty morning fog over Lake Manapouri

Then we took a second bus over Wilmot Pass Road to the bridge, which gets washed away every few years by the river and therefore is in an almost constant state of repair. Because it’s still being rebuilt, we crossed a pedestrian bridge by foot, and took a third bus to Deep Cove, the gateway to Doubtful Sound. Like I said, it’s a lot more difficult to access than Milford Sound! Here, we had a short safety briefing before getting into our kayaks and setting off on our journey.

Doubtful Sound, New Zealand - spinthewindrose.com
The view of West Arm
Free to paddle

We floated along, with James doing most of the paddling and me doing most of the photographing, as we marvelled at the beauty of the setting we were in. We gazed up at the never-ending waterfalls cascading down the valleys, we ducked under the overhanging rainforests to peer into native animal habitats on land.

As we had hoped, the water was still, silent. Apart from a handful of tour cruise boats passing in the distance, we felt like we were the only ones there. I had seen photos of Doubtful Sound so many times before, but it still leaves you speechless when you see it with your own eyes.

Doubtful Sound, New Zealand - spinthewindrose.com
Huge waterfalls
Doubtful Sound, New Zealand - spinthewindrose.com
Paddling under the rainforest canopy
Doubtful Sound, New Zealand - spinthewindrose.com
Snow-capped mountains
Doubtful Sound, New Zealand - spinthewindrose.com
Learning while paddling

Our tour guide – an Irish guy named Cloudi who came to NZ on a Working Holiday Visa five years ago and hasn’t been able to leave yet – was incredibly knowledgeable about the plants and wildlife in Doubtful Sound, and told us facts about the area as well as Maori legends. The water in Doubtful Sound is home to many animals including penguins, dolphins, and many other birds, because the water is a mix of fresh water and salt water – we were lucky enough to spot a Fiordland crested penguin!

Doubtful Sound, New Zealand - spinthewindrose.com
Fiordland Crested Penguin
Doubtful Sound, New Zealand - spinthewindrose.com
Although this photo is quite zoomed in, we were less than 100 metres away

In total, we spent around five hours in the kayaks on the water, with lunch onboard a small boat (Adventurer 2) for about 45 mins. Not only was our kayaking experience slightly different to the norm, it also meant that we were surrounded by nature on the water. We were lucky to have good weather too – once the morning fog cleared, it was a clear, sunny day.

Doubtful Sound, New Zealand - spinthewindrose.com
Sun on the mountains

Doubtful Sound, New Zealand - spinthewindrose.com
Smiley selfie – the best day

A real Adventure in Fiordland

We chose the Full Day Guided Sea Kayaking Tour with Fiordland Adventure ($249 each). See their website for other tours.

Breakdown of the tour:
  • Bus from Manapouri office to Lake Manapouri (Meet at 7:15am)
  • Boat cruise across Lake Manapouri (with a guided tour over the speaker)
  • Bus journey from Lake Manapouri to Deep Cove
  • Boat in Doubtful Sound
  • Kayaking for 5 hours with a tour guide
  • Return journey back to Manapouri (By 17:30)
Doubtful Sound, New Zealand - spinthewindrose.com
Taking the boat back to Manapouri
What’s included:
  • Tea, coffee, hot chocolate, water and cookies
  • All necessary kayaking equipment (Wetsuit, thermal t-shirt, waterproof coat, cap, 2 person kayak, paddles, kayak skirt, lifevest, dry bag to keep valuables in).
  • Transport from the office in Manapouri to and from Doubtful Sound
What to wear:
  • Your bikini/ swimming cozzie (for when you strip off the wetsuit – plus my bottoms got wet)
  • Comfortable warm clothes (it’s cold in the morning and you’ll want warm clothes to change into after taking the wetsuit off!)
  • Sun cream on your face, neck and wrists
Doubtful Sound, New Zealand - spinthewindrose.com
Doubtful Sound, New Zealand – spinthewindrose.com
What to take:
  • Comfortable shoes (i.e. trainers, plimsolls) to wear in the kayak that you don’t mind getting wet – although my trainers were still bone dry by the end of the day
  • Your camera – check with your chosen tour company if it’s safe to take valuables onboard the kayak before booking. Some tour operators don’t recommend taking your phone or camera in case of water damage. Fiordland Adventure supplied us with dry bags to protect our valuables on the kayaks.
  • A rucksack or small bag (which you leave onboard the Adventurer 2) containing:
  • A towel
  • A change of socks and/or clothes
  • Lunch
  • Sunglasses
  • A bottle of water
Doubtful Sound, New Zealand - spinthewindrose.com
Can I go back there now?

Have you been kayaking in New Zealand? Did you prefer Milford Sound or Doubtful Sound?

Thanks for reading,


Note: All information is true and correct based on our tour on 28th October 2015. We chose to travel with the smaller Fiordland Adventure instead of larger competitors such as Real Journeys or Go Orange. We paid $249 NZD each and we sourced our tour independently.

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