Milford Sound Kayaking Disaster

Published: June 29th 2014
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In retrospect, I probably could have guessed at this point that it wasn't going to end well for me.
Day four it was raining vigorously enough to make up for all the raining that didn't happen on days one two and three. I had booked to go skydiving but it was cancelled due to the inclement weather. I was secretly pleased, because somehow the idea of being terrified whilst cold and damp was infinitely less appealing than being cheerfully terrified in the sunshine. I decided not to hang around in Queenstown another day. Instead I planned to drive to Te Anu and then on to Milford Sound. I had no idea what a 'sound' was but there seemed to be lots of them in New Zealand and I had been told that there would be seals and you can kayak, so it sounded like the sort of thing I might enjoy. Plus apparently it always rains at Milford Sound anyway, so the weather forecast is irrelevant.

I didn't have a map aside from the pull out one in the back of my Lonely Planet, which I didn’t trust that because their shitty half-arsed maps have lead me into all kinds of trouble the world over. I’d been planning to use Google Maps but forgot to bring a car charger,

After the clouds cleared
meaning my elderly iPhone would only provide about 17 minutes of SatNav functionality before giving up. Luckily New Zealand really doesn't have that many roads. The one to Te Anu was winding and almost deserted, the edges blurred into dense fog. I drove Ruby (my hire car) off into the murk, occasionally remembering to change gear. I knew I was driving through the mountains, but at first their presence was only hinted at. Occasionally the tips would swim into focus, always much closer and higher than expected. Later the sun stripped back the cloud in layers, revealing scenery piece by piece, until just long thin streamers of white remained, hovering low over the lake.

On arriving in Te Anu, the first thing I saw was a sign advertising a Trout Observatory. Two dollar entry. Sadly it was closed, because I was deeply curious about how exactly you go about observing trout. The next thing was a "gourmet pie shop" with a massive window display advertising venison and roast porkbelly pies. I pretty much stopped my car in the middle of the road, leapt out and ran towards the pie shop. Sadly a smaller sign on the door carried the

Genuinely devastated that it was closed.
terrible news that it had closed for winter just days before. This pretty much sums up my experience of Te Anu.

Pieless, I wandered off to find the kayaking company I'd heard about. They were only running one of their ten or so different trip options in winter because, it was implied, only a genuine moron would want to kayak in this kind of weather. I signed up. The trip comes with transport from Te Anu, but I wanted to get there myself because it’s supposed to be an amazing drive with various scenic places to stop off along the way, so I booked a dorm room at the only accommodation in Milford itself.

Te Anu is the last petrol stop before Milford, so I thought I'd better top up Ruby's tank for the 250km round trip. After a prolonged struggle I still could not figure out how to open the petrol tank cap, and refused any assistance from the concerned lady who worked at the petrol station because, as I explained, I needed to figure it out for myself or I wouldn't learn. She gave me the kind of look a statement like this deserves, then retreated to a safe distance. I got it eventually.

The landscape changed as I drove on towards Milford. The mountains were now draped in silver threads, like snail trails running down the rock face. As I got closer I realised the snail trails were hundreds of tall skinny waterfalls. I could make out their faint static roar, in surround sound, coming from everywhere.

At one point the road passed through a 1km long single track tunnel. This is essentially just a glorified cave. The walls are cut from bare rock so it continued to rain on the inside, with water seeping through from above. The lights were on red as I approached so I pulled over a little way back at the side of the road to take some waterfall pictures. No cars were coming either way, the road was deserted. I played with my camera, kicked rocks around in a stream and waited an indeterminable amount of time for the lights to change. Eventually another car approached the tunnel and the green light flashed on immediately. As I drove up behind them through the entrance I spotted a sign that said "wait on this line to activate lights". There must be some kind of sensor. I could have been waiting a very long time.

The weather seemed to cycle through four whole seasons in one afternoon, the transition from one to the other marked with brief rainbows. By the time I arrived at Mildford Sound Lodge it had settled firmly back into winter. As soon as I was safely inside the hostel, an epic storm kicked off. It was the kind of storm that makes people put down their laptops and half eaten sandwiches, wander over to the window and say things like "oooohhhh" and "fuck!". Doors and shutters blew open. The wind caught hold of the rain and the waterfalls, whipping them up till they were indistinguishable, a swirling airborne whirlpool. Looking out the huge glass windows fronting the lounge gave the disconcerting impression of being underwater. I did not have high hopes for kayaking going ahead in the morning. In the middle of it all a group of walkers who'd been out on the 4 day Milford Trail burst into the hostel, wild eyed and dripping wet, slamming the door behind them as though they were being chased by a pack of something vicious. Aside from them the hostel was mostly occupied by one large group of Japanese tourists in faintly matching outfits. They seemed to have brought most of a pig with them, which they were dissecting and cooking in the kitchen, whilst occasionally bursting into song.

The storm continued overnight with undiminished enthusiasm. Sleeping curled up on the top bunk in a little wooden chalet felt like being on a ship at sea. Things were calming down slightly by morning, but the staff at the hostel were still very doubtful that the kayaking trip would be running. Much too windy. When the guide rocked up from Te Anu at 10am with the rest of the kayakers, the wind suddenly dropped. She was confident we could go ahead.

In a wonky tent on the shore of the lake, we stripped off our own clothes and dressed in company issue gear. Stripy thermal leggings and long sleeve top, two fleeces, two different kinds of hat, life jacket and canary yellow waterproof of the type beloved by fishermen the world over. To top it all off, we were strapped into a wearable 'splash skirt', a voluminous neoprene circle designed to form a seal around
Mildford Sound LodgeMildford Sound LodgeMildford Sound Lodge

Nice safe warm cozy hostel.
the opening of the kayak, theoretically keeping our bottom half dry.

We installed ourselves in our kayaks, two in each, and paddled out into the strangely metallic looking water. Milford Sound is an unusual mixture of sea and river, according to our guide. A 6 meter layer of darkly discoloured fresh water, full of minerals and tannins leeched out from the rich soil, overlies the salty stuff beneath. I searched my brain for where I’d come across the word tannins before, realised they’re found in wine, and decided I prefer them there. The waterfalls, which had been silvery trickles the day before, now came bouncing down the mountains. Hundreds of them, branching over and over like capillaries. Apparently 90% of the falls dry up within 2 hours of the rain stopping. For us everything was in full flow. Including the sky. The tops of the peaks were again invisible, making the waterfalls looked like tendrils sent down from the jellyfish clouds.

I really hadn’t picked the best day to go kayaking. It was raining, it was windy, it was cold. We couldn't really see a whole lot. Sly trickles of water somehow made their way down through my
The ViewThe ViewThe View

From the tent on the shore where we got changed.
many waterproof layers, forming a puddle in my knickers. Still, I was enjoying it at this point. Even when the singing Japanese tourists from the hostel cruised past on their luxury boat, pointing and taking photos of us, I still just about managed to find it funny. Sure I could have taken the easy option and gone on a boat trip like any normal sane person, but that would have been less memorable. It's better to work hard for your experiences, right? Engage with the landscape. Or so I told myself, repeatedly.

Our perky American guide repeatedly shouted motivational phrases at us while we were being bashed about by waves and swearing. “Come on guys! You’re doing awesome!”. Clearly we were not doing awesome. Luckily my ears were covered in fleecy layers and sealed inside a plastic hood, so I could barely hear anything that was being said. The wind and rain got progressively fiercer as we made our way further out.

So we paddled along, sticking close to the base of the cliffs. We didn’t see any seals, as all the native wildlife was far too sensible to be out in this weather. Everyone was just about holding it together until an hour or two in when we had to cross the wide open expanse of the fjord. Then things got silly. As soon as we peeked out from the sheltered bay we were blasted full in the face with merciless wintery pain. It rained so hard it hurt, stinging my few little exposed patches of skin. I forced myself to keep my eyes open. Waves slapped us around unrelentingly. Paddling hard directly into the wind, we were barely crawling forwards. The visibility deteriorated to the point where we could barely see the other side. Our five kayaks had spread out in wildly different directions, spun about in the wind. For a while it wasn't really clear whether the group were going to go forward or turn back, but it looked like the guide wanted us to carry on (from what I could tell, her kayak was a tiny yellow spec in the distance), so we did. It felt like it took us an hour to finally get across, the guide taking the most indirect route imaginable in order to keep us all vaguely together.

The girl I was sharing my kayak with basically lost the
will to live half way through, declaring that she couldn't paddle any further. I think she was shouting something about getting rescued, but I couldn't really hear her above the sound of the wind and my own swearing. Rescue didn't seem like a particularly viable option at that point, so for lack of any better ideas I kept on paddling. Now I would never claim to be particularly athletic, but I'm not completely pathetic either. I've sea kayaked a few times before, predominantly in nice comfortable hospitable countries, like Thailand. Most recently Sam and I got lost for an entire day on lake Malawi, paddled a ludicrous distance by accident then rocked up to return the kayak 3 hours late with matching extreme sunburn. I've coped fine with my previous kayaking experiences. It's just this was actually hard. Really hard. And bleak. Mostly it was just bleak.

Eventually we all made it to the other side. Perky American Guide told us all how AWESOME we had done and suggested that if we grab hold of each other and form our kayaks into a raft, now might be a good time to eat a snack or take photos. We all
Photo 1Photo 1Photo 1

One of only two photos taken whilst actually kayaking. I feel this accurately represents not only the weather conditions, but the condition of my soul.
looked at her as if she had gone completely insane, which I believe she had. I sneaked my phone out of my dry bag and took exactly 3 photos before it go so cold and wet it switched itself off. Other people followed her instruction to eat and started stuffing handfuls of squashed, soggy muffin into their mouths, or drinking water, which to me seemed pointless because I'd definitely ingested half a litre of rainwater over the past hour purely by opening my mouth.

The other girl in my kayak asked how much further we had to go. I felt sorry for her. She wasn't a complete wimp, she just hadn't been prepared for how unrelentingly horrible this was going to be. We were the only all girl boat, the other three had at least one moderately sized bloke. Two of them, it turned out, had been reserves for some kind of US rowing team. And even they looked pretty pissed off by this point. Perky Guide told us all there was a boat that could come rescue us but only in an emergency, so we'd better crack on. I tried for a while, but my kayak buddy wasn't actually paddling any more and we were falling further behind. She asked again if we could just give up and get rescued.

Now I didn't want to get rescued, partly because I am stubborn, partly because I knew I would have to write about it in this blog and you would all laugh at me. I still think we could have made it back. Probably. But it also occurred to me that I am on holiday and I'm supposed to be having fun. This is not army bootcamp. This is BACKPACKING. If I don't like this, I am well within my rights to sack it off and go have a beer.

So I agreed to be rescued. The guide was much too far away to hear us shout. We made some "fuck this, we're giving up" type hand signals. She paddled over and directed us to a nearby beach. Getting out of the kayak involved unsealing my neoprene 'splash skirt' and standing up, releasing a torrent of freezing water down my legs. I was instantly 100% colder and more miserable than I had been a second ago. If it was chilly whilst paddling away sealed inside the kayak, it was bloody freezing standing on a rocky beach in the rain waiting to be rescued. We didn't have any trousers on, just ridiculous stripy thermal leggings. So by the time the rescue boat arrived I was shivering uncontrollably and genuinely in need of rescue. It was a little inflatable with an outboard motor, clearly struggling to get close to the rocky beach. I had a horrible moment of realisation that to make it to the boat I was going to have to wade into the water. There was clearly no option other than to get in the water. But it still seemed like the stupidest most counterintuitive thing anyone had ever suggested to me. I was so very cold and wet already. Why do the one thing that could possibly make it worse?

Wearing walking boots, stripy leggings, a bright yellow waterproof, two hats and the ridiculous oversized neoprene skirt around my waist, I splashed in. The water was so cold I forgot to how breathe for a few seconds. When I remembered how to breathe, I forgot how to say anything other than the word "FUCK!". My kayak buddy kept slipping over, unable to keep her balance.

My kayak buddy on the rescue boat, staring in total confusion at the rainbow, which had clearly been sent to mock us.
I grabbed hold of her and we shuffled deeper, edging towards the little boat. The splash skirt flopped around in the water between my legs, somewhat hindering my progress. We were waist deep. My many layers of fleece and thermal sucked up all the cold water, like a sponge.

On reaching the boat we were hauled in head first, slipping around on the floor as stunned and helpless as freshly caught fish. Our rescuer looked sympathetic. They’d had trouble even getting their boat out because the waves were nearly flipping it. “So the weather just changed on you huh?”, he enquired. “NO!”, we both shouted in unison, “it's been like this THE WHOLE TIME”.

As we approached the landing site the rain suddenly cut out, like someone turning off a tap. Beams of sunlight appeared from god knows where, the wind died down and two huge arching rainbows materialised across the water. I shouted “NEW ZEALAND, YOU HAVE GOT TO BE SHITTING ME”. The rescue boat driver was absolutely delighted by this turn of events. “She’s temperamental one, is Milford Sound”, he smiled. I could think of some other words to describe her.

I flopped out of

This back in the warm hostel, well over an hour after getting out of the boat.
the boat and waddled over to the relative safety of the lake shore tent, in order to try and re-perfuse my toes. As soon as the freezing water spilled over the top of my boots, I knew I was in trouble. A have a touch of Reynauld's Syndrome, which means I get vasospasm in my fingers and toes when they get cold, temporarily cutting off the blood supply. It usually only happens if I do something really stupid, like the time I got frostbite after I lost my shoes on night out in London and ended up in the Emergency Department, where they had to call the burns team to come and drain my toe blisters.

I could already gauge what colour my toes were going to be by their degree of numbness. Ten minutes of blasting them with the heater in the tent did nothing to fix it, but nearly set clothes on fire. An hour or so later, back at the lodge, they were still numb but turning one by one from white to a disturbing hyperaemic cherry red. Given that I’d lost the ability to feel my feet and the only pair of boots I had with me were soaking wet, rather than drive back barefoot I resigned myself to another night at Milford Lodge. I was 100km away from the nearest shop that would sell me a beer, but luckily some drunk Germans took pity on me.

I had food with me (noodles, soup) but not much money, so back at the hostel cafe, far away from phone signal, I faced the choice between delicious muffin and $3 worth of Internet access to let Sam know where I was. I chose muffin. This may seem cruel given that the last message I sent him 48 hours ago simply stated "I'm going sky diving today!". And then silence. But there was no ATM and I really felt like I deserved a muffin.


29th June 2014

Laughing at with you..sorry! Your blog had me in stitches...i think I used the phrase New Zealand youve got to be shitting me too somewhere on a horses bum. Pic 1 speaks a thousand words. Really loving your blogs :)
5th July 2014

Haha thanks very much. I think New Zealand has a habit of doing these things, I'm sure I'm not the only person to have shouted that particular phrase.
29th June 2014

Hard and bleak!
That's about the worst story I've ever heard about magical (not) NZ. I'm also a fan of traveling during the off-season to avoid crowds and high prices, but it sounds as if you paid too-high a price. Rescue--oh, yes! Glad you and your toes made it out alive.
5th July 2014

I'd still recommend New Zealand in the off season, I just needed to take the hint that some activities are better left for summertime! Mildford Sound managed to be bleak and beautiful at the same time :)
29th June 2014

I suppose multiple uses of the F word is appropriate in this case...
and your muffin was the right choice despite causing Mark some anxiety.
5th July 2014

Yes I have to learn to swear less, sorry! You're not the first person that's mentioned that. I started off just writing this for my Facebook friends, I forget that grownups read it now!
29th June 2014

I really enjoyed reading this post...
and very much liked your writing style, it was all described with a lot of humor. You certainly worked hard for this experience, so at least you know it'll be a memorable one. Cheers.
5th July 2014

Thank you! I really like the quote you have on your profile page - "The most dangerous risk of all - The risk of spending your life not doing what you want on the bet you can buy yourself the freedom to do it later". Where is that from?
29th June 2014

Holiday injuries are painful. Wow what a story. Unrelenting weather....and then the freaking rainbows. As you say, unbelievable. Isn't this supposed to be fun? Love your stories.
5th July 2014

Thank you :) When ever anything goes wrong, I comfort myself by thinking "oh well, at least other people will enjoy laughing at me when I write about this in my blog".
30th June 2014

Muffin-worthy indeed!
Your ending genuinely had me laughing aloud. I cannot tell you the number of time this sentiment - "partly because I'm stubborn, partly because I knew I would have to write about it in this blog" - has landed us, as well, in the most ridiculous of circumstances. But those always make for the best stories later. :)
5th July 2014

Haha thanks, I'm glad it's not just me that thinks like that!
1st July 2014

You should have taken a cruise :)
May in Fiordland might not be winter yet but as there are glaciers around and it gets about 4 metres of rain a year! I'm sure that you will look back and laugh (one day). Thanks for the entertaining blog. It made me read it all the way through :) Next time take a cruise with us at
1st July 2014

truely wonderfully tale of woe
You write so well of your misadventure. (It brings to mind my late excursion into wretchedness, although of an entirely different sort: the Indian Consulate for Foreigners where all I needed to obtain was an Exit Visa for my flight home that night. ) Thanks for the read!
5th July 2014

Ohhh that sounds worse. I'll take the icey cold lake over the Indian Consulate any time.
5th July 2014

The quote...
I read it in one of those typical photos with motivational phrases people upload. This one was spot on. I guess it's anonimous, as it doesn't have a name attached. In t future I'll just say it's mine and claim copyrights

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