When Lieutenant (not yet captain) James Cook explored the wild southwest coast of the South Island, where long, deep fjords probe like crooked fingers into mountains smothered beneath rainforest, he feared trying to sail into this particular sliver of sea—he thought the prevailing westerly winds would prevent his ship from maneuvering back out. He dubbed the place Doubtful Harbor, and the name stuck.
It should be called Certain Sound today, because modern explorers in nimble kayaks are guaranteed an only-in-New Zealand experience. Unlike better-known Milford Sound to the north, with its constant cruise boat and ferry traffic, the wilderness here is unchanged since Cook’s time. Sheer granite walls erupt straight out of the sea to 4,000-foot summits, and fur seals, bottlenose dolphins, and nesting crested penguins thrive in the pristine environment.
On a beginner-friendly overnight sea kayaking tour from Deep Cove to Hall Arm, on Doubtful Sound’s often-glassy waters, you’ll paddle beneath 1,000-foot waterfalls on cliffs so choked with twisted podocarp and fernlike punga trees that the occasional “tree avalanche” rips down the walls.
Each day involves four to five hours of leisurely paddling, and the campsite alone is worth the effort: It sits tucked in the forest behind a secluded, rocky beach with a panorama of vaulted cliffs reflected in the water. In the evening, stroll to the beach for a southern hemisphere sky machine-gunned with stars, and look for Orion standing on his head (in summer).
Do it It’s possible to BYO sea kayak for a DIY trip, but the put-in at Deep Cove is remote and requires a ferry ride across Lake Manapouri.
Best bet Go with Fiordland Wilderness Experiences ($399NZ/person including transportation and food; fiordlandseakayak.co.nz.).
-Mapped by Jonathan Dorn and Michael Lanza
- Distance: 33.6
Location: -45.463009, 167.153533
Location: -45.461387, 167.113108
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Location: -45.472243, 167.080171