Sandflies and Bird Talk [Overnight in Doubtful Sounds, 17.-18.01.2020]

The one thing we had actually booked and planned ahead of stepping onto New Zealand’s ground was an overnight kayaking trip in Doubtful Sounds.

Doubtful Sounds being the “little, less disturbed by tourists sister” of Milford Sound. Partly – or mostly? – because you can’t reach it as easy as Milford. You need to take a 45 minute boat trip across the lake and a 40 minute bus ride til you reach Deep Cove for the start of your kayaking journey.

Milford Sound is a beautiful drive along the Road to Milford. Many tour boats leave on regular schedule and you can make it very easy to get an impression of the Sounds which are actually Fjords. But we come to that later.

We sit in the bus to Deep Cove and I wonder how they got the buses here – a part of the Fjord that you can only reach by boat. Our bus driver tells a lot of stories over the loudspeakers to the people sharing the ride.

The bus drivers here in New Zealand have always been a surprise bag. You never know what kind of stories they will tell you, but you can be sure they will. “I am talking a lot about plants and trees because that’s what I’m interested in”, one told us right before the start. And his stories were great. Especially about how the cabbage tree came to its name. Another driver in Christchurch was more settled. “Here you can see the art museum. It has a lot of… art stuff. yeah”

Lots of day kayakers are on the bus and only 8 are staying overnight, including us. Our driver continues tells us about a very difficult multiple days hike through this area and the more she gets into details the more I am intrigued while Bridget gets nervous about someone else seeding an idea into my head. She tells us many stories about the place until she relieves my thoughts about the original question I had on my mind. She says that at the start and the end of the season the buses are shipped over the lake with a barge. Shortly after we arrive at the small port of Deep Cove to learn about our kayaking equipment, teams, our guides and the tour we’re about to embark on.

“Doubtful and Milford Sound are not actually Sounds which are carved by rivers, they are Fjords, carved by glaciers. But once we realized the mistake it was too late to get the name out of the heads, so we just called the whole area Fiordland to correct the mistake. But then made another mistake and wrote it with an i instead of a j. But, whatever. You know, we happen to make many naming mistakes and then just stick to them boldly,” our kayak guide tells us while we all hide in the insect shelter after setting up our tents and being chased and bitten by thousands of Sandflies. Literally clouds of Sandflies circling around us. I have never seen anything like that before.

Bridget note: I think this was the ultimate relationship test. Try to set up a tent together, while thousands of tiny bugs bite you and fly into your mouth and nose. Bonus points if English if your second language. Nothing like choking on a sand fly to make you forget words.

Leon: Hand me the….(coughs as a sandfly accidently gets inhaled)
Bridget: (swatting madly at sandflies by her face) The what?
Leon: the…thing!
Bridget: What thing?!
Leon: (slapping his hand to kill a biter, then points to a post) That thing!
Bridget: (too busy trying to swat everything away from her body to see where Leon was pointing) What? Use words!
Leon: I CAN’T REMEMBER WORDS!

We survived. And we still love each other.

We had a wonderful full day of paddling along the different arms of the Fjord. “How deep is the water here?” “The deepest point is 480 meters. During the Ice Age the glaciers reached even another 400 meters above the highest hill you see here.” These were numbers my brain couldn’t really process when I looked at the green rising from the water’s surface.

Two times we got out of the kayaks and stepped onto to shore – for a bathroom break and lunch. The untouched nature you meet is intriguing and you wonder why no one ever settled here or stays longer until swarms of sandflies suddenly rise from the ground and cover you until you decide to leave. Once they found you they won’t let go even if you move around, they will follow you.

“How can you be so immune and not caring about their bites?” “Ah, you get used to it. One season, maybe two is enough. But you will definitely suffer during that first season.” We would later learn from a dish towel in Oamaru that „The bites itch less with exposure to sandflies. About 10,000 bites should be sufficient.“

When you are stuck with 6 others and a local in a sandfly shelter, somewhere on a bank of a Fjord, you go through all the questions that piled up since the start of your trip. Our tonight’s talk was bird talk. “Which is your favorite New Zealand bird?”

“The Southland Robin.” is my answer since I met the bird for the first time in 2017 while doing the Milford Track.

“Really??? We have so many iconic birds and you pick the robin?”

It is true there are many extraordinary birds in New Zealand. And we were lucky to meet a couple of these in the mountains and the forests.

  • The Kea. Specialty: Super smart and super cheeky.
  • The Tui. Specialty: Sounds like R2-D2
  • The Rock Wren. Specialty: Adorably tiny.
  • The Fantail. Specialty: Catches Sandflies with its tail feathers. And flying in the weirdest patterns.

Yes, the Fantail is really crazy. Here is a small taste of the psychedelic flight pattern. “You know, if I animated the realistic flight pattern of a Fantail my supervisor would tell me to stop and correct that sh*&. Because it doesn’t look real,” Bridget tells me.

“We have a yearly competition where New Zealand can vote for their favorite bird and the winning bird gets the most funding that year for preservation. And last year of all birds which would need preservation New Zealanders voted for the Wood Pigeon. The drunken bird! Such a common bird…” “Why drunken bird?” “Because it likes to eat fermented fruit and then flies very zig-zaggy.”

If you can’t believe it like me watch the Auckland Zoo’s short video about it:

But no matter how cool all the other birds are, the Southland Robin is just the cutest bird I have ever met. And it will have my eternal love and friendship.

We share some more hot chocolates, snacks and stories before the sun sets and it is time for the sandflies to go to sleep and the mosquitos to wake up. We will get up early tomorrow, just after sunrise. “You will have a chance to pack your stuff before the sandflies rise.”

PS: Yes, of course we have visited Milford Sounds as well but made it a rather fun stop over, walked the Key Summit Trail, finished the last craft beer in our growler and walked and cooked in the sunset hours at Getrude’s Valley. This is how it looked like.

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