Te Waipounamu/South Island
It all started when...
On the 24th of December, 2015, I leave the shores of the North Island at 2.30am on the next section of my journey. Officially, I reach Perano Head, just a little way north of the mouth of the Tory Channel, at exactly 7.00am. My South Island journey is about to begin.
To start with this morning, the ocean is calm and welcoming.
But then the waters become a little bit crazy for several kilometres as I cross the Tory Channel itself. In hindsight, the water conditions are nothing compared to what I’ve already been up against and what I’m about to go through.
How do I sum up this epic paddle? All I could do was think about each day as it arrived, nothing more. Others who had been there before me insisted on telling me about every inch of the coastline in intricate detail, sharing their scary stories, and their near-death experiences. As always, there were the continuing “what if’s?” But, as everyone is well aware, it’s different for each person who paddles. Each day, each beach; each is a uniquely personal experience.
I found the best way for me was to live in the moment, to try really hard not to absorb too many of the "what if’s?", otherwise my brain would most certainly have exploded! I have many fond memories, only a few of which I have revisited while writing this recap, such as arriving in Whites Bay on Christmas Eve and seeing a familiar face waving to me after paddling the Cook Strait, when the sheer fear of anticipation had nearly had me vomiting at the start. But, in reality, the Cook Strait was very kind and calm to me. There were no horror stories on that patch of water. Apart from my nerves causing me not to check my GPS tracking device, with the result that I paddled about 7kms more than I needed to do. A salutary lesson to be learned! Gerrie Marie was the man who met me at Whites Bay. That Christmas Eve was epic and will stay with me forever and will doubtless be retold again and again in the years to come.
All along the East Coast of the South Island there were some very treasured moments for it is, indeed, a beautiful coastline. From the Hector’s Dolphins and the sandy beaches to the rough rock wall and the dumping coastlines, it had it all.
On New Year’s Day, while most other people would have been nursing a hangover, I set out for a big day of paddling from Kaikoura to Gore Bay that proved to be another memorable occasion. For an unbelievable three hours that day, I was accompanied by a pod of Hector’s Dolphins. It was magical and so much fun that I felt truly blessed that day. Already I had felt the warmth of the South Island weather and of its people.
As I ventured further south, the spectacular scenery quite simply blew my mind and senses. Banks Peninsula I loved and, when I have the time, I will paddle every single bay. Each and every location I pulled into was special in its own right, the calmness of the inner bays being relaxing compared to the roughness of the outer waters.
Yes, of course there were difficult sections south of the Peninsula. Especially the long stone beaches, the river mouth arrivals and my far from perfect entrances into them! There were sections of the coastline where I could talk to Nat (my on-shore companion and invaluable back-up person) but there were places we couldn’t actually see each other and some of those beaches had me frowning in frustration.
The Catlins and the Nuggets were absolutely incredible and, once out on the water down that part of the coastline, the Hector‘s Dolphins came out to play again. There were some wonderfully long days, including paddling into Bluff at the bottom of the South Island, when I felt I needed to pinch myself. “Wow,” I thought, “Red you have actually made it!”
I began to wonder when it was going to get tougher. But I could never have imagined just how tough, either mentally or physically! I couldn’t decide which would be worse. Then, being close to Stewart Island, came the big decision time. There were so many stories being offered, so many heads being shaken when I mentioned that I wanted to paddle around Stewart Island as well. In the end, after much research and talking with the local fishermen, I did what only a handful of people knew was going to happen. I “gapped it” across Foveaux Strait. It was one huge paddle day from Bluff to Masons Bay, but it proved to be well worth the effort, as well as being the start of my going solo with no crew on that section of the journey. Solo I may have been, but what an incredible place to visit. Raw, rough and dynamic, that’s the West Coast of Stewart Island!
A few days spent in Doughboy Bay, a time when many must have held their collective breath for me. Only later did I discover that some kayakers had only got that far and then had to wait so long that a helicopter ride seemed the only way off the island. But I was lucky, having spent only three days there. Then I was back on the water to do some more, great paddling. There were some fantastic sights, far more fantastic than any camera could ever capture. I still lack sufficient words to describe some of the more memorable moments, both on and off the water.
Port Pegasus and Oban Town were both truly amazing and much more time was needed to fully appreciate what beautiful locations they are. All I can say is that you must make a point of visiting them. Even on a wet and rainy day, Steward Island is a very special place with its own atmosphere and personality. It has left its mark on me for life and the mere thought of it still makes me smile.
But back to Bluff, back to focus on the next section; to plan for a solo section up and into Fiordland. For example, I have to imagine how long it will actually take me. Trying to plan for that was one of the hardest things to do because there were so many unknowns. It was impossible to know the best places in which to plan food drops (closer or further away?). In retrospect, the names of the places all seem to blur. Anyway, we tried our best to plan and to pack for every eventuality. I became more and more silent as D-Day (my departure from Monkey Island) loomed closer. How can I even begin to describe my thoughts and my feelings at that time? When could I possibly hope to see my back-up team again?
Into the solo world I headed, with every spare space jam-packed full of food including my precious potatoes and kumara. I will never forget the push-off by Nat as she insisted on jamming even more potatoes into every nook and cranny she could find. Only for a moment did I dwell on what a mind-blowingly, huge escapade lay ahead of me. But then I had to pull my thoughts back to the day in hand. One day at a time.
Not once did I add up the actual number of days I spent in Fiordland as I waited for a weather window to head further north. Not once did I count in my head how long it was taking me to travel the length and breadth of Fiordland. I absolutely LOVED it! Everything about that section was so memorable but very hard for me to put into descriptive words. Each of the Sounds had a new feeling, a new energy and my emotions and senses were set on fire. Incredible, majestic, eye-opening. Yes, there were millions of sand flies! Yes, they can be very annoying. But I had to get over that and learn to enjoy their company. Looking back, they are just another part of that amazing, breath-taking world.
The storms were intense but my tent and double fly sheets worked so well that never once did I or my belongings get wet. What I recall vividly is the very special landscape, the history, the untouched raw sights, the sounds, the rain, the waterfalls, the crashing waves at the entrances to the Sounds, watching the weather patterns, and the brilliant, dazzling sunshine. It was, and is, one of the most amazing, magical and enchanting places in New Zealand.
I have a story from each stopover. I have such huge, happy memories of every person along this section and have to thank them all for making me smile on a daily basis. I’m afraid to name any one more than others in case I miss someone out. I was touched by the Southland community and can only say a VERY BIG THANK YOU! As I write this, the memories make me smile. Each and every one of you, in your own special way, made it the best.
Forty-five days later, I paddled into Jackson Bay, grinning from ear to ear. Nat was on the beach, jumping about, partly because of the sand flies but also seeing me arriving on a very beautiful beach. My first request was (yes, you’ve guessed it) chips! Hot, salty, deep-fried and incredibly tasty.
Then it was time for a face-off with the West Coast sections. Some time was spent with Paul Caffyn on the West Coast, taking up with his saying “much sucking of teeth”. Paul, I was humbled by your generosity and loved your humour. Then it was back to surf beaches, back to facing off against Mother Nature, back to being slapped by salty waves and lots of heaving, foaming water, back to heart-pounding departures and heavy landings; one of them leading to the sad demise of T2. The Heaphy Track, she tormented me a lot.
When I was halted south of Westhaven Inlet for an entire month, I began to think that maybe that was that. No paddling north, until a break in the winter weather allowed me a safe departure at last and a few wonderful bluebird days. Before I got past Farewell Spit, I had one more adrenalin smashing beach launch. Then it was up the beautiful coast to the base of Farewell Spit. I was happy, happy, happy, as I greeted my partner Jase on the beach. It was an incredible feeling. We sat in the shelter of the sand dunes that early evening, eating a packet of chippies and drinking a hot cuppa from the thermos he had brought with him. Then, only one day later, I walked to the beach in the freezing cold of the morning, to set off in an attempt to get around the tip. The Spit and I finally said farewell to each other, and I also said my “good-byes” to the amazing community of Kaihoka and the surrounding areas (Takaka and Golden Bay).
Then it was on to Separation Point. I stopped and said a special “Hi!” to this great spiritual place with many indelible memories. Soon it was time for a big fire on a very cold night with a star-studded sky at Totaranui, the 4000km mark having at last been achieved. I should mention here that the DOC campsites are magnificent and we almost wished that the weather would continue blowing so we could stay on a little longer. But we also knew that I had to get out on the water whenever possible, so this part of the journey flew past way too quickly.
The crossing of Nelson Harbour from Kaiteriteri to Pepin Island was unpleasant to say the least. Poor visibility, rain for the entire day, south west winds and swell, not to mention the necessity of having to dodge five container ships. This left me mentally drained and, with no food or liquids taken on this crossing, I had a mental melt-down that stopped me in my tracks at Pepin Island. Well, to be honest, it was actually the support crew who stopped me from going any further. I was disgruntled and angry at my own stupidity and that signaled the end of my day.
We were forced to wait another day or two for better weather before proceeding on the next leg of my journey up to and through French Pass. How hard I had studied this particular passage of water; how attentively I had listened to the locals, hearing not only countless tales of paddling mishaps but also, in apparent contradiction, how simple it was to pass through on a slack tide, tucked beneath the cliffs.
In the end, I had to wait patiently for Jase to clamber up from the beach to the viewing platform to take my picture. Then, with a huge flourish of my paddle and grinning from ear to ear, I skimmed into the DOC campsite on the other side of the Pass, into beautiful Elmslie Bay. We both fell in love with this little bay but sadly there was no time to stop for a day or two, and the night was more about getting me ready for the final push back to Tory Channel in what proved to be a good day on the water.
On Tuesday August 16, off I set with tears rolling down my face. After all, this could be it! As I got closer to the Queen Charlotte Sounds, I harboured a small glimmer of hope in my heart that maybe, just maybe, Aotearoa was giving me a precious weather gift. I said a big “thank you!” and gapped it on the outside of Arapawa Island, past Perano Head and into Tory Channel.
There was a picture perfect sunset and my South Island trip was complete. No pavlova in my face (like so many others who have completed this circumnavigation) but rather, a wonderful welcome from the lovely people at Whekenui Bay as I pulled up on their beach intending to camp there for the night. Instead, I was given the use of a lovely little farm cottage overnight and a delicious seafood gumbo for dinner.
Everything in the South Island ended up as beautifully as it started out. The whole experience has been incredible and a huge part of me is sad that that part of my journey is now over. What a way to see the sights of the South Island! What started out as a paddling journey has now become more of an odyssey, with my life having become almost that of a nomad. On the way, I have been met with nothing but generosity from the most incredible people and they, in turn, have become part of my story together with all the amazing sights and sounds.
The emotions I have experienced on this trip are unbelievable, way more than I can even begin to describe; feelings from way deep inside me that most people won’t even be able to start to understand, no matter how hard I try to describe it to them verbally, more than I ever believed possible. It was the people I met who have been the icing on this incredible, delicious cake. It is the most amazing life gifts and friendships I have made. I will need to get back into Cuzzie and keep driving around saying “Hi!” at least one more time and reflect again as I go!
On Wednesday August 17, I paddle in and along Tory Channel. I have no stress or cares today. With a head wind and a mostly outgoing tide, I also take my time. This place is so pretty. This place, even with so many different types of craft whizzing about, has something very special about it. I could very easily return here to live, to hide away from the rest of the world.
I have to say thank you, Te Waipounamu. Thank you for a very special time in a very special part of the world. You are so beautiful in so many ways. This red head has total respect for you! What a crazy incredible dream!!
As Paul Caffyn has said "You are now the oldest female to paddle the South Island, and the first redhead ever to do so." Thanks Paul.