Tuesday, 22 January 2013

Snow, storms and sunshine

Kayaking the Marlborough Sounds, November 2012

The beach on Endeavour Inlet
We sat on the golden sand beneath pale cliffs, exotic foliage draped over the rocks and tree ferns silhouetted against a blue sky. Smoke blew in my eyes from the little fire on which we're cooking two Kawahai fish; large, silver and shiny, dappled and tiger-striped like mackerel. The fish rest on a makeshift grill - a line of tent pegs balanced between two rocks- and sizzle and spatter satisfyingly. We're hungry after a morning sea kayaking, but this would be worth waiting for... 
Not bad for a first attempt!

That morning was the first time we'd tried to fish and it had been remarkably successful, with these two prizes caught within minutes of 
putting out our line each time, without any skill on our part. A fisherman at our beach side camp the night before had gifted us a line and spinner, after we sampled his delicious smoked Kawahai, speckled with peppercorns and drizzled in lemon- some of the best fish I've ever tasted. We'd thanked him and trailed the line behind the kayak, but didn't expect to actually catch anything. One morning had us convinced there was nothing to this fishing lark- it was even easier than collecting and cooking the large mussels we'd eaten the day before. 

Tent peg grill!

Fish for tea

Snow- boil for 15 mins, then ready to drink!
Sitting in the heat on that beach on the shore of Endeavour Inlet, planning a cooling dip after our barbecue lunch, it was hard to believe that a few days ago, and not that many miles away, we'd been melting snow for drinking water and building a fire to keep us warm rather than cook on. Our best tramp yet had been the 3 days we'd just spent in Nelson Lakes National Park. The route had travelled along an open ridge with great views of the surrounding countryside, forest and mountains ahead. The grumpy lady in the DOC office (Department of Conservation- a big part of our lives out here, providing all our tramping info, campsites, maps and weather forecasts) had warned us 'there's no point in going to Lake Angelus unless you like walking in knee deep snow'. She wasn't to know, but that's exactly the sort of thing we do like! So we'd made it across the occasional patch of snow along the increasingly steep and rocky ridge to the Angelus Hut- in a little corner of winter unseasonably trapped in a high snowy basin. 

Evening sun lights up a frozen scene at Lake Angelus

Scrambling above frozen Lake Angelus
It was like a different world as we dropped down the white slopes of that corrie, where a mountain hut perched on the edge of a frozen lake, snowdrifts on the ice patterned by the wind into swirls and circles. We had the hut to ourselves, and Karl set off to the tree line for wood to light the stove, which we would have to sleep by to keep warm. That evening the sun broke through a thick layer of dark cloud that was pouring over the ridge, and the ice of the lake gleamed and dazzled, lighting up the black and white scene for a beautiful moment before it disappeared back into cloud. We spent a day up there breaking trail up snow slopes and scrambling rocky sections as we explored the ridge, before dropping back into summer down in the valley. It was incredible how quickly we could move from one season and environment to another here. Just a day after leaving Nelson Lakes we were launching a rented sea kayak from the beach to start a 6 day journey into the Marlborough sounds.

Navigating the sounds

Queen Charlotte Sound scenery
It was great to be kayaking again, one of our favourite ways to spend time, and this was a brilliant area to explore, with loads of inlets and channels and a beautiful coastline of native jungle. There were very few other boats around, and no other paddlers. Each day we travelled a little further down the Queen Charlotte Sound and out towards the open sea. The wind could be difficult; funnelled by the steep sided sounds so we always seemed to be heading into it. Every afternoon it would pick up in squalls that raced across the surface towards us, giving us time to brace ourselves before they hit. But so far the wind had done nothing more than provide a bit of interest and challenge. 

Clouds building in Endeavour Inlet
As we sat on the beach cooking our fish in the shelter of the cliffs, it suddenly changed. Within seconds the sea went from being calm and inviting to having quite rough breakers rolling in. The smoke from the fire started to head in the opposite direction, and there were white horses just beyond the beach. A strong Northerly seemed to have come from nowhere, and that was the direction we had to head up the wide expanse of Endeavour Inlet to reach our planned camp. Initially we waited it out, not thinking too much of the waves but knowing it would make for a strenuous paddle. But the wind was getting stronger rather than lighter, the afternoon was getting on, and we couldn't spend the night here on this little cliff bound tidal beach with no fresh water. There seemed nothing for it but to don our waterproof cags, buoyancy aids and spray decks, and launch into the breakers..

Fine weather paddling...but it's not always like this!
In my experience of sea kayaking expeditions, there is always one dodgy passage where you feel like you've bitten off a little more than you can chew (my various kayaking companions will all remember this feeling- Claire in Norway, Julia in Greece, Emma in Sardinia and Karl in Lofoten!). 
They say that capsize is something that happens about 15 minutes after you make the wrong decision, but it didn't take as long as that to realise that perhaps we shouldn't be out there. The waves were much bigger than they had looked from the beach, but  more significantly they were very steep and with a short period, which didn't give us a lot of time to react to one before the next was upon us. We were heading straight into the wind, which meant the waves were breaking over the bow of the kayak. The water would wash over it, submerging the deck and spilling into my cockpit. The wind was too strong for paddling to be very effective, but there was nothing else we could do. Lifting the paddles into the gusts was hard work as we tried to pull back through the waves against so much resistance; despite our best efforts it didn't feel like we were making much progress. 

It was almost impossible to communicate, trying to shout to each other through the roar of the wind, and it all felt a little too vulnerable. A yacht was battling along not too far from us, its mainsail well reefed but heeling alarmingly nevertheless. Once that was out of sight, there were no other boats. I mentally went through the capsize drill, and checked the location of the flares...just in case. Righting a loaded sea kayak and getting back into it is tricky enough in flat water, but would be extremely difficult in these waves. I scanned the increasingly distant rocky shore, looking for any sheltered landing that we could retreat to. There were only two directions our kayak could travel in these conditions- directly upwind or downwind. To try and cross the waves wasn't an option- as soon as the boat was side on to them it would lose all its stability and capsize would be inevitable, so we had to just keep bow into the waves and head down as salt water sprayed in our faces. 

Although it wasn't a situation I would choose to be in, this kind of kayaking is really exhilarating. In 'the zone', thinking of nothing but each coming wave and how to get through it, holding the boat straight and well-braced for the shudder that would come with each wave, and just keeping going. Time becomes distorted as the mind is so focused. I don't know how long we'd been going, but as the wind showed no sign of abating, and the clouds we were headed into seemed ever darker and more ominous, I continued to glance back over my shoulder for any safe spot we could run away to. There was a little beach just coming into view around a headland, and it looked like we might make it over there by paddling before the wind. The big issue would be to risk turning a full 180 degrees in these conditions. Some shouted discussion and the decision was made- we got ready to turn the boat as quickly as we could, timing it in between the larger sets and aiming to get the whole procedure done between waves if we could. It was nerve racking, but seconds later we were surfing before the wind, suddenly moving very fast. We now had very little control, with the waves breaking over the stern and washing up the boat as far as Karl's cockpit as we surfed all the way down the sound, our paddling only serving to help keep the boat straight. Once we knew we were going to safely make it to the shore, we could just enjoy the sensation of racing through the water, each wave surging us forward and closer to dry land.

The next morning- calm as could be
That dry land felt so good underfoot! As soon as we were in the shelter of the cove it was hard to believe that it was really so windy out there. Not only were we safe, but there was a stream for fresh water and even a little flat area in the long grass to camp, surrounded by fox gloves and sheltered by tree ferns. The wind dropped completely a few hours later and in the evening calm the sea became as flat as a millpond. Clearly we had only needed to wait it out and our journey up Endeavour Inlet would have been a very different kind of paddle. One to put down to experience!

Collecting mussels by kayak
The rest of our 6 days in the Marlborough Sounds was less exciting, but nevertheless very enjoyable sea kayaking, still with a fair bit of wind but also plenty of sunshine. We caught a total of 7 fish and hardly needed to dip into our camping food supplies, what with plentiful and huge green lipped mussels growing on every tidal surface, large and delicious Kawahai keen to bite our spinner as soon as we lowered it into the water, and even crunchy, juicy wild sea samphire to make a kind of salty salad. We swam from private little sandy coves, camped on our own island- a wildlife reserve where we listened to Kiwis coo and whistle through the night- and generally couldn't have had a better kayak expedition. 

The shore was lined with exotic tree ferns
There was lots of wildlife- seals on the rocks, large black and white king shags drying their wings, shearwaters bobbing on the open sea and even little blue penguins (easily identifiable as the only birds that didn't fly off as we approached!). Best of all, on our last day in Queen Charlotte we saw a pod of large, glossy black dolphins. We tried to follow them but they were just too fast, and our speed evidently didn't make us a very exciting vessel to ride alongside. 

An interesting portage technique
Included in our ridiculously good value rental (£15 per person per day- who says NZ has to be expensive!) was a portage across to neighbouring Pelorus sound for our last day and night. For this we were picked up by a truck in which we managed to balance the kayak for the journey up and over the steep ridge between the two sounds, Karl hanging onto it for dear life. 
Pelorus Sound was more rural and didn't have as impressive scenery as Queen Charlotte, with sheep fields and ugly forested hills, shaved into square patches, replacing the beautiful native bush. There were lots of mussel farms making it a little difficult to negotiate the kayak around the ropes and big buoys, which the seals seemed to use as lilos and the shags as fishing perches.

A seal relaxes on a mussel buoy

Landing on the final beach, we unloaded our kit and a bag of fish for that night's barbecue, and swapped the kayak for our waiting van. The week was over too quickly and we didn't really want to leave the water, but it was time to head back inland and see what else the northern end of South Island had to offer.


No comments:

Post a Comment