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A winter sea kayaking circumnavigation of New Zealand’s South Island

sea kayaking new zealand

By Tara Mulvany

On a cool, still morning in late spring, my friend Sim and I paddled away from Milford Sound. Huge granite cliffs towered above us, and waterfalls spilled from hanging valleys, plunging into the dark, tannin stained water below. A bubbling concoction of excitement, expectation and fear filled me. There was so much uncertainty in what lay ahead, and I suddenly felt very small, and the task ahead seemed so huge.

kayaking south new zealand

Sim and Tara. Photo: Paul Caffyn

Huge cyclones down in the Southern Ocean forced violent south westerly fronts over the lower South Island, and along with them brought a huge, powerful swell. With a brief break between these fronts, we slipped quietly out onto the Tasman Sea, eager to make some headway north. We paddled past a wild an untouched land, covered in a blanket of native forest. Sun-bleached driftwood lay scattered on sandy beaches, and swirls of seaweed clung to jumbles of rock.

For three days, the ocean was calm, and the wilds slight. But soon, the storms moved in, and we were trapped on land for days at a time. From wind swept beaches we watched sooty shearwaters gliding past us on the gusts of wind, carving sweeping arcs across the sky. Heavy rain belted down from dark clouds, and the mountains slowly became covered in thick snow.

Sea kayaking new zealand

Battling with the south coast surf. Photo: Belinda Mulvany

We tip-toed lightly in the weeks that followed, slowly inching our way up the west coast in the brief weather windows that we were given. But as the days grew shorter and colder, I couldn’t help but question our decision to have set off in winter. Perhaps there was a reason it had never been attempted at this time of the year before. There was nothing we could do but sit and wait for the storms to pass, and the seas to ease.

On rare calm days, after a battle out through the surf, we were treated to incredible views of a fairytale land. The huge mountain range of the Southern Alps stood tall beside us, with their glaciers tumbling down like rivers of ice, into the lush rainforest below. Huge waves exploded on beaches of golden sand, and albatross often circled above us, gliding over the crest of the waves with utmost control.

Sea kayaking new zealand

Further north, Nikau palms hung over beaches of pure white sand, and the swell smashed into rocky headlands, sending sheets of salty spray upwards. There were no roads, no houses, and no contact with the outside world.

Then after nearly two months, we rounded Farewell Spit, a 35 km long, narrow strip of sand that marked the end of the west coast. We had been tested like never before. We’d taken more than a handful of rolls between us, survived a couple of big surf landings in the dark, endured days of sea sickness, and even managed to loose each other for four days. But, we had survived, and in a moment of relief, we slipped onto the calm waters of the Pacific Ocean.

Sea kayaking new zealand

Halfway round the South Island things took an unexpected turn, for better or worse, I’m still not sure. Either way, our relationship came to an end, and I was faced with continuing on alone. I packed my boat and paddled away. With a couple of weeks of settled calm, spring weather, and I made quick progress down the east coast. I paddled for 12 hours, day after day, munching chocolate bars like never before. Rounding Nugget Point, and the end of the east coast, I paddled through towers of giant rock, and onto a grey and bleak south coast.

In Bluff, the end of State Highway One, I was trapped for 10 days while nine metre swells battered the very stretch of coast I was heading for.

sea kayaking new zealand

Sim and I paddling down the Mahitahi River on our way towards the west coast surf. Bruce Bay, Westland

Eventually I set off, with my kayak fully loaded with what I hoped was enough food to get me back to Milford. I paddled towards the beginning of the Fiordland coast feeling a little nervous, but hugely excited at the same time. I was back in familiar waters, and on the home run. All that separated me now from Milford Sound was 500 km of the most wild, remote and unforgiving coastline in all of New Zealand.

Massive granite mountains dropped straight into the ocean, and rainforest clung to near vertical rock faces. On the water, penguins squawked, and splashed before disappearing deep below. Beaches were few and far between, and I was alone in this perfect wilderness.


It took me two weeks to paddle back to where my journey had first begun. Rounding St Annes Point, at the entrance to Milford Sound, I wound my way from point to point, skipping between the sheer walls as I made my way towards the inner fiord. I was filled with an overwhelming sense of relief. It had taken me five months to complete my journey, and despite all the storms and challenges that I had dealt with, I had somehow pulled it off. As I rammed my boat onto dry land, I was quietly content.

A year after completing my circumnavigation of the South Island, I loaded my kayak with six weeks worth of food, and set off for Rakiura/Stewart Island, New Zealand’s third largest island. I spent five magical weeks exploring, fishing and paddling around the island.

new zealand sea kayaking

An early morning start from Colac Bay, heading for the Fiordland coast

Less than two weeks after returning from this trip, I loaded my kayak onto the roof of my car, and drove for 12 hours up to the top of the South Island. I then jumped into my kayak and paddled across the Cook Strait, beginning my solo journey around the North Island. Four months later, I became the first woman to have paddled around not only the North Island, but also all three islands of New Zealand.

This coming September I’m releasing a book about my journey around the South Island. Information about where you can purchase a copy will be available on my website:

new zealand sea kayaking

Farewell Spit, and the end of the west coast

About thepaddlerezine (654 Articles)
Editor of The Paddler magazine and Publisher of Stand Up Paddle Mag UK.

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