Delight to Despair in Doubtful Sound

Delight to Despair in Doubtful Sound

The last part of our New Zealand trip was a visit to Fiordland National Park. We returned our Jucy campervan at the Queenstown airport – fortunately they were not too concerned by the damage we had done and didn’t charge us anything, even though we’d gotten the “risk taker” insurance. After saying goodbye to the van, we caught a bus to Te Anau, the gateway to Fiordland. We spent the night at a holiday park in there, and prepared for our first Fiordland adventure – Doubtful Sound.

A Doubtful Start to the Day

We started our overnight Doubtful Sound kayaking trip by getting up really early in the morning (like, before 6am early). The bus picked us up at 6:15am, and drove us to a dock where we caught a boat across Lake Manapouri. Then came another bus ride to the launching point for our kayak adventure, taking us on a winding mountain road over a pass with a nice view of the fjord.

We geared up in wool base layers, farmer John wetsuits, and lifejackets, all provided by tour company Go Orange. They also provided toques and sun hats, as well as rain jackets; fortunately, the sky was clear, and we just kept those handy on the deck.

Next it was time to load up our kayaks and haul them down to the water. For this trip, we were in a group of 8 people, so we took turns carrying down the kayaks in groups of 6. This was remarkably less painful than it had been hauling a double kayak with just the 2 of us in Glacier Bay; it seemed like this trip was going to be pretty easy!

This was the first time we noticed the sandflies. They look like large fruit flies, and seemingly appear out of nowhere, swarming around you once you have stopped moving for more than a few seconds. Then, they proceed to land on you, crawl around a bit (presumably to find the ideal dining spot), and then take a bite. Fortunately we had brought sandfly repellent, which we quickly applied. The repellent did a good enough job that they weren’t too bad while we got set up, though there were still enough to be annoying.

Our guide warned us that the sandflies were worse at camp. We figured that we were in pretty good shape with the repellent, and as Canadians quite used to plagues of mosquitoes… surely, this could not be that bad.

Cliffs, Ferns & Penguins

We were relieved to set off and escape the sandflies, and to get out into the quiet and beauty of Doubtful Sound. We paddled along, admiring the steep cliff faces surrounding us, which were covered with greenery, except for in a few spots where tree avalanches had left them bare.

Aftermath of a tree avalanche

Trees, ferns, and tree-ferns clung to even the most precipitous slopes, painting the Sound with life. This was quite different from the fjords we had seen in Alaska, which were much starker and less coated in greenery. The water glittered in the bright sunlight (which is apparently rare in these parts) and it was indeed very quiet. We passed another kayak group returning from their outing, but aside from that, our group was frequently alone as far as the eye could see.

One of our main goals for this outing was to spot some Fiordland crested penguins. Within an hour of paddling, we were in luck! Our guide pointed out a pair of the funny-looking creatures hanging out on an island. We sat and watched them for a while, and one of them looked up to the sky and screeched loudly, making us all laugh. Then they waddled off into the trees, and we continued on our way.

After that, we were hypersensitive to any spot along the water’s edge that looked like a potential penguin. We had many false alarms, but sadly no more penguins. We stopped at a little beach for lunch, and paddled for a couple more hours before arriving at our home for the night, which sounded like a peaceful oasis in the middle of this rugged and isolated landscape.

Welcome to Sandfly Central

As we approached the camp, we were looking forward to landing, stretching out our legs, and relaxing. As soon as we pulled up our kayaks and got out, though, we realized that something was terribly wrong. In the words of Admiral Akbar – it’s a trap! Not only were the Death Star shields up and its weapons fully operational, but the entire Imperial fleet was hiding on the far side of Endor.

As we stepped onto the rocks, a cloud of sandflies like we could not imagine in our worst nightmares descended on us. As our guide gave us directions and handed out camping gear, it was all we could do not to scream out in revulsion and run into the water. Sandflies were crawling all over our exposed feet, biting every square inch of skin. Sandflies covered our hands like living gloves. Sandflies crawled across our cheeks, into our nostrils, onto our eyelids, and even into our eyes.

We desperately applied more repellent, but to no avail. We ran around, flapping our arms and kicking our feet, but as soon as any movement ceased, we were back to being covered in sandflies. The only option was to haul the kayaks up and unload our gear as quickly as humanly possible, doing our best to ignore the awful sensations of the crawling vermin, and the continuous bites. But we still had to regularly close our eyes and snort out of our nostrils to keep them from getting inside our bodies.

The next task was to set up our tents, which proved to be an even more miserable ordeal. Our guide informed us that after receiving 10,000 sandfly bites, one would become immune to their effects. It seemed to us that we were well on track to hitting that number in record time, but this offered scant consolation.

Lisa had brought along a headnet, just in case. Bryan, on the other hand, had stubbornly left his at home in an attempt to “pack light” to make up for his heavy camera gear (Lisa thinks this is pretty ridiculous, since the headnet’s weight according to Amazon is about 10 g – but OK, if it makes Bryan feel better [for the record, it does]).

As we set up our tent, what remained of our wills eroded rapidly under the constant onslaught. Morale plummeted more quickly than the entire nation of Brazil’s in the 2014 World Cup, when Germany dismantled them 7-1 in the semi-finals (it’s true – Bryan was there and saw it happen, and this was worse). By the time we finished setting things up, and then jammed ourselves into the tent, we were both emotionally on a knife’s edge. Even worse, we had a large contingent of sandflies that had followed us in and were keeping us company. And there were so many sandflies outside the tent flying up against the mesh that it sounded like it was raining. Not a light rain either; a full-on monsoon.

Lisa was completely distraught by this point, and she was beginning to doubt whether she even liked nature or being outdoors anymore. Sure, the scenery here was beautiful, but it hardly seemed worth it when faced with the relentless suffering the sandflies imposed. Her nerves were absolutely frayed, and she would have done pretty much anything to make this stop. She could feel the stress hormones flooding through her bloodstream, tears welling in her eyes, and a constant burning itchiness all over her hands and feet.

Misery Loves Company

We weren’t the only ones suffering. There were three other pairs on the trip: an American couple, a British couple, and a Swedish brother and sister. It sounds like the start of a joke, but there were no jokes to be had here. The only sounds around the campsite were the raining of the sandflies, random curses and exclamations, strained, quiet conversations, and occasionally some muffled crying or sobbing.

One of the other women asked our guide whether any couples had ever broken up on this trip, which sounds dramatic, but was actually a pretty reasonable question (the answer was no, though). It was pretty difficult to stay pleasant while being assaulted by the sandflies, and tensions were running high among all of us. In fact, Lisa had declared in desperation that Bryan should probably find a new fiancee. She simply could not take this, and never wanted to do anything like it again, so he should probably find someone who would.

At this point, Bryan was faring quite a bit better than Lisa, so took this in stride as a comment made from someone not in their right mind, and not made “from the heart.” Through our own terse, strained conversation, we pulled things together enough to agree that we needed to finish setting up our camp and then go make dinner.

Fortunately, the campground had a big mesh tent set up for cooking and eating, so the group spent the whole evening in there. It was a sanctuary from the hordes of sandflies, and nobody left until bedtime except to go to the washroom. It was quite the feat to get in and out without letting in the hungry mob outside, but we managed. We enjoyed our dehydrated meals and swapped stories with the other couples and our guide, and it ended up being a pretty enjoyable evening. Nothing like mutual suffering to bring a group of strangers together.

We approached the task of brushing our teeth with extreme reluctance. It was especially arduous for Lisa, as she had to lift up her head net to perform this task. The sandflies quickly crawled all over her hands, onto her toothbrush, and it was impossible to avoid getting them in her mouth. It was truly awful. Bryan had been hoping that he would become accustomed to the sandflies, but in fact the opposite was happening. Every exposure took his morale down one more notch, and raised his stress level closer to the breaking point.

We completed this distasteful task as quickly as possible and ran for the tent. Once inside, we spent about 10 minutes killing as many of the sandflies that had followed us inside as we could.

Bryan Finally Breaks

As we got prepared for bed, Bryan realized he had to go to the bathroom. This was despite drinking much less water than he should have over the past few hours, as there was no way he was getting up in the middle of the night to face the pestilential cloud.

He put on his boots and rushed out of the tent clumsily, turning to close it as quickly as possible. As soon as he was outside, the cloud descended. He hurried to the bathroom, a plastic outhouse with a strange smell. The strange smell was from a spray which could be used to kill off the flies inside. The guide told us “if you go to use the bathroom and it’s full of flies, spray the inside thoroughly, close the door for 10 seconds, and then when you go in the flies won’t be too bad.”

Someone else must have done it recently, as the flies were not bad, but the outhouse stunk of the chemical spray. After relieving his bladder, Bryan booked it back to the tent. In his desire to keep the sandflies out, he dove headfirst into the tent, pulled his feet inside, and zipped it up. Then he took off his boots. Setting them down on the bottom of the tent, he then spent 10 minutes shining his headlamp around the tent and smacking it. This seemed to be the most effective way to kill off the sandflies, since many of them were attracted to the light.

As we got ready to go to sleep, we noticed a very unpleasant smell in the air. Bryan reached over to grab his boots to check for the smell, and put his hand into something wet on the tent floor. With great trepidation, he smelled his hand, and realized that a small black puddle on the tent floor was the source of the terrible smell. It smelled like a combination of poop and chemicals. As he put two and two together, he realized the soles of his boots must have been covered in chemicals from the bathroom floor, which may have absorbed some of the poop smell (or maybe something worse had happened).

Either way, it was one of the worst things we had ever smelled, and even just writing about it now makes us feel sick. Bryan fought down his revulsion to calmly ask Lisa for some wet wipes to clean up. He wiped up the floor and his hands as best he could, but they were definitely not as clean as we would have liked. He then ripped the tent open, threw his boots out, closed it back up, and spent a few more minutes killing sandflies. The smell was better, but it still lingered, and we both got a disgusting whiff of it every couple of minutes.

Bryan confided in Lisa at this point that he thought he was finally broken. The cloud of despair was just too thick. The sandflies had been one thing, but that smell on top of it was just too much. Bryan has done lots of things from which he felt physically broken down, but this was the first time he felt nearly so mentally defeated. We both just felt trapped and miserable. Even worse, the next morning we had to get back out of the tent, pack everything up, pack up our kayaks, and then launch. We were going to get mauled again, and we had no choice, because that was our only way out of this hell.

We have had some rough nights before, but this tops them all. It was just so incredibly terrible. The only good thing was that our wills were so thoroughly broken down that we could not take anything out on each other, and simply suffered together.

Rise and Shine Suffer

This time, knowing how bad the sandflies were, we wore socks under our sandals while launching our kayaks – having wet feet all day was nothing in comparison. Unfortunately, we did not have gloves, so our hands remained under attack. The only good thing about the whole morning was that the socks did protect our feet. Oh and that we were actually leaving.

Even as we pushed off and paddled away, we could not escape. Each of us was coated in sandflies, who just sat on us and caught a ride. We paddled as fast as we could, to try to lose them, but they just stuck on our paddling shirts until we slowed down. Once we slowed down, they took off to torment us further. Frantically, we slapped ourselves and each other to try to get rid of them, but it took at least 20 or 30 minutes of paddling before we were mostly free.

Finally Free…?

We kayaked up through the sound, taking care not to get too close to shore, lest we run into more sandflies. We saw some penguins swimming in the water, and enjoyed the scenery, but it was hard to really get into the kayaking after getting so mentally broken down the night before.

As we finished the kayaking and got ready to land, we knew that once more we would have to face the sandfly gauntlet. Although they were not nearly as bad as at camp, we had been so sensitized that it still felt terrible having them crawling on us and biting us again. We rushed as quickly as we could to get the kayaks put away, return our gear and get packed up, so we could escape inside the bus. Of course, there were a few inside the bus, but not too bad. Then we took our boat ride back across the lake, and this time there were quite a few inside the boat as well. Finally, after making it back and hopping in our bus back to Te Anau, we were free of the sandflies.

Luckily, we had a few nights to rest and recover in Te Anau before embarking on the Milford Track. Our feet and hands were covered in bites, and we woke up multiple times during the night from the itching, catching ourselves unconsciously scratching.

The bites were so unbelievably itchy, and Lisa’s were quite swollen as well. She often could not resist the urge to scratch, despite Bryan’s scolding. Whenever he left the room she would engage in a clandestine scratching session, which in the moment felt glorious, but ultimately made things worse. We visited a pharmacy and picked up some cream and antihistamine pills to relieve our suffering, and hoped the bites would go away before our hike… though, as we knew from reading and talking to people, there were also a decent amount of sandflies along the Milford Track…

So… would we do it all over again?

Although we have possibly made this sound like the worst activity ever, we actually might consider doing it again, and would not necessarily discourage others from trying it. Our guide said the particular night we were there was the worst he had ever seen it for sandflies (it is always bad, but not this bad!).

Next time, we would bring head nets, gloves, and socks for both of us – basically ensuring that no skin was left exposed (sandflies cannot bite through fabric)! Then, the sandflies would be more manageable, and it would have been easier to enjoy the beautiful scenery and the secluded camp location.

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