The shock and delight of Lake Monowai

By Alina Suchanski

Reading time: 11 minutes

Ninety-five years have passed since the level of Lake Monowai in Fiordland was raised by 2.13 m (7 ft) after the Monowai Power Station began its operation. Alina Suchanski gets into her kayak for a three-day trip to check if the effects of damming the lake are still present today.

The soft rhythmic splashing of the paddle breaks the glassy surface of the lake and, apart from the occasional bird song, is the only sound that disturbs the silence. Floating amongst the clouds I feel weightless. I see double, as all the beauty around is duplicated by its own reflection in the water: the snow-capped mountains, the Fiordland bush and the sky.

[caption id="attachment_2105" align="alignright" width="1024"] Floating in the sky on Lake Monowai[/caption]

I am on a mission to circumnavigate Lake Monowai in a sea kayak. My destination on

By Alina Suchanski

Reading time: 11 minutes

Ninety-five years have passed since the level of Lake Monowai in Fiordland was raised by 2.13 m (7 ft) after the Monowai Power Station began its operation. Alina Suchanski gets into her kayak for a three-day trip to check if the effects of damming the lake are still present today.

The soft rhythmic splashing of the paddle breaks the glassy surface of the lake and, apart from the occasional bird song, is the only sound that disturbs the silence. Floating amongst the clouds I feel weightless. I see double, as all the beauty around is duplicated by its own reflection in the water: the snow-capped mountains, the Fiordland bush and the sky.

Floating in the sky on Lake Monowai

I am on a mission to circumnavigate Lake Monowai in a sea kayak. My destination on day one is Rodger Inlet Hut, almost halfway down this long and narrow, U-shaped lake. It’s mid-afternoon and overcast when I launch my kayak, but soon the sky clears and the gentle breeze comes to a halt. Sulphur-coloured beech tree pollen bob on the lake, gathering in sheltered spots. A motor boat with some men in it passes me in the opposite direction. We wave to each other.

Set in spectacular mountainous country and part of Fiordland National Park since 1952, Lake Monowai would’ve once been a jewel of the South. If it once had beautiful sandy beaches, similar to those on lakes Manapouri and Te Anau, there are hardly any left now. Almost the entire shoreline is lined with stumps of dead trees.

The Monowai Power Station was one of the earliest hydroelectric power plants in New Zealand. It was officially opened by the Southland Electric Power Board (now Pioneer Energy) on 1 May 1925. But it wasn’t until 1926 that the level of Lake Monowai was raised to ensure greater output of electric energy generation. The decision makers at the time surely did not foresee the extent of the damage and its long-lasting nature.

Guarding the shore, skeletons of tall trees and sharp branches stick out from the water like the bones of long-extinct aquatic dinosaurs. Kayakers and boaties are best to keep a safe distance from the lake’s edge for fear of impaling their vessels on something lurking just below the surface. This is of a particular concern to me because my kayak is collapsible – an aluminium frame with tough, waterproof fabric stretched around it.

After two hours’ paddling, I reach Rodger Inlet, and soon the lovely new hut comes into view. I carefully navigate between the drowned tree stumps and branches and land on the muddy shore. The 6-bunk hut seems full, though there’s no-one around. On closer inspection, I count four beds, each with two mattresses stacked on top of one another with woollen blankets and pillows as well as sleeping bags. On the bench are two cast iron gas cookers with two burners each, powered by two 10 kg gas bottles standing underneath. Outside the hut a large chilly bin accompanies bags of coal, potatoes and onions. It looks like my hut companions have ensconced themselves here for a while.

I consider moving to the historic 2-bunk hut a little further in the bush, but its rough interior puts me off. Returning to the new hut, I grab one of the mattresses and set myself up on the top bunk in the corner. After dinner I try to read a book, but sleepiness forces me to turn my head torch off.

The sound of a boat motor wakes me up. Soon seven men come in one by one, each surprised to see me on the top bunk. They are a bunch of friends from Invercargill on a six-day fishing and hunting trip. It was them waving to me from their motorboat earlier on.

They kick into action cooking up a storm. All four burners on. Spuds, meatballs, carrots, and red cabbage. While the food is cooking we talk. They are concerned about me kayaking alone and warn me about falling into the lake. “Do you know how cold the water is in this lake? If you fall in 70 feet from the shore, you’ll be dead before you can swim to safety. Hypothermia will get you. You be careful out there, girl,” says one.

I promise I will and ask them to check on me when they go fishing.

They are very friendly, offering me food and drink, but I politely decline. Suddenly, the thought of sharing a small hut with seven beer-guzzling boaties and the anticipation of a chainsaw concert at night (snoring!), makes the old little cabin a lot more alluring. I pick up my stuff and move, to the loud protests of my companions.

Next morning, heading for the Monowai Hut at the western tip of the lake, I paddle past a large shallow area with the remains of a whole dead forest protruding from the water. For the first hour the whole lake is like a mill pond, but soon a light breeze ruffles the water. Luckily, it’s a tail wind and by the time I’m on the home straight, my kayak is surfing on waves a foot high. A few boats are moored around the lake. Others are moving slowly, dragging their fishing lines behind. My friendly boaties are out too, and they come closer to check on me. I wave and smile gratefully.

The Monowai Hut is visible from way out. It’s in a small, man-made clearing with steps leading out of the water onto a steep bank. A tiny beach full of rocks and tree branches is my harbour. I tie my kayak to one of the branches and follow a track that leads to the hut.

Inside, I find two 2-seater sofas, one armchair and four padded chairs instead of the usual DOC wooden benches. One wall is taken up by 12 bunks on two platforms. A large wood burner could heat space twice the size. The place is neat and tidy. A lovely view of the lake can be enjoyed from the window above the cooking bench. There is no sign of any occupancy.

It’s an early night for me tonight. I sleep for 10 hours and wake up at 6.30am. The sky is overcast, but the lake is flat.

Once in my kayak, I have to make a decision whether to return the same way I came or take the longer, unknown route along the southern edge of the lake. My feeling of apprehension of kayaking solo in an unfamiliar territory is quickly dispelled by perfect kayaking weather. I turn the nose of my kayak south and take off on a journey of discovery.

The sun comes out revealing amazing views of the mountains. Gliding through their mirror images in the water is an elating experience. An hour later I come to a secluded bay with a lovely sandy beach, the only one on this lake. A babbling creek drains its clear water into the lake. A gun mounted on two posts points to a path through the bush that leads to a picturesque clearing with Eel Creek Hut in its centre. I check it out and am glad I didn’t spend the night here – it’s rough. The place is dirty and neglected. The remains of an outside fire are full of empty beer bottles.

The charming location of Eel Creek Hut

I continue my journey keeping close to the lake’s edge for safety, but also because it’s more interesting. Observing the vegetation on the shore, hearing the birds and seeing the bottom of the lake through crystal-clear water all adds to the experience. After another couple of hours I start to feel peckish and begin to look for a nice lunch spot. This proves difficult, as the shore on the south side of the lake is steeper. I find a tiny beach and negotiate low-hanging tree branches and submerged logs to get to it. Twenty minutes later, refreshed and refuelled I carry on. It takes a total of seven hours to reach the boat ramp and the carpark.

I’m tired, but happy, although the dead forest stumps around the lake’s edges fill me with sombre reflections on the impact of humans on the environment.

Les Hutchins is founder of the Real Journeys company and instigator of the Save Manapouri campaign of the 1960s and ‘70s which prevented a similar environmental crime to be committed on lakes Manapouri and Te Anau. He visited Lake Monowai in the early 1970s and in his book, Making Waves, he wrote: “I was appalled at the total destruction of the shoreline of this once beautiful Fiordland lake.”

Almost a century later, while the destruction of the shoreline continues to shock, thankfully the beauty of the lake still delights.

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