Destination – Marlbourough Sounds

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The Marlborough Sounds encompass 20% of New Zealand’s total coastline. This intricate maze of waterways consists of three Sounds, Queen Charlotte Sound, Kenepuru Sound and Pelorus Sound. Within the area is pristine native forest ranging from huge 800- year-old rimu trees, lush punga tree ferns and beautiful native orchids, all plunging down to the shoreline. Deep-water anchorages and some of the most unspoiled bays are found here.

The Marlborough Sounds is where, at Motuara Island at the head of the Queen Charlotte Sound, Captain Cook raised the Union Jack on the 30 January 1770 and proclaimed British sovereignty over the South Island of New Zealand. From then followed whalers and sealers and the first settlers who carved out a lifestyle from one of New Zealand’s harshest regions.

The myriad bays, coves and inlets are perfect for exploring by boat. Queen Charlotte Sound is the more well known of the three Sounds, and is dominated by bush-clad shorelines, deep bays and coves. Kenepuru Sound is the smallest of the three Sounds. Pelorus Sound has expansive waterways, with some exposed areas. Stretching between Queen Charlotte and Kenepuru Sound is the Queen Charlotte Track, a 71km track renowned for its stunning views and contrasting landscape. Located in the heart of Queen Charlotte Sound is Picton, the largest town (5000 residents) in the Marlborough Sounds. Picton is where the inter-island ferry (between the North and South Island) arrives and departs. One of the great things about getting to Picton in the Marlborough Sounds is the journey. There is no doubt, no matter how you travel to the Marlborough Sounds, the scenery will be breathtaking.

Family Connections

My earliest recollection of the Sounds was when my grandmother settled there around 30 years ago in a place 6km east of French Pass, named Deep Bay. I had also heard many stories about Pelorus Jack and the turbulent waters of French Pass. It had been almost 25 years since I had visited Deep Bay as a child, so when the opportunity arose to explore this area with its natural scenic beauty and historic interest, not forgetting the opportunity of hooking into some of the biggest snapper and best blue cod in the country, I wasted no time in packing my bags and heading south.

There’s no doubt the best view of the Marlborough Sounds is from the air and on the day we arrived the cloudless blue sky mirrored the aquamarine radiance of the water below, presenting us a geographic spectacle that would rival any other scene in the world. Touching down at Blenheim Airport I noticed the difference from Auckland straight away – no traffic noise, no hydrocarbon mist in the sky, just a peacefulness.

Doug and I were picked up at the airport by our hosts Greg & Kath Dawson, of Dawson Charters. Greg and Kath also happen to be very good family friends who don’t mind sharing their tranquil piece of paradise with a select few. Greg offered a taxi service between the airport and Havelock, which at the head of Pelorus Sound offers the only major marina in the area. Visitor berths are normally available and water taxis also operate from this marina. Our destination was Mira Bay, about 40 minutes from the Havelock marina.

Wine Trail

But before we hit the waterways, our first stop was to visit some of the many wineries, a café specializing in traditional country preserves, and a local art gallery in the area. Some winery names I recognised straight away and others I hadn’t heard of. This was an enjoyable and informative way to spend the afternoon and the opportunity to purchase a couple of stunning bottles of wine to enjoy as ‘refreshments’ at our final destination.

We arrived early evening at Mira Bay, tired and weary and looking forward to a good night’s sleep in the very comfortable chalet Greg had organised for us. In the complete silence of night, I was still trying to digest the breathtaking scenery and sights I had witnessed during the trip across in Greg’s 8.5m Southern Lazer. The next morning we awoke to the sounds of the birds singing and after a good hearty breakfast, we were off fishing and to visit Te Mahia Bay in Kenepuru Sound.

At Te Mahia, nestled in one of the most picturesque bays in the Marlborough Sounds, is Te Mahia Bay Resort, which caters for families or fishers with fully self-contained private units.

For anyone arriving by sea, there are excellent deep-water anchorages at the many lodges, should you wish to anchor for the night or just go ashore to any one of the cafés and restaurants.

There is also the historic St Omer House. First built in 1890 and added to in 1923, with an accommodation wing, the place has hardly changed since. The relaxed natural bush surroundings, great beach and sheltered waters let you quickly forget about the fast pace of city life. St Omer boasts a fully licensed restaurant with a timber-lined dining room and a myriad of faded family portraits, to give you a good appreciation of those early pioneers of the area.
French Pass & Pelorus Jack

Not far from here is Nopera, hosting the local airstrip and the famous 18-hole Nopera Golf Club, where electric fences surround the tees and you need to warn the local farmer to move the sheep off the airstrip before landing.

Arriving in an unknown area can often result in wasting a lot of time looking for the best fishing spots. We were lucky to have Greg as our guide; he knew just where to go for the snapper. He supplied us with rods, bait and all we needed for the day. We caught ten good-sized snapper, two kahawai and collected a nice bucket of green-lipped mussels, which all made for a fresh and very tasty dinner that night.

Day two dawned with a clear blue sky; our destination for today was French Pass. I was looking forward to this day, as it would bring back some childhood memories. 

French Pass has a history all of its own and was named after Dumont d’Urville when he sailed through it in 1827. The Maori name is Te Aumiti, which means ‘the swishing currents of the shag Toru’, the place where Kupe’s path-finding shag was drowned by the current. French Pass has a general store, fuel, an excellent wharf and even a school.

There are excellent anchorages around the corner in secluded bays and a trip through French Pass is an experience every boater should experience at least once.

Greg knows a lot about the intricacies of French Pass so he was a great person to take us through. He had waited until the strongest point of the flow before we cruised back and forth, when the overfalls, whirlpools and violent convulsions of the currents were at their peak. It is however, safe to pass through as long as you stick to one of the two well-defined channels.

This is a spectacle that shouldn’t be missed and I can now understand why Mark Twain took the time to pen a few words about the Pass and Pelorus Jack. One of the most famous true stories told about the Marlborough Sounds is the story of Pelorus Jack, a dolphin that for 24 years, guided ships from Francis Head to French Pass. From 1888 it piloted ships through the dangerous pass and in 1904 the Government of New Zealand passed an Act of parliament which made it an offence to take any Risso dolphins in Cook Strait, thereby protecting this by then, most famous of dolphins. Pelorus Jack’s spirit can still be felt as you negotiate the Pass.

Another very special place to visit is the d’Urville Island Wilderness Resort. Situated at Catherine Cove, the resort offers what must be one of the finest waterfront dining experiences in New Zealand. Surrounded only by the sound of waves and native birds, a café/bar right on the waterfront has to be one of the remotest anywhere in the country. The bay offers a deep anchorage, secure moorings, fuel and provisions and is an excellent stopover spot before negotiating French Pass for any passing boater.

Havelock & Home

At Havelock we were once again shuttled by Greg and Cath Dawson through to the airport, although with enough time to again check out a few wineries such as Framingham and Hunter. As we flew back over the Marlborough Sounds and to the rush hour traffic of Auckland I looked down on the area which over the last few days we had been so much part of and had had such a great time. It may have been a whirlwind tour, but we both felt relaxed and wondered why it took so long to visit what is undoubtedly one of the most awesomely beautiful and unspoiled areas of New Zealand.

We will be back, for sure!!!

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