Marlborough Sounds: Off the Beaten Track by Expedition Boat

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Cruising in an Expedition Yacht Takes You Where Supern ships can never venture, writes Neil Porten

“I collect islands. New Zealand islands.”

The delightful Allison is a happy retired Wellington teacher, not a tech billionaire or a Russian oligarch. On this trip, she can add two more to her growing list: New Zealand’s eighth largest island and the South Island’s northernmost island.

We are aboard Heritage Explorer, a 30m expedition yacht, for a nine day trip to the Marlborough Sounds and Abel Tasman National Park.

In the middle of the trip, we will land and sail along the west and north coasts of our eighth wonder, Rangitoto ki te Tonga / d’Urville Island.

Public access is restricted for the other island on our route, Stephens Island Wildlife Sanctuary (Takapourewa), so we will instead enjoy a spectacular circumnavigation.

As we leave our anchorage at Pelorus Sound / Te Hoiere, the sun has not yet risen over the mainland as we approach Te Aumiti / French Pass. This narrow and turbulent sea passage in Tasman Bay proved to be quite a challenge for the French explorer whose name is attached to the island on the north side of the pass.

Heritage Expedition's yacht, Heritage Explorer, an 18-berth vessel used for voyages around New Zealand.  Photo / Aaron Russ
Heritage Expedition’s yacht, Heritage Explorer, an 18-berth vessel used for voyages around New Zealand. Photo / Aaron Russ

Admiral Jules Sebastian César Dumont d’Urville battled the wind, tides and stormy currents in several attempts to get his corvette Astrolabe across the pass in 1827. He was successful, but in doing so he struck the reef. , putting his ship aside.

We have no such misfortune. Our captain, Nathan Russ, keeps the revs high and we sail slowly and steadily through the eddies and swirling currents just an hour after high tide.

The sun rose above the mainland, illuminating the cliffs of Urville Island. The grazed hills are soft green, and pines walk along the ridges and stand solitary guard over the rocky islets.

Our first port of call is Kupe Bay in the larger Manuhakapakapa Bay. Long-time resident Terry Savage shows us his collection of adze heads, sinkers and other argillite tools, mostly found on the beach near his house. This sedimentary rock is abundant on the island and was an important and valuable resource for the early Maori, whose survival depended on the abundant woodworking of Aotearoa.

Trees on a hill on Moawhitu, Greville Harbor, Rangitoto ki te Tonga / D'Urville Island.
Trees on a hill on Moawhitu, Greville Harbor, Rangitoto ki te Tonga / D’Urville Island.

The afternoon weather is perfect for sailing north along the coast. The cliffs between Bottle Point and Nile Head alternate: faces of gray slabs, ruined oxidized-orange clay, knotty black rock. There are high clouds over the distant mainland of Nelson and a slight swell as we enter Port Hardy. At the heart of the island, we drop anchor in the sheltered southern arm.

The kayaks are detached from the upper deck; I take a single-seater, while Warrick and Penelope, and Barbara and Jeff go in tandem doubles. Our guide, Lindsay, guides us into the zodiac. There is no wind and no intrusive noise, just the hum of plunging paddles.

The couples and Lindsay land on a shore at low tide; I idle through the clear shallows, enjoying the view of the open sea, the sparkling sun flashing across the water. There is the distant barking of the dogs and, momentarily, a volley of gunfire. Pig hunters, Lindsay is pretty sure.

On our return, the yacht looks well seen from a low angle, and I peek out of my cabin window on the port side before we get back on board. It’s rum time in the back saloon. The sun is resigned behind the ridge. A shearwater flies past. What a satisfying table to end the day.

Kupe Bay, Rangitoto ki te Tonga / Urville Island in the Marlborough Sounds.  Photo / Neil Porten
Kupe Bay, Rangitoto ki te Tonga / Urville Island in the Marlborough Sounds. Photo / Neil Porten

In these waters, a boat trip is not complete if there is no fishing. The chances of catching a diet are high. Before breakfast the skipper sits us right next to the Nelsons monument (Kaitaore) and the lines are at the back of the yacht. Warrick immediately grabs a tarakihi, then Jeff unloads a good-sized blue cod: My turn.

The ballast hit bottom and there were immediately tugs on the line. When I think the bait is taken, I start to turn around. But something’s wrong, and as the end of the line surfaces, we can see why. A half-legal-size blue cod hangs there. A much bigger predator in the depths decided that my dinner would be his breakfast instead.

This may be the first fishy tale where the length of the catch becomes shorter in the narrative rather than longer.

The west coast of Rangitoto ki te Tonga / Urville Island.  Photo / Supplied
The west coast of Rangitoto ki te Tonga / Urville Island. Photo / Supplied

There is no time to be disappointed, as the cruise to Stephens Island is also short. This highest motu of Te Waipounamu is located further north than Ōtaki in the coastal district of Kapiti. It’s tiny – only 1.5 km² – but big in the conservation world, home to a tuatara colony and the rare Hamilton Frog. Our clockwise circumnavigation reveals sheer, sheer cliffs, and a changing view of seabirds, crashing waves, and cloudy landscapes. At the northern tip stands the lighthouse, first lit in 1894 and one of the last in New Zealand to be automated.

These two islands, Stephens and D’Urville, exposed to the strong winds and currents of the Cook Strait, contrast sharply with the protected motu of Marlborough Sounds. It’s a privilege to visit here, and it looks as good as any, in this land of many islands, to start my own collection, just like Allison.

CHECKLIST: SOUNDS OF MARLBOROUGH

DETAILS

Heritage Explorer, Heritage Expeditions’ 30m yacht, will undertake additional seven-day voyages to explore Marlborough Sounds in December, April and May. Cruises to other destinations, including the Hauraki Gulf Islands and Fiordland, are also available.
expeditions-heritage.com

Check alert level restrictions and advice from the Department of Health before traveling. covid19.govt.nz

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