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Marlborough Sounds: Off the beaten track in an expedition boat

NZ Herald
By Neil Porten

Cruising in an expedition yacht takes you places superships can never venture, writes Neil Porten

"I collect islands. New Zealand islands."

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

We're aboard Heritage Explorer, a 30m expedition yacht, for a nine-day voyage of the Marlborough Sounds and Abel Tasman National Park.

In the middle of the trip, we will be landing on, and cruising along the western and northern coast of our eighth wonder, Rangitoto ki te Tonga/d'Urville Island.

Public access is restricted for the other isle on our itinerary, the wildlife sanctuary of Stephens Island (Takapourewa), so we will enjoy a spectacular circumnavigation instead.

When we depart our anchorage in Pelorus Sound/Te Hoiere, the sun has yet to rise above the mainland as we approach Te Aumiti/French Pass. This turbulent, narrow sea passage into Tasman Bay proved quite a challenge for the French explorer whose name is attached to the island on the northern side of the pass.

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

Admiral Jules Sebastian Cesar Dumont d'Urville fought the wind, tides and surging current in repeated attempts to sail his corvette Astrolabe through the pass in 1827. He succeeded, but in doing so he hit the reef, putting his ship on to its side.

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

The sun has climbed above the mainland, lighting the cliffs of D'Urville Island. Pastured hills are a soft green, and pine trees march along ridgelines and stand solitary guard on rocky islets.

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

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

The afternoon weather is perfect for cruising north along the coast. Cliffs between Bottle Point and Nile Head alternate: grey slab faces, crumbling oxide-orange clay, gnarled black rock. There is high cloud above the distant Nelson mainland and a gentle swell as we enter Port Hardy. In the heart of the island, we anchor in sheltered South Arm.

The kayaks are unlashed from the top deck; I take a single-seater, while Warrick and Penelope, and Barbara and Jeff go tandem in the doubles. Our guide, Lindsay, is shepherding us in the Zodiac. There is no wind and no intrusive noise, just the burble of dipping paddles.

The couples, and Lindsay, alight on a low-tide shore; I'm idling in the clear shallows, taking in the view out to the open sea, the sparkling sun flashing on the water. There's the distant barking of dogs and, momentarily, a volley of gunshots. Pig hunters, Lindsay is fairly sure.

On our return, the yacht looks fine from a low angle, and I peek into my cabin window on the port side before we are lifted back aboard. It's rum o'clock in the aft saloon. The sun resigns behind the ridge. A shearwater flaps past. What a satisfying tableau to close the day.

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

In these waters, a boat trip is not complete unless there is fishing. The odds of catching a feed are high. Before breakfast, the skipper has us sitting just off Nelsons Monument (Kaitaore) and the lines are down at the back of the yacht. Warrick catches a tarakihi straight away, then Jeff lands a good-sized blue cod: My turn.

The sinker hits the bottom and immediately there are tugs on the line. When I think the bait is taken, I start reeling in. But something doesn't seem right, and as the end of the line breaks the surface we can see why. Half a legal-size blue cod is dangling there. A much bigger predator in the depths has decided my dinner will be its breakfast instead.

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

The western coast of Rangitoto ki te Tonga / D'Urville Island. Photo / Supplied
The western coast of Rangitoto ki te Tonga / D'Urville Island. Photo / Supplied

There's no time to be disappointed, because the cruise to Stephens Island is short too. This uppermost motu of Te Waipounamu lies further north than Ōtaki in the Kapiti Coast District. It's tiny - just 1.5sq km - but big in the conservation world, home to a colony of tuatara and the rare Hamilton's frog. Our clockwise circumnavigation reveals sharp and sheer cliffs, and a changing vista of seabirds, surging waves and cloudscapes. On 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 as they are to the harsh winds and currents of Cook Strait, are in sharp contrast to the protected motu within the Marlborough Sounds. It's a privilege to visit here, and it seems as good a place as any, in this land of many isles, to start my own collection, just like Allison.

CHECKLIST: MARLBOROUGH SOUNDS

DETAILS

Heritage Expeditions' 30m yacht Heritage Explorer will be embarking on more seven-day Discover Marlborough Sounds journeys in December, April and May. Cruises to other destinations, including the islands of the Hauraki Gulf and Fiordland are also available.
heritage-expeditions.com

Check alert level restrictions and Ministry of Health advice before travel. covid19.govt.nz