New Zealand: A boating adventure in the Marlborough Sounds

The Marlborough Sounds is a beautiful part of New Zealand that I had never properly explored before so when friends invited us to go on a boat trip in the Marlborough Sounds we jumped at the chance!

This green fringe of indented waterways on the coastline at the most northerly part of the South Island were formed millenia ago by the sea flooding river valleys. The area is actually made up of three sounds, namely the Queen Charlotte Sound, the Kenepuru Sound and the Pelorus Sound.

Queen Charlotte is the most well known – it is home to one of New Zealand’s famous hiking trails – the Queen Charlotte Track – and is well equipped for holidaymakers with a variety of accommodation and water taxi services. It’s also where the big inter-island ferries ply their way between Wellington and Picton.

Marlborough Sounds sunrise New Zealand web

The Pelorus Sound is where we had our boating adventure and is much quieter, with stunning waterways like Tennyson Inlet and Nydia Bay.

The launch point for a boating tour of Pelorus Sounds is the pretty village of Havelock that is very small and sleepy but is the centre of the green-lipped mussel growing industry so make sure you try some in the marina restaurant.

This tiny village was a much more bustling affair back in the 1860s when a local gold rush and then sawmilling fuelled rapid growth. In fact my great-great-grandparents set up here after emigrating to New Zealand from England. There is even a street named for them! The main street  – Lucknow Street – is named for Sir Henry Havelock who came to fame after the Siege of Lucknow during India’s First War of Independence.

Nowadays the marina is the busiest part of town and where we found the vessel that was to be our home for three days cruising in the Marlborough Sounds. Before we knew it we were onboard and heading out!

Boating in the Marlborough Sounds New Zealand

Our first night’s mooring was in peaceful Mahau Sound, just a short cruise from Havelock and I woke to the sound of Bellbirds in the dawn and the sight of cormorants stretching their wings on the rocky shore. From Mahau we travelled up the Hikapu Reach, past the entrance to Nydia Bay and around the point to Tennyson Inlet. Now we were in Pelorus Sound where we would spend the majority of our time.

Nestled in the lush native forest along the coastline are isolated houses (in New Zealand a holiday home like this is called a ‘bach’). All this land was cleared for farming in colonial times but fortunately the regeneration of the forest looks very healthy with exotic-looking tree ferns and nikau palms on the shoreline. The green of the New Zealand ‘bush’ is quite intense, especially glowing in the sunlight of early morning or evening.

Marlborough Sounds sunset New Zealand web

At nighttime it was incredibly calm. Sitting in the cabin it was hard to tell we weren’t on solid ground. A huge harvest moon made torches unnecessary on deck.

We slowly made our way towards the outer Sounds, following a number of fishing charter boats heading out for the day (picture 10 hairy blokes drinking beer at 10am). There is not much in the way of fishing any more in the inner part of the sounds so if fishing in New Zealand is a priority for you make sure you go towards the sea.

Sea kayakers in Marlborough Sounds New Zealand web

Our second night’s mooring was at Wilson’s Bay, where the Terawa Lodge plies a trade of cake,  accommodation and warm hospitality from a British couple in this sheltered spot. Water taxis stop here and we also saw a number of sea kayakers stop by before paddling smoothly and swiftly onwards, fuelled by coffee.

There is also an abandoned-looking farm perched against the hillside. We walked for a few hours on a track through the farmland and along the hills to a point where we could see over a saddle to d’Urville Island and the sea.

Walk at Wilsons Bay Marlborough Sounds New Zealand

There is a decrepit sheep shearing shed and jetty, as well as a few trees planted long ago by pioneers – walnuts, oleanders and a huge fig tree with fruit that was small but soft and sweet. A wonderful treat for possums. On our way back it started to rain, turning the landscape monochrome and blotting out the jewel colours of water and shore.

Wilsons Bay walk Pelorus Sound New Zealand

Next day, we were still drinking morning coffee onboard when the captain steered us out of Wilsons Bay towards the Cook Strait. The early bird catches the worm when it comes to fishing. Our boat was first out on a smooth sea on this glorious day with not a cloud in the sky and sun sparkling on the water.

Fishing in the Marlborough Sounds New Zealand web

Away from the shelter of land the fishing was very successful and we still had a cold bin full of blue cod for our tea. Seabirds bobbed on the smooth surface and we carried on past craggy islands towards the most northerly point of the South Island (which is actually further north than the capital of Wellington on the North Island) on a fruitless search for a trophy fish.

After lunch offshore from d’Urville Island we trolled back in past the Jags and Rangitoto islands (not to be confused with the Rangitoto Island off the coast from Auckland).

The Jags Marlborough Sounds New Zealand

In the afternoon we moored in Wharetea Bay on the east coast of D’Urville Island and rowed ashore for a fire and beers on the beach, as well as an Easter egg hunt.

Large and remote, D’Urville Island is now home to only a handful of families but is rich in wildlife and even retains a few tracts of ancient forest. Bellbirds and Rifleman are the main creatures enjoying the views across to the mainland across the steep, farmed hills. There are a number of walking tracks to explore inland.

Boating in Wharetea Bay Marlborough Sounds New Zealand

A pair of fantails played along the beach, delighted by our arrival as our footsteps throw up tasty insects. The water is a rich green and the tops of tall sea grasses can be seen emerging as the tide slowly recedes. Another remnant of failed pioneer farming could be seen at the stream outlet where a straggling fig tree bent over the water.

Swimming in the Marlborough Sounds New Zealand web

Placed high above the water on the rocky shore is a plaque marking the visit of Captain James Cook with his ship Endeavour on the 31st March 1770. This anchorage was where he spent a week gathering supplies of water and wood before his voyage home after months exploring and mapping New Zealand’s coastline (although obviously the Polynesian navigators had explored and settled in the area at least 600 years previously…)

Pelorus Sound Marlborough region New Zealand

Back onboard, children and adults alike threw themselves into the pristine water as the warm sun beat down. At dusk a weka (bush hen) could be seen tiptoeing along the shoreline, pecking at insects with its long beak. Billions of stars filled the sky and teh soft hoot of a morepork

This is a richly storied landscape with tales of explorers, early settlers, shipwrecks and fishing legends.  It repays slow and open-hearted discovery.

Travel to the Marlborough Sounds

If you are travelling by ferry from Wellington you will arrive in Picton, the largest town in the Marlborough Sounds, where you will find transport links. The closest airport for domestic flight options from Auckland, Christchurch or Wellington is Blenheim Airport with Air New Zealand or Nelson Airport with Sounds Air. To get to Havelock you’ll need a hire car or there are Intercity bus services from Picton, Nelson and Blenheim.

By Natasha von Geldern

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Marlborough Sounds boat trip in New Zealand

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