Dolphins, drowned mountain ranges, and flightless Kekapos
By Natasha Nowakowski
March 1, 2003
For the most part, the Sounds are fairly easy to paddle, the shore always within short reach and the maze of headlands providing a buffer
from the winds. There are some open and exposed sections, however, such as Tawhitinui Reach, a mile-and-a-half-wide roadstead where wind
coming from the Cook Strait can make waves boisterous.
The Strait, a 13-mile narrow stretch of water in the outer Sounds, is a virtual
wind tunnel. Northerlies and westerlies are sped up and twisted in "nor'westers," and wind from the east and south into the severe
gales of "southerlies." In the spring, long periods of gusty westerly winds are common. From the beginning of summer in December
through autumn, sunny, breezy weather is the norm.
On the second day of our trip, we found ourselves crossing Tawhitinui Reach in slanting rain and misty fog. A stiff wind blew at our
backs and whitecaps filled protected coves. We could just make out the shoreline as three-foot waves surged our kayaks toward Waoina Bay,
where we planned to camp. The rhythmic lifting of my stern and the ensuing rushing bow speed was exhilarating and made up for the rain
pelting in my face. We crossed three miles of water in less than an hour when it should have taken us almost two hours.
Once we reached shore and rounded a promontory, the weather did a curious flip-flop with a quickness that is typical in New Zealand.
All became calm. The rain dried up and the white mist lifted and drifted away.
Camping in the Sounds is an intimate and rustic experience. The two campgrounds where we stayed were situated just above the beach
line and offered vistas of forests and bays. We had them to ourselves. A narrow trail petering out to the woods led to the outdoor
bathroom, and a fire grill made it easy to build a fire in the cool night. Each morning I was greeted by a weka poking around for
breakfast and the gentle sound of the water lapping on the sand bar.
With the pots and pans supplied by the Wilderness Company, we managed to feast on pancakes with strawberries, pasta primavera and s'mores,
with juice, our bottle of wine and coffee.
Because Bill cooked, I washed, using stones and pebbled sand, which make excellent scouring pads. The trick is not letting the screeching
noise of rock scraping against metal get to you.
However, because I am deaf, I only needed to turn off my hearing aids to avoid the metallic squeak. With my hearing aids on,
the chuckle, crackle and whistle of the water, birds and wind all came alive. Even though I wear my hearing aids when kayaking,
Bill and I developed a series of signals with movements of our paddles that proved to be very effective, particularly during
the rainstorm, when I could not hear Bill's voice over the wind.
On our third and last day, we circled Maud Island, a wildlife sanctuary six miles in circumference. As tempting as the white beaches
looked, the island is completely off-limits to people in an effort to provide a predatorless home for rare creatures such as the
parrotlike takehe, and the flightless kakapo, New Zealand's largest and the world's heaviest parrot. Maud Island has somehow
remained free of introduced predators like rats, despite having been grazed by sheep for centuries before becoming a designated
sanctuary. On the island's northern terminus is a decrepit World War II cement gun placement, used to protect the entranceway
into Marlborough Sounds against Axis invasion, and now standing guard for the island's endangered species.
We spent the
afternoon weaving through mussel farms, which lace miles of the shoreline. The farms consist of columns of dangling ropes tethered
to a main rope line stretched out across tiny coves. The plentitude of green-lipped mussels in the Sounds give Havelock the boasting
rights as the "Green-Shelled Mussel Capital of the World," as local town entrance signs proudly declare.
Too quickly, it was time to head back to the put-in site where Steve would be waiting. The wind blew at our backs, as if making sure we would
not turn around. I kept my eye out for a flock of gannets feeding, a tell-tale sign that dolphins might be nearby -- but to no avail.
As we pulled up to shore, Steve paddled in with two clients whose wide grins threatened to run off their faces.
Planning A Trip to the Sounds
Getting There: The Marlborough Sounds are at the top of New Zealand's South Island. The nearest city with an international airport is
five-hour drive from Havelock. Air New Zealand has the most frequent flights into Christchurch.
You can take a bus or train from Christchurch to Havelock. The drive is wildly scenic as you will find yourself going through rolling
farmland, over craggy hills and past seal colonies on the rocky Pacific shore.
Kayaking: The Wilderness Company, based in Havelock, is the main outfitter in the Marlborough Sound. For reservations or inquiries,
contact the owner, Steve Maley, at (64-3) 574-2610, fax (64-3) 574-2310, Post Office Box 19, Havelock, Marlborough, New Zealand.
The company offers four types of kayak rentals. Independent rentals (when you rent and travel on your own) cost $20, calculated at
the rate of 1.98 New Zealand dollars to the dollar, for one day, $40 for two days, $56 for three days, $71 for four days, and
$12.50 extra for each additional day. (We bought our food for the trip at the supermarket in Havelock.)
Full-day guided trips cost $38 and include lunch. Overnight guided trips cost $48 a day (this package does not include food or
camping gear). Deluxe overnight guided trips cost $71 a day and include food, camping gear and lodging if you prefer to sleep
indoors. Guided overnight trips range in length from two to five days.
The kayaking season generally starts in October (New Zealand's spring). If you choose to go during the spring or fall, you have a much
better chance of encountering dolphins and whales. By New Zealand's midsummer (January and February), dolphin sightings become less
common; however, the weather is much drier and calmer than in the spring or fall.