Dolphins, drowned mountain ranges, and flightless Kekapos
By Natasha Nowakowski
March 1, 2003
My friend Bill is frantically pointing to a crowd of seabirds diving into the blue-green water 50 yards away. At first, all I see are birds, but
seconds later, five sleek graybacks leap and twist elegantly into view. Not believing it, I race my sea kayak closer for a better look, and sure enough,
there are five dusky dolphins indulging in a feeding frenzy with a flock of gannets. It was a riveting sight, and it was moments before I realized I was
forgetting to breathe.
The circus of dolphins and gannets began to move northward, presumably following the school of blue cod lurking below. Bill and I decided
to tag along, and much to our delight, the dolphins acknowledged our presence. Unafraid, the six-foot-long creatures flirted with our
sea kayaks, jumped high in synchronized pairs and waltzed through the cloistered waters of the Marlborough Sounds of New Zealand.
Within a few too-short minutes, the dolphins swam off, but we caught up with them two miles later as they fed again, and dallied with us again.
Then they departed, for good, leaving us with a memory and their stardust.
It was October and I was on a three-day sea kayaking tour in the Sounds, at the top of South Island. In a country full of wondrous
natural phenomena, the Sounds rank with the truly astonishing. The Sounds are part of a drowned river valley, consisting of 930
miles of coastline, bush-clad promontories, peaked islands connected by narrow necks of land and sunken mountain ranges. What
used to be fertile lowland surrounded by tall mountains is now home to a variety of aquatic life. Geologists reason that the
Sounds sit on a fault, which has resulted in a constantly sinking landmass, while the seas have continued to rise. The
inundated landforms make the Sounds a great place to paddle.
Maori folklore has its own explanation for the sinking mountains. According to the myth, New Zealand's South Island was formed eons ago
when curious gods descended from the heavens to explore, and being so far away from their source of power, capsized their great canoe.
The giant keel rose to form the snow-bound Southern Alps, and its intricate carved prow shattered and partially sank to become the Marlborough
We began our adventure in Havelock, a small fishing village on a large estuary sheltered by round green hills. Because Bill and I decided
to go without a guide, we met with Steve Maley, owner of the Wilderness Company, the night before to discuss logistics and equipment.
The next morning, Steve picked us up outside our cabin -- his van brimming with gear and a trailer toting two single 13-foot sea kayaks.
Although I have done a fair amount of paddling, this was my first time on an overnight trip. I took one look at the equipment and declared,
"No way all that stuff is going to fit!"
"Wait and see," Steve countered, with Bill nodding in agreement.
Sure enough, when we glided into the water later that morning, we had a small tent, winter sleeping bags, inflatable mattresses,
a Coleman stove, first aid kit, binoculars, food for three days, clothes, toiletries and a bottle of red wine carefully wrapped
in towels. All of it fit into the sealed fore and aft compartments of our kayaks, with room to spare.
We put in at Tennyson Inlet, one of the more remote parts of the Sounds, an hour's drive from Havelock. On the way there
we passed patchworks of farms chiseled into denuded hills, inhabited by droopy-eyed sheep, frolicking lambs and grumpy cows.
The road then wends through the tangled podocarp (native evergreens) and beech forest of the Opouri Valley, and climbs 1,700
feet to a plateau. The view was as sudden as it was dramatic. Stretched before us were the blue reaches of the inner Sounds
with mountain peaks peering from the depths and forlorn islands scattered about. The scene looked like a remnant of the Great
Flood, and I imagined us to be present-day Noahs.
The Sounds have long been a popular summer destination for Kiwis. Summer houses decorate the shorelines, and the outer reaches are
playgrounds for large sailboats and motorboats. But the Tennyson Inlet remains virtually untouched and unpopulated. In the three
days we paddled there, I saw only three recreational fishing boats and two other sea kayaking parties.
The waters are rife with fish -- 200 species -- as well as dolphins, seals and whales. The more exotic fish include the blue-green butterfish,
groupers, blue cod, dogfish and fearless leatherjackets. Rays settle on the sandy bottom, warranting a cautious check before stepping out of
your kayak. While whales tend to stay in the outer Sounds, orcas are sometimes seen in the inner Sounds where we were, especially after a
storm in the Cook Strait.
We paddled a leisurely 30 miles over three days, taking our time to explore every nook and cove. Each day, we launched our kayaks
in late morning and set up camp in early evening. Lunches were quiet picnics on pebbled beaches tucked away in small bayous and
consisted of peanut butter and honey sandwiches. We were determined to take the rush out of our lives, even if just for three days.