The Drowned Valleys

Paddling the Marlborough Sounds

There is always water.
Every track, half-road or hilltop
Throws a view of the labyrinthine
Seeping and effortless sea
Undulant, insidious, creeping
Round hill and promontory

Denis Glover

The Marlborough Sounds are one of New Zealand's natural treasures - acres of calm waterways, coves and bays, arms and reaches. They’re where Captain Cook holed up several times and discovered what he called ‘Cook’s Scurvy Grass.’ The Queen Charlotte track runs through here too. It gets a lot of publicity, and rightly so due to it's beauty and accessibility, but to truly experience the sounds I think you need to get on the water.

Luckily, you don't need mountains of money or advanced boat-handling skills to do this. There is a sophisticated network of water taxis and other options like kayak hire, which are affordable and open to beginners.

And that’s how we chose to explore the sounds over a late Easter break. The mornings were quiet and gloomy and the evenings chilly. It wasn’t quite the sunny kayak holiday I had envisaged. As we paddled through milky water looking out for driftwood that had come down from the hills under heavy rainfall, we took small comfort from the promise of the next camp site, and the possibility of a hot drink and a dry t-shirt. It was quiet though. It seemed everyone else had decided the weather wasn’t worth it. We had the place to ourselves.

The sounds tend to slip quietly through the national consciousness, known mostly as a ferry port and the place when Ben Smart and Olivia Hope went missing. Occasionally they make the news when there is a protest against scallop dredging or an announcement about some new DOC conservation initiative. At the turn of the 19th Century their chief celebrity was Pelorus Jack, a Risso's dolphin who was known to escort ships through a particularly dangerous passage in the outer sounds. A Scottish country dance was later named in his honour. They are a place to get lost. Not as busy as Fiordland or the Bay of Islands, the perfect place to go hunting for that secluded beach or island and live out a Robinson Crusoe adventure.

There are two main sounds, Pelorus and Queen Charlotte, and two large islands, D'Urville and Arapawa at western and eastern extremities respectively. There are many arms like Kenepuru and Tawhitinui Reach, both of which are large areas to explore in their own right. You could conceivably spend weeks checking out every cove.

For places to stay, DOC has cosy campgrounds dotted throughout the sounds, along with huts and larger lodges, although, as we found out at one lodge at Nydia Bay, it tends to check ahead on whether they are open. Luxury lodges are also a feature of the sounds. While somewhat of a hangover from a more glorious, affluent age, many are still operating and can be a welcome reprieve after a hard day on the trails or the water.

On our last day in the sounds, paddling back to the pickup point, the sun chose to make an appearance. The hills melted away and the sky opened up above. We caught a glimpse of what the place might be like on a hot January day. Clean, still and stunning. Maybe next January.