It’s a silver morning on Marlborough Sounds, sun dancing on water, a nip in the air and dolphins frolic about the boat.
We ooh and ahhh, excited to see these fluid creatures sliding through water, surfacing to breath with a little pifff of air though a head-mounted hole. They are nonchalantly unconcerned about the boat and its human cargo, swimming its length and taking its measure, posturing with the flip of a tail, and, sometimes, they look at us, wink with dolphin eye, then continue to go about their business, which is fishing.
The Dolphin Watch people scan the sky for birds, who are looking for fish, and then find dolphins as, they too, are looking for fish. And so it is that dolphins, fish, birds and people, an a few adolescent seals, all end up at the same place towards the ocean edge of the convoluted tangle of mountain and sea that make up the Sounds.
Dolphin Watch is owned by Amy and Dan Engelhaupt, both marine biologists with PhDs, who have chosen eco-tourism rather than more intense scientific endeavour so the information they give us about these creatures, great and small, is the real deal.
Amy’s commentary on the shags, gannets, fluttering shearwaters and penguins, that we see from the boat, telling us why they do what they do, adds realms to my previous limited knowledge of seabirds, which, except for shrill squawking seagulls, tend to be human shy so not easy to accidentally notice.
While on the bird theme Motuara Island, a DOC sanctuary, at the mouth Queen Charlotte Sound is the next stop. It was, like many of the rugged hills here, completely covered in bush in Captain Cook’s time, then denuded by our axe welding, fire lighting ancestors who, in a fit of energetic misguided optimism, thought they would turn them into pasture for sheep. Now Motuara is in the process of completing the full circle and turning back to bush; lucky for the South Island robin and the saddleback, who are endangered on the mainland, but breed prolifically in this predator-free haven.
Tui, wood pigeon and fantails abound but we want to see rare birds. 50 metres up the path Blue, one of the 500 robins descended from just five introduced in the early seventies, hops across our path and filberts about in the twigs, almost within hand’s reach. It’s his path, actually, his territory and he has come to see who is walking through it - Blue is completely fearless and poses nicely for photographs.
This is also penguin city and Amy points out many of their burrows and what looks like a dry watercause is really a penguin highway. Hundreds of little blue penguins scramble out of the sea every evening and waddle up their steep path podding-off, one-by-one, to their burrows where many of them have fat fluffy chicks waiting to be fed.
Some mothers, lazy ones, have chosen to nest in purpose-built DOC boxes with lift-up wooden lids. We take a peek and see, under protective perspex, two down-covered chicks, cowering in the corner, disturbed from their day-long snooze by a burst of light and the eager faces of cooing, ooing humans. But, oh, they are so very cute and fluffy and totally soft toy-like.
Amy hears a saddleback and we stand still as it does a pass high in the trees, stopping here an there on branches for just long enough to show us its orange saddle and matching orange beak-side decorations. This truly is a rare and endangered bird with only 800 of its species left, but gaining numbers because of safe sanctuaries such as Motuara.
The silver morning has turned into a blue day and from the hilltop lookout the island’s green skirts spread low to touch the sea. There are audible gasps of appreciation of the grand view and a general muttering of awesome and fantastic. In the distant northeast we see a smudge of North Island hills and to the east, and not much more than a kilometre away, we look straight into Ship Cove and Cannibal Cove next to it.
Ship Cove was Captain Cook’s favourite New Zealand anchorage and here, on his three exploratory voyages of New Zealand, he stopped many times to collect fresh water, vegetables for his sailors and to stock-up on fresh fish and fowl. This Cove has a sweet stream coming down from the hills and is protected by Motuara Island from high winds and rough sea and the local Maori were, according the great man, “of Brave, Noble, Open and benevolent disposition.” Local women were also thoughtful and happy to indulge in nightly trysts with Cook’s sailors in exchange for nails and cloth.
Cross-cultural connections flowered until renegade Kahura and cohorts attacked a shore boat of Adventure’s crew, and killed and cooked them all.
When shipmates went in search of the missing cutter they found burning cooking fires, flax baskets full of colleagues’ roasted body parts and dogs gorging themselves on hearts, heads and hands.
This hideous cuisine carnage happened 230 years ago, just around the corner, at Cannibal Cove, a benign sunny camping spot for those who don’t believe in ghosts.
Some of my colleagues opt to walk a section of Queen Charlotte Track while I, and others, choose to go sea kayaking in Kenepuru Sound. The kayaking team is picked up from Ship Cove by a Cougar Line water taxi and treated to an unexpected tour of the many-fingered Sounds as the taxi goes about its business picking up and dropping off things and people.
German tourists with Kiwi tans load mountain bikes into the back of the boat and one of the crew quickly secures them with bungee cords, people are picked up and stores are dropped at lodges in Endeavour Inlet, a newspaper is delivered to the letterbox on the edge of a wharf in Punga Cove, a retired couple leave their batch, after a relaxed few weeks, with their Burmese cat who yowls objections through the holes in the cat carrying box.
But there is a problem. Two people have to be in Picton to catch the Interislander ferry and we kayakers need to be dropped at the Portage wharf. These destinations are in different directions. Mild discussion is followed by cellphone calls and we then have a deep-water rendezvous with another taxi into which the ferry couple, and their luggage, are hastily transferred. Then boats speed off. The foreigners are impressed with this casual and innovative approach to problem solving; we Kiwis expect nothing less.
Sea kayaking involves dressing up in really weird gear. A purple neoprene spray skirt sits like a ballet tutu but for the large front protuberance that inevitably inspires smutty comments, and the bulky breast-crushing life jacket, make us look like space invaders. We stand about in this gear for a quick lesson in paddling then jump into Marlborough Sounds Adventure Company’s yellow kayaks and paddle into the briny.
These double kayaks are steered by foot pedals controlled by the person at the rear and until they get the hang of steering navigation is mostly random and fending-off other out-of-control vessels is the job of the person in front. But we soon figure it out and paddle out of Portage Bay, brace ourselves for the headwind and steam up Kenepuru Sound.
We paddle in unison to the beat of water lapping, passing a perfect beach deserted by all but a shag waiting on a rock wings spread and drying. On the near hillside groves of nikau and punga have fronds open wide welcoming the afternoon sun and ahead of us, in the distance, layer upon layer of Marlborough’s distinctive steep hills glow green.
A few hours later, scrubbed clean and tired from a big day out, I sit on the veranda at The Portage, enjoy some of fine wines the district is famous for and compare experiences with the Track walkers. Amid the wine, chat, comfortable chairs and great view over the bay I keep an eye on the sun as it slips sideways and the Sounds turn silver again.
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