David Whitley takes on the stunning waterways of New Zealand’s Marlborough Sounds in the most ridiculous boat imaginable.


Is it possible for a boat to be cute? If so, the plucky little tin contraption I’m charged with fits the description perfectly. Any more than two people on it would be something of a squash, and the engine is better measured in donkey power than horsepower.  It’s really the marine equivalent of a go-kart or motorised scooter, but it’s mine, and that’s all that matters. Boating for beginners it may be, but there is an enormous advantage to having your own vehicle on the Marlborough Sounds. It’s a staggeringly beautiful area in which hills and forests grope their way around the water; a series of craggy arms flailing around in a giant pool. To do it on a cruise would somehow not be doing it justice. The way most people see the Sounds is on the ferry between Wellington and Picton and while it’s an undeniably great journey, it doesn’t have that exhilarating feeling of freedom. In short, there has to be a middle path between being crammed onto a boat with 100 other people and travelling painfully slowly for days in a kayak. And Leicester Bull thinks he may well have found it.


Leicester designed the dinky little boats himself, and has decided that the best way to explore the sounds is a guided safari. Essentially this means dividing everyone up, two to a boat, and puttering around the Sounds in an undisciplined convoy. They reach speeds of up to – gasp! – 20 knots per hour, and there is a guide in one of the boats to ensure that everyone knows what they’re looking at. He also makes sure that his guests avoid the crowds in Picton – the bay the safaris set out from is a fair old drive away from the area’s major hub, and there is minimal traffic on the water once you’re out there.


The guide doesn’t particularly mind people doing their own thing as long as they head in roughly the right direction. There’s freedom to chug around trying to spot penguins on the rocks, get the rush of bombing out over choppy channels at full power or throw in a few twists and turns along the coastline. Along the way, there’s the odd history and culture lesson. The Sounds are, essentially, a series of flooded valleys. Subsidence and rising water levels over thousands of years have led to the present state – an eye-popping 1,500km of coastline in a relatively small area.


The land has a variety of stories to tell, too. Some of the trees towering on the hilltops have been in New Zealand longer than humankind – and that includes the Maori. The bigger ones have been slowly growing for around a thousand years, as the early loggers who leapt upon the region with enthusiasm found to their cost. In the original days of European settlement, the vast forests of Marlborough were a passport to riches, but it soon became apparent that replanted trees don't grow all that quickly in these parts. No trees equals no money, hence a more convenient import was brought in.


The vast tracts of pine trees are an inescapable feature of the waterways, some of them springing suddenly from ultra-green pastoral land, and others interrupted by fern gullies that look like they've come straight from the set of Jurassic Park. It's not just the land that has managed to cultivate an industry which manages to be scenic at the same time, as we learn once we pull in by a network of buoys. Between them are ropes, absolutely covered in seaweed and black shells.


It's a mussel farm, of which there are plenty in the Sounds. The black ones on top would be prime fodder anywhere else in the world, but here they're nonchalantly discarded. It's the green-lipped ones below the surface that are of interest. These are the region’s speciality, and are transported across the country (and, indeed, the world). The mussel farming has an interesting by-product too. Because mussels filter toxins, they have to grow in ultra-clean water. If a few bad batches got out, and made people sick, the damage to the country’s reputation would be immeasurable. This means that no nasty stuff is pumped into the Sounds, harvests are not conducted the day after heavy rain, and pine trees cannot be planted at shoreline level (they release toxins). It’s another rare example of industry and environment going hand in hand – the water is a pure light blue, easy on the eye and fabulous for swimming in.


Another advantage of the small boats is that they can easily pull over pretty much wherever they like. For lunch, we pull over at the Ferndale Scenic Reserve. It’s not an ironic name. The mountains spread across the horizon from our little private beach. Apparently dolphins sometimes scoot past here, while whales have also been spotted in the Sounds. Most importantly though, the only signs of human life are our small group, our sandwiches and those funny little boats.


Disclosure: A full day �?Explore the Sounds’ tour is available with Waterways Safaris


NZ walk in a day


David Whitley climbs volcanoes, checks out ancient Maori sites and crosses from the west coast to the east coast in a map geek’s dream day 

No-one is going to claim that the lagoon at Onehunga is the prettiest sight in New Zealand. The parkland around it makes it a pleasant place to walk dogs, but it’s what’s behind that counts. Manukau Harbour, the second largest in New Zealand, leads out to the Tasman Sea. It’s the west coast, and my plan is to walk to the east coast.

There aren’t many countries that you can walk across in a day, but New Zealand’s odd shape means it is one of them. Auckland is built on an isthmus between two large natural harbours, and the 16km Coast to Coast walkway connects them. Ironically, it runs pretty much south to north – a kink in the landmass means the east and west coasts temporarily turn 90 degrees before resuming conventional positions.

But the Coast to Coast Walkway isn’t just about childish box-ticking for map geeks – it also strings together a series of key sites that offer a different perspective on Auckland than the one you’d get staying downtown.

The route trundles past quaint wooden houses in Onehunga before arriving at One Tree Hill, which is something of a beloved landmark for Aucklanders and has been for centuries. Long before Europeans arrived, the hill was known to the Maori as Maungakiekie – and it was the biggest pa (or fortified village) in what is now the Auckland area. Of the 60 pa found around the isthmus, more than half have been destroyed or severely damaged – mostly through quarrying. What makes Maungakiekie so special is that the defensive terracing on the hillsides and inside the craters is clearly evident. The same goes for the pits used for storing kumara (sweet potato) during the winter. It’s not just a park – it’s an archaeological site as well.

Oh, yes. It’s also a farm. Bizarrely for an urban park, sheep and cows can be found ambling around the hillsides, making it feel more like a country estate than a big city’s green lung. This is largely thanks to Sir John Logan Campbell, who bequeathed adjoining Cornwall Park to the nation in 1901. This turned the hill – a public reserve since 1848 – into a giant green space.

Once past the guard sheep, it’s worth huffing and puffing up to the top. It’s only 183m high, but it feels taller than that. Manukau Harbour quickly comes into view, but once at the top in the shadow of the obelisk dedicated to Logan Campbell, the rest of the city comes into view too. The Skytower of central Auckland is the obvious point to fix upon, but the east coast is there too – the laid-back beachside suburb of Devonport, the craggy volcanic Rangitoto Island and the other islands of the Hauraki Gulf.

Closer in, however, are a couple of other green protrudences that look suspiciously like One Tree Hill. That’s because they were formed in the same way. The most remarkable thing about Auckland’s geography isn’t that it has two harbours, over 50 islands and spans both the east and west coasts – it’s that it’s built on a field of volcanoes. At the latest count, there are 55 volcanic cones within the greater Auckland area, and One Tree Hill offers the best illustration. All the houses heading down to Onehunga and Manukau Harbour are built on the lava field spewed out by an eruption thousands of years ago.

The second volcanic cone on the trail is Mt Eden, a perennial favourite with tour buses which drive up for the views. Walkers go for the steeper route up, which if you tackle it with a determined charge, isn’t all that arduous.

It’s 196m tall, but that’s more than enough to take in views that are arguably even better than those from One Tree Hill. To the west, the thick green hills of the Waitakere Ranges roll out, and the Coromandel Peninsula can be seen out over the water to the north-east.

Again, evidence of Maori terracing and fortifications is present. It stirs a fascination in New Zealand’s indigenous population that goes beyond the usual hakas and cultural performances. Luckily, the best place to learn more is also on the route.

The road from Mt Eden eventually leads to the Auckland Domain, a massive park on the cusp of the city centre. Amongst the cricket pitches, art installations and giant, showy trees is the Auckland Museum. The collection inside is a real hodge-podge of subjects, but it’s the Maori section that’s genuinely excellent – they’ve somehow managed to get meeting houses and war canoes inside, while the information on Maori history and culture is useful too.

After a good few hours of walking – at least four hours need to be set aside, and that’s if you tackle it without detours or lunch breaks – the path eventually leads to the flashier trailhead. Waitemata Harbour is the harbour people think about when they talk about Auckland. It’s the one at the bottom of the city centre. And, more importantly for me, it’s the one on the east coast. Mission accomplished.


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