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