D’Urville Island/Rangitoto ki te Tonga in the Marlborough Sounds is the kind of place you visit to connect with nature, and you live there because you prize solitude and independence.
About 50 people live there permanently, but there is a steady stream of visitors, fishing charters from Wellington and beyond, the historically curious, and nature lovers like our party of eight brought here by Driftwood Eco-Tours, a Kaikōura-based tour company specialising in taking people to remote places to experience nature.
“We are still waiting for eco-tourism to buzz,” says Will Parsons, the co-owner and main guide for the company which operates tours to D’Urville Island, the Chathams and other places of ecological and historical interest around New Zealand.
When he and his wife Rose started the business in 2004, they expected eco-tourism to explode worldwide and in New Zealand. It hasn’t, but it does have its satisfactions.
Will says the buzz is bringing interested people to a distant place to connect them to the environment. Distant but reachable; remote and unaffected.
This is not real wilderness stuff. None of the eight passengers on this tour are hard-out hikers; all but one is over 70, and for one of our number this is her 70th birthday present.
They are all interested in preserving and protecting and enjoying the natural environment. It’s the Forest and Bird Society on holiday.
Will is an enthusiast, a raconteur, an advocate, passionate about the environment and right at home in the bush and forest spotting interesting rocks and wildlife and telling stories about each and every spot we come to.
He tells the tale of the Japanese submarine seen off Stephens Island/Takapourewa during World War II. An official history of the NZ Navy confirms the sub’s presence and that its “floatplane conducted reconnaissance flights over Wellington on 8 March and Auckland on 13 March 1942”.
In another story, he recounts how in 1939 a Blenheim boy called Jimmy Eyles found a moa’s egg and human remains near Wairau. He later helped the ethnologist of the Canterbury Museum, Roger Duff, to excavate the area. Duff established that moa hunters were an early Māori culture.
On the beaches it is easy to find pieces of argillite, a hard black stone that Māori used to make tools and weapons. The area was the centre of an active trade when Europeans started to arrive in the 1830s.
D’Urville Island was named by the French explorer Jules Dumont d’Urville who made two voyages to New Zealand and the South in the 1820s and 1830s.
Ten of us in a 10-seater van left Blenheim on a five-day tour and travelled up the Rai Valley to Havelock, the headquarters of the green-lipped mussel industry and also the berthing place for many yachts.
And from there it was on to French Pass and the car ferry to Kapowai Bay on D’Urville Island, this a journey of perhaps 15 minutes. Here we park the van and take a water taxi to our destination, Wilderness Resort at Catherine Cove, our home for the next four nights.
The lodge has self-contained cottages sleeping up to six and a dining room, café and bar. It’s run by Craig Tatnell and Cathy George, originally from Nelson. Craig drove a truck with a crane on the back, while Cathy, a qualified chef, cooked at a vineyard.
They wanted to have a business together and bought Wilderness Resort in 2019. Craig has a skipper’s ticket and operates the boat as a water taxi and provides fishing charters.
On the way to the lodge, we stop outside French Pass to catch dinner. Easiest fishing ever. Two fish for each person on a vessel and that’s your lot for a week. We got our quota in 20 minutes; mostly blue cod with a couple of snapper. Delicious eating that night and again a couple of nights later.
On the island, we travel each day by van and by boat and see regenerated forest, cabbage trees, seals on rocks. Sometimes fern birds, ducks, gulls, shags, cormorants and cygnets. And we meet the locals.
Terry Savage, an ex seafarer who later worked at the NZMC plant in Nelson, bought a holiday home here and in 1999 he and wife Sue retired to the island.
“We feed ourselves. We live off the land or close to it. We are very independent, and we like that. You have to be happy in your own company,“ Terry says.
These days they have Sky TV, the Internet and other modern communications, so they aren’t really alone, although they are physically remote.
We talk to Becs Forgan who runs a sheep and beef farm with husband Gus. Two of their three daughters aged 13, 15 and 17 are at boarding school. The youngest is at home.
To live here, she tells the group “you have to love yourself”.
It’s very seductive. “You get beaten down by the winds, and then they stop, and the sun breaks out, and it’s magic.”
“There is freedom in every sense of the word,” says Becs. “Wind and weka are the big issues.” The southeast wind can cut you like a blow torch, she says.
“You have to like yourself and to be very adaptable. We have been here for 16 years, and it’s been an amazing journey.”
On a walk along the beach at Patuki one of our group finds an intact paper nautilus shell. The shells house cephalopods, a type of octopus dating back millions of years.
The shells are abandoned when the creatures inside have grown to a certain size. Fragments are common on the shore, but an intact shell is a bonus. It is carefully looked after and later wrapped and boxed for its journey home. A special memory of a special place.
- John Bishop visited D’Urville Island as a guest of Driftwood Eco-Tours.
- First published in Stuff Travel, December 2021