MoaTours Guide Matt on the Ferry in the Marlborough Sounds

A Guide’s Perspective – Early Explorers

Our new Early Explorers from Queen Charlotte Sound to Akaroa is a brand new tour for us and I’ve been chosen to be the Kiwi Guide for this trip and very pleased I am! We love the Marlborough area so much that four years ago my wife and I moved from the West Coast to Marlborough to live, so being able to show visitors around ‘my place’ has got to be the perfect job! This is an area of the country I know and love, this article is an introduction to the tour and what I know guests will love on the itinerary. I’m Matt Lysaght, a Kiwi Guide with MoaTours where I’ve been proudly showing travellers around New Zealand for over 10 years now.

Find out all about the Early Explorers Queen Charlotte Sound to Akaroa tour here. 

Day 1 – Auckland – Blenheim – Winery Lunch – Picton

And on the very first day the tour starts with one of the primary reasons we moved here – to be amongst the vineyards and wines of Marlborough! The views from Brancott Estate are amazing as the restaurant, perched high up on a ridge overlooking a wide expanse of vineyards, serves up some absolutely delightful and tasty meals. I’ve been fortunate to have visited this winery/restaurant on a number of occasions and it’s always a wonderful experience.

And of course, to try the delicious flavours of Marlborough wines is a highlight, particularly from the company that claims to have produced the first Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc wines back in 1979. So, let’s hope the weather is great for our visit so we can sit in the unique hilltop cellar, sample some local fare and sip a Sauvignon from Marlborough! (Psst: even the Queen’s been here – she visited in 1990 – and planted a vine. It’s reassuring to know that our selection of venues aligns with the higher echelons of royalty!)

After our luncheon excursion we head north through the ever increasing expanse of vineyards (there’s now over 26,000 hectares of vineyards in Marlborough, with 86% of it in sauvignon) to our evening destination of Picton, gateway to the Marlborough Sounds and terminal for the Interislander ferries plying Cook Strait. On the way we bypass the Para Wetlands where an attempt is being made to reinstate the unique wetlands vegetation and restore the indigenous flora and fauna. It looks a bit messy at the moment with dying willow trees in some areas, but the already- restored sections are reportedly showing an increase of wild birds and waterfowl.

Picton’s a delightful little town, situated at the very head of Queen Charlotte Sound. It’s not just a ferry terminal but harbours (get it?) a number of attractions in its own right, one of which we get to see tomorrow morning, the Edwin Fox Restoration. And with a bit of luck, the Tuia 250 Flotilla will still be in port at Picton tonight or tomorrow morning. This is the Commemorative Fleet of six vessels, (including the Australian-built replica of HMS Endeavour), that is acknowledging the 250 years since Capt. James Cook’s arrival in 1769 and the first onshore meetings between Maori and Europeans.

Looking forward to returning to the Picton Yacht Club Hotel, which I’ve been visiting since first starting as a tour driver/guide in the 1980s. It’s got an awesome location, overlooking the Picton marina and the ferry terminal, and we can see the interisland ferries arriving and departing from here. We’re going to be here for three nights, so we can unpack and relax. And if the weather’s warm and fine, why not throw on your bikini (or speedos) and thrash a couple of laps around the outdoor pool! Perfect! 

Day 2 – Picton – Ship Cove, Queen Charlotte Sound

This has got to be a highlight day. We start with a visit to the Picton foreshore and the site of the restoration of the Edwin Fox, a magnificent, teak-timbered sailing vessel that brought convicts to Australia, carried troops to the Crimean War and immigrants to New Zealand. She’s the world’s second oldest surviving merchant sailing ship. For those with an interest in our early history in New Zealand, this should be an informative excursion. I’ve seen it a couple of times and always impressed by its size, its construction and its fascinating contribution to not just our immigrant story, but Australia’s as well.

Then we board our launch and head up Queen Charlotte Sound, heading for one of New Zealand’s most historic sites and one which I’ve been fortunate to have visited on at least three previous occasions – with other tour groups, when walking the Queen Charlotte Walkway or just scenic cruising. And once you get there, you too will appreciate why Capt. James Cook chose to ‘refresh and refit’ in this same spot five times, staying 170 days in total – it’s simply idyllic!

The same stream that provided Cook and his men with fresh water flows there still, the flat ground that allowed him to billet his sick sailors ashore is now a well-grassed picnic area and there is a memorial structure with cannon and ships anchor. The significance of this place to our shared cultural history shouldn’t be underestimated; it was a place well-known to pre-European Maori for its sheltered waterways and resources, Cook called here on each of his three voyages and had prolonged contact with the local Maori, it witnessed both clashes and cooperation between the races and, upon departure in February 1777 on his final voyage, was amongst the best known, documented and explored places in Aotearoa. And we get to go there … with time for lunch, exploration and appreciation.

The Marlborough Sounds are a favoured destination for many New Zealanders, especially South Islanders, as a place for sea and sun during their holidays All about, in the many coves and bays, we see the baches of locals who come here on holiday for fishing, wind surfing, kayaking, swimming …

But we’ll also see a couple of issues that are becoming evident in the Sounds: the expansion of commercial aquaculture (mussels and salmon), the huge areas in plantation forestry and the occurrence of wilding pines. It’s a beautiful and fascinating area and I love going there, as I’m sure you will. 

Day 3 – Picton – Blenheim – Omaka

It’s a drive back through Koromiko to Blenheim this morning, passing through the historic site of Tuamarina on the way, right beside the road. I’ll tell you the background story of the clash here between famous Kapiti chief, Te Rauparaha, and the Nelson settlers in 1843, the only South Island land dispute between Maori and European that resulted in fatalities.

And I’ll try to remember to explain why Blenheim was initially called Beavertown by its earliest European inhabitants, a story that is related to the Maori name for the place, Waiharakeke.

And then to Marlborough Museum at Brayshaw Park to hear the story of the Wairau Bar Polynesian settlers. This is fantastic – how in the 1930s a young school boy, Jimmy Eyles, discovered what was later to turn out to be the oldest and most significant early Polynesian settlement site in New Zealand! And the recent research on this site, and with the artefacts recovered, is revealing even more amazing stories. Jim Eyles later worked at the West Coast Historical Museum from 1973 to 86, and I remember him there when I first went to the Coast to work in 1982, ‘tho didn’t know him personally.

And then we continue on to what is fast becoming one of Marlborough’s most important visitor attractions: Sir Peter Jackson’s Aviation Heritage Centre, with its collection of both WW1 and WW2 fighter aircraft out at Omaka. This place is impressive and the Bi-annual Classic Fighters weekend, usually in April, is a real drawcard for thousands of aviation enthusiasts every couple of years. Like me, I’m confident you’ll be impressed by the realistic context of the displays, the authenticity of the aircraft (even the replica ones) and the sheer number and variety of them. This promises to be a great afternoon.

Then we’ll head back up the road to Picton and enjoy a leisurely dinner in the hotel this evening. 

Day 4 – Picton – Yealands Wines – Kaikoura

Today we’re heading off down the Kaikoura coast road, dramatically changed after the earthquakes of November 2016. But first a detour to famed Yealands Winery in the Awatere Valley and near the coast. Catch the stunning views of the valley, the mountains, the cellar. Yealands Wines is now owned by Marlborough Lines, our local power company, and I must say how delightful it is to get the annual $200± discount off the power bill … and even more so, how encouraging it is to realise that with every glass of award-winning Yealands sauvignon (Champion wine 2 years in a row at Marlborough Wine Show), I’m helping build a better community as well as reducing my living costs!

As we drive south I‘ll point out features of interest: the Lake Grasmere solar salt works; the site of the first sheep station in New Zealand established by pioneer pastoralists Clifford and Weld; the uplift resulting from the earthquakes and the remedial work being undertaken still as the road is being rebuilt. If Tapuae-o-uenuku, the highest mountain in the Inland Kaikoura Ranges (9,645’) and the highest in the South Island outside the Alps is visible, I’ll point that out as well. This was one of the earliest significant peaks climbed by a young trainee RNZAF serviceman, based at the Wairau Valley Airforce base, in 1944 – Edmund Hillary.

There’s lunch in store at The Store in Kekerungu where we are right on the beach and no finer place to enjoy a seaside stop on the deck overlooking the Pacific swell. From here south to Kaikoura the earthquake uplift is most noticeable, the rebuild most intensive and the damage to the hills most obvious. But it’s going to be a brilliant highway when it is finally completed.

I love Kaikoura. As a young man I worked on a sheep station here for almost a year, enjoying the life of mustering, deer shooting, horse riding and pig hunting … and occasionally working as well! But much has changed since then, what with whalewatching having taken off and ‘the march of time’ and all that, but mostly with the 2016 earthquakes. So, first port of call is the Kaikoura Museum’s “New Normal” exhibition where we’ll get to see and hear about the new Kaikoura and how it’s rebuilding. Kaikoura is famous for its whales and the next place we’ll be visiting is the historic Fyffe House, literally built on the back of the whales – the foundation piles are whale vertebrae! This place is wonderful – a carefully restored colonial cottage, built by pioneering whaler Robert Fyffe back in 1844. This is a guided visit and, based on past experiences here, the guide will be interesting, illuminating and informative – no pressure!

Then afterwards we will drive on out to the seal colony at the end of the road. But be warned, the uplift as a result of the 2016 earthquakes, means the majority of the colony’s inhabitants are now much further out. I usually carry a couple of pair of binoculars in the coach, and from the lookout just up above the carpark, we should be able to see them easily enough. There’s usually a few lying close to the carpark and along the boardwalk nearby for that matter, but I’m confident we will have seen plenty as we drove the coastline into Kaikoura earlier in the day.

The Kaikoura Peninsula is a vital part of or Early Explorers tour story, with its rich Maori legacy, its mention by Capt. Cook as ‘The Lookers On’ (because local Maori refused to come close to his ship), its early whaling stations and its geological fascination. From the lookout above the carpark we can still see the earthworks of a number of Maori pa sites, the very obvious Mt Fyffe, named after the first whaling entrepreneur, and the coastline for 30 or 40 kms either side of the peninsula.

We stay the night at the White Morph Motel along the Esplanade. This is one of the best places in New Zealand, in my opinion, for getting either sunset or sunrise photographs, the row of Norfolk pines that line the foreshore making for a brilliant shot – assuming the sun and clouds cooperate – and you’re out of bed in time! 

Day 5 – Kaikoura – Christchurch – Birdlings Flat – Akaroa

A couple of hours driving to start the day as we cruise once more along the south Kaikoura coast, through the Hundalees Hills, onto Cheviot (with a lesson about how to pronounce it correctly!), on past the once huge estates of early pastoralist ‘Ready Money’ Robinson and across the North Canterbury Plains to Christchurch.

For those who haven’t been here since those terrible days in 2010 and 2011, be prepared for the total transformation. Whole blocks have disappeared to be replaced by innovative new designs, amazing spaces and creative constructions. It is truly a wholesale change that is witness to ingenuity and creativity. The people of Christchurch are going to be living in one of the most futuristic cities in New Zealand in the next few years as major works are completed.

So after touring the central city area (can’t say exactly where yet – the rebuild of the roads means it changes every time we drive through), we head around the Port Hills to Birdlings Flat. Alongside the road, the Banks Peninsula Cycle Trail has been developed on the old railway embankment that once ran from Christchurch to Little River and I was fortunate to be able to cycle this a few years ago with my wife. The day was hot, the scenery magnificent and the midges thick!

This is a unique part of our country as we drive alongside Te Waihora (Lake Ellesmere, the 5th largest lake in NZ and an important wildlife refuge), to Birdlings Flat. The geographic formation of this place is interesting and while undertaking Geography fieldwork here in the 1970s, I was part of a group that located a couple of pre-European midden sites. The area, and the whole Banks Peninsula region, is rich in Maori and European history and we’ll explore that further in the coming days with visits to Okains Bay and the Akaroa Museum.

The Little River Valley is a beautiful region of pastoral farms, steep hills and grazing stock, and shortly after passing through the town we climb steeply to the Hilltop Hotel with its stunning views over the whole of Akaroa harbour. Another opportunity to use the binoculars to see the size of this huge volcanic crater, now a sheltered and idyllic harbour drawing visitors from all around the world. It is possible we may encounter a cruise liner here, as after Lyttelton’s port facilities were damaged in the earthquakes, Akaroa became the de facto port of call, with over 90 ships calling in over the 2018/19 summer season alone.

There are some wonderful anecdotes about the ‘Cocksfoot cutters’ of Banks Peninsula, the men who cut the tall, pastoral grass and threshed the seed, prior to its sale right throughout the Dominion. So I’ll dig out a bit of information on that to relate to you when we travel through these parts.

It is a beautiful drive down to the harbour shore and then around the bays to the township, bringing back youthful memories of summers spent swimming and waterskiing at the beaches, partying and hiking the hills hereabouts. Remember those days … when the sun was hot, the sky cloudless and the summer endless …!

Our accommodation is in the Bruce Apartments, right on the waterfront in the centre of town and an easy stroll to nearby shops, cafes and attractions. 

Day 6 – Explore Banks Penninsula from Akaroa

Time to go exploring around some of the early pioneer history of Akaroa. Now, I’m sure most are well aware of the story of the French settlers arriving here in 1840, but what do we know about the whalers that pre-dated those farming settlers? The ones who established their shore-based stations at places like Peraki, Okains Bay and Port Levy? So that is what we’re setting out to discover this morning with a visit to the Colonial Museum at Okains Bay.

The museum has a vast collection of Maori and European items collected initially by Murray Thacker, a descendant of the original pioneer families, and who I was fortunate to meet a few years back when I previously visited here. (Murray died in June 2017). It’s an amazing place with collections of waka, pounamu, Maori tools, colonial buildings, agricultural implements etc. We’ll spend plenty of time here to give you a chance to absorb some of the stories of Banks Peninsula. In recent years the Museum site has become the focus of Waitangi Day celebrations in the Canterbury region.

But to even get here is an adventure in itself. We drive up onto the crater rim of the Akaroa volcano and around the spectacular Summit Rd, with views both westward to the harbour and eastward to the many valleys and bays of the Pacific edge of the Peninsula.

After our return to Akaroa, I’ll take you to a most wondrous and intriguing place – Josie Martin’s Giants House! This is mind blowing – a fantastical collection of sculptures, artworks, landscaping and creativity. Just last year (2018) it was awarded a rare 6-Stars as a Garden of International Significance, so this is truly spectacular. I just love visiting this for its quirky innovation and artistic expressions – it just makes me smile and laugh, as I’m sure it will you. 

Day 7 – Akaroa – Little River – Christchurch – Auckland

We’ll wander down to ‘Bully Hayes’ restaurant for breakfast, one of our more notorious pioneers. I enjoy making the connection with the same Bully Hayes who had such nefarious dealings in the goldrush camp of Arrowtown where he left a legacy of disputed hearts and wallets! Seems he was willing to spread his largesse far and wide!

Then to the Akaroa Museum, the best place to learn of the stories of Ngai Tahu who lived in this region, the whalers who hunted here and the French immigrants who settled here. Some of the legacy of those early French pioneers is retained in the street names, the architecture of the cottages and the family descendants who gave their names to various farms and features around the Peninsula.

Then later in the morning we’ll retrace our path around the Bays, over the Hilltop and down to our lunch stop at Little River. There are a couple of wonderful art and craft galleries here with excellent quality artwork and items.

And then back to Christchurch Airport in time for your flight back to Auckland and the end of another adventure into our very own story of New Zealand and its early explorers … or some of them!

We will be post all Matt’s trip pictures on our Facebook Page once the trip has finished. For more info about this or any of our amazing New Zealand Small Group Escapes get in touch with one of the friendly MoaTours team now. 

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