Between D'Urville and a deep blue sea

New Zealand's D'Urville Island a tip-top location for rat-race fugitives


International travel
LOCALS THROUGH AND THROUGH: Will and Rose Parsons from Driftwood Eco-Tours draw together a wealth of knowledge going back generations.

LOCALS THROUGH AND THROUGH: Will and Rose Parsons from Driftwood Eco-Tours draw together a wealth of knowledge going back generations.

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It may be secluded but the Marlborough Sounds island is full of things to see and do.

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D'URVILLE Island is New Zealand's eighth-largest island but you'll barely find a mention of it in the tourist brochures. DANIELLE LANCASTER joins an eco-tour designed for those who enjoy getting off the beaten track.

ROSE Parsons leans back, her hair fading into the sage-green grass. Nearby her brother's memorial looks over the aqua-tinted waters of Marlborough Sounds.

She is at her childhood home and is about to take us across French Passage to D'Urville Island, or Rangitoto Ki Te Tonga in Maori.

Though only eight kilometres wide, this passage on the northern end of New Zealand's South Island is a series of whirlpools and eddies responsible for many a seafarer mishap. But Rose and husband Will, who run Driftwood Eco-Tours, quickly dispel any worries.

Before we embark on this leg of the journey we learn something of the history, culture and life in this secluded region.

We pass fields of dairy cows, rows and rows of premium wine-growing grapes, isolated churches and shearing sheds, all with the backdrop of striking mountain ranges.

DECISIONS, DECISIONS: Rudimentary signs point to different areas of this beautiful remote island.

DECISIONS, DECISIONS: Rudimentary signs point to different areas of this beautiful remote island.

We pause in Havelock, the self-proclaimed Greenlip Mussel Capital of the World, before visiting Turners Cottage, built by Rose's great-grandparents.

The slab hut was one of the first to be built in this part of the South Island. Indeed, it was Will's great-grandparents who supplied the logs so long ago.

We stop at the cemetery and pay homage to Rose's ancestors and the Maori memorials, and admire beautiful beaches lined with shacks. I enquire what the price is and if any are for sale. Unfortunately none are, and I can understand why.

Our trip to D'Urville Island is easy sailing thanks to Skipper Craig, a fourth-generation "lad" who went to school with Rose and knows the passage well.

We then meet another boat that takes us to pretty Catherine Cove and D'Urville Island Wilderness Resort, our home for the next few nights.

The following days of our tour embrace a collection of activities. We fish for blue cod, and Will does not let me down on his promise. "It is simple," he says, "let your line drop to the bottom, and you will have a hit."

He's right: we catch many cod, most times two on one line; and dine like kings from our bounty from the sea. We meet locals who live on the island and who have embraced the secluded lifestyle.

Rose and Will's long-time friends include author Jeanette Aplin, who, with her husband and children, lived at the lighthouse on Stephens Island for six years.

BLUE HEAVEN: Agapanthus frame a beautiful view of the water. While pretty, the introduced plant is officially a bit of a problem, as it interferes with native species.

BLUE HEAVEN: Agapanthus frame a beautiful view of the water. While pretty, the introduced plant is officially a bit of a problem, as it interferes with native species.

Then there's Terry and Sue, who left the corporate rat race and are now almost self-sufficient. Their house is entrancing even before you see their garden looking out over mesmerising Blue Cod Bay and enjoy Sue's home cooking.

We visit NZ's best-known site for the mineral argillite. Good argillite is said to be harder than steel. Maori used it to make tools for cultivation, waka (canoe) building and weaponry. We each find an ancient piece on the stony outcrop and wonder at the intended use. It is thought more than 50,000 tools were made from these rocky boulders alone.

Will and Rose, both keen naturalists, point out various birds and plants like the unusual kiekie vine, one of the few plants of the forest that fruit. The tour weaves from history to nature seamlessly.

WHAT A SKY: Sunrise from Catherine Cove on a Driftwood Eco Tour.

WHAT A SKY: Sunrise from Catherine Cove on a Driftwood Eco Tour.

A visit to Moawhitu Bay (Greville Harbour) unveils another ancient Maori legend. It is said that 600 years ago a giant tsunami dragged the land away and formed the lake you see today.

The whole tribe was killed but an array of wildlife now takes refuge around the lake and the coastal walk. Along our drive, we pass bee hives whose honey we enjoy at breakfast with the locally made peanut paste and jams.

Will continues to point out plants and animals as we wind across the island. There are remnant stands of kohekohe, a pine endemic to New Zealand, he tells us, that was a much sought-after timber, perfect for furniture.

The island was praised by European settlers as great sheep grazing land, which is what drew Rose's ancestor to the district.

We learn that D'Urville was initially part of a dramatic mountain range that with changing sea-levels became flooded. Today it is a true wilderness getaway, with some modern-day comforts afforded by this tour.

There's no five-star resort, yet there is history, plants and wildlife - some found nowhere else in the country - along with excellent company. And did I mention the freshly cooked cod?

IF YOU GO...

Driftwood Eco-Tours offers a range of off-the-beaten-track tours and has private accommodation on the outskirts of Blenheim. The five-day D'Urville Island tours will run again in November and then in February and March next year at a cost of $2850 per person.

There are many ways to meet Will and Rose to join their tour. I flew to Wellington with Air New Zealand

Consider a night in the capital to see Zealandia Wildlife Sanctuary and Te Papa Museum.

From Wellington I travelled by ferry to Picton. Interislander and Bluebridge offer walk-on and drive-on options for cars and campervans; allow three-and-a-half hours plus check-in time.

Take some time to explore Marlborough Sounds, including its wineries: this is NZ's largest wine-growing region famed for its sauvignon blanc.

Danielle Lancaster was a guest of Driftwood Eco-Tours.

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