Peaceful dawns: Blenheim to Nelson on Heritage Explorer

Nine ever-changing days on an expedition yacht from Blenheim to Nelson reveals many local treasures, writes Neil Porten

Terry Savage is a taonga. And treasure is what he discovers on the stony beach in front of his house at Kupe Bay on Rangitoto ki te Tonga/D’Urville Island. Argillite axe heads, moa-bone fish hooks, fossilised snails and fine pounamu.

It’s a cloudless autumn morning at the boundary between the complication of the Marlborough Sounds and the openness of Tasman Bay. From a lookout above Terry’s property, I can see Heritage Explorer, the 30m vessel which brought us here, anchored in the blue water of the bay below.

I am discovering treasure myself on this nine-day voyage. Already we have cruised the sounds, visiting island sanctuaries and remote mainland spots.

Terry shows us more of his treasure before we leave: an expansive garden and orchard where grapefruit ripen and the tamarillos are ready to eat. Now is the perfect time to return to the ship for lunch.

This voyage begins in Picton. Four decks tall, shining white in the sun with a pair of red Zodiac inflatable boats lashed to the stern, Heritage Explorer looks ready to sail as I step aboard.

Hotel manager Cath greets us by name and directs us down the spiral stairs to our cabins on the lower deck. My bed is under the porthole, there’s a large wardrobe and dresser, and the bathroom and shower are spacious.

The sounds of ropes untying and engines throttling signal we are under way.

My fellow travellers – Jeff and Barbara, Allison and Victor, Penelope and Warrick, and Maureen – join me in the forward lounge for crew introductions.

Cath is Australian and so is chef Matt. The youngest man on board is engineer Carl. Chris is our expedition leader, assisted by guide Lindsay. Skipper Nathan is a director of Heritage Expeditions, which has decades of experience taking ships to the Antarctic, Arctic and points in between. I sense an easy camaraderie within the group.

It’s soon time to open the bar in the aft lounge. I decide that my ritual evening tipple will be rum, a suitably piratical drink for an intrepid expeditioner.

Lindsay is letting out the anchor chain. We’re spending the night in Kumutoto Bay. The sun sets, the moon rises, and the ship turns on the anchor chain, Picton’s lights appearing and disappearing as we circle into darkness.

Dinner sets a standard that will be matched every night: smoked salmon blini, hāpuka fillet (freshly caught today by a local fisherman, says Lindsay), chocolate tart.

Later in the lounge, skipper Nathan regards my topo map, giving me more detail on the expedition ahead. My expectations could not be greater.

The hills are still sleeping under a duvet of low cloud as we depart in the morning for the Perano Whaling Station at the top of Tory Channel/Kura Te Au. It’s the first of many excursions in the Zodiac: tall rubber boots donned for the “wet” landing, pleasant surprise that I’m not bounced overboard on the first wave.

Whaling began here in 1924 and ended in 1964. Cut into the concrete pier is the slipway where carcasses were winched up: right whales, humpbacks, sperm whales, blue whales and even orca. Rusted machinery used to strip, render and process the blubber for its precious oil is a sobering reminder of 40 years of killing.

My mood is lightened by a flitting pīwakawaka on the walk back to the beach.

Cook Strait is too rough for the run to Blumine Island/Oruawairua, so we cruise around the southern end of Arapaoa Island. Sea, rock and bush are painted from a muted palette under dull clouds. Colourful yachts race in Picton Harbour.

Blumine Island is a DoC-managed reserve. The kūkupa (kererū), tūī, an angrily territorial korimako (bellbird), black fantail, and South Island tomtit (ngirungiru) we hear and see are testament to pest eradication efforts.

There are World War II gun emplacements on the island. No shots were fired in anger, but shadowed tunnels and concrete bunkers are perfect for taking moody photographic shots.

On the coast walk, Chris spots a fur seal breaking the surface, something in its jaws; it’s feasting on an octopus, alternating between tearing its prey to pieces and rolling on to its back. With a final gulp, the white belly and last tentacles disappear.

And another surprise: two saddlebacks (tīeke) appear. Lindsay’s cellphone recording from his backyard has done the trick. The recovery of the South Island saddlebacks is a success story: from 36 rescued pairs in 1964, there are now more than 600 birds.

Sunday’s not a day of rest on this expedition. The summit walk on Motuara Island provides a bicultural history lesson. Tiny Hippa Island was the site of a pre-European pā, while a cairn marks where Captain Cook proclaimed British sovereignty over the South Island in 1770.

When I was last at Meretoto/Ship Cove in 1988 there was little more than the white stuccoed monument to Cook to mark the history of this place, an ideal harbour with a freshwater source. Now, storyboards record legends of Māui and the navigator Kupe alongside the history of Cook’s time here. Pou whenua guard the beach. The Queen Charlotte Track has its own story to tell, of straight-trunked nikau and the black hulks of fallen beech.

I’m on the bridge of Heritage Explorer as we navigate out of Queen Charlotte Sound at Cape Jackson. At the helm, Nathan points to the sea surface: smooth water at a depth of 100m becomes choppy at 2m. No wonder the cruise ship Mikhail Lermontov foundered here in 1986.

Dusky dolphins pirouette near Alligator Head before our passage into Pelorus Sound/Te Hoiere. Before we reach anchorage in Godsiff Bay (Matai), a wondrous sight off Cregoe Point: gannets circle and dive above a frothing sea. I spot seals and then dolphins, in among the plunging gannets. Lindsay explains what’s happening. A pod of dolphins has corralled a school of fish and is feasting. The opportunistic seals skirt the edges of the frenzy, staying out of the dolphins’ way.

Coincidentally, I have an excellent monkfish fillet for dinner.

Wind drags the boat 150m on its anchor chain overnight. Wind is today’s constant. Spray whips up at the end of the Elaine Bay jetty. On the coastal Archer Track, ground ferns bend backwards even in the sheltered bush. One of my shoes, and both of Victor’s, are blown off the back of the boat. In a geology lecture, Lindsay tells us how, unsurprisingly, wind erosion has influenced the region’s geography.

Our calm harbour for the night is South East Bay. In the gloom, a cold rain falls, but it’s warm and cosy on Heritage Explorer. It’s rum o’clock and the rest of the afternoon is spent socialising and relaxing in the aft lounge.

Mussel boats work between the snakes of ropes and buoys before dawn.

At Wilson Bay Farm, Trevor Foote is the fifth generation of his family to work this peninsula property of 1700ha and 1500 Romney sheep. Wool prices are depressed so a mussel farm provides additional income.

On a bushwalk from Dillon Bell to Jacobs Bay, Chris and Lindsay explain the reason for the pitch-black coating on the red beech trees. It’s a fungus, attracted to the syrupy secretions of a burrowing insect. The sweet juice is food for other insects outside of the flowering season.

Our voyage continues into Kenepuru Sound. The pace and rhythm of this expedition are changing all the time, which is no bad thing. Weather and sea conditions necessitate itinerary tweaks. Guests can always stay on board or opt for shorter variations of the shore excursions.

In the late afternoon, autumnal sunlight sets fire to the hills, clouds, and wind-spun sea spray. Wheeling gannets add silhouetted motion to the drama. It’s over too soon, to the relief of my camera memory card.

We’ve returned to Pelorus Sound to moor in Richmond Bay. After dinner, Nathan answers questions about Picton-built Heritage Explorer, which he prefers to call an expedition yacht. In the coming year, it will take adventurers to Fiordland, Stewart Island, the Hauraki Gulf and Bay of Islands, and back to Marlborough Sounds.

On Wednesday there will be a blood moon and total lunar eclipse. But that will be only the second most spectacular event on board, in my opinion. Because we’re sailing early to time the tide through Te Aumiti/French Pass, a treacherous and narrow seaway squeezed between the mainland and D’Urville Island.

The confluence of the Tasman Bay and Admiralty Bay currents clashes in a confrontation of whirlpools, whitetops and glassy eddies between and around the white channel markers. We are cruising steady and slow, with the revs high. Bright sunlight makes for beautiful photos of the dramatic sea surface. Sorry, blood moon.

Our time in the sounds is over. D’Urville Island is our next destination, but that’s another story. So too is the tale of discoveries made across Tasman Bay at Abel Tasman National Park.

It’s impossible to say you’ve seen New Zealand until you’ve voyaged into the Marlborough Sounds, past an ever-changing vista of bays, the sea changeable from mirror glass to wind-whipped whitetops, the sun setting over one rank of stacked headlands while a blood moon rises over another.

I once had a poster of a sailboat on my wall from Outward Bound, which is based in Queen Charlotte Sound. The words on the poster read: through violent storms and peaceful dawns, we find ourselves in balance.

Here at the fulcrum of Aotearoa – at the prow of Te Waka a Māui, where the giant Te Ika a Māui floats to the north – is the perfect place to rebalance, to set yourself once more on an even keel.