D’Urville Island: Isolated beauty

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Amelia Nurse explains the joys of local eco tourism on a trip to D’Urville Island.
D'Urville Island.
D’Urville Island.

When I look out from my window on the Kapiti Coast, I see the silhouette of D’Urville Island across Cook Strait – often quite spectacular in sunset. But now it looks different. It hasn’t changed though – I have, because I’ve been there, and it will never look the same again. That contour in the distance will be indelibly reminiscent of passionate and hospitable people, the best blue cod ever, the terror of French Pass, massive native snail shells, crazy roads, Moriori tombs, and the joy of bamboo orchids.

Eco tourism is something that appeals to me a great deal because you get to combine relaxation with nature and moderate exercise and learning about things that sometimes you didn’t even realise you wanted to know. The company I chose to experience D’Urville with was Driftwood Eco Tours, run by the delightful Will and Rose Parsons.

The ever effervescent Will picked me up after I flew to Blenheim from the North Island.

Introductions accomplished with the five other eco-tourists (a Taranaki couple and three of their friends, all in their 50s and 60s), we sallied forth to D’Urville in a feisty eight-seater van.

Will’s local knowledge is stupendous – he’s lived in the region most of his life – and he regaled us with stories you’d be hard-pressed to find in books.

One of the farms in the steep hills as you drive through to get to French Pass.
One of the farms in the steep hills as you drive through to get to French Pass.

The island is possibly the most remote part of the Sounds, at the top westernmost tip, and from Blenheim we drove out through Havelock (green-lipped mussel capital of the world!) and the charming Okiwi Bay, then up along the ridge of Pelorus Sound. After Havelock, the roads become increasingly windy and thin, but the steep scenery is breathtaking and suffused with colour at that time of year: the rich green of the grazing grass, the transparent aqua of the sea below and the pale hazy blue of all the islands in the distance.

I got car sick, of course. But that guaranteed me the front seat in the van for the rest of the trip. Plus! Perhaps that’s why no one wanted to sit beside me at dinner … Minus …
Moving on: Driftwood does a number of tours, but this one has a special resonance for Rose and Will for two reasons: Rose’s family farm where she grew up is in the steep hills that we drove through to get to French Pass. And one of the main aims of the trip is to “Meet The Locals”. Will and Rose know practically everyone …

… Except possibly Jules Sebastien Cesar Dumont d’Urville. He was the first European (in 1827) to navigate his way (after many attempts on his ship The Astrolabe) through the pass. Thus the European name and the name of the pass. The Maori name for the island is Rangitoto Ke Te Tonga, or Rangitoto (red sky) of the south – and they had navigating the pass sorted for centuries.

The tiny village of French Pass gave us all time for lunch, to recover from the winding roads and sit by the sea while we waited for the ferry – and it’s not so much a ferry but a one car barge. It’s the only way to get a vehicle to D’Urville, run by the rather jolly Craig Aston. His family’s been on the Island for four generations – mostly fishing – but now also running holiday accommodation and providing the weekly mail service. Craig is a rare fisherman who still catches cod in pots, as one would with crayfish.

Sadly there was no complimentary crayfish or cod. But the ferry ride was smooth, and from the crossing you can see French Pass itself (after which the village is named). It has the fastest tidal flows in New Zealand, which can reach four metres per second. This meant nothing to me at that stage, but I could see the mad churning in the distance. I was not looking forward to it.

It’s a short trip to Kapowai, which is where the main road starts on the island. Our luggage was elegantly transported by crane, then by boat to D’Urville Island Wilderness Resort in Catherine Cove – and we headed straight out for an afternoon’s fishing with Ashley and Ginny, the proprietors of where we’d be staying (and eating) for the next four nights.

The focus was on flora and fauna, and (crucially) chatting with locals.
The focus was on flora and fauna, and (crucially) chatting with locals.

My companions were very excited about the fishing as two of them had never tried it before. Ashley masterfully navigated through, while I peeked over the edge from where I was crouched on the floor of his 8.5m Osprey. It wasn’t nearly as bad as I thought. I sheepishly got to my feet again. Ashley and Ginny are partners, and when they’re on the boat, Ashley is skipper and Ginny is first mate – a dynamic that initially startled me as Ash’s instructions to Ginny were … factual. But they also run the restaurant and bar at their accommodation. And Ginny is most definitely skipper and Ashley first mate in that situation. Nice.

Both helped all of us with baiting our lines and advice on fishing techniques and then landing the catch. We caught exclusively blue cod and it was cool to see the delight on people’s faces who had caught a fish for the first time. It was also lovely to get back to our accommodation and get unpacked and prepare for feasting on our harvest of kaimoana. This time, I managed to sit, rather than crouch, for our passage back through French Pass.

There’s a variety of choices of where to lay your head for the night at D’Urville Island Wilderness Resort, ranging from cottages to bunk rooms to camping spaces. We were staying in the cottages and they were charming, tidy, clean and had great views of Catherine Cove and the mainland. D’Urville, as I was discovering, is an island of extremes, and watching the ever-changing weather come and go from the comfort of bed was a bit dreamy.

The main gathering area/restaurant/bar is cosy and communally set up with rows of tables, huge windows and great views of the cove and hills behind. Our blue cod that evening, expertly deep fried by Ginny, was seriously the best fish I’ve ever tasted. And the food in general was simple but prepared with obvious care. Amongst our many morning and evening treats: banana pancakes, coconut porridge with fruit and a beautiful roast hogget.

Part of the excitement of the tour is that you never know what’s going to happen, as the endlessly energetic Will warned us from the start. The biggest determiner was the weather. Each day there was an activity planned as well as a bit of touring around the island. Areas of focus: flora and fauna, local and geological history, and (crucially) chatting about these things with locals.

Our first full day we took to the road and I can tell you they are not for the faint-hearted: single lane, all dirt, very winding and occasionally stupidly steep. They’re generally well maintained though, and at no point did I get out and walk. My companions seemed much less skittish than I.

What we saw along the way was well worth it though: the birds (29 species in total, including white-fronted tern, spur-winged plover, two varieties of shag and three varieties of duck) and the diversity and robustness of the bush on the Island brought home the remoteness of the place. There was much more farming in the past but the apparent regeneration of native bush is heartening – especially with no possums on the island – rats, yes, stoats, yes. Possibly the worst creature from a conservation point of view are the deer. But then many people love to hunt them. So as well as learning about extremes, I learned about balance.

There are 29 species of birds on the island, including the falcon.
There are 29 species of birds on the island, including the falcon. 

We stopped for tea to meet Pip and Jeanette Alpin at the community hall – a rustic and charming log building. There are roughly 50 permanent residents on the island and these two are stalwarts. They lived for years with their children on remote Stephens Island, where Pip ran the lighthouse.

They now live at the extremely remote Kupe Bay, with no direct road access. They walk (I’d be trudging) from the end of the road and they carry everything in and out. Pip built the place and they have electricity only through solar panels. In their 70s, they’re relishing their lifestyle for as long as they can: Pip’s passions are for building and conservation, and he’s often away for days. Jeanette loves her kune kune pigs, and writes delightful reminiscences of her astonishing frontier life over the years.

Also in Kupe Bay – Terry and Sue Savage, who ditched their city jobs 23 years ago and now live almost self-sufficiently on their gorgeous property with one of the most stunning vege gardens I’ve ever seen. They also hunt and fish, and host people in a sweet little cottage on the property. Sue is a consummate cook and we all enjoyed an elaborate afternoon tea. Terry is mad about local geology and artefacts and could convince anyone that his interests are the most fascinating thing ever.

Tour guide Will was wild about native mistletoe, and every time he thought he saw some we’d screech to a halt and all leap out to see if it was the real thing. Of the huge range of native plants we admired, my favourite was the bamboo orchid. We practically stumbled upon it in the bush, growing out of an old stump and flooded with afternoon light. It was almost too delicate to imagine.

On our final day we met with the Elkingtons – Roma and Monty. They’re Ngati Koata and their local knowledge is truly taonga. We went up and down the coast by boat and they told us very personal and historic stories. I feel like they’re not my stories to tell, but seeing three Moriori tombs – which just look like a line of oval boulders on the shore – was both chilling and thrilling.

Perhaps my favourite story from Roma and Monty was about French Pass. Quoting Te Ara, “The narrow channel between the mainland of the South Island and D’Urville Island is known as French Pass or Te Aumiti. In oral tradition it is the resting place of Kupe’s pet cormorant or shag, which explored the area on Kupe’s behalf. Its name was Te Kawau-a-Toru (which means ‘the shag kept by Toru’; Toru is the short name for Potoru, captain of the Te Rino canoe). While testing the channel waters to see if they were safe for Kupe’s canoe, Te Kawau-a-Toru got caught in the violent tidal rips, broke a wing, and was drowned.

“The reef over which the waters of French Pass boil and seethe is Kupe’s loyal bird turned to stone – Te Aumiti a te Kawau-a-Toru (the currents that swallowed Toru’s shag). The rocky point where a lighthouse now stands is said to be the bird’s petrified bones.”

Stories and histories, spending time with new people and exploring new places – it’s a force of change, as swift as the current or as gentle as a sunset.

Now when I look out at D’Urville from the Kapiti Coast, it’s not just an outline. That silhouette has been very significantly coloured in with rich and convivial recollections.


Driftwood Retreat & Eco-Tours runs regular trips to D’Urville Island. Hosts Will and Rose Parsons can be reached on (021) 620 030.

D’Urville Island Wilderness Resort can be reached on (03) 5765 268.

Car Rental

New Zealand Discount Car Rental can be reached on 0800 1795 1795.

Amelia Nurse. (29th March, 2017).D’Urville Island: Isolated beauty. Retrieved from http://www.nzherald.co.nz/new-zealand/news/article.cfm?l_id=71&objectid=11826909

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