South Island road trip. Marlborough Sounds, Farewell Spit and West Coast

We had greatly anticipated and looked forward to our Marlborough Sounds/Upper West Coast visit and we headed south to what turned out to be an outstanding New Zealand journey. The most marvellous part of this fortnight was taking Tammy along with us. She was very comfortable in the California with her bed, water dish, a few toys, a ball and of course - treats.

Weeks of accomodation and destination research started to pay off as we headed south. We are not, and had never intended to be 'true blue' campers with the California serving it's dual purpose admirably. It's no bigger than a car which means city traffic, underground carparks and with 4 motion, twisty backroads are a breeze.

 

We regularly enjoy stops for freshly brewed on board coffee and take time for photography in some of New Zealand's many beauty spots. There is an on board locker toilet and this clever vehicle can sleep 4 people. For us sleeping on board is an emergency option and having spent the odd night we can attest to the comfortable beds, the upper being a Scandanavian flexi-slat. However the California does not treat untidy people kindly! Everything has it's place. Because of various health issues we were taking most of our own food, home cooked during the previous few weeks, frozen and then carefully packed into the California's large fridge/freezer. Extra supplies were rarely needed during the 16 days away.

 

Our usual route is highway 27 in the Matamata direction as this takes us to the small town of Waharoa, just before the much larger Matamata. For us Waharoa's claim to fame has been the Kaimai Cheese Co, originally set up in the old Waharoa dairy company building by well known chef and foodie, Ruth Pretty.

It has always been great and we have called in many times, however this time, as soon as we walked in we thought, something is not quite right - it has lost it's edge. The staff weren't happy, not so much rude as indifferent. The food was OK and the coffee so-so, but with half the lights out, the large high ceiling space created a dull ambience. We also noticed that the cheese making operation, which had been visible through large windows, was gone, with the windows replaced or covered over by large black and white vintage images of 19th century cheese making. The lack of light now entering the cafe space from these windows was also a large contributing 'dullness' factor. The human movement in the cheese factory was also interesting to watch whilst lunch was being enjoyed, but not any more and sadly we may consign Kaimai Cheese to the 'also ran' list. A short walk for Tammy and back on the road it seems no time at all before we are at the new Taupo bypass which takes us round the back of the town and down the eastern side of the lake where we pull into our overnight accomodation at Turangi's Bridge motel, in nice time for a Taupo sunset.

We have stayed before and with Tammy welcome, we again found the spacious unit very comfortable with its own small kitchen. The attached restaurant is hunting lodge style and surprisingly good. A downside, which may be a deal breaker for some, is the constant, throughout the night rumbling of heavy vehicles travelling north and south on the nearby SH 1. This diminishes somewhat after 11pm, but doesn't stop and is in full cry again around 4am. Despite this we were in good form next day, with Tammy who sleeps through anything, anxious for a stroll by the river. Quite often early morning anglers can be spotted trying their luck in some of the slow moving pools near the riverbank by the motel.

 

Needing to be in Wellington by 1:30pm for the Picton ferry we had allowed 3 1/2 hours for the drive including a mandatory stop at Taihape's 'The Brown Sugar Cafe', timed for a late morning coffee and one of their delicious savoury scones. The Brown Sugar has definitely maintained its edge. A fill of diesel on the way out of town gives the California 850kms range, almost enough to take us to Bluff. From now on it was drive until we get there, with the last 30 or so kms run into Wellington very slow. We were now quite late, arriving at the ferry terminal around 1.55pm, just at the time standbys were going to be allowed to take 'no show' places. Paul, at the check-in office said 'I've been trying to call you - what's happened?' Our phone had no service approaching Wellington and the terminal, so we hadn't been able to call ahead and his call had simply gone to voice mail. We were very grateful we are just still OK to board and there was no delay in driving up the ramp, around the vehicle deck, and being directed into our space. Being Anzac Day the ferry was absolutely full - not a spare space anywhere. Lots of large B double trucks made the walkways very narrow. We were a little concerned as Tammy only had 2 options for travel on the ferry - either stay in the California or travel in one of the onboard kennels. This was a first for her so we thought the familiarity of the California was the best option, so left her with the radio on and several of her favourite treats. The kennels provided would be a terrifying experience for little Tammy - not a whimp but a real 'city girl', with the car deck during loading very noisey with lots of bangs and thumps, also extremely loud exhaust fans to the rear of the deck. The voyage is just over 3 hours and entry to the car deck is prohibited at sea so little Tammy wasn't far from our thoughts the whole time. The Cook Strait crossing was blessedly calm with the slow passage through the sounds, giving us breathtaking views and bringing us into Picton on time at about 5:30pm. Hurrying back down to the car deck we could see that Tammy had got herself up onto the passengers front seat so she could look out to see what all the fuss was. She was very pleased to see us and I knew straight away that she had been quite agitated because her treats were in the bowl just as I had left them. This is Tammy's way of delivering her 'I'm unhappy' message as when we were all on board again the treats quickly disappeared.

A little bit of a wait now as the B doubles, loaded last at the stern were the first to rumble down the ramp. Then it was our turn, starting the engine and slowly trundling down the ramp onto the Picton foreshore. Turning to the left we made our way towards the town centre where our accomodation for the next 3 nights had been arranged at the Gateway motel. We weren't actually staying at the motel itself but at the nearby  'Art-deco' apartments which were managed by the motel. These were well located, right next to the Oxley, nearly on the waterfront in Wellington St.  Bob, from the Gateway, met us outside, showed us the gate workings and the carpark at the back. Our apartment was nicely refurbished, very spacious but very underfurnished, lacking essential items such as chairs for the table and importantly, a heater. Although not  so cold now, I was imagining it could be a bit like 'Shackleton's hut' in the morning! Nothing was a problem for Bob, who quite upset the apartment owners had not provided these items. hurried off, soon returning with 3 solid wood chairs and an excellent heater which easily coped with the space.

 

Bob and Chris of the Gateway, were wonderful - nothing we needed was too much trouble. Briefly parking in the 'restricted'  parking outside we unloaded the main items then shifted the California to its rear parking.  There was a backdoor from the carpark into the apartment complex, convenient enough carrying small items but for larger pieces, time consuming and awkward. Settled at last, the wine poured, we felt our South Island adventure with Tammy had begun.Our little pal needed a walk and I had noticed a nice grassed area directly across the road. Over we went, Tammy delighted to have a good sniff around, quickly completed her comfort stop. After I had picked up after her and we were just about to cross back I noticed the dreaded 'no dog' sign. Oh dear, not another town paranoid about dogs?  There had obviously been other dogs in the area but I had been a careful human so I was not too concerned. Later in our Picton stay we met a lady with 2 four legged companions who told us how they had fought the local council about public space access and won, so disregarding the 'no dog' signs was not an offence provided our pal was on a lead and we were responsible in other ways. Thank goodness for sanity.

Picton is a very pretty town and a great start to anyones South Island visit. A few days based here puts you in easy touch with Blenheim and the eastern side of the Marlborough Sounds. First call of the morning was breakfast and we fondly remembered enjoying a great breakfast at The Cafe, just round the corner, looking out over the marina.

Our attention was drawn by activity in front of us on London Quay with traffic wardens redirecting traffic at the roundabout with High Street. Then we noticed a photographer with a long lens lurking on the other side. Something was obviously about to happen; then over the rise burst a group of 3 cyclists, then another 4. We heard later that it was the end of the current sector of Cycle for Life. We took a short walk around the block to The Secondhand Shop on the corner of Wellington and Waikawa streets. Most interesting with an eclectic collection of 'goodies' mostly with a nautical flavour and best of all, Tammy was welcomed enthusiastically.

 

Today we planned to do the 1/2 hour drive south to Blenheim. We didn't want to visit Blenheim township  itself, knowing from earlier visits that this was a very dog unfriendly area with anti-dog signs on the footpath. We did however, want to go out to the east coast where the Wairau river meets the Pacific ocean and also Rarangi beach. Turning left at Tuamarina or Spring Creek it's a short drive to the beach, where from a vantage point above the northern end you can look straight down the vast sweep of the pebbly beach frontage to the snow capped Kaikoura Range in the southern distance. Quite a view as you can see from the picture in the library. There is a short walkway over the headland taking you to tiny Monkey bay. 20 minutes there and back and worth it. Slightly further south at the Wairau Bar there is the lovely historic and partially restored Pilot's House. Built in the 1860s it was the home for many years for the Pilot who guided vessels crossing to and fro from Cloudy Bay. One of the best preserved buildings of its type in the Marlborough district.

 

We hadn't given lunch too much thought except that a local winery restaurant was high on our agenda. Wither Hills, one of the largest and most well known in the area was close by and we were soon driving up their impressive driveway off New Renwick Rd. We always check to see if there is a spot to sit with Tammy before arriving at the restaurant door with her and as we walked up through the loggia noticed an extensive outdoor eating area, just perfect for us we thought.  A very pleasant young lady greeted us, but when we asked about lunching on the terrace with Tammy she was uncertain and said she would have to ask. Unfortunately, she was quickly back delivering the bad news that dogs of any description were not welcome anywhere at Wither Hills. The place was aptly named I thought - 'Wither Hills'! Back on board the California, we headed for Wairau River Winery situated on the corner of Rapaura Rd and SH6. This was the perfect choice. As soon as we walked up to the restaurant, we could see a large stainless bowl labelled 'DOG'. The restaurant was very busy yet a delightful table was found for us on the sheltered patio where Tammy could sit by the table and also have grass nearby. An excellent glass of the house pinot was accompanied by delicious tempura prawns and chicken pizza to share. Tammy found a nice strip of warm sun to dream in, her tail twitching occasionally.  2 full crema long blacks brought us regretfully to the end of this relaxing, high quality experience. Make Wairau River your first choice for a Blenheim lunch especially if you have a four legged friend. It had been our intention to visit the Omaka Aviation heritage which was nearby. However we arrived just on 4pm which was the cutoff for last museum entries, so had to give Omaka a miss this time. Ater a visit to the local New World, it was 25 minutes back to Picton where we were in time to see the sun sinking over the ferry terminal.

 

Another fine morning dawned making us feel very lucky as Auckland was being thrashed with heavy rain and thunderstorms. Today was our 'Sounds' day and as we had previously visited Portage, on the western side of Queen Charlotte our choice was to take the eastern Port Underwood road which, from Picton, took us through Waikawa finally ending its tortuous route at Rarangi where we had been the day before. First things first though, so I must mention breakfast at Cortados on the corner of High St and London Quay. Bob and Chris at the Gateway had recommended it and they were certainly right; great coffee, hard poached eggs - perfect, and dry scrambled eggs - also perfect. Happy staff as well. Although we have said 'tortuous' the Port Underwood Rd is a very worthwhile drive with lots of scenic beauty and vistas. At times the road is quite high above the coast and you can look directly across at the Tumbledown Bay peninsula. A lovely view over the deep blue of Port Underwood but definitely not a fast road, averaging around 25-30kms/hour. Anyway, why would you want to travel fast missing out on the stunning views. We had lunch sandwiches on board and just at the time we were feeling lunch would be a good idea we came upon Tom Canes Bay. We couldn't believe our luck. It was beautiful. Just along the foreshore to the right was the perfect spot to set up, an open flat grassed area, quite private on the edge of the bay. In a few minutes the roof was up, the Cotes du Rhone poured, sandwiches out and coffee on, not forgetting treats for Tammy. No other soul was in sight, only a few small houses further back on the road into the bay. The water lapping the bay was clear to the bottom, just like viewing pebbles through a sheet of clean glass, disturbed occasionally by the odd shag deciding it was lunchtime too. We had noticed a tree on the far side of the bay overhanging the water which appeared to have little pieces of white cloth all over it, then realised 'the pieces of cloth' were shags galore. From time to time 1 or 2 would cruise down over the bay, spot their quarry, cleanly dive and disappear only to reappear away in the distance.

It was hard to leave Tom Canes. This would have to take the prize as the perfect picnic spot. A few kilometres further brought us to Robin Hood Bay, the name probably originating from a whaling ship. There is an existing and now restored earth cottage built in 1848 which is thought to have been the home of Capt. Jackson, who settled with his bride in the bay that year. With the way life is today, it is hard to imagine the privations of daily living for Capt and Mrs Jackson in this tiny cob cottage, barely the size of a single garage, with low stud walls. The studs are of heart totara, and the cob a mix of clay sand and straw is made into loaf shaped 'cobs', laid onto a foundation and then moulded into one, to make a durable upright wall (300 to  900mm thick depending on the climate). As you can see from the sign some of the current locals may be as fierce as those of 150 years ago!

Winding along towards Rarangi beach, Whites Bay is worth a stop. The South Island to North Island's first cable link entered the sea here in 1866 and the now restored cable house operated until 1896. After Whites we were soon back on the Rarangi beach road which joins up with SH1 at Tuamarina. It's about 20kms back to Picton where we pulled up at the Art-deco apartments around 4pm. The winding Port Underwood road had taken its toll and we felt like some good walking exercise to end the day. The Tirohanga walkway, starting behind Picton from Newgate Street just off the Waikawa Bay road is listed as 45 minutes, one way. We're usually a bit faster than the listed time so we thought we could be to the top and back before sunset.

It is a pretty walk, reasonably steep with the track a bit challenging at times. It would not be generally safe after heavy rain. Tammy attacked it enthusiastically and was scrambling up ahead of us for a lot of the way at the extent of her 5 metre lead. At the hilltop view point the vista down to Picton makes the effort worthwhile. We couldn't dawdle as the light was fading so a drink for Tammy and down we went. As we descended through the bush the going was quickly becoming gloomier and with twilight fast approaching the last 20 minutes or so were quite difficult in near darkness. We had left our walk a little too late and the track was more of a challenge than expected. Like most of these excursions more rather than less time should be allowed.

 

We had done the walk to the Snout through the Victoria Domain on a previous Picton visit. We tackled this during a very hot Feburary a few years ago. Quite a challenge if walked from Picton, being about 4 hours return - remember to pack enough water. Tammy was not part of our family in those days but I know she would not have thought much of this and would soon have demanded to be carried! This was our last night in Picton and we had enjoyed the Art-deco apartments, finding ours spacious and clean, also very well looked after by Bob and Chris from the Gateway. We succeeded in arising 'earlyish' next day ahead of a westerly drive to Nelson, to allow time to stow the California, from packing the frig/freezer, collecting and bagging all Tammy's bits and pieces from where she had hidden them in the apartment, to loading our stuff. We still had plenty of diesel from our Taihape fill so the first stop was up the road to Cortado for breakfast. The service and our order of poached and scrambled eggs was as good as ever.

 

Turning right from High Street, crossing the ferry terminal road, we were then climbing the first curving hill of Queen Charlotte Drive. The first half of the Queen Charlotte is the most scenic, with the second half after Linkwater, travelling inland, before rejoining the coast again near Grove. At the western end the various inlets are much less 'sound like' becoming reedy and shallow. Take the drive slowly and enjoy the spectacular 'sounds' views out to the right. There are enough layby spots on the way for photography, or just looking but at busy times of the year this would become more difficult with some laybys too narrow for more than 1 medium car. The view down into Governors Bay is 'wow - look at that', then you are round the next bend looking down to the larger Ngakuta Bay - another wow.

 It was like this all the way along until we turned right just past Okiwa Bay onto the Anakiwa road. This took us the 14km or so journey to the Cobham Outward Bound school. We had always wanted to see where the school was located so here we were at its idyllic situation on the western shores of The Grove Arm of Queen Charlotte Sound. Opened in 1962 by Governor General Cobham, the school develops and provides outdoor training and team building with live-in courses for young people and older men and women available. Back on the Queen Charlotte Drive enroute to Havelock where we were hoping for lunch at the highly recommended  Slip-Inn. Before arrival at Havelock it is worth the small deviation and brief walk to the Cullen Point lookout which gives a great view back into Havelock and north east out into the sounds. Havelock itself is a bit sad, carrying a slightly neglected air about it. The Slip-Inn was also ho-hum. Being right on the water and THE place for fresh fish this was what we had hoped for. Sadly they had run out of fish! Feeling very much let down we ended up with some sort of salad - I've forgotten what, but it was OK and the coffee was good.

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