Between Blenheim and Nelson

January 28, 2021
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The Marlborough Sounds and the Richmond Rangeboth lie between Blenheim and Nelson. Marked out onthe map is a section of Te Araroa, the great New Zealand trail, which includes,from top right to bottom left, the Queen Charlotte Track, Anakiwa to Pelorus Bridge,the Pelorus Track, the Richmond Alpine Track and the start of the Waiau PassTrack. Image screenshot from,4 January 2021. Crown copyright reserved.

BETWEEN Blenheim and Nelson there isa ruggedly beautiful area that extends from the Marlborough Sounds in the northeast to Nelson Lakes National Park, in the southwest, via the Richmond Range.To the west, and south, of this great triangular block of mountains there areriver flats and plains, of Nelson and, on the Blenheim side, the Wairau valley.

The Marlborough Sounds are named after John Churchill, an ancestor of Winston Churchill who lived in the late 1600s and early 1700s, and who is better known as the Duke of Marlborough.

Ironically, though Nelson and Blenheim are not far apart,the Richmond Range is a formidable barrier, as is its seaward continuation inthe form of the Marlborough Sounds, a series of drowned valleys. That is tosay, river valleys that were above sea level during the last Ice Age, but thensuffered inundation when sea levels rose.

Although the most conspicuous trails in this area are on TeAra, there are a great many others. The sheer complexity of Marlborough Soundssees to that, and there are worthwhile walks to the sides of the great massifas well.

For more on the walks and other recreational opportunitiesin the area, see

A place where Māori first began

One of the most special places youmight wish to visit, on the coast near Blenheim, is the Wairau Bar, also knownas the boulder bank or Pokohiwi, an 11 kilometre-long spit with a long historyof human habitation.

There have been extensive archaeological diggings at the WairauBar, at the mouth of the Wairau River near Blenheim, ever since ancient remainswere first unearthed in 1939. Over time, it has become clear that the area isone of the first to have been occupied by the Polynesian ancestors of the Māori.

According to the website of Blenheim’s Marlborough Museum,as of the time of writing, “At leastfour graves on the Bar belong to the first generation of Polynesian settlers. Thelatest scientific work has proven that these people were once children in EastPolynesia.”  These settlers lived on the Bar about 700 to 730 yearsago.


Those discoveries were announced in2012. In 2016, the scientists working with ancient DNA from the site revealed,further, that a number of members of the Rangitāne iwi, which is strong inWellington and the Prow region, could trace their ancestry to two of the EastPolynesia-born individuals unearthed at the Wairau Bar. These two include a womanwhose remains were first unearthed in 1939, nicknamed ‘Aunty’ by Rangitānekaumātua (elders) even before she was proven to be an ancestor to local Māori,and whose facial appearance has been reconstructed as well.

The next step in this genetic odyssey is to try and work outwhich specific islands in East Polynesia the people of the Wairau Bar came from.

It’s clear that the Maori came from somewhere in easternPolynesia. Furthermore, in their own myths, the Maori came from a place calledHawaiki. But it turns out that finding the origin of the Maori is not as simpleas just looking for a tropical island with a name that reesembles Hawaiki.

For one thing, there are lots of places with namesthat sound like Hawaiki among the islands of the Pacific: not just Hawai‘i, whichis simply the best-known example. In the tropical Pacific, names that soundlike Hawaiki (or Hawai‘i ) also typically refer to the place the inhabitants ofthose islands are supposed to have come from. Which raises thepossibility that the Māori Hawaiki is just a sort of Garden of Eden myth sharedwith other Polynesians and doesn’t refer to anywhere concrete at all.

All the same, it seems that, at present, the best candidatefor the place the people of the Wairau Bar and other first-generation Māoricame from is the now French-Polynesian island of Ra‘iataea, known in earliertimes as Havai‘i. But this theory is not yet proven.

It will be amazing to see the question settled moredefinitely for at least a portion of the Māori population.

Along with its general fertility and fishing resources, theProw contained minerals that were just as important to Māori as the pounamu ofthe West Coast, if less prestigious. Minerals of the Prow included includingcoloured oxides that were important for making dyestuffs and a form of rockcalled called pakohe in Māori and argillite in English, a rock with glassyqualities which fractures like obsidian and holds a sharp edge and wastherefore very good for making every-day tools. There is evidence of veryextensive pakohe / argillite workings on Rangitoto ki te Tonga (D’UrvilleIsland), the largest island in the Marlborough sounds.

Interlopers who might have sought to seize these resourceswere, perhaps, put off by local tales of a flesh-eating monster calledKaiwhakaruaki, which had an insatiable desire for human flesh. Anyone whomKaiwhakaruaki saw was doomed. According to the historian Jock Phillips, thisstory, too, is a link to island Polynesia, as are several associatedplacenames:

“It is a local version ofthe legend of the Polynesian monster ’Aifa’arua’i, the scourge of voyagersbetween the Pacific islands of Parapara, Ta’a’a, Motue’a and Ara’ura. The taletransplants these island names, which are still in use today – Parapara,Takaka, Motueka and Arahura on the West Coast.”

Here’s the link:

On the topic of monsters, Kupe, the semi-legendary navigatorwho discovered New Zealand for the Māori, is supposed to have killed a giantoctopus or squid called Te Wheke-a-Muturangi in the section of water known asKura Te Au or Tory Channel. This well-known tale accounts for the local placenameWhekenui (big octopus) Bay.

Kupe’s feat has lately been repeated. So maybe that fishytale was for real, unlike the more dubious one about the monster with aninsatiable appetite for trespassers.

According to the census of 2013, some 8,800 people in theNelson and Marlborough districts claimed descent from the eight iwi that are countedas tribes that have a traditional claim on the land of the Prow. These includeRangitāne, but not. Ngāi Tahu, which is strong in the rest of the South Island.

The Queen Charlotte Track: An Introduction to TeAraroa in the South Island

I TRAMPED the Queen Charlotte Track onesummer. This is a track that follows the length of Queen Charlotte Sound,officially Queen Charlotte Sound / Tōtaranui. As the map above shows, it is thefirst stage of Te Araroa, the great New Zealand trail, in the South Island ifyou are starting from the north.

There’s no road to the beginning of the track at Meretoto /Ship Cove, so all trampers must be dropped off here by boat from Picton and canchoose to hike with their gear or have it transported by one of the many watertaxi companies in the area.

The three to five-day hike along the coast is a comfortablewalk and can be a great alternative to the overcrowded Abel Tasman Track inAbel Tasman National Park.

Queen Charlotte Sound and Environs, at the north-eastern end of the South Island. Source: Google Maps. Mapdata ©2017 Google

Queen Charlotte Sound is one of the main inlets in theMarlborough Sounds, a vast network of sea-drowned valleys that forms theentranceway to the South Island. The area was first settled by Māori around 800years ago, and they built villages and made canoe voyages through the sound.

I was dropped off by the ferry at Meretoto, and afterstopping to admire the memorial to Captain Cook, I began the track by climbingthrough fifteen kilometres of forested ridges and crossing Endeavour Inlet toreach Kenepuru Saddle Campsite, a walk of around nine hours. I stayed at theKenepuru Saddle where the dawn chorus of birds was the best I’ve heard in thecountry.

Parts of the track were open grass plains and I found themquite difficult in the hot summer weather. It was hard going in my thick,leather tramping boots and merino socks and I do remember getting blistershere. From the campsite near Kenepuru Saddle, I hiked up to Eatwell’s Lookoutwhere the signpost to the major cities of the world is secondary to thestunning views of the Sounds.

After the steep climb to Eatwell’s Lookout, I followed theridges for another twenty kilometres or so to Torea Saddle with views of QueenCharlotte Sound and Kenepuru Sound.

The next day I followed the track for seven and a halfkilometres through to the picturesque Lochmara Bay, which took around fourhours, and from there it was another four hours before I came out at Anakiwa. Iwas amazed by this small, coastal village hiding at the edge of the QueenCharlotte Sound – it was beautiful. I stayed with a friend who owned propertythere, and then hitchhiked down to the nearby town of Havelock, which is abouteighteen kilometres away.

The official website ofthe Queen Charlotte Track is

More of Yesterday’s Men

Regarding the colonial names oftowns in this area, it’s much the same as in the Nelson area further west. TheMarlborough Sounds are named after John Churchill, an ancestor of WinstonChurchill who lived in the late 1600s and early 1700s, and who is better knownas the Duke of Marlborough. The town of Blenheim is named after the Duke’s mostfamous military victory, in 1704.

Havelockis named after a general who died in the so-called Indian Mutiny of 1857, andPicton is named after Thomas Picton, the highest-ranking officer to fall at theBattle of Waterloo.

As we know, some of these empire builders’ reputations aregetting a second look these days. Picton is perhaps the latest to go under themicroscope. For, people are starting to remember that nine years beforeWaterloo, Picton was put on trial for the torture, over two days, of a girl whoworked in a cafe to try and get her to confess the whereabouts of some propertythat had, supposedly, gone missing.

Perhaps it’s as well that some of the towns in this areaalso have well-established Maori names. Picton was Waitohi for a long timebefore it was Picton. Just saying.


Further Resources

Marlborough App



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