BETWEEN Blenheim and Nelson, there is a ruggedly beautiful area that extends from the Marlborough Sounds in the north-east 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 are the river flats and plains of Nelson and, on the Blenheim side, the Wairau valley.
Ironically,though Nelson and Blenheim are not far apart, the Richmond Range is a formidable barrier, as is its seaward continuation in the form of the Marlborough Sounds, a collection of drowned river valleys to the north of Picton. The Marlborough Sounds were once above sea level in their entirety but were invaded by the sea at the end of the last ice-age, with.the result that a series of sharp ridges and sharp-edged islands now poke up above the water.
Marked out on the map above 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 ofthe Waiau Pass Track.
For more on the walks and other recreational opportunities in the area, see: doc.govt.nz/parks-and-recreation/places-to-go/marlborough.
One of the most special places you might wish to visit, on the coast near Blenheim, is the Wairau Bar, also known as the boulder bank or Pokohiwi, an 11 kilometre-long spit with a long history of human habitation.
There have been extensive archaeological diggings at the Wairau Bar, at the mouth of the Wairau River near Blenheim, ever since ancient remains were first unearthed in 1939. Over time, it has become clear that the area is one of the first to have been occupied by the immediate Polynesian ancestors of the Māori.
According to the website of Blenheim’s Marlborough Museum, as of the time of writing, “At least four graves on the Bar belong to the first generation of Polynesian settlers. The latest scientific work has proven that these people were once children in East Polynesia.” These settlers lived on the Bar about 700 to 730 years ago.
Those discoveries were announced in 2012. In 2016, the scientists working with ancient DNA from the site revealed, further, that a number of members ofthe Rangitāne iwi, which is strong in Wellington and the northern end of the South Island, could trace their ancestry to two of the East Polynesia-born individuals unearthed at the Wairau Bar. These two include a woman whose remains were first unearthed in 1939, nicknamed ‘Aunty’ by Rangitāne kaumātua (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 out which specific islands in East Polynesia the people of the Wairau Bar came from.
Along with its general fertility and fishing resources, the northern end of the South Island contained minerals that were just as important to Māori as the pounamu of the West Coast, if less prestigious. These included coloured oxides that were important for making dyestuffs and a form of rock called called pakohe in Māori and argillite in English, a rock with glassy qualities which fractures like obsidian or flint and holds a sharp edge, and was therefore good for making every-day tools. There is evidence of very extensive pakohe / argillite workings on Rangitoto ki te Tonga (D’Urville Island), the largest island in the Marlborough sounds.
Interlopers who might have sought to seize these resources were, perhaps, put off by local tales of a flesh-eating monster called Kaiwhakaruaki, which had an insatiable desire for human flesh. Anyone whom Kaiwhakaruaki saw was doomed. According to the historian Jock Phillips, this story, too, is a link to island Polynesia, as are several associated placenames:
“It is a local version of the legend of the Polynesian monster ’Aifa’arua’i, the scourge of voyagers between the Pacific islands of Parapara, Ta’a’a, Motue’a and Ara’ura. The tale transplants these island names, which are still in use today – Parapara, Takaka, Motueka and Arahura on the West Coast.”
On the topic of monsters, Kupe, the semi-legendary navigator who discovered New Zealand for the Māori, is supposed to have killed a giant octopus or squid called Te Wheke-a-Muturangi in the section of water known as Kura Te Au or Tory Channel. This well-known tale accounts for the local placename Whekenui (big octopus) Bay.
Kupe’s feat has lately been repeated. So maybe that fishy tale was for real, unlike the more dubious one about the monster with an insatiable appetite for trespassers.
According to the census of 2013, some 8,800 people in the Nelson and Marlborough districts claimed descent from the eight iwi that are counted as tribes that have a traditional claim on the land there. These include Rangitāne, but not Ngāi Tahu, which is strong in the rest of the South Island.
Along with Māori origins, the Marlborough Museum in Blenheim also has a lot of interesting material on colonial history, and the modern history of the region.
The part of Blenheim that includes Seymour Square and its rough stone clocktower is also quite attractive.
I tramped the Queen Charlotte Track one summer. This is a track that follows the length of Queen Charlotte Sound, officially Queen Charlotte Sound/Tōtaranui. As the map above shows, it is the first stage of Te Araroa,the great New Zealand trail, in the South Island if you are starting from thenorth.
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 can choose to hike with their gear or have it transported by one of the many water taxi companies in the area.
The three to five-day hike along the coast is a comfortable walk and can be a great alternative to the often overcrowded Abel Tasman Track in Abel Tasman National Park.
Queen Charlotte Sound is one of the main inlets in the Marlborough Sounds. The area was first settled by Māori around 800 years ago, and they built villages and made canoe voyages through the sound.
I was dropped off by the ferry at Meretoto, at the easternmost end of the track, and after stopping to admire the memorial to Captain Cook, I began by hiking north and west through forested ridges to get around Endeavour Inlet and reach Kenepuru Saddle Campsite. I stayed at the Kenepuru Saddle where the dawn chorus of birds was the best I’ve heard in the country.
Other parts of the track were open grass plains and I found them quite difficult in the hot summer weather. It was hard going in my thick, leather tramping boots and merino socks and I do remember getting blisters here.
After the steep climb to Eatwell’s Lookout, where the long south-westward leg of the track begins, I followed the ridges to Torea Saddle with views of Queen Charlotte Sound and Kenepuru Sound.
The next day I followed the track through to the picturesque Lochmara Bay, and from there to Anakiwa.
I was amazed by this small, coastal village hiding at the edge of the Queen Charlotte Sound– it was beautiful. I stayed with a friend who lived there, and then hitchhiked to the larger port town of Havelock, about eighteen kilometres away; from which you can do tours of the sounds on the Mail Boat, as it’s called, since it also delivers the mail.
There are a number of detours and side-tracks along the Queen Charlotte Track, including Eatwell’s Lookout and one that ascends a peak overlooking Lochmara Bay. Here is a collage of photos I took along the way.
The official website of the Queen Charlotte Track is qctrack.co.nz.
Regarding the colonial names of towns in this area, it’s much the same as in the Nelson area further west, where a number of the towns are named after dead British heroes, starting with Nelson. 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. The town of Blenheim is named after the Duke’s most famous military victory, in 1704.
Havelock is named after a general who died in the so-called Indian Mutiny of 1857, and Picton is named after Thomas Picton, the highest-ranking officer to fall at the Battle of Waterloo.
As we know, some of these empire builders’ reputations are getting a second look these days. Picton is perhaps the latest to go under the microscope. For, people are starting to remember that nine years before Waterloo, Picton was put on trial for the torture, over two days, of a girl who worked in a café to try and get her to confess the whereabouts of some property that had, supposedly, gone missing. This happened on the island of Trinidad, where he had been Governor at the time. Here's a sketch, and front page, from a contemporary account of the trial, which you can find online.
They even renamed the method after him, I see. There's a New Zealand press article on the controversy, from June 2020, here. It points out that Picton's sentence for torturing the café worker was overturned, following an initial conviction. But I should add that it was only overturned on the technicality that there was found to be an old Spanish law on the books of Trinidad that did allow torture after all, though it had fallen into disuse before Picton arrived. Plus, it seems that Picton did a lot of other bad things for which he wasn't tried but should have been.
Perhaps it’s as well that some of the towns in this area also have well-established Māori names. Picton was Waitohi for a long time before it was Picton. Just saying.
See, also, the Marlborough App:
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