by Hank Leukart
February 18, 2016
Packrafting New Zealand’s Marlborough Sounds
Heading out on an epic hiking and paddling adventure across New Zealand’s South Island.
A packraft sits on a shoreline in Mahau Sound, New Zealand. (view all New Zealand Traverse photos)
AVELOCK, New Zealand — I would never recommend trying to use a packraft to paddle New Zealand’s Marlborough Sounds to anyone, I’m thinking, as I paddle furiously but futilely across Blackwood Bay, facing a brutal 20-knot (37-kilometers per hour) headwind. This may be the worst adventure idea I’ve ever had.
For the past six months, I had been dreaming of tackling an authentic adventure by myself — one that would test me both physically and mentally and allow me to make use of my backpacking and paddling experience. After some brainstorming and extensive research, I decided that a two-month, self-powered trip across New Zealand’s South Island would be an excellent choice for my walkabout, due to the island’s natural beauty, difficult terrain, and extensive network of lakes and rivers.
A newly-built, Appalachian Trail-like, 3,000-kilometer backpacking trail called the Te Araroa spans the length of New Zealand, and I started planning my trip using the trail as the backbone of my route, then modifying the path as necessary to allow me to explore more remote areas and follow natural waterways with my packraft, a small inflatable boat designed to fit into a backpack. Southbound Te Araroa hikers on the South Island begin at a small harbor in the far northeast called Ship Cove, which seemed like an obvious place for me to begin my cross-island traverse. But, when I looked at the intricate map of the Marlborough Sounds, I realized that I’d much rather paddle the Sounds than hike them, giving myself the freedom to explore the bays.
So, after flying for 21 hours from Los Angeles to Christchurch (the South Island’s largest city), driving four hours to Picton (the Marlborough Sounds’ primary port), and taking a 90-minute water taxi to Ship Cove, I pulled a packraft out of my backpack, inflated it, and jumped into the water.
My first day on the Queen Charlotte Sound unfolded just as I imagined it might when I was poring over New Zealand topo maps in my Los Angeles apartment. The sea was calm, and though my arms quickly barbecued and my almond-white-chocolate snack mix melted into a messy goo under New Zealand’s relentless sun — the ozone layer over the country is particularly thin — I had little problem paddling close to six kilometers per hour through Endeavour Inlet. Occasionally, I stopped paddling completely to relax, gazing out over the unfathomably aqua water, watching grey-blue spotted shags (birds) walk along rocks with their funny orange feet, and taking covert photographs of lazy, brown seals napping on rocky, rugged shorelines. In the early evening, I paddled into a primitive campsite in Ratimera Bay, where a middle-aged New Zealander and his wife appeared immediately from their tent to look at my raft.
“Are you sure that thing is seaworthy?” the man asked. And, then, without waiting for an answer, he offered, “Have you seen those big brown birds? The weka? Watch out for them — they’ll steal anything.”
He was right. After falling asleep in my tent, I awoke at 3 AM to the sound of someone rummaging through my gear, only to catch a glimpse of a weka bird running off with a plastic bag. In the dark, I tried to chase the bird, but it ran into the dense forest, where I quickly tripped on a fallen log, allowing the bird to escape. Upon returning to my tent, I discovered that my half-eaten bag of precious white chocolate goo had been stolen.
Now, only five hours later, as I paddle frantically against a 20-knot headwind with a GoPro camera strapped to my head, I’m learning why a packraft is not always a great substitute for long, streamlined sea kayaks. On top of the front of my raft, I’ve tied my large backpack, which, on the ocean, acts like a bulky, immobile sail. While having a “sail” on the raft can sometimes prove useful in tailwinds, paddling forward with a strong headwind is nearly impossible. Even though I’m paddling hard, I’m being pushed backward by the strong wind. When I lean back to recover for a few minutes, the GoPro falls off my head, and, before I have time to react, it immediately sinks to the bottom of the deep ocean. My frustration turns into fear when I start wondering if the wind is going to push me out to sea, making any place that I could camp for the night inaccessible.
Stay calm, I think. There’s no way I’m going to make it to Mistletoe Bay tonight, but maybe I can camp on a nearby beach until the wind dies down. I look at the maps on my GPS device and notice a possible campsite that’s not too far away. There, I realize, I could wait out the windy conditions until the next day. Then, while my spray skirt is detached, without warning, a large wave tumbles over my boat and partially fills it with water. I notice that my “dry bag,” which contains warm clothes and my headlamp, hasn’t lived up to its name and is also now filled with water.
Despite the strong wind, I manage eventually to get to the bay with my new campsite choice in the early evening, having completed only half of my planned distance for the day. As I slowly muscle my way into the bay, I pass an anchored sailboat with a man standing on the bow.
“How you goin’, mate?! That’s quite a craft you have,” he yells. “Once you’re all set up, why don’t ya come aboard for a drink?”
So, after doing my best to secure my belongings tightly in my pack to foil the weka birds, I paddle out to the sailboat where I meet Steve, a fireman, and his wife Kim, a special education teacher, both of whom live in Wellington on New Zealand’s North Island. Steve gives me a beer and a big bowl of chili, and Kim asks me why I’m out paddling the Marlborough Sounds by myself.
“My brother doesn’t have enough vacation time to do a trip this big, and my girlfriend and I broke up last year,” I say. “She wouldn’t have been into this anyway.”
“Well, look for someone with a good heart,” Kim suggests, glancing at her husband. “That’s what you need.”
As I get ready to go to sleep later, I’m disappointed to discover that my headlamp no longer works, having been destroyed by ocean water. Thankfully, the sea is much calmer when I wake early the next morning, and my paddle to Mistletoe Bay is straightforward. When I arrive and set up camp, I chase off a couple weka birds, vigilantly protecting my gear and supplies, though I manage to pour boiling water all over my knee while making dinner. It’s hard to stay disciplined and do everything right when you’re constantly exhausted and living out of a bag.
Yet, in the morning, despite the planning and execution mistakes of the trip so far, I remember why I’ve chosen to carry a packraft during this adventure. Because the Queen Charlotte Sound doesn’t reach Havelock, my target town for the end of this stage of my trip, I deflate my raft, attach it my backpack, and hike over the hills separating Queen Charlotte from Mahau Sound. When I reach the sea again on the north side, I pull my packraft back out of my pack, inflate it, and get ready to start paddling again. It’s a simple trick, but a magical one nonetheless.
Mahau Sound is one of the most beautiful places I’ve paddled in my life: the water looks like oxidized copper, the lush hills look covered in emeralds, and the wind is nearly still. My paddle is mostly a serenity exercise until, about 5 kilometers away from Havelock, a strong wind begins again. This time, though, it’s a tailwind. On the way into Havelock, I use my paddle only as a rudder while the wind pushes me toward the town. I’m only 500 meters from Havelock’s shore, when I see that I must execute a 90-degree turn and then paddle perpendicular to the wind.
The wind is so strong, though, that, as soon as I make the turn, the wind takes hold of my boat and pushes me sideways, marooning me on a long sand bar just 300 meters from the shore. I try to paddle off the sandbar, but the wind has pinned me on the beach.
Fine, I think, petulantly. I’ll just sit here until the wind dies down. But, after sitting for 20 minutes, embarrassed about how I must look — an incompetent idiot sitting on a raft marooned on a sandbar just minutes away from shore — it becomes clear that the wind has no plans to stop any time soon. I decide to get out of the raft, put the backpack on my back, and carry the raft to the end of the sandbar near Havelock’s shore. Then, I’ll be able to finish paddling the tiny 100 meter gap between the sandbar and the beach.
So, I detach my backpack from the raft. The moment I do so, the wind immediately blows the packraft — which weighs almost nothing without a heavy backpack attached — across the sandbar and toward the ocean. For a second, I watch helplessly as my raft flies through the air toward the sea.
This may very well be the most embarrassing moment of my life, I think. I’m never going to tell anyone about this, ever.
Once the packraft hits the ocean, there will be no chance of me being able to retrieve it, because the wind is blowing it away much faster than I can swim. I have one chance to avoid losing the raft. I drop my backpack on the sand and begin sprinting across the sandbar as fast as I can, yelling as I do. I feel like a one-man slapstick adventure comedy, but I manage to grab the raft just a split-second before it blows off the sandbar and into the ocean.
After catching my breath, I reattach my backpack to the boat to weigh it down, adrenaline rushing through my body. When I’ve calmed, I jump back into the boat and paddle the final distance to Havelock, relieved when I finally feel the sand under my feet.
I’ve lost a bag of snack mix to a bird thief, sunk a GoPro, drowned a headlamp, boiled my knee, and almost lost a packraft to the ocean. Nevertheless, I’ve finished the first stage of my New Zealand adventure in four days. It’s true: I wouldn’t recommend packrafting the Marlborough Sounds to just anyone (try renting a sea kayak) — but I’d also recommend ignoring my advice to anyone searching for a fantastic adventure.
Next, I’m heading out to spend nine days hiking what many consider to be the single most difficult section of trail in all of New Zealand: the Richmond Alpine Track, through the imposing Richmond Range.
Read the next essay in this series about my hiking and packrafting trip across New Zealand’s South Island, in which I hike the Richmond Alpine Track, one of the most challenging stretches of trail in all of New Zealand.
LIVE PHOTOS ON INSTAGRAM: Though I’m trying to write about my adventure as I go, writing takes a lot of time. But, I post photos on my Instagram feed right away, whenever I have phone service. Take a look!
How to Packraft New Zealand’s Marlborough Sounds
- OVERVIEW: The Marlborough Sounds are an extensive network of sea-drowned valleys at the north end of the South Island of New Zealand. There are four major sounds: the Queen Charlotte Sound, the Pelorus Sound, the Kenepuru Sound, and the Mahau Sound. Picton serves at the primary port on the mainland for accessing the Queen Charlotte Sound and allows access to the South Island’s railways and highways.
- LOGISTICS: Three primary water taxi companies — Beachcomber Cruises, Cougar Line Water Taxi, and Picton Water Taxis — take travelers from Picton to Ship Cove. Most of the companies have a morning and afternoon departure, though the companies can make special arrangements upon request to any destination throughout the Sounds. Water is available at Ship Cove and at all Department of Conservation campsites, though sometimes the water must be treated or boiled.
- CAMPSITES: New Zealand’s Department of Conservation’s excellent web site lists all available campsites in the Marlborough Sounds. For this trip, I stayed at Ratimera Bay, Kumutoto Bay, and Mistletoe Bay. Though Freedom Camping is available in parts of the Marlborough Sound, be aware that some land is privately owned or protected and much of the terrain is quite steep which can make finding a place to put a tent difficult.
- DANGERS: Wind conditions in Queen Charlotte and Mahau Sound are very unpredictable and can be dangerous. Visit WindGURU to find out what conditions will be in advance. Weka birds mainly eat invertebrates and fruit, but they will also take inedible items to the nearest cover to investigate them. It is easiest to simply watch where the birds go and then retrieve your stolen items later.
- ROUTE: Here is the route and schedule that I followed:
- DAY 1: Ship Cove to Ratimera Bay Campsite paddle (22 km, 6 hours)
- DAY 2: Ratimera Bay to Kumutoto Bay Campsite paddle (11.4 km, 5 hours — very windy)
- DAY 3: Kumutoto Bay to Mistletoe Bay Campsite paddle (15 km, 5 hours)
- DAY 4: Mistletoe Bay to Ohinetaha Bay hike (8.2 km, 3 hours) followed by a paddle to Havelock (16.7 km, 5 hours)
View my route and download the Without Baggage Marlborough Sounds Packraft GPS track in GPX or KML format.