Drifting on an eco kayak tour

16:00, Feb 10 2012
Migratory godwits make a nine-day commute from their breeding grounds in the Arctic Circle to feeding grounds in New Zealand. People who take one of the Department of Conservation's guided river tours with Driftwood Eco-Tours this month will probably see them flying over the Opawa River.

An appreciation of nature is the biggest requirement for people booking an eco kayak tour with Will Parsons.

He runs them privately for his Driftwood Eco Tour business but special two-hour trips along the Opawa River are being organised this month for the Department of Conservation (DOC) as part of its summer nature series. Will hopes people in Marlborough will book a place and see some of the wonderlands on their doorstep.

He is a DOC concessionaire, helping others have good recreational experiences in the natural environment while ensuring it isn't damaged.

"This whole area, historically, is probably the oldest in New Zealand," he says about the Wairau Bar near his home. Archeological findings show it was one of the first sites of Maori occupation in New Zealand with a moa hunters' burial site dating back 800 years.

Whalers arrived at the end of the 18th century and made a base at Port Underwood. In 1855, a big earthquake caused the Wairau Bar to drop 1.5 metres, allowing it to be crossed by large ships which then sailed upstream to a port in Blenheim. Will shows tour groups the 1856 Wairau Bar pilot's house and points to the foundations of an old store built by pioneer businessman James Wynen.

Will's main loyalties, however, are with the area's natural feature and the birdlife it attracts.


The last (wet) spring proved a good breeding season for wetland birds and chick casualties are reduced with a pest control programme Will operates. Ferrets, stoats, rats and weasels are regular catches but population numbers remain high.

"We're getting two ferrets a week at the moment – and I've seen them swimming in the river when we're kayaking."

Introduced mallard ducks are joined by fernbirds, Australasian shovelers, native paradise shell ducks and endemic scaup. Royal spoon bills, a favourite for people on the tours, breed in the area and white herons have arrived from their West Coast, Okarito breeding ground three months earlier than usual.

Godwits are getting ready for their long flight back to their breeding grounds in the Arctic Circle but will return in September after a nine-day, non-stop journey.

Rare black-fronted terns and Caspian terns can be seen at the bar and an Australian wading bird, the glossy ibis, which appeared at the bar four years ago, has been joined by a mate. Word is out that ibis have been spotted in the North Island, too and Will thinks wild weather or forest fires prompted the big birds with a "stunning plumage" to cross the Tasman.

Habitats around the lower Opawa River and the Parsons' own property are improving as Will and Rose plant more native trees around the wetland spaces. Some are purchased with help from the Marlborough District Council's biodiversity scheme and others are propagated by them and volunteer helpers. The kahikatea, totara, cabbage trees, toetoe, kowhai and coprosmas all once grew naturally in the area, he says.

Will likes introducing people to nature's wonders and he uses nature's forces to ease the energy levels they require to explore rivers and lagoons.

When possible, Driftwood Eco Tour trips are timed to leave when the tide goes out and return on incoming tides, he says. No kayaking experience is necessary but people must be able to swim in case they capsize and (supplied) life jackets are compulsory. A number-one rule is everyone keeps pace with the slowest kayak, Will says. And the slower you go, the more you will see, he reasons.

"Locals who go are really surprised by the environment and how much they enjoy it," says the third-generation Marlburian."They get the history story and then they get to see it, feel it. There's a lovely spiritual feeling out there, particularly under the moon or the setting sun."

The Opawa River twilight guided river tours will be held on February 16, 18 and 23.

Tickets cost $25 per person and participants must be 12 years or over.

Telephone DOC, 5729100, for more information or to book a place.

The Marlborough Express