Spellbound in the Sounds

18:45, Jan 06 2014
marlborough sounds
HIGH TIDE: We had to wait for the water level to drop to make landfall.

I've swum three times today. That for me is a quintessential part of a New Zealand summer: the sensation of being almost permanently waterlogged, salt-washed.

The first swim of the day was 10.30am when the sea was limpid, almost motionless. Under my feet, shucked oyster shells; the sand soft, a little viscous.

I'm swimming in the Marlborough Sounds. Floating, red Christmas toenails on my horizon, recalling the voice of my geography teacher, Mr Vaughan: "The Sounds are drowned river valleys; rias, not fiords, created by the sea flooding into unglaciated valleys."

marlborough sounds
QUEEN CHARLOTTE SOUND: How many other places in the world this beautiful and in the height of summer could be this free of other people.

When Captain Cook first sailed in to this network of sinuous peninsulas separated by the shimmering ocean in January 1770 he couldn't have known what lay around each curve of the landscape. Was there a passage back to the open sea, or would it be a marine cul de sac?

Cook spent weeks anchored in Ship Cove in Queen Charlotte Sound on each of his three visits to New Zealand. He spent 170 days in the cove in all. There were sound reasons why he stayed so long: it was a sheltered anchorage for carrying out ship repairs and on shore there was fresh water and other provisions. But I reckon that even if he never actually said so, that he just fell in love with the bays of blue, the curves of golden sand; the birds (and they would have been so much more plentiful then ... a dawn chorus you could never sleep through). Of course it wouldn't be very seaman-like or appropriate for a stern Yorkshireman to admit that in the official ship's log, but I think Cook was possibly just as susceptible to an idyllic Marlborough bay as the rest of us.

A summer holiday morning nearly 250 years later begins earlier than my 10.30 swim, of course. The dawn chorus might now have been sadly diminished but as the sky lightens the tuis start clearing their white-feathered throats with a flurry of gurgling and cackling. I don't know of any other bird in the world that can match the tui for its calls that range so seamlessly from the melodic to an asthmatic death rattle.


marlborough sounds
MARLBOROUGH SOUNDS: Site of summer idleness.

In midsummer it's truly an early bird start - up here it's just after the last glow-worm fades away in the trees. Yes, there are glow-worms in the trees ... if you wanted a place where it is easy to believe in fairies it is here, where tiny pinpricks of light flicker in the foliage. Unlike in caves where you can usually trace the light to the glow-worm itself, here in the forest their light is rather ethereal, always out of reach.

And so to morning coffee on the deck. From here the lawn stretches down to piles of sun- bleached driftwood that separate the grass from the sand and then the waters of Mahau Sound. This is an arm of the larger Pelorus Sound. To me, Pelorus is synonymous with the sea; the word speaks of dolphins and old sailors and tastes of salt.

Before the afternoon breezes intensify and indolence swamps us there's kayaking too: beech tree roots writhe on the rocky bluffs above us; pockets of forest casting cool shade on to the sea. Beneath the pellucid water, stingrays in pursuit of clouds of jellyfish flap leisurely through the depths. After four hours' paddling my hands are sore. "It's the death grip on the paddle, Mum," says Jono, behind me, as I flex my fingers while passing him jet plane lollies that are now tangy with salt.

marlborough sounds
ENCHANTMENT: The sun sets on a summer's day.

That's summer too ... doing the same things you did with your kids decades earlier; a sense of continuity; even if it's now their turn to show you how to improve your kayaking technique rather than you teaching them how to swim.

Later, after the swims and a haphazard lunch gleaned from leftovers in the fridge - a chardonnay, herby and heady eaten with the cold crunch of a cucumber sandwich - there's the somnolence of a summer's mid-afternoon: a book dropping out of one's hand, the drift from sleep to awake and back again; the tuis dipping and diving overhead; a wood pigeon, fat, slow, its wings making that distinctive whistling sound as it lumbers overhead like a feathered freight train.

Bare feet are part of summer; bare feet that become cracked and stubbed; the slight sensation of salt almost permanently on the skin; sunburn on the shoulders; sand in the scalp; falling asleep in the bean bag again and another walk into the sea. This time the immersion is more of a shock as the cool water envelopes skin now warm from the sun. Holding Rachel's hand we shriek upon stepping on things we don't want to think about that lie on the soft sea bottom.

marlborough sounds
EARLY MORNING: Just before the sun burns away the last wisps of cloud.

And the clock doesn't matter ... it really doesn't matter. We eat dinner when someone can be bothered to stagger into the kitchen; we drink a bit more than we usually do so sometimes the cooking is slightly befuddled. We rally to organise a barbecue and the aroma of roasted meat and sausages exploding with sizzling, guilt-edged fat wafts over the deck; and the late afternoon sun will glow through the red wine on the picnic table; and glance off the tomato sauce. It wouldn't be summer without the tomato sauce and the soundtrack of slaps as we squash squadrons of sandflies.

It's now early evening, the sun blinding, glittering on the sea; heads slightly befuddled with wine and swims and sun; and the wind is blowing through the trees, swirling through the white-flowered manuka.

And the house is open to the wind and the sun ... every door, every window open and there's a promise of a cool breeze tonight, the sound of a morepork in the forest and the glow-worms will be flickering in the trees again.

When we're finally driven inside by the determined sandflies out will come the board games ... battered boxes of Battleship and Pictionary. "We should do this more often," we say. But you almost never do, so next time last year's sand and Roses chocolate wrappers are still in the bottom of the boxes.

If the weather gods are with us, then we'll do it all again tomorrow; every day getting a little slower; wearing the same T-shirt; neglecting until mid-morning to brush one's hair; forgetting to check the time; unwinding, surrendering to the heat and the cloudless sky and the distant swish of the incoming tide.

The Timaru Herald