'Stunning' journey down the Opawa

Roland Oberholzer, left, and reporter Elena McPhee.
ELENA MCPHEE/FAIRFAX NZ

Roland Oberholzer, left, and reporter Elena McPhee.

Travelling down the Opawa River by kayak gives you an amazing glimpse of natural beauty and history. 

I chose to go on a trip with Driftwood Eco-tours, run by Will and Rose Parsons, for my first summer holiday assignment in Marlborough, a trip which takes the traveller into the Wairau Lagoons.

I enjoyed canoeing when I was growing up and was just looking forward to getting out onto the water again. 

A calm morning on the Opawa River.
ELENA MCPHEE/FAIRFAX NZ

A calm morning on the Opawa River.

The evening before my early-morning trip I started wondering if I had made a mistake. 

Whenever I mentioned my trip to anyone they spoke of the need for plenty of strength before embarking on the four-hour journey, and said they hoped I would be up to it. Not only that, but Rose had asked me if I liked dogs. I rashly said yes at the time, but now pictured myself drifting out to sea, exhausted, while a playful labrador tried to capsize my boat.  

However as soon as I turned up for the trip, on a peaceful summer morning at ten past seven, I knew this was the tour for me.

A black-fronted tern
SUPPLIED

A black-fronted tern

A friendly Swiss family who were based in Australia and travelling around New Zealand was also going on the morning tour, and we were welcomed by Will and Rose and given a talk about safety and the history of the region, and an introduction to the birdlife. Their 8-hectare wetland was planted in fruit trees and nut trees when they first arrived in 1999, but had been reconverted to native plants .

"It's a very shallow water wetland," Will said. 

We headed out with Will on the still Opawa River in three two-seater kayaks. Two tiny Jack Russell terriers, Vix and Gus, joined us, perching on the boats like ships' figureheads. 

Guide Will Parsons, left, and tourist Livia Oberholzer, with dogs Gus and Vix.
ELENA MCPHEE/FAIRFAX NZ

Guide Will Parsons, left, and tourist Livia Oberholzer, with dogs Gus and Vix.

In the first half hour we saw a royal spoonbill taking off, black swans, and a white-faced heron peacefully perched on a piece of wood near the bank. The large birds launching themselves into the air from the water were spectacular.

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As we went down the river Will kept up commentary about the wildlife and the history of the area, telling us about Jim Eyles, who discovered a moa egg on the boulder bank where the Opawa River meets the Wairau River in 1939, when he was 13. Eyles, who went on to be a museum director, helped Dr Roger Duff from the Canterbury Museum excavate the burial site in the same area two years later, during World War WII. 

Will told us about the remains of the Haast's eagle which had been found in the Wairau Bar area, a bird which could lift about 30 times its own weight. 

Little shags on a tree near the Wairau Lagoons.
ELENA MCPHEE

Little shags on a tree near the Wairau Lagoons.

As we travelled down the river Will pointed out the spot where he spotted the first elusive fern bird in the Marlborough Sounds in 2007. Will told us about Sir Edmund Hilary, who was based in Woodbourne in WWII, and his training regime, which involved cycling from Woodbourne up to Taylor Pass Rd and the Awatere Valley on the weekend, and walking into the mountains. 

A highlight was seeing the godwits near the entrance to Wairau Lagoons. The birds' migration pattern takes them from Alaska to New Zealand every year. When they first arrived this October this year the church bells were rung in the Nativity Church in Blenheim to celebrate. 

As we got closer to the lagoons the wind got stronger, and our pace slowed.

Pied shags roost near the entrance to Wairau Lagoons.
ELENA MCPHEE/FAIRFAX NZ

Pied shags roost near the entrance to Wairau Lagoons.

We had almost reached the entrance when Will decided we should go ashore for a while instead and have something to eat. Sometimes when the wind was too strong part of the journey became a walking tour, but the family had a ferry to catch, and could not be late back. 

We had brunch in Boulder Bay and Will told us about the early European settlement in the area. The reason why bottles could be found in the lagoons was that in the early days of the settlement of Marlborough there had been no less than three hotels on the Wairau Bar and boulder bank, he said. 

After the earthquake in 1848 the Opawa River became deeper, so the settlement shifted inland to Blenheim, then called Beaver Town. 

Will also told us more about the role of the Jack Russells, Gus and Vix: trained to track down stoats, ferrets and weasels, they were not only entertaining travelling companions but were an invaluable help with controlling predators on the wetlands. 

The return trip was just as stunning. 

It was a welcome return back to Will and Rose's home, where I was offered a cup of tea and homemade apple cake. Will and Rose said their "soft adventure" trips included not only walking and kayaking but alpine flora trips, and a popular royal spoonbills tour. 

All in all it was a rewarding trip, but I would recommend it to people with plenty of time, as the hours flew past. 

 - The Marlborough Express

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