Catching the Marlborough drift

TOUR LEADER: Vix tries to avoid being dog-napped during a kayaking trip.

TOUR LEADER: Vix tries to avoid being dog-napped during a kayaking trip.

The secret to finding, trapping and keeping a mate at the top of the South Island is as direct and uncomplicated as its inhabitants: a three-course fish dinner.

Rose Parsons, a fifth generation French Pass gal, says she landed Will - who has four generations' experience of working the tough Marlborough terrain coursing through his veins - with a dish of whitebait, a main of "something caught, something simple" and then "a chocolate fish, probably".

"That's how a Sounds girl gets her man."

WHITE MAGIC: Royal spoonbills preening on the shore of the Waima River.

WHITE MAGIC: Royal spoonbills preening on the shore of the Waima River.

Will was smitten (well, there's a story about a local clergyman and a gymnast . . . but we'll let him fill you in on that) and so started a partnership which has now grown into an eco-tours and accommodation business that offers a vital alternative to the leisurely long-lunch attractions of this part of the country's major flavour: wine.

The Parsons couldn't be more hemmed in by viticulture if they tried. A map showing their wetlands reserve on the banks of the Opawa River (a few clicks down from Blenheim but a world away in terms of peace and quiet) is surrounded by placenames which have become synonymous with sav: Cloudy Bay lies just the other side of the Boulder Bank to the east, offering a smudged view of Wellington across Cook Strait; the Wither Hills rise bold and parched to the southwest; and the Wairau Valley unwinds to the north and west, flattening the land in front of the blue-green Robertson and Richmond Ranges.

In stark contrast to a landscape dominated by the straight lines of machine-harvested vineyards and the brazen big-business cellar-door tourist stop-offs, Will and Rose have nestled and named their headquarters in the landscape: Driftwood. (Will slowly splits the syllables "drift . . . wood . . ." to emphasise his philosophy of "going with the flow".)

NATURAL DRAMA: The bright, white rock chasm at Sawcut Gorge.

NATURAL DRAMA: The bright, white rock chasm at Sawcut Gorge.

And from the moment we arrive for our 36-hour stay, it's clear that we're here to feel the effect of the terrain and not the terroir.

Our arrival coincides with Garden Marlborough's Spring Fete - the culmination of a three-day annual garden festival which runs at the same time as the region's A&P Show and makes sure that Blenheim's Seymour Square is heaving with produce stalls, out-of-towners, plant-sellers and a brassy band parping out 80s theme tunes and hardy perennials.

A half-hour amongst the throng quickly turns up a few local heroes: Diana Dobson and a nervous native falcon called Fern from the Marlborough Falcon Trust, which is dedicated to preserving an endemic species that's rarer than kiwi; 13-year-old Joshua Marshall, who's mad about gardening and has now published a cookbook to help kids learn how to grow and cook and . . . "well, because I like eating"; and Dale and Renee from Putake Honey, who are now as keen about botany as they are about their bees.

ECO-TREAT: The self-contained guest cottage at Driftwood Retreat.

ECO-TREAT: The self-contained guest cottage at Driftwood Retreat.

But this part of the world always uncovers the larger than life (I'd recommend tracking down Don Grady's Grady's People, More Grady's People, Still More Grady's People, and Heaps More Grady's People if you want a taste) and we were here for a more earth-based adventure.

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From the outset, it was also clear we would be powered by cake. Our accommodation was purposely furnished without a television but with a choice of muffins and apple cake as well as the more usual breakfast fare of artisan loaf, strawberries, yoghurt, home-mixed muesli, honey, jam and marmalade.

The baking was all down to Will, who seems to operate on a diet of gluten and tea, and who is quick to admit his secret ingredient is ginger. And after a couple of slices each of the apple cake, we were off to tour the covenanted wetlands which border the property and offer a haven for birdlife. We spot the golden iridescence of a pair of glossy ibis, flush out a screech followed by a pukeko, fail to find a rare fernbird and watch hawks circling before heading home to play with Driftwood's resident darlings, the alpaca, and recharge the batteries with more tea and cake.

By this time, we've been adopted by the adorably scruffy jack russell Vix and I'm having to fend off plots from my resident Australian about dog-napping her back to the big smoke.

Next on the agenda is an evening kayak down to the Wairau Lagoon. And this is where Will really comes into his own.

Yes, there will be more baking and tea, but his enthusiasm for the region's flora and fauna, love for detail and history, and sheer energy of storytelling turns a paddle and tramp into a crash course in all things Kiwi.

Vix, still oblivious to the threat to her way of life, jumps on the front of the Australian's kayak and we course with the tide past more birdlife (glorious royal spoonbills, honking geese, scooting coots, more soaring hawks), driftwood mai-mai and beautiful reed beds, which glow in the late afternoon sun.

The wind's against us for a smooth ride all the way to the lagoon but the area covers 2400 hectares of estuarine channels, sand spits and islands so we pull the kayaks up on to a bank, and yomp through the long grass towards our goal - a view of the bar where, as World War II started to rage a world away, 13-year-old Jim Eyles discovered a series of burials dating back 800 years and revealed the Moa Hunters, our country's earliest discovered settlers.

More tea, more baking, more tales of people who lived on the bar, who whaled in Port Underwood to the north (which offers a short portage across to Queen Charlotte Sound), and who constructed elaborate fish traps by diverting streams through the brackish marshes, and we're heading back to Driftwood . . . once we've extracted Vix from her mad chases through the rabbit warren.

Day two's exertions involve a drive south to Sawcut Gorge and Isolated Hill via Seddon and Ward, where Will grew up and where he points out a lychgate to a cemetery copied from one in the English county of Somerset from where his great-grandfather eloped with the vicar's daughter.

While day one's stories have been largely of the region and landscape, day two's are more personal. These are the slopes where Will farmed and where his family's link to the land is strongest - as we wind up the steep high country tracks we pass a cottage he built for himself for when the Waima River was in flood and where he put the now-mature trees into the ground.

A flat spot is the site of a now torn-down wool shed, from which he recycled the rollers for the internal doors in our accommodation.

High into the hills, we meet new land-owner Sally, who's pacing out the ground to relocate a lighthouse worker's cottage built by Steven Spielberg's DreamWorks studio for the filming of The Light Between Oceans (nothing, absolutely nothing gets wasted in this part of the world). We later meet a 4x4 full of hunters. Everyone knows Will. Everyone banters. Everyone has a tale of mustering steers, chasing bucks, flushing out pigs.

And then it's back down to the Waima River for the three-hour return tramp up to Sawcut Gorge.

The terrain is tricky - boulders, scree, slippery streams - and the Aussie takes a posterior and pride-denting tumble early on. But following the footsteps of cake-fuelled Will gets us up to a decent pace and we're soon finding enough time to take in the glaring limestone formations and unique flora, such as the Marlborough rock daisy.

The endpoint is a dramatic cleft in the bright, white rock, through which the stream has cut its picturesque path. In summer, the togs would have been on and we'd have bathed away the strained calves and sore soles, but even though we've been blessed by early November warmth, there's still enough of a nip in the air to make the eternally icy water refreshing rather than enticing.

Still, there's always cake. And a slice or two later and a mug of kawakawa tea girds our loins for the return trek.

The trip back to the airport takes us past some of the bigger names in Marlborough wine, for which the bulk of the region's visitors tend to make a beeline. But there's a wealth of stories, characters and stunning landscape hidden behind the lines of vines and gleaming fermentation vats, and more than a few cake-fuelled locals willing to help you find them.

 - Sunday Star Times


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