Marlborough Sounds – Mussels, Oysters, and Glowworms

New Zealand is renown for the Green Lipped Mussel, which it exports all over the world. While i was in Golden Bay, I met a couple in Pohara Beach, Lynn and Murray, and told them I was headed for the Marlborough Sounds. They lived in Nelson, and grew up in the North part of the South Island, so they knew the area. They said I’d like it, that it was very different from Golden Bay. The told me that you could find the mussels in the waters of the sounds, and to ask around how to do it.

My initial impression of the Sounds wasn’t favorable. Unlike the remote, peaceful vibe of Golden Bay, the Sounds were much more developed, on their way to becoming like Florida or California, with little public access and many No Trespassing, Private Property, Keep Out signs. I stayed at a Holiday Park in Picton, the town with the terminal on the South Island for the inter-island ferry. If you want to drive from the South Island to the North Island, your only reasonable option is the inter-island ferry. There were a string of Department of Conservation (DoC) campgrounds on a road not far from Picton that i wanted to check out.

I should mention the road from Nelson to Picton. I have been on many twisty windey roads since I started exploring the North of the South Island. The one to the Cobb valley in Kahurangi National Park was a lulu. A 40km one lane gravel cliff-hanger without any straightaways worth remembering. Just constant hairpins and S-turns. You simply had to go slowly enough that if you met an oncoming car, you would be lucky enough to be at a wide enough spot in the road for you to pass, and failing that, one of you would have to back up to the nearest turnout. Luckily there isn’t much traffic. I met three cars, two at a place wide enough to pass, and one where we both skidded to a stop, and he backed up about 50m. The Queen Charlotte Drive into Picton was far more civilized in that it was tar sealed (asphalt with crushed stone, like all the paved roads in NZ), and two lane (mostly). It was similar, though, in the lack of significant runs of straight road. I endeavored to stay in my lane, and that meant constantly turning the steering wheel back and forth through great arcs. It was mentally and physically exhausting. I met oncoming cars who were seriously over the lane divider when I first saw them, but were safely in their lane when we passed. I thought ‘reckless bastards, why don’t you stay in your lanes’. Then I discovered the Twisty Road Driving Game.

After about two days of this kind of driving, I realized that if you could see some distance ahead that no traffic was coming in the oncoming lane, you could use all of the road to straighten out the bends. There were many things that blinded you, though, like the side dynamited out of the mountain or the tall vegetation on the down hill side. But there were enough opportunities for me to see far enough ahead that I sometimes found myself driving in a straight line through multiple s-turns with my car fully across the divider line at times. This became a fun and engaging game. The dividing line was now only relevant at the point where you passed an oncoming car. All you had to do was to be able to be on your side at the point of passage. Since you were moving. the perspective was in constant flux, and the calculation of how far you could encroach into the oncoming lane became instantaneously dependent on your speed, how far you could see ahead, and how far you were likely to be able to see ahead in the near future based on the random and constantly variable direction changes the road made. Sometimes being in the oncoming lane allowed you to see farther down the road! Leverage! It had a major impact on speed. Previous to engaging in The Game, I was shifting between 2nd and 3rd a lot. Afterwards, I could pretty much leave it in 3rd. The physical stress was less, and the mental stress was relieved almost totally by the fun of The Game. I became one of The Bastards.

The string of DoC campgrounds were back down the Queen Charlottes Road 22km from Picton and up another road with similar driving characteristics about 32km. I didn’t like most of the campgrounds, resembling parking lots for campervans. The smallest, though, had two sites in clearings in the bush, and I decided to try a night in one of those. A Kiwi was in the better of the two when i looked at it, but he said he would be gone at 04:00 (am) pig hunting with a knife and ‘something highly illegal’. The next day I set up in that site, and ended up staying three nights. The campground was called Picnic Bay, and it had a reasonably nice beach of coarse sand, rock, and a fair bit of mud. The bush was nice, though, with palms, tree ferns, and other exotic looking plants and trees. The tide was six to eight feet high.

The first night there, the battery in my torch (flashlight) burned out. I cursed because the night was dark with cloudy sky and no moon, and i would have to feel my way to the car about twenty meters away to get another battery. Another Kiwi I met was fond of saying ‘mustn’t grumble!’, but I felt entitled. As I eased my way out of the tent and into the blackness, I noticed tiny bright pinpoints of bluish light to my left. I had seen glowworms on a trail in glacier country before the sun came up one morning. I had been alerted to the possibility of seeing them by a Day Walks pamphlet I purchased at a DoC center. So I knew what they looked like. After I replaced the battery in the torch, I went to the edge of the small ravine where I had seen them and let my eyes adjust to the darkness. There were maybe a dozen of them on the opposite wall of the ravine, and i could see a few downstream and a few upstream as well. Not a huge number, but i was delighted at my luck in discovering them.

The next night, I decided to walk upstream in the ravine to see if there were any more glowworms up there. The ravine floor was a little wet, a little rocky, and there were jams of debris here and there. Fairly easy walking, all said. I rounded a bend and saw that the concentration of the little guys had increased. There was a ledge I could sit on, so I turned out the light. On the wall in front of me was a beautiful constellation of glow worms like a starry night, filling my vision from left to right. It was a beautiful experience. It was made all the more special by the knowledge that it was a complete surprise, and that it was, on this night, my discovery alone. I moved on. A concrete culvert that came out under the road had cut a wide bowl in the earth, with a puddle at the bottom. The glow worms liked this place the best. The blue diamonds of light were studded in the walls of the bowl more densely than the wall before, and the muddy puddle in the dark acted as a reflection pool. Certainly, the caves at Te Anau must be more spectacular, but this was a very good show. I remembered how it all started with the dead battery and my cursing. ‘Mustn’t grumble’ I thought.

I met Don and Maureen at the campground next door. They were Kiwis who lived on the North Island and volunteered for the Doc to be campground hosts at the larger ones. They had a bucket of mussels they had caught, and were steaming some as I started talking to Maureen. They gave me two of them to try and said ‘they don’t get any fresher than this’; they were wonderful. I asked how to find them, and was given some general guidelines. They had had to look for a bed of them, and found one a forty five minute walk down the beach from their camp at low tide. They were going fishing the next day, but said if I wanted to come back around 16:00, they would have another proper bucket full. That day, I ventured out onto my beach at low tide. As I said, it’s not the most perfect sun bathing beach, with coarse sand and some mud, but i noticed a lot of oyster shells. I also noticed what appeared to be unopened oysters. Surely, I thought, these aren’t live oysters, although at high tide they would be under perhaps six feet of water. I decided to get a knife. The best knife I had was probably the worst shucking knive in the universe, and I didn’t know what I was doing, but after a while I opened one. Sure enough, there was a deliciously fresh oyster inside.

I couldn’t believe it. After the tide was out a little more, I began to see what looked like little fins sticking out of the water. Surely those weren’t mussels, but they were. Their beards in the wild grasp tenaciously to whatever it is they are growing on. One that I pulled pulled up came with several small stones, with a small crab and a starfish hiding among them. I put my ‘catch’ in a small container of water. The sea was so rough and muddy that i could only find ones that were exposed by the low tide, about eight in all. I thought this was a pretty good start, so I took them to Ron and Maureen’s who combined them with their catch, and we all had all the mussels we could eat, and Speight’s Dark Brown beer to wash them down with. A most memorable dinner. I was amazed that food we prize was for the easy taking in certain locations of the Marlborough Sounds.

As far as scenery in the Marlborough Sounds, you can’t really see much from a car. The sounds are vast and there aren’t many roads. The existing few are slow and hard going, with mountain on one side and tall bush on the other. I drove hundreds of km on difficult, often gravel, roads and the payoff often wasn’t worth the effort. Some roads ended in a bay with a concentration of half million dollar holiday homes on the hills, and yachts moored in the bay, and not much for a bush camping tramper to do. The DoC campgrounds weren’t all that appealing, as I said. The one I found at Picnic Bay was unusual in having two tent friendly sites in clearings in the bush. You don’t see much of the Sounds from the tracks, either. The Queen Charlotte track was nice, and on the highest parts, you had a good view of the Sounds from points cleared for that purpose. But for the most part, it was a nice track through the bush, similar to a lot of other nice tracks through the bush. I did have some great experiences there, but finding a campsite I liked took a lot of effort. I did see enough to be convinced that the Sounds are very scenic, but probably best seen by boat or air.


A facebook friend made a comment comparing the NZ photos to paradise. I thought it worth while to comment on the less than perfect parts of the experience, since the temptation to compose photographs in the most favorable light is hard to resist.

Sandflies come immediately to mind. There are mosquitos in NZ, but the pest to watch out for are called sandflies. They are little blood sucking insects resembling a half sized, black grain of rice. You can feel them bite, and the bites itch for days afterwards. The itch is about as intense as the mosquito’s bite, maybe slightly greater, and they will raise welts sometimes, perhaps depending on where they struck. You know you need to take evasive action when you see them swarming about you. I’ve never seen horrific swarms, perhaps only a dozen or two at a time. They love all the places mosqitoes love: ankles, backs of arms and legs and necks. They don’t seem to go for the face and ears like mosquitoes, or maybe it’s just that they don’t have that maddening whine when they fly. I looked for repellent with Deet, and didn’t find any at the grocery store, so i bought the cheapest product that came in a pump sprayer. It works. It also works on flies, enabling me to fall asleep on a beach giving the tops of my legs a good sunburn. But i’m glad it works.

While on the subject of insects (to depart a little from the Paradise theme) there seem to be no screens on windows and doors in NZ. Could be that the insects are just not annoying enough to justify them. Sure, some flies come into the kitchen in the Holiday Parks, even a bird or two, but you chase them away, and they fly out again. Kind of like being outdoors. New Zealanders seem to be pretty outdoorsy people. Plus there don’t seem to be any of the really big and scary bugs that would be a drag to hear buzzing around at night, or maybe they just don’t want to come inside.

There are a lot of tourists in NZ, even in a shoulder season such as the one I’m in now. Some of the attractions are lessened to me by the Tour Bus phenomenon. The pancake rocks on the West coast are one such place where the trails are really sidewalks short enough for aging Asians to negotiate and still be able to climb back into the bus. The glaciers were spoiled a little for me by the constant sound of helicopters carrying tourists to places where they could walk on the ice. For every one of those, however, there are perhaps a hundred wonderful places that can only be seen after hiking a good distance over tricky terrain and steep hills. This limits the number of people you encounter, and increases the probability that those you do meet will be ones you will enjoy. As i read once ‘good roads bring bad people, bad roads bring good people’.

The Weather in NZ is certainly not tropical. Queenstown, at 45deg South latitude, is halfway between the equator and the South Pole. Vicki told me they had a frost while I was on the road when it was still officially summer. I believe it. The night I stayed on the shores of Lake Wakatipu on the way North, it snowed in the mountains almost all the way down to where I was. Despite that, it’s an island moderated by the ocean, and the winters are not harsh. The most snow they ever get in Queenstown is six inches or so, and it doesn’t last, even in the dead of winter. That said, there are many glorious sunny days. This year they were interspersed with quite a few rainy days. I spent several days in Invercargill waiting on improvement in the weather which never really happened, driving me northward. I also spent several days in Nelson doing the same, though with much happier results. The week since the remnants of Lusi came through has been sunny and mostly mild, although as we progress further into fall the nights are starting to get more chilly. After my shower today, on the twenty fourth of March, I returned to jeans, after a few weeks of shorts. To summarize, it’s not balmy like the caribbean or the mediterranean, but if you know to expect some cool weather and prepare for it, it’s plenty comfortable enough.

The exchange rate is not advantageous, the kiwi dollar is on a high against the USD. This makes gasoline cost the equivalent of over $8US/gal. A decent bottle of wine is at least $15. Food is about twice what we pay in the states, but it is higher quality. I see lots of cattle eating grass, and the eggs have deep orange yolks.

The beaches are not all places where you would like to lounge around and work on your suntan. The sand can be coarse and sharp, making it uncomfortable to walk on in bare feet. The sandflies can be thick and hungry. Some beaches also have a lot of driftwood that isn’t particularly interesting, or other clutter like pine cones and seaweed. Thankfully, though, there is very little human litter and trash. Other beaches like Wharariki and Green Hill are especially clean with sand like sugar and few or no sandflies. It’s just that they aren’t all like that, but they are all beautiful in their own ways, particularly in their unique settings in the steep forested hills.

A pathetic grouping of complaints for sure, i’m sure the locals have their own laundry lists. Lovely, fascinating place, certainly. Not paradise, but perhaps as close as you can come on this planet.