By: Christopher Cookson
Marlborough has become famous for its wine, and seafood has quite a reputation too, with greenshell mussels, and salmon, however long before these became famous, Marlborough had quite a reputation for its natural heritage. From tales of Pelorus Jack, to Sir Edmund Hillary climing Tapuae-o-uenuku before he went on to conquer Everest, to the vastness of Molesworth, Marlborough has quite a reputation for its outstanding natural qualities. Mount Richmond Forest Park is larger than all but three of New Zealand's National Parks. In more recent times, Sir Peter Jackson floated some Dwarves down the Pelorus River, and another Hollywood film took advantage of the remote and windswept Cape Campbell. With Earth Day just past, I think it's worth reflecting on the state of Marlborough's environment.
It's no secret that I'm a big fan of nature, partly because I'm a bit of a shy person, and nature can be a bit less daunting (and sometimes more photogenic) than a roomful of people. Also, as someone who spends a lot of time in front of a computer, getting time out in nature is a recognised antidote to excess screen time that I find works particularly well for me. It's perhaps no surprise then that Stack Overflow, a leading global website for programmers found in their 2018 annual survey, that over half of all respondents spent an hour or more outside every day. I promised that I was going to write more this year, however the good weather has been a very strong incentive to get out and explore and document as much of Marlborough as possible while it holds. In the last six months, I've got around a lot of Marlborough, from some of the remote parts of the Marlborough Sounds, to the upper reaches of the Wairau River, rugged valleys in the Awatere and down the Pacific coast, and yet there's still so much I haven't had time for, even with a little bit of my travels being related to paying work. I'm sorely disappointed that I didn't get a chance to travel through Molesworth this summer past, and I haven't even had time for the Richmond Range.
I've lived a lifetime in Marlborough, yet there are still many places I haven't been, simply because they're so remote. If you drive on the main roads, you could be forgiven for thinking that Marlborough is all vineyards, however once you look at a map, you realise that vineyards are pretty much confined to the flat areas of the Wairau and Awatere Valleys; statistically they make up less than 3% of all Marlborough's land area, and once you venture off sealed roads, far more of Marlborough is wilderness in native vegetation than in any sort of cultivation, let alone grapes. High alpine regions with scree slopes and herb fields count for at least as much land area as vineyards, however you can drive to vineyards, whereas many of Marlborough's alpine regions require a strenuous trek, often over multiple days. I've coined my own acronym for Marlborough; WWW - wine, water, wilderness, which I think perfectly captures the greatest attractions of the region.
Some people might think that protecting the environment is the domain of activist, hemp-shirt wearing hippies, but that couldn't be further from the truth. I've already mentioned Hollywood films that have taken advantage of Marlborough's natural landscapes, and how as an IT worker, having the great outdoors at my disposal enhances my productivity. Ecotourism is also a big money earner, and Marlborough's popular Queen Charlotte Track is a good example of how looking after natural heritage can be a huge visitor attraction. I remember chatting in a photography forum with someone planning to visit New Zealand, and other kiwis were putting him off Marlborough as they suggested it was only wine, and his interest was birds, but I was able to point out to him that were numerous opportunities for bird watching and photography in Marlborough. People like that spend money on food and accommodation in the local economy if they can find what they're interested in. Of course a balance needs to be struck with tourism to generate economic returns without harming the very environment that generates them.
In just a few weeks, on May 20th, there's the annual fundraiser for Fairhall School and the Marlborough Falcon Trust - Tramp the Ned. This is an excellent example of combining recreation, farming, providing funds to support the local community, and engaging in good stewardship of the environment.
Protecting Marlborough's vast natural heritage is no small task. Wasps, rats, mice, possums, stoats, ferrets, rabbits, and noxious weeds like old man's beard, hieracium, ragwort and wilding conifers all threaten the amazing natural environment around us. DOC does what it can, but an area with as much conservation estate as Marlborough, it's a daunting task. Huge credit goes the many volunteers who work to protect and restore Marlborough's natural heritage. Over the course of the last six months I've seen signs of pest control from around Picton to up the Leatham Valley, and I've read about revegetation efforts at Grovetown Lagoon, and work at Kaipupu Point. The dead willows of the Para wetlands are gradually collapsing into the swamp and the area is reverting to a more natural state. I was recently surprised driving over Taylor Pass to notice that the willows around Lake Jasper, one of Marlborough's few lakes, and on private land, seemed to be dead. I could see flax through the dead trees, so it seems like a win for another Marlborough wetland.
Marlburians have a lot to be proud of in terms of what they're doing to protect and enhance the environment, but there's no room for complacency, and there are a few people who let the side down. Over the summer, my family made quite a haul of broken glass from the beach and sea at the DOC campsite at Cowshed Bay in Keneperu Sound, and during a recent walk up the Branch River, my daughter indignantly pointed out glass bottles and aluminium cans discarded at the side of the four wheel drive track. She also wanted me to pull out all the wilding conifers we encountered after I told her how they were taking over native bush. We pulled out a few small ones, but it was a task that could have taken us a week, and we only had a few hours. There's no doubt there's still plenty of work to be done around Marlborough to protect the environment.