Having lived most of my life in Marlborough, I think I know the region fairly well, but there are times I discover something new and I'm reminded what an extraordinary place I live in.
Sunday was one of those days. Officially the first day of autumn, but with a weather forecast worthy of any midsummer day, I decided it was time to head to the beach. My family had already ticked off popular spots Whites Bay, Governors Bay, Bobs Bay, the Wairau Diversion and Marfells Beach over summer so I felt it worthwhile exploring a little further afield to see if we could add to our beach list. I considered Okiwi Bay, but rejected it as too far on a cloudless day with a toddler in the car and a late start, although I knew it had a sandy beach at one end.
Given the scale of the Marlborough Sounds, it's not hard to find somewhere you haven't been before,especially if you don't have a boat, so I settled on Moetapu Bay, because it seemed like about the maximum distance that would be reasonable for an afternoon, and because I knew someone who lived there. Perhaps not exactly compelling reasons to choose a beach, but better than nothing. In fact I set out not exactly sure what sort of 'beach' to expect, as although the Marlborough Sounds are unquestionably beautiful, sandy beaches can be a bit of a hit and miss affair, with silty shores in some places or sharp pebbles or even rocky coast in others. Department of Conservation stated that there was a basic camp site which at least meant public access, and hopefully something worth wanting to camp there for.
The route from Blenheim to Havelock and on to Queen Charlotte Drive under a scorching cloudless 'autumn' sky, was familiar, as I'd driven it numerous times previously, but driving the narrow road from Havelock flanked by the luxuriant green of native bush I always find inspiring, and presumably others do too, judging by the numerous signs advertising arts and crafts.
A short drive north over the hill from Linkwater and a hard left turn brought us onto Moetapu Bay Road, typical of so many Sounds roads, narrow, with lots of twists and turns, and with lush native bush overhanging the road. I forgot to bring the road atlas, but wasn't concerned as all I thought we had to do was find the beach. That turned out more difficult than I imagined. With a car close behind us that later turned out to be a tourist who had less idea where he was going than I did, stopping or turning suddenly wasn't an option. Moetapu Bay itself seems determined to confuse visitors. I just managed to catch a glimpse of a sign advising beach access with parking a bit further on.
Unfortunately I didn't have time to take in how much further on, and after a short distance arrived at the Moetapu Bay settlement, and another sign advising of beach access for boat launching only, but strictly no parking, with a sign indicating parking in the direction I had just come. I hadn't noticed anything resembling parking previously, and with a car following close behind me, I had the unintended opportunity for a Sunday drive along the length of Moetapu Bay Road. The road eventually came to a dead end at a private property, and the fellow who had been following closely behind presumably realised I didn't know where I was going and promptly turned around as I'd hoped he would do for some time.
I made my way back the way I had come, carefully looking out for signs. I saw the sign indicating the entrance to the bay for boat launching, and the strict warning against parking, but as I continued, I failed to see the promised parking that was meant to be just a bit further on. With the family in the car and a three year old waiting for her promise of a beach, I ended up at Double Bay where beach access was well signposted, and where there were had some picnic tables with the benefit of some shade under a large ngaio tree.
It seems confusing visitors must be part of the culture of this part of the Marlborough Sounds, as this Double Bay turns out to be far from unique, with another bay of the same name in the next sound. While not exactly the destination I had been looking for, Double Bay proved adequate for a break. The low tide revealed a beach that was a mixture of sand and muddy silt, and though the water was cloudy, it was deliciously warm, and the whole family took the opportunity to get our feet wet, with my daughter taking great delight in digging in the sand with a large mussel shell she found on the beach.
After a half hour or so lazing around Double Bay, I decided that we'd have another try at finding access to the fabled Moetapu Bay. At least I'd measured the distance on the odometer, and it was less than two kilometres away. This time I did not have a tourist trailing along behind, so I drove slowly looking for a place to stop. This time I managed to read the sign indicating beach access properly, and saw that it stated parking was 50m further along the road. Watching carefully, I soon realised why I'd missed the parking area previously. In a typically casual kiwi way, 'parking' simply meant the side of the road where the yellow no parking lines ended. There was just enough space for three or four cars before the road became too narrow again.
My persistence paid off, as after a short walk of under five minutes from the car down a steep track, we were on the beach, or beaches, as there were two. To the south-west was a small, sheltered beach littered with oyster shells, and with rather murky, but warm water. To the north, and proceeding along to the east, a long curving beach of golden sand with clear, but cold water. This northern beach was perfect for lying soaking up the sun, as a two or three people were doing at the western end when we arrived, or the cliched activity of romantic strolling. In between the two was a flat area of land that constituted the DOC campsite, with a rocky outcrop covered in vegetation at the western end.
As a family, we were more interested in the sheltered warm water of the south western beach. I decided to try snorkelling, which while relaxing, with just about zero visibility, had me mostly swimming around in circles. My wife and daughter were keen to paddle in the warm water until my daughter cried out in pain after stepping on a sharp oyster shell that cut her foot. The combination of murky water and sharp shells made barefoot wading rather risky.
While we were enjoying the beach, another family arrived with a daughter who turned out to be the same age as ours. They'd won a weekend holiday package including a rental car and had come across from Wellington. They asked my wife what she thought was the best beach in the Marlborough Sounds, and without hesitation, she said she thought they'd found it. It's inevitable that there will be many excellent beaches in Marlborough given that the region has 20 percent of New Zealand's coastline, however of those within an hour's drive of Blenheim without the need for a boat, Moetapu Bay, with its extensive golden sand, solitude, and picturesque setting ranks up there among the best.
As we packed up to leave, a keruru landed heavily in a cabbage tree and started feasting on the fruit. As I tried to grab a quick photo a woman with crutches hobbled over. She'd broken her ankle, but I commented she couldn't have picked a more idyllic location to recuperate. She lived next to the DOC campground, but due to the wonderful informality of kiwi beach life, the boundary between her home and the DOC reserve was simply some flax and a patch of native bush, including the cabbage tree the keruru was perched in.
It might have taken me years to get there for the first time, but I know I'll be back.