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Top Wildest Places to go explore in Marlborough

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Last Modified: 6-6-2020 11:44

Wairau River from Rainbow Road
Wairau River from Rainbow Road

Covid-19 has put a temporary halt to visits to some of the wildest places in the world, and global travel isn’t really all that good for the environment anyway, so with that in mind, I’ve put together a list of some really wild places to visit right here in Marlborough for those who are missing their adrenaline fix exploring tropical rainforests, climbing in the Himalayas or other exotic locations. I’ve chosen places that have public access, and ranked them based on how difficult they are to access, with the more challenging and time consuming adventures ranked higher on the list. This isn’t an exhaustive list, and if you think I’ve missed somewhere that should be included, contact me with your suggestion. I've been to many of these places, but there are a few that remain on my to-do list in spite of having lived in Marlborough most of my life.

Mount Tapuae-o-uenuku

Tapuae-o-uenuku

Marlborough’s highest peak Taupae-o-uenuku is visible from many parts of Marlborough, and even from the North Island, but getting to the top is no mean feat. At 2885m high, this is a serious climb. Sir Edmund Hillary used it as training for Everest, so just because you work out at the gym daily, or walk the Wither Hills, don’t think this will be a walk in the park. This is a multi-day trek where you’ll be climbing over 2000m following an unmarked route from where you start at Gladstone Downs in the Awatere Valley. You’ll need good river crossing skills, as well as crampons and an ice axe for the final part of the climb. Making it to the highest point in Marlborough will be worth it though.

Lake McCrae

If you’ve never heard of Lake McCrae, it’s probably because it’s about the remotest place you can get to in Marlborough. There is a DOC hut there though, for the intrepid adventurers who are prepared for an epic expedition. First up, you’ve got to drive to Molesworth, itself one of the wildest places in New Zealand, then you’ve got a 22km hike following an unmarked and largely unformed route to the hut. DOC estimates 6-7 hours walking, which is probably why you don’t see too many Instagram posts of the lake. You might need to know how to actually use a map and compass if you plan on going here, as Google Maps won’t be any use as you definitely won’t be getting an internet connection.

Queen Charlotte Track

The Queen Charlotte Track near Umungata Bay (Davies Bay)

If you like a good walk or mountain bike ride, over 70km of it, with spectacular views of Marlborough Sounds along the way, then the Queen Charlotte Track is Marlborough’s epic track. It’s a bit hard to know where to place the Queen Charlotte Track on the list of Marlborough’s wildest places, as although it’s a long walk or ride if you do it all, it’s perfectly possible to walk just parts of it as a day trip, and even if you do the whole track, some of the accommodation options are far from wild, so you can relax in comfort at the end of a day’s walk. The track is well formed and marked, so there’s little chance of getting lost. You will be walking for several days carrying food and clothing on your back if you complete the whole track, so on that basis, I’ve ranked it fairly high on the list.

Rainbow Road

This wilderness road is open daily from Boxing Day till Easter, and with permission during the off season. You need either a four wheel drive or a mountain bike, otherwise you’re likely to get stuck in one of the numerous fords, and there’s no mobile coverage or AA to help you out if you get stuck. You’ll also have to pay a road toll to help cover maintenance of the road, as part of it crosses private land. The reward is that you get to see some of the wildest country in Marlborough including the headwaters of the mighty Wairau River, and you’ll climb up over 1300m at Island Saddle before you leave Marlborough District on your way south to Hanmer. From Rotoiti to Hanmer is 112km, so from Blenheim it will be longer, so make sure you leave with a full tank of fuel as it’s a long walk to anywhere if you run out. There are some camp sites and huts along the route, but you’ll only want to camp out in summer, and even then, you’ll need warm clothes since you’ll be above 500m the whole way, and it can get cold at night.

Rangitoto ki te Tonga / D’Urville Island

Just driving out to French Pass is a pretty epic road trip in itself, as it’s an hour and a half drive from Rai Valley if you don’t take your time for photo opportunities along the way, however if you get that far, you may want to pay for a boat trip across the turbulent waters of French Pass to Marlborough’s largest island. At 163 square kilometres, you’re not going to walk around this in a day, and much of the island is a DOC scenic reserve, so if you’ve got bikes you might want to consider taking them or your vehicle with you to the island so you can get around and see a bit of the scenery. There is accommodation on the island, and quite a few walking tracks, so if time and money allow, spending a few days on the island may be well worthwhile.

Molesworth

Molesworth

Molesworth is New Zealand's largest farm, but it’s owned by DOC, and is a spectacular wilderness area with similar stark landscapes to Central Otago. Unfortunately it doesn’t have any bungy jumps and the road through Molesworth is unsealed and only open Labour weekend to Easter, weather permitting, but you can drive to Molesworth from Blenheim all year round for an amazing road trip, and even make a day trip of it if you start early enough, although be warned, there’s no mobile phone coverage, and you’ll be reaching around 900m above sea level, in a place that experiences frosts more than 200 nights a year, so you want to make sure you’ve got warm clothes and a good spare tyre, and know how to change it. Your reward will be spectacular scenery within a couple of hours of Blenheim, along with various opportunities for mountain biking or tramping, without having to drive two thirds of the way down the South Island to get to Central Otago.

Staircase Road, Mount Richmond Forest Park

Road with a view - on top of the Richmond Range

There are not many places you can drive to the top of a mountain range in a normal 2WD car, but the Staircase Road up the Richmond Range is one place you can do it. The road is unsealed and can be frosty or muddy, but usually it’s negotiable in a 2WD car. Enchanted Lookout is the closest place to Blenheim you can drive to to experience snow. If you can see snow low on Mount Fishtail from Blenheim, there will probably be snow at enchanted lookout. When there’s no snow, there’s always the walk to Lake Chalice, although be warned this is a very steep track that seems to go on forever, and once you’ve got down to the lake, you’ve got to come up again. If you’ve got a 4WD you can carry on past the Lake Chalice car-park to the end of the road, then scramble up Mount Patriarch. If you don’t have a 4WD you can leave your car at the Lake Chalice car-park, and bike till the end of the 4WD track. Since the road is already above 1200m, the vertical climb you’ll need to do on foot to get to the summit of Patriarch is only a bit over 400m, or about the same as walking up to Mount Vernon on the Wither Hills, except you’ll be at 1656m when you reach the summit.

Black Birch Range

View south from Altimarloch

If you have a 4WD or are a fit mountain biker or walker, a trip to Altimarloch at 1693m on the Black Birch Range will give you impressive views of Marlborough as well as the chance to experience an alpine environment with a wide diversity of plants and animals. Access is via private land, so it pays to check with DOC before going, but if you have a 4WD you can drive all the way to the top of the mountain. The area is open and very exposed and often attracts snow in winter with no shelter, so you’ll want good warm and wind proof clothing, but this truly is a wild place that’s really amazing to visit, and easy to do as a day trip. Surprisingly, you may actually get mobile coverage here, so if you want that Instagram selfie in one of the world’s wild places without having to go far from home, this may be it.

Tennyson Inlet

Boats moored in Duncan Bay, Tennyson Inlet

Tennyson Inlet is a long drive from anywhere, but it’s worth it if you want to experience some of the most pristine native forest in Marlborough. It escaped logging because much of the terrain is simply too rugged, and early settlers who lived there called it ‘Worlds End’. The road only opened in 1962, and electricity arrived in 1973. There are some holiday cottages available to rent if you want to stay, and several walking tracks in the area, including the start of the Nydia Track, which is a good alternative to the Queen Charlotte Track if you want a multi-day adventure, but haven’t got 3-5 days spare.

Cape Campbell

Cape Campbell Lighthouse

If you’re one of those people who says you want to live life to the fullest and enjoy romantic walks along the beach, then Cape Campbell might be your thing, but be warned the walk along the beach is quite long. Before the Kaikōura earthquake, you’d have to time your walk to match the tide so you didn’t get stuck, but due to coastal uplift, it’s a lot easier to walk from Marfells Beach to Cape Campbell, but do watch out for nesting dotterels as the beach is their home. The area is pretty windswept and exposed, so you’d better have good windproof clothing, and it might not quite be the most romantic beach walk except on warm, calm, summer days, but the views are great, and you get to visit a real lighthouse. If you don’t like walking, you can get permission from the private land owners to drive via an alternative route to the lighthouse, and they also let out the former lighthouse keepers cottages if you want to experience isolation without having to walk far.