Last updated 16 May 2021
If you ask people about visiting the Marlborough Sounds, they’ll tell you to go by boat. They’ll say that’s the best way to reach the almost impenetrable fingers of the Sounds and the only way to explore the hidden bays. And they’re right, of course, except for one exception: the road to French Pass or Te Aumiti.
This journey isn’t one taken by many travellers. The route to Te Aumiti takes you to one of the strips of land extending north of the South Island. The road is gravel in most places and winds over a long peninsula that culminates just shy of a tiny island.
The views are spectacular as you navigate one-lane bridges, hairpin turns and narrow roads with sheer drops on one side. Sheep and cattle stare as you pass by, and it’s possible to go the entire way to French Pass without seeing another car.
French Pass itself is the thin stretch of water separating the mainland and D’Urville Island (also called Rangitoto ki te Tonga). The currents in the pass are strong and you can see whirlpools in the water where they meet. There’s a tiny town at the end of the road, just by the water, with a long wharf extending into the sea. Access to the island only possible by private boat or water taxi.
It’s a peaceful place which makes you feel like you’ve truly reached the end of the world. The scenery is spectacular and, if you’re lucky enough to rent one of the houses in the area, this would be the perfect place to switch off and relax without interruption. A short walk from the township takes you to a viewpoint where you can watch the sea battle itself in the narrow strait between the island and the mainland.
Māori myths from the area tell the story of Kupe, the first Polynesian traveller to discover the islands of New Zealand in the 1300s. One of the creatures Kupe had brought to New Zealand was his pet shag, Te Kawau a Toru. The reef in the pass is named after this bird, who sadly broke its wing and drowned in the churning waters of Te Aumiti.
This is a remote part of the country and you’ll need a car to get to the French Pass township. This route through the Sounds is beautiful and somewhat isolated, so it’s worth taking your time with the drive, stopping for photos and to just soak up the scenery.
There’s not much in the way to eat out here, so pack some snacks or take a picnic along. The drive takes about 2 ½ hours from Nelson and closer to 3 hours from Picton, so leave early if you’re just going for the day. The stunning, dramatic surroundings make the journey worth the effort.
From State Highway 6 between Havelock and Nelson, take the road to Rai Valley and follow the winding route to Okiwi Bay (worth a stop in itself). The road is unsealed from Okiwi Bay to French Pass and the drive takes about an hour. To get to D’Urville Island from the French Pass township, you’ll need to book a water taxi.
If you are renting a vehicle, check whether your insurance covers unsealed roads. Also keep in mind that there are no petrol stations or services between Okiwi Bay and French Pass.
There are a number of lovely lookout points near the French Pass township. Here are a couple which are easily accessible from the road:
See where the currents collide, creating swirling whirlpools. It’s an easy walk to the viewpoint and the track continues on to a beautiful beach. The walk is well marked off the French Pass Road – just look out for the Department of Conservation sign.
A short walk from the French Pass Campground leads you to a wonderful view over the town and bay. You can also read about the famous dolphin, Pelorus Jack.