Wednesday, 8 October 2014

The Road to French Pass

Firstly, apologies to those on limited data (or have an ultra-slow upload) for the amount of photos in this post. I have had such a hard time choosing the photos to go with this blog and after about the twentieth scan through I decided that was it, I couldn’t weed out any more. I swear, I spend triple the time sorting photos than I do writing the blog! But you’ll see why I had such a hard time choosing once you’ve finished reading.

What a brilliant afternoon we had for our road trip to French Pass, calm, sunny & warm. We decided we’d drive the road first before deciding if we’d tow ‘Out There’…..well, out there. The road is gravel pass the Elaine Bay turnoff and winds through native bush for about 7 kilometres with just a few frustrating peeks of Pelorus Sound.

Finally we broke out of the bush and stopped at a lookout & rest area high up on top of the ridge with 360 degree views.

To the east is Pelorus Sound, which is quite huge and has many bays, inlets, reaches, coves & channels, this is just one tiny portion of the Sound, somewhere off to the right behind that far point is Elaine Bay.

We’re not the only ones taking a rest. On our travels we’ve seen plenty of odd places for memorial stones (well I hope they’re just memorial stones). And really they aren’t odd, they’re in quite beautiful spots and obviously have a significant meaning to the person in their past and the family in the future. I felt like I wanted to offer him a cup of tea!

The magnificent views to the west are out over the upper reaches of Tasman Bay and far across the great expanse of ocean to Golden Bay. To the north is D’Urville Island and the tiny spot of white water between the island and the mainland is French Pass.

The next 10 kilometres of road are gravel and pass through private farmland; sheep & cattle quietly graze the slopes on both sides. Loopy lambs & calves scatter though, as we approach, not yet used to vehicle noise. This mini had done the scattering for us for a few miles.

The views are spectacularly beautiful & absolutely breath-taking out over an impressive & awesome landscape, wow, wow, WOW! I’ve now run out of superlatives so I’ll let the photos do the talking….

We cross another cattle stop as the road ducks behind a rise and ahead of us a road branches off to the right. This will be the Bulwer Road, 25kms further on along a ‘finger’ of this arm, and one I want to explore too. It also leads to Port Ligar where we used to deliver water tanks. Now that is a long way to drive from Christchurch, no wonder the drivers grumbled at me when I included a Port Ligar tank on a Marlborough/Nelson load.

Down below us is Hallam Cove & Sissy Bay(another tank delivery spot) with Mt Shewell (775m) looming over them, we can see Mt Shewell from our camp in Elaine Bay. And look, there are even lines of mussel floats littering this beautiful cove.

At the road junction, we stop (again) so I can take a photo(s)- I think I should just like to walk this road to French Pass with my camera & tripod slung over my shoulder. The last thing you expect to see out here is a post box, mail is collected 9:30am Monday & Thursday.

We’re getting close to French Pass now and the turbulent waters of this treacherous stretch of water are clearly visible. On the left are the waters of Tasman Bay, on the other side, the outer Pelorus Sound leads out to Cook Strait.

The water races through French Pass Passage on each tide at up to eight knots creating whirlpools, eddies and strong currents. Feared & respected by mariners and once navigated by Maori in canoes it proved more difficult for French Seafarer Dumont D'Urville (whom the island is named after). In 1827 he spent several days checking out the passage before venturing through, he clipped the underwater reefs twice before being spat out safely into Admiralty Bay. He described the sea as a ‘seething sheet where great precaution needed to be taken’.

The pass is only 500 metres across but the main navigation channel (‘throat’) is only 100 metres wide and 20 metres deep, nearly all the remainder of the pass is broken reef. The Cook Strait tidal range is up to 2 metres where as Tasman Bay has up to a 4 metre tidal range. This, along with the 25 minute difference between high tides on either side causes a massive flow of water; peak flow in the ‘throat’ is around 4 metres per second. 

Further on past the Pass Lookout the road drops down into a quite & calm bay (Admiralty Bay) where the sleepy little fishing, farming & tourist village of French Pass is located. This is also where the DOC campground is located right beside a safe swimming beach. We stop at one of the picnic tables for afternoon tea and relax in the warm sun for awhile watching a few boats coming and going. There aren’t too many people about and only a few shuttered up houses in the bay along with just one small store that has fuel available and a few provisions.

There’s is a sizeable wharf though and it’s from here that a variety of commercial & private boats leave for D’Urville Island. Much of the island is conservation land and while there are plenty of tracks to walk (and camping sites) they are not regularly maintained. A lot of them are old farm tracks that run through the regenerating bush. There’s also a few lodge & operators that offer eco-tourism activities.

The wharf had a lot of character, I loved the old waiting room with the arum lillies growing in the concrete cracks on either side of the entrance & another red mail box inside!

Can you tell I really love this wharf!

On the way back up out of the bay we stopped at Collinet Point lookout where a cheeky weka came running out of the scrub to greet us, looking for hand-outs no doubt. I’m becoming quite fond of these endearing birds, David’s not so keen on them though. I love their inquisitive but slightly wary nature, their beautiful colouring and especially their haunting calls at night, which we’re hearing a lot of at Elaine Bay.

Near the lookout are some large panels that tell the story of Pelorus Jack, a famous dolphin that lived in the area and also the first dolphin in the world to receive the protection of the law. Pelorus Jack first appeared in 1888 and for the next 24 years he accompanied boats to and from French Pass. He stayed in Pelorus Sound and never swam through the Pass into Tasman Bay.

Pelorus Jack would meet boats as they came out of the pass, riding their bow waves for up to 8 kilometres into the Sound. Then he would join boats returning to Nelson at the entrance to Pelorus Sound and escort them back to the Pass. Pelorus Jack was last seen in April 1912. It was bittersweet for me, reading about another friendly dolphin. My encounters with, Moko-(My Mate Moko Blog)- are still very fresh in my mind, he only managed to survive for a few years once he became involved with humans unlike Pelorus.

From across Admiralty Bay we see a mussel barge making it’s way towards the Pass and wait to see it navigate through. It’s 2 hours before high tide and we watch as it pulls right over to the edge on our side at the narrow point of the channel and sails through on the outside of a navigation beacon close to the cliff. It must be able to come in so close because, as a barge, it has a reasonably flat bottom.

Mr Weka follows me to the otherside of gravel carpark, careful to make sure he doesn't get too close but close enough that I  have to watch where I step as he moves very fast. I take one last photo of the lovely French Pass village and climb into the ute, ready to head home.

It’s getting late and the sun is dropping quite rapidly over Tasman Bay as we drive back up onto the ridge where the views are still magnificent. We stop to watch the mussel barge cross the bay far below; we’ll follow it along the coastline from bay to bay for awhile as we drive along the top. It must be heading for Nelson.

Off in the distance we spot a small motorhome approaching, while just in front of us a lamb is about to do a kamikaze dive over the side. We decide to pull up and wait for the vehicle to navigate the section of corners between us, it’s easier for us to pull off to the side where we are than hope for a similar area further on.

I think they must have seen us and possibly pulled over to wait too as they took quite awhile to appear around the corner. Enough time for me to get out of the ute and take some more shots over the glistening bay far below…

...and climb up the bank behind the ute to take some looking south west towards Nelson....

...and then finally they appeared, smiling broadly once they spotted me with the camera.

One last stop to take another photo of Pelorus Sound overlooking Hallam Cove with Fitzroy Bay behind and off in the distance a snowy peak in, what I am assuming, must be the Richmond Range.

It’s not only us humans that enjoy the views.

We had a fantastic afternoon, the drive was spectacular with breathtaking sea views of French Pass and D’Urville Island. I know overseas tourists have in the past rated it as the most scenic drive in the country even surpassing Milford and Queenstown. And although I don’t think it beats the Milford Road, I think it would at least be equal.

We've decided to stay put at Elaine Bay, not because the road would cause any problems, because it wouldn't, it's actually one of the better 'off the beaten track' roads we've travelled- although David couldn't quite get used to the huge drop off on my side going, when it was on his side coming home it was fine. Its just as easy to stay here in Elaine and do any other exploring from here, including another road trip up the Bulwer arm later in the week.

Footnote- We had another horrendous time with the wind this morning, we had the van wrapped up and secure before we retired last night; the gale force winds weren't forecast to hit again until dawn but we went to bed prepared. The wind started about 6am but didn't wind up to full force until around 10am. Thank God it was daylight and we could see what was happening outside. Some of the gusts were ferocious, I honestly thought we were going over a couple of times. Scary stuff. Even the weka hiding in the bush beside the van let out a yowl. If there was a small consolation, it was that we now have even more confidence in the van surviving such rough conditions. We just hope that we don't have to go through it too often! We earnt our wine tonight I can tell you! 


  1. HI TTNZ, even with broadband this particular blog didn't load all the photos, good job you have a digital camera, imagine the weight and cost pre digital. Looks like we've sold our prop, so another step nearer following your lead! Ciao J

    1. Great news about the sale, fingers crossed it all goes to plan. Now the real decisions start! :) Sorry about the up-load, it was worth the wait though, wasn't it? :)

  2. Great article. So hard to find info on French Pass. This fills a gap.

    1. Glad you found it filled the gap and I hope you had a great trip. Thanks for commenting.

  3. Going there tomorrow - great heads-up thanks regards Ted Hughes

    1. Hope you enjoyed your road trip to French Pass Ted, and the weather played ball. The views are amazing aren't they.


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