D'Urville island is the 8th biggest island in New Zealand, located at the top of the south island in the west corner of the Marlbourough sounds.
It boasts epic beaches, stunning archways, treacherous currents, and is located far enough away from human civilisation to truly peel the layers off and let you connect back to nature.
A lot of visitors to New Zealand are surprised that it has any other islands other than the North and South island, but it does, and lots of them.
Not only are New Zealand's outer islands relatively unknown and unexplored among visitors, they are arguably New Zealand's true gems.
The variety of islands is extraordinary, from Stewart island in the far south with dense native bush and huge southern ocean swells, to the tame and idyllic islands in the Able Tasman national park and the bay of islands which are probably the islands most visitors to NZ will be familiar with. There is in essence an island for every level of paddler, and every desired level of adventure.
D'Urville island is in the centre of that spectrum, a challenge certainly, but not the type of commitment a circum navigation of Stewart island would entail, and few would dare to attempt.
It has its challenges for sure, most notably French pass which has current formed whirl pools so strong, they could swallow a sea kayak without a burp, and the exposed west coast bringing swells from the southern ocean, is often regarded as the roughest ocean in the world.
So a circum navigation of this island is certainly for paddlers with a degree of competency and good equipment, sit on tops need not apply.
This is the warning but if you do take on the challenge the rewards are so high.
The water in this area is generally crystal clear and teaming with fish of many kinds, the west coast is punctuated with caves and epic arch ways, and in contrast the east coast's pristine native bush meets sheltered bays and beaches littered with beady black gleaming argilite gems.
A circumnavigation of the island is roughly 100 km, but it does depend on the route you take, and in good conditions you can really take your time clocking up plenty of extra k's along the way.
And why wouldn't you, when you distil a kayak trip down, whats it all about? What are your objectives?
Many kayak trips will have different objectives, but interacting with the environment in an intimate way surely has to be a high priority on any sea kayaking trip.
If winds and swell conspire to allow you to get close to the coastline - you're no longer paddling to the next headland, but seeking out the next cave, the next blow hole, and pretty much tripping over wild life as you go.
Luckily for us, the winds and swell did conspire to allow us to connect with the coastline in such a way.
The night before the trip we all met at the excellent department of conservation (DOC) campsite in Elmslie bay which is the best launch spot for a trip to D'Urville island.
The bay is sheltered enough and unaffected by the intimidating tidal flows in the pass.
The next day blessed with perfect autumn conditions, Joe gathered us together and said a 'karakia' a Māori prayer, asking the sea for a safe passage.
We crossed the infamous French pass on a neap high tide slack with almost no current, sneaking through the pass with such favourable conditions seamed a good omen, especially as the forecast for the next few days also looked good.
Our group was big, every one of us a kayak guide, and in a post covid lock down mode, released into the wilds - we were all in full appreciation of our re connection back to nature.
After the initial rush of pre expedition nerves combined with all the necessary logistics involved, we had arrived, now with a desire to savour this experience and not simply rush to the end, and looking back I'm so glad we did.
Serious team talks are essential
Getting the tides right in this area is essential. French pass has the fastest and harshest tidal flow in New Zealand, and at low tide you can see why as the narrow pass between the island and the mainland is strewn with reefs accelerating the tidal flow to 8 knots at full flood and ebb on a spring tide.
The tide floods in from the pacific ocean rather than the Tasman sea which at first turned my instincts on its head as I simply assumed it would flood from the Tasman sea as its so much closer than the pacific ocean.
There is a tidal flow atlas for French pass, but little other data for other tidal flows around the island, and I have put a link to it at the bottom of the page.
Stephens passage at the top of the island also has strong tidal flows, but data for this area seemed less easy to come by so we simply rounded the headland at slack tide and encountered very favourable conditions.
One of my favourite memories of the trip were the fires, epic and plastic free beaches are littered with so much drift wood, making a fire is never a problem.
I also love cooking on a fire, steaming a fresh fish in aluminium foil and fire baked potatoes are hard to beat.
Camp life revolved around the fire, even if you're a jet boil, dehydrated meal sort of paddler, the romance and a primal connection to an open fire is hard to ignore.
Camping is free and easy, but the west coast is prominently farm land, so camping following the 'leave no trace' rules certainly apply.
Water supplies are abundant, but it's a good precaution to boil or filter, as there are livestock on the island.
There is generally no phone signal out on the island except for the south east coast close to Frenchman's pass, although I did manage to get a signal from a very high hill a good hour or so hike out of swamp bay.
According to local history it's widely believed that every coastal Maori tribe in the country knew sailing directions to D'Urville island and the reason for this was the massive reserves of tool grade argillite. Argillite or 'pakohe' in Māori, is a very hard sedimentary rock composed of fine clay particles.
Highly prized - Māori traded this precious commodity, and it was used to make scrapers, adzes (a tool similar to an axe) and weapons.
As it was so hard, Māori found the easiest way to break an argillite bolder was to light a fire against a section of the bolder. Once the bolder was hot enough, cold sea water was thrown onto the bolder causing it to explode and fracture into sharp shards ideal for making the tools they needed, and in the sheltered bays on the east coast you can find many small pieces of argillite.
The island is named after Jules Dumont D'Urville the French explorer who sailed to New Zealand in 1824 as second in command to Louis Duperry and then again in 1826 aboard his own vessel the 'Astrolabe'.
It was a voyage of exploration and scientific discovery, he built good relations with the Māori and spent 3 months charting the northern coast of the south island, and the east coast of the north island. He was also responsible for producing the most accurate charts of the time.
If you do take on the challenge of a sea kayak trip around D'Urville island, please respect it as the wilderness it is, adhere to rules on collecting shell fish and fish, leave no trace, plan well and enjoy a wonderful this wonderful connection to nature in its raw form.