Sometimes one has to keep some places secret. I have mulled over whether or not French Pass is in this category. This time I will divulge details and hopefully influence visitors to head for French Pass. The small local seasonal shop needs patronage! With a permanent population of only nine souls this is a small village indeed! Until 7 years ago they had a one teacher school!
French Pass village is also the access point for Durville Island, which has a population of forty souls. When in the French Pass Village you will see a lot more cars parked than can be associated with the normal population, or even the holiday season numbers. These are cars belonging to Durville Islanders – their carport so to speak.
A campervan allows you the freedom to delve into these small areas of New Zealand, often missed by tourists. There are no hotels at French Pass, just a DOC (Department of Conservation) campsite and one complex of small units that can be rented. Self contained with a campervan, as we were, is ideal. We phoned ahead to reserve a spot at the DOC campsite.
Our journey started at Picton as we followed the Queen Charlotte Drive, winding its way around the sounds curved perimeter ultimately ending at small village of Havelock. More widely branded as the ‘Mussel Capital of New Zealand’, Havelock is also said by locals to be, world famous in New Zealand! Lunch was of course Mussels at the well known Mussel Pot restaurant – book ahead at peak times!
The road to French Pass leaves the main highway a short distance after (or before) Havelock. Initially it winds along a small farming valley before climbing up to the sound peninsulas ridge. After the intersection with Elaine Bay the road looses its bitumen skin and reduces in width. The sides of the road are sometimes bush, but more often steep cleared farm land. Sections of road become a normal high windy New Zealand road with steep drops to one side – no problem! As you reach the high point of the ridge road wind can play a factor and judging by the shape of the trees the wind direction and strength is quite consistent. When you look at a map you can see how this spit of land is exposed to the westerly winds roaring in from the Tasman Sea towards Cook Strait – good stuff!!
The French Pass DOC campsite is a beautiful place. The real estate is prime, fellow campers low in numbers and respectful of the ambience. The above images convey more than I could put into words! The campsite has a toilet/shower block, but there is no hot water – this is a DOC site after all. If you are self contained with a camper van this is not an issue as you may be using your on board bathroom. We were not (a short duration rental and didn’t want the clean out work) and a one night layover was not an issue.
French Pass is home to one of the worlds great natural wonders a Tidal Race (Flow). What is a tidal race? Observing the change from calm water to a seething flow is inspiring. If you are lucky enough to see a boat trying to move across (at a diagonal) the flow to Durville Island you will see quite clearly how much force is being exerted. Boats wishing to transit the pass wait for slack tide and then make their dash! More about French Pass itself.
You won’t be able to visit this little gem, near French Pass, as it is private property – Brent did know the occupier. This is the restored lighthouse keepers residence from the 1880’s! To the right of the car parking area are the steep steps leading down to one of the two lights the keeper was charged with maintaining. At slack tide this is also a stunning entry exit point for a natural swimming pool! The furtherest of the two lights can also be seen the image above where the water is foaming past during one of the days tide runs. In front of the parked car is a table and chairs with a twenty million dollar view! All the way to Able Tasman National Park coastline on a clear day!!
As always watch out for cheeky Wekas. These birds will sneak off with bright objects left outside!! Birdlife is prolific and for the real birdwatcher you make the journey across to Durville Island. This is one part of New Zealand where all feral animals (including the possum) have been eradicated!
NOTEs: We used a United Campervan. Since this story was written United has been absorbed into Maui Campervans.
All photographs by Brent and Elaine McCunn