An extraordinary alpine garden My affliction is this: put a map before my eyes and I am lost. Not lost in the sense that I cannot find my way, but lost in my own world. I cease to communicate. I scan the page, flying over the landscape in my mind. Conversation is reduced to pathetic grunts and fake interjections. I am already on a journey.
The sinuous form of the Marlborough Sounds has always been a source of confusion. A dark spot in my geography. So I was keen to get up to the highest point and see if I could decipher the land and seascapes.
Mt Stokes is the viewpoint of the Marlborough Sounds. Even on a map it takes a long time to get familiar with the intricate labyrinth of waterways and islands.
From the summit, it is the same. The indented coastline is woven without straight lines. It’s easy to imagine Kupe’s octopus.
It’s said, the legendary explorer tussled with a giant octopus and during the struggle, the many tentacles gouged the land into the labyrinthine curves of today. Kupe eventually won over the monster of the deep and scooped out his eyes, tossing them into the ocean where they metamorphosed into Ngawhatu, the Brothers Islands off the head of Cape Koamaru.
Geologically, the Marlborough Sounds is a continuation of the Richmond Range, but this north-eastern end is actually subsiding into the sea.
The ascent of Mt Stokes is, at first, easy going.The track is relatively even and well-formed. When the real ascent starts, things get tougher. Although there are orange triangles, they are sporadic. The track is steep, rough and indistinct.
As Mt Stokes cops the full brunt of Cook Strait winds and periodic storms ravage the forest, the place can look like a bomb site. As I gained altitude, the silver beech became more stunted and draped with moss. All of a sudden, the forest ended – and with a short steep climb I popped out onto the herb fields of the summit area. A few more minutes across the tussock and I was standing by the weather station at the 1203m summit.
Mt Stokes is to all intents and purposes an island – two hectares of alpine herbfield and snow tussock in a sea of silver beech forest. This is the only home for alpine plants in the Sounds and it’s a curious garden. It features 14 species of uniquely South Island alpine plants, six of those species being represented in the North Island only in the Tararua Range. An additional seven species occur north and south of the Tararuas, but not in them. This tiny enclave also has its own species; Celmisia macmahonii and a subspecies of Anisotome haastii are thought to live here and nowhere else.
Surprisingly, this botanical treasure house was allowed to be ravaged by goats, deer, pigs and stock until the area was fenced in the late 1980s. Other alpine representatives include eyebrights, mountain daisies, gentians and speargrasses.
Nearby Ship Cove was one of Captain Cook’s favoured anchorages. Cook’s enthusiasm for his new anchorage was disseminated throughout the European world and other explorers followed in his wake. A French mission captained by Jules Sebastian Cesar Dumont d’Urville set out to fill in the gaps of Cook’s charts in 1827. Various improvements in the charts were finalised between 1848 and 1855 during Captain John Lort Stoke’s systematic charting of the entire New Zealand coastline on HMS Acheron. Mt Stokes is named after the surveyor, whose work was so thorough his charts were still being used well into the 20th century.