A visit to the ‘other’ French Pass

By Janet Gardner

With all the discussion lately about the origins of the French Pass Road in Cambridge maybe a reference to the French Pass in the Marlborough Sounds is appropriate. It had been our long-held ambition to visit the ‘other’ French Pass from the one here in Cambridge on which we have lived for many years. And in March of this year we did just that.

The big rig TARUNA photographed beside the Rai Valley Sign at the turnoff on SH6 between Nelson and Picton.

The big rig TARUNA photographed beside the Rai Valley Sign at the turnoff on SH6 between Nelson and Picton.

French Pass is situated in the Marlborough Sounds, at the top of the South Island. To get there, we turned off SH 6 between Nelson and Blenheim at the Rai Valley sign- post. The 64 km drive to French Pass is truly spectacular. The narrow and winding road passes through dense bush and seaside settlements. It is sealed to Elaine Bay. The remaining section is unsealed, travelling through open farmland with wandering stock, cattle stops, loose metal, dust and corrugations. It is not for the faint hearted. We were however, rewarded with magnificent sea views in all directions including the French Pass itself and D’Urville Island to the North. It is a two hour journey each way.

The actual passage of water, the French Pass, between D'Urville Island and the mainland.

The actual passage of water, the French Pass, between D'Urville Island and the mainland.

We knew of the local connection with Dave and Joyce Leov, originally from the Marlborough Sounds, who lived in Whitehall for many years. It was Dave Leov’s father Harold, who chaired the committee on the construction of the Croisilles-French Pass Road. Completed in 1957, it was surveyed and funded by the Government but constructed essentially by the local families, including Harold Leov and his sons Dave and Charlie. Dave’s widow Joyce, still lives in Cambridge.

French Pass Settlement, wharf, houses etc

French Pass Settlement, wharf, houses etc

The settlement of French Pass is situated opposite D’Urville Island and the turbulent piece of water, known as the French Pass Passage. Also called Te Aumiti, here the water races through the 800 metre passage creating whirlpools, eddies and currents of up to 8 knots. It is an awesome sight, feared and respected by all mariners and simply breath taking for the tourist. Once navigated by the Maori in canoes, it was the French Sea Captain J. S. C. Dumont D’Urville on board his Corvette ‘Astrolabe’, who made his dramatic navigation through the swirling waters of the Pass on 27 January, 1827, clipping the reef twice and nearly costing him his life and that of his crew. He called the area Passe des Francais.

It was also the home of Pelorus Jack, the legendary dolphin who achieved national protection and international fame for regularly escorting vessels through the Pass between 1888 and 1912.

The Welcome Sign on the Wharf......dont you love it??

The Welcome Sign on the Wharf......dont you love it??

We found the French Pass settlement of today, to be a quiet fishing, farming and tourist village with a jetty, safe swimming and anchorage, picnic areas and a DOC campsite. There is a garage with essentials, diesel and petrol and a local store. We wandered along the beach and onto the jetty, talked to a few locals and watched a fishing boat carefully negotiate the waters of the Pass. The local school, established in 1882, is now used for summer school camps.

And while our visit and its description gives no further clue as to how the French Pass Road in Cambridge got its name, it does however give us an insight into an area with a very long history and the conclusion that it could be ours, which is the ‘other’ French Pass.

Janet, husband Christopher and family own Taruna Farm, French Pass Rd, Whitehall, Cambridge, New Zealand.

This article first appeared in the 17th of July 2009 edition of Your Cambridge News.

PS ‘Our’ French Pass

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Your Cambridge News

Your Cambridge News Un PC
Your Cambridge News can be contacted at 9 Empire Street, Cambridge.
On 07 827 0005 or 027 287 0005 or at yournews@xtra.co.nz.

Thanks to Mark for allowing me to publish, online, the first Un PC column which appears in today’s issue of Your Cambridge News; Friday the 21st of November 2008.

Welcome to our new editorial contributor, known only as Un PC. Its part satire, community comment, community observation, fact, tongue in check, investigatory reporting, and more! To start off, enjoy this excellent and thought provoking piece on our beloved and now decrepit National Hotel –

Mark Nogaj, Publisher.


How national is the National? Does this portend a building of sufficiency of national interest that it should be preserved as one of the country’s architectural and historical gems? Or is it – as appears to be the case currently – a sad reflection of the inability of the development industry to give back to Cambridge what it rightly expects? That the historically preserved walls (and strange colour scheme) should surround a hotel with fare, refreshment and suitable accommodation rooms for hire by the discerning traveler?
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