This time last year, near the turnoff on SH6 to Croiselles-French Pass Rd at the entrance to the Rai Valley near Nelson, we spent the night parked among a nest of willow trees in the Brown River Reserve.
This was once the site of William Brownlee’s sawmill (1885 to 1915), but now it’s a shady spot by a stream and certified self-contained RVs can park there free of charge for two nights.
The only downside was the heavy traffic heading for the Picton ferry early in the morning, which, for an hour or two, rather shattered the peace. But if you are on your way to camp at French Pass and arrive at the turn-off late in the day, it’s a good place to stop for the night.
What’s not good is to drive the French Pass Road in the dark. We’ve now made the excursion to this exhilarating part of the South Island several times. The drive through Rai is pleasant enough but then the road zigzags sharply up to the brow of a hill and the first sweeping vista of Croiselles Harbour and the offshore islands.
There begins the route through alarmingly steep country, rock and rolling along dizzying ridges that afford amazing panoramas of the Inner and Outer Pelorus Sounds and the great bulk of D’Urville Island. Although a bit hair-raising in places, the surface is suitable for most RVs. Apart from the last 22 kilometres, it is sealed.
Tucked into a cosy bay near the toe of the peninsula, a clutch of holiday houses and a general store comprise French Pass village, and hard against the shore is the small DOC camping ground. Despite the basic amenities, spend one night here and you will probably want to make it two.
The pace is deliciously slow, but if you want a bit of action, there are boats to charter and cruises around the D’Urville Island and the mainland bays. The fishing is said to be the biggest lure of all.
Allow two hours for the drive, and if you want to stay at the French Pass camp in the summer high season, book before you go, as there are only 16 sites. Take cash, as there is no ATM in the village.