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Tramping the Queen Charlotte Track in Aotearoa

Wild winds and wet weather did not dampen Dr Lesley Russell’s enthusiasm for a trek amid stunning views on the famous Queen Charlotte Track, although she did end up quite a “bedraggled creature” on one especially muddy day.

In her latest report for the #CroakeyEXPLORE series, Russell also offers some practical advice for managing long walks in the rain.


Lesley Russell writes:

If you’re an addicted walker, there’s a certain frisson of excitement that comes from reading about a really interesting walk that’s on your bucket list and realising that yes, it is just possible to squeeze one more walk in before the end of the year.

In short, that’s how in early December I came to be boarding the InterIslander ferry from Wellington to Picton, en route to walk (or, as the Kiwis say, “tramp”) the Queen Charlotte Track in the very north of the South Island of Aotearoa, New Zealand.

It was not an auspicious start for a walking trip: Wellington was living up to its nickname of the windy city with gusts that nearly bowled me over, it was pouring with rain, and there were white-capped waves on the harbour.

But the three-hour ferry trip is in a very large vessel, presumably stabilised by the train carriages, large trucks and multitude of cars I saw being loaded. And while there was little scenery to see through the downpour, there were freshly baked scones with jam and cream for morning tea.

The weather augured no better in Picton, a charming harbour town.

Feeling a little like Mary Poppins (and hoping that did not involve flying away), I borrowed a large umbrella from my accommodation and hiked in the rain up the nearby Tirohanga Track to survey the crenelated harbour scene below.

At a briefing by local guides in the late afternoon, I was assured the weather would clear “eventually”; I was thinking that my instinct to buy waterproof pants was right on target.

Day 1.  Ship Cove to Furneaux Lodge at Endeavour Inlet (17 km)

The morning dawned grey, windy and rainy and the weather went downhill from there.

There was a pretty amazing one-hour ride in a water taxi with a very cheerful captain who loved bouncing from one wave to the next. The several passengers were hanging on to their seats, some were slightly green, and I was glad I’m a good sailor.

Skilled piloting was needed to get the boat docked at the jetty at Ship Cove, and some nifty footwork was required as we stepped off. As I walked along the jetty towards the shore, I was worried about being blown off into the water.

I lingered long enough to explore the monument to Captain Cook, who visited the cove several times in the 1770s. He chose this bay because there was water and trees for ship repairs.

He and others planted gardens and fruit trees here (now disappeared) and released rats, cats, pigs and goats (now being eliminated in a concerted campaign against feral animals). There were social interactions and trading with the local Maori, whose legends of the formation of the Marlborough Sounds are part of the monument.

By now, despite a rain jacket, rain pants, and a poncho over me and my pack (which has its own built-in rain cover), I was already pretty wet. There was no sign of the few other intrepid hikers and bikers who had disembarked with me.

I set off up the track that climbed through virgin beech forest which opened up every now and then to reveal, even in the rain, stunning vistas to Resolution Bay, nearby islands and Endeavour Inlet.

Numbers of trees were down across the track. Mostly I could scramble over or around them, but one required that I climb up a steep bank higher than I am tall to bypass it.

As I pondered how to do this without a rope, a couple on mountain bikes rode up, so we worked together to haul each other and the bikes up the embankment, bash our way through the undergrowth, and then drop down onto the continuing path.

That guaranteed I was not just wet but also very muddy.

It was a bedraggled creature who arrived at the yesteryear setting of Furneaux Lodge – built in the early 1900s, surrounded by manicured lawns and tennis courts and mature trees from the northern hemisphere.

But a hot shower, dry clothes (my duffle bag was delivered by water taxi) and a warm welcome in the bar was restorative.

Dinner that night set the tone for the rest of the walk – wonderful local wines and produce (especially seafood) and the chance to talk with other hikers, some of whom had decided not to walk in the rain and had arrived by boat with the bags.

Day 2.  Endeavour Inlet to Punga Cove (12 km)

The hills around the lodge were layered in fog but the sun was shining through as I ate breakfast, collected my packed lunch, and set out around the head of Endeavour Inlet.

The path took me over a swing bridge that brought me into the broad floor of the valley where in the late 19th Century there were antimony mines. It was easy walking today, mostly close to the water and through some small, isolated farms.

There were many native ferns and wildflowers to appreciate, lots of birdsong (although I rarely saw the birds), and every vista had a picnic table (and usually several of the flightless wekas who are the local version of bin chickens and always seem to know when you put your backpack down).

My packed lunch included a delicious ginger cake for morning tea. I arrived at Punga Cove in well under the estimated time so was able to eat my man-sized lunch sandwich sitting on the jetty with a real coffee from the nearby boatshed café. 

The resort had only a handful of walkers and bikers as guests, but the restaurant was magnificent and a glass of a Marlborough white paired perfectly with local oysters.

Day 3.  Punga Cove to Portage Bay (27 km)

I was rudely awaked at around three am with huge wind gusts that rocked my little A-frame chalet so much I thought it would fly off the hillside.

Indeed, the couple in the chalet next door lost their water supply when their little building was moved off its foundations.

I lay awake and wondered how I was going to walk the ridgeline between Queen Charlotte and Kenepuru Sounds on what is known as “the big day” (because it’s long and spectacular).

But after a few hours the wind died down and the sun shone through. My optimism returned and I set out early as the guide said this section would take eight hours.

This part of the walk is really beyond spectacular, with views in every direction. Early on there were views down into farmland at Kenepuru Head on the left, then down to Miritu Bay on the right.

There was some climbing, but I hardly noticed it as I took in endless vistas. Later in the day I could see across to Picton in the far distance. The track is extremely well signposted and many picnic spots tempt you to linger (until the pesky wekas become too much). 

I was surprised to find myself at Portage Bay after just six and a half hours of walking – although I then had two further kilometres to go down a bitumen road to reach my accommodation.

Portage Bay is so named because the Maoris carried their canoes across the narrow isthmus here between Kenepuru and Queen Charlotte Sounds.

I was staying at a lovely resort on the water and over the next few hours the others I had got to know on the track walked, biked or stumbled in.

While everyone made it to drinks and dinner that night, I noticed lots of blister patches and there were at least two walkers whose knees were now strapped.

Day 4.  Portage Bay to Anakiwa (23 km)

The last day on the trail is always a little sad (just as you are getting into the swing of the tramping life) and exciting (a successful end to the trip, another notch in the hiking pole).

I knew the day started with that two kilometre climb back up the road to the track and then some two hours more hiking uphill on the track, so I was out early. There was some huffing and puffing as I climbed but every stop to gather breath presented another amazing view. 

I had to reach Anakiwa before 3.30 pm to catch the water taxi back to Picton, but there was plenty of time to branch off the track to some look-out areas, eat the various snacks and fruit provided in my lunch package, take photos and interact with the increasing number of fellow trampers along the way.

From high spots with manuka trees, the trail – which was pretty muddy and slippery with wet leaves – eventually descended through beech forest to the sheltered bay at Anakiwa.

I celebrated with icecream from the kiosk while I waited for the water taxi to take me back to Picton.

Day 5.  Back to Wellington

I awoke to rain – but who cared!

I headed back to windy, wet Wellington where my husband Bruce was supposed to meet me for a celebratory dinner. But the weather was so bad his plane couldn’t land and he was diverted to Auckland, finally arriving late in the evening.

So celebrations were delayed a day, but this meant a chance to visit the amazing Te Papa Museum. Here you can see and learn about the various copies of the Treaty of Waitangi – just three paragraphs, but something quite marvellous. It seemed a special note on which to finish my trip.

Planning and advice

I booked this trip through the international firm I always use, and they worked with the local Wilderness Guides.

I’ve come to expect great organisation, great places to stay, great attention to detail – and that was delivered. My duffle bag was moved for me each day, so I just had a backpack.

In this part of the world, water taxis are ubiquitous and so it would be possible to do this route with much less hiking/tramping if that’s what suited.

The package included breakfasts and packed lunches (which were really good with lots of healthy selections) but dinners and drinks were paid for separately. As you may have gathered, all the places I stayed had wonderful restaurants for evening meals. There were really no other choices.

I’ve made a bit of a thing about the weather, but realistically, if you are going to hike in New Zealand, you must be prepared for rain.

Fortunately it wasn’t cold and on the whole, my gear worked well. I’m really glad I had waterproof pants (they fold up into a pocket and are easily popped into my backpack).

I did get wet under my rain jacket (not the most expensive) because I was sweating, but I had quick drying tops and t-shirts.  A waterproof cover for your backpack is essential.

All the accommodation places had drying rooms. I long ago made the choice not to purchase fully waterproof boots because if they do get wet, they take forever to dry out. That proved to be astute as others on the track had damp boots while mine were always dry by morning.

Of course, a spare pair of socks helps keep feet dry (or at least drier) and blisters at bay.

The track is extremely well marked, often with signage about views, flora and fauna. I was provided with maps and directions and I also had these on an app on my i-phone. These were rarely needed or used.

While there are plenty of places to picnic and some places to camp along the track, there are no rubbish bins; everything carried in must be taken out, so it’s a good idea to have a few plastic bags readily at hand. The track itself is pristine.

I loved this trip and plan more tramping in Aotearoa, and hopefully there will be more opportunities to learn more about the First Nations people of this beautiful land.

Read more about the Queen Charlotte Track here.

• See other articles in the #CroakeyEXPLORE series.

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