Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Queen Charlotte Track - Marlborough Sounds

For the final tramp of our trip, we were planning to do a few days in the Richmond Ranges, towards the north end of the island. But after buying some maps and staring blankly at them for a while, we were unable to find a suitable route. We knew little about the area - OK, we knew nothing about the area - which made it almost impossible to judge the difficulty or accessibility of any of the tracks. So eventually we just abandoned the idea, and decided to go somewhere else.

I suggested we do the Queen Charlotte Track, at the very north end of the South Island, in the scenic Marlborough Sounds. We had not planned to do it on this trip, because it is reasonably easy to reach from Wellington, so we could do it another time. But since we had nothing else planned, I figured - why not?

The Queen Charlotte is considered a walkway, as opposed to a tramping track. This means that it is designed for those with little or no wilderness skills or experience. So we figured it would be an easy, relaxing way to end our trip. But being a last-minute decision, we hadn't really looked into the details. We randomly decided to spend 4 days doing the 3-5 day trip, without having first checked on details like, say, the distance. So we were a little surprised to see that it was 71km long - that's longer than our 5-day trek on the St. James Walkway! In order to complete it in 4 days, we would have to walk an average of 18km per day. That's pretty far for us, with full packs on. But we figured it must be such easy terrain that it wouldn't be a problem.

Because the track follows a long peninsula, you have to arrange for water transport either to or from the far end. We chose to start at the far end, and make our way back to the head of Queen Charlotte Sound. The water taxi is quite expensive, at $80 per person for a drop off at one end of the track, and pick up at the other end.

There are five Dept. of Conservation campsites along the track (no huts though), and a few private ones. The track is very popular because there are also a range of other accommodation options, ranging from budget hostels to fancy resorts. So lots of people stay in comfortable rooms with hot showers and restaurant meals while they experience the walkway. One of the other convenient features of the track is that you can arrange to have your pack (or suitcase I suppose) transferred to your next overnight stop by boat, so that you can walk with only a day pack. Both resort-stayers and campers tend to use this service, which makes walking longer distances easier and more pleasant.

But being gluttons for punishment, we opted to carry our big, heavy packs the whole way. Why? Ostensibly so that we weren't tied to any specific destination on a given day. But really, I can't think of any good reason why we did it. If I did the track again, I'd certainly opt for the pack transfer service. It was the same price as the water taxi with no pack transfers, so why the hell not!

On our first day we were dropped off at Ship Cove, where Captain Cook based his New Zealand exploratory voyages in the 1700s. There was a monument, and some cannons on display. More importantly, there were toilets to use before we started the track!

Right away we were headed uphill. That first climb let us know that we were not in for an easy four days. Not relaxing, anyway! And without huts to sleep in, we were also carrying our tent, which added a couple of extra kilos to G's load, and he was feeling it! But up we went, and back down again, all in our first hour. At least it was a bit windy, so we stayed reasonably cool. The walkway was also clear and well benched, with switchbacks up the hill. So not exactly tough to negotiate, just a matter of slogging it out.

The first campsite is only about an hour along the track, so really not much use. But the second DoC campsite it another 7 hours away, and we had only started walking at 11:30am. Who planned these things? Luckily, there was a private campground about 5 hours from the end of the track, so we carried on to there.

The place is called Miners Camp, because it's at the junction of a side trail that leads to an old mining operation. It's really just some guy's house (there are private properties all along the Queen Charlotte Track, mostly vacation homes and farms) where he lets people camp in the yard for $10. He has an impressive collection of fruit trees and vines as well, including kiwifruit, apples, peaches, figs, olives, and tamarillos. He also had the most unusual outhouse set up for campers. It had a combination lock on the door, and inside was a flush toilet and a small sink. The door had a cat-flap on the bottom for some reason. And sitting beside the toilet was a visitor's book!

The next day the skies were clear and the wind had died, so it was a hot one. We started off easy, with a flat section of the track following the water's edge. We stopped of a snack at a picnic table, and a local weka (a brown, chubby, flightless bird native to NZ) came out to see if he could scrounge any food from us. Obviously they have gotten used to the large number of people passing by along the walkway. After passing the next DoC campsite we started uphill again. It was a three-hour trek to the next campsite at that point, but G had come up with the bright idea of trying to make it to the following campsite instead. Our current plan had us putting in an 8-hour day on our last leg, to meet the 4:30 water taxi. But G figured if we did a longer day now, we'd be able to have an easier last day, just 4 hours of walking.

I was not convinced of this plan, but I said I'd see how I felt at the first campsite, and what time we arrived, and then we'd decide for sure. Meanwhile, we made our way up to the ridgeline, where the views over the Marlborough Sounds were lovely, but the sun was brutal.
We continued along the ridge to the first campground, above Bay of Many Coves. Here we had another snack and a rest, while I tried to decide whether I could continue. Meanwhile, two more wekas came by to see if they could share our snacks. One of them seemed fairly interested in eating G's hat if nothing else was offered. But G caved in and gave them some peanuts, which I hope are not harmful to birds! It was coming up on 3:30, and the next campground was 3 hours away. Decision time. I figured I was still feeling OK, and since G was so keen on this plan I'd try to make it work. We continued on.
The track stayed up on the ridge, rising and falling with the contours of the land. It was a long, tiring walk and by the time we arrived I was more than done. My legs and feet were aching, my shoulders were sore and stiff, and I was more tired than I've been in a very long time. And no wonder - I did some quick calculating and realised that we'd covered over 30km of track in one day! That is by far the longest walk I've ever done with a pack on, and one I'm in no hurry to repeat.

The campground was small and basic, with a cooking shelter and a tank full of stream water. G put up the tent while I got dinner ready. By the time we had finished dinner, we were almost ready to crawl into bed! I did manage to stay outside long enough to take sunset pictures.
The next morning we were both a bit sore and uninspired. The first couple of hours were mainly downhill, meeting up with a road at Torea Saddle. Just down the road are a few accommodations and shops, at a place called Portage. We decided to go down and see if we could get a cold drink or something at the shops as a treat.

We ended up at the Portage Resort cafe, where they had some wonderful Kapiti ice cream for sale. We each had a double scoop, and enjoyed every well-earned lick! The resort looked quite nice, and even had a little swimming pool right beside the bay (in case you don't like salt water I guess.) But the walk back up to the track was 20 minutes uphill in the sun, and our relaxation had worn off by the time we got back to our day's tramping.
A big climb dominated our day (about 400 metres up, then down about half way and then up another 300 metres), and it was another scorcher. The summer weather would have been welcome in another situation, but lugging our packs along the trail we were hoping for a breeze or some clouds to cool things off. No such luck. As a result, what should have been a fairly moderate day (about 6 hours) was hot and sweaty. And of course, we were a bit worn out from our big day before.

Our stop for the night was a private campground at Mistletoe Bay. This involved an uncomfortable 20-minute walk down a side trail over lots of tree roots and such. We'd been so spoiled by the cleared, benched walkway that an actual tramping track seemed like a big challenge.

The campground was actually accessible by both boat and road, as it turned out. There were campervans parked all around the place. We found a spot and set up the tent. The toilet block featured not only flush toilets but also hot showers! Unfortunately, they were in the middle of a water shortage, so they had set the coin-operated showers for a measly one minute. Not worth it! Instead, I decided to go for a swim in the bay, which was cool getting in, but quite nice. The campground also had a kitchen, so we were able to cook without our camping stove, and even chill our drinking water in a fridge - luxury!

There were a lot of ducks at the campground, harassing the campers whenever they had food out. There was also one lone pukeko, grubbing about in the grass. They are the funniest birds to watch - those feet are just huge!

The next morning we found another trail to take up to the main track, this one much more clear and easy. Another hot, sunny day followed, but much of the track was in the shade. Getting near to the start of the track, we encountered more hikers and mountain bikers (the whole track is bikeable, but half is closed to cyclists from December to February) along the way. We finally reached the end of the road around 2pm, and decided to dry the tent out while waiting for our 4:30 water taxi.

An enterprising young woman had a caravan set up by the car park, where she sold drinks, ice cream and snacks to the walkers and cyclists. We found it impossible to resist an ice cream.

After the long wait, we were happy to see our water taxi arrive on time. But the adventure was not yet over. After loading up all of the passengers and gear, the engine on the boat died (apparently a problem with the water pump) and we weren't going anywhere! The skipper called for help, and it took over an hour for the larger boat to arrive and pick us up, towing the other boat back to Picton behind us.

The Queen Charlotte Track was hardly a "wilderness" experience, but the scenery is lovely, the walking is straightforward, and this makes it accessible to almost anyone. This is especially true because you don't have to carry your gear everywhere with you, and you can use the water taxis to make your tramp as long or as short as you like. Although we ended up putting more effort into it than we had anticipated, it was definitely a lovely way to wrap up our trip around the South Island.


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