Walk 8 - Queen Charlotte Track

How quickly the weather changes in New Zealand. Two days ago we were crossing the wild seas of Cook Strait in a table sliding 40 knot gale. Today is perfectly still and we are heading up the calm waters of Queen Charlotte Sound in a water taxi to commence the Queen Charlotte Track, a 71 km trek around the shoreline and along the spine of a beautiful coastal range separating two of the sea-drowned valleys that make up the Marlborough Sounds.

This is the longest track we have set out on to date, but in all respects it promised to be an easy and luxurious (relatively) walk. It is much more a European style walk, with many backpacker, hotel and resort type accommodation places at various points along its shoreline. For a $60 fee, the water taxis will take you one hour from Picton up the Sound to the start of the walk, transfer your pack each day between the places where you stay, and take you back to Picton at the end of the walk. Each night you can sleep in a comfortable bed, have a cold beer and a hot shower and all you need to carry is a day-pack with water, food and a few essentials - luxury!!

Start of the track -
Cook Monument at Ship's Cove

Day 1: Setting out - Ship Cove to The Pines

The morning cloud was just begining to break up as we disembarked from the water taxi at Ship Cove. This point has historic significance as Captain Cook anchored there five times on his various voyages of discovery in the late 18th century. A monument to this event marked the official start of the walk for us.

Almost immediately, the broad, well-formed track began a moderate climb up through a dense broadleaf-podocarp forest with an understory dominated by black and silver tree-ferns. Several kahikatea, New Zealand's tallest (if not largest) tree species towered above the forest canopy at different spots, but as we moved higher and away from the coast beech trees became increasingly common.

Rain forest in Ship's Cove

About 20 walkers and a mountain-biker had set out from the wharf, but the Queen Charlotte Track soon spread us out and swallowed us up, so that all could walk in whatever level of isolation or company they chose.

Morning cloud over Queen Charlotte Sound

View over Resolution Bay from the saddle

You are now entering private land

Soon we reached a beautiful look-out over Resolution Bay and commenced our descent down to it. Near the shoreline, a gate signalled the fact that we would be passing through a section of private land.

A little later a sign advertising coffee and muffins signalled the presence of private enterprise at work as well. It was too hard to resist and, sitting at a table in a lovely garden setting, overlooking the jetty and clear deep waters of Resolution Bay sipping our freshly-brewed coffee with boysenberry muffin, we realised that this walk was going to be a little different.

A bit of kiwi paradise

Coffee and muffins with one of the locals

Resolution Bay jetty

A small cascade on the track

Last glimpse back over Resolution Bay

Resolution to Endeavour saddle

Adult weka

Pulling ourselves away, we commenced a long, but gentle climb up the shady forested slopes of the hilly spine. Every so often, a gap in the vegetation would reveal a wonderful view looking down over the indented shoreline and islands to the deep blue waters of Queen Charlotte Sound.

Rounding a corner, a soft peeping sound and muted boom alerted us to something moving in the forest. Suddenly a pair of wekas and their chick crossed the path ahead of us, unperturbed by our presence. We were privileged to see 6 of these curious birds before the day was out - they appear to be thriving in the Marlborough Sounds despite being generally endangered due to the ravages of introduced predators, such as the stoat.

Beech forest

Weka chick

First glimpse of Endeavour Inlet from the saddle

Without realising it, we had climbed 200m and, after taking in the sweeping views over Endeavour Inlet from the ridge, commenced an equally gentle descent through superb temperate rain forest to the "The Pines", a small settlement of houses on the inlet shore, and our accommodation for the night at "Cnoc na lear" backpackers; our backpacks, a warm welcome and even warmer muffins awaited us.

Endeavour Inlet

Boatshed at The Pines

G & T on the verandah of Furneaux Lodge, perhaps?

In the forest behind Furneaux

After a late lunch in the sunshine, we completed the day with a short side trip through some more magnificent rain forest to a small, but pretty waterfall upstream from nearby Furneaux Lodge - the forest silent apart from the occasional melodious call of a bellbird.

With the old-world charm of its white weatherboard exterior and manicured lawn and gardens leading down to the sea, a well-earned beer on the verandah of the lodge was the ideal place to finish our day. This walk was definitely different!

Tree-fern alley

Rain forest waterfall

Day 2: The easy stroll - The Pines to Punga Cove

It was not an auspicious start to the day. Strong south-westerlies had blown in overnight, bringing grey skies and drizzle. We sat around chatting to the proprietor of the backpackers and two young kiwi mountain-bikers who had also spent the night there, in the hope that the weather might change.

The first patch of blue appeared over the sound by 9.30am and by 10am only 1200m Mt Stokes, at the back of Endeavour Inlet, was resolutely hanging on to its grey mantle in the face of the clearing winds. With our backpacks on the jetty waiting for their short boat trip across to to Punga Cove, it was time to set out ourselves for a much longer, but relatively flat walk around the shores of Endeavour Inlet and Big Bay to the same destination.

Inauspicious start to the day

Retracing our steps of the previous afternoon, we soon found ourselves back at Furneaux Lodge and striding on to the head of the inlet, past Endeavour Lodge and some of the original farmland, where a few sheep grazed contentedly. The garish purple flower-spikes of feral digitalis plants, no doubt escaped from the gardens of early settlers, dotted the path through these degraded pastures and invaded the native bush along the track course. Beautiful but poisonous, it appears to be the weed of choice in the Sounds.

Turning back along the south along the far shore of Endeavour Inlet, we wound our way along a meandering path through the littoral forest, 10 to 20m above the sheer shoreline. The track was silent apart from the sond of the wind in the canopy above us. As we ambled around, our nature lesson for the day was the variety and quality of shade, as the changing forest cover alternatively provided us with every variant of deep damp shade, filtered light shade, dappled high contrast shade and open sunny patches. Glimpses of the rich blue waters of the sound between the foliage opened up from time to time into full-blown glorious views across the white-cap whipped Sound to distant shorelines.

A group of locals relaxing on Endeavour Inlet flats

The forest at Big Bay

Rocky stream flowing into Big Bay

The green-clad slopes of the Sound

Camp Cove

Eventually we turned north-west into calmer protected Big Bay, following the track through a dense mixed forest on the steep slope of the ridge. The sun rarely reached the track here and the track rarely dried, so the soft muddy squish of our boots was added to the sounds of the day. With the dark canopy overhead, looking down through the tree-ferns, trunks and foliage towards the lake at the turqoise water gave the illusion that the sky was beneath us. Above the shade, the forest canopy was a rich mosaic of different textures and shades of green, as patches of broadleafs, podocarps and tree-ferns competed for space and light.

One final major change of direction brought us back again on to a southerly bearing and a final stroll along the far shore of Big Bay to Camp Cove and our rest stop for the night at Punga Cove Resort (backpackers section!) - time for a late lunch, beer on the sunny resort lawns in the lee of the wind and a chance to read and relax in preparation for the much harder day that faced us next morning.

View from the backpackers at Punga cove

. .

Endeavour Inlet Panorama

Day 3: The long haul - Punga Cove to Portage

It was a clear, sunny day as we set out, though the cold south-westerly wind blew fiercely as we began the climb up the gravel access road linking Punga Cove to Kenepuru Saddle. Soon we picked up the walking track (a broad dry walkers' highway) again and continued at a steady rate up the spur, alternating through sheltering pine forest and more exposed whiteywood shrubland (interspersed with a few too many wilding pines), meandering from the windward to leeward sides as we gained height to reach the top of the ridge-line. Our natural history lesson for the day was the variation in the sounds of the wind, from periods of stillness to the roar of strong gusts breaking through the canopy and drenching us in a torrent of cold air, to the subtily different sounds of wind passing through the leaves of pines, broad-leaf trees and densely branched shrubs lining the track.

The menu for the day was ridge-walking at 200-400m elevation, through changing vegetation, with periodic breaks that provided grandiose views over both the Queen Charlotte and Kenepuru Sounds and their deeply indented steeply-sloping shorelines. Arriving at a sign stating "Eatwell Lookout", we followed both bits of advice. A detour up a short steep pinch, brought us to the 460m hilltop, where we took in the sweeping panorama of the outer Queen Charlotte Sound, backed by the distant silhouette of the North Island. Then we ate well.

Panorama of the Outer Queen Charlotte Sound from Eatwell Lookout

Continuing on, we commenced an undulating walk along the ridge. The track tunnelled through an area of manuka shrubland, which, while restricting views, provided a pleasant protective "no-wind" tunnel on the exposed ridge. Passing overlooks into the beautiful Bay of Many Coves and Ruakaka Bay, we reached an area of shady beech forest in the leeward side and found a great lunch spot above Blackwood Bay.

Farmland at the northern end of Kenepuru Sound

The Bay of Many Coves

A very exposed section of low shrub above Kumutoto Bay followed, providing sweeping views down the Sound to Picton and the snow-capped peaks of the Kaikouras beyond. The broad track then led us through a native forest with very large beech and rimu trees, before descending down to a saddle, with views to the Kenepuru Sound side and its numerous rafts of cultured mussels.

Blackwood Bay

Walking the no-wind tunnel

View over Kumutoto Bay toward Picton

Just one more stunning view

Looking down the Sound to Picton

Schist outcrop on the descent
to Torea Saddle
Climbing one last time along a track lined with tall dense wind-resistant shrubs, we reached our final crest for the day above Kaipakirikiri Bay. There remained but a long steady descent through cool beech forest, across a steep schist-outcropped slope to the Torea Saddle, a narrow 90 m high neck of land over which the Maori dragged their canoes from Torea Bay to Portage Bay, thereby avoiding a 200 km paddle.

From here, we followed the bitumen road down to the little village of Portage sleeping serenely in its sun-drenched bay, where a nice cold pint of DB awaited at the Portage Pub to reward our efforts for the past 23 km. The fish and chips from the Portage Shop tasted extra good that night, as we ate them on the deck of our comfortable backpackers, watching the sun set golden over the Kenepuru Inlet.

Sunset over Portage Bay

View over Portage Bay from Torea Saddle

Kenepuru afternoon (from the beer garden)

Day 4: The home stretch - Portage to Anakiwa

With temperatures "soaring" to the mid-20s and the wind dropping to a gentle breeze, this promised to be the best day of all. We strolled back up the road to Torea Saddle and, with the sun on our backs, rejoined the broad, grassy Queen Charlotte Track for the 380m climb up to the western ridge-line. For a while we walked and chatted with Steve from California and Ed from Georgia, as the track descended again and provided us with stunning views along the length of Kenepuru Sound and over Lochmara Bay in Queen Charlotte Sound.

Overlooking Picton and the snow-capped Kaikouras from high on the Torea Saddle

Steve, Ed and Nello descending the broad QC track

Kenepuru Sound

Lochmara Bay

At this point we met the first of long series of day-walkers and mountain-bikers heading in the opposite direction. The southern section of the track from either Anakiwa or Mistletoe Bay to Torea Bay is very popular for day trips, and most of the 35-40,000 people who walk this track each year would only do this part. It is an excellent way to get a feel for the Queen Charlotte Track if you can't do the full trip.

Another climb brought us to the base of the Hilltop Lookout, where we parted company with our American companions and made the steep 120m zig-zagging climb up the hill. From here, views extended in all directions, over both sounds and the distant hills and mountain ranges beyond (NB it must be confessed that we were starting to become a bit blasé with the grandiose panoramas that regularly presented themselves).

View over Queen Charlotte Sound from Hilltop Lookout

Descending from the lookout, we followed the track around the base of the hill, before another steep descent brought us to Te Mahia Saddle, another narrow neck in this long sea-bound ridge-line, which separated Mistletoe and Te Mahia Bays. From the saddle, the track turned south, and climbed gently past gorse-invaded scrubby vegetation and farmland, where cattle grazed peacefully high above Onahau Bay.

After a few kilometres the track again turned back to its westerly direction. A rocky ledge provided one more panoramic view down the length of the Grove Arm of the Sound towards our final destination of Anakiwa, then plunged into the cool, beech forest that lines the south-facing slopes in this area.

Waterfall, Mistletoe and Onahau Bays with Hilltop Lookout in the background

Forest track

Looking down the Grove Arm to Anikawa

In the cool dark beech forest

All that remained of our walk was a pleasant meander through this glorious forest, with the curious play of light in the beech canopy, the contrasts of bright green leaves and black trunks, the occasional groves of tall tree-ferns and the glimpses of the blue, blue water between.

Crossing Davies Bay, we came across a group of ducks resting in the grassy shade; it seemed such a good idea that we joined them for a few minutes, before pushing on with the last few kilometres to Anakiwa. Steve and Ed were having a drink under a large street café umbrella when we arrived, so we joined them and reminisced about the great walk we had all just completed. Soon the water-taxi arrived at the jetty, and 20 minutes later we were back in Picton once again.

The Queen Charlotte Track was the easiest track that we have walked on, and, with the pack transfers and home-comfort accommodation, this could well be described as a "Gentleman's Walk". If you hate carrying a heavy pack, not having a hot shower and eating dehydrated food for few days, yet still want to experience some of the beautiful New Zealand landscapes, this track is for you.