Queen Charlotte Track (1): A Rough Beginning

The Marlborough Sounds are at the northern end of New Zealand’s South Island. Its narrow channels of water lie between fingers of land that reach like a badly deformed arthritic hand into the waters of Cook Strait. The walk runs for 71 kilometres, from north to south, down one of these fingers (see http://www.qctrack.co.nz/about/). Normally walkers complete the trip in four days. Having little information about the rigours of the walk, Emmy and I decided to take no chances and complete the walk in five days with a one-day recovery break at The Portage resort after the track’s longest segment. We decided to stay at lodges along the way, with our bulky luggage transported from lodge to lodge by water-taxi. Arrangements were made for us by Greg Thomson of Natural Encounters (see http://www.natural-encounters.com/), one of several local companies that offer a variety of support services for walkers and cyclists.

Emmy and I were on the interisland ferry Aratere as it glided quietly out of Wellington harbour on the afternoon of March 7th. We found a seat in the forward lounge where there was a good view over the bow into the tumbled, white-capped expanse of Cook Strait. The sea was rough (at least it seemed so to us landlubbers) but the ship hummed under us with remarkable steadiness. An overcast sky hid the horizon. It was an hour before the South Island – only 25 kilometres from the North Island – eventually emerged. From a ghostly outline it slowly came into focus, a barrier of dark hills directly across our path.

Slowly the South Island emerges from a hazy horizon.

The ferry heads straight towards a barrier of dark hills.

Somehow a chink opened up in the pallisade (Google Earth: 41°12’38.57″S 174°19’5.62″E) and we squeezed through into the flatter waters of Tory Channel. Half an hour later we turned into Queen Charlotte Sound and headed into a strong, chill wind gusting up the narrow trough of water from the cloud-cropped hills to the south. Fold after fold of headland jutted into the grey satin of the the fjord. Silence fell over the passengers as they watched the patchwork green slopes flow past on both sides of the ship.

Looking down Queen Charlotte Sound into the teeth of a chill southerly wind.

Bush covered hills slide past as the ferry nears Picton.

The ferry swivelled and reversed into its berth in the small town of Picton. As arranged, Greg Thomson, our host from Natural Encounters was waiting for us outside the arrivals lounge. He whisked us immediately to our very comfortable accommodation just five minutes away at the Fernview Cottage B&B. Here we relaxed into a simple but tasteful and quiet colonial ambience maintained with careful attention to detail (the peach-coloured roses in our room were real!).

As the long afternoon faded we walked into the centre of Picton in search of dinner. The blustery wind had intensified. Flags in the main street were shaking hard. In the waterside park the branches of pohutukawa trees were bobbing and writhing. A dark cowl of clouds hung over the almost deserted town. We found a haven of warmth in the Café Cortado where we demolished a big meal of fish and chips.

Picton’s Cafe Cortado: a haven of warmth and good food on a cold evening.

Fish and chips for dinner. This is Marlborough, so naturally your fish and chips are served with a glass of world famous Marlborough sauvignon blanc.

The following day – the first day of our walk – the weather was worse. The water was rough on the normally placid sound. Wind was still pouring over Picton like an enormous jet of water, scouring the streets, flattening trees against hillsides like waterweeds in a fast current. We had a water-taxi trip of 35 kilometres ahead of us to the start-point of the walk in Ship Cove at the northern end of the sound. It took well over an hour to get there as the boat bounced and slapped over the increasingly jumpy water. Emmy, who was already ill from a dud meal she had eaten on our flight from Sydney, quickly became sea sick. Queasiness overtook the other passengers too, but the driver of the water-taxi insisted on being cheerful. He force-fed us with facts and figures about the places we passed. “Tory Channel,” he shouted over the roar of the boat’s engine, “was the second most populated place in New Zealand between 1840 and 1860.”

Ready to go… inside our water-taxi on Picton’s waterfront.

Fortified by this useful information (and much more) we made it to the northern end of the sound. But a planned stop at Motuara Island – a carefully protected sanctuary for native birds (location at 41° 5’42.27″S, 174°16’27.51″E) – had to be abandonned. The sea was too rough to permit the water-taxi to berth. At Ship Cove a small cohort of walkers gratefully disembarked, but Emmy sat with her head down retching into a waste paper bin. The first sector of our walk was clearly off the agenda. We stayed on board and headed for our first night’s accommodation at Furneaux Lodge (41° 5’33.79″S, 174°11’14.01″E see http://furneaux.co.nz/) a couple of headlands away from Ship Cove.

Battered by rough seas on Queen Charlotte Sound…

… and Emmy finds it tough going.

Emmy walked unsteadily along the jetty and into the bar at Furneaux Lodge where she slumped into a pew-like seat and laid her head on the table. Even at 11 o’clock in the morning apparently this was normal behaviour for guests so her plight didn’t attract much attention. But as soon as the staff realised she was ill, not hung-over, she was hurried to a hastily tidied guest room and tucked up in bed.

Furneaux Lodge: a haven of good food and bushland quiet.

The cabins at Furneaux Lodge where we were shaken by a short, sharp earthquake.

The wind slowly abated and the sky began to clear. By evening we were both ready to eat. In the Furneaux Lodge restaurant, under sloping glass panels that gave us a restful view of the sky and bush, we enjoyed a meal of grilled salmon fresh from the waters of the sound, with local vegetables and a glass of delicious Marlborough sauvignon blanc.

Later that evening we had a characteristically NZ experience to bring our first day to a close. Just after 8.00 pm a short, sharp earth tremor shook our semi-detached cabin. It was like a sudden angry gust of wind that slapped the room hard, rattling the beams and slamming shut the bathroom door. Outside all was serene. It was a good, invigorating shake that set our hearts thumping for a few moments. The following morning we learned that the epicentre of the quake had been under the sea about 40 km north-west of Paraparaumu on the west coast of the North Island. The quake measured 4.9 on the Richter scale.


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