Queen Charlotte Track (3): Views To Die For, A Walk To Live For

The sun at my back and my shadow before me on the Queen Charlotte Track.

Emmy and I left Mahana Lodge around 8 a.m. and climbed a steep, winding gravel road some 1.5 kilometres to the top of the ridge about 200 metres above Punga Cove. Here we spotted the entry point to the next leg of the Queen Charlotte Track (41° 7’46.73″S, 174° 8’33.20″E) that would take us 23 kilometres south-west to Torea Saddle and our accommodation at Portage Bay. There was a disquieting notice beside the track… the walk to Torea Saddle, it told us, would take nine hours. Others might walk it more quickly, but for us this turned out to be pretty accurate.

The path runs along a ridge of land that falls away sharply to the sea on both sides. The isthmus is never more than about two kilometres wide (not counting several headlands that jut out into Queen Charlotte Sound). Nowhere along this segment of the track is the bush untouched by human enterprise and intrusive species. In the valleys at the northern end broad tranches of land have been cleared for pasture. On the slopes of the isthmus and on neighbouring necks of land there are extensive pine plantations blotched by commercial felling. In places gorse and broom, with their bright yellow flowers, grow profusely on the trackside interrupted here and there by the purple of thistles and the streaked white of eyebright. In Queen Charlotte Sound and adjacent Kenepuru Sound mussells are farmed. They grow on ropes that stretch between floats arranged in rows across the surface of the water.

Many valley floors have been turned into farmland.

Unsightly swathes of felled pine forest (centre and right) on a headland above Queen Charlotte Sound.

The track is well defined and the walking is easy, often over a soft mat of pine needles and manuka debris. There are several good inclines that will push air loudly in and out of your lungs and fill your ears with the thumping of blood. As we walked, we savoured the mild scent of manuka, and later – as the day warmed – the faint, refreshing perfume of pine. Tunnels of shade – busy with the zizz of a thousand insects – alternated with sections flanked with grass or beaten earth basking in yellow sunlight. Big black cicadas buzzed out of the trees and blundered into us, their wings fluttering momentarily in our ears or beating on our hats. In places they lay dead or fluttering on the path.

Picturesque walking amid stands of manuka (tea tree) forest.

There are two shelters like this on the leg of the track between Punga Cove and Torea Saddle.

It was a walk of panoramas. In the morning there were vast views over farmland sloping away to Kenepuru Sound on the north side of the isthmus. The Maori name for the South Island is Te Wai Pounamu, The Land of Jade Waters, and at the northern extremity of Kenepuru Sound the water is indeed a milky jade green when viewed from the hills above. By midday we were looking south over endless folds and scribbles of dark coastline inter-leaved with the shining waters of Queen Charlotte Sound and beyond. From time to time the snow capped saw-teeth of the Southern Alps shimmered on the horizon further south. Again and again we stood suddenly silenced by the rugged splendour of the vistas.

Looking south, the pounamu-tinged waters of Kenepuru Sound.

Spectacular views of headlands and water from Eatwell’s lookout.

There were close-up pleasures too. Twice we encountered wekas calmly walking the track ahead of us. They politely stepped aside into the bushes to let us overtake them. The weka is about the size of a fullgrown farmyard chook. It has fine plumage mottled in dark brown and light brown in equal parts. Like many of New Zealand’s native birds, it is flightless. As Emmy discovered at Mahana Lodge, wekas are inquisitive birds. They often snitch food and shiny items from human passers-by.

Fellow walkers: flightless, bipedal, largely defenceless, overly trusting, and liable to take things that don’t belong to them. Pretty much like human beings really.

The endearing, vulnerable New Zealand weka.

Shortly after midday we reached the first of two simple shelters located roughly one third and two thirds of the way along this segment of the track. It was equipped with seats, a bench, a toilet and a tank of rainwater. As we sat in the shelter munching on bread rolls a wild weka strolled in. Completely unafraid (though it took care not to come within grabbing range) it snacked for a while on crumbs from our bread rolls before stalking off into the shrubbery. It didn’t try to filch anything from us, but others have not been so lucky. In the guest book at the shelter one exasperated visitor had written “The bird steals everything!”

“The bird steals everything!”

A weka taste-tests Emmy’s lunch.

It was five o’clock in the afternoon when we emerged from the bush at Torea Saddle (41°12’19.80″, 174° 1’58.61″E). After nine hours of steady walking we were both weary. My feet were burning, Emmy’s left knee was throbbing. It was a luxury to trudge the last 800 metres downhill on smooth asphalt and to check in to our accommodation at The Portage resort (41°11’56.29″S, 174° 2’6.53″E, see http://www.portage.co.nz/). We settled into our small apartment and sat on the verandah taking in the views out to Kenepuru Sound in the warm, slowly dimming stillness of early evening. It had been a testing day’s walk but very satisfying, and more spectacularly beautiful than any walk I could remember.

A view to the south from the heights of the Queen Charlotte Track. The Southern Alps are partly snow-capped even in summer.

The following day, a Sunday, was a “rest day” (we really needed it). It dawned misty and cool. We spent the day reading, snoozing, and watching the constantly shifting light over Portage Bay. The clouds lifted, rolled and broke over the surrounding hills creating dramatic sky-scapes that changed almost minute by minute. Light rain began to fall. A couple of yachts twisted uneasily in the bay. The temperature dropped. We turned on the heater in our room.

The front garden at the Portage Hotel resort.

Our apartment at the Portage Hotel with views over the bay from the front verandah.

During the night rain fell steadily. It had eased by daybreak, but the weather was still threatening. If we walked the last leg of the track from Portage to Anakiwa, 23 km away, we would have to reach Anakiwa by 3.00 pm in order to catch the last water-taxi to Picton at 3.30 pm. Sunday’s rain – occasionally heavy – would have made the track, at best, slippery, and more likely boggy in places. There was a certainty of more rain ahead. Given our slow traversal of the 25 kilometres from Punga Cove to Portage two days before, we didn’t really need to think long about our plan for the current day. One of the gifts of old age (and there aren’t all that many) is that it becomes much easier to make discretion the better part of valour. At 11.00 am we were sitting in a water-taxi bumping over Queen Charlotte Sound towards Picton. We had walked a little under 40 kilometres of the 71 kilometre track.

The shifting moods of Portage Bay, overcast but clear…

… then within minutes misty rain rolls in…

… sunlight breaks through and lights up the sea…

… the clouds lift momentarily.

That evening we relaxed at Greg Thomson’s Fernview B&B. Greg and I exchanged reminiscences about our eating adventures walking the Camino Portugues (see Greg’s Camino blog at: http://www.caminoportugal.blogspot.com.au/ and my review “From a mini masterpiece to a wallowing hippopotamus” posted July 21, 2011 in this blog) before Emmy and I headed into town for an evening meal at the Sea-Breeze Café and Bar. I wolfed down a plate of fish and chips (what else?) while Emmy did a good job of demolishing a brick-sized slab of blueberry cheesecake. The proprietor sang slow, sentimental songs at the café’s piano. A cool twilight descended on the largely deserted streets of Picton. New Zealand’s changeable weather had made the Queen Charlotte Track an unpredictable, and therefore especially memorable, experience. We vowed we would be back for more – and soon.

Picton’s quiet waterfront on our last evening in the Marborough Sounds. In the background our ferry waits for next day’s trip across Cook Strait back to Wellington.

Photographs can’t do justice to the natural splendour of the Queen Charlotte Track.

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