IT'S A CLICHÉ, but when it comes to experiencing New Zealand’s fabulous Queen Charlotte Track (QCT), in the Marlborough Sounds region of the South Island, there really is more than one way to skin this cat (apologies in advance to feline appreciators).
This 70km-long track follows a winding, undulating route between historic Ship Cove at the northern point (Captain Cook dropped anchor here five separate times during his explorations – at one point building a semi-permanent camp, complete with vegetable garden and pig pens, while his ship was repaired) and pretty Anakiwa at the southern end. This route takes you through forest and up, down and along high ridgelines that offer brilliant views over Queen Charlotte and Kenepuru sounds. For most, north to south is the preferred direction, with a ferry from the beautiful port town of Picton taking you to the Ship Cove start point.
So what exactly are the different ways you can skin this track? Well, you can walk the entire way, mountain bike it (access limitations apply in peak summer season) or, if you’re like me and keen to try something a bit different, you can shoehorn three outdoor activities into the one track: walk the first part, pedal the middle section, then finish off with a glorious sea kayak journey to track’s end, all while staying at some perfectly positioned lodges along the way. Yes, it does sound perfect – and I didn’t even have to plan a thing; renowned Picton-based outfitters, Marlborough Sounds Adventure Company, offer this exact three-day, multi-activity trip. All I had to do was put my hand up and say, “Yes, please!”
A unique journey
Setting foot on the QCT entails a slightly different preparation to most of NZ’s tracks. Unlike most multiday adventures of any discipline, tackling this one offers probably the only thing that most heavy-pack-laden walkers/hikers/paddlers have universally wished for at some point: you can arrange for your luggage to be transferred between each leg of the track. Yep, there’s no worrying about how many pairs of shorts/shirts/socks you need to pack – just throw it all in a suitcase and it will be transferred to your next night’s lodge accommodation at the beginning of each day’s leg. I am all for roughing it, but I am always a sucker for something that combines outdoor adventure with bloody good food and a nice bed for the night…
Those first steps
There are few better ways to start a three-day adventure than jumping aboard a water taxi and cruising out through Queen Charlotte Sound to Ship Cove: the sound itself was beautiful, and the Cougar Line boat I was on was accompanied by a pod of dolphins racing the bow waves. I also took the chance to ogle both the beachside lodges dotted along the way, and the privately owned baches (Kiwi-speak for cottages) that nestle in among the lush rainforest that characterises the region. These cute baches really made me wish I was in a better-paid career and could afford to buy one – you know, just for those long weekend escapes out of Sydney. The announcement – around an hour later – that we’d reached Ship Cove jetty was only a slightly rude jolt back to reality. Well, a reality that was fairly dreamlike in its appearance: Ship Cove is nestled at the base of a steep hill that is absolutely smothered in lush, dense, green vegetation. Combine this with the rich blue of the sound’s water and it positively yells “tropical paradise”.
After a quick double-check to see that my suitcase was properly marked “Furneaux Lodge”, I took a stroll along the jetty and, once at the end, threw on my daypack and took the first steps into the deep, dense rainforest that characterises this track and region. The temperature was about five degrees cooler here; the moist forest air a welcome respite from what had been a cracking hot day. It meant perfect conditions for my hike, which started with a steady climb from the cove.
A memorable introduction
The first few hours on the track were deathly quiet – the only interruption was the occasional chirp of birds and the low whisper of the sea breeze as it flowed through the green-leaf canopy surrounding me. With a long summer day’s light ahead of me, I took my time, ambling up the first steep climb at a slow pace and pausing to check out the forest and, when a clearing appeared, I stopped to look out over the sound and further on to glimpses of the North Island across Cook Strait. It really felt like I was the only person left on the planet; the tranquillity was only very slightly shattered when I met some walkers coming up the track from the south. Even then, a brief hello and a knowing smile was all that transpired, as if we were all reticent to talk too much in case we compromised the serenity.
It is 14km from Ship Cove to Furneaux Lodge, my first overnight stop. The funny thing was, I didn’t notice the distance. Whether it was the constant exposure to new and ever-more impressive vistas that kept my mind (and camera) occupied, or it was the enticement of a beautiful chalet at day’s end – either way, the 14 kays went by quickly. And I did anything but rush; the views over Resolution Bay as I made my way down from the top of the initial climb caused me to stop and pause for quite a while to take it all in. And once I got down to the shoreline of Endeavour Inlet, I was positively ambling as I took in the views of the inlet on my left and ogled (okay, lusted after) the cool baches that were dotted along its shoreline to my right. Furneaux Lodge itself was also no disappointment. The lodge is surrounded by hundreds of hectares of native forest and contains some beautiful accommodation options, such as suites and chalets, as well as a top-notch restaurant that also serves sweet cold Kiwi beer. Looking forward to it much? Yep, I sure was…
Later, sitting at a bench in the lodge’s manicured grounds eating dinner, sipping a cold beer and looking out over the inlet’s calm waters, I tried to figure out how to describe this first day on the QCT. The best I could come up with was that it was the perfect introduction to the track; a brilliant combination of the wild and the civilised. I could
definitely get used to it.
The longest day
It was hard to leave my chalet the following morning. However, the promise of another – albeit quick – water taxi ride across to the other side of Endeavour Inlet at Punga Cove, and then a mountain bike ride of around 35km on the track, soon got me moving. My morning departure procedure was identical to the previous day: I wrote my next overnight stop – Lochmara Lodge – on my luggage tags, handed them over to the water taxi crew, then jumped onboard. My bags would be waiting for me at Lochmara – all I had to do was ride 35km of undulating track to catch up with them…
I was being joined on this section of the track (and the kayak leg the following day) by
Marlborough Sounds Adventure Company guide Craig Tweedy, a scarily-fit looking Scotsman who spends each southern hemisphere summer working out of Picton. Craig had got the water taxi out from Picton earlier in the morning, bringing our workhorses for the day – a pair of 29er hardtail MTBs – and we would be accompanied by a French couple who were also riding the track today.
Once we’d packed our bike packs with food and water, it was straight into the grinding climb up the track snaking steeply up the first hill out of Punga Cove. It was here that I knew I had made the right choice in splitting my journey along the Queen Charlotte Track across three different activities. The bikes gave us the chance to cover distance more quickly, while offering the advantage of being able to spend more time at the many lookout points along the way. Bikes also offer a different perspective on the whole QCT experience: buzzing downhill, with the forest whisking by as a deep-green blur was a standout memory of the day.
Not that there was just one. As we moved closer to Lochmara Bay and the lodge of the same name, the views became more and more dramatic. At one point we had both Kenepuru Sound and Queen Charlotte Sound in view at the same time. Then, topping that, we tackled part of the track that hugged a steep cliff, with the rich green waters of Queen Charlotte Sound directly below us, or so it seemed. It was an amazing journey and slightly challenging – mainly due to having to watch where you were going while trying to take in as much of your surrounds as possible, but also due to a couple of steep hills that called for a bit of bike-pushing (although not for more than five to 10 minutes). The best, however, was definitely saved for the end of the day; the side track that takes walkers/bikers down to Lochmara Lodge itself is probably one of the most flowing, flat-out-fun trails I have ever ridden, and it offered a fantastic adrenalin-infused finish to the day. Well, besides the already-obligatory waterside beer out the front of the lodge.
Lochmara Lodge is in a sublime location right on the water, and it offers a great wildlife recovery program which has been exceptionally successful, as proven by the volume of birdsong on the property. There’s also a cool art centre on-site and the grounds offer plenty of areas for visitors to escape, with hammocks and benches scattered throughout. If there was ever a place I could spend a week doing very little, this would be it!
Nothing beats being on the water. For me, it is probably my favourite way to while away a day in the outdoors and it offers one of the strongest reconnections to our natural world. So yeah, I was stoked my last day on this amazing track was going to actually be, er, off-track. To me, spending at least one day paddling part of the Queen Charlotte Track makes perfect sense. After all, the track is famous for its marine surrounds so why not, literally, jump right into said surrounds for that complete QCT experience.
Craig had caught the last water taxi back to Picton to grab our sea kayaks the previous evening and was back at Lochmara Lodge’s own small beach early, packing our gear for the day’s paddle. I was down there early, so we took advantage of the calm morning water and headed out once I stowed my daypack in a drybag, and strapped my camera to the top of the kayak. Our path would be a winding one, crossing from one side of the sound to the other, exploring secluded sections of the coastline, checking out the unique coastal rock formation, carved by the sea over millennia, and watching for fish, dolphins and other marine life. We discovered plenty of sea anemones, starfish and other native residents as we made our way slowly toward Anakiwa.
Our early lunch was on our own private beach we’d spotted on the northern side of Grove Arm, and was an experience that soon ranked as my QCT favourite. Sitting on the sand, watching the world pass by as we sipped fresh-brewed coffee and scoffed on salad rolls, it was the physical embodiment of the cliché that life doesn’t get any better.
The weird thing was – and it was something I only thought about after we’d landed at Anakiwa at track’s end, and were back in our final water taxi barrelling back to Picton – we actually paddled a fair distance that day. But, as per the preceding two days on the QCT, with the myriad attractions and relaxing ambience of the track and its surrounds, it was as if time had ceased to matter. And when that happens, you know you’ve experienced the perfect escape – something the Queen Charlotte Track makes all too easy.
Getting there: Air New Zealand flies daily to Wellington from Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane. From Wellington, Air New Zealand also offers direct flights to Nelson and Blenheim.
The adventure: Marlborough Sounds Adventure Company offers a wide range of Queen Charlotte Track trips, ranging from independent walking based adventures, through to mountain biking or a three-day multi-activity journey such as the one in this feature story.
More information: For all things New Zealand see www.newzealand.com.