I woke a little after midnight unaware of the time, only noting that it was still dark outside. I silently cursed that I had awoken, was about to turn over and resettle when the familiar sensation of the room rocking signalled an earthquake was rolling through. New Zealand is situated on the Pacific Ring of Fire and spans two tectonic plates. With 15,000 earthquakes on average per year, the country’s nickname is the Shaky Isles. Having lived in the South Island of New Zealand for 5 years I’ve felt many quakes of varying intensities rattle through and several nights’ sleep have been disturbed by the sensation of the room moving. So as my brain acknowledged the quake through a fog of tiredness I woke up more fully to release it was still going. Normally they are so short that they’re over as soon as you’ve acknowledged that they’ve begun. And yet on it went. And on, and on. For about two long minutes, the house rocked back and forth accompanied by the banging of the Venetian blinds against the wall, and the realisation hit that this was something big.
It was November 14th and as the city awoke in the darkness, social media went rife and amongst the drama unfolding about what was going on to the north of Christchurch, hour after hour we waited and wondered what would come next. Then the tsunami siren went off and all in all it was a sleepless night. But in the morning the destruction unfolded and as an unseasonal storm broke sending a deluge of rain down to the north of us, my plans to drive north through Kaikoura to Picton in just 5 days time were suddenly unlikely as the main routes north were shut.
Nestled in the stunning Marlborough region in the north of the South Island is one of the country’s best known multi-day hikes, the Queen Charlotte Track. Co-managed by the Department of Conservation (DOC) and a private trust, a well-maintained 71km (44mile) track winds its way from Ship’s Cove to Anakiwa along a peninsula sandwiched between the Kenepuru Sound and the Queen Charlotte Sound. I had been looking forward to the hike for a while as well as the weekend relaxing in Kaikoura afterwards.
As the days passed, and phone calls and enquiries were made, it was made clear that as long as I could get to Picton, where the boat to Ship’s Cove leaves from, the hiking trail was open and waiting to welcome me. So with the inland road reopening without restrictions a few days after the earthquake, I set off on the longer-than-normal drive north with trepidation. I had a hitchhiker for company and I stopped a couple of times on the way up to show her some scenic sights then after a night catching up with a friend on route, I arrived in Picton less than a week after the earthquake and storm had hit. And it looked just how I remembered it: pretty and twinkling in the sunshine.
Picton is a common place for locals and tourists to pass through as the inter-island ferries berth here but out amongst the bays and coves of the majestic Marlborough Sounds are a collection of homes and baches (holiday homes) dotted amongst the bush. With some only accessible by boat, there is more than just the inter-island ferries ploughing these waters. I’d bought a ticket for the mail boat, one of a few boat companies that offer transport to the start of the Queen Charlotte track. It is possible to have your pack moved each day between accommodation if you buy the appropriate package but as my pack was reasonably sized, I opted to carry mine the full 71 km.
I’ve been through these sounds a few times but it is always a beautiful place to be and Ship’s Cove was no exception. So named because the explorer Captain James Cook anchored his ship the Endeavour here in 1770, a monument has been erected there and the white behemoth stands out against the green of the surrounding bush. We berthed at the end of the long pier right next to a landslip from the recent storm, and the boat unloaded. A few of us were heading off on the track, but most of the people on the boat were just out for a day trip and they were given some time ashore before reboarding to start the return journey to Picton.
There was a Maori totem pole and some Maori carvings next to a picnic spot on the green grass. Across a little bridge was the monument to Captain Cook and some information boards about the history of the place as well as the early explorers. The view out to sea was staggering and with a blue sky up above, the sea glistened. A weka wandered along the shore and despite the other people milling about, it felt peaceful and serene.
At the far end of the cove, a sign pointed into the bushes marking a route to a waterfall. It was a little muddy underfoot, but I followed it through the thick vegetation round the curve of the coastline before cutting inland to follow a river upstream to the waterfall. I had the place to myself, and the double waterfall was pretty as the sun sparkled through gaps in the foliage. As always, DOC signs are over-generous and I was back in Ship’s Cove in no time.
I then didn’t want to leave. It was just too beautiful, and even though I knew I had several hours of hiking ahead of me, it was really hard to say goodbye to the place. Especially after the boat crowd left and I found myself on my own. I took my time slowly wandering around, watching the weka, staring out to sea and wandering along the pier to look at the landslide. But eventually it was time to get going, and I readied myself to start the Queen Charlotte track.
A distance board and 71km marker mark the start of the track and immediately it goes into the bush and starts climbing. Near the start some warning signs detailed the use of poisons in the area. As New Zealand struggles to rid itself of a tyranny of introduced pest species that threaten the native wildlife, these controversial methods are a common spotting when out bush at certain times of the year. But the noticeable lack of birdsong in the thick bush was enough of a sign to know that something needs to be done.
The track itself was beautiful to walk through and snippets through the vegetation gave hints of the views to come. After a steady climb, the first viewpoint on the hike was reached and it was crammed full of people who refused to budge to make room for me. After waiting for them all to leave, I got some alone time, soaking up the view on the first ridge before shortly after starting the winding descent towards Resolution Bay. Having crossed from one side of a headland to another, the vista was already starting to change.
I passed a few mountain bikers tackling the uphill as I came down, several of them having to get off their bike to push it up the slope. The Queen Charlotte track is a shared use track, although the section from Ship’s Cove to Kenepuru Saddle is closed to bikes in the height of summer. When the track had lost most of its altitude, a side track headed off to Schoolhouse Bay campsite. Here I saw what turned out to be the first of many landslips on the track. It was still passable though and I was glad as this was a stunning spot. There were some cyclists having a break and I waved hello then headed along the shoreline for some solitude.
There are plenty of accommodation options along the Queen Charlotte track. It is possible to camp if you carry in all your gear as there are plenty of campsites and shelters, or there are a variety of lodgings on route. You can walk as much or as little of the track a day due to the number of options, and you can even do sections as individual day walks, by getting the boat to one of the various piers along the way. Following a back injury in 2013 and a shoulder injury in 2016, I made the decision to stay in lodgings along the route, meaning I could just carry a day pack without a lot of excessive weight on joints that can no longer withstand the strain.
There wasn’t a lot of space to set up camp here but the view was worth the detour alone, and although it wasn’t a long walk from Ship’s Cove, I could easily see why people would want to stay here. This cove was another of what was a recurring theme with this hike: not wanting to move on because it was such a beautiful spot. I had a snack whilst contemplating the clouds, but eventually I bid the cyclists goodbye and left them behind.
Back on the Queen Charlotte track there was a section on private land behind some lodges before the track began climbing up towards another ridge. There were a few streams to break up the monotony of the trees whilst there was no view, but as the track climbed up the hillside, the trees opened up once more to show off the lie of the land and demonstrate the expanse of the forest. The last views over Resolution Bay were as stunning as the first had been and then the track disappeared into the bushes once more. I used to find forest walks in Scotland a bit boring as the trees were usually either pine or birch with little variety, and with a rather cultivated feel to them. On this side of the world, the forests feel wild and untamed and the variety in plant life is exciting. From low ferns and bushes to tall palms, vines and tree ferns, there is constantly something interesting to look at as you walk along.
Shortly after another landslip, Endeavour Inlet comes into view for the first time and a recently erected picnic bench provides a seat. A drop toilet in the bushes is one of the few toilets on the track that is outwith accommodation spots. I stopped for a break and a top up of sunscreen. The New Zealand sun is harsh and with such constant exposure, sunscreen is a must on this trek. I was convinced I was near the end of the day’s hike, but in reality, I still had most of the length of the arm of Endeavour Inlet to hike.
From the benches though it was downhill. Passing some more landslips, I reached the 61km (38mile) mark and onwards the track made its way down to the shoreline. With regular breaks in the trees it was an ever-evolving vista. The blue water sparkled in the sunshine and I felt a million miles away from anywhere and anyone. A few stony beaches scattered the shoreline, and even when I came across a pier there was nobody around.
I came across a sign that detailed my accommodation for the night was just another 25mins away. After a little longer among the vegetation, the track came out at a collection of baches known as The Pines. Suddenly I was walking through well maintained grass and looking out at boats moored off the myriad of piers. Yet still there was not a soul about.
After passing house after house after house, the track wound back into the bushes and a sign pointed to a spur track leading to a Rimu viewing platform. I assumed this meant a viewing platform overlooking the sea, but in fact it was an area to admire a rather large rimu tree, a tree endemic to New Zealand. It was certainly a decent size – I couldn’t fit the whole tree in one photograph – but it was a brief distraction from the main track which shortly after brought me to the much-awaited sign for Furneaux Lodge, my accommodation for the night. It had by now been about 5 hrs since I left Ship’s Cove behind.
Furneaux Lodge couldn’t have been more idyllically set if it tried. A central homestead containing a restaurant and bar with a scattering of cabins amongst the trees, all just metres away from the sparkling ocean lapping the shore of Endeavour Inlet. I had booked myself a hikers cabin: a bunk room with shared bathroom. I was quick to dump my stuff, take off my hiking boots and explore the grounds in my bare feet, the soft grass easing my sores. This was Heaven on Earth. I ate at the restaurant which was rather expensive for its less-than-filling portion sizes, and after making myself a hot chocolate with the provided equipment in my cabin, I took my mug down to the bench on the shore to watch the sun set, silently swatting away flies as the sky changed colour. Then it was just a short distance to retreat for a good night’s sleep.