Queen Charlotte Track: Furneaux Lodge to Punga Cove
I awoke following a restful sleep to a beautiful sunny morning. Stepping out of my cabin, there was not a cloud in the sky and the sea was calm and still. It was going to be another stunning day in the Marlborough region of New Zealand. After another expensive meal for breakfast at the idyllic Furneaux Lodge, I took my time milling around the grounds in no hurry to leave. This was to be the shortest day’s hike of the Queen Charlotte track and I had time on my side. My destination for the night was visible on the far side of the glistening waters of Endeavour Inlet and I had a couple of side trips that I wanted to make on route.
The moon was still visible in the sky as I left the lodge behind and headed back onto the Queen Charlotte track. It was a little vague in places with multiple side routes heading off into bushes and down to a nearby stream. Not too far along the track was a Department of Conservation (DOC) sign marking a 1 hour return track to a waterfall. With plenty of daylight hours ahead of me, this was the first of two detours to make that day. Nobody else seemed to be on this track and it was with good reason: shortly after leaving the main track behind, the quality deteriorated dramatically and I found myself pushing through the overgrowth and climbing over tree roots blindly following the orange arrows that pointed the way. A giant tree and the occasional glimpse of the nearby stream broke up the view of thick bush, and after what felt like forever, I was a little underwhelmed with what I found at the end of the bush track. A large boulder had created a high rock wall next to what I assume used to be a waterfall. There was only a small trickle, but the moss on the rock surface suggested this has had a lot of water over it in the past. There was a waterfall not far from here but I had to climb through tree branches to view it properly so I’m not convinced this was the original waterfall that the track was created for.
Back on the Queen Charlotte track, the detour had taken a little under an hour, and the main route remained amongst the trees for a little longer. Only at the next resort did the sea come back into view, and just past here I passed the 56 km (35 mile) mark, before reaching a suspension bridge over a river. Here was the head of the Endeavour Inlet and over the bridge there was some pasture land with grazing cattle to the right and signs relaying information about the mining works of the area. Up the valley is the remains of an antimony mine, and down where I stood used to stand the village where the miners and their families lived. There wasn’t much evidence left of their presence. The DOC sign detailed the mines as being an hour away, and this was to be my second detour of the day, stretching what would otherwise be a 5hr hike into a 7hr hike. Passing the rusted remains of old farm machinery, and some properties hidden amongst the bush, the track followed a 4×4 track to a river and crossed the other side via a ford. I walked up and down the river bank looking for another way across but with no gaiters to help keep the water out of my boots there was no way that I was crossing this deep a river without the right gear. I was a little annoyed and a little frustrated as I had assumed it would be a straightforward track to follow. I wandered back and forth a couple of times in case I’d missed an obvious turn in the track, but eventually had to admit defeat and turn back.
I wasn’t disheartened for long though with such fabulous scenery to grab my attention. I wandered down to the mudflat at the head of Endeavour Inlet and breathed in the fresh sea air for a while before rejoining the track. A little down the track there was a well placed stone bench that I made use of for a snack stop, looking out at the sea. After a brief respite, I started meandering along the track again, taking the fork away from the shoreline where it started to pick its way up the hillside again. I could see back over to Furneaux Lodge on the far side, and the track varied between being amongst thick bush, and being more open. Small streams trickled past the track, and a couple of bridges spanned a couple of them.
After a while, the bush opened up, and a gate marked a transition into a more cultivated landscape where the grass was short and a couple of baches (holiday homes) sat on the hillside above the track. A lone weka rummaged around in the undergrowth near a picnic table, and these birds were a constant companion on this hike. In wild bushland in New Zealand roams wild boar, introduced historically for hunting purposes. I have once come across some whilst out hiking in the bush in the North Island and they gave me such a fright when they burst out of nowhere in front of me on the trail. I had read that boar could occasionally be spotted on this track, and on a frequent basis the sound of rustling in the undergrowth would get my curiosity up only to find it was a weka, either on its own, or with a chick. These chicken-sized birds are one of many flightless bird species in the country and many tourists confuse them for kiwis.
After returning to the bush once more, the track showed lots of evidence of the earthquake and flash flooding that had occurred just a week prior. In one section the ground had cracked and dropped, creating stepping and past this a landslide littered the path with debris. I passed the 51 km (31.5 miles) mark surrounded by bush before a break in the vegetation allowed me to get a view across the Endeavour Inlet to where it branches off the Queen Charlotte Sound. Just as the path took a near 90 degree turn, I was once more distracted by a rummaging in the bush. Out fell a one-legged weka who contemplated me briefly before hopping and falling over to my feet. They are quite bold birds and eager to grab any tasty morsel they can claim from you given half a chance. They are even known to peck at cameras and steal lens caps. I watched it for a while, crouching down to its level and eyeballing it whilst it stood there. After some time though, something spooked it and it went racing back to the bushes as fast as its one leg could carry it.
The track changed from a clay-like soil to tree roots and fallen leaves as it once again returned to the bush. In the blistering heat, the regular shade was a welcome relief, and then I turned a corner to come across a fallen tree that spanned the path. As a hiker, these obstacles were easy enough to manoeuvre around but the Queen Charlotte track is a shared biking track, and there were plenty of people biking the track whilst I was hiking it. The regular landslips and leaning trees were merely a side-step or easy clamber over or under for me, but they would have meant a dismount or a lifting over of a bike for the many riders on the track.
It was a long section in the bush rounding the headland into Big Bay. Once more there were plenty of streams and waterfalls to look at and the beautiful canopy above and around me was ever changing. I was serenaded by bellbirds and robins that flitted through the trees as I passed below them. Where the track skirted the shoreline again I passed through the tree line onto the rocky shore and found a handy log to sit on. It was a beautiful snack stop listening to the gentle lapping of the waves near my feet under a still cloudless sky. I was less than an hour away from my destination and it was only early afternoon. I toyed with the idea of taking a swim then thought better of it, and chose to sunbathe for a while instead.
Back on the track, there was a nearly uninterrupted sea view for the rest of the hike. Beyond here the track divided: the lower track heading to a variety of accommodation options in Camp Bay, and the upper track cutting up the hillside to reach the Kenepuru Saddle. I had booked a cabin at Punga Cove in Camp Bay so stuck to the lower path which almost immediately demonstrated a high level of erosion. It is possible that either the earthquake or the flash flooding of November 14th did the damage, but I suspect a lot of the cracks and holes in the ground were more likely due to the wash-out effect of the rain. A large crack split the track lengthways down the middle and past this, a large hole had swallowed up half the width of the path. Undeterred I could see Punga Cove through the trees and kept going.
The amble into Camp Bay’s campsite is beautiful with boats anchored in the water, and houses peaking through the trees. I could see people swimming in the sea in the distance and could hear the sound of people enjoying themselves. A DOC sign at the campsite showed I’d walked 27 of the 71 km track and I was just 15 minutes away from my night’s stop. Passing a jetty I followed the signs to Punga Cove as they separated from the main track and as it curved round a bend I came across a large hole in the track. There was just a ledge left, big enough to fit a foot and little more and I hastily crossed it, aware of the drop if the ground decided to give way below me. But waiting at the other side of me was the most fantastic spot to spend the night.
Punga Cove is spread out across the hillside overlooking Camp Bay. At the pier at sea level is a bar and cafe, next to which is a grass lawn littered with deck chairs and hammocks hanging amongst the trees. Just behind this is a hot tub and swimming pool, and the accommodation is littered at various levels up the hill. I checked in at reception to discover my hiker’s cabin was right at the top of the hill and I sweated my way up in the heat to find my little room waiting for me. Upstairs, the shared kitchen/lounge had a balcony which overlooked the bay. After removing my shoes and gingerly heading downhill in my bare feet, I stopped by the pool to soak my legs for a while then picked my way to the bar, ordered a pizza and a cider and parked up on the pier to relax. It would have been a good place to go swimming but I had packed light and had nothing to swim in, so I took the lazy and leisurely approach of sunbathing whilst watching everyone else play in the water.
The mail boat came and went and I strolled along the pier to watch the fishes before finding a large hammock suspended amongst the lower trees next to the lawn. I swayed and dozed here until the sun had dropped low enough to leave me cool in the shade. Following a snack, I returned to the pier bar for some ice cream and hot chocolate and waited for the sun to get low behind the hill. Then I just had to retreat up the hillside once more and find my bed to give my legs a rest. The shared lounge had a book share so I took a book to read which I struggled to get into, but it wasn’t hard to fall asleep after all the fresh air and walking. I woke in the night to the sensation of an earthquake and thought to myself that I wouldn’t have wanted to be perched on that hillside if a big quake ripped through there. But after a 5 hr hike that day, I was quick to get back to sleep, ready for the big day’s hike ahead of me.