Queen Charlotte Track: Punga Cove to Portage
I’d eased myself in nicely to the Queen Charlotte Track, but waking up on day 3, I had a lot of ground to cover before the day was out. Despite being built on a steep hill, I loved Punga Cove, the resort in Camp Bay where I’d spent the night. I could picture coming back here on holiday, catching the boat from Picton and then lounging in the hammocks. It’s a rare occurrence for me to want to relax on holiday, but here was somewhere I could see myself doing so. It is a stunning part of the world.
I had awoken to yet another cracker of a day with a predicted high of 30oC, and from the balcony of the common room, there was a beautiful vista back down to the pier below. From the restaurant where I filled up with breakfast, I could see across Endeavour Inlet and watched as fingers of cloud wrapped over the summit peaks across the bay. Today’s hike was expected to be 8 hrs, and with nowhere to get food on route, I paid to get a packed lunch made up at the resort and it was totally worth it. Unlike the Furneaux Lodge the night before which had been expensive and a little lacking in portion size, Punga Cove was much more reasonable and the lunch looked appetising. Pulling my hiking boots back onto my feet, and throwing my backpack on, I followed the signs out of the resort to the dirt track that led up the hill.
With a full belly, this long and windy track up to the Kenepuru Saddle was a little tiring, and the rough stony surface was uncomfortable under foot. Near the top, a man coming downhill seemed lost and he joined me as we made our way to rejoin the Queen Charlotte Track. For those that weren’t staying at Camp Bay, the track had climbed up to the Saddle on a separate route, and here at this junction, the track switched from Department of Conservation (DOC) land to private land managed by a trust. From Kenepuru Sound onwards, users of the trail need to possess a pass which can be purchased in advance or through some of the resorts on route. The fee is to aid in the upkeep of the land, and spot-checks can occur to ensure compliance. My companion hadn’t realised that he needed one, and didn’t know what to do. The Punga Cove resort sold them but that meant going all the way back down the hill again, and I could see him torn about whether to turn back or risk going onwards. In the end I left him dithering.
The track immediately climbed to a low ridgeline offering a stunning view along the valley. For the first time, the Queen Charlotte Sound was out of view, and now I was looking out towards the Kenepuru Sound on the opposite side of the peninsula in the distance. The valley view kept me company for some time, the water creeping ever closer as I looked down over farmland. The 41km (25.5 mile) marker came and went and yet another landslide was passed. The track changed to a woodland walk, giving some brief respite from the sun which was already warming up well. There were lots of hand-painted signs along the track, many giving distance markers to local places or further afield. As the Kenepuru Sound reached a head-on view, the track shifted slightly and I found myself looking back over the Queen Charlotte Sound again. It was a little hazy but with blue skies and blue sea, there was much to look at.
Beyond here, the tall trees framed the view over Kenepuru and a short while later a side track led up to Eatwells Lookout at 474m (1555ft). A weka wandered around, and I left it stumbling around the undergrowth and slogged up the rough track to the lookout. At the top was a trio of hikers who I ended up repeatedly bumping into for the next two days. We shared some conversation as we all absorbed the view and then they left me to it. There was some cloud hovering over the Queen Charlotte Sound meaning the North Island was hidden from view. Another hand-painted distance marker showed that I was a long way from a lot of places and that suited me just fine. One of my favourite things about hiking is the feeling of isolation and being a long way from the world and its troubles. I was hot, but I was completely at ease.
I’d made the mistaken decision to wear my gym capris for that day’s hike instead of my usual hiking trousers, and already I was regretting it. Unlike my trousers which are looser and help the air flow to keep me cool, my capris were encouraging me to sweat, and they felt tight and clingy. But after some other people appeared at the lookout, I headed off to continue on the long day’s hike. Back at the track junction, a DOC sign listed just 30mins to reach the Bay of Many Coves Shelter. The track disappeared into a tunnel of trees where I was taunted by South Island Robins, a small and quick little bird that always eludes my camera. When at last there was a view again, it was over the beautiful Bay of Many Coves, who’s name is descriptively accurate. The changing viewpoint of this gorgeous bay was to be my companion for some time.
Near the 36km (22 mile) marker a juvenile weka wandered out the bushes and eyeballed me for a while, it’s sprouting feathers a dishevelled mess. It proceeded to plonk itself down next to the path and preen itself whilst I watched. After the shelter, the track started to climb again until it reached a side track leading down to a resort on the waterfront. From here onwards, the track was quick to switch back to views of the Kenepuru Sound and I was regularly coming across a spread out group of mountain bikers using the trail that day. The track quality here was probably the poorest of the whole hike: obvious to follow but very uneven and stony under foot.
After a long section overlooking the Kenepuru side of the peninsula, the track curved round a peak towards the Queen Charlotte Sound again, and for the first time since I’d left it 2 days prior, I could see Picton, the town where the interisland ferry departs from, and where I’d caught the boat to Ship’s Cove to start the hike. It seemed both far away and so close at the same time, an illusion created by the continued snaking of the track and the peninsula that it followed. The busyness of the track that day meant I regularly found the viewpoints and benches were taken up when I got to them, and I was eager to find somewhere with a view to stop and have lunch. I’d already had a few snacks but I was eager for a break to rest my feet. Finally I found a perfectly shaped stone seat overlooking Blackwood Bay to enjoy a late lunch.
The sky continued to remain cloudless, keeping the mercury high that day, but the haze had reduced since the morning, making the distant viewing much clearer. There simply wasn’t a bad view in sight, and as I wandered along with Picton in the visible distance, I watched the two interisland ferries plough through the Queen Charlotte Sound seeming small like a toy. By the time I reached Black Rock Station, I was once more looking over the Kenepuru Sound and there was the occasional hint of civilisation with a road curving round the shore below and the occasional house or building. Passing the 26km (16 mile) marker, I was afforded a view all the way back up to the Kenepuru Sound Head which I’d passed many hours prior.
When at last I reached Black Rock Campsite, I met the same group of hikers I’d met at Eatwell Lookout earlier that morning. My energy was starting to flag a little, and 6hrs into the hike, I needed to start conserving my water. The trees meant the view was limited here, so once I’d refuelled, I moved on. After a while, the trees grew taller and denser and the track began its long descent towards Portage. It is possible to leave the Queen Charlotte Track behind and hike up another peak for an alternative, less marked route to Portage, but I opted to stick to the proper track meaning a long forest walk that swung out on a long ridge before almost doubling back on itself. Within this forest section I played tortoise and hare with the same 3 hikers from before, and here, the landslides were the worst of the entire hike. The bikers that had passed me earlier would have had quite a bit of effort getting their bikes over these ones with a good bit of climbing up over tree branches required.
The occasional break in the trees provided some distraction from the feeling that the path would never end. I knew it was to double back at a point, but it felt like forever before this happened, and then with glee I realised that Portage and the food and cold cider that that would bring were getting more and more within reach. When finally I reached the 21km (13 mile) marker, it was almost just a stumble to come out of the trees and reach a tarmac road where a war memorial sat at the saddle of the hill. This road crossed the peninsula from one side to the other and I followed it north to head down the hill to Portage. Even it had not escaped damage from the recent storm and there were landslides on both sides of it, including one large one halfway down where the side of the road and the bank that had supported it had collapsed and slid down the hillside.
Portage sparkled in the sunshine and I followed the signs to my accommodation for the night. It had taken me 3 attempts to find somewhere to stay here, finally bagging a bed at the Treetops Backpackers. Only once I reached the shoreline at Portage did I realise with dismay that my backpackers was up a hill. My feet were moving purely on autopilot by this stage after well over 7hrs, and the thighs started screaming at me as I began the hike up the driveway to reach the house at the top. I was delighted to discover that I had the backpackers to myself, there having been some cancellations following the earthquake the week before, and I kicked my shoes off and peeled my clothes off to have a much needed shower at just the right temperature.
After resting my feet briefly, I headed down the hill once more to the Portage Resort where I nabbed myself a nice cold cider, and found myself a table with a sea view to enjoy it. All the bikers that had passed me that day were at a nearby table, and the place was popular and bustling. After a while I ordered dinner and tucked in to a much deserved meal whilst the sun began to dip low behind the nearby hill. Only when the air grew colder and my eyes began to feel heavy did I leave to make my way back up the hill to my private cabin in the woods. There was no view other than trees, but this place was just what I needed, and once again it took little effort to drift off for another restful sleep.