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Autumn Roadie: Christchurch to National Park

The first six weeks of my life in New Zealand, back in early 2012, were spent exploring the North Island. But after setting up a life in Christchurch, in the country’s south island, aside from flying up to Auckland and Wellington from time to time, I haven’t really explored or re-explored the rest of the north island. In the 5.5 years that I have been here, I’ve managed to explore the vast majority of the country but there are still some pockets left to conquer, and in particular I had a hike that I was keen to do but had been thwarted from doing on two previous occasions. So with a week off for my birthday in March, I decided that I was going to head north to do the hike no matter the weather, and faced with the decision of flying to Wellington then relying on public transport, or making a road trip (or roadie) out of it, I had no doubts in my mind I was going to drive myself there.

But just as my previous drive north to hike the Queen Charlotte Track had been disrupted by the closure of State Highway (SH) 1 post-earthquake, this trip too would be longer than anticipated. I had booked the ferry and all my accommodation in October last year, so I had a morning of work to get through first before what should have been just a 4hr drive to Picton from Christchurch. Instead, I was forced to follow SH 7 through the Lewis Pass and onwards through Murchison, and St Arnaud to Picton. I’d had to take this same route for the hike in November, and it had taken 6hrs, but to add insult to injury, just a few days before I was due to leave, a bush fire sprung up on SH 7 and the road closed briefly. As it turned out, this drive couldn’t have been more different than the last time.

SH1 between Christchurch and Picton was always the main thoroughfare between the two settlements, and freight typically travelled by train between them. Now, with both the road and railway out of action, the traffic volume, and in particular the massive increase in heavy goods vehicles using the inland route, the road surface has taken a drumming. With speed restrictions due to road upgrades and slow moving vehicles through the twisting pass, this route is now at least a 7hr drive. It was a beautifully sunny day, and after having done a morning at work, it was a tiring and rather relentless drive, requiring a lot of concentration. The area of the bush fire was still smouldering as I passed through the now blackened landscape, and as the road twisted onwards, spots to overtake the slower HGVs were precious in their rarity, meaning I was reluctant to stop anywhere lest they catch up with me.

And so I ploughed through Springs Junction, skipped past Maruia Falls, ignored Murchison, and only pulled in at Lake Rotoiti where I knew I could stretch my legs and use a restroom. When my partner and I stayed at nearby St Arnaud for the first time a couple of years ago, the place was like a sleepy little village, more commonly full of Kiwis than tourists. Now, the traffic passing through is massively increased, and there were more campervans there than usual. There happened to be a boat show on that weekend, so the waterfront at the boat launching part of the lake was pretty busy, but I pulled up near the pier, where I went for a brief walk to stretch my legs. I love the view here. Unfortunately the sandflies love it too, so any outdoor time needs repellant, otherwise relaxation here can quickly be ruined.

 

Time was not on my side though. The evening was stretching on and I was keen to stop in and say hello to a friend that I would be passing by on route. The reception for my accommodation in Picton closed at 9pm so I was running tight on time to make it there. I had an all-too-brief catch up over a cup of tea in Renwick, near Blenheim, but then it was time to crack on in the dark. It was a little hard to see the potholes coming without the benefit of daylight, but finally I was in Picton, my rest stop ahead of my morning sailing to the north island. I ended up in the exact same room that I had stayed in after completing the Queen Charlotte Track in November last yr.

The following morning there was a beautiful clear sky. It takes a bit of time for the sunlight to creep over the mountains that surround Picton, but I knew it would be a beautiful sailing through the Queen Charlotte Sounds and across the Cook Strait. I’d used the ferry between the islands three times before, but always on the Interislander ferries. For the first time I was using the opposition, Bluebridge. Once on board, I grabbed myself a take-away breakfast and headed up to the outside top deck to watch the changing view of what I think is the most beautiful ferry crossing in the world. The first 1.5hrs of this sailing is curling through the stunning sounds, surrounded by rolling hillsides which hide secluded homes overlooking sparkling bays. The sea was calm and reflective and near Picton there were even some people out on kayaks following the coast.

 

Past East Bay, the route turns a near 90 degree angle, then turns again to cut through between Arapawa Island and the mainland peninsula. Finally, through a dramatic gap in the rocks, it pushes forth into the Cook Strait, the body of water that separates the two main islands of New Zealand. The Cook Strait can be notoriously rough, but on a good day it is a smooth crossing, and I remained outside watching the South Island grow further away and the North Island become sharper through the haze. It takes about an hour to negotiate this section of open water, and there was a little chop on the sea, but nothing that the boat couldn’t handle.

 

Finally, in the middle of Fitzroy Bay, the ferry turned to point in towards Wellington Harbour, and that familiar sight of the country’s capital city. After a wash-out of a New Year’s trip here, it was nice to see Wellington basking in the sunshine again, and I wore the smile I always get when an adventure is coming. Whilst driving in the north island is no different than the south island, this would be the first time I’d been in control of a car in the north island, and as silly as it seemed, this just added to the feeling of being on an adventure. By the time the ferry had berthed, and the announcement had come to return to the car deck, I was excited to get going.

 

After disembarking, I headed straight onto SH1 and left Wellington behind. Climbing up over the hills at the back of the city, SH1 winds its way north, cutting across to reach the Kapiti coastline at Pukerua Bay. A large section of the highway here had been upgraded to an expressway since I’d last passed through, so it was easy to get many kilometers behind me at a good pace. After a while, the coast remains close although hidden out of view. I passed through Foxton where my partner and I had spent the night on our way to Auckland back in late 2013, and finally I reached Bulls, a town which always stuck in my mind from 2012 when I stopped here whilst traversing the island on a Stray Bus pass as a new arrival. From this point onwards though, I was touching new territory for me. My destination was National Park on the edge of Tongariro National Park, and whilst I could have gotten there by staying on SH1, I had decided to follow SH3 to Whanganui (also Wanganui).

With a reputation, I discovered later, for gang-related incidents, I went there without knowing this, and on such a sunny day, I really liked the place. I parked up on Anzac Parade opposite the Wanganui City Bridge, from where a long white tunnel leads underground to an elevator shaft. Built in 1919, the Durie Hill elevator is a kooky tourist attraction taking you up inside the hillside for $2 cash each way. It is a rattly piece of equipment but it does the job, and at the top, the building that houses the elevator also doubles as an observation platform, from where there is a cracking view over the city and the river that snakes past it. Behind it is the tall War Memorial tower. 176 spiralling steps lead up to the top which again gives an impressive view of the city and its surroundings. It was windy up here, and the horizon was a little hazy in places, but I could see both the volcanic Mt Ruapehu in Tongariro National Park as well as the equally volcanic cone of Mt Taranaki in Egmont National Park. I was excited because the previous 3 times I’d driven through Tongariro National Park, the cloud cover had been low and I’d never actually seen the summit of her famous volcanoes, so this was my first sighting of the impressive Mt Ruapehu summit.

 

After soaking up the view on both building’s roof platforms, I retreated back down the rickety elevator and along the extensive tunnel once more before driving across the Wanganui river and parking up in the city. On face value, the city’s waterfront was pretty. The river was rather brown, but there was a pleasant boardwalk along the riverside, with an interesting orb sculpture as well as a paddlesteamer moored up for interest. I cut up from the riverside to Queens Park where the city’s war memorials stood amongst some galleries and sculptures. Despite it being a hot and sunny Sunday, I had the park to myself, and the city was quite a quiet place to be. After a wander round here, I cut through Majestic Square and up onto the hillside overlooking the stadium at Cooks Gardens, before cutting back to the main thoroughfare of Victoria Avenue. Returning to the riverside once more, I returned to my car having fallen in love with Whanganui, but in need of heading ever onwards.

 

The Wanganui river is the largest navigable river in New Zealand, and following SH4 it is possible to follow it upstream to the north. Its origin is Mount Tongariro in the National Park of the same name, and I decided to take the scenic route north by cutting off the main highway and sticking to the road that hugs the river. Almost immediately the Whanganui River Road snaked up a hillside and presented me at lookout spot with a beautiful view up the river valley. In the far distance, the snowy summit of Mt Ruapehu glistened in the sunlight. I was very glad I took this detour. Although the road conditions weren’t great (it is technically a sealed road, but there was a lot of resurfacing going on when I passed through in early March), the views were incredible. It also felt nicely isolated and peaceful with only a handful of other cars travelling the same road, and whenever I stopped, I was serenaded by cicadas. The river flowed peacefully through the ever changing valley, and although it was quite a time-commitment to take this detour, it was worth every minute.

 

It was some time though, before eventually I reached Pipiriki where I took the turnoff to lead me up and through a forestry zone. For more than half the distance, it wound its way through the trees, up and over and around the rolling hillside. When eventually the trees came to an end, and the open countryside spread away before me, I could once again see Mt Ruapehu and this time just beyond it, the distinctive cone shape of Mt Ngauruhoe (better known to some as Mt Doom in the Lord of the Rings movies) peaked above the horizon behind it. Reaching Raetihi, I rejoined SH4 heading north to pass the western flank of Mt Ruapehu on route to National Park village. I’d unknowingly stayed here before back in 2012, but at the time the weather had been so abysmal, there was no view to speak of and I had no idea how close I was to the volcanoes at the time. This time though, I could see they were right in front of me, although the cloud bank had started to move in for the night.

 

Pretty much everyone at my hostel was there either before or after walking the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, New Zealand’s most famous and most popular day hike. It would have been a beautiful day to have done the hike, and I wondered what weather those hiking it the following day would get for it. I had a 4-day hike ahead of me, so after rearranging all my hiking gear, I set off to one of the few places to eat in the village, The Station, which is a cafe by day and restaurant by night. Being a Sunday, they were offering a roast dinner which I duly took up the offer of, washed down by some cider. The following day was my birthday, and as I would be without phone signal or internet for nearly 4 days, I found myself having a video call with my brother and nephew in Scotland, whilst in the middle of the restaurant. Finally though, it was time to retire, for the next day, I would finally be setting off on a much-anticipated hike.

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Queen Charlotte Track: Ship’s Cove to Furneaux Lodge

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.

Maruia Falls

Lake Rotoiti

 

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.

Picton harbour

 

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.

Queen Charlotte Sound

Sailing through the Queen Charlotte Sound

 

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.

Maori totem pole

Tiki carving

Maori carving

Cook monument at Ship's Cove

Ship's Cove panorama

 

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.

Waterfall track leaving Ship's Cove

Double waterfall

Waterfall tier

 

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.

Captain Cook's visits to the area

Pier at Ship's Cove

Walking the pier at Ship's Cove

 

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.

DOC sign at the start of the QCT

71km to go...

Poison, poison everywhere

 

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.

The path climbing out of Ship's Cove

A common sight: humane pest trap

A sneaky peak of the view to come

Hiking through the New Zealand bush

Resolution Bay from the lookout

Motuara Island with Kapiti Island and the North Island on the horizon

Bellbird/Korimako

Winding down the hillside to Resolution Bay

 

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.

Resolution Bay

DOC signage at Schoolhouse Bay junction

Resolution Bay

 

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.

Schoolhouse Bay panorama

Panorama from Schoolhouse Bay campsite

Beach at Schoolhouse Bay campsite

 

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.

Red fern leaves

QCT crossing onto private land

Fork in the track

Waterfall next to the track

Waterfall next to the QCT

Looking back towards the previous ridge behind Resolution Bay

Further round Resolution Bay

Cabbage tree

Leaving Resolution Bay behind

 

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.

Landslip blocking most of the path

Looking out over Endeavour Inlet from the viewpoint

 

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.

Descending down into Endeavour Inlet

Hiking through the trees

Endeavour Inlet panorama

Beautiful blue water

Curled up fern frond

Panorama of Endeavour Inlet

 

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.

Nearly at my night's accommodation

Walking through The Pines

Looking towards the head of Endeavour Inlet

 

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.

Rimu viewing platform

Sun sparkling through the branches of a rimu tree

Furneaux Lodge sign on the QCT

 

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.

Endeavour Inlet from Furneaux Lodge

Furneaux Lodge

Furneaux Lodge panorama

Sunset at Furneaux Lodge

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