Amanda Jones
back to new zealand articles

Queen Charlotte Track - A Stroll for Sybarites.

Los Angeles Times

What happens when the idea of adventure is still compelling, when the desire to commune with nature is strong, when you still fancy yourself an outdoorswoman, but the appeal of pitching a tent has lost its luster?

It happens to the best of us, and here's what you do: You find places that provide opportunity for strenuous exertion, but with the reward of a bed and a glass of chilled wine at the end of the day.

Last March, I was talked into going to New Zealand to hike the Queen Charlotte Track with a friend on a fitness bender. What sold me was that, sure, we'd be hiking 51 mostly-uphill miles over four days-45 mile on the actual track and an extra six for diversions. But by night we'd stay in lodges, eat fine food and drink good wine. There would be no communal huts, no tents, no schlepping our own backpacks, no nasty camping meals on plastic plates, and no instant coffee. No privation whatsoever.

Located in the pastoral Marlborough region (of award-winning wine fame) on the northeast coast of the South Island, the Queen Charlotte Track is one of New Zealand's most scenic multi-day hikes. Opened in its entirety in 1992, it is not well known to American tourists who tend to throng to the Milford Track. And, bonus, the Queen Charlotte has one of the driest climates in New Zealand (as opposed to the Milford, which is one of the wettest) and is sand fly free (which the Milford is not). Sand flies are nasty biting insects that leave itchy welts for weeks. They're scourge of many of New Zealand's famed walks.

The Queen Charlotte cuts across a pristine coastal ridgeline, through ancient forest and virgin bush. A Sound, by definition, is a former valley flooded by the sea, leaving haphazard slivers of land, surrounded by water, but still adjoining the mainland on one side. There are three sounds in the Marlborough region-the Queen Charlotte, Kenepuru and Pelorus Sound. We were to hike across two.

Although the Queen Charlotte can easily be hiked on one's own, my fitness-freak friend, Debbie Harkness, and I decided to book through the Marlborough Sounds Adventure Company, which offered a reasonably priced package more in keeping with the sybaritic adventure we had in mind. They booked the lodges, the transfers, provided a hiking guide, a kayaking guide and arranged for our baggage to be whisked on ahead by boat (biggest bonus of all). We opted for the five-day excursion, taking a day's break to kayak.

In preparation for our "grand amble," Debbie had gone berserk. She purchased the world's most expensive titanium hiking poles. She had performance inserts made for her shoes. She bought a backpack, stuffed it with 50 pounds of weight and pounded the streets of urban Auckland in training. It was decidedly worrying, as I, in California, was doing nothing.

In late March, the bitter end of the New Zealand summer, we flew from Auckland to Blenheim and then drove 30 minutes to Picton, the only town in the Sounds. Early the first morning we had a trip briefing and met the rest of the group. We were eight in total, the others from England and Australia. Ray Waters would be our guide. 71 years old, his leather-tan and sinewy legs smacked of the uber-althlete. Indeed, he told us, ten years prior he'd actually run the entire track in less than ten hours.

Boarding a small ferry, we headed west toward the trailhead. Dolphins, the only wild mammal appearing genuinely delighted to see humans, surrounded the boat, leaping and spinning. En route, we stopped to investigate a salmon farm. Lining its periphery were hundred of seals peering fixedly through the netting that held the salmon in and them out. "Look at them perving at the fish. What a fantasy!" Debbie commented. Apart from being now very fit, Debbie is also very amusing. She is one of those I call my "elevator friends." If you had to be stuck in an elevator for an uncomfortably long time, who would you choose to be with? Debbie is on my shortlist.

The boat also stopped to allow us to climb Motuara Island for a sweeping view of the Sounds. One of the only "predator free" places in New Zealand, Motuara is only so because the Department of Conservation (DOC) has systematically relocated or eradicated all non-native birds, rats, possums and other predators in an attempt to bring back native species.

New Zealand is a robust example of what science calls "the law of unforeseen consequences." Read: bumbling human meddling in ecosystem. When the white man (pakeha) arrived, they brought with them creatures that went ashore and flourished, several by gobbling up the native species who sat about stupefied, having never before encountered a predator. New Zealand pre-pakeha had no predators. In fact the only mammals were two tiny species of bat. For 65 million years all creatures went about their daily business unthreatened. Then came the pakeha and New Zealand is now fighting for the survival of many native species.

"Listen to the bush," Ray said as we walked up Motuara. "Then compare it to the mainland." The bird song was strong, clear and thick. It sounded healthy, possibly as it had been 65 million years before.

At lunch we were dropped off at Ship Cove, a significant place in New Zealand's colonial past. Captain Cook first anchored in this lovely white-sand bay in 1770 when he claimed New Zealand for Britain. Apparently the beauty of the place so seduced the weary captain that he returned repeatedly to rest.

After a brief reverie, Ray pointed to the track and upward we tramped. That afternoon was steep and fast. We had half a day to make it nine uphill miles. Debbie's poles flashed, her feet traipsed spritely on the dirt trail, legs pumping mechanically. I clamped a grin on my face and dragged my undertrained limbs ever onward. The group quickly thinned, with Ray far out ahead and Debbie and me a respectable distance behind. Ray had once been an Outward Bound trainer and it was clear there would be no molly coddling. He would occasionally jog back up the track to say, "You ladies all right. Righty-o. Carry on," then run off again.

Finally on top of the ridge, we looked down through fern trees to a peacock blue sea scattered with diamonds. Behind us was virgin bush, untouched since Cook's time, with 2000-year-old trees towering above the others. In the distance we could see the North Island, 15 miles away, silhouetted against a cloudless sky. By six at night we tumbled off the track onto the trimmed lawn of Furneaux Lodge. Originally an early-1900s holiday home for well-heeled pioneers, the gracious main building speaks of an older, slower time. Nowadays, hikers sprawl on the vast porch paying homage to their first Steinlager of the evening.

The freestanding suites at Furneaux were modern and chic, with a view of native bush and sea. It was more luxury than could be dreamed up given the location and considering the only access to the lodge is either on foot or by boat.

Day two was a piece of cake, with all day to hike just over 7 miles. We climbed past waterfalls and through forest glens, parts tracing the waterline and others deep in the forest. Like cathedral pillars, sunlight broke through the dense canopy and lit the forest floor. The song of the bellbird rang out clear and lovely, the choir of the hallowed glens. Despite the tranquility, Ray had been right: the birdsong was paltry compared to what it had been on Motuara.

That night was spent at Punga Cove Resort, a family-style lodge where kids roam in a posse and parents go fishing. The rooms were simple A-frame cottages, nothing luxe about them, but it was a step up from a tent and the only thing around.

We woke early to face our longest day. We would hike 15 undulating miles to the 1,300-foot ridge above Kenepuru Sound. Panting mountain bikers passed us on the trail. It is possible to ride the track, but a lot of folks were pushing their bikes up the steeper inclines. We also passed pig hunters, rifles shouldered and dogs in tow. Pigs, another pakeha introduction, have run amok here since Captain Cook released them. In Kafka-esque style, they mutated to three times their English farmyard size, grew savage tusks, and now eviscerate the earth, overturning trees and destroying habitat. Pig hunting is perilous, but a necessary pastime of the isolated farmers who live in the Sounds. They like to call it "eco-hunting."

By late afternoon we dragged ourselves gleefully into the Portage Resort Hotel. Renovated from a run-down lodge into a swanky seaside hotel with minimalist lines, Mondrian colors, modern art, gourmet food and wines, the Portage has to be in one of the country's most sublime locations. We catapulted straight into the pool for a swim.

And so, hallelujah, came our day of rest. We bid farewell to the group and to Ray. Jeremy Martin would be our new guide, and he was to escort us around the bays in a kayak, returning to the Portage for another night of elegant repast and sybaritic sleep. Jeremy was a young, athletic Kiwi bloke, capable and stoic, as Kiwi blokes are. He fitted us with a double kayak, Debbie, naturally, taking the steering position. He took a single and ran circles around us.

I am proud to say that we made it all the way across Kenepuru Sound, where we stopped to "have a cuppa," as is the wont of New Zealanders, a throwback to their ancestry. We were alone on the beach, and the water lapped so soothingly, we lay side by side on the warm sand and had a "kip."

The three of us set of cheerfully and fully restored the next day, prepared to walk the twelve miles to Anakiwa, the end of the track, where a ferry would pick us up at promptly four o'clock and return us to Picton.

But at 3:40, as the end was nigh, I discovered that I had dropped my sunglasses. In a flash, Jeremy was off back up the trail at a sprint. The minutes ticked by. No Jeremy. The ferry approached. No Jeremy. The ferry docked. No Jeremy. And then, as the clock struck 4:01, he came thundering out of the forest and down the dock brandishing my glasses.

And that, right there, is reason enough to forsake the do-it-yourself approach.