“Look at his legs,” fellow hiker Tessa says. I can’t stop looking at them, even though I’m panting heavily. Day 1 of the 81-kilometre Queen Charlotte Track and our guide, Ray, a rather sprightly 76-year-old who runs up the hills billy goat-style, is full of vigour. He’s been walking and running for years, “the chance to see places that I wouldn’t ordinarily,” he says. Every month, he completes this route five or six times, all this during his ‘retirement.’
The Queen Charlotte Track traverses the Marlborough Sounds at the top of New Zealand’s South Island and is surrounded by 1500km (over a fifth) of the country’s coastline. ‘Sounds’, for the geologically curious, are sea-drowned river valleys, caused by rising sea levels and subsiding land. Swathes of green hills meet the turquoise waters of the Cook Strait, outlined by a golden line of beaches. The fantastic views, despite the challenge of the walk, make for a wonderful experience. All of which makes me wonder why it doesn’t qualify as one of New Zealand’s ‘Great Walks.’ But, then, the island is decidedly spoilt for walking routes, with numerous tracks and trails of varying terrains and difficulty levels. “New Zealand is my favourite place to walk, by far,” Ray tells me. Despite having trekked everywhere from the Andes to the Antarctic to the Great Wall of China, he feels there’s something ‘right’ about the nature and variety of New Zealand that puts him at ease.
They call it ‘tramping’ here. To my English ears, this sounds decidedly seedy, the kind of thing that occurs in dark Soho basements while inhaling the grim smell of stale smoke and desperation, rather than out here in the great outdoors with its heady scent of freedom. Whether you call it tramping, hiking, yomping, rambling, strolling, or just plain old walking, the fact is New Zealand is famous for it and Ray’s legs are testament to its value.
Well-defined and marked, it’s possible to do the Queen Charlotte Track alone or with a guide. I opt for a mix of the two. For the first day, I follow Ray, along with a group of eight women from Australia on a ‘girls’ weekend. “It’s a chance to walk and talk,” one tells me. “And the physical challenge is great.”
Having taken the boat over from Picton, a sleepy little town at the north of the South island, which was followed by dolphins bounding behind, we’re ready to begin. Our first stop isn’t quite the Queen Charlotte, but Motuara Island, a small bird sanctuary, uninhabited by humans and very inhabited by birds. Cameras are almost shutter-to-beak with them, they’re so tame.
Occasionally, a little box can be found on the lower parts of the track edge. “What are these?” I ask. Ray lifts the lid and the box is full of feathers. We squeal with delight. “These,” says Ray, “are where the small blue penguins come to shed their feathers and grow new ones in their annual moulting process. They nestle in here for six or seven weeks, go bald and then grow new feathers.” Despite desperately keeping our eyes peeled, we don’t spot any of these little creatures, the motherly cooing of my co-walkers failing to attract them. (We’ve come during their out of season time).
Winged creatures, though, are abundant. From the famous New Zealand weka, bustling along making its distinctive ee-wee screech, to the elusive kiwi to black robins hopping around, bellbirds charmingly singing and a small creature with an almost Art Deco-style black and white fan tail, twitchers are well catered for here. “There are no predators here and plenty of places to make home. The most dangerous species,” Ray says, a tour guide cliché but true anyway, “is you.”
Captain James Cook was on to something, for it was he who, in 1770, first ‘discovered’ Ship’s Cove where the walk begins. Cook made the first known contact between Maoris and Europeans, and used this spot as his New Zealand base. A clever chap, he was the only officer to eradicate scurvy amongst his men, feeding them a plant so rich in vitamin C it’s now called ‘Cook’s Scurvy Grass’, which he made more alluring by pretending it was a premium sustenance for officers only. Ray adds some to his sandwiches. “It’s good for you,” he shrugs.
South from here, we see the snowy peaks of the craggy Kaikoura ranges, whereas to the north is Wellington, the shadowy outline of the capital a reminder of civilisation. “This is so much fun,” says Sarah, with almost childish enthusiasm, enjoying the physical challenge.
It’s March and the summer weather still lingers, green banks and tree-lined mountains just starting to be flecked with golden hues. The landscape’s surprisingly varied. Tall pines line up neatly, evolving into muggy rainforests and rolling hills. Glossy karaka trees, once a staple nourishment of the Maori, mark the high water zone. The red-flowering rata vine catches the eye. Delicate yellow daisies quiver in the breeze. The land was farmed for a long time and logs were felled for Cook’s ships, forestry only ceasing here recently. Further down the track, between Mistletoe Bay and the end at Anakiwa, there’s almost an English countryside feel, with low fences, tweeting birds, farm paddocks, and horses on the slopes.
I love walking. I love breathing fresh air. I love using my body. But I also love hot showers, comfortable beds, and a glass of wine at the end of the day. In fact, towards the end of the day, the words ‘could murder a cold one’ are being uttered by us all, which is how we see out the hike together.
I walk alone on the final day, which is by far the toughest section. The track covers more than 24km of undulating terrain, not only varying in gradient but texture, including steep rocky hills where keeping my balance is difficult. The camaraderie and enthusiasm of a group is noticeably absent, especially a group of chatting ladies.
That’s not to say I’m completely alone. All sorts of people are out tramping: young backpackers, older people on guided tours, fit middle-aged men running and huffing, puffing mountain bikers digging deep before the downhill thrill. Challenging in places and meditative in others, the walk is certainly more than a stroll.
The final spot on the track, where the boat comes to return me to Picton, is Anakiwa. Twenty kilometres remain until then. The dips in the landscape, called ‘saddles’, were used as less arduous options for transporting goods. In fact, much of the track was originally used as bridle track by local farmers and miners. Those earlier settlers had a felicitous approach to naming spots on their travels. It’s hard not to feel inspired sitting eating lunch at Resolution Bay and looking out on the ocean, where cool Pacific waters roll in and out. Or to think of endeavours undertaken at Endeavour Inlet.
I reach the highest point on the track, 487m above sea level, somewhere between Torea Bay and Lochmara. It’s easy to become saturated with the glorious scenery on this walk, a feeling that isn’t uncommon in New Zealand. Facing Anakiwa, I have the Queen Charlotte Sound to my left and Pelorus Sound to my right. It strikes me how simple this all is – hills, water, walking… – but how stimulating, beguiling and wonderful. The simple things in life are, indeed, sometimes the very best.