Te Araroa, Days 67-70: The Queen Charlotte Track
Well, those of you who have been following may have noticed that it’s been a couple of weeks since I’ve written any posts. I’m going to attribute the hiatus to the charmingly distracting influence of the wonderful Scott, who flew over from the US to walk the final South Island section of the TA with me and then do some road-tripping on the west coast. It was two weeks of fun, luxury (read: beds instead of tents), and so SO much food. A perfect way to round out my South Island adventure and get ready to transition over to the north.
It’s funny – when I started this hike back in Bluff on January 1, I didn’t feel nervous at all – I had no idea what to expect so there wasn’t anything tangible for my anxieties to latch onto. Now that I’ve walked the whole South Island I actually feel a little freaked out about getting started on the north – like, “I have to do that much hiking, AGAIN?!” I know too much about the pain that awaits me, and I fear it, friends.
But let’s not ruminate on my trail anxiety anymore. Instead, I’ll tell you about the Queen Charlotte Track, the northeasternmost section of the Te Araroa on the South Island, which meanders through the Marlborough Sounds region between the towns of Anakiwa and Picton. The trail is reachable by boat and there are a bunch of campsites and lodges along the way; under the guise of altruistic concern for Scott’s comfort I arranged for our bags to be carried by water taxi to our stopping point for each night so we could slack pack. Let the luxury begin!
So, first a few words about the amazing and strange Marlborough Sounds. This section of the coast is full of nooks, crannies, harbors, inlets, and coves – totally different from the windy, exposed shores of the Tasman Sea further west. And rather than sandy beaches, the Marlborough Sounds have forested mountains that come right down to the water’s edge. You’d look at them and think, “If I didn’t know any better, I’d bet those mountains keep going down underwater.” And actually, you’d be right! The Sounds region is right at the boundary of the Pacific and Australian plates, and it’s getting dragged down as the Pacific plate subducts under the Australian. Added to which, the rise in sea level at the end of the last Ice Age caused massive flooding, drowning all the valleys and leaving just the tops of the mountains exposed. Drowned mountains, people! Geologically, it’s a crazy place.
Ok, so the trail. On our first morning, we took the water taxi from Picton to the end of the trail at Ship Cove. (Because the boat only schleps baggage from east to west, we started from Picton instead of Anakiwa; northbound TA walkers typically do it the other way so it’s contiguous with the northeastern end of the Richmond Ranges. I know that doesn’t mean anything to people who aren’t actively looking at a map while reading this, and truly, it’s maybe not a very important detail anyway. Sorry for the long parenthetical tangent here!) We met some of my trail pals at Ship Cove and I got to introduce Scott to them. First Brad and Ink, then Harold – all finishing their last day of walking on the South Island! I knew we’d be seeing Harold so I brought us a picnic of L&P (NZ soda Harold is exceedingly fond of) and savory pies, the latter of which were only partially smashed by their boat ride.
As we walked, I was fascinated to see how much the climate and plants in this region differed from the other parts of the South Island I’d seen along the trail. Finally, here were the tree ferns, palms, and podocarps, the giant rimu with their colonies of epiphytes and vines. And here was the humidity! What a different world from the mountain peaks of the interior.
The trail itself is wide – Scott and I could actually walk next to each other! – and mercifully graded (gentle switchbacks instead of hillside scrambles), and with nothing but feather-light daypacks to carry, the whole experience felt pretty darn relaxed. We had so much energy to spare after the first day that we went kayaking that night AND the next morning (kayak courtesy of the owners of the cabin where we stayed). We saw seals on the rocks, manta rays in the water, cormorants in the air.
I think a person who needed to make time could walk the Queen Charlotte in two and a half days; for my part, I’m glad Scott and I took our leisurely four days. In the end, the extra time was what made the experience so great – time to look at the plants, watch the seals, sit in the occasional hot tub. Time to reflect on the past 800 miles and get ready for the next 1000!
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