Wellington to Pelorus Bridge
The toughest part of the Queen Charlotte track was choosing the wine to pair with my steak.
This leg of the journey was in no way physically demanding. A welcome surprise.
The evening of January 25th I boarded a ferry from Wellington towards Picton, on the South Island. This is a three-hour trip across the open sea of the Cook Straight and then into the narrow sheltered waters of the Queen Charlotte Sound. The late sailing provided a quiet, half-empty boat and a beautiful sunset in calm waters as the ferry slipped through narrow passages to the harbour in Picton. It reminded me a lot of the ferry rides on Canada’s West coast, with mountains and forests spilling steeply into the sea. The exception being the water. The sea here was tourquoise and transparent whereas the North Pacific is darker and rich in plantlife.
Arriving at the hostel, I met up with Bobby. We had a quick drink, caught up, and shared plans for the coming days and then called it a night.
The following morning, after wishing Bobby a safe walk as he headed on, I spent the whole of the day on January 26th in Picton organizing resupply mail drops for the coming weeks and gently nursing my massive blood blister. These mail drops involved buying food and other items and mailing packages ahead to locations on the trail where there are no stores. The next four weeks of the walk would involve a series of 6-7 day stretches across mountain ranges with no stores in between. Beyond the tactical steps of shopping, packaging and mailing, there was a certain amount of anxiety to make sure nothing was overlooked: checking the trail notes, counting the meals. Counting again.
Come the end of the day, I was satisfied I had covered my bases appropriately and mailed about 15 kg of food ahead to three destinations on the trail. I also found time to book a water taxi to take me to Ship Cove the next morning and arranged for accomodations along the Queen Charlotte Track, the first leg of walking on the South Island. Later that day, David arrived on the ferry and he and I had a hearty, homestyle dinner and beers at the Picton RSA before I headed back to my dorm room and an early night.
The morning of January 27th I was up early, packing my backpack in the dark hallway of the hostel so as not to disturb my five (!) 20-something German dorm mates. I walked down to the harbour to meet the water taxi at 7:30 am, and was joined on the boat by David, Rob and Joss (UK, who I had not seen since mid November) and Rob’s Dad, who was joining Rob and Joss in walking the Queen Charlotte track. It was very good to catch up with Joss and Rob, a couple of walkers I had not seen in such a long time.
90 minutes later we were standing on the jetty at Ships Cove, at the far end of a narrow, bay-filled peninsula in the Queen Charlotte Sound, from where we would walk back inland. Right here. This was the start of the South Island journey.
We all took our own time to get organized, I said so-longs to the others and started up the path on my own.
Walking away from the clear blue waters off the jetty, the first thing that struck me was the wall of sound that was the constant uninterrupted sound of millions of cicadas. So loud. This was constant and overwhelmingly distracting, so I chose to listen to music as a means of not being driven to madness.
The Queen Charlotte track is very popular because it is stunningly pretty, rich with scenic bays and coves and beaches and turquoise waters. It is also crosses a mix of private and public lands, so the trail is serviced by private commercial lodges and resorts at regular intervals. It is well-engineered and a fast track. The weather was spectacular and hot, so by 4 pm, when I arrived at Punga Cove Resort, I was tired and dehydrated. Fortunately, Punga Cove Resort had me covered. A waterfront bar overlooking the cove had an exceptional selection of craft beer, which I enjoyed after first settling into my room. It was in my room that I discovered a welcome surprise: my blood blister collapsed at some point in that afternoon’s walk! The pain had receded completely. This was one last anxiety that had resolved itself. A cause for one more beer in celebration. Okay, two more beer!
After a short nap (because three beers), I headed up the hill to the restaurant at Punga Cove, where I sat on the deck and enjoyed a stunning sunset high above the sailboats moored in the Cove, and a very tasty steak paired with a Pinot Noir. I also enjoyed a handmade alfajore prepared by the restaurant’s Argentine chef. A tasty memory of time spent in South America with my family.
Although the distance to the next stop was modest, I chose to head out early the morning of January 28th in order to miss out on some of the heat. The trail was once again scenic and fast, and by 1:30 pm I found myself seated on the patio of the Portage Bay Resort, overlooking the still blue water, nursing a tasty beer. The rest of that afternoon was spent swimming to cool off, sipping beer and repeating the cycle before returning to my hostel across the road. That is where I found out about water portage.
If this trail wasn’t already easy enough, the host at the hostel explained that for $10 I could arrange for my backpack to be delivered by water taxi the next day to my next stop! This was simply too good to pass up.
So, the morning of January 29th, I packed my bag, grabbed a water bottle and headed out on the trail sans pack. This was a gamechanger. The walk was super-fast without any pack to carry. I found myself at the end of the Queen Charlotte track at the 401 Anikawa backpackers at noon, with the day’s walk done. Waiting for my backpack to catch up with me, I spent the afternoon napping in a hammock, sipping a beer and swimming in the cool sea. As I stopped to grab a late-afternoon espresso from the Green Caravan Cafe, I ran into David once again, who elected to stay the night and share my room at the backpackers. It was a quiet night spent reading from that point and an early bedtime. There was a big day ahead.
January 30th was a return back to the reality of the Te Araroa: a long day (38 km) with a pack on my back. The walk was a mix of roads, hills and pastures, with a stop in the town of Havelock for bacon and eggs and a few essentials I had overlooked in the mail drop awaiting me in Pilorus Bridge at the end of the day. I arrived at 4 pm at the campground and retrieved my food parcels. The evening was spent squeezing the 7-day supply of food into my backpack and chatting with David and getting to know Matt (PA), another TA walker who was a new face we met camping next to us. This night alas, would be spent in a tent after so many recent nights under a roof.
Ahead of us all the next day was the Richmond Range, what is considered the most challenging section of the Te Araroa trail: high alpine passes, many creek and river crossings, sudden and severe weather changes, 7-9 days in the mountains and the weight burden of enough food to last that much time.
By contrast, these previous days in the journey were the easiest and most relaxed. Downright decadent really. I am grateful for the opportunity they have given my body to heal, rest and rejuvenate. My sense is that the challenging days immediately ahead will benefit from those lazy afternoons spent sipping beers and sleeping in hammocks. I am strong and rested and healthy.
If these days were a bit surreal in their degree of “chillaxing”, things will become very real in the coming week.
It was very good while it lasted, and I am glad to have made the most of this restful time.
I am also glad that I went with the Pinot.