Author: Kim Sutton
Stopping all of a sudden mid-trail, I have a simple and instinctual desire to take a big – breath – IN.
Through the nose, sucking the cool air deep into my chest, filling my diaphragm. Closing my eyes to exhale and consider a second, more conscious breath.
I focus on the smell. What is it that I can identify? Well… nothing. Nothing at all. Pure, unaffected, clean, perfect AIR. Delicious. Despite the deep leaf litter of the surrounding sub-tropical rainforest, regardless of the briny ocean lapping the lengthy coastline of these sunken river valleys, I smell not a thing.
A hint of peace, a taste of a brilliant leg stretch, and a nibble of adventure, absolutely. But there is no scent on the trail that stretches away behind and beyond in front. I get a teeny fist pump of glee for myself, and I step onwards.
73km. 4 days of walking. Five days of joy. This is the Queen Charlotte Track. Ascending, traversing, and descending the saddles and ridge lines of the Marlborough Sounds north of the South Island in the land of the long white cloud.
Why Queen Charlotte?
Cook’s nomenclature of the outer eastern sound was in honour of King George III’s wife, a keen botanist responsible for introducing the Christmas Tree to Britain from her German homeland and for expanding the famous Kew Gardens. (If you need further clues, she’s the Queen represented in the TV drama Bridgerton…)
You can’t get any further away from London than the antipode of New Zealand, yet the legacy of the colonisers is evident in the names of all the coves, bays, inlets, harbours and lodges. However, unlike Australia, Aotearoa / New Zealand has a dual naming system deeply ingrained, most often with the Māori version first. Street signs and buildings, parks and places, advertisements and communications include te reo Māori in the first instance, a sensical perspective.
Our trip begins in Wellington, windy but surprisingly eclectic and arty, wrapping its hillside homes around the large harbour. A ‘foodie tour’ on our first morning orientates the group to the city. At the impressive Te Papa Museum, we experience a private cultural tour from a female perspective of Māori culture, marvelling at the guide’s incredible singing voice and connection to her people and land. The group fans out afterwards to discover the other fascinating and informative exhibitions the centre has to offer, including an earthquake simulator and the mind-blowing ‘Gallipoli- The scale of Our War’ exhibition, bringing tears to our eyes.
Lunch, shopping, ducking in and out of art galleries, adventure outfitters and bookshops. We do the tourist cable car trip up to the botanical gardens, descending via a winding trail back to the waterfront through the old cemetery and past Parliament House, the notorious beehive, waving to Jacinta as we go.
Filled to the brim with culture, it’s time to leave the bustling capital for the hiking component of our trip, and so we depart.
The ferry crossing between Wellington and Picton takes us across the rolling swell of Cook Straight, bookmarked by the relative calmness of the northern harbour and the southern islands sounds. This helps to make a demarcation between city and town, north and south, civilisation and the wild start of the track. The crossing is certainly made comfortable by a high tea featuring pink lamingtons and tea in vintage china cups and a hot supper. Standing up on deck as we enter the Sounds gives a resounding sense of arrival… we are here, finally!
The steep green hills slide into the magical coloured waters as the wind whips our hair, a sense of excitement and nerves pervading our group as we consider how remote and distinctly different from the olive green of Australia this is! But first, a night in Picton – the gateway to the South Island.
The next morning, a water taxi delivers us to the start of our walking journey, also the location of the start of Te Areroa’s British colonisation, Meretoto/ Ship’s Cove (yes, THAT ship!). Cook’s numerous touch points and explorations are deeply stamped on the landscape. Thankfully, there is no overt glorification of the colonisation, with equal to stronger representation of the Māori relationship to the area in all interpretive signage.
The trail itself is simply delicious. Brilliant walking. Of course, we start off each day with a steep uphill, there is quite a bit of mud, and some days are longer than indicated on the maps and way markers, but if you don’t challenge yourself, how can you grow? I always find the demands of any walk fade into the distance, rose-coloured glasses of time blurring the memory of sore legs and tired bodies.
The views, colours and verdure plant life keep motivation rolling along, spurring us on our ramble, new connections forming as we grin at every turn’s surprise. We encourage the Mountain bikers as they overtake us, apparently struggling more with the soft surface and inclines than we are…despite their faster completion of the sections than the trudging hikers.
Sailboats of every size and budget dot the waters below the trail, private jetties and moorings pointing toward clusters of wooden holiday homes perched precariously on the hillsides. Australians would call them shacks, the New Zealanders call them Bachs, and neither seems to accurately convey how flash or cosy any of them appear to be. I doubt a single walker doesn’t spend at least a few kilometres fantasising over retreating to one of these for a moody season of writing a novel or memoir, romantic in their reclusive roosts overlooking the fingers of sparkling water.
Our daily physical toil is rewarded at the end of each section with the arrival at our lodgings along the trail. Furneux Lodge is an indulgent pleasure of Victorian elegance, Punga Cove somehow reminds me of Bali’s Ubud on the coast, and Lochmara is a quirky, artistic resort dotted with sculptures and hammocks hiding in its hills, views and activities to easily lose a week enjoying if only there were a pause button on time.
Despite the area experiencing a slow return of hospitality staff after the pandemic travel bans, we can’t fault a single meal. Green-lipped mussels are in season, veal, beef cheeks, and the freshest of fish seem to feature, always presented mouth-wateringly well, complimented with grilled halloumi or house-made pate starters, local Sauv Blancs, and gratifying deserts, all justified by the exertions of the day. Hot showers and plush beds with Insta-worthy vistas ensure we all smugly feel like THIS is the way to enjoy a walk, baby!
The final leg of our walk features fatigued bodies and a sense of accomplishment. We are whisked back to Picton via a water taxi the moment we reach the terminus, James Bond style. More food, more comforts, more wine and a dodging of the newly docked occupants of a mega cruise ship in town, and we return to Wellington as a bunch of friends.
All traces of the trail are scrubbed from our boots and walking poles, lest we cross-contaminate the Aussie bush with potential bio-hazards, a requisite of travelling in both directions, our isolated southern islands still precious in their ecology.
The group finishes our time in Wellington with some last-minute shopping and a fancy dinner, celebrating our personal challenges and enjoyment of each other’s company. Our bags are stuffed with local chocolates, wines and new outdoor gear.
Arriving home to an early December flash of hot and dry Adelaide weather is a bit of a rude shock, to be honest. I can’t help but reflect on the cool humidity of New Zealand, planning a return as soon as practicable. The air is still fresh in my mind, I don’t need ever to eat again (that’s quickly forgotten), and my legs are enjoying the break. But the best bit is when I close my eyes, my retinas are still stained with the emerald and jade, turquoise and teal of the Sounds.
This trip is truly the crowning glory of Big Heart Adventures, a bucket list gift to yourself.
Big Heart Adventures is a commercial tour operator (CTO) and leads walking adventures along the Queen Charlotte Track and throughout South Australia, Australia and overseas. We offer fully guided walking tours and self-guided walking adventures.