New Zealand: Marlborough Sounds

On my final morning in the North Island for the foreseeable future I was up early. I needed to make sure I was in the right place at the right time in order to catch the Interislander ferry to Picton. Even after spending four months travelling around the North I realise I’m leaving with a to-do list longer than I arrived with. With a bit of luck there will be time again next year to see some more things, do some more stuff. I join the departure queue an hour ahead of time. A man comes around with a survey and a chocolate bribe for those wishing to take part. I fill in most of the survey despite most of the questions being irrelevant for me. Free chocolate is free. On the boat there’s enough room for me to manoeuvre comfortably. I leave the van parked and make my way into the seating areas. I finish another terrible book I picked up somewhere along the way. At some point I’m going to need to start raising the quality of my reading. I’m not sure how many more whodunnits I can take. From the viewing decks I watch Wellington harbour disappear. Visible across the Cook Straight for a short while are what must be the snow capped peaks of the Kaikoura ranges. The warm up is over. This time next week I’ll be on the Able Tasman Coastal Track. Great Walk one of six on the South Island. Am I ready? Absolutely not. I never am. I’m no longer worried about distance, about climbs. The weight of my pack with four days of food and a tent is playing on my mind but I know once I get started I’ll manage. 

The green layers of hills surrounding the Marlborough Sounds rise up at the front of the boat. The gateway to the South. We enter Queen Charlotte Sound turning towards Picton. The final, only stop. Please ensure you have all belongings with you when departing the boat. I stop in Picton briefly to stretch my legs along the Snout Track. I’m not prepared. Still wearing my civilian clothes from the city. I sweat heavily into my jeans. Easy regrets. In the branches over the track a korimako stops and blurts out a short tune. This is the first one I’ve seen in the wild. A promising start. I leave Picton along Queen Charlotte Drive, a sweeping road that follows the inlets and points of the sound. I arrive at my first choice of free site for the night to find it’s full. This is the first time I’ve had to move on. I hope this is a result of bottlenecking around Picton. Everyone is either coming or going. There is only one way across the sea after all. In the second spot I have more luck, there are still a couple of spaces. For the first time since the clocks changed I’m aware of the shift. It’s still light out at 7pm. Whatever happened to those dark evenings where I was eating by 5?

When I wake up I catch the last touches of pink on the clouds. Sunrise still happening at a reasonable hour. I’m pleased to be out of the city again, returning to something like my normal routine. Get up, have breakfast. Be on the road by 9. But not for long. My first choice of spot last night was in Anakiwa, at the end of the Queen Charlotte Track. I hadn’t planned to walk the full length. I’d need a track pass, food, shelter and a water taxi. I might come back for the whole thing later. I do walk the final section while I’m here. On my way in I wonder if I’ll find any dramatic changes between the forests of North and South. I can easily identify the black beech, thick black trunks and leaves shaped like those that used to line the paths of my walk to school. I didn’t witness the seasonal change from autumn to winter. New fresh green leaves spread along the distant branches. Spring has arrived. Beyond the trees, sunlight flickers over the water. Not quite a mirror, definitely not glass. I pass Davies Bay, too close to the van to justify carrying the tent out to spend the night. Cyclists and trail runners pass me in both directions. Occasional couples hike past laden with multi day packs. I arrive at the lookout I was aiming for, sit on a bench eat an apple. I’m reminded of the Lake District, if the Lake District had trees. I check my phone for a while, finding it isn’t much better than the view. I come back to the van, sitting by the waters edge watching the ripples across the water. Some of them are moving below the surface. Occasional flashes of white break free into the air above. I realise I’ve been watching a school of fish for a long time before I actually saw them.

In the morning I rise early again catching the pastels of dawn across the sky, reflected in the water. For the first time I’m not cold to begin. Spring feels like summer already. I walked out on to the jetty. Two ghost like rays fly elegantly through the clear waters. I leave Anakiwa, joining Kenepuru road. Another twisting, winding road following the immeasurable length of the coastline. The faded white line painted down the road is at best a guess. At worst a suggestion that there’s a lot less road than there used to be. Not that it matters on these rural roads. Everyone drives down the middle, acting with a mix of surprise and outrage to find anyone else coming the other way, doing the same. The Marlborough Sounds remind of somewhere between the fjords of Norway and the lakes of North Italy. A spectrum of blues and greens from the sea to the sky. I park at the entrance to Mount Stokes tramping track. 

The change in weather brings new concerns. The sun has been hot on my skin. I’ve been applying sunscreen already but is it enough? Sweat forms between my backpack and my back. How many days will I get out of a t-shirt, a pair of socks? Will I need to adjust my laundry schedule? At least cold showers and river swims will become more appealing. The forest is dense again. No sight of the summit. All I know is I have to go up. I might get glimpses of the top, I might only be seeing the upper reaches of distant trees. The biggest trunks are hollowed out and yet new leaves have still appeared for another year. My basic understanding of mountain geography tells me the trees will end. The trunks appear to go on forever. They might be shorter, they’re definitely thinner. As this goes through my mind the trees stop. The end is sudden. I’m in tussock and boulder. I can see clouds over the North Island. I can see snow on the distant mountains. I can see where I’ve come from, maybe even where I left the van. The view over the broken jigsaw of land and sea is incredible. Worth the climb, worth the sweat. Tonight I will treat myself to a shower at the nearest campground. 

Smith’s Farm Holiday Park lies between the two places I’d stayed so far in Marlborough Sounds. On arrival I pay the standard fee of $20 but I’m given a banana muffin and a bag of food to feed she goats, the sheep, the pigs. Already this feels like the best value campground I’ve been two. It also appears I have the place to myself. Perfect. I head off to share the food bag among the other permanent residents. The little goat is curious and comes over to the fence. Once it realises I have food we become best friends. It makes every effort to get inside my pocket. The pigs don’t seem to care. They’re too busy scratching. The orange one decides maybe I’m worth investigating and comes for a snack. A chicken has followed me, I share some snacks. I cross the stile into the field of sheep. None of the sheep get up. One wonders over, then another not wanting to miss out. The bigger goat is some trouble. Tied up so as not to go far I was warned to make sure it was at full length before giving any snacks. I have another nose in my pocket before long. I leave with a few snacks for the way back. I duck under an electric fence into a field of cows. One does that weird excited nervous bounce that cows do. A small portion of my life flashes before my eyes as it leaps towards me. It stops, scared. They’re all caught in this curious terrified state. Do they want snacks or not? None of them are brave enough to approach closer. I leave the rest of the food with the little goat on my way back.

I need to move closer to Nelson. I only have a few days now until I start on the Able Tasman Coastal Track. First I need food to get through those days. The road to Blenheim is lined with vineyards. I don’t recognise the names of any. Not that I would stop if I did. Wine country is wasted on me. Maybe if there was someone else along for the ride who wanted to do a wine tour I could easily be persuaded. Beyond the flat hot ground, peaks rise on every side. Summer has arrived early and I feel anxious. The other problems come to mind; local crowds. How to keep the van cool? Or even just less hot. I pass through Pelorus Bridge where I see the most people on the road I’ve seen outside of cities. I don’t like it. This is supposed to be quieter than normal because of covid. I don’t know how people coped with all the tourists. I remind myself that it’s still the school holidays, this isn’t a normal crowd. The river in town looks cool, inviting. Other people, mostly children and dogs splash around in the deep, slow water. Soon I tell myself. The reserve I’ve picked for my night has a stream through it. I imagine maybe I could swim there until I arrive and find it is just a stream. The water brings with it sandflies. The public health nuisance of New Zealand. In attempting to keep the van cool I have the windows and doors open. In letting the air flow through, so the flies flow through as well. The repellant I’ve applied seems to be working. I’ve squashed a few on my arms and legs as they’ve tried to tuck in. To my horror there are more bugs in my van than the drop toilet.

Another morning, another drive. Window down, elbow on the door. Will I get a trucker tan or just burn? Hopefully neither. I realise the road into Nelson should be familiar. I remember being driven out the other way, low cloud wrapped around the trees. The valley is completely different under blue skies. I head first to Cable Bay. I’d seen someone else’s photo on Instagram and decided it was worth the detour. The landscape doesn’t make sense. A supposedly natural boulder barrier prevents the nearby river entering the sea. Instead it sweeps back around an island. The sea crashing on one side of the boulders, the river estuary rising and falling with the tide on the other. I reach the top of Sentinel Hill and swear. Bigger than an oh wow. The mountains. Dusted with snow. I actually laugh out loud. Surprised to find I’m not suffering from awe exhaustion after all. I keep moving along the trail into a pocket of native bush. I heard a new voice in the forest. Who is this? The honking continues do I stop and explore the canopy. A shelduck. Usually found in pairs on farmland. I’ve seen hundreds but never up a tree before. I cross a fence and find a noticeable shift in smell. From nothing to pine. The colour fades from green to brown. The bed of needles seemingly suffocating the understory. I cross another fence, climb a grass covered hill to find another field of sheep. Beyond the sheep another ridiculous view. The white houses of Nelson further around the bay, Beyond, what appears to be the golden sands of my next destination; the Abel Tasman National Park.

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