Te Araroa: The Queen Charlotte Track

The grey-green waters of the Wellington Harbour slide along the edge of the Interislander Ferry. The boat is quiet. Songs hum from the canteen radio. Indistinct voices chatter, laugh. Auckland has arrived in its final day of lockdown. Any explosion of crowd waits until tomorrow. Another day ahead of heavy rain. I am not waiting for the weather to change. Four days in Wellington was enough. I want to be walking again. In open water, the ocean turns to black. Rips of white across low swells. Entering the Marlborough Sounds, the water changes again. Murky turquoise. Those first low hills of green pasture and pine don’t quite reach the low hanging grey of sky.

I change boats to go back the way I’ve came. Ridiculous as it may sound, Te Araroa starts further North on the South Island than it finishes on the North Island. Rain streaks the windows of Sounds Exciting. The Cougar Line boat has a handful of other passengers. All in jeans, wheeling suitcases. No walkers. The black tipped white wings of a gannet beat along side the boat. The bird peels away and up before plunging straight down in to a schoal of something unseen. Fingers of black land slip beneath the surface of the Sounds. The boat slows for the final time. “We’re now approaching Ship Cove, the start of the Queen Charlotte Track. One passenger departing here.” That would be me then. About to begin a 4 night trip. About to begin a two month or more tramp across the South Island. The first sign of trouble are the brown feathers of a weka. Leave nothing unattended. I climb over Ship Cove Saddle to Schoolhouse Bay. I leave my pack under the wide spread of leaves. I pitch my tent. The clapping of wave upon shore. The murmur of stream. The chatter of birds. The bush sounding always suspiciously human. For the first time since Palmerston North, I am alone

Any weight I’d hoped to shed by consuming food is paid back to me in rain. The tent saturated. Everything else, slightly damp. The weather warning suggested I’d have 3cms of rain to deal with this morning but it hasn’t arrived. Instead I’m captured by the bright white clouds across the sounds. The sun shining somewhere. The promise of light, or a break in the weather never arrives. The Queen Charlotte Track gives up it’s distance easily. A wide clay track, shared with mountain bikers. Hill climbs are slow, steady affairs. Not that there are many. Most of the day I follow the coast, undulating in and out of bay rather than up and down for a change. I see more goats, more weka than I do people all day. I thought about skipping the trail up to Eatwell Lookout. A signpost warned the views go on forever. For me, they don’t even start. The Bay of Many Coves camp shelter gives me some chance of drying the tent before I put anything in it. The constant moisture, occasionally rain, mostly mist puts an end to it. Ah well, short day tomorrow. The weather might yet come good.

When I come around rain still timelessly beats on the taught skin of my tent. I’m still warm and dry. More importantly so is my sleeping bag. I’ve got a 4, maybe 5, hour day today. I could probably have gone all the way to Davies Bay but I added an extra night. No idea why now. As it is I’m already carrying too much food. The weather may improve. No rush. Only when I realise the rain is getting heavier do I get up. I left most of my gear in the cooking shelter overnight. It had a better chance of drying out there than balled up in the tent. Everything is right where I left it and no worse for having been left out. Apart from my trash bag. I had naively believed the bench top to be out of reach of the wekas and their useless wings. I find the decimated remains of an avocado skin. That’s all. I set to making breakfast. I picked up some vegan protein powder from Charlotte in Wellington. No real idea what I was in for but putting some in my morning porridge seemed like a good idea. Today’s flavour is chocolate, which definitely goes with peanut butter and probably goes with the apple enhanced oats. I end up with something that looks a bit like Angel Delight after its been thrown up. Thankfully it tastes like Angel Delight.

I make short work of the day. The Queen Charlotte Track slumps off the ridge top. Skirting the high points. Striding past avoidable climbs. At Black Rock Shelter I can for names in the intentions book. The giant footsteps I’ve been following might be Bryan’s. Now a day or more ahead. The rest belong to goats. I wonder if I’ll catch anyone. Not with days as short as this. I drop off the track to Cowshed Bay. There’s enough day and it’s dry enough that I string up my role as washing line and get the tent aired. Rinsing the clay off my boots was a step too far. The all too brief pockets of blue tucked in to grey again. The temperature drops. I wait for more showers. At some point I stopped being fearful about my tent. I’ve been nowhere so exposed as Paine Grande and been expected to put it up. Yes the winds here can be extreme but there’s usually a hut. Or a town, with a campground and a high hedge.

The static buzz of drizzle puts me in no mood to get up. Really? Again? When I wake up later the rain has stopped. I step out of the tent, I stare up at the sky between the Manuka. Is it blue? It definitely is. The change has arrived. I have another short day ahead. The mud on the track now worse than the Tararua Mud Pits. That mud at least has the decency to hold on to you. This is like walking on soap. After a while I get to grips with riding the slide. Today the track rides the top of the ridge line, forcing high points and at last the views. The one exception the Onahau Lookout which I have plenty of time for. Today the Marlborough Sounds look as they do on every advertisement for the private accomodation dotting the bays. Cerulean City blues, golden sands, surrounded by squat green pyramids joined up by table top ridges.

I’m still burning through the estimated times of travel. I’m not rushing, taking my time which I recognise now is not the same as other people’s time. I find others close to the end of my day. Not my others. A family group walking the Queen Charlotte. One woman doesn’t hear me slapping through the mud, poles clanking. “I’m coming through behind you,” I say, trying not to make her jump. Still nothing. Only as I pass her peripherals does she notice. I catch sight of her earphones. Some people choose to wear them. People especially like to wear them on road sections. Listen to a music, a podcast. If you can’t hear me, you can’t hear a car. They’re a distraction as far as I’m concerned. Be more present. I roll in to Davies Bay, earlier than planned. Nearby a group of Department of Conservation rangers are having a Christmas Party. None of them check if I’ve paid, or if I’ve bought the pass. Easy to see why some people think they can get away with it, because they can. I pitch my tent, air out my damp everything. I was hoping to swim but the tide is out, the bay shallow. I make do with a splash about in a creek. Clouds build, the wind drops, sandflies risk a feed. Light fades, weka draw near. I try sleeping without earplugs. The evening chatter of birds fade. The running of the creek remains constant. A boat roars in the main channel. When the possum start screaming at each other I reach for the earplugs.

I step out in the night for a wee. The grass bright in a near full moon, the trees cast moon shadows. I don’t remember the last time I saw the stars. The black waters sparkle in the dark. When morning comes I’m ready. A quick pack down and I’m on the trail. The drier mud is easier to manage, more like walking on Playdough. Anakiwa comes fast, the end of the Queen Charlotte Track. I slept here once in the van. A sign up now reads “No Camping.” I continue to drink deep from the fountain of good fortune, or is it a tap? The sun has emerged, the heat rising. The Link Pathway runs all the way to Havelock. To begin it keeps me off the shoulder of the road. The distance markers come fast. Another. Another. Another. Part of the pathway has been taken out by a slip so I pass through abandoned roadworks. From the shore of the Mahakipawa Arm I can see the cut of the path as it rises above Moenui. More obvious still are the brown scars of fresh slips. No place for a path, let alone the road, the houses below. Up on that hillside I startle California Quail. When I keep moving the ground starts to shake. Tiny little quail chicklets break their cover. I stop again but it’s too late, they’re on the move. I pass them by hoping to leave them in peace.

I come around Cullen Point. Havelock in view. Not much of a town, more of a support network for a marina. I roll into town, pick between the two seen better days hostels on the high street. The forecast is good for the foreseeable. Significantly hot according to the Met Service. I commit to carrying on. I’m not taking a break, not here. I fail to find the packet stuffing mix I’d hoped for but I do find a tin of chicken and a single serve of gravy to put something of a tramping Christmas dinner together. If I’m even still in the hills by the time the big non-event comes around. I settle in to the 8 bed dorm. One other guest, Jake, is wasted and he talks at me at great length. I’m relieved he manages to string most of his sentences together even if it is more of a monologue. He’s nice enough I decide, and it is only one night.

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