Doing the walks of life

SIMON DAY
Last updated 05:00 24/03/2013
Queen Charlotte
Simon Day

Sounds of serenity: Queen Charlotte Sound hides beautiful accommodation like Mahana Lodge.

Queen Charlotte
Simon Day
Hot smoked Marlborough salmon at Mahana Lodge.

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Eleven years ago my grandmother, my cousin and I walked the Queen Charlotte Track in the Marlborough Sounds. A tramp with Gran is a rite of passage in my strangely active, outdoor family.

More than a decade later my grandmother, now in her 80th year, and I revisit the track.

Gran is like an old world wine, a bottle of 1934 Chateau Cheval Blanc, and continues to get better with age. She hiked to Mt Everest Base Camp at 77. She had her hip replaced in November and was back out with the Auckland tramping club in February.

I am like a Marlborough sauvignon blanc, best drunk young and fresh, and unfortunately 11 years past my prime.

But that is the benefit of the Queen Charlotte Track. One of the most beautiful parts of the country can be walked by young men of fading fitness and youth, and 79-year-old grandmothers with well-worn tramping boots.

At 71 kilometres, the Queen Charlotte Track is long. More than twice the length of the Routeburn, and almost 20km longer than the Milford Track.

But hidden behind long days on ridgelines high above the sounds, is a degree of luxury and flexibility unavailable on more isolated tracks.

Your bags are moved by boat from destination to destination, the only thing on your back is that day's lunch and water.

The walk can be catered in length to suit any individual and the boat can be taken back to Picton from any of the main resting spots.

Elegant lodges, homesteads, and backpackers make the next day's half-marathon less intimidating. And after rationing on local seafood and sauvignon blanc, stiff legs and sore feet are almost forgotten.

From Auckland, an Air New Zealand pencil with propellers flies us into the sunburnt hills of Marlborough, over the rows and rows of grapes.

The tramp starts in Picton, where we pick up our packed lunch from Marlborough Sounds Adventure Company and get a water taxi to the tip of the Queen Charlotte Sound.

The track is steeped in centuries of indigenous and colonial history. But none is more prominent than the bay where the tramp begins: Ship Cove.

Captain James Cook and the Endeavour first laid anchor in the sheltered bay on January 16, 1770. The Marlborough Sounds would become one of his favorite places in the South Pacific. He spent more time in Ship Cove than anywhere else during his three expeditions to New Zealand.

Cook named the sound after Queen Charlotte, the wife of King George III. A budding botanist, the Queen was a great supporter of Cook and his voyages.

The first day climbs from the cove through virgin native bush. Views of the sounds peek through the ponga and rimu.

Maori named the sound Totaranui (big or many totara).

At 71, Harry Litchwark, our guide from the Adventure Company, has lived all his life in and around the bush and could have charmed Queen Charlotte with his vast knowledge of the flora and fauna of her sound.

He finds us the endemic jet black fantail, he hunts out the red blossomed rata vines, climbing round trees, hiding from hungry possums and introduces me to an alternate use of the rangiora shrub, nicknamed the "bushman's friend" for its similarities to three-ply toilet paper.

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Lunch, at the top of the day's climb provides the first true view across the sound.

The mountains disappear into the sea and the ornate coves of the sounds wind for nearly 2000km, forming around one fifth of New Zealand's total coastline.

Unlike their famous glacial cousins in Fiordland, the Marlborough Sounds are drowned river beds, sunk beneath the sea as the Pacific plate is sucked beneath the Australian plate.

On a still day, the calm water looks just like a lake.

Harry tells a story of one foreign tourist so convinced by the icy illusion of the sounds' perfectly clear water that he kneeled at the water's edge and drank from the sea.

The first 15km ends with an ale on the deck of the historic Furneaux Lodge.

Built in 1904 as a colonial holiday home, the lodge now offers a range of accommodation from bunk rooms, to chalets for the fishing lads and luxury suites for honeymooners.

SMART CASUAL ON THE TRACK

The restaurant serves beautiful local fare, and the scallops, tarakihi, salmon and sauvignon blanc are perfect served on the deck in the last of the sun.

It's worth putting a shirt or frock in your bag to feel as posh as the setting, food and company (and it's not like you have to carry your pack anyway).

Throughout the long Friday afternoon, boats slowly fill the small bay and the soon busy bar fills with boaties discussing their secret dive spots and the best bait for blue cod.

The second day is casual enough to warrant a mild sleep-in (and could probably justify a late night if your travelmate isn't your grandma). And why wouldn't you when your luxury suite has a private view across the bay?

The track sits just above the shoreline for nearly all the 11.5km of the second day and encounters more colonial history.

In the hills behind Furneaux lodge is an antimony mine; children of the miners and neighbouring farms walked or rode their ponies to school at the neighbouring Resolution Inlet along bridle paths carving the track.

At Camp Bay, a second night's stop for some, we walk past the cruel trick of trampers with their feet up and beer in hand at the popular Punga Cove Resort. But the extra 20 minutes is worth the walk to reach the highlight of the trip - Mahana Lodge.

In Maori, mahana means warmth, shelter and hospitality. This is exactly what the lodge's hosts and owners, John and Ann Martin, provide.

Hidden in the hillside, the homestead was built around 1890 and was originally a sheep farm when the sound was a thriving community.

The Martins bought the property in 2002 and it took three years to restore the homestead. They also built a lodge for walkers.

It is a comfortable, chirpy, communal environment, featuring a plate of homemade brownies.

Gran plays Scrabble with other trampers while I take a kayak around the neighbouring bays.

The six walkers staying in the lodge dine together on food cooked by John and Ann.

Marlborough mussel fritters and Ann's homemade bread to start, followed by salmon, hot smoked by John (unfortunately recreational fishing laws mean he can't feed us the blue cod he caught that morning).

The salad and vegetables were all harvested from the huge garden in the bush behind the house.

The couple wrote a New Zealand game cookbook, Taste of the Wild (illustrated by Dick Frizzell), and should probably look into a seafood edition because the meal is exquisite.

After checking out the glow worms behind the lodge, it is an early night in preparation for 24.5km of hills the next day.

The track sits atop the ridgeline and offers the clear views across the Queen Charlotte Sound and Kenepuru Sound, which everyone comes here for. Tentacles of land grope the water that rainbows through blue and green.

The track passes through private land and a $12 pass is required for its maintenance.

The long day intimidated Gran. But with her steady pace, we finish within DOC's prescribed eight hours.

The day eventually ends in Portage Bay in the Kenepuru Sound.

Aching legs are again relieved by alcohol and fish. This time a sweet local pinot noir, steamed mussels and butterfish - so flash it comes with foam - are served on the waterfront at the Portage Resort Hotel.

Our accommodation is labelled a backpackers but is closer to staying in an apartment. Perched above the sea, DeBretts offers the independence of a hostel but the hospitality and comfort of something much more sophisticated. The deck has an unrivalled view over the Kenepuru Sound.

After 24.5km, Gran decides her new hip needs a rest and she takes the boat back to Picton. But 51km at 79 years old is not too bad.

I am left to complete the final 20km through the mist and clouds and a final dose of virgin bush on my own, then get picked up and taken back to Picton.

The sounds are stunning but at times you don't have the isolation of other great New Zealand walks. Picton appears in the distance on day three at about the same time mobile reception returns. The track is crossed by bach driveways and water skiers occasionally disrupt the serenity. But without this sacrifice, the track wouldn't have its luxury and accessibility.

I am more than happy to forgo isolation for fresh seafood, local wine, grand accommodation and the flexibility to be able to revisit such a beautiful part of New Zealand with my grandmother.

Simon Day travelled courtesy of Destination Marlborough.

- Sunday Star Times

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