I couldn’t come to New Zealand for two months and not attempt a long tramp (Kiwis – people not birds, assume people from now on, ok? – refer to long walks as tramps, which can cause misunderstandings, as in the poster at a YHA headed ‘Going for a tramp?’ under which some wit had written ‘Make sure she’s clean’). Anyway, a NZ tramp generally involves undergoing a degree of discomfort (carrying your pack long distances, getting wet, sleeping in tents or bunkhouses etc) in return for certain rewards (natural wonders, unspoilt scenery, sense of achievement, etc). Desiring maximum reward for minimum discomfort I chose the Queen Charlotte Track which runs along the wooded penninsular bordering Queen Charlotte Sound at the top of South Island. Though there’s only partial road access, you can get to several points on or near the track by water which meant that a) my pack went by water-taxi and b) I got to sleep in water-side hotels, not bunkhouses. This made the evenings most pleasant, with access to beer and food, proper bed and en-suite shower, but the days were still hard work. The track is officially 71km long, but we walked at least another 10k getting to/from accomodation and boat pick-ups, making a walk of about 50 miles over four days, with very few flat bits.
On day 1 we got dropped at Ship Cove, arriving in blazing sunshine to a deafening buzz of insects. Aside from the wooden jetty, a small lawn (with attendent Weka) and a monument to Captain Cook (who really got around), the place showed no sign that humans had ever been there. The southern coast of the penninsular is crinkled up into bays and inlets, and our walk first took us over the shoulder between two such bays, through virgin rainforest, up to a viewpoint from which we could see the clear-watered bays on either side. As well as the usual fern trees, creeping vines and palm trees, the forest had a lot of beech trees. These were nothing like the beeches I’m used to on the South Downs, having small dark green leaves and a fungus infesting the bark which turns the trunk sooty black and exudes a sweet, sticky gum, making some sections of the forest smell like honey. In the afternoon we descended into Endeavour Inlet, one of the largest bays, to Furneaux Lodge where we enjoyed a cold beer or three whilst looking out over a sea calmer than most lakes. As we watched clouds rolled in to obscure the hills on the other side of the Inlet.
Day 2 dawned wet, and whilst it was the easiest day, just 12k round Endeavour Inlet with not much up and down, I never really got into my stride, which, along with rain from above and mud from below made it a less than perfect day. The night’s accomodation, however, was pretty fine. At Punga Cove we had our own snug A-frame chalet with a view over the top of fern trees and out into the cove. We ate dinner at a cafe on the jetty, watching shoals of spotted fish and one laconic Eagle Ray enjoy their dinner in the water below us.
Everyone says day 3 is the killer, and I wasn’t filled with enthusiasm to discover that the rain had returned during the night. Still, the initial climb up to the ridge along the centre of the penninsular got the endorphins going, and, our systems pumped on nature’s own happy drugs, we made good time for the first couple of hours. Being a little zoned we didn’t pay much attention to our surroundings, but that was OK, as we were now high enough that all we could see was the clouds we were walking through. Occasionally we’d come to breaks in the trees, and I’d gesture in passing and say ‘Bet there’d be a really good view from here if we could see it.’ At least while we were in cloud it wasn’t actually raining. The clouds did clear a couple of times: on one occasion we glimpsed sheep being herded in a green valley far below, their cries drifting up through the mist; then later, as we began to decend along the shoulder of a hill covered in white Tea Tree blossoms, we sighted the Sound for the first time that day. Despite the overcast it was a study in turquiose, bluer in the deep water and light green at the shore. By then we’d been walking about six hours and I had discovered Pain. Not blisters, but a generic pressing-on-nerve-endings foot pain which had me wincing with every step. Especially downhill, and were were doing a lot of downhill descending to the village of Portage, at the narrowest and lowest point of the penninsular where the Maori used to carry their war canoes between two sounds, saving themselves several days paddling – hence the name. When I finally released my feet from the bondage of my boots the relief was amazing but the items in question had assumed a distinctly pallid and eldritch appearence. The toes in particular looked like something which might slither ashore under a gibbous moon to interbreed with the inhabitants of a remote fishing village.
Day 4 was dry, unlike my boots, and I packed my socks with animal wool (the same stuff used by ballet dancers) and gritted my teeth. Beloved’s suggestion that I might have Trench Foot unaccountably lifted my spirits – much more momentous than blisters, Trench Foot is, with a fine heritage of suffering. My spirits need lifting, as the day started with a 2,000ft climb back up into cloud. By the time I’d reached the ridge-top I’d acquired a following of flies, no doubt recognising in my movements the signs of a wounded animal likely to keel over at any moment. Fortunately the last few hours were also the easiest with no more climbing, just a gently undulating descent back to sea level through increasingly good weather. Nevertheless, by the time we reached the last suggested rest point, a sheltered cove where my flies deserted me for the delights of a composting toilet, we’d been overtaken by every other group walking the track, including the elfin German girl who did the whole walk in sandals. Sandals? I ask you. When the track ended we still had a couple of km to go to the boat pickup. We were on road now and I decided there was only one thing for it. I took my boots off and, barely resisting the urge to throw them in the sea, finished barefoot.