The Queen Charlotte Track is right at the very top of the South Island, and stretches for 70 kilometres right through the Marlborough Sounds. The port town of Picton is the gateway to the track.
There are several things which made the track appealing to me:
- Easy access – there are several ferries leaving Wellington for Picton each day.
- Travel arrangements need not be made months in advance, which is not the case with a lot of the other walks as huts, campsites, etc. get booked up very early on in the season and are especially busy during public holidays.
- No need to carry all my heavy camping gear with me as luggage transfer is available.
The track is spectacular but somewhat less busy than other multi-day hikes as it isn’t one of the nine existing Great Walks of New Zealand. That may change very soon as the Department of Conservation (DOC) are set to extend the network of Great Walks to ten and the Queen Charlotte has made the shortlist, along with Te Paki and the Great Barrier Island.
A word for the motion sickness sufferers
The ferry trip from Wellington harbour to Picton is supposed to offer wonderful views of the Marlborough Sounds. The swell could get pretty brutal, though. I was quite nervous about it as I have a severe motion sickness, and the fact that there is an option to postpone your trip if you have concerns about the swell made me more nervous still. However, I was lucky that the forecast for the swell on the day I was travelling was reassuringly in the green (sway map is a useful source to check before travelling). I was hopeful that a tablet of Sea Legs, plus the forecasted gentle swell would allow me to sit upright in the viewing area of the Kaiarahi ship and enjoy the beautiful views. It didn’t quite work that way. Within five minutes, I realised I’d better head down to the deck below (for some reason I didn’t feel the swell as badly on the lower deck), get another Sea Legs tablet and take up a dignified corpse pose. I must have spent pretty much the entire trip (around 3 hrs 30 mins in total) lying down as when I summoned all my resolve to get up to sitting, we were approaching Picton harbour which did look beautiful.
I planned my daily walking based on the DOC’s recommended walking times which are always very, very generous. Below is my plan for each day:
Day 1: Ship Cove to Camp Bay 26.5km
Day 2: Camp Bay to Portage Bay (Cowshed) 23km
Day 3: Portage Bay (Cowshed) to Anakiwa 20.5km
It is hard to tell how much it’d take to do a walk based on what the DOC recommends. I am fairly fit and love walking fast, and in most instances, I’d take half the recommended time, which was close to how long the Queen Charlotte took me. However, I am always cautious as sometimes if the signage is poor (fear not, the Queen Charlotte is very well signed) or the weather conditions are less than optimal things could get quite tricky. I found that the Cougar water taxi company’s suggested walking times are more helpful as they take into consideration walking pace.
Also, I got in touch with the local i-SITE centre for initial info and made bookings for my first night’s stay, the taxi to the start of the track, luggage transfers, the Queen Charlotte Track Land Co-op Pass and campsite passes through them. I used the Cougar water taxi company. It cost me $105 return (Picton to Ship Cove and back to Picton from Anakiwa), plus luggage transfers to Bay Camp, Portage Bay (Cowshed) and Picton.
For my first night in Picton, I stayed at the Fat Cod backpackers. It was decent, clean, not very busy and within walking distance from both the ferry terminal and the wharf where the water taxi companies depart from.
The waterfront looked gorgeous in the morning, clear skies and the air was pure stillness, not a single gust of wind. The weather conditions were an absolute dream.
The water taxi ride to the start of the track was dreamy. I could not wait to get off the boat and start walking. It took about an hour to get to Ship Cove, but it did not feel long at all as the views are a great distraction.
The track is quite steep to begin with which is great because it does not take very long to start getting some pretty sunning vies of the sounds. I think most cyclists would be off their bikes pushing them up here. I didn’t encounter any other hikers or cyclists on the track the entire day, and was genuinely surprised to see tens of backpacks along with mine at the Camp Bay luggage drop off point, waiting to be picked up.
Although I camped, there are other accommodation options, such as lodges, huts and even a five-star hotel, though the availability of each of these is not consistent throughout the track. At Camp Bay there were a lot of camping spots, some of them tucked away in the bush, offering an opportunity for privacy. I picked a sheltered spot, and ended up not having any neighbours for the night, although there were perhaps a dozen other campers. Also, I later learnt that a friend of mine had also stayed at the same site on the same day as me but we completely missed each other. It goes to show that if you’re after a solitary kinda tramp you can totally get it.
Some general and NZ specific lessons about camping learnt that day
1.Wear appropriate footwear around sharp objects
I was so excited to have the chance to get my feet out of my shoes so didn’t think it a bad idea at all to walk around sharp objects (the tent’s razor blade sharp pegs) barefoot. That was a very dumb idea as I stumbled upon the pegs half a dozen times. Clear warning signs to put my shoes back on, right. But no. I effectively stabbed the heal of my foot by stepping right over one of the pegs which was pretty painful and bloody. First aid did come in handy and so did keeping my shoes on from then on too.
2.No dangerous animals to keep you awake at night, right. But no.
I was quite pleased about my solitude as I had this idea that I’d snug into my super cosy sleeping bag and have an amazing deep sleep as there were no dangerous animals to worry about. Well, I don’t think I had even an hour of uninterrupted sleep that night. I had the curious and friendly weka (the bush is teeming with these buddies) pecking at my tent throughout the night, at some point in the night an object (most likely a leaf) dropped on top of my tent which made me jump out of my skin, and if I remember correctly I gave out a shriek which must have echoed for miles through the bush. Perhaps I just dreamt it as no one came to check on me or they just couldn’t be bothered.
3.Don’t be fooled by the low degrees, insect repellent is essential any time of the year
Another not very smart move was not packing in insect repellent (I did bring three tubes of sunscreen, though) as I thought it’d be a little too cold for the tiny fellas to be out. Grave mistake. The tiny little buggers (sand flies and mosquitos) had a field day on my unprotected skin.
The walk from Camp Bay to Portage Bay (Cowshed) is entirely through the bush, along the ridgeline. Although there are some steep sections, the incline is gentle on the whole. As the bush offers some cover, I imagine it would be pleasant even in the hotter moths of the year, but my preference would still be to do it when it’s cooler. The walk from Black Rock Camp to Cowshed is stunningly beautiful.
Portage Bay itself is unbelievably beautiful. What a great treat to the eyes! I was in awe with the colours of the bush and the water, which were accentuated by the light, and just couldn’t believe that a place of such beauty really existed.
To get to Cowshed Bay Camp, you get off the track and walk down a road (yep, the first real sealed road) for about 1km. Here the Portage Resort handles the luggage transfer against a fee of $10. The Portage resort and Cowshed Bay are 300 meters away from each other and are both at sea level (that was very good news as the ascent back up to the track is fairly steep). Another essential service provided by the resort is delicious coffee and comfy furniture placed strategically to provide stunning views of the bay.
I was told it gets pretty busy at this campsite as it is so beautiful and could be accessed by road from the mainland. When I got at the campsite few campervans were parked there already. As the day wore on, walkers started flooding in and pitching their tents by the beach. Again there are a lot of camping spots to choose from and I managed to pick yet another secluded spot, in the bush, away from the more exposed sites by the beach. However, if you have had enough of being away in the ‘wild’ and want to have some party time you should definitely make Cowshed an overnight stop on your tramp. As darkness descended upon us some loud music cut through the stillness of the night air and the party was on. The revellers went on for quite a bit but not for too long to make a nuisance of themselves.
The next morning I was woken up by the most amazing bird song ever. The entire bush got filled up with the incantations of the birds for a good quarter of an hour at the very least.
The track from Torea Saddle to Te Maihi is wider than previous sections and the incline is less steep. It is pretty fast going so a detour to Onahau lookout is well worth the climb, and makes a great breakfast spot.
The track gets pretty busy from Mistletoe Bay down to Anakiwa. I didn’t bother keeping count of the hikers and mountain bikers I came across — there were loads of them. It is the most popular day hike I gathered. The views are pretty stunning still and it’s worth doing this section of the track as Davies Bay is gorgeous.
Although I took care not to walk like a maniac and took detours, I still got to Anakiwa several hours before the scheduled departure time for the water taxi back to Picton. Well, I imagined there would be cafés where I would be able to gorge on some food delights. I couldn’t have been more wrong. There was one food caravan and it was closed when I arrived; eventually it opened a couple of hours later and I had a coffee which was decent.
Before heading back home, I spent a night in Picton, at the Picton House BnB. It is just a few minute walk from the wharf and all the nice cafes and restaurants lining up the picturesque waterfront. The house is charming and the owners were super friendly and welcoming.
Picton has some nice restaurants, which was pretty amazing after a couple of days on dry camping food. Le Café and Cortado both offer excellent food and service, and an opportunity to soak in the beautyful views of the sounds for a little while longer.
There are some nice day hikes out of Picton too. I’d be keen to explore them too but that is for some other trip.