The Queen Charlotte track is a 71km, 4-5 day walk in the Marlborough Sounds on the north coast of the South Island. The walking is relatively easy, the beaches beautiful and as much of it is along a ridge you get spectacular views of both the Queen Charlotte and Kenepuru Sounds. The water taxis will transport you and your bags to different sections, so really it is or can be a stretch of day hikes. One of the benefits of walking the Queen Charlotte Track is that there are hotels available each night so that after a walk each day you can go for a swim, have a shower and then enjoy some good food and drinks, making it a great walk to enjoy with a group of friends.
It is not a Great Walk but a partnership between NZ DOC, the local council and private landowners, collectively, the Queen Charlotte Track Land Cooperative, QLTLC, hence there is a fee for walking through some sections of the track (NZ$18pp in 2015). The QCTLC Pass as it is known can be purchased at the Picton I-Site and certain commercial operators along the track (we purchased ours at Punga Cove).
The track can be mountain biked, however, the only groups of mountain bikers we saw were pushing their bikes or heading back to the road to catch the bus for an easier cycling option. Admittedly they weren’t the most experienced looking bunch of cyclists and perhaps the easy grading on the track for walkers lead some astray. As a mountain bike track it is an intermediate, sometimes advanced track, with some quite steep drop offs on track edges, and some potentially difficult tree rooty stepped sections.
The walking times provided by the QCTLC are pretty generous. This was pretty early in our NZ trip so we were not fully tramping fit and were joined for the week by friends Wendy and Steve who had not previously undertaken a multi-day hike. We took it very easy with plenty of breaks and still managed to take less time than suggested.
Organisation/costs. There are several ways to organise a walk along the Queen Charlotte Track. The more budget minded can backpack the entire track and stay at any of the six DOC camping sites (water for drinking and cooking which should be treated before use, toilets and tables). Be warned, however, that when we did the track there seemed to be a lot of school groups hiking the track with large packs; so chances are that, unless hiking in the school holidays, you could end up sharing the campsites with a lot of teenagers.
Those looking for a bit more luxury and comfort without breaking the bank can book their own accommodation and self guide along the track. All of the information needed to book accommodation can be found on the official Queen Charlotte Track website.
The last way to organise the trip is for those for whom cost is no object and who don’t want the hassle of organising their own bookings – a guided walk.
Given that we stayed in accommodation rather than camping, were eating in the lodges rather than carrying our own food, and were with friends and being very social, i.e. more cakes, coffees, and more alcohol than usual was consumed, the cost worked out a very reasonable $720 per person for 5 nights. This included two nights stay at Portage Bay Resort, in one of their premium suites because we felt like a rest day, transport to and from Picton with luggage cartage and the $18 QCTLC Pass. Along the way we frequently passed a guided group walking the same stages as us on the same days and staying the same accommodation (they did not, however, appear to be drinking as much with only one drink included with the evening meal). Curiosity got the best of us and we went on the internet to check out the prices – $2300 per person.
Given the ease of booking the trip yourself, the only real justification for paying this extra cost is to be guided. Whether you are willing to pay the extra cost for the pleasure of being guided is a matter of personal preference and confidence levels. If I was to asked to nominate one track in New Zealand which could be walked by reasonably fit but first time hikers without a guide it would be the Queen Charlotte Track. This is a fairly simple track with no tricky water crossings, well marked with many resorts and bays with water taxi access, and a road along the Kenepuru sound side. While there is not much if any civilisation between resorts, at most you will be a few hour’s walk from assistance. There is mobile phone coverage in a few places but it is not constant. In five days neither map or compass came out of the backpack, although the gas burner, billy and tea bags did, often.
Closest town/Getting there and away: We accessed the track from Picton using the water taxi services of Cougar Line (NZ$105 per person in 2015). They provided transport to the start at Ship Cove and from the finish at Anikawa. They also provided luggage transport for each daily section included at no extra cost, so we took the soft option. Picton is a pretty little port town and is the main port for the Interislander ferries which transport goods cars and people between the North and South Islands. Everything you need can be obtained in Picton.
Safety Issues. While the track is generally well benched there are rough sections with rocks and tree roots and some steep sections and drop offs; so take care and carry a first aid kit. Like a lot of areas in NZ, wasps can be common on the Queen Charlotte Track so it may be worth carrying antihistamine.
Day 1 – Ship Cove to Furneaux Lodge / Endeavour Inlet (14km, 3 hours, QLTLC-5 hours).
A leisurely one hour boat trip from Picton and we were at the start of the track at historic Ship Cove, named by James Cook who landed and camped there on several expeditions, spending nearly 6 months in total between 1770 and 1777. He set up vegetable gardens and an enclosure for pigs. There are records of contact with the local Māori population. You can also get an exciting conversation going with some Kiwis as to whether or not by doing this he introduced the Norwegian or Ships rat to NZ.
All along the length of the walk we saw significant numbers of rat and stoat traps and poison baits placed by DOC. The rats and mice love beech trees which mast (produce fruit and seeds) very heavily every few years. This results in an explosion of the rat and mice populations, shortly followed by the stoat populations. When the beech mast finishes the rats and mice turn to other sources of food such as native insects and when the rats and mice die out the stoats turn to native birds and bird eggs. The stoats were deliberately introduced to control the already introduced rabbits and are now found throughout NZ having wiped out a few native species including huia, bush wrens, native thrushes, laughing owls and quails. They were also responsible for wiping out stitchbirds, saddlebacks, kākāpō and little spotted kiwi from the mainland.
The walk itself was stunning. From Ship Cove a short sharp hill (elevation gain 200m) got the heart pumping and after about 40 minutes we reached the lookout point which provides views over over the Sound. We had been told by the skipper of the Cougar line boat that this hill was the toughest on the entire track and that the walk was a doddle after that hill was done (we were to later discover this was not quite right). From the saddle we dropped down into Resolution Bay, the site of the first DOC campsite and a very inviting beach. From there the track slowly ascended along an old bridle track over a ridge before winding down to Endeavour Inlet. The ridge section had a several opportunities to sit at the provided tables for a short break. At our lunch stop we were greeted by the inevitable wekas scavenging for food, so make sure you keep your packs away from their sharp beaks. The area is forested with beech, ferns and tree ferns highlighted by their contrast with the water of the Sound.
Our accommodation for the night, Furneax lodge, was on Endeavour inlet, along with a number of other accommodation providers. The inlet is pretty big so the distance walked for the day could vary quite a bit depending on who you are staying with and whereabouts they are on the inlet.
The first question we were asked on booking was what time we wanted to book for dinner. Wendy and Steve, being hiking neophytes, suggested 7pm as a civilised time and mocked Michelle’s suggestion of 6pm (inappropriate comments may have been made about old retired people). We compromised at 6.30pm, but as we were sitting on the lodge verandah drinking beer the hiking induced munchies well and truly set in and by 6pm we were banging on the restaurant door. Three courses and a few more beers later and it was time for an early night.
Day 2 Furneaux Lodge to Punga Cove. (12 km, 3 hours, QCTLC-4 hours).
A nice basically flat walk around the Endeavour Inlet and Camp Bay on the most populated section of the track. After nearly an hour we reached the point where you can take a side track to visit the remnants of an old antimony mine (we didn’t bother). Another hour and there was a choice of tracks to head up onto the Kenepuru Saddle (the start of the next day’s walk) which we ignored, heading instead towards the end of Camp Bay through the DOC campsite and from there along a small diversion to the Punga Cove Resort. The short day made for a long afternoon of cakes, coffee and scrabble (Michelle and I were thrashed). In late November it still wasn’t warm enough for swim (at least for Australians).
Day 3 Punga Cove to Portage Bay (27km, 6 hours, QCTLC-24.5km, 8 hours).
Day three was a big day of walking (27km of walking inclusive of getting on and off the track) and started with a bang by heading up the Kenepuru saddle (note, we were able to take a shortcut up the road from the resort and did not have to return along the track to where we had passed the Kenepuru saddle turn off the previous day). If a 25+ km day seems too much there is intermediate accommodation at the Bay of Many Coves or Black Rock for campers, but note that as these campsites are on the ridge there is no water taxi access and all gear will have to be carried. There is also a lodge on the beach below the ridge at Bay of Many Coves but to get there you have to take a sidetrack and then return the next day, involving another hike up to re-gain the 400m lost in elevation when descending to the Cove.
Given the length of the day we had four refreshment stops, the last at Black Rock campsite where we bumped into a young German backpacker walking the other way. He took one look at our motley group and calmly informed us that, as it had taken him more than hour walking mainly uphill with a pack to get to the campsite, we should expect to take more than 2 hours to get to where the track met the road at Torea Saddle. Such a challenge could not, of course, go unanswered so Michelle notched our pace up a bit as we headed over the last of the small hills and began the slow descent to the Saddle. The group went quiet (which given the group in question was nothing short of amazing in itself) and Wendy went to somewhere in her head which she later described as her ‘happy place’ (I took this to be a nice room with some music, somewhere where Michelle wasn’t). Steve occasionally muttered something about lawyers with type A personalities and unnecessary responses to people we didn’t know and would never meet again. Still, the increased pace worked and about an hour after we had left the German backpacker we hit the road from where we would descend to Portage Bay Resort on Kenpuru Sound. Disappointingly, as he had been heading in the opposite direction, Michelle was unable to go up to him and say ‘in your face German backpacker’ but she was sure he could feel the triumphant vibe from wherever he was camping.
Another glorious day of walking through forest with the ridge line walk providing spectacular views over both Queen Charlotte and Kenepuru Sounds. The hills didn’t exceed 500m above sea level, but the initial hike up on to the ridge and a fair amount of up and down between 250 and 450m combined with the length of the walk made for an exhausting day. The lesson from the first day had been learnt and we ignored the restaurant to order curries and burgers from the bar with our beers before an early night.
Day 4 was spent lounging around the resort, there was some discussion of kayaking or maybe swimming in the bay, but it was rainy, and a good day to take a break.
Day 5 Portage Bay to Anakiwa (21 km, 5 hours, QCTLC-24.5 k, 8 hours).
Day 5 we rejoined the track and with the long day 3 and rest day behind us we felt very comfortable bouncing over a few small hills. Like days 1 and 3 it began with a hike up the hill, but Torea Saddle didn’t feel as hard as the hills on those days. At times parts of Picton came into view confirming we were near the end of the trail. The trail here is more open, needing a hat and sunscreen in summer with many recently re-graded sections of track. We arrived in Anakiwa in plenty of time for the short ferry ride back to Picton and enjoyed another coffee from a small stall at the end of the track while waiting for the boat.
Queen Charlotte Track Profile