Te Araroa heads south on the Queen Charlotte Walkway


Queen Charlotte Sound from the walkway
Queen Charlotte Sound from the walkway

A Cougar Line water taxi, its harsh little tannoy interrupting the dreaming passengers with detail of the various coves, islands and homesteads on the hour-long trip up Queen Charlotte Sound from Picton, delivered us finally to a jetty at Ship Cove.

Jump down, turn around, I was here. The northern end of the Queen Charlotte walkway, the start of Te Araroa in the South.

A happy barbecue crowd off the fizzboats and yachts was already ensconced along the lawns here, and those of us here to tramp, picked our way through them, and across a wooden bridge to spot the Captain James Cook monument.

Captain James Cook monument, Ship Cove
Captain James Cook monument, Ship Cove

It was huge, white, stucco and though it had the aesthetics of a tank trap, I liked the thing. I liked the jaunty angle of the anchor at the top, the polished iron of the cannon at the base. Near the top of the monument, standing proud in brightly painted bass relief, a blue sailor's arm, truncated at the shoulder in the heraldic manner, brandished the British flag, and the banner beneath that said Circa Orbem.

The monument was counterpoint to something more subtle about the cove. It was pocket sized, which made it perhaps easier here than in any other of Captain James Cook's landing places to imagine these first British explorers of 230 years ago at their work. In 1770, Cook re-filled the Endeavour's water barrels at this stream - it bubbled still to the left of the monument. His sailors careened the Endeavour on gentle tidal slopes that still slope gently away. He raised the British flag on tiny Motuara Island, and turning seaward you could see the island, now a bird sanctuary, just a few hundred metres offshore. He climbed nearby Arapawa Island to a height of 370 metres and wrote in his journal - "I saw what I took to be the Eastern Sea and a Strait or passage from it into the Western Sea" - his first sight of Cook Strait. The cove was Cook's favourite New Zealand anchorage and he returned here five times during his three Pacific voyages.

The trampers wandered about adjusting packs, posing for photos at the monument, and I left them to it, setting off past the distance marker - the southern end of the track at Anakiwa was 72 km away.

Just over three years ago I'd finished an off-road North Island tramp, testing the proposed New Zealand-long hiking trail, Te Araroa, from Cape Reinga to Wellington, and made myself a promise - sometime, when I'd figured a South Island route, I'd walk that too.

Ship Cove seemed the right South Island startpoint. Its latitude - S. 41deg. 05 - was slightly north of Wellington so there was a nice overlap which gave north-south continuity to the proposed New Zealand-long hiking trail. And it had historical cred.

I moved upward past fern, kawakawa, and rangiora that could have easily been North Island bush, then at about 100 metres altitude saw the first black beech trees. Joseph Banks, the botanist aboard Endeavour noted in his journal at Ship Cove "the most melodious wild music I have ever heard" - the bellbirds, and as I reached the level of the beech, they were still there, the same moss-green birds, gonging away.

I reached Furneaux Lodge on Endeavour Inlet, in just over four hours. Murder still haunts the inlet. Here at New Year's 1998, amongst the dozens of boaties celebrating that night on and off the water, two young revelers, Ben Smart and Olivia Hope took a water taxi to an unfamiliar yacht moored here, boarded it, and disappeared. Their bodies were never found, though police secured a murder conviction against yachtie Scott Watson.

New Zealand's boating fraternity was still at the bar or drinking on the lawns, but the scene was entirely pleasant. Kids played tennis on a grass court, and down at the water's edge, a father and son competed to skip stones across the pellucid water.

"That first skip mustn't be too big. You get that big jump, you lose everything."

"A six dad ! I got a six, a six, a six! "

I listened, realised I was a little homesick, and joined the Lodge manager Stephen Western, to look out on the manicured lawns, their centerpiece a ship's bell from a British warship on the Yangtse River of the 1930s, landlocked now on stanchions. In the 1950s, the old wide-verandahed homestead was offered to the Government as a Prime Ministerial retreat, the offer not taken up, and it fell, in this remote spot, into disrepair and some disrepute. I asked if the murders had affected trade.

Western was an ex-insurance broker who'd quit a thriving business in Takapuna two years ago, and made a snap decision, with his wife Sue and one other financial partner, to take on Furneaux.

"My dad died at 59 of a stroke," he said, "and my philosophy is this: call it a midlife crisis if you will, but you look at the last 10 years of your life, and that's what the next ten years will be like if you don't do something about it. If you don't break the mirror, you'll never see what's on the other side."

"The murders? No-one died here, this was just the last place they were seen. But it was five years ago, before our time and it was $1 million of free advertising - everyone has heard of this place. We've put in a new management, we've rebuilt - replaced the tin cans that were holding up the beds."

And the artifacts? I asked. It has always seemed to me a peculiar part of New Zealand's character that bizarre historical items wash up here. Ben Franklin's pocket knife in Wanganui, bits of Charles Babbage's famous first computer found holding open a farm door somewhere in Taranaki. Oaken planks, indented by grapeshot from the Battle of Trafalgar, remade into chairs. Bits of the world's first dinosaur bone collection.

What had happened to Furneaux Lodge's treasured ensign from Captain Robert Scott's first Antarctic voyage? Yes, and what the hell had happened to Queen Victoria's stocking?

"Gone," said Western. "Previous owners had financial trouble here, and those things were all sold off."

The dozen or so fellow trampers I was beginning to pass and repass on the trail were mostly holed up in Furneaux's backpacker accommodation, The Croft. The big wet that dominated the first half of January had already begun, and everyone was trapped inside, talking the backpacker talk of Asian, and South American adventures. Jonathan, the recovering adman from London had been trapped under a whitewater raft on a South American River for half a minute, and that had helped clear his head of all the bullshit. They were yarning, using English as the lingua franca, or they were reading books. Emma the 26 year old English woman was engrossed in D.H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover, Jonathan was into J.R.R. Tolkein's Lord of the Rings, Ariel Katz, the Israeli, was reading Michael Shalev's One Hundred Winters, about a Jewish family in Poland in the 19th century. Ariel looked up, looked out:

"I see why they call it the land of the long white cloud. The land of the neverending cloud I think."

"Well, I'm told it's very unusual for this time of year," said the recovering adman.

"Not true. I was here last year, and this is not unusual," chimed in the Frenchwoman."

"Has anyone," asked Katz, "heard the story of why the kiwi has a long beak?"

I was trying to concentrate on a GPS manual. I'd bought the GPS before setting out, and was trying to figure how to put in track way points, a useful skill for unmarked mountain routes. The Queen Charlotte Track was a simple, four-day, well-marked track, so it seemed a good place to trial the thing, but the manual was incomprehensible. I needed to experiment live, and I switched it on. The unit began to beep. It couldn't get enough satellites from the doorway of the croft, and to get its necessary fix, I put on a coat and stood outside with it in the rain.