Te Araroa dines out and finds a lucky hanky


At the Croft next morning few people moved far. They cooked their breakfasts, they rearranged their packs, they dipped into the novels. The rain beat down and the next leg of the walkway, to Punga Cove, was no more than three or four hours hiking distance. Everyone waited for the weather to lift.

But one by one they became reconciled, and went out into it. The Australian woman whose partner had eaten a bad peanut and had been ill from Ship Cove, saw him off back to Picton on the 11 o'clock water taxi, then cut arm-holes in a black plastic rubbish bag, posed briefly for the rest of us - "a bit daggy eh?" - and set off alone.

The recovering ad-man from London went. Then the Israelis. I took a hot shower. I'd neglected to pack a towel, and found a blue silken handkerchief, with no apparent owner, under my bunk. I rubbed one arm with it, wrung it out, mopped the other arm, and by such gradual absorption dried myself sufficiently to dress. It wasn't my kerchief though. I hung it out to dry on an internal Croft clothesline, donned the parka, put up the hood, unstrapped the Leki sticks in anticipation of a slippery track, and set off for Punga Cove.

One of the options on the four-day Queen Charlotte Walkway is to shorten it by two days, walking against the flow from Punga to Ship Cove. I passed a party of elderly Germans doing exactly that, walkers without packs or boots, confounded by the weather, their brollies blown out by the strong westerly wind. I passed a sign that said: "Is the dog with you? Please tie her up here." A leash was fixed to a post alongside, but not even a dog would have voluntarily gone gamboling with the trampers that day.

"I will have," I said, tracing with my finger the words off the menu of the Punga Cove Restaurant, "the world famous locally farmed mussels, steamed with garlic, onion, chili, capsicum, served in the half shell."

"As an entrée or main, sir?"

"As the entrée, and for a main I'll try the rib-eye steak with garlic butter, onion rings and kumara wafers, and - a glass also of the Twin Islands Pinot Noir - is that a local wine?"

"It's from Marlborough, yes."

"A glass of Twin Islands then - "

The restaurant windows looked out on the waters of the cove. Yachts floated below on pellucid water. A James Taylor tune from the 1960s drifted up from the bar down at the jetty. These things . . . the paper serviette, the crystal, the cutlery . . . was I really - tramping?

I'd reached Punga Cove wet. The water-taxi had ferried my main pack ahead of me, and it was waiting under a tarpaulin on the jetty. So would I now put up the tent at the damp DOC campground, or would I go to the classy backpacker accommodation on the hill - for $35 a shared eight-bunk unit with linen on the beds, a hot shower, a heater to dry my gear, and a kitchen? I'd go for the linen. And having put everything out to dry and investigated the kitchen, would I now break out the dehydrate from the pack, or - on this evening, gentle after rain - eat at the restaurant? By such gradual degrees we are seduced, and that night I went postal with the Mastercard.

I introduced myself to the man who shared the table, Robert. He lectured in public health policy at a London University, and had come across from visiting colleagues in Australia just to walk the track.

"All of this," he said, gesturing past the picture window at the bushclad headlands, and coves, "who owns it?"

A weka watches the walkers
A weka eyes a walker's pack

Israeli women on the Queen Charlotte Walkway
Israeli women walking the Queen Charlotte Walkway

Tree ferns
Punga (tree ferns) form a roof over the trail

Well, the Department of Conservation had large reserves in the sounds - public land - though how much, I didn't know. In the 1990s, private landowners had agreed to let the Department of Conservation and the Marlborough District Council cobble together the existing tracks into a single walkway that moved through forest, and some farmland.

On the foreshores it went on past Kiwi holiday homes - the purple-painted baches, the water tanks, the dunnies, the boatsheds. The track had become a huge success, tramped by professional people with swipe cards, and by backpackers with budgets enriched by the exchange rate, some 18,000 walkers a year. If they spent only $100 each on the way through - pretty much a minimum with the $45 water-taxi fare to Ship Cove, the accommodations en route, the temptations of the track signs pointing off-route to a coffee shop or the luxury lodges down in the bays - the money generated each year by the track was around $2 million.

"You hardly know what you've got here, " said Robert. "Those thousands of tree ferns, I've seen nothing like them, they are so - so extravagant.

"The sounds are naturally beautiful," I said, "but in England it's surely as good - the countryside and the history. The Hadrian's Wall track - it's quite something to walk beside an old imperial frontier that's almost 2,000 years old. Kenneth Clark the art historian once wrote that he could enjoy a purely aesthetic experience no longer than he could enjoy the smell of an orange - about a minute. And isn't landscape the same? Unless you're held by it for other reasons, of history or geology say, the experience is fleeting."

"History," said Robert. "You can feel trapped by it. And trapped by people. In Europe every one of these headlands would have a millionaire's house overlooking the water. What's impressive here is not just your wilderness. It's the magnitude of your wilderness."

Next day I was first onto the track. The bootprints were no longer sharp-etched, but adumbrated by the previous day's downpour and I was breaking spider silk that stretched side to side of the track. The sun was just up, the land was steaming. I stooped over toadstools, Amanita muscaria, balled bright red and bursting through their white membrane, or full-grown, the caps as big as dinner plates and dotted with the soft white remnants of the breached veil. Above, every pine needle was hung at its tip with a dewdrop, and a tui sang from the very top of the tree, like some black Christmas angel. I was high on the ridge between Queen Charlotte and Kenepuru Sounds, gazing at farmland far below and beyond it the mirrors of the shining sea, puzzled as to why the wake of every small craft down there etched a series of white u-turns. Of course! If you looked more closely you could just make them out - the towed dots, the added drama of the fast turn, the water skiers.

I was free-wheeling, I was feeling fine, and then I stopped dead. There, draped over a bit of dead gorse, was a blue silken handkerchief. It was carefully displayed. It was meant to be found. It was, I was sure, the same silken handkerchief I'd left at the Croft. Someone, perhaps the last to leave Furneaux Lodge that day, had picked it up and placed it here as a happy surprise to the owner, though if I was the first on the track, it was something of a mystery how it could have got here before me.

A trail mystery - excellent. I knew from experience in the north that a long trail turns you into a gypsy of sorts, seeking sign, seeking the cause behind coincidence. Good enough. I had a talisman of something or another, I believed in small gods, good luck, and I still had a long way to go. I took the hanky and tied it to a loop on my Leki stick.