By Helen Pelham, Lynne Dickinson and Linda Lennon
We are all so swift to jump on a plane and fly to another country boasting amazing views and stunning activities; but there are few destinations that can rival what we have right here on our doorstep. I had always wanted to visit Queen Charlotte Sounds and with an invitation from Wilderness Guides that ‘date’ was finally going to happen. This adventure would take 3days; a hike, a bike and kayak and as this title suggests it was the beginning of a real location romance.
Arriving in Picton, the heart of the Marlborough Sounds the air was unseasonably cool, but you were distracted from the lack of summer warmth by the absolute beauty of Sounds. We caught up at Wilderness Guides HQ and were fully and expertly briefed about our upcoming trip.
You know when someone looks at you and you can see doubt in their eyes? Martyn, our Wilderness Guide, looks at us with ‘professional’ concern as he explains day two’s 24km mountain bike ride.
“Just how much mountain biking experience do you have?” he asks dubiously.
We are 3 women in our 50s with varying levels of competence and Martyn obviously has doubts about our biking abitilies. He explains that this is a difficult ride, rated a grade 4-5, and we will likely be pushing our bikes up and down hills for a fair amount of the track. He offers us the easier option of riding along a road through Kenepuru Sounds, but we fail to take the hint and reply, “It’s OK, we’ll be right, we’ll stick to the track!” How naive we were…
As day one dawns, another unseasonably cold one, it’s an early start as we meet the guides for a final briefing at 7.30 am. With a pack lunch provided we board Beachcomber Cruises for our ride out to the start of the track at Ship Cove.
45 minutes into the journey a pod of dolphins appear alongside the boat, playing in the waves and wake of our vessel. They are so close we can almost touch them.
Ship Cove “Meretoto”, has been memorialised to mark the landing and trading of Captain Cook. Take the time to have a look around and visualise how things must have been when Cook first arrived. There’s a shelter and toilet for your convenience and information boards that give a full description of Captain Cook’s endeavours.
We had a good look around and then set off on the 17km walk. All of our gear was being transported to our first night’s accommodation thanks to Wilderness Guides, so all we had to carry was our day pack. This allowed us to experience the hike without having to carry too much weight. One thing to note is to make sure you carry enough clothes and water with you for all conditions. In the exposed parts of the track, the strong southerly winds made for cold temperatures and so we were constantly adding and removing layers throughout the day.
The hike itself is along a clay track, which is easy to walk on requiring only a quality pair of trainers. If you do not own a pair of hiking boots it really does not matter, our Hoka One One’s proved to be just the ticket. The track meanders over 2 saddles and with a relatively gentle gradient, is not too demanding. Immersed in the native bush and surrounded by ocean it’s easy to see what makes the Queen Charlotte track so popular.
We stopped at the top of the Tawa saddle, which is just past the halfway mark, to have our lunch. There are picnic tables and toilets here with amazing views making it a perfect place to refuel. Be aware of the weka, they are evil little thieves who will steal any food or search through any unattended backpacks in the hope of finding a treat.
The second half of the tramp takes you gradually down to Endeavour Inlet and after approximately 4 hours the sight of several quintessential kiwi baches tells you that you are close to Furneaux Lodge, the end of the track for us today. The lodge is a historical oasis and over a cold beer followed by a nice Pinot, we relaxed and enjoyed the beautiful setting before boarding the mail boat for the short ride to Punga Cove. (If you miss the boat it’s another 12km hike around the inlet, however the staff keep you well informed when it’s close so there should be no excuse.)
Arriving at Punga Cove was a real highlight. We were straight into the Jacuzzi to rest our tired muscles; this pool boasts a wonderful view of the sounds. This was followed by a magnificent meal at their top-quality restaurant. Punga Cove is an absolute delight with comfortable, well-appointed chalets all with amazing views. To be honest we didn’t want to leave. However, more adventures awaited us the next day and it was time to move on.
Day 2 could not have been more different. Gone were the thermals, fleeces and jackets from yesterday and out came the togs and singlets! Our bikes had been delivered the day before so after a buffet breakfast, we headed out of the resort. The ride starts with a gruelling 1km uphill on a gravel road and Martyn’s original concerns start to come back to haunt us. It is here that you either head up the Queen Charlotte Track or take the option of the road through Kenepuru Sounds.
Despite Martyn’s warnings we had originally decided to give the trail a go, however the cold weather from the previous few days had left us feeling a little under the weather (or was it just the wine?) and our enthusiasm for a hard day’s ride was waning. After checking out the track on foot the reality of the ride hit us and we decided to take the road. Turning away from the Queen Charlotte Track did not come without a sense of FOMO however, the Kenepuru Sounds road turned out to be a real surprise and a route that shouldn’t be seen as a second-rate option.
The ride from Punga Cove to Portage along the Kenepuru Sounds is 32 km and can be ridden in 2-3 hours, compared with 24km along the Queen Charlotte Track, with an estimated 4-5 hours ride time. This should tell you a lot about the difficulty of the ride. Although we could have ridden the track, it would have been hours of technical riding, focusing only a few feet in front of us, with little chance to appreciate anything else.
What we learnt is how important it is to be honest with yourself about your abilities and what you want out of the day. For us, the ability to relax, take our time and enjoy the views and each other’s company was what it was all about, however, if you were a hard core mountain biker who loves the technical and physical challenge you would want to be doing the ridge ride over on the track.
The countryside and farmland provided a different vista from the day before, but no less beautiful. The ride becomes easier as you leave the gravel onto a sealed road, which then winds along the edge of Kenepuru Sounds. There are endless opportunities to take a break and enjoy the stunning views. We took our time, stopping at various bays along the way, enjoying lunch and a swim at Picnic Cove.
As we came down the final bend, The Portage Resort lays nestled in the hillside overlooking the ocean. We were warmly welcomed on arrival by the manager, Josh and nothing was too much trouble for him or his staff. There were incredible views from everywhere at the resort and we ended the day with a meal in the restaurant as we watched the sun set over the Sounds, a perfect end to a perfect day.
The next morning we headed over the hill to Torea. This is a 30-minute walk from Portage, or you can ask the lovely staff to give you a ride to the jetty. The kayaks and our competent, Canadian guide Rikki arrived on the mail boat and our final day began with a briefing at the beach before heading off on our route for the day. Although the weather had warmed since we started, the wind was still gusting so instead of kayaking back to Picton, Rikki proposed an alternative route that keep the wind at our backs for most of the day. Perfect!
We were in double kayaks, which were super stable and almost impossible to capsize. Even the most nervous adventurer would be confident in one of these, especially with Rikki in charge.
Our route took us along the edge of the coastline and in and out of the many bays. Along the way, we listened as Rikki chatted about the native birds, trees and sea creatures. Her knowledge of our coastline and the history of the region is impressive, apart from the accent, you’d think she was born and bred in this part of our country.
After a few hours paddling in and out of bays, we crossed the channel which gave us a panoramic look back towards the sounds. Our start point at Ship Cove is now just a hazy point in the distance, and we cannot help but feel a sense of pride as we reflect on how far we have travelled over the past few days, all under our own steam.
The rest of the day is spent exploring the beaches, coves, stopping for lunch and even kayaking through a cheeky hole in the rock before meandering towards our pickup point. We pass a playful NZ fur seal and watch stingrays swimming beneath us. We really feel like we are in paradise.
Like most new romances this had to come to an end, all three of us had fallen in love with Marlborough and Queen Charlotte Sounds; not just the beauty and activities, but the people, the vibe and how Wilderness Guides tailored the trip so that we got the very most out of every moment. We were sad to go but as Tennyson said ‘Tis better to have loved and lost than to have never loved at all’ – Charlotte we’ll be back!
Visiting the Marlborough Region
Getting There: To reach the Marlborough Sounds, Air New Zealand flies directly to Blenheim or you can take the Blueridge Interisland Ferry across Cook Straight from Wellington to Picton. Conveniently located in Wellington CBD, Bluebridge Cook Strait Ferries sail downtown Wellington to the Sounds 50 times a week. They are famous for their warm Kiwi hospitality and better value fares every day. Your ticket includes free movies and the best free WiFi on Cook Strait. If you’re a keen cyclist they have a Bluebridge Bike Club and you can walk your bike on and it will sail for free. They reward you Airpoints Dollars™ every time you sail with Bluebridge. Their passengers also love the great value quality local food freshly prepared by their onboard chefs and their private cabins that come with an ensuite and linen from only $30. You can even use their Wellington to Picton week day sleeper service and board early around midnight. You’ll sleep while they set sail at 2.30am and arrive rested in Picton at around 6am ready for the next leg of your adventure. Once in Picton, the choices for exploring the region are in abundance.
Why Wilderness Guides?: Wilderness Guides is celebrating its 20th birthday this year. Owned and operated by Steve and Juliet Gibbons, Kiwis who grew up in the Marlborough region who both have a passion for the outdoors. All the planning and preparation are taken care of so you can just enjoy what you have come to do. Everything was so easy for us, our bags arrived ahead of us and were in our rooms when we arrived. The convenient luggage transfer system provided by Beachcomber Cruises, meant we only had to carry day packs so we could really enjoy the adventure. The bikes and kayaks were top quality, easy to ride and paddle, and suited for the terrain. It is an easy, cost effective way to experience this piece of paradise.
Wilderness Guides have plenty of options for seeing the sounds and will taylor-make an adventure just to suit you. So what are you waiting for? Check out what they have to offer at wildernessguidesnz.com
Punga Lodge: We wish we had more time at Punga Lodge; the setting was like something from a tropical island. The staff were friendly and attentive and the views from our room were simply spectacular. We were also well sheltered from the southerly winds and the temperature felt a few degrees warmer here. Thoroughly recommend the spa pool, a great way to relax at the end of the day and the views over the bay made relaxing super easy.
The Portage: Another luxury lodge that is warm and welcoming. The staff are there to make you feel special and nothing is too much trouble for them. The views are unbelievable and there is a pool to relax in after a hard day on the track. If offers 2 bars and restaurants so you have a choice of either the more casual “Snapper Bar,” a favourite for the locals, or if you prefer something a little more formal the main bar and restaurant provide either a buffet dinner or a-la-carte. Both provide amazing views and a stunning place to relax.
The Region: Marlborough Sounds (Te Tau Ihu o te Waka-a-Māui) offers the tourist and the adventurer many options. After experiencing the sounds, be sure to allow yourself plenty of time to enjoy everything the region has to offer. We recommend heading up to Blenheim (Waiharakeke) to check out the vineyards for a day. You can hire cycles and do a tour of the vineyards that offer tastings and enjoy either top quality dining or casual tapas or platters.