In February, just before the Covid crisis changed the world, I walked the 75km Queen Charlotte Track with my wife, and a million singers sang, a million timpanists beat their tiny drums. The right royal racket stretched away miles deep around us. Summer cicadas, and a world of song, the only apparent danger, cicadas who detached from their trees and flew the long green corridor, colliding occasionally with our sun hats, or simply hitching a ride before flying on.
We walked with day packs. The same launch that takes you to the start of the track at Ship Cove will also, for a small fee, jump your 5-day luggage forward to the jetties at each of the end-of-day stopovers. We walked through leafy forest to Furneaux Lodge. A bronze plaque recorded the thanks of Captain Harry Howden R.N. to his settler parents who'd founded Furneaux in the early 20th century and "gave great happiness and such fun to their early descendants". Fun, then and fun now. We checked into our tramper's accommodation, slung off our daypacks, and were still rummaging in our recently deposited luggage when 17 women leapt off the jetty and in one screaming chorus, bombed the still waters of Endeavour Inlet.
We came to label them "the hares". We came to know they were women who'd left their children and all care back with their partners in Auckland. The mass tramp was an annual ritual, and they lit the wide lawns and verandas of Furneaux with talk, and caroused into the night. Then slept late, or so we thought, for we didn't see them on the 10km leg through to Punga Cove, and then forgot them as the weather turned.
We passed the DOC campground — the cheaper option — and headed for the resort beyond, and pizzas at the Boatshed Cafe. The sounds magnify all weather. If it's fine, it's super-fine, but if the wind gets up ... it was dropping down the flanks of the peninsulas and swirling across Endeavour Inlet, tearing the ocean. Rain blew sideways into our happy-hour nook on the jetty, and around the time it blew the leafy garnish off my Pizza Italiano, we grabbed cardboard pizza boxes from the bar and retreated up the hill to our unit. That night, we lay listening to the rain, and watched the dark silhouettes of the trees outside thrash sideways and upwards like those spooky air dancers in the car dealer yards, and Miriam said, "If it's like this tomorrow, I'm not walking."
It's true, there's a choice. If you don't want to walk, but have a resort or hotel or campsite booking at the next stop-over, the daily launch simply takes you there, but next day the air was still and the sun shone. Queen Charlotte's longest section lay ahead, and two hours on, as we climbed to the high ridge that separates Kenepuru and Queen Charlotte Sounds we heard them coming. The Hares. We paused on the zig and they came up the zag. Louder and louder, loosely packed in groups of two or three or four — fit young women, moving fast, with daypacks, talking non-stop.
We took our time along the ridge, looking down on Queen Charlotte's intimate boating culture — jetties sticking out from myriad isolated bays, and yachts at anchor on the blue depths, the water shallowing towards the land in translucent bands of colour from blue to green, to orange to yellow. On the other side of the ridge, though, lay the entire barrel of Kenepuru Sound. The farmhouses at the base of the sound lay tiny at our feet, and the narrow waters of the Kenepuru stretched 25km onward from there like a giant canal. It's one of New Zealand's great sights. The Marlborough Sounds are gradually being pulled under by New Zealand's mighty subduction forces, and the great valleys of its prehistory have changed over millennia, into these long and intricate waterways.
We passed the Hares at the next viewpoint. They posed for selfies and crowded in for group photos, and I think they hardly noticed as we walked on past. We beat them to the Bay of Many Coves shelter and broke for lunch. The track is the start of Te Araroa's South Island route, and the through hikers of that 3000km trail had signed themselves through, by the dozen, in the shelter's intentions book. The Hares came gaily past, waving, but we overtook them later as they too broke for lunch, with one of the track's endemic flightless wekas circling the picnic table, seeking an illegal crust.
We walked on beneath the trail's oldest forest. Overhanging tree ferns darkened the way, then opened out on to old beech trees, their bases blackened and rumpled by symbiotic black fungus, their vast trunks and delicate foliage framing the blue sea beyond.
The Aesop fable suggested we'd beat the Hares to the Portage Hotel, and we did. We'd already served ourselves from the smorgasbord and ordered our beer and ginger ale before they blew in, grabbed plates and dispersed to fill their plates. One of them, momentarily nonplussed as Auckland Hares sometimes are, stood beside the jugs, and asked into the air, "Do you have any non-dairy milk?"
After the 25km effort to Portage we took an easy 10km day to the charming Te Mahia Bay, and its resort, then set out next day for the final leg to Anakiwa. Somewhere beyond the five hypnotic days of our walk was a global pandemic. It was February, Covid-19 was nearing New Zealand, and the travel ban on incoming flights from China and Iran was already in place.
I dawdled along in the afternoon sun, and watched my wife walk on ahead through a long glade. Sunlit patterns assembled and disassembled upon her back as she walked. A friend had died the week before, and it made me thoughtful. Patterns of life and death. Generations come, generations go, but at least there was always the walker, walking. Miriam was waiting at the end of the glade as I came up. Everything in those early Covid days seemed tinged with mortality anyway. I'd seen something worth sharing I thought but, mortality is always difficult and I eased into it.
"That glade we just walked through, wild shrubs either side — was that five finger?"
"Yes, and Akeake . . ."
My wife is very good at the bush names.
"Okay, so the sun was shining through the thicket, and as you walked along you captured the sunlight in jigsaw pieces that came and went, and I thought, you know, that..."
"I just got hit by another cicada."
QUEEN CHARLOTTE TRACK
Air New Zealand flies from Auckland to Blenheim. airnz.co.nz
The 72km Queen Charlotte Track can be walked or biked in full, or as a series of day hikes. qctrack.co.nz