Geoff Cumming emerges from a tramp in the Marlborough Sounds to find a superb reward.
You have to go a long way to find Norma, who serves up a feast in the middle of nowhere.
To find Norma you must first hike for five hours along the Nydia Track, a route carved by loggers in the 1890s and not without its challenges. It's one of the less-accessible and lesser-known tracks in the Marlborough Sounds but the rewards are rich.
Our destination, Nydia Bay, is the halfway point of a track that traverses the western side of Pelorus Sound between Shag Pt, at the head of the sound, and Duncan Bay. Steep peninsulas either side of Nydia Bay make it a five-hour walk, whichever end you start from. We're at the southern end and cadge a lift from Havelock around the head of the sound to Shag Pt.
The climb through dense, damp podocarp is tricky in places, with streams to ford and boulders and fallen trees to traverse. The track dips and rises and disappears in places until you reach the saddle at 400m. But it's an inspiring walk with giant rimu (our guide, Nick, reckons some are around 500 years old), big rata vines, red beech, myriad ferns and ponga, all thriving in bush that receives plenty of rain even in a dry summer, and plenty of birdsong.
Once over the saddle, it's a steady descent to Nydia Bay where baches in bush offer views across the sound to Kenepuru Inlet, whose peninsulas fold into the distance.
More than a century ago, steam-powered haulers dragged timber from the bush to Nydia Bay for milling. We see remnants of the railway line that carried timber to a 300m wharf for shipment by barge.
DoC has a sizeable lodge with bunkrooms but our overnight resting point is the Lodge on the Track, nowhere near as perfunctory as its name.
The lodge offers accommodation ranging from a bunkroom for backpackers to chalet-style villas and a beautifully restored railway carriage with self-contained facilities. Solar panels ease the need to fire up the noisy generator in this peaceful valley where the only disturbance is the roar of the deer in the hills.
The lodge is a true family operation: owner Duncan Francis engaged mother Norma to do the cooking, father Tom to help with maintenance and grandfather Ron (Norma's father) as entertainment director. While Norma prepares the evening feast, Ron keeps guests amused with stories of his war exploits (he was an RAF pilot) and threats to "punch out" anyone who criticises the food.
There's no chance of that, although Norma claims to have had no formal training. On the night we stayed, she served a choice of fish or shellfish pie in a filo casing with an array of salads — sweetcorn and red pepper; pasta with courgette, eggplant and red pepper; broccoli, tomato and macadamia; pumpkin, feta and sunflower seeds; potatoes and cumin; and home-made focaccia with capers, tomato and rosemary. Dessert was flavoursome lychees in dry sherry with homemade ginger icecream and sfoglia biscuit.
Many of the salad ingredients came from their garden and goats provided milk for yoghurt and cheese. What they can't grow arrives fresh from Havelock by boat.
There's a library to relax in and on summer evenings guests can sit around the fire pit or stroll down to the bay.
A hot tub heated with a woodfired boiler is the perfect way to end the day under a starry sky.
Whether it was the walk, the food or the setting, our party all enjoyed the deepest of sleeps and awoke invigorated for our next five-hour trek to Duncan Bay — fortified by a more than generous lunch prepared by Norma.
Getting there: Air New Zealand flies non-stop to Blenheim from Auckland with up to four return flights daily.
The writer visited Lodge on the Track as a guest of Adventure South.