Hiking New Zealand – Queen Charlotte Track

Located in the Marlborough Sounds area at the north end of the South Island, the Queen Charlotte Track stretches 70 km from historic Ship Cove to Anakiwa. Described as one of New Zealand’s premier trails for hiking and mountain biking, it’s one of four hiking destinations we built into our New Zealand vacation plan. But there is so much to see and experience in New Zealand that we opted to allocate just one day to walk the 15 km from Ship Cove to Endeavour Inlet section of the track.

The day began with dense fog! Apparently it’s very unusual to see such extensive fog in Marlborough Sounds which I guess makes us lucky ’cause we were able to make some great photographs while we waited for our water taxi.

Fortunately, after we were underway and talking with our guide for the day, the fog started to clear. And by the time our water taxi tied up to the dock at Ship Cove the sun was shining, the sky was blue and the temperature was climbing to higher than Mr. GeoK and our youngest son would have liked!

Queen-Charlotte-Track

Mr. GeoK and the boys walk along the dock towards the Queen Charlotte Track trailhead at Ship Cove.

Queen-Charlotte-TrackCaptain James Cook harboured at Ship Cove on five separate occasions during the 1770s. Even today, Ship Cove can only be reached by boat and if you go, I recommend the short detour to read the informative signs just a few hundred meters to the right of the dock. If you’re just visiting Ship Cove for part of a day and then catching a water taxi back, there’s a large grassy area for picnicking, playing a game of catch, etc. and there are toilet and BBQ facilities here too, so I would call it family friendly.

I really wish our guide had mentioned the 30 minute sidetrack to the waterfall at the back of Ship Cove. I only found out about this option after we were back home in Canada and saw some photographs. It’s a good-sized waterfall and would be an ideal spot to make some beautiful long exposure photographs.

Instead, after Mr. GeoK succeeded in finding a geocache that I gave up on to go read some signs about the history of Ship Cove, we set out along the first bit of the Queen Charlotte Track: 4.5 km from Ship Cove to Resolution Bay with about 200 meters elevation gained (most of it over the first 1500 m) and then lost again as the track approaches the Department of Conservation campsite at Schoolhouse Bay.

There were very few scenic viewpoints along this stretch of the track. But that doesn’t mean it’s without appeal, which comes from the abundant vegetation and the symphony of insect and bird sounds. Podocarps, beech, ferns, tree ferns and other native New Zealand foliage comprise an amazing coastal forest reserve. Our guide explained how European settlers cleared most of New Zealand and planted grass for sheep farming and that now there’s quite an effort underway to restore portions of New Zealand to native vegetation. There’s also evidence of the ongoing fight against the spread of pine trees (which are individually drilled and poisoned) and possums, weasels and stouts (which are trapped).

If we listened carefully we could hear five distinct layers of sound: the vibrations produced by male cicadas, buzzing of bees and wasps, bird song, cicada distress sounds and human conversation. At times, the human voices around me were overwhelmed by the insect and bird sounds! Growing up and living in Canada, where the climate is quite a bit cooler, the insect decibel level was way higher that anything I could have imagined! At one point I paused and mimicked one bird’s calls for about 5 minutes – also a different experience!

Queen-Charlotte-Track
We reached Schoolhouse Bay in about an hour. There’s a nice stretch of rocky beach here and we were surprised and pleased when our guide unpacked a small camp stove and provisions for tea. While we stopped for morning refreshments we also took a few minutes to find another geocache, our last one of the day as there are very few geocaches hidden along this track.

From Schoolhouse Bay it’s 11.5 km with another 200 m elevation gained / lost to reach the Furneaux Lodge jetty on Endeavour Inlet. Again, lots of green vegetation, insect and bird song and just a few views of the water. There was plenty of evidence that this section of the track is being upgraded to make passing easier, make it safer for hikers and mountain bikers to co-use the track and to improve track drainage.

We stopped at one of the viewpoints for lunch. A few picnic tables and a nearby pit toilet provided ample evidence that it’s a popular lunch spot, as did the Weka looking for crumbs!

Weka

It was really interesting to learn over the last km or two that the Queen Charlotte Track is only possible because of cooperation between the Department of Conservation and private landowners. A crossing permit is required and the proceeds go to help with track maintenance. One section of the track, in particular, seems to act as a bit of an alley between homes and cabins on the beach and those one row up from the beach. We also spotted a couple of Little Blue Penguin nesting boxes along this section of the trail.

We reached Furneaux Lodge about 30 minutes ahead of schedule so we found an empty spot on the lawn and enjoyed the afternoon sun until the water taxi arrived to pick up everyone who finished the first 15 km of the Queen Charlotte Track before 3:30 pm.

The Queen Charlotte Track is well-established and has good signage. Out of the four hikes we incorporated into our up-front vacation planning, this is the one that would have been easiest to do without a guide.

Have you hiked any portion of this track? If so, what did you think? I think we’re pretty spoiled by the grand vistas we see when we hike in the Canadian Rockies! Even though from our perspective the Queen Charlotte Track wasn’t all that scenic, our guide helped us understand it’s ranking as one of New Zealand’s best tracks by sharing his knowledge of the Maori and European history at Ship Cove, the vegetation (including their historical uses for food and medicine) and the coastal forest reclamation efforts underway along the entire length of the hike.

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2 thoughts on “Hiking New Zealand – Queen Charlotte Track

    • Regret not doing part of the Milford Track. We have friends in NZ right now who are doing the first leg, so we’re really looking forward to hearing their thoughts when they get back to Canada.

      I agree – NZ is a truly beautiful country! We’re looking forward to a return visit some year (probably a ways down the road, ’cause it’s pretty expensive).

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