New Zealand Hiking Trail Offers a Mix of Creatures and Creature Comforts

By Angus Phillips
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, May 31, 2009

The most unloved man in U.S. hiking circles is Bill Bryson, who wrote a funny book called "A Walk in the Woods" that infuriated backpackers from Portland, Maine, to Portland, Ore., when it appeared about 10 years ago. Bryson and his boyhood pal Stephen Katz took off to trek the Appalachian Trail and had the worst time ever, what with bugs, bears, rain, cold, sore feet and all the other afflictions of outdoor life.

Bryson deduced with tongue in cheek that the AT was cruelly rigorous by design, that the absence of amenities was a key to its allure to an enlightened few. He wondered why, since hiking is supposed to be fun. Why not have some little inns along the way, places to kick back and guzzle a beer after a long day's hike, hot tubs to soak in, a sauna instead of a leaky tent?

He concluded that in America, at least, hiking isn't about luxury but about sacrifice, pain, the indomitable pioneer spirit and all that. Must it be so?

After a few days hiking, kayaking and mountain biking on New Zealand's South Island, I can say categorically that there is a better way. Talk about polar opposites: The Queen Charlotte Track is to the Appalachian Trail what the Ritz-Carlton is to a homeless shelter.

I and my old traveling pal Daniel Forster, a photographer who roams the globe shooting Grand Prix yachting events, took a few days off after covering a regatta in Auckland in February to check out the South Island. We'd both spent considerable time on the more heavily populated North Island over the years, but I'd never been south of Cook Strait and he'd been there just once, 25 years before.

We wanted to see the countryside, with its towering ferns and its clear subtropical bays, and, being of a certain age, we wanted to go in style. An old Kiwi friend from Christchurch suggested we check out the Abel Tasman Coast Track or Queen Charlotte Track, both at the top of the South Island, where amenities are well developed.

Queen Charlotte had the advantage of starting and ending in the heart of the Marlborough Sounds, where 107 vintners produce 75 percent of New Zealand's excellent wine. Easy choice. We decided to hike three days, then spend two more touring wineries.

We booked a guide for the hiking portion with an outfitter called Wilderness Guides in the old whaling port of Picton. After a 50-minute flight from Auckland to Blenheim and 20-minute car ride to the Picton ferry dock, we met Joe Healey, a rangy young fellow in the Kiwi summer uniform of T-shirt, shorts, sneakers and a bulging backpack.

The boat he led us to, a swift catamaran called Beachcomber, was crammed with 50 or 60 other hikers and tourists who rode as passengers as skipper Ken Gullery delivered mail to outposts unserved by roads. The route was eye-opening as grizzled folks rowed out from the bush or toddled out on rickety piers to exchange mailbags.

If anything interesting cropped up, Gullery stopped. He pointed out a pod of Hector's dolphins gamboling in the blue water and a flock of king shags, cobalt-eyed cormorants said to exist nowhere else. He stopped for 15 minutes at the small monument at Ship Cove, where Capt. James Cook landed in 1770 to plant the Union Jack and name the region for a benefactor, the Duke of Marlborough.

The boat ride was scenic, through drowned river valleys (they were inundated when sea level rose at the end of the last ice age) where steep, deep-green, vegetation-choked hillsides rise from the sea. But as often happens in New Zealand, it was drizzling when we hopped off at Resolution Bay, a bit closer to our first-night destination, Endeavour Inlet, than originally planned. "We don't want to wear you boys out the first day," Healey said. Good boy!

I'd heard about hiking tracks in New Zealand and always wondered what exactly they were. Rough or smooth? Steep or level? Healey said most Kiwi tracks are bridle trails from the days before the 1950s when folks got around mostly on foot or horseback. It's soft ground and mellow walking. Even better, on the QC you don't have to carry a big pack. For a small fee, the mail boat or a water taxi will ferry your dunnage to the next way station; all you need for the day is water, snacks and rain gear.

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