The Queen Charlotte sound is one of the most breathtakingly beautiful places in New Zealand. Calm turquoise seas lap against small beaches, and tumbled hill-sides carry the ever-green native forests right down to the high tide mark. Only the native birds break the silence; the tui birds call across the bays with their distinctive trills and squawks, and the cheeky fantail cheep as they flirt along the trails.
It was an early start for the Arcadia students studying in Wellington and Christchurch as they prepared to travel to this tranquil and idyllic region. The Victoria University students from Wellington met in the dark, first thing in the morning on a Friday. Despite a few bleary eyes everyone was cheerful and optimistic. The cold and the rain couldn’t dampen everyone’s excitement to see all their group-mates together in one place again, and the anticipation of the upcoming adventure had everyone in high spirits.
By the time the sun rose, we had walked down to the ferry terminal and we were all comfortably aboard the Bluebridge ferry, one of the large ships that regularly carries passengers and freight between the North and South islands of New Zealand. From the comfort of our squishy arm chairs inside, we watched Wellington slip away behind the hills as we sailed out of the harbour and headed out into the cook straight. The voyage to the South Island typically takes around 3.5 hours, so we had plenty of time to take photos of the incredible vistas along the north island’s south coast, to catch up with friends, play games, or even to watch movies, or snooze.
It was all smooth sailing (through beautiful scenery!) until an unexpected delay in Picton put us an hour behind schedule. Luckily, our indomitable resident-director, Jane, met us with the Christchurch students as we hopped off the ferry – and she had everything under control. She assured our guides that we were fast walkers and that we would be able to manage the hike to our accommodation before dark, so we all quickly bundled into the back of a convoy of mini-vans and set off around the coast-line out of Picton township into the Queen Charlotte park.
The rain was still falling when we alighted from the cars into the shelter that marked the beginning of the Queen Charlotte track. To get to our accommodation at Mistletoe bay was supposed to take around four hours, but we only had three hours before night-fall, so after a quick check that everyone was set and ready to go – we were off! Into the forest, and all the scenic beauty of the Queen Charlotte sound.
Incredibly, despite the forecast for heavy rain all afternoon, after less than an hour of walking the rain cleared, and we were treated to amazing views of moody clouds over the dripping forest, with spikes of sunshine breaking through to catch the ocean. Without the rain forcing us to keep our hoods up, were able to stop more frequently to take photos and enjoy some chocolate treats at the scenic lookout points. Everyone was able to set their own pace too, from the fastest walkers cheerfully chatting away at the front, to the boom-box-bandits in the middle, a few scattered pairs going along quietly to see more of the bird life, and the chocolate fiends bringing up the rear.
It was a thoroughly enjoyable afternoon stretching out our legs and taking in the views as we made our way around the hillsides overlooking one beautiful bay after another, all the way to Mistletoe bay where a cosy fire and hot showers awaited us.
That evening we had the eco-lodge’s large communal kitchen area to ourselves; we cooked up a storm of hot pasta dishes, re-fuelled on delicious apple and berry cobbler, drank cups of tea around the fire, and played a milieu of games. The highlight was a whole group game of salad-bowl, with three rounds of articulate, charades, and one-word-only clues ensuring the evening was filled with hilarity and good fun.
The next morning dawned crisp and clear with not a cloud in the sky - despite other areas of the south island being subjected to storms and flooding! It was the most incredible morning. Flightless weka birds pecked through the leaf litter around our kayaks while we ran through a quick safety briefing, then we layered on the life-jackets, and carried our boats down to the water’s edge. We doubled up, two people to a kayak, with more experienced paddlers matched up with the less experienced.
There was not a single wave out on the water, and only a gentle breeze in our faces. We took it slowly, hugging the coast line, chatting amongst ourselves, and looking out for the cormorant birds in the trees. Then there was great excitement when someone spotted a New Zealand fur seal sunbathing on the rocks! There is quite a large population of young male seals around this area, but this young fellow was particularly playful! He basked in the attention on the rocks for a while before slipping into the water and ducking between our kayaks. He showed off, lying on his back with his flippers in the air as though waving to us, and rubbing his tail between his fins. Eventually we had to tear ourselves away from this adorable site to keep making headway towards our lunch destination, but just as we turned away from the young seal, we saw a pod of dolphins swim past on the other side of the bay! They were only there briefly, but what an incredible experience! I was literally speechless!
To top off the morning, we kayaked across an open channel to the most idyllic little beach which was to be our lunch spot. By this point it was warm enough to peel off all our layers to sit around in shorts and t-shirts to soak up some winter sunshine while we waited for the billy to boil for our cups of tea, and we ate our packed lunches. It was amazing to be sitting on that gorgeous beach, looking out across the beautiful blue water, with the splotches of bright kayaks against the sand, while surrounded by amazing new friends brought together in New Zealand through a courageousness of spirit and sense of adventure. The warm-fuzzies were definitely not just from the sunshine and chocolate.
Still glowing with the sense of camaraderie and with a full belly, we launched our kayaks back out into the ocean, and prepared to set off back to our lodge. But we were distracted from our homeward mission when we were surrounded by a bloom of jellyfish! They were non-poisonous, and literally so thick around us that we could trail our hands through the water and stroke a number of them. There were some as tiny as the nail of your little finger, and others as large and round as dinner plates, translucent and ethereal. It was quite beautiful and surreal.
Our kayak excursion finished with an easy cruise back to Mistletoe bay, where we quickly packed our kayaks back onto the trailer and were released for some free time for the rest of the afternoon. While some brave students decided to go jump off the wharf, others wandered around the surrounding area soaking up the last of the sunshine in “legitimately the most beautiful place I have ever been in my life”, and others still headed inside to the warmth of the fire and some hot home-made soup.
Dinner that night was another team affair, everyone chipped in to help make homemade hamburgers. We had an army of chefs making burger patties, frying onions, chopping up veges, and grating cheese, turning the job of feeding 28 hungry people into an absolute breeze. After two big days of physical activity though, day two of the Arcadia bootcamp activity weekend led everyone to have a quiet night and early lights out.
Bright and early the next day, we climbed up, up, up, and up some more, as we set out to walk further along the Queen Charlotte track back towards Picton, and our ferry home. The steep hills not only gave our legs and lungs a good workout, but rewarded us with absolutely stunning views at the summit of each incline. We were traversing the ridgeline of a narrow strip of land, surrounded by two bodies of ocean on either side. So when we cleared out from the trees, there were breath-taking outlooks from both sides of the hills.
After climbing up so much terrain, we did need to get back to sea-level again to catch our water taxi, but after all the rain of the previous week, our descent back down the hills was less of a track, and more of a mudslide. Trying (and failing) to keep our footing on the slippery path resulted in plenty of laughs and muddy backsides! We arrived at our pick up point for the water-taxi tired, and muddy, but with a real sense of accomplishment at having conquered the ups and downs of the Queen Charlotte great walk.
In Picton we hugged Jane and our friends from Christchurch goodbye and hopped back on the ferry. Looking out over the beautiful scenery from the ferry once more, but this time in the buttery late-afternoon sunshine, as we made our way back to the North Island, back to Wellington, and back to our own flats for a good night’s sleep.