The Sounds

This year I celebrated both Christmas and New Years in the Marlborough Sounds, casually referred to by Kiwis as the ‘Sounds. The Sounds of the sounds have included strangers singling humble carols in an old stone cottage, the raw song of wind roaring over the saddle of a ridge where I’d hiked, and the nightly serenading of bellbirds, who live in the largest trees along the coast, and sing out (believe it or not) the opening notes of a well-known symphony…. dum-dum-dum Dah…. dum-dum-
dum Dah….

My week in the Croft backpacker’s cottage at Furneaux was rather magical. The day after Christmas was spent kayaking to Resolution Bay (and back) where there is a monument to Cook’s “discovery” of New Zealand. On subsequent days, I took day-hikes in various directions — doing the northern section of the Queen Charlotte Track (Ship Cove to Furneaux) and the subsequent section (Furneaux to Punga Cove), as well as a day hike to a delicate waterfall that sheets gently down a green-
mossed cliff.

My favorite day hike was a fantastic old ridge that was mined, starting in the 1870’s, for antimony. Antimony was added to lead to make printing press type, pewter, and other alloys. The antimony mines were owned by several companies, but none of them managed to get much of a profit, apparently. The little mining town of Endeavor (just down from Furneaux Lodge) boomed for a while, then the mines were abandoned, and only a few old worker’s homes remain. On either side of the trail, old mine tunnels/adits/workings are still visible — nothing seems to be capped or fenced. Water from a number of streams was needed for the ore processing (stamp) plant below, on the shoreline, so water chutes were crafted to divert the water downhill – some of the remains can still be seen.

Since I have spent considerable time poking around old mine sites, I could read the terrain quite easily, although most of the evidence is obscured by jungle-thick bush growth, and there are no interpretive signs along the trail. Rock tailings were used to create “terraces” near the mouths of the mines. Because the miners were following the ore veins, encapsulated in veins of quartz, the workings extend to the very top of the ridge, and criss cross the hillside. The “track” is actually the remains of a road used for transporting ore and equipment, and in the steepest areas, the marks of pick-axes are still visible, where the road was hacked out of the rock. A rare glimpse back in time! And the track is very unfrequented, compared to the Queen Charlotte Track itself. I passed no one all day. (Note to concerned readers: yes, I left details of my whereabouts with the owner of Furneaux Lodge each day as I set out alone.)

Everywhere, along the Queen Charlotte Track, magic views of sea-green coves appear through gaps in the trees. Sometimes the terrain is manuka scrub, covered in flowers and bees. The manuka is prolific along the tops of the ridges, which can be bone-dry (water scarcity is a big issue in the Sounds as tourism grows). The manuka flowers are small and white, like “baby’s breath” only taller than me, and the bush is like heather, woody, but I think it is always green. The “scrub” along the trail also include gorse (think giant thistle) and thick cover of tropical-looking palms and all manner of plants normally found only in the “tropical house plants” section of Midwestern garden stores. Rubber trees and gums and “sword trees” and what the locals call “flax” but which looks more like agave – tough spiny desert-tolerant plants found in the American Southwest. Along the edges of the tracks are large amounts of hydrangea, blue-red-pink-lavender-white, full-flowering types, and some that flower only around the fringe, called “lace-cap” varieties. Walking through larger stands, one encounters great cooling reserves of birch and pine as well as local varieties (I would need a field guide to properly identify).

At night, with the help of fellow travelers, I have familiarized myself with a few key features of the Night Sky. The Milky Way seems quite backwards, and views I’ve never seen are clear: the Magellenic Clouds (two hot gas star formation areas which glow like pale white thumbprints), and the “Coal Sack” (void) located quite near the edge of the “kite” – tethered to the Southern Cross and the southern pole star.

After a relatively quiet week at Furneaux Lodge, I watched the pre-New Year’s Eve fervor building. I am sure I had one eyebrow raised, at least a bit. The yachters and sailboat families arrive in the Furneaux harbor, tie up, and pay mooring fees that include water-taxi transport (via a rubber motored dingy) to ferry them in and out. They arrive primed to drink, mostly. There was a live band playing on the deck of the Lodge the day before New Year’s Eve, and the sound of 1980’s pop hits floated a great distance across the water. The boats in the harbor got thicker and thicker, and Furneau began constructing a great “tent” for their outdoor bar. I knew it was time to move on. Since I’d hiked all of the Queen Charlotte north of Punga Cove, I decided to catch a water taxi down to Punga for the night, and was lucky enough to get a bed (last minute cancellations!) at Noeline’s Homestay, just down from Punga Cove Resort. It was like staying at your grandmother’s house, albeit in the bush, on the hilly edge of the Marlborough Sounds. She loaned me a rod and reel and some sheep-hearts, and I practised feeding the local fish for the afternoon of New Year’s Eve. Later, we watched fireworks and joined the guests at Punga Cove for their celebration. The entertainment was a very enthusiastic woman who “sang along” to a karioke music, to entertain us, and occassionally handed the mic to various drunk strangers who tried to sing along…. the culmination of the event was midnight, which was duly counted down, and then everyone wished everyone else a happy 2006 while some poor fellow sang Auld Lang Syne — literally, that’s what he sang. He did not seem to remember there were any other words, so he sang “Auld Lang Syne… Auld Lang Syne…. ” etc etc etc for the whole song. Was I the only one who noticed? I walked back to Noeline’s though a jungly trail that required great concentration and special attention to our footing with the light our small flashlights.

In the morning, inspired to start the New Year out on a firm foot, I sent my pack ahead of me on the water taxi (delivered to Portage) and then set out walking (with Megan, a New Zealand woman who was also traveling alone) the most trying leg of the Queen Charlotte track, 23.7 kilometers, climbing quickly from sea level to 400 meters, and then hiking up and down and along-side ridgelines for the rest of the day. We passed two tiny campsites high up on the ridge, intended for weary trampers who need to break up the trip into smaller legs, and stopped at each for water and a short rest. I was pretty beat, to say the least, but at day’s end I walked down into Portage to retrieve my pack, which I then shouldered and walked down from town to the local DOC campground. Alas and horror! The campground was over-flowing with Kiwi families on holiday! Just picture the most over-populated campground you’ve ever seen — too many vehicles (it was on a small road that runs along the shoreline of the peninsula) and hundreds of tents. I nearly wept — but I was too tired and dehydrated to weep for long. I set up my little tent along the road on a narrow strip of ground between the cliff and the ditch — other disheartened hikers came down off the trail and did the same.

*

Must run. I’m back in Picton now, and booked on a bus to Nelson-then-Takeka in moments.

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