Thursday, May 30, 2019

Packrafting the Sounds

All that water... Wouldn't it be good to have a little boat to explore with... Not quite the sort of kit the average backpacker is likely to have. Unless you have a packraft!!!

New Zealand is a water lovers paradise. It has awesome coastlines, including beautiful sea fjords, and spectacular lakes, often mirroring snow covered peaks. Of course if you google for pictures of NZ you know this already.

The Marlborough Sounds are true Sounds, formed about 14,000 years ago as a result of land subsidence and rising sea levels, flooding the river valleys with sea water. This means there are few beaches, and the water is surrounded by steep sided heavily forested hills. (A Fjord is caused by glacial erosion leading to influx of seawater, so the Sounds in Fiordland, are really Fiords, but who really cares hey?) No massive waterfalls coming off hanging valleys higher up, nowhere near as spectacular, but beautiful in their own way.

There are 4 main Sounds in Marlborough: Queen Charlotte, Kenepuru, Pelorus and Mahau. Although there are roads that snake around the islands and peninsulae, it's much easier and enjoyable to use a boat. So, with the help of Rick and Barb, I hatched up a plan.

Rick and Barb have a property on Kenepuru Sound, where their daughter and family live, so they invited me to pop over there on my travels. Rick was heading there in his motorboat to fix the dodgy septic outflow, so I would be expected. I drove to the small bay at Te Mahia, and launched my boat.

Paddling on the Sound was glorious, with no wind impeding my progress, very little motor traffic interrupting my reverie, just the lapping of water against the rocks along the coastline, the birds singing, and the occasional mussel farmer out checking his lease.

I crossed the Sound to the northern shore and paddled in to Rick's place. They were making good headway on the pipework, so after a lovely bowl of hot vegetable soup and home made bread, I left them to it and continued further down the Sound.

I crossed again to the southern shore, paddling amongst the myriad mussel farms. Rick's daughter had told me the mussels were currently not edible due to a virus or polluted water or some such, so I didn't even think about foraging for my own kai for dinner. I made camp at Putanui Point, where Kenepuru meets the much larger Pelorus Sound. It was a glorious location looking up Pelorus Sound, although I needed to keep an eye on the cheeky Wekas so none of my stuff got pilfered.

The next morning dawned misty, but cleared to another glorious day. I set out early, heading back up the Sound along the southern shore planning to explore the picturesque Broughton Bay. I rounded Schnapper Point and encountered a brisk headwind, so decided to take serendipity into account and cross to the northern side of the Sound, using the now tailwind to aid my paddling. Imagine my dismay when about half way across the wind changed to a norwester and I was now paddling against a headwind!!

Since I knew the wind would only get stronger (norwesterlies being the predominant wind in the Sounds) I continued across to Ferndale campsite, a fern lined beach in a sheltered sandy cove, where I set up my tent, had a leisurely lunch and spent the afternoon lazing in the sun reading a book. The campsite is only accessible by boat (Putanui Point is the same) so I had this place all to myself. The joys of travelling outside the busy summer months...

After a peaceful night I rose early, broke camp and paddled back across the Sound. It was eerily misty, with no wind, so an easy paddle. I made a course for further up the Sound so I could explore the numerous bays and inlets on my way back to Te Mahia. Tiny kingfishers were diving for food in the shallows, and a few shags were hanging out on the rocks, it was so wonderful to watch them.

Back at Te Mahia I rolled up the packraft and drove over to the other side of the peninsula, reinflated the raft and went for a paddle in Torea Bay. This is part of the much larger Queen Charlotte Sound, and every few hours the various Interislander Ferries pass through between Picton and Wellington. I stayed in the bay and enjoyed the placid water and looking at the mansions of the rich.

That evening I drove to Picton, booked a boat trip for the next day, and stayed overnight at a hostel so I was all ready for my early morning start. The water taxi took me all the way up Queen Charlotte Sound to Ship Cove, the site of a camp that Captain Cook returned to on his numerous trips past New Zealand in the 18th Century. It is now the trailhead for the Queen Charlotte Track, a dual bike/foot path across the spine of the hills separating Queen Charlotte from Kenepuru Sound. I planned to both paddle and walk it.

After having a little look around Ship Cove I headed off up the track, through some lovely native forest with a viewpoint at the top. There were lots of track works going on with a few dead ends and the signage was rather confusing, but it wasn't that difficult to follow the big wide track off the saddle and down the hill. The track follows a rather slippery steep path down to Schoolhouse Bay where I stopped for lunch.

Next I inflated the packraft and began my paddle from Resolution Bay, around Scott Point and into Endeavour Inlet. There were shags drying their wings on the rocks, and at Scott Point a seal colony. Super cute, but I tried not to get too close as I wasn't keen on a seal deciding to take a bite out of my inflatable craft!

As I neared Marine Head at the head of Endeavour Inlet I was met by a strong nor westerly, much stronger than the one I had encountered in Kenepuru Sound a couple of days before. I hugged the shoreline and paddled as strongly and efficiently as possible into the headwind to get around the point. It was really hard work and it took quite some time and persistence to get around into the inlet. At one point I thought I wasn't going to make it!

Once within the inlet I stayed close to the shoreline until I entered the lee of the opposite hills, allowing me to cut across Tawa Bay. My plan was to paddle up the northern side of the inlet before heading across to the southern shore, using the tailwind to push me across. But I needed to get myself upwind some distance before attempting the crossing, or I'd just get swept out to the main channel. I knew that the walking track was close to the water once I reached the other side of Tawa Bay, so I could always walk if the wind was too strong to paddle. And my final backup plan was to hitch a ride on someone else's boat. There were lots of them around.

I was about half way across Tawa Bay when a boat coming back from a fishing trip pottered over because they thought I didn't look like I was having fun. They were right, and as I'm not in the camp of struggling in adverse conditions just to achieve a goal for the sake of having done it self propelled, I happily hitched a lift with these fishermen to Camp Bay.

I pitched my tent, put all the boat gear out to dry, then wandered down to the nearby Punga Cove Resort for a wonderfully refreshing cold beer! The resort had no guests as they were renovating, so the staff were burning excess building material in a pyre on the beach. We all sat out under the stars and enjoyed the warmth from the fire, whilst downing a bevy or two, and then I made my way back to the camp site for my dehydrated dinner and well earned sleep.

The next day I packed up all the rafting paraphernalia and left it down at the dock at Camp Bay. I had arranged for the water taxi to pick it up and take it back to Picton, where I would collect it on my return. For the next 2 days I would only be walking.

The climb up from Camp Bay isn't too steep, and soon there are views over both Sounds. The track follows along the ridges of the mountains, frequently through private land. The track is a joint project between local landowners, who have formed a trust, and DOC. Because of this, there is an access fee to be paid for walking the sections of track which are on private land. This pays for upkeep, and there are some pretty spectacular signs, benches and view points along the route. Well worth the money.

Eatwell's Lookout is by far the most spectacular. It's a detour from the main track, but totally worth the effort, and a great spot for lunch. Only it was still a bit early for my lunch, so I just ate a muesli bar and continued on to Bay of Many Coves Campsite. Here I chatted with some day walkers walking in the opposite direction, and was reunited with Christian, a young Argentinian lad who had also been quietly camped at Camp Bay. We walked the rest of the day together. Christian had been walking by himself for a couple of days along the track and was keen for some company. He didn't, however, tell me about this!

Christian continued on to Portage, taking advantage of the water taxi service which will transport your gear between campsites so you only need to walk with a day pack. I wanted to camp up on the ridge, so finished the day early at Black Rock Campsite. It was a fantastic location, perfect for watching both the sunset and sunrise, with views right up and down both Sounds in four directions. I was joined in the evening, and again in the morning, by a slightly peculiar local who chugged up the hill on his quad bike from his nearby house to observe the start and end of each day whilst enjoying a bit of weed. I think he was a little lonely and enjoyed the interaction with the trampers he met each day.

The next morning, after a really spectacular sunrise, the walk continued further south along the ridgeline, with continuing views down to the Sounds. The walking itself isn't very exciting, and the track is often quite eroded in places. It certainly would not be an easy track to ride on a mountain bike as the gradients are quite steep.

I crossed the road at Torea Saddle and continued along the ridgeline. The forest on each side obscured most of the views, so I was glad to begin the final descent to Te Mahia Saddle. But first I took the detour up to one final viewpoint for more fabulous vistas.

From Te Mahia Saddle I turned left down to Mistletoe Bay. I had a couple of hours until the water taxi would pick me up so I took off my shoes and gave my feet a wonderful soak. They were quite sore, as I had decided not to wear my walking boots on this combined paddling/walking trip and instead just wore my running shoes. Yes, I know, I have been there before.....but this time my toenails stayed intact.

The water looked so inviting, but my paddling gear was back in Picton. Sad face...

I was picked up at the designated time but we had to wait some time for another couple to turn up, before leaving without them and heading down to Anakiwa to pick up the rest of the crew, including Christian who had finished the entire walk. I had, by now, found out about his little adventure getting rescued after following a trapline and getting lost (there is good mobile coverage at Black Rock campsite), as had the boat captain, so we gave him a little bit of stick about his misadventure and he explained that he had been too embarrassed to tell me about it. I reassured him he did the right thing, safety is always more important than a bit of embarrassment after all, but I'm not sure he was totally convinced. Anyway, he'll have a good story to tell.

We then had to return to Mistletoe Bay to pick up the two walkers, a couple of hipsters by the look of them, and returned to Picton. I collected my rafting gear, grabbed a nice bottle of shiraz for my hosts, and drove back to Renwick to regale Rick and Barb with stories of my adventures.

Then it was time to return south, cruising along the west coast and over Haast Pass to Wanaka, to begin my training for my winter job. That's next...