Discovering the joys of 'posh tramping'

Antony Phillips discovers the ulimate trade-off between the great outdoors and the luxurious indoors on the Queen Charlotte Track.

Remember bush walking? I remember bush walking the old-fashioned way.

Hard yakka, uphill and down, sweating it out with a pack made heavy by bundles of dank clothes, dried food, sleeping bag, tin mug and maybe a bottle of cheap red for the last night in the back of beyond.

Enthusiasm eventually wanes and proper tramping trips are replaced by the occasional day walk with a decent meal at the end of the line, a glass of good red wine and the comfort of your own bed. Some of us just go soft.

So imagine my delight in discovering there exists in New Zealand the ultimate trade-off between the great outdoors and the luxurious indoors.

It is the Freedom Walk through the unsurpassed beauty of the Queen Charlotte Track in the Marlborough Sounds at the tip of the South Island.

Why freedom? Well, you are ferried to the start of the four -day walk by boat. Your pack is transported by water taxi each day so you walk without extra weight. Lunch is cut for you. And, best of all, you stay in a resort every night with clean beds, delicious cooked meals and a bar serving cold beer and great wines to revive a weary walker.

They could call this trekking package "the great outdoors for the discerning traveller" or even "walkies for the middle-aged". Either way, it did not take much convincing to sign up a couple more like-minded "adventurers" and an 11-year-old to run for bar snacks at the end of the day as my walking companions.

Some training is required if you are not used to bush walking. Despite the end-of-day comfort, you still have to tackle 71km of tramping through the bush, although for the most part the walk is on a very well-formed track.

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A few weekends of preparatory walks will put anyone of moderate fitness ahead of the game, and you'll be grinning in anticipation as a water taxi glides you from the township of Picton across the pristine water of Queen Charlotte Sound to isolated Ship Cove, jumping off point for the track.

Ship Cove, near the head of this spectacular world of valleys drowned by the sea, was named by Captain James Cook who anchored his ship Endeavour here on January 15, 1770. Cook called back five times on his three epic journeys, growing vegetables here, landing pigs and making contact with local Maori.

Queen Charlotte Sound, known as Totaranui by Maori, was first visited by the great Polynesian explorer Kupe, and has a long history of Maori settlement.

Once you've landed at Ship Cove via the long stretch of wooden jetty jutting into the Sounds and had your mandatory "in the footsteps of Cook" photograph, you're in for a demanding start to the 14km of walking for day one. The good news is you can wave goodbye to your packs for the day.

There are two steep bush-clad hills to climb on your way to Furneaux Lodge giving ample reason to stop, suck in much-needed air, then gasp at the drama of slopes clad in gorgeous New Zealand beech forest which plunge to the aquamarine of the water.

On hot, clear days, the bush crackles under the summer sun while walkers enjoy views across Cook Strait to the North Island before descending to Resolution Bay then on to Endeavour Inlet and Furneaux Lodge where the boots finally come off.

One of the joys of this "posh" bush walk is checking out your accommodation at the end of the day. Historic Furneaux Lodge does not disappoint with its grand old wood facade, restaurant, bar and generous grounds sweeping down to the sea.

Your sense of relaxation and glorious isolation is enhanced by the fact there are no roads to Furneaux. Our bags are waiting inside new luxury chalets with separate bedroom and living area and our own small gin and tonic deck.

Tired but still smiling, we turn in for the night and from comfy beds can hear the distinctive call of the Morepork, New Zealand's small native owl, in the dark fringe of bush behind.

European settlement in the Marlborough Sounds began in the late 1800s with farmers, who at one stage cleared much of Queen Charlotte and Kenepuru Sound, and miners, attracted to Endeavour Inlet for the antimony industry.

Rusty old gates, the remains of household orchards and roses left to ramble are reminders on day two of the Queen Charlotte Track that the head of Endeavour Inlet was once home to more than 300 people. The mines have long gone, lush bush has reclaimed farmland and the remaining dwellings are almost all holiday homes staring out at the water of the Sounds.

This is a cruisy day's walk of 12.5 kilometres on a gentle coastal stretch of track with water close by and beautiful dappled light filtered by vibrant green punga fern fronds overhead. Look out for birdlife such as the fat, lazy native wood pigeon, the kereru - once prized for food by Maori but now strictly protected.

All the accommodation is different along the track and while the chalets at Punga Cove Resort, your stop for the night, are certainly comfortable, the real attraction is the solar-heated pool, spa and waterside bar serving delicious light meals. Try delectable local blue cod and, go on, a plate load of chips.

It's relaxing enough to make you banish all thoughts of any further walking - which is exactly what my companions did, opting to jump on the water taxi the next day and cruise the easy way to our next night's accommodation, The Portage Resort.

But some fool had to tackle the most challenging section of track, and that was me. Keen walkers will, however, relish the 24.5km challenge of steeper sections that reward with sweeping views of this unique wilderness as your ramble along the narrow ridge separating the waters of Queen Charlotte and Kenepuru Sounds.

Much of the walk is along old colonial bridle tracks that were connected and widened to form the Queen Charlotte Track in the 1980s.

On day three, you traverse much private land that owners have generously opened up for walkers. To assist these owners with upkeep of the track, there are one or two donation boxes along the way and a Queen Charlotte Track Tribute box at Picton.

There has been a hotel on the shores of Portage Bay, Kenepuru Sound, for more than 100 years and through all that time it has been a welcome sight for travellers in the once-remote Marlborough Sounds. You'll share that sense of delight as you stumble in for a reviving swim in the Portage pool after knocking off the longest day's walk.

The bay and resort take their name from the French word Portage - to carry - as the short and easy overland route here was used to carry boats and canoes between two stretches of water.

This restored resort, with a restaurant serving world class Pacific rim cuisine, modern chalet-style rooms and options to go swimming, mountain biking and kayaking, is a perfect spot to pitch up for two nights' rest and relaxation, if you opt for the option of extending your Freedom Walk with a day of rest.

The last day's walking is 20km starting with a challenging climb to the highest point on the track at 400m.

Your reward is unsurpassed views over the Sounds before wending down to sea level and the privilege to walk through stretches of spectacular virgin native bush.

It's worth savouring for soon enough the harbour at Anakiwa arrives, and with it your water taxi back to Picton and the end of an adventure completed in considerable style.

IF YOU GO

Air New Zealand has regular flights from Auckland to Blenheim, which is a 30-minute shuttle ride from Picton. Sounds Air has regular flights from Wellington to Picton. There are daily ferries to and from Wellington on the Interislander (www.interislander.co.nz) and Bluebridge Line (www.bluebridge.co.nz).

The Freedom Walk: This is run by the Marlborough Sounds Adventure Company, call 64-3-573-6078; email: adventuremarlboroughsounds.co.nz or visit www.marlboroughsounds.co.nz.

Cost for four days and three nights walking on the Queen Charlotte Track including water taxis, standard accommodation, and a packed lunch daily is $AUD$485 share twin (single supplement of $210).

The Marlborough Sounds Adventure Company are sea kayaking, walking and mountain biking specialists and winners of the 2007 NZ Tourism Award for best leisure activity.

When to go: The warmest months are December, January and February, and the coldest June, July and August. In summer, the average maximum temperature ranges between 20-30C and in winter between 10-15C.

The writer was a guest of the Marlborough Sounds Adventure Company.

AAP

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