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November 07, 2004

Heading North: Christchurch to Nelson.

Recently I have been feeling the pressure to get moving because the end of my stay in NZ is arriving very quickly. There is no more time to linger on the side of the road with my thumb out.

After a swift passage through Christchurch yet again to get my final shot I was on a bus heading North along the coast towards Kaikoura. I expected little more than what the seaside town is known for (whale watching) but I was treated to the sweetest combination of mountainscapes and ocean views. The sea was a lighter, greener echo of the perfectly clear sky, with dolphins playing in the thundering surf. At the North end of the bay, a few green hills quickly escalated to imposing mountains.

Kaikoura view.

I signed up for the Maori-run whale tour despite my dismal luck with such eco-things earlier in the trip. There is a 100% refund policy if no whales are seen so I figured I was in for a free boat ride. I heeded their warning of rough seas and popped a couple of ginger pills before boarding the ultra-modern catamaran. In front of the passenger area a giant plasma screen shows a digital 3D rendering of the underwater topography, along with the position of the boat. Within three kilometers of the coast the ocean floor is a dizzying 1500 meters below our hull, which, of course, is the reason why this is such a good whale watching spot.

The whales decided to play hide and seek, and after an hour of my stomach sloshing between my adam's apple and my hips I was looking forward to getting my 125$ credit. The swell rose to 2 meters while we were out and the captain, feeling the pressure to find us some mammals, had the throttles pretty far forward. Thankfully we were well short of the 38 knot top speed of the boat, but still, launching off then crashing through the water at 25 to 30 knots made a lot of people lose their lunch. I was able to avoid any real problems by fixating the horizon and ignoring what was happening around me. I forgot all about the uneasiness when I spotted a huge albatross swooping in and out of the swell, somehow catching up with our overpowered diesel monster without even flapping its wings. Soon there were Albatross everywhere and I was ecstatic.

We did end up finding our prize: a half dozen sperm whales, sound asleep, bobbing up and down to catch air at regular intervals, their gigantic forehead looking like a cement bunker rising out of the ocean, and disappearing again just as unhurriedly. We joined the fray of humans arriving by diesel monster and aluminum bird to witness the creatures resting. After 20 minutes of trigger-happy viewing, we were off on the last stomach-tumbling leg to return to port sans refund.

Pod O'Whales.


Another Diesel Monster.

The next day I had arrived in Picton, at the North end of the Island, without knowing what to do. I had Kayak on the brain but I wanted to do that under excellent weather conditions so I thought I would let this front pass over me while on a hiking trail. I spent the afternoon gathering supplies and getting my gear organized for a 4 day treck while keeping an eye on the live television coverage of US elections.

Picton is at the base of Marlborough Sounds, a labyrinth of saltwater, each bay and channel separated by high green ridges. I boarded a boat in the morning of the next day and instantly engaged in conversations of American politics with the Captain (John Kerry had conceded during breakfast). He was amazed that in this "extremely tight" presidential race, the popular vote was won by 4 million, the entire population of New Zealand.

After 45 minutes of gentle cruising (much more comfortable than the whale-watch roller coaster) we docked at Ship's Cove, a favorite sheltering spot of Captain Cook. I did not want to think about politics and Gearge Bush anymore so I was happy to bid farewell to my driver and turn my attention to a completely different Head of State.

The Queen Charlotte Track runs 71km from near the end of the Sound of the same name to Anakiwa, at its very base. The numerous bays along the way offer high end accomodations to walkers, but I elected to pack my tent and food, and haul a huge bag every step of the way.

After a long first day I barely managed to make dinner before falling into deep sleep. Unfortunately a curious Possum, who apparently forgot all about the deluge of rocks it attracted the last time it lingered around my tent, decided to attempt to dig a tunnel under my tent. I scared him off by energetic noise making, but I woke up a Ruru in the process. My track guide describes this animal's cry as "haunting", but that's an understatement; with its mating call the Ruru is more likely to raise the dead than find a girlfriend, and sure enough with no response it quieted down quickly.

After the poor night's sleep I had trouble moving at a reasonable pace on my aching legs and feet. The sun was out, and the views splendid so I decided to extend the hike to four days and take my time to enjoy myself (I had planned food for 3 days plus one in case of emergency). I stopped at a campsite high on a ridge looking over the water into Picton's harbor. I was alone at this camp which made the experience even more enjoyable. Still, I had a hard time gathering the energy to set up my tent and make dinner before passing out. This time I broke my all time record: I slept 9 hours straight I don't usually sleep well in a tent).

The front seemed to have passed through for the third day, except for a few lingering clouds just dark enough to warn: "we reserve the right to soak anybody at any time". Staying dry the whole day, I enjoyed the more relaxed pace of my walk, powered by a rested body and legs that were getting accustomed to the weight they were carrying. I was in just the right frame of mind at that point to enjoy the stunning views of the countless little bays on each side of the ridge that was my route. On my right the water was a brighter blue, contrasting with the fields reach up the valley walls, while on the left the darker water was framed by steep ridges that reach out to the open ocean.

I slept reasonably well at my third campsite, a green field 50 meters from Mistletoe Bay, then completed the route in just a few hours on the fourth day. The same boat company that dropped me off picked me up from Anakiwa for the return to Picton.

Towards the End of the Sound.

Green fields, and water to its left.


I have moved on to Nelson as a stepping stone to the Abel Tasman Park, my last stopping point on the South Island.

Posted by piegu on November 7, 2004 02:55 PM
Category: New Zealand


I have been in Nelson for 4 days, are you still around? If so let me know, we could grab a coffee.

Posted by: STeve on November 10, 2004 02:31 PM

dude, you've arrived!

great work with the blog. keep the pictures coming. i have no doubt you'll return a 5.11 climber!

Posted by: John on November 19, 2004 06:59 AM
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