There is a variety of vegetation types, ranging from undisturbed native forests to gorse-covered hills where forest is regenerating and grassy farm land – all of which are typical of the New Zealand landscape. Both ends of the track begin in forested reserves. At sea level the forests are particularly lush: ferns, tree ferns, nikau palms, climbing kiekie and perching plants flourish, making up a spectacular coastal forest that has been lost in so many other places.
Throughout the year colours change as trees bear flowers and fruit. In spring puawananga, the native clematis, wears a gown of creamy white flowers; in autumn bunches of red supplejack berries catch the eye, as do the orange skins of kohia, New Zealand passionfruit, discarded by birds. You may spot bright rows of tiny fungi adorning rotting wood and shiny-leaved karaka standing in groves along the shore, their large berries ripening to a rich yellow.
Listen and watch for forest birds as you walk along the track. Mimic the bellbird or tui and you may well be rewarded with an answering call. Stir up the leaf litter and you may attract a darting piwakawaka or fantail or a South Island robin, looking to feast on insects of the forest floor. In summer, you may occasionally hear the calls of the long-tailed and shining cuckoo, while twilight stimulates the rasping calls of weka and the haunting cry of ruru, the morepork.
Where the track follows the shoreline, take time fossicking in the rocky strip between land and sea, especially at low tide. Enriched by twice-daily tides, the mud and silt of Endeavour Inlet and Big Bay estuaries are rich feeding grounds for white-faced herons, oystercatchers and kingfishers. Sitting patiently near the shore proves a worthwhile experience for watching wildlife. You may see various species of shag searching for food or sitting, statue-like, on a rock, drying their feathers before flying off or diving for more food.
Occasionally, gannets are seen hurtling into the water to catch unsuspecting fish. Where fish are particularly plentiful, flocks of swooping terns and shearwaters may join in the fishing. Bottlenose dolphins are regular visitors to the Sound and you may be lucky enough to see them from the track frolicking and cruising out from the shoreline.
Sounds Restoration Trust
The Sounds Restoration Trust seeks to restore the native ecosystems and iconic landscapes of the sounds by tackling threats such as plant and animal pests. It was set up in 2007 by concerned local residents and holiday home owners. Their initial project has been wilding pine control in inner Queen Charlotte Sound. The results of their efforts can be seen from the Queen Charlotte Track in the dead and dying pine trees on many hillsides.
The Trust is supported by DOC, the Marlborough District Council, local landowners, national funding agencies and local businesses.
Track re-route and upgrade
The Queen Charlotte Track has a programme of regular upgrades and re‑routes to improve the track gradient, surface, and drainage. They also make the most of the stunning views.
DOC uses diggers but also do a considersable amount of work with hand tools. A concerted effort has been made to keep costs to a minimum by making good use of natural materials such as local rock, and using culverts and dry stone walling to negate bridges being built. This adds character to the track and enhances the walking/biking experience.
Māori tradition offers several stories explaining the origin of the Marlborough Sounds, called “Te Tau Ihu o Te Waka a Maui”, or “The Prow of the Canoe of Maui”. One legend tells how Maui, the Polynesian hero and explorer was paddling his waka with his brothers when, with a magical hook, he pulled up an enormous fish, which formed the North Island. Jealous, his brothers capsized the waka, which became the South Island, its intricately carved prow forming the Marlborough Sounds.
The outer sounds are also associated with the renowned Polynesian explorer Kupe. Many Māori place names in this area commemorate his exploits. The carved bollards at the bridge at Meretoto/Ship Cove signify the iwi of the area.
For at least 800 years Māori have occupied the Sounds, where abundant kai moana or seafood from the sheltered inlets, together with birds, has sustained their developing culture. Evidence of their seasonal camps, permanently occupied villages and fortified pa can still be seen throughout the area. Queen Charlotte Sound was an important trade route long before the inter-island ferries plied its waters.
Taking advantage of low saddles occurring between Sounds, Māori carried their canoes over land to avoid long sea journeys. Today, the saddle at Torea is still used to link Picton with Kenepuru Sound. The European name Portage, in the mid-section of the track, bears testament to this practice, meaning “hauling, or “carrying”. All historic sites in the area are protected, both Māori and European. Dutchman Abel Janszoon Tasman was the first European to sight the Sounds on his visit to New Zealand in 1642. He and his men spent Christmas of that year sheltering their ships — the Heemskerck and Zeehaen — from a storm near D’Urville Island but they never set foot ashore.
That honour went to Captain James Cook. Cook took advantage of the shelter and food available in the Sounds and made Meretoto, which he renamed “Ship Cove”, his New Zealand base. Between 1770 and 1777, Cook and his crews spent 170 days sheltering there. It was at Meretoto/Ship Cove, that the first sustained contacts between Maori and Europeans took place. “Queen Charlotte” was the name he gave the Sound.
The Māori name is “Tōtaranui”, reflecting the totara trees growing there, a valued resource. While at Meretoto/Ship Cove he discovered a plant now called “Cook’s scurvy grass”, which yielded valuable vitamin C to cure scurvy among his crew. (On your boat trip to or from Meretoto/Ship Cove it is well worth taking time out to explore Motuara Island, rich in bird life and its association with Cook’s visits.)
In Endeavour Inlet during the 1880s, a small town grew around a series of antimony mines. Narrow, horizontal tunnels or “adits” were dug, from which vertical shafts descended deep into the hills. Early miners took the antimony ore on a tramway down the valley to a wharf, from where it was shipped to England to be processed and used for hardening lead and pewter.