The Marlborough Sounds have long been described as a labyrinth of waterways.
A complex and haunting network of ancient river valleys flooded by the moody green sea of Cook Strait. Flanked by steep bush clad hills and dotted with secluded bays, they are nothing less than a paradise. Called ‘Te Tau Ihu o Te Waka a Maui,’ meaning ‘The Prow of the Canoe of Maui’, Maori legend tells how Maui fished up a giant fish which became the North Island. His jealous brothers capsized Maui’s waka, the intricately carved bow becoming the enchanting Marlborough Sounds.
A childhood spent on boats exploring this maze of water with my family had left me with some magic memories: giant rope tree swings in Kumutoto Bay, rock dams across the stream in Ship Cove and finally the endless adventures from our little bach in Tory Channel. I have a deep love for the area and for a long time since discovering a love for trail running, the Queen Charlotte track had been on my wish list.
The Queen Charlotte Track
The trail traverses 71km of bush from the isolated Meretoto/Ship Cove, around secluded bays and then over nearly 4000m climb of hilly ridges separating the waters of Queen Charlotte Sound and Kenepuru Sound, until eventually emerging at the trail end and home of Outward Bound on the shores of Anakiwa.
A long overdue family holiday in Tory Channel seemed like the perfect time to pick a day and run. After a soggy cold southerly spell over New Year the weather finally looked calm enough to allow our little tinny passage to Ship Cove in the open waters of the outer Sounds. A fantastic meal of fresh blue cod washed down with a tasty stout or two and it was early into the sack for an even earlier start the next morning.
The start of my adventure..
The morning dawned clear and calm and we snuck out of the house to the sound of snoring, and down to the boatshed with our coffees steaming in the cool morning air. Firing up the outboard we were soon skimming across the water watching the sun rise over the glassy waters of Tory Channel.
It was just me and my dad, Pete – everyone else having decided that bed was the much better option at 6am in the morning. This made a great change to the pre-dawn car rides of past adventures. I commented to Dad that this was the first time I’d had no nerves going in to a really big run. I’d already decided that with the Xmas “conditioning” that I was carrying, this was going to be purely an adventure run, I estimated 8-9 hours. I think it was this lack of self imposed pressure and knowing the track would be very well established compared to my home stomping ground of the Tararua’s, it had me feeling so relaxed.
A family of cheeky Weka patrolling the beach welcomed us to Ship Cove as we tied up to the jetty. This was my first time back here since my childhood and the memories washed over me. Careful not to wake the dude sleeping in a hammock in the information shelter, we wandered over to Captain Cook’s memorial. I got a photo next to the cannons that I’d clambered all over as a kid, it felt like nothing had changed. I even imagined I could smell the Dimp we wore to fight off the mozzies back on our summer boat holidays.
With the Cove to ourselves I took it all in, gave Dad a big hug and with the clock just past 7am I was straight into my first climb of the day. Unlike most of my missions, I hadn’t done a lot of research on this route. Figuring it was a popular tourist walk I thought things would take care of themselves. I was using Viewranger on my phone for the first time and had the topo map in my pack as a fallback. I had a vague idea of water sources (maybe every 20-25km?) and was carrying two 750ml bottles which I figured would be enough to bridge the gaps…
The trail climbed fairly consistently and the gravel at the start soon gave way to clay which showed signs of heavy foot traffic. With the previous few days of wet weather it was obvious that this section of track got a real dealing to by day-trippers, with big muddy sections dug up by hundreds of pairs of feet eager to clamber over to Resolution Bay and waiting water taxis. The climb was great for warming up in the early morning chill and I was glad I’d chosen to start in a singlet, with the arm warmers soon coming off, and before long I crested the saddle and was treated to my first view of the day looking out over the sleepy Resolution Bay.
After a quick slippery downhill the track stayed in the bush around Resolution Bay and then I was climbing towards Tawa Saddle, separating Resolution from the deep Endeavour Inlet. Part way up the climb and 40mins in I noted a fast flowing stream which would have saved me carrying 2 full bottles from the start, small details. You actually drop down to the Saddle and it was great to open my fresh legs up on trail that wasn’t all torn up like the previous downhill. There was some lovely open running and the bush smell was amazing as a bit of heat slowly crept into the day.
Views over Endeavour soon opened up as the first boats began their morning journeys and it wasn’t long before I dropped down to the shoreline and the many baches and lodges dotted around the Inlet. It was here that I met my first company, a local enjoying an early morning stroll with her dogs. As the sun started to crank up I knew it was going to be a scorcher and my bottles were almost empty.
Just under 2 hours in as I descended into Big Bay I finally found the water I’d been looking for in the clear pool of a stream running under the track. Despite the water looking amazingly clean, the Marlborough Sounds was one of the first places in New Zealand to have stream water test positive for Giardia, thought to be brought by tourists from Europe, so in with the water went a treatment tab. I was going to be waiting for my next drink…
My first hydration mistake..
Before long I had knocked off Endeavour Inlet, declining the opportunity to top my bottles up at Camp Bay. Mistake. I said goodbye to the last of the coastal running as the trail began to climb towards Kenepuru Saddle and into the hills. From the road at Kenepuru Saddle the trail continued to climb and I started to worry about water as I only had one full bottle and things were starting to really heat up. It was also a lot drier than I’d anticipated with the wet couple of days we’d had leading up to my run.
I just hoped there’d be some tank water at the Bay of Many Coves shelter further along the ridge, I was going to be well dry by then. Due to the majority of the trail being in the bush my GPS was running a little under on distance and pace, so it was great to come across the occasional distance marker every 10km or so.
The big decision..
Approaching the halfway point just before the shelter I was surprised to find myself sitting under FKT pace. Set during the 2013 Queen Charlotte Ultramarathon by Wellington man Brad Monaghan, the FKT stood at 7hrs 2min. This was meant to be an adventure and as such I hadn’t set out to run it fast. Considering my patchy running over xmas and superlative beer intake I was happy just to get out for a big run, so all of a sudden I was left with a decision. My legs were feeling pretty good so I figured that if I found water at the shelter a fast time was worth a crack. I was also under no illusion that with my lack of recent long runs I was going to feel it…
Scummy water and lots of treatment tabs!
I hit another dry patch with both of my bottles running empty again and dehydration was starting to have an effect, so it was a relief to see the shelter come into view with a water tank peaking out from behind. That relief was short lived as to my dismay on turning the tap nothing came out. I ran around the back of the shelter where three large water tanks sat on a frame and jumped up to unscrew the inspection lids. I groaned inwardly as one after the other they proved to be empty, with scummy looking water sitting in the bottoms just below the out-flow holes and well out of reach.
The constant stream of day walkers I had been passing over the last half hour had obviously taken it’s toll on what little water had collected over the last few days. All thoughts of fast times were vanishing as without water I had no way of getting enough fuel on board.
In desperation I half heartedly tried a hex nut linking the feeder tube from one tank to the next. To my surprise it was only finger tight and turned easily in my hand! I quickly undid the tube and held my bottle at the outlet with one hand. The driving need to drink gave me the strength to tip the big tank, which to my relief wasn’t tethered down, enough to get a trickle of slimy water. When the first bottle was full I repeated the process with the second, trying not to think too much about the interesting looking muck floating around in it. Then I reassembled the tube, whacked a couple of treatment tabs in, hoping they were up to the job (I could swear there were things moving in there) and got running.
All up I had lost about 10 minutes, I was going to have to pull finger to make up that time.
Taking off along the ridge I decided if I was going to be in with a chance I’d have to cut back on the photos I’d been taking whenever a view presented itself. I pinned my ears back and ran. I took a gamble and gave the treatment tablets only 15mins of the required 30 to do their job and hopefully make everything dead before thirst drove me to throw back a big mouthful. It was like drinking pulpy flavourless orange juice but it was wet and an immense relief.
With a caffeine pill and some food on board my legs started to feel new again and I started picking off the kilometers, having numerous running conversations with walkers I passed. Before long I arrived at the next DOC shelter where, to my relief, a couple who were just leaving informed me there was plenty of tank water. Fresh clear water filled one of my now empty bottles which put my other bottle of suspicious looking goo to shame. Never mind, I’d already mixed food into it, I could save the clean water for a treat in the later stages of the run.
Portage and Mistletoe Bay
After another couple of climbs I was treated with a long open descent to the road coming up from the Portage and I made the most of the gravity assisted running. I’d caught a good glimpse of the big climb up out of the saddle and this far in I knew it was going to hurt, I needed to take the speed when I could! Water was again going to be tight as there were no more reliable sources between here and the road end in Anakiwa, so I began to ration it to stretch it out. I was also starting to feel the warning flutter of cramp creeping into my legs.
I’ll pay later… sorry!
It was piping hot on the climb and it was a relief to crest the top and hit the switch-backed descent down to Mistletoe Bay. I focused on damage control, keeping my strides short and cadence high so as to reduce the impact on my weary legs. After another section of open track I eventually dropped out to the busy road above Waterfall Bay where a clipboard wielding lady said something about checking a trail pass (signs along the trail had been regularly informing me that you had to pay for a trail pass, but having come from our bach with patchy phone data coverage this hadn’t been an option) I carried on running, smiling somewhat manically, pointing at my watch and muttering about running late for a meeting.
The lovely lady briefly looked to run after me, maybe to take me into custody, but something about my sweaty demeanor must have put her off. I won’t go into how I feel about locals having to pay for track access while DOC has to pour so much of its meager funds into tourism management, but if said clipboard lady is reading, sorry for not stopping, I had an appointment to keep.
You can sleep soundly knowing I have since paid for the privilege of running in our beautiful backyard.
Having escaped near capture I got stuck in to the final gentle but long climb of the day. From Onahau Bay the track traverses the point, climbing high above the water in a seemingly endless ascent. Since deciding to push it I’d created a goal in my head of going under 7 hours. Things were going to be tight with cramp threatening and around 1 hour to run the last 11km on fatigued legs. I downed a caffeine gel with the last of my water and dug deep with the knowledge that I had the rest of my holiday to recover.
Finally I was over the high point of the climb at Puroa Point where I caught a glimpse of the boats moored at my goal of Anakiwa. With my GPS reading out I had no way to accurately tell how close things were so I just went for it, giving my poor legs a hammering on the downhill to Davies Bay. Soon I popped out at the campsite and hit the last section of track undulating through the bush just above the sea. Judging by the amused grins of the walkers I said ‘Hi’ to as I ran past I must have been quite a sight.
All of a sudden a 1km marker flashed past me and a quick glance at my watch had me grinning. Adrenaline surged into my legs and with the knowledge that I could stop soon, the last few hundred meters went in a blur. Coming out of the bush and onto the 4wd trail leading to the final bend, my dad and Father in Law, Grant, came in to view, cheering me on at the trail end. Amused punters queuing at the nearby coffee cart tried to make sense of this grinning, sweaty runner coming out of the bush to a two person round of applause. My adventure was over as I stopped the clock at 6hrs 50min.
An humbling way to finish an amazing adventure
My story would end there but it was what happened after my FKT that really put the cherry on the top of what was already a magic day. Interested in what I was up to, a couple sitting at the trail end enjoying the sun struck up a conversation. They were up from Christchurch and had just tramped the track over 3 days. They thought it was pretty cool that I’d run it in just under 7 hours and were really interested in my gear and the nutrition I used on the run. I discovered their son was currently through tramping the Te Araroa Trail and we discussed similar endeavors of trying to trim any unnecessary weight from our trail kit.
I’d given Dad my card to buy me a coffee from the caravan and he returned to say a coffee was on its way but he was getting the owners account number to transfer money as it was cash only. I was preoccupied with sorting my gear before our boat ride out when Dad arrived with my coffee and told me that the couple I was chatting with had quietly paid for my coffee while I was busy. How choice is that? Thanking them for the coffee and wishing them well on the rest of their trip I shuffled down to the boat.
This sort of kindness seems to run hand in hand with a shared love of the outdoors, and it was a great reminder of just how proud I am to be a part of such a cool community. The bumpy ride home gave me time to reflect on a magic day on the trail, but even more so the generosity of a couple of strangers.
For the record:
-Pack; Salomon S-lab adv skin 12set
-Inov-8 Storm Shell 150 seam sealed jacket
-Inov-8 Race Elite 185 Thermomid thermal upper
-Spare dri-fit t-shirt & arm warmers
-Survival Bag (not blanket)
-Lightweight first-aid kit
-2 x 750ml bottles
Shoes: Salomon S-lab sense 4-ultra
Watch: Garmin Fenix 3
Massive kudos must go to Brad Monaghan. It was not until a congratulatory message following my run that I discovered the current record was held by a trail running friend. A humble and talented runner, Brad put me deep into the hurt locker with his time, thanks mate. Big thanks also to the crew at NZTrailRun who have brought me on board as an ambassador, cheers for the motivation fellas and helping motivate our growing community of adventurers, here’s too many more adventures.