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Preparing for the Queen Charlotte Track

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The Queen Charlotte Track is a very unique track that winds through the Marlborough Sounds in the north of New Zealand’s South Island. As I described in yesterday’s post answering the top questions about the track, it’s a track where you can walk in luxury while seeing some unforgettable scenery — scenery made all the better by the fact that you’ve had to work a little bit to get that view.

Like any overnight tramp though, it’s best not to rock up to the beginning of the track and hope that everything falls into place. That will work a lot better on this track, which is serviced by shops and hotels, than on any of the Great Walks or other smaller tracks in the country…but I still don’t recommend it.  Here are a few tips to help you prepare for your time on the track.

On the Queen Charlotte Track

The view of the sounds from my second-to-last day on the track.

Base yourself in Picton

Picton is the best place to stay prior to starting the Queen Charlotte Track. All of the water taxis servicing the track leave from the Picton Foreshore, which is a short walk from nearly anywhere in town.

Picton is somewhat of a transport hub, despite its small size. The Interislander and Bluebridge ferries depart to Wellington from here, so it’s easily accessed from the North Island. If you’re already on the South Island, you can easily access Picton by road or rail. Intercity, Atomic Shuttles, and nakedbus all run to Picton from Nelson and Christchurch, and the TranzCoastal train runs daily from Christchurch.

Picton's main drag

Picton's main drag.

Organise your boat transfer early

If you don’t organise anything else about your time on the track, I recommend you at least get your boat transfer booked prior to your day of departure. Each company has multiple departures a day, but the track is pretty popular with day walkers in the summer so you might end up disappointed.

Boat transfers to and from the track can be organised through Endeavour Express or The Cougar Line — the only difference being the price between them ($97 vs. $103, respectively, for a round trip at the time of writing). You don’t have to get a round trip ticket; however, there is no other way to get to Ship Cove so you’ll at least need a one-way ticket. It’s worth the extra $30 ($97 round-trip vs. $67 one-way on Endeavour Express) to have your bags transferred and to not worry about finding your way back to Picton from Anakiwa (which is 21km away).

Early Morning at the Inlet

Ok, so this wasn't my boat transfer -- it just looked pretty (at Endeavour Inlet).

Decide your food strategy

There are quite a few shops and restaurants along the track (the Portage Resort Hotel has a particularly nice view from its restaurant) so you won’t have to live off of the usual dehydrated fare if you don’t want to. However, if you don’t want to rely on availability of food on the track, you can do your grocery shopping in Picton and take your food with you. The supermarkets there have some selection; the New World in Blenheim would probably have more.

Decide your accommodation strategy

The Queen Charlotte Track offers quite a few different options for accommodation, which makes it a bit more confusing than having to just decide between camping and staying in a hut (which often comes down to whether you want to carry a tent or not). Most nightly stops offer three different forms of shelter: resorts, backpackers, and campsites. I had good experiences at all three. I found the backpackers to be very well kept and the owners friendly, especially at Mahana Lodge (although they don’t seem to offer backpacker accommodation on their website anymore). The resorts were a great place for all trampers to congregate for a few beers while watching the sun set. The campsites were full of camaraderie. So really, it all comes down to the money you want to spend.

Caravan at Mahana Lodge

My personal caravan at Mahana Lodge.

One important point is that the camping was significantly improved by the fact that I didn’t have to carry my tent & associated items for the entire day. However, it did have one interesting effect on my walking — I spent a lot of time after my night in the campsite with incredibly itchy feet that I couldn’t scratch because I’d walked to the Portage Resort in my flip flops. I walked back after sunset when the sandflies had come out in force, and nearly all of them attacked my feet. Not fun. So I recommend always wearing socks if you’re outside around dusk!

Also, you do not have to hike the track straight through. Many people stopped to have an extra day relaxing at Portage; I took a sidetrip across Kenepuru Sound at Te Mahia Bay to spend three days at the Hopewell hostel, which ended up being my favourite accommodation in NZ.

Check out the track conditions

The DOC can provide you with up-to-date information on track conditions and weather forecasts. I highly recommend stopping in at their Picton office (at the Picton i-Site on the Foreshore) prior to starting the track so you can talk to them and pick up a $2 brochure with details and maps of the track. Sure, the Queen Charlotte isn’t the most remote track and there will be plenty of people out there with you, but I always found it comforting to have a map with me. You  can also pick up your Q.C.T.L.C. pass at the Picton i-Site.


Battling uphill over one of the saddles on the track.

Notify someone of your intentions 

If you have not already told someone what your track plans are, you should inform the DOC of your intentions so someone knows if you’ve gone missing. The Kiwis take this very seriously, as evidenced by two full scale searches they’ve mounted recently for trampers that haven’t come home when expected. I experienced this firsthand when I was reported missing to the NZ Police after missing my bus from the end of the Copland Track!

Pack your daypack

Along with your overnight pack, which will have the clothes to get you through the track and anything else you may need (like a book!), your daypack should include the following:

  • 2 liters of water (mine was in a Camelbak for easy access)
  • Snacks (dried fruit, Shapes biscuits, and chocolate are all good options)
  • Raincoat & waterproof bag cover
  • Warm layer (such as polypropylene thermals)
    • Both of these are something you should carry with you on every walk in New Zealand. The weather is very changeable anywhere in NZ and you don’t want to be caught without.
  • Spare socks, because it’s so much less miserable to walk in dry socks.
  • Camera (with spare batteries and memory cards because you’ll be stopping & snapping quite a bit)
Kenepuru Sound

Another stunning view of Kenepuru Sound.

This, paired with my previous post, should be enough to prepare you for a memorable 4-6 days of wandering around the sounds. You’ll have a blast!

Have you tramped the Queen Charlotte Track (or any other tracks in NZ)? What did you think? Is there anything you’d add to this list?

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4 Responses to Preparing for the Queen Charlotte Track

  1. Adrian Sutton June 29, 2012 at 11:17 am Reply

    If you’re planning to stay in DOC huts on any NZ walk you should still carry a tent and lightweight bedding with you. The huts can get very full and it’s first in, best dressed. You’ll almost always get a bed in the hut and almost certainly be able to at least sleep on the floor if not, but I have seen huts get full enough that you’d really want to be able to pitch your tent outside and still be warm and dry. Besides which, sleeping on the hut floor isn’t particularly pleasant, especially if your sleeping times don’t line up with your hut mates.

    • Kristin July 5, 2012 at 9:34 am Reply

      AJ — I agree that you should always take bedding with you if you’re staying in a DOC hut. Whether you get a bed or not, bedding isn’t provided and it will be a very cold night if you only have the clothes on your back. It depends which track you’re on whether you need a tent though. Many of the great walks require you to book a spot in the hut and only sell as many tickets as there are beds in the hut (the ones I went on that did this were the Abel Tasman, the Routeburn, the Milford, and the Kepler). The Milford doesn’t allow camping at all and has a strict limit of 40 people at each hut per night (and you’re not allowed to skip any huts either).

      I definitely wouldn’t recommend sleeping on the hut floor though — I would much prefer to carry a tent than do that. You’d get trodden on by people fumbling in the dark trying to make their way to the bathroom!

      I didn’t mention the DOC hut situation in this post since the Queen Charlotte doesn’t have any DOC huts, but I’ll make sure to mention some of those points when I’m writing about other tracks.

  2. Allanah Robinson July 5, 2012 at 8:15 am Reply

    I work on the Queen Charlotte Track (at Lochmara). We always recommend that people with enough time make the most of the side trips and activity options – take a walking day break and go kayaking, or dolphin watching, or hire a bike and bike one section, (or visit us!). It breaks it up and gives you more time to really enjoy the Sounds. There’s good info on the qctrack.co.nz website.

    • Kristin July 10, 2012 at 6:39 pm Reply

      Thanks so much for your comment, Allanah. I totally agree that taking as many side trips/breaks on the track as you can is the way to go. It’s such a unique track and has so many different opportunities along it. I had a great time at Hopewell going kayaking and soaking in the hot tub and I would recommend it to anyone. It’s definitely better than just taking a day off when you get back to Picton — why not do it on the Sounds themselves?

      I didn’t get to stay at Lochmara but I’d love to stop by if I get another chance to walk the Queen Charlotte. Thanks again for your information and I’ll keep it in mind for the future posts I’m planning about the Queen Charlotte Track.

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