Connection. That’s the word I return to when I reflect on why I love walking. There’s connection with place, connection with nature, connection with fellow walkers, connection with my husband, Olaf, and importantly connection, or reconnection, with myself. It happens on different levels and not always across every facet, but that indescribable sense of ‘harmony’ or ‘feeling fulfilled’ arises when I walk.
So as Olaf and I arrived in pretty Picton, New Zealand, ready to start our four-day, 45-mile, self-guided Queen Charlotte Track walk, I was excited to recharge, meet the challenge, and once again feel that connection. I was also nervous about some thigh-pumping climbs, despite my training, but most of the doubts came from it being my first international multi-day walk in over four years. Back then it was the UK’s diverse Cleveland Way – a 9-day, 109-mile trek across the Yorkshire Moors and along the North Sea – which had been my single-minded goal throughout breast cancer treatment, with adrenaline and willpower helping me through. But four cancer-free years on, was I fully prepared for what lay ahead? There was only one way to find out, so bring it on!
The briefing on day one was exactly that – brief - and informative, covering route notes, important safety information, details about the luxurious accommodation and meals, and logistics of luggage transfers. Then, in no time we were on board the water taxi, with a pod of playful dolphins swimming alongside, bound for Ship Cove and the start of one of New Zealand’s Great Walks. Today’s section was 9.5 miles, which should take about five to six hours, before arriving at our lodge. So, beneath the warming sun, with our walking poles ready, our journey began, climbing through native forest. Thankfully the gentle gradient was a kind warm-up for my muscles and a nice boost for my confidence. I felt in the moment, and relaxed, and when we stopped for our generous and tasty packed lunch a couple hours later, Olaf’s face reflected the calmness of being immersed in nature. Connection.
Stunning views of turquoise water took my breath away, or maybe it was the ascent towards the saddle. Beech forest and tall rimu trees enveloped us as we pushed along. Then it hit me – connections were starting already, along with that palpable sense of nature’s healing capacity. After a bit more huff and puff and a lot more ‘WOW!’ moments, we arrived at the colonial Furneaux Lodge and enjoyed a thirst-quenching ale on the elegant veranda overlooking several yachts bobbing on the sound. A restoring hot shower in our spacious apartment readied us for our top-notch dinner, and comparing stories with others showed I wasn’t the only one puffing on the trail. We were all grateful tomorrow was a shorter day, which we’d need to help tackle the much longer following days.
As we headed to breakfast on day two, people spilled out of the restaurant and the hubbub was energising, many more boats were moored, and the place was abuzz. It was the Rugby World Cup semifinal and New Zealanders are passionate about their All Blacks. Then the place fell silent with the Haka, and picked up again as the game began. We left them to it, had a quick breakfast, and set off on the eight-mile, four hour, relatively flat section.
Birds warbled and forest turned to lush pungas (huge tree ferns) as we weaved around the coastal track on a fine overcast day. I marvelled at how exploring places on foot affords a different perspective, a deeper understanding, and a real bond with the ground beneath our feet. It encourages random thoughts and conversations you couldn’t otherwise imagine and promotes many moments of silence full of meaning. Connection. And my body seemed to be responding by feeling strong and able.
Tonight’s accommodation, Punga Cove Resort blends into the steep hillside, looking like a tropical paradise nestling among gigantic ferns, with magnificent views from every room. I resisted the lure of a hot tub and from my shower a small private window looked out to the treetops to put me amongst the birds. Connection. We enjoyed another exquisite dinner, more banter with other ‘trampers’, and had an early night in preparation for what is affectionately known as the Big Day.
A quick and early breakfast had us on the trail by 7:30am for the 15 miles ahead. Today was my biggest test – physically and mentally – and the weather was not on our side. It was drizzling rain with fog-like low cloud, high humidity and no wind. And a steep climb straight out of the lodge depleted all my confidence as I struggled up the incline, and with no breath-taking views thanks to the weather my buoyant outlook was also cloudy. Then deciding to climb a steep detour to a usually spectacular lookout, only to have zero visibility, my legs resisted on the descent back to the track. Places like Bay of Many Coves, Torea Bay Saddle and Black Rock Shelter promised plenty on a sunny day, but that was not today, and I was forced to be introspective and resilient and remember there is much to be grateful for.
Eight hours after starting, we arrived at the contemporary-looking Portage Hotel, enjoyed a hot shower and that tingling sensation that says, ‘my body has done something significant’. Connection. Dinner was once again excellent, and diners seemed chatty and happy but acutely aware of tomorrow’s strict finishing deadline – the water taxi would leave Anakiwa at 3pm sharp for our return trip to Picton. It meant most of us were keen for an early night and an early start, but as I headed to our apartment, I overheard one table ordering rounds of Bailey’s and whisky. I admired their spirit but couldn’t help wonder about the possible impact on their stamina tomorrow.
The handbook suggested seven hours for the final day’s 13 miles, so we were already walking at 7am - my slow pace was a worry and we wanted plenty of time to meet our deadline. Olaf offered constant encouragement as the initial, hour-long climb endured and he even occasionally gently pushed me along for a bit of momentum. Connection. And with the sun shining brightly today, and the birds louder than ever, our efforts were completely rewarded as the elevated views were majestic. More climbs and more jaw-dropping, exquisite scenery preceded a long gradual descent into Anakiwa where we arrived with plenty of time to spare. We sat under a tree on a patch of grass watching other walkers finish and all-round congratulations for our efforts. Over the last four days we’d all had a common goal, shared our experiences and become a close community. Connection.
On the ride across the Marlborough Sounds to the Picton waterfront I wondered why I’d initially doubted myself. Yes, I’d struggled up some climbs, but so had many others. Yes, I was slow and steady, but that wins the race, doesn’t it? I concluded that walks like this are meant to test us otherwise we wouldn’t feel a sense of achievement or a sense of pride, and we certainly wouldn’t experience those connections which are so important for our wellbeing.