The group thinned, with Ray far out ahead; Debbie and I were a respectable distance behind. Ray had once been an Outward Bound trainer, and it was clear there would be no mollycoddling. He would jog back down the track to say, "You ladies all right. Righty-o. Carry on," then run off again.
Finally on top of the ridge, we looked down through fern trees to a peacock blue sea scattered with diamonds. Behind us was virgin bush, untouched since Cook's time, with 2,000-year-old trees towering above the others.
By 6 at night we tumbled off the track onto the trimmed lawn of Furneaux Lodge, originally an early-1900s holiday home for well-heeled pioneers. The main building speaks of an older, slower time.
Nowadays, hikers sprawl on the vast porch paying homage to their first Steinlager of the evening.
The free-standing suites at Furneaux were modern and chic, with a view of native bush and sea. It was more luxury than could be dreamed up, given the location, and considering the only access to the lodge is either on foot or by boat.
Day 2 was a piece of cake, with all day to hike seven miles. We climbed past waterfalls and through forest glens, parts tracing the waterline and others deep in the forest.
We spent that night at Punga Cove Resort, a lodge where kids roam in a posse and parents go fishing. The rooms were simple A-frame cottages, nothing luxe about them, but it was a step up from a tent and the only thing around.
We woke early to face our longest day. We would hike 15 undulating miles to the 1,300-foot ridge above Kenepuru Sound. Panting mountain bikers passed us on the trail. It is possible to ride the track, but a lot of folks were pushing their bikes up the steeper inclines.
We also passed pig hunters, rifles shouldered and dogs in tow. Pigs, another pakeha introduction, have run amok here since Cook released them. In Kafka-esque style, they mutated to three times their English farmyard size, grew savage tusks and now eviscerate the earth, overturning trees and destroying habitat.
By late afternoon we dragged ourselves gleefully into the Portage Resort Hotel, formerly a run-down lodge renovated into a swanky seaside hotel. With minimalist lines, Mondrian colors, Modern art, gourmet food and wines, the Portage has to be one of the country's most sublime locations. We catapulted straight into the pool for a swim.
And so, hallelujah, came our day of rest. We bid farewell to the group and to Ray. Jeremy Martin would be our new guide, and he was to escort us around the bays in a kayak, returning to the Portage for another night of elegant repast.
Jeremy was a young, athletic Kiwi bloke, capable and stoic, as such blokes often are. He fitted us with a double kayak, with Debbie, naturally, taking the steering position. He took a single and ran circles around us.
I am proud to say that we made it across Kenepuru Sound, where we stopped to have a cuppa, as is the wont of New Zealanders, a throwback to their ancestry. We were alone on the beach, and the water lapped so soothingly, we lay side by side on the warm sand and had a "kip" of tea.
The three of us set off cheerfully and fully restored the next day, prepared to walk the 12 miles to Anakiwa, the end of the track, where a ferry would return us to Picton.
But at 3:40, as the end was nigh, I discovered that I had dropped my sunglasses. In a flash, Jeremy was off back up the trail at a sprint. The minutes ticked by. No Jeremy. The ferry approached. No Jeremy. The ferry docked. No Jeremy.
And then, as the clock struck 4:01, he came thundering out of the forest and down the dock brandishing my glasses. And that, right there, is reason enough to forsake the do-it-yourself approach.
Jones is a freelance writer.
Hiker opts for comfort on New Zealand wilderness trek
She trades a backpack and tent for lodging comforts on a 51-mile trip through the South Island's Queen Charlotte Track.
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