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Hiker opts for comfort on New Zealand wilderness trek

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REPORTING FROM NEW ZEALAND

What happens when the idea of adventure is still compelling, when the desire to commune with nature is strong, when you still fancy yourself an outdoorswoman but the appeal of pitching a tent has lost its luster?

Here's what you do: You find places that provide opportunity for strenuous exertion, but with the reward of a bed and a glass of chilled wine at the end of the day.

In March, I was talked into going to New Zealand to hike the Queen Charlotte Track with a friend on a fitness bender. What sold me was that, sure, we'd be hiking 51 mostly uphill miles over four days -- 45 miles on the actual track and an extra six for diversions. But by night we'd stay in lodges, eat fine food and drink good wine.

Located in the pastoral Marlborough region on the coast of the South Island, the Queen Charlotte Track is one of New Zealand's most scenic multiday hikes. It was opened in its entirety in 1992, but it is not well known to American tourists who tend to throng to the South Island's Milford Track.

The Queen Charlotte cuts across a pristine coastal ridgeline, through ancient forest and virgin bush. A sound is a former valley flooded by the sea, leaving haphazard slivers of land, surrounded by water but still adjoining the mainland on one side. The Marlborough region has three sounds -- the Queen Charlotte, Kenepuru and Pelorus. We were to hike across two.

Although the Queen Charlotte can easily be hiked on your own, my fitness-freak friend, Debbie Harkness, and I decided to book through the Marlborough Sounds Adventure Co., which offered a reasonably priced package more in keeping with the sybaritic adventure we had in mind.

The company booked the lodges and transfers; provided a hiking guide and a kayaking guide; and arranged for our baggage to be whisked ahead by boat. We chose the five-day excursion, taking a day's break to kayak.

In late March, the end of the New Zealand summer, we flew from Auckland to Blenheim and then drove 30 minutes to Picton, the only town in the sounds. Early the first morning we had a trip briefing and met the rest of the group. We were eight in total, the others from England and Australia.

Ray Waters would be our guide. Seventy-one years old, he and his leather-tan and sinewy legs smacked of the über-athlete. Indeed, he told us, 10 years before he had run the entire track in less than 10 hours.

Boarding a small ferry, we headed west toward the trail head. Dolphins, the only wild mammal appearing genuinely delighted to see humans, surrounded the boat, leaping and spinning.

We stopped along the way to investigate a salmon farm. Lining its periphery were hundreds of seals peering through the netting that held the salmon in and them out.

"Look at them perving at the fish. What a fantasy!" Debbie said. Apart from being very fit, Debbie is also very amusing. She is one of those I call my "elevator friends." If you had to be stuck in an elevator for a long time, whom would you choose to be with? Debbie is on my short list.

The boat also stopped to allow us to climb Motuara Island for a sweeping view of the sounds. Motuara is one of the only "predator free" places in New Zealand because the Department of Conservation has systematically relocated or eradicated all nonnative birds, rats, possums and other predators in an effort to bring back native species.

New Zealand is a robust example of what science calls "the law of unforeseen consequences." When the white man (pakeha) arrived, he brought with him creatures that went ashore and flourished, several by gobbling up the native species that sat about stupefied, having never before encountered a predator.

Pre-pakeha New Zealand had no predators. Then came the pakeha, and New Zealand is now fighting for the survival of many native species.

"Listen to the bush," Ray said as we walked up Motuara. "Then compare it to the mainland." The bird song was clear and thick. It sounded healthy, possibly as it had been 65 million years before.

At lunch we were dropped off at Ship Cove, a significant place in New Zealand's colonial past. Capt. James Cook first anchored in this lovely white-sand bay in 1770 when he claimed New Zealand for Britain.

After a brief reverie, our guide pointed to the track, and upward we tramped. Debbie's hiking poles flashed, her feet traipsed sprightly on the dirt trail, legs pumping mechanically. I clamped a grin on my face and dragged my undertrained limbs ever onward.

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.travel@latimes.com

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