A Delay in Picton

(21st Feb)

Our departure from Akaroa was severely delayed due to the late return of the tour buses to Christchurch. The traffic had been very heavy and one or two other problems ensured that the Columbus did not sail until much later in the evening, putting into jeopardy our arrival time in Picton. Though we could feel that the captain had put his foot down during the night, we were woken by an early morning shipwide announcement (unusual) confirming that indeed we would be arriving an hour late and that due to the wind and swell conditions we would not be berthing at the town pier but instead would be using the one used by container ships, a little way outside the town. There would be shuttle buses laid on to aid our access into Picton. We berthed alongside what appeared to be a harbour dedicated to the export of huge piles of cut logs and could smell the not unpleasant aroma of freshly sawn wood from the outside decks.

Our route into Picton had been along the very pretty Charlotte Sound, exclusive and quite remote summer houses could be seen clinging to the sides of the mountains, reachable only by boat and owned no doubt by those wishing to escape from the rest of the world, at least for a while. The surrounding landscape, we were to find out later was very different 75 years ago. The early settlers had cleared away all the tree cover to make way for Merino sheep to the detriment of the eco-balance of the area. Birdsong had not been heard here for over a century. A climate of heavy seasonal rainfall and occasional violent tectonic plate movement (earthquakes) had washed away much of the soil cover into the depths of Charlotte Sound. Since the sheepherders had left, the land had been left mostly to its own devices to return to its natural state, though a further problem was created when parts of it were planted with Californian pine to provide a cash crop. However, this tree grows at 5 times its usual growth in this climate and soon its seed was being spread into the protected areas, with an unforeseen problem. The roots of this species produce a toxin which prevents the growth of anything beneath or near its canopy, so the expected regrowth of the indigenous species and a return to the natural flora and fauna of the area was being impeded. The solution is to drill four holes into the base of the trunk and fill them up with poison, not an easy job as reaching them in such difficult terrain and heat was something I wouldn’t fancy doing. Today, the surrounding hills and mountains are covered in a lush green canopy of tree ferns, manuka and black birch trees among many others, punctuated here and there by silver grey, stag-like, dead pine, fingers seemingly reaching to the sky, asking, “Why me?”.

Watching the preparations from up on deck 14 of the shore-side crew getting ready for the departure of Columbus’s guests I couldn’t help noticing that there appeared to be no wind and the sea seemed flat calm, what was this nonsense of dangerous conditions for not docking in the town? Sue and I had booked a tour which was not due to leave until 12.30pm and we were hoping to visit Picton in the morning to have a look around before returning to the ship to catch our tour. However, after a late arrival and having to acquire a shuttle bus ticket to transit into town (10 minutes away), we thought that our ticket ‘H’ was too far down the list to be viable and this proved the case. At 10am I gave away our tickets to a couple holding ‘O’ and we settled down to coffees and watched the buses shuttling to and fro, we later supplemented this with some burgers (shocking isn’t it?)

Our eventual transfer to the town dock to catch our catamaran ride to Mistletoe Bay went smoothly, we even had half an hour to take photos and wander around the local outdoor market conveniently situated next to the quay. Sue and I managed to secure prime seats on the top deck of our craft, giving us a great uninhibited view of our journey. We called in at various beaches and slowed on occasion to ogle at the plush waterside residences on our progress to the dropping-off point in the bay to begin our walk through the New Zealand bush country.

The small Mistletoe Bay is also the home of an equally small eco-friendly settlement, whose residents live here all year round and are completely independent of most of the society’s comforts. They do take in small groups and individuals wishing to experience this kind of life, for a brief time. Today, a small part of school children seemed to be enjoying its lack of facilities.

Once on the shore, our party was split into four groups each with a guide to walk part of the Charlotte Sound Trail, which in its entirety takes 4 days to complete, we were going to spend just 1.5 hours along its route. We were lucky that within our small group of ‘would-be trekkers’, there were no infirm among us and all kept up a reasonable pace ensuring that we didn’t have to periodically wait for people to catch up. The one reason I dislike walking in groups.

The path itself was sufficiently challenging to make it a nightmare for anyone who wasn’t reasonably fit, and gave us as real an experience as you could get in such a short time of the rigours of bush trekking. Our guide was very knowledgeable providing all sorts of quirky information on the flora and fauna we were passing through. The black, silver birch is the host to a very strange creature, it looks like a sting ray, and sits under the bark of the tree with its thread-like tubular tail protruding with a drop of honey evident on the very tip. The creature sips the tree sap to produce the honey, which in turn attracts ants and wasps, which in turn help to protect the tree. How neat is that?

Another gem of information concerned the leaf of one of the trees, the Maori use it as toilet paper and having felt it and confirmed that it is indeed soft and hardy enough for the job, I am sure that if we lived here Sue would be making a great saving on our toilet roll budget.

I thoroughly enjoyed this brief escape, wishing we had longer to enjoy the New Zealand bush, but we were all too soon sitting back on the catamaran enjoying the sun and sipping coffee and chocolate biscuits. We were the first group back, the last one being close to an hour later, why would undertake a trip involving a bush walk in flip-flops?

On our return journey, as were skimming along at pace, our captain gave us a running commentary. We discovered that he had been listening into the radio chatter between the Captain of the Columbus and the Picton Pilot, it seems that the reason for our berthing at the container dock, was not because of the sea conditions, but because we had mechanical problems and the ship didn’t have the manoeuvrability to berth at the narrow town berth. That would account for the loud bang that woke Sue up at 6.30am when the ship would have been using its thrusters to turn around in the narrow sound. I slept soundly through it all. I hope they fixed it while we were ashore.

We had just over an hour to spend in Picton before shuttling back to the ship. We walked along the narrow foreshore and then explored a small and pretty quayside garden, before heading off down Main Street for Sue to experience some retail therapy along with other cruisers. I visited the pharmacist and bought some syrup that I was assured would stop the annoying tickly cough that I have picked up, it tastes lovely but doesn’t work and at $25 I shall be exploring the New Zealand trades’ description legislation!

We left the port of Picton with just a small delay. We were missing one of the passengers, she had been hospitalised while on shore, from the top deck I watched her husband (with police escort) arrive at the quayside to collect her passport from the ship. I guess this sort of thing happens all the time on cruise ships, but it isn’t often we get to know. I hope the couple has sufficient insurance and things go well for them.

We now have three sea days to chill out before we reach Sydney.

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