A 3 hour ferry from Wellington brings you to the charming town of Picton, which is buried within the bays and inlets at the top of New Zealand’s South Island. It’s a small place, and you get the impression that most people, apart from hikers and mountain bikers, merely use it as a pickup point for a coach straight on to other destinations. It doesn’t take long to walk around the town and see what’s there. We were staying at Picton Lodge Backpackers right across from the ferry terminal which was comfortable enough aside from being a bit chilly. It’s run by an older couple and protected by their little white poodle that can be heard bravely defending its territory every time someone comes into the reception. Once it’s let out from behind reception though, it’s all sniffs and wagging tails.
As Picton isn’t a large town, there wasn’t a huge amount of choice when it came to eating out, but of the choices available, the food in our budget range was better value than Wellington. The Seabreeze Cafe sits at the bottom of the main street overlooking the harbour. Its large windows offer a good view of the bay with ships passing in and out. The food is quite tasty if you can manage to get the bungling owner to both ring up and serve the correct orders. We ad the distinct impression he was ‘the new owner’ and while he’d mastered chatting expansively to the customers, some of the finer details of serving food were still eluding him – like what today’s specials are. When Brodie was finally presented with pumpkin soup after ordering chicken, there was much consultation among the staff before it emerged that chicken soup was on yesterday’s menu, not today’s. After making a trade for a toasted sandwich instead, the owner sat beside us to peruse the newspaper and partake of the discarded soup. He confided in us that “the soup’s actually very good you know!”. Still feeling robbed, Brodie was happy to note as we left the restaurant that he’d licked that spoon the owner was now using.
Despite the next day being one of the nicest so far in New Zealand, the showers the day before had deterred anyone else from signing up to do a dolphin swim in the morning so it was cancelled. We switched to the backup plan and tried doing a hike instead. Having slept in a bit late, we booked a half day hike rather than the full 8 hours. In hindsight, that was lucky. We caught a boat out to Mistletoe Bay which is near part of the Queen Charlotte Track. From there it was allegedly going to be a 4 hour hike to get picked up at Anakiwa Bay. I think they forgot to factor in the kilometre long climb up steep hills to get us up to the track in the first place. Once on the track, we were unsure if we were ahead or behind schedule as the limited signs were based on hours rather than kilometres and our pace varied with the landscape. Given that it took almost an hour to get up to the track, it wasn’t reassuring that the first sign said there were 4 hours to go from there.
After a few hours of what felt more like an endurance race than a hike, we did make it to our pickup point with a little time to spare. It was a tough track to complete in such short time though. Many parts had turned completely to mud. Even the mountain bikers that passed us looked tired and rather saddle sore, and were covered from head to toe in mud. “We’re finding it tough!” one chap admitted as we let them pass us by. No kidding! A lot of the track looked similar as you went along, but in some parts the growth around us died back enough to give great views of the bays and inlets along the coast with their clear blue waters.
The serious hikers, bikers and campers apparently flock to the area to spend days travelling this track. Four gruelling hours were enough for us. We got off the boat back at Picton feeling rather weary and made one last attempt to book in for a dolphin swim the next morning before calling it quits. We had a nice dinner in the town’s French Cafe, then it was time to book tickets out of Picton. This was complicated by the fact that the seats were fully booked on the naked bus – our usual means of transport. After much searching I eventually managed to find an alternative company that would take us in the right direction. We don’t really have the luxury of spare days if we’re going to make our flight from Queenstown.
We had just a few hours to kill the following morning and it was warm enough to sit out for a while in the park by the harbour. We then returned to the Seabreeze Cafe where the owner greeted us saying “You were in here yesterday, weren’t you? I messed things up. Did I spill the coffee on you?” His second guess was right. Good to know that the quality of his service skills extended to many other customers apart from us. We enjoyed coffee and muffins (thankfully not spilt on us) while watching one of the ducks outside endeavouring to make his way into the cafe.
While the seagulls were fighting ferociously over a butter container on the road, he had obviously figured out food was more plentiful inside than the pickings outside. Deftly avoiding entering and exiting customers, the duck furtively waddled his way in the door before placing himself in front of the old couple beside us. Once there, he fixed a solid and meaningful gaze upon the gentleman with the large scone. This appeared to be a carefully practised mind control technique that definitely going to work this time, the duck was sure. Although this man seemed to be resistant to mind control and was not willing to help out a begging duck that had fallen on hard times, the effort wasn’t a complete failure. Brodie seemed to have fallen under the spell and was just starting to gather up crumbs when a waitress scuttled his plans, shooing the duck right back out the door. The duck was still mournfully plodding around outside when we left for our bus, but was somewhat consoled with whatever scraps Brodie had smuggled out from our table.