Fern fronds in citrusy green and gold offset the gleaming peacock-blue waters of Endeavour Inlet in New Zealand’s Marlborough Sounds. Only days before, my husband Mike and I had been mired in dark, damp North American winter, and the novelty of the south-of-the-equator summer in December had yet to wear off.
We had set off early that morning for a nine-mile hike, not terribly strenuous by my outdoorsy standards. The lush green ridges rose at most a few hundred feet above sea level. “At least there won’t be any killer hills here,” I said to my husband. Our one-way trail would be more down than up, finishing at the water’s edge.
And not just any water’s edge, but one of the most important locations in eighteenth-century scientific exploration. Our destination was Ship Cove, where the crews of British explorer James Cook repaired their ships and stocked up on water and food during each of three expeditions he led to conduct astronomical measurements, test new navigational technology and explore the South Pacific and Antarctic during the late 1760s and 1770s. The Royal Society in London had hired Cook to sail a mission to Tahiti to observe the transit of Venus across the sun on June 3, 1769, for a more accurate measurement of the distance between Earth and the Sun. (Venus only lines up with Earth and the Sun a couple of times every century or so. If you missed the most recent transit on June 8, 2004, don’t worry – you have one more chance before the 22nd century to see it, on June 6, 2012.)
During the course of these expeditions, Endeavour’s sailors became the first Europeans to land on Australia, where Botany Bay is named for the samples of flora retrieved by the ship’s naturalists. En route, Endeavour’s crew became only the second group of Europeans to reach New Zealand. On his second mission, Cook tested the latest navigational technology, the K1 chronometer – the first copy of John Harrison’s invention that had won the Longitude Prize only a decade earlier. Cook’s third voyage yielded the European discovery of the Hawaiian Islands, although by then Cook had already earned the respect of the scientific community upon the publication of his journals from his first two expeditions.
A pilgrimage to Ship Cove for its role as stockroom in Cook’s science-based explorations was therefore a must for this geeky tourist – at least in theory. In practice, it’s not easy to get to: travelers can reach this isolated spot near the north tip of South Island only by foot or boat. The spidery ridges of the Marlborough Sounds are too steep and remote to merit roads. So we tramped up and down and up and down the official footpath there, the Queen Charlotte Track. About an hour in, clouds began to gather overhead and darken the green slopes on the other side of Endeavour Inlet.
Just as swiftly as the weather turned sour, my walk went from a pleasant trek to a journey of discovery into my own physical vulnerability and pain tolerance. I felt the first sharp twinge in my right knee as we descended from a ridge between the Endeavour Inlet and Resolution Bay, named after the ship Cook commanded for his second and third voyages. At this point, the nibble of pain with each step was a mere nuisance, sort of like getting a pebble in my shoe – except, of course, I couldn’t remove my knee. It had never given me trouble before, even on more strenuous hikes. I was young and healthy, I told myself – of course the pain would go away.
I tried focusing on the new views opening up at every turn. Every vista included a postcard-perfect verdant slope surrounded by waters reflecting the sky – the picture of tranquility. And yet my knee still pinched. I concentrated on the earthy fragrance of the woods, now dampened by a light rainfall. But once we crossed over the steep saddle from Resolution Bay and began the slick, mile-long descent into Ship Cove, the pain grew from an intermittent tap-tap to a small bomb blast with every step I took.
Battered and broken, I reached Ship Cove at last. I reassured myself that I was still better off than Cook’s crew. Back then, the British navy knew that citrus could prevent scurvy, but they thought it was because of its general acidity rather than vitamin C. Often sailors were given less expensive acids, and some still suffered scurvy’s terrible symptoms of bleeding in the gums, muscles and joints. Feeding his crew a varied diet, Cook never lost a man to scurvy. What cases did arise were treated ashore with foods such as scurvy grass, a herb rich in vitamin C that his crew harvested and ate in Ship Cove.
I staggered over to find a place to sit and take pressure off my leg. At last I looked up and took in the compact semicircle of grass and white sand that sat at the foot of the steep green ridge we’d just descended. My husband was inspecting the rugged white monolith commemorating Cook’s five stays on the small bay. Mounted with an anchor and flanked by cannons, it seemed too militaristic for this remote cozy nook.
A couple of weka birds strutted nearby as if on cue to illustrate my thought. We’d seen a couple of these chicken-sized, flightless brown birds earlier. Kiwis are extremely rare in the wild, so the wekas were exotic enough for me – another reminder that we were a long way from home.
Later, back at the lodge, ice packs soothed my knee. Taking a cue from Cook and his crew, I began to recover my good spirits with the help of fresh New Zealand food and wine. Perhaps the message of Ship Cove is that taking a break from the hard work of discovery is just as important as the scientific pursuit itself.
How to get there:
Getting to the Marlborough Sounds from the northern hemisphere is nontrivial, as physicists say. From points north you will have to fly through Auckland International Airport and then travel to the northern tip of South Island, which would most straightforwardly be done by flying to Blenheim. Or, get to Wellington at the southern tip of North Island and take the ferry across the Cook Strait to Picton, which is also the main embarkation point for the water taxis serving the Marlborough Sounds. After days on transportation, you’ll be good and ready to stretch your legs (if not injure your knees).
Just as in Cook’s day, Ship Cove is most easily accessed by water, although now it also doubles as the northern endpoint of the 45-mile-long Queen Charlotte Track. Although people can walk the track in either direction, the official website for the track recommends that individual hikers begin at Ship Cove rather than finish there because its remoteness makes planning a water-taxi pickup difficult. I walked to Ship Cove as part of a group tour which had made special arrangements to be picked up there. Starting from Ship Cove, that long descent that killed my knee would become a long ascent, so pack the water and the energy bars.
Water-taxi company Endeavour Express offers a day-hike package beginning at Ship Cove with pickup on Endeavour Inlet, $55 for adults and $35 for children (in NZ dollars; currently $1 NZ = $0.69 US).
Where to stay:
We stayed at Punga Cove Resort, which offers a range of accommodations for travelers of all budgets. The more deluxe rooms and cabins enjoy broad scenic views over the bay. This can be reached by water taxi or a long, winding drive along the same ridge traversed by the Queen Charlotte Track