Sunday, October 6, 2019

No stacks on the Queen Charlotte Track

The craziness - both work and riding-related - of the last few years has seen me do much of my cycling on my own.  So, it came as a lovely surprise about a month ago, when out of the blue, I got a call from Simon wondering if Sarah and I would like to join him, Claire Pascoe, and a few others on a weekend trip to ride the Queen Charlotte Track.

"Sign us up!" was our near-instant response.

I'd ridden the track three times before.  Once with Mike Lowrie, and his friends and family, way way back in the late 90s.  I did it again with Mike and co, that time also with my brother Dave who had a nasty spill when he lost his front wheel crossing a cattle-stop on the gravel road between Kenepuru Saddle and Portage.  The third time was with my Canadian colleague and riding buddy, Rich Martin, and Simon.  We'd overnighted in Punga Cove (as I'd done both times on the trips Mike organised), and while we waited for the ferry at the end of the trip, Rich taught us never to try to wash muddy legs in a café bathroom (adding water turned all the dried mud to wet mud, and then attempts to wipe it up only smeared it further around...). Simon and I mounted a search mission in the end, he was in there so long...!!!  (My own strategy of a quick wipe down with gloved hands was much better!)

I've always been pretty averse to a Cook Strait Ferry crossing, and for a while I thought my 3pm Friday lecture would give me a good excuse to fly to Blenheim, but alas, the Interislander had a 5pm sailing, which, as it turned out, everyone else was catching too.

Sarah was allocated the check-in duties, but as it turned out, I was a bit behind in my earlier stream of the same class, so finished up a few minutes before 4pm, and beat her to the terminal.  She found me there chatting to Simon, Claire and her brother Paul, and her and Simon's colleagues, Neils, Anna and James.

Aside from introductions, the short wait for our boarding call was an ideal opportunity to scope out the different gear carrying strategies.  My treat to Sarah was mounting a freeload (now Thule) rack on the fork of my Yeti Big Top, which with my trusty Revelate Viscacha would give more than enough carrying capacity for all of our gear.  Her bike wasn't completely bare - she had some tubes and tools stowed in the Revelate Vole I'd taken to Mongolia.

Discounted vehicle fare comes without ride-on privileges
I've been a pretty loyal Bluebridge customer in recent times, and our sailing only reinforced that choice.  By the time we hit the sounds, I was feeling pretty crook, and was regretting trying to avoid eating the uninspiring food that was available.  Not just because of the choice, but because I was very much looking forward to the best lamb curry in NZ, courtesy of Plaza India in Picton.

We were staying at the Villa Backpackers Lodge, and while we were in time for the complementary apple crumble, it would have meant forgoing curry... 

After a solid meal, and an almost as good sleep, it was off to the dutch bakery at sparrow's fart to get some breakfast and food to take on the ride.  Sarah seemed unimpressed that I'd overcatered, but I was going to be hauling anything we didn't eat, so didn't pay her much attention!   In addition to food from the bakery, we'd anticipated difficulty getting coffee at this time of the morning, so had brought some instant with us.  That slid down OK, and certainly better than having none at all!

We arrived down at the port just after 7am, and it was quite the sight - not a breath of wind, and hardly a cloud in the sky.

Sarah celebrating the glorious conditions
Claire had organised our accommodation, and had also taken responsibility for booking a boat delivery to Ship Cove.  When we arrived, and for some time afterwards, the marina was quite deserted, but eventually our skipper turned up, and while we loaded money into his account, and bikes onto the boat, Claire managed to track down the trail permits that we'd all overlooked getting in advance!

Loading up on our private Cougar Line charter
We'd been on the water about 15 minutes when Sarah called out "DOLPHINS" and sure enough, we were treated to a small pod of them swimming nearby.

Always a great treat to see these beautiful creatures

Before we reached Ship Cove, we saw another couple, and a seal flopping around.  We'd got away from Picton just before 8am, and were unloading the bikes at around 8:45am.

Pulling into "James Cook's favourite NZ base" (according to DOC)

I was first off the jetty, and could have literally got straight into the climb - you really don't get much more than a twenty metre warm up!

Brand new track ahoy!
While the others got themselves organised, I took a tour of the no-camping camping area, including the grand memorial, and a stunning pou, made to look even better by the native bush and blue skies behind it.

Ex MBC rig in bikepacking mode
Once everyone was set, we decided to try to do a group selfie.  Claire did a great job of setting up her smartphone with the help of one of my q-spear bungies.

Setting up for take #5 or so

Finally, there was nothing else for it, but to start on the climb,  The old route had been truly heinous, and I'd always succumbed to the gradient and had to walk.  The new route on the other hand was very pleasant indeed, and 100% rideable - a welcome start to the day.

Looking south from Tawa Saddle
Despite the climb not being long, we were well and truly strung out by it, in part due to wardrobe adjustments and photo stops.  After regrouping at the top...

... we set off after Simon who had opted to take a new track down from the saddle.  It too was a nice bit of work, though the temperature plummeted once we were in the shade, and I made a note not to strip off at the top of a sun-baked hill again.

We regrouped again at the bottom of the hill, but after 20 minutes more riding, Sarah, Simon and I had opened up a fair gap to the others.  When they arrived, we suggested that we might see them at Kenepuru Saddle for a late lunch.  It felt a bit stink leaving them, but the variation in pace was significant, and we were probably all a bit happier for the separation.

Having stayed at Punga Cove on all three previous occasions, I was amazed at how quickly we passed Furneaux Lodge (without pulling in to see if the coffee machine was on), and again how soon the turn-off up to Kenepuru Saddle came.  Rather than continue on to Camp Bay, we turned off for the grind up to the road.

After a sharp right turn off the main track, I gave it a bit of a nudge up to the saddle, and had a few minutes wait in the sun for Sarah and Simon to arrive.  There we had a wee picnic - some baked goodies from the Dutch bakery, and some peanut butter and nutella sandwiches that I'd made at home.  (Not before starting to pack a knife and small jars, before realising I could do the spreading before leaving and save a whole lot of weight and hassle.)

Out of the blue, Sarah said she was going to head off.  Problem is, she didn't think to ask what Simon and I were up to.  Once she'd gone, he and I had that conversation, and I learnt that he was keen to wait for the others.   Rather than hoon after Sarah, I decided to go in search of coffee - an adjacent sign suggested it was waiting for me a mere kilometre down the road. 

The road was predictably steep, and as it turned out, the café was right down at the water's edge.  In any case, it was a damn fine coffee, relatively speaking, and the climb back the way I'd come wasn't too bad, especially given that I'd taken the bag off the freeload rack before peeling off all that elevation (still had my overnight gear, mind you).

By the time I got back to the saddle, Claire, Paul and Neils were well into their own picnic, and Anna and James arrived a minute or two after me.  It was nice to catch up with them briefly, before Simon and I set off after Sarah.

I'd ridden this stretch only once before, with Rich and Simon, and didn't have clear memories of it.  I certainly didn't recall the leg-searing pinches, but nor did I remember the sweet views.

Kenepuru Sound in the background.  The corner was a slow one, but the previous few minutes had been intense...

The track was pretty old school, but in such glorious conditions, it was a pleasure, especially in Simon's company.

One of a couple of these marker posts
Eventually, we heard a shout, and there was Sarah - she'd been waiting 40 minutes for us, and was starting to get nervous!  She'd picked a great spot to wait, with a seat in the sun, a great view over Queen Charlotte Sound, and a cheeky weka for company.

After a few minutes, we got riding again, and soon passed a hut.  Unbeknownst to me, Simon decided at that point that he'd had enough of riding at our pace, and he stopped to wait for the others!  Sarah and I pressed on, and after a wee snack at the Black Rock shelter...

Looking towards Picton from Black Rock shelter
... we were soon bombing down the final descent to Torea Saddle.  From there, it was a minute or so on the sealed road down to Portage.

Torea Saddle

Claire had booked us all into a backpackers in Portage, though she'd warned us that while we eight would all fit into the room, it was usually configured for five.  Sarah and I decided not to go straight there, and instead stopped by the hotel restaurant at which we were booked for dinner.  It was around 4pm, and our booking was for 5:30, and we initially whiled away the time drinking coffee, gassy water and a beer, and snacking.

After 45 minutes of that, it was time for a wash.  Riding far was unappealing, and given the impending squeeze, we asked the barkeep if there were any rooms available at the hotel.  At least one was, and by virtue of us being a couple, it was actually not much more expensive than the two berths at the backpackers would have been.  10 minutes later, we were arm-wrestling over who would have the first shower, feeling ever so slightly guilty about bailing on the others...!

Once cleaned up and in our evening-wear, we strolled back down the restaurant, and were delighted to find our companions had arrived.   We 'fessed up about the room situation, and then enjoyed hearing about their ride.

The most dramatic element was that James's freehub was running a little too free, and as a result, he'd only been able to ride downhill.  They'd tried to jury-rig up a tow rope, but the available string wasn't up to the task.  Luckily James is a keen tramper, and was happy enough to run the flat bits and the climbs (some of which the rest of us had tackled on foot too!).   One damn good three course meal later, we were wishing each other a good night.

The next morning we woke to another still day.  The restaurant weren't doing breakfast, so we made do with more of our peanut butter and nutella sandwiches and some instant coffee.  My front load was getting lighter by the minute - not the usual situation, but one which was welcome.

Kenepuru Sound ex Portage
We were booked on an early ferry, as was Simon, so we'd arranged to meet at 8am.  We rode up the driveway to the backpackers, to find that everyone was preparing to roll out, despite being on much later sailings.  James was making for a water taxi, while the others would be cruising behind us.

While I'd ridden the Kenepuru Saddle to Portage section of the track only once, I'd never ridden the next off-road section, and was looking forward to it despite being warned by Simon that it was pretty steep in places.

Sure enough, the ground beneath our wheels ramped up immediately after leaving the asphalt, and it did not let up for quite a while.  All was not lost, and the rapidly gained elevation afforded lovely views of the sound.

Portage, on the shores of Kenepuru Sound
The track was mostly rideable, and I was pleased with how I was handling it with the loaded bike.  I think if anything, the freeload rack on the fork helped on the steeper stuff, though a few tactical walks seemed a good idea (not to mention the walks that I had absolutely no choice over)!

With a couple of weeks between the ride and the write, on reflection, I think I actually enjoyed this section most of all - certainly more than the section to Portage.  While the native bush was much better elsewhere, the views were glorious, and the terrain was a lot more engaging - long climbs requiring good concentration (and power), and fun descents.

Simon part way through an exhilarating descent!

The final section of track had a bunch of switchbacks, from which we could see Queen Charlotte Drive, and signs of the new link track tucked away in the bush.

We'd made good time, arriving at the road-end at about 10am.  After a quick bite to eat, it was a short blast down the road before it was onto the Anakiwa Track.  Sarah set a cracking pace initially, and then Simon went to the front.  I hung behind Sarah for the most part, and enjoyed following her - she's been doing a lot of MTB commuting recently, and it was showing through both her skill-level and fitness.

Sarah nearing the end of the Anakiwa Track
We emerged from the beech forest into Anakiwa just before 10:30am, giving us plenty of time to get back to Picton for our early afternoon ferries.  No sooner had we stopped for a snack, I started getting bitten by sandflies, and managed to negotiate a prompt end to our rest stop.

Blue skies abound

The Link Track began almost immediately, and while I bypassed the very first section, I jumped onto it at the next opportunity.  For the most part, it was very pleasant, though one (probably very expensive) bridge almost spat me straight into a wire fence and I wondered whether 100m of road riding would have been a less risky prospect for everyone, not to mention cheaper.

At the intersection with Queen Charlotte Drive, while still on the gravelled track I opened up a gap to Simon and Sarah, and figuring they'd stay on the road and catch me soon, kept going.

The Link Track was a nice bit of work, and I did enjoy cruising along it.  Initially it was between Queen Charlotte Drive and the sound, but at Momorangi Bay, it switched across the road and got a lot steeper.

A bit of beach riding on the Link Track at Ngakuta Bay
At Ngakuta Bay, the track switched sides of the road again, but was only briefly on the seaside,.  A bit of riding on the sand, and a sweet boardwalk, later, the track popped up to the road again.  From there, counter-intuitively, you had to ride away from Picton for 100m or so before diving off into the bush, and going back the way you'd just come. 

The track was unsustainably steep in places, but maybe the road alternative will keep people off it when it's really wet, and it might just hold up without becoming a maintenance nightmare.  From time to time, the road would be visible far below, but for the most part, the track was tucked away in the trees, and it was a lovely alternative.

While the Link Track was much slower than the road would have been, with plenty of time in hand, I wasn't worried about the check-in deadline for the ferry.  That said, I was fascinated to know where Sarah and Simon were.  As it turned out, Lady Luck smiled on us all, and we were reunited in spectacular fashion.

When I emerged from the track at the point above Shakespeare Bay, a quick check to the left for traffic revealed my darling wife - had I been 30 seconds earlier, or any later, I'd probably have completely missed her.  She'd not spotted the back-track along the road at Ngakuta Bay, so had bypassed the section of track I'd just finished.  However many minutes she was behind me at that point was exactly the amount of time she'd saved going on the road!

She and I rode onto the next section of track together, and 20 seconds later found Simon's bike leaning against a tree.  He'd walked up a side track to check out a signposted viewpoint, and a couple of minutes later, the three of us having spent the last 30 minutes or so riding alone, we were able to cruise into Picton together (along a cracking bit of track, no less).

After a quick celebration of getting to the end with all the blood on the inside...

... it was off to find a café for lunch.  I made an appalling call, and after about 40 frustrating minutes, we'd not eaten, and Sarah and I had to bid Simon farewell on empty stomachs.  While he'd booked a return on the Interislander, we had a slightly earlier sailing on the Bluebridge - the very best way to finish off a ride into Picton, in my opinion.  We had a cabin booked, and as well as a lovely double bed, there was an infinite supply of hot water in the adjacent shower!

Nothing beats a Bluebridge cabin at the end of a ride into Picton

With a comfy bed to curl up in, my fragile brain barely registered any swell that was running in the Cook Strait, and soon enough we were given our "WAKE UP CALL" in Wellington.

Once off the boat, the grey skies and gentle climb into Karori were a fitting way to cap off the weekend - a very nice reminder of how stunning the conditions had been!!!

The trip definitely made me wonder why on earth Sarah and I hadn't taken Kaitlyn and Khulan down there for a family weekend away!  There are certainly more moving parts involved than just turning up to a trail head with bikes, but as far as a scenic and active weekend away goes, the Queen Charlotte Track fits the bill nicely.

Thanks so much to Claire and Simon for inviting the two of us along, and Paul, Neils, Anna and James for the company.

* * *

Ride data:  Day 1 // Day 2
Services:  Villa Backpackers // Cougar Line // The Portage Hotel

Claire's moderately successful Ship Cove selfie!
L-R: Claire, Paul, Neils, Anna, James (by a whisker), Sarah, moi, Simon, and an inquisitive weka.
Photo:  Claire Pascoe