Welcome to the South Island
The South Island starts with an absolute beauty of a day, a stunning sunrise breakfast up the top of Victoria Domain in Picton then some cheeky mountain bike trails down to the Marina for a boat trip to the start of the Queen Charlotte Track.
It always feels more adventurous when starting off on a boat, something subconscious, like being back in the shoes of the first adventurers travelling to foreign lands. The sea is calm and the visibility is fantastic. The hidden coves and secret stony beaches of the Marlborough Sounds just screams to be explored. Small islands jut out of the water catching the early morning sun on their steep rock faces, their heads covered in lush, dense rain forest.
Start of the Queen Charlotte Track
I get dropped off at Resolution Bay . A remote wooden jetty with a rough path scraped out of the hillside. The boat quickly turns around and I am left completely alone. Castaway on a seemingly abandoned island. I’m already loving every minute of it. The thick green bush frames the scene where the blue sky and aquamarine sea collide. The dotted islands look like green clouds floating over the flat, calm sea.
Progress is slow as I stop at every corner to take a picture, trying to capture the unblemished natural beauty of the terrain. My efforts are futile, the vastness and the colour just can’t be captured. Looking back I feel I rushed the Timber Trail because it was such fun riding. This time I decide to stop and enjoy the trail, soaking in every vista and staring out at each lookout.
The Queen Charlotte Track is still fun to ride though. It ducks and dives into furtive bays and then a rocky trail up onto the high ridges to give a bird’s eye view of the surrounding. On the first day alone, I had 1230m of elevation gain as I yoyoed along the jagged coastline.
Furneaux Lodge/ Heaven?
Moving at a very leisurely pace, I turn a corner to find what looks like paradise. The Furneaux Lodge, I pull in for an early lunch. I sit on a shady veranda eating a plate of chips, savouring every aspect of this idyllic spot. Reggae music pours gently out of the bar as I watch the waves crash on the beach, their melodic sighs play the background to the melody of the water fountain. Well-kept grounds lead right to the ocean. My eyes drift over to the stack of kayaks and paddle boards on one side and deep native rain forest behind me
‘I could work with this’ I thought to myself.
I am so impressed I even inquire if they are looking for any staff.
Begrudgingly, I drag myself away before I start settling in too much. The day is heating up but the sections in the forest keep me shaded. The forest sweats a deep primeval scent, I can feel its breath as it basks in the sunlight. The canopy is alive with sounds and movement and yet I am the only soul out on the trail.
Lost and Found
40 minutes later and I have my first human encounter on the track, some walkers pull over and watch me valiantly try to ride my laden bike up one of the steeper, dustier hills.Tires skidding, I give up the pretence and start to push.
It is then I realise, with a wave of anxiety, that one of my bags looks decidedly less full than usual (I have built an intimate knowledge of this bike and each and every one of those packs and panniers) a quick look shows I am missing my ‘electricals bag’ as I named it.
It was a small bag, only 5 litres but it was my most sturdy and carried all of my vitally important end of day equipment. My journal, Kindle, back up phone/GPS charger, my filled Camera SD cards and batteries for my head torch. This was an important bag to lose. To be fair it was actually the most important bag (second maybe to the jelly bears!)
I turned the bike around and got ready to retreat back past the walkers. I told them of my predicament and they suggested that I go ahead to one of the beachside mini-hotels and see if the boat taxi can pick it up and drop it for me further up the trail. A great plan and apparently it happens quite frequently so I ask my bag to be taken to the next hotel along and I will meet it there.
It’s quite a long way to the next hotel the sun is now belting down on the steep dirt road out from the hotel. I push up the end of the treeline and see the ridge ride ahead of me. The guide book says this ridge is tough technical riding. It looks great but I don’t want to rush it and already I am feeling worn out. I spin around and shoot down the steep road. I call the boat guys and get them to deliver my bag to my current location then I can take my time.
Sun Stroke? Heat Stroke?
Bag received I set off again pushing my bike up the sun-baked road for the second time. My legs feel weak and my heart thunders in my head. I’m breathing hard but make it out of the tree line. I get on the bike and start slowly pedalling up towards the ridge section. Sweat is pouring off me but no worse than on 90 Mile Beach. I keep pedalling but my legs feel like stone and my hands feel weirdly disassociated with my body. My vision goes unfocused and wavy around the edges. I stop and start pushing. I do my mental checklist. Food? Check. Water? Check. Salt? Pretty sure? I have been eating nuts all day surely that is enough.
Now even pushing my vision starts to blur on the edges, my heart isn’t beating unusually fast but it sounds deafening in my ears. I stumble a few times and soon stop by the side of the trail. My hands are clumsy as I pour water over my head to cool down and then start rehydrating and refuelling my body. My legs are shaking and my heart starts to quiet as I lie down.
Best Camp Spot Ever…So Far
After about a litre of water and 30 minutes rest I feel back to normal. Time to tackle the ridge. As predicted it is steep and tough. Dry leaves and dust scatter the trail hiding off-camber tree roots and hidden pot-holes. The ascents are strictly for pushing with my loaded bike, as I haul I see toadstools that look like they belong in Mario Cart, impossibly vibrant red and white, looking high definition against the dusty beige floor. The descents are loose and fun in equal measure, a fall here would be an unpleasant crawl back to the hotel but the momentum is too fun to turn down.
I finish up early, tired but exhilarated by the excitement and challenge of the ridge ride. I crown this camping spot the most beautiful of the trip…so far.
I eat my noodles and watch the colour leach out of the extraordinary landscape. Perched high above the Queen Charlotte Sounds they look like a stunning Rorschach Test. The dark ink blots of the islands splatter over the stainless silver of the sea. The wind rustles through the trees and I hear the quiet footsteps of nearby goats grazing. Nothing but stunning scenery as far as the eye can see. I feel the luckiest person alive to be in this place at this moment. I fall asleep with the tent door open, staring out at the darkening panorama.
The stars build in strength and numbers as the ocean gives in to the darkness, like the passing of the torch. My attention wanders to the heavens and I fall into an exhausted sleep, 1230m of climbing in just 42km has wiped me out for the day.