Bay of Many Coves
The Queen Charlotte Track woke me with an epic view far down below the ocean was still, a perfect mirror image of the silky, grey sky above. Thick clouds hid the sunlight and an eerie flat light swept the coastal panorama. It was definitely the nicest camping spot I had ever found and i had slept well after yesterday. Nestled just in the tree line high above the hidden rocky bays and beaches of the Marlborough Sounds. Deep forest clung to every inch of the towering rocks, huddled for space with some outcast trees hanging precariously over salty cliffs.
I ate my breakfast quickly whilst appreciating the view. Nice as it was it was cold, very cold. I grabbed out my Merino wool gloves and matching t-shirt. The first time I had had to use them so far. Autumn was certainly on the way and I was headed South to greet it en route.
I soon warmed up as the Queen Charlotte Track scraped a jagged scar along the mountain ridge, high above the placid waves. At one-point, Queen Charlotte and Kenepuru Sounds shone grey on either side of the trail as I straddled the mountain that divided the two bodies of water. There colours varied slightly; like half-brothers, related but decidedly different.
The trail was as treacherous as it was scenic. The hard-packed mud was crisscrossed with veins of shallow rooting trees. They grasped at every inch of available earth to withstand the strong winds that must rip through the coast. There tendrils were unbelievably slick with the morning mist. My wheels shot out randomly at even the slightest hint of an off-camber section.
Riding the Ridge
The track bounced long the silhouette of the mountain, riding and falling like a heartbeat. Each corner had to be carefully examined and assessed as I came in fast. The drops off the side were no joke, steep falls with nothing but a tangle of Beech and bush to catch.
I skirt around the saddle at Torea Road and take the Kenepuru Road for a small section re-joining the Queen Charlotte Track at Mistletoe Bay. It’s just too slippy and being on my own I felt more exposed than usual. My reactions and my hands feel equally dull and numbed by the cold.
From the other end of Torea Saddle there is yet more epic downhill all the way to Anakiwa. The trees growing closer and closer as I descend down from the ridge. The temperature rises as I delve into the belly of the forest. The birds get louder and louder until I am surrounded by the full forest chorus. Still the track winds constantly downward and I splash through stream after giddy stream.
Back to Sea Level
Suddenly, the trees begin to disperse again and the dull grey light pierces through as I reach sea level. I slide into Anakiwa covered in mud and smiles. What a ride! What a trail! The air is still cold as I strip off and wash my bike and myself down with a hose at the end of the track. Off the trail I have one ambition and that is to find food! Anakiwa is looking pretty sparse so I push on to Havelock for some of their famous Green Lipped Mussels.
After a long lunch while I recharged all of my electricals I set off down the road and was still feeling strong when I passed Pelorus Bridge Campsite. I carried on as the road trickled through the silent farmland. Then edge of their fields were backed tight against steep forested valley walls. The same geography as the Queen Charlotte but with all the water drained out. The sea bed replaced with quiet, desolate fields. Only the occasional despondent cow turned to watch my passing.
Best Camping Spot Competition
Finding a spot to camp had become a competitive pursuit for me, venturing down little back roads and dead ends to try and find a little oasis, hidden from the outside world. I was searching for my own little slice of temporary heaven, I only needed a patch of soft earth about 2m square and that could fit my tent and my bike just snug. I set aside 45 minutes a day to find a nice camping spot and I rarely picked the first spot I saw, the feeling had to be just right.
The first side track I took looked so promising, an old fire road with a rusted-open gate that backtracked around a clump of trees. It was perfectly hidden from the road and yet with a slight breeze to keep the bugs off. I pulled around the corner and found a lovely little clearing. Putting the bike down I had a little scout about, checking for chances of me being disturbed by early morning famers or forestry workers.
What I found was beyond weird, a massive tower of mussel shells higher than me and two decomposing cow carcasses. Mostly just their skins with some stark white bones. The bones were resting on top of the mountain of shells like the cherry on the icecream. I still don’t understand what and why these things were here but it was really creepy. Plus I had a strong feeling it would be a crawling in mice.
Mice move far too fast in my opinion and cannot be trusted, I am not a fan. I made a quick about turn to try and find an alternative place to camp.
Just around the corner I found my little slice of paradise, an overgrown dirt 4×4 track turned a steep left into a patch of evergreens. Ferns had sprung up waist high in the middle of the two dirt ruts, a good sign that this road had been abandoned for some time. The high trees swayed in rhythm but far below the ferns merely wafted gently. I followed the path around to the water’s edge, a gentle stream that tumbled melodically over the shallow rocks, it was clear as glass and ice-cold refreshing. I washed and drank straight from the river as it bumbled past.
The sun was setting behind one of the surrounding mountains and the sky was ribboned in pink swathes and dark purple splotches. Siting by the river side (bug free) I watched the surreal painting in the sky reflected in the bend in the river. This was a close competitor for best camping spot ever. The birds quietened behind me as the night animals took over the shift and the light faded as I rolled into my tent.
Next morning was just as idyllic as I ate my breakfast, again looking over the river but this time with my jacket and gloves on. The forest was flooded in a chill morning mist, it swirled at head height, wrapping around the tree trunks and leaving pearls of dew hanging from every fern. Shafts of light battled through the trees leaving spotlights and beams dappled over the lush forest floor. It was already looking to be an epic start, my guidebook warned of a big climb ahead as I crossed The Dunn Mountains into Nelson.
Immediately out of my forest hideaway I was climbing first on the road and then quickly the road turned into rough gravel 4×4 track. I just had to follow the silhouettes of the power lines on the mountain ridge separating Marlborough for Tasman. Their metal frames standing watch high above, I was riding up their maintenance track and from the look of the track they seemed pretty self-sufficient. Giant pot-holes scattered the road like relics of mortar fire, the holes big enough to fit my whole bike into.
There were rocks of every size that had tumbled off the steep sides down onto the track, I wound around boulders and skittered on gravel, working twice as hard to gain traction. The track itself was a mass of switch backs steep enough to make a 4×4 or a quad bike the ideal means of travel.
The mountain summit was 700m higher than my breakfast and with just 13km of trail between the two. Winding through thick Beech forest my views expanded behind me as I cleared the valley floor and headed for the alpine. The sky was still grey and cold but the incline had sweat dripping from my hands.
I watched a deer saunter gently over the rocky escarpment above. In contrast, I stumbled and juddered my way through yet another shallow stream crossing. Feet and wheels slipping and sliding on the mossy rocks. The mountain definitely seemed to be winning out over this poor isolated road.
As I reached the summit the sweat on my arms and face chilled and my breath tumbled from my lips like cigar smoke. I was once again riding my bike through some low-lying cloud that crowned the hilltop. As soon as I peered my head down into Nelson I was blasted with an icy gale of rushing wind. I had to battle my way off the summit and sought refuge from the wind behind a tree as I consulted my flapping map.
The traverse across the ridge to join Dunn Mountain proper looked like it would be good fun. But the strong crosswinds and the low visibility had me beaten. I opted for the safer, more direct route and took the steep fire road down into Nelson. This track too was as smorgasbord of geology from jagged rocks to crumbling boulders. I shot down at brakes screeching speed hoping for traction on every corner.
By the time I rolled into Nelson, the sun was shining and I had food on the mind. Something with a lot of calories and probably bread based. I was staying at a friend that night in Motueka so had plenty of time to slow down and digest.
Rabbit Island Sprint
I sauntered out of Nelson late afternoon fully hydrated and bursting with calories. Up the steep hill to the geographic centre of New Zealand before joining the Great Taste Trail. I completely misjudged how far Motueka was from Nelson. I also saw the ferry last ferry from Rabbit island was leaving soon.
Putting all those fresh new calories into action I got my head down and powered through Rabbit Island. Enjoying the race but not taking in much of the beautiful views. I flew along the dirt tracks and arrived just on time to meet the ferry. I think I have developed a phobia of missing ferries!
When I pulled into Motueka it had been a 90km hill-filled day and I was shattered. After an epic three days of steep climbs, incredible vistas, steep singletrack and beautiful remote camping spots. So far South Island was looking pretty damn good!