After finishing our explores in Abel Tasman, we arrived in Picton on the northern tip of the South Island at the beginning of the week, ready to trade our tramping shoes for our next adventure – a 3-day bike trek on the Queen Charlotte Track. The 70K track winds up and down a series of ridges that reach through the beautiful Marlborough Sounds with its stunning turquoise-blue inlets that stretch north and east of the tip of the South Island. The track is another of the nine NZ “Great Walks”, but one that also opens up for bikers in the fall (i.e. March!) after the peak of summer tramping has passed. In retrospect, we probably should have been more cautious about taking on this one – especially considering how many raised eyebrows we got from the locals when we said that we were planning to bike the track. But sometimes, it’s just best not to know (or at least, for Lee not to know…!).
While we were hoping for a continuation of our weather good luck streak, we woke to gray skies and a light rain on day 1 of the trip, prompting a discussion with the bike rental agent about whether it was better to walk the first day, vs. attempting to bike the largely-clay-based (and prone-to-slipping) track. But after catching the water taxi out of Picton to the start of the track, we threw caution to the wind, put on our rain gear, and hopped on the bikes – thinking, how bad could it be…???
We quickly found out just exactly how bad (and realized why everyone else we saw riding the track was at least 15 years younger than us!), but were rewarded with an exhilarating – if somewhat muddy, rocky, and – OK – at times, treacherous, ride. We hadn’t really done much mountain biking before this trip, but am pretty sure we quickly advanced from novice to solid intermediate by sheer necessity, admittedly doing our fair share of pushing the bikes up the steepest and/or rockiest sections.
After five hours of some of the most challenging – and exhilarating! – biking we’ve ever done, and riding through a plethora of mud and mists, we were grateful to arrive at Punga Cove, wet and as muddy as a pair of 12 year olds, but otherwise intact.
We felt like we were miles from nowhere, but were delighted to find our little lodging oasis complete with hot tea, hot tub, and one of the most incredible dinners we’ve enjoyed here yet (complete with white linen table cloths!).
Luckily, day 2 brought clearing weather, which was particularly appreciated as we headed out for 25K of what we had been forewarned would be “the most arduous day” of the ride. We quickly realized that the description was in part defined by long stretches of rocky uphill climbing – much of which involved (for us at least!) more pushing than pedaling. The return of sunshine, however, also brought stunning views of the Marlborough Sounds alternatively to our left and right…
…constantly tempting us to take our eyes off the many challenges on the path ahead, including many sections and twisting turns that bordered on amazingly sheer drops (methinks this was definitely more risky than the skydiving!). Luckily we made it to our next stop in Portage near Torea Bay, and again had a comfortable lodge to wash up and recover for the night.
The third and final day dawned to even brighter skies and more sunshine, though once again started with more steady uphill climbing for the first few hours. Once we finished the ascent, the views along the ridgeline made it worth the pushing, though, and we again faced the challenge of keeping our eyes on the track – prompting lots of stops to enjoy a safer view of the surroundings, including a famous stop at “Eatwells” (no idea where the name comes from) with their iconic signposts to destinations around the world.
We ended the day with a long and rewarding downhill stretch, taking a stop for lunch and a rest on the shore (don’t worry – he’s still alive!)…
… and riding into our final stop in the tiny town of Anakiwa (interestingly, one of the NZ headquarters for Outward Bound expeditions). From there, we caught a water taxi for the short ride back to Picton to rest up for one last night before heading out for the North Island.
During the hour or so that we spent waiting for our return ride, we were fortunate to connect with a lovely couple from Australia with whom we had been leap-frogging along the trail (they walking and us biking). We’ve been continuously amazed during our time here how friendly most folks are, and how easy it’s been to connect with fellow travelers. This time the couple included a family physician who’s been working on improving primary health care in their home of New South Wales (bingo!) who offered to connect me with a primary care leader in the Midlands area of the North Island – right up my alley! (and hopefully more on that later!)
This morning brought more bright skies (now especially appreciated!) as we caught the Interislander Ferry for our 3-hr crossing from Picton to Wellington.
We’re eager to spend our last 12 days exploring the North Island, though definitely also feeling much gratitude and some sadness to be leaving the amazing sights and adventures of the South Island after our incredible four weeks there.