A Resounding Ride
Queen Charlotte Track
Our Trail Story
It's nearly Christmas as I motor my way around the tight bends of Queen Charlotte Drive, my next adventure begins in the pretty port of Picton. The road straightens. I get a chance glimpse of Queen Charlotte Sound glistening in the sun, its long channel named by explorer Captain James Cook after the wife of British ruler King George III.
Over the next couple of days I intend to travel from start of Queen Charlotte Track out near Cook Strait, to the upper reaches of the sound; a popular journey for a generation of trampers and now for a new breed of cycle explorers. It’s the last month of the year, the first section of track is closed to summer riders giving hikers a reprieve from riders during the peak season. I actually welcome this restriction, as it forces me into a multi-faceted journey of water taxi, walking and wheeling. So after purchasing a track pass I board a boat that cruises these sheltered waters; stopping only briefly to drop off my bike part way along the track.
The boat docks at Ship Cove, the start of the track and also Captain Cook’s regular refuge. History here is measured deep in fathoms. Once off the jetty I spend some time at the monument to understand this place in history. As I stand on the pebbles of the cove, on the same ground as Cook’s men,
the unmodified view I see is little changed from what Cook’s eyes saw nearly two and a half centuries before.
The waters no longer moor tall ships, but it’s an incredible outpost the famed explorer visited on five occasions spending 100 days here to resupply during his global voyages. He described the place as a ‘very snug cove’, and I feel warm at the thought that this early navigator was once here. There are grand plans to celebrate the anniversary of his first landing 250 years ago in January 2020 – there is some track work taking place near the trailhead to get the site in ship shape in time for guests.
My mind snaps to the present – I have to make my own mark on history.
Time to lift anchor and to plot my course through an ocean of forest; my navigation guided not by compass or stars but by circling satellites above helping me to make the Great Rides App.
My first steps out of Cook’s Cove are upward and I delighted in gaining a better outlook over the snug cove. I continue through the coastal forest to the first saddle, it’s now mid-morning and sweat drips off me in the building summer heat. This section of track is being rerouted to reduce the steep grades, and next time I come back after the celebrations this steep hill should be no sweat.
As I walk, I like how the inlets are named after Cook’s vessels; I climb out of Resolution Bay and drop into the flat track that circles Endeavour Inlet. I enjoy sound of the waves that lap beside my tread and the rickety wooden jetties used to offload gear to holiday homes that are tucked away in the forest. Some walkers may elect to stay at the various lodges I pass; but I seek my bike and tent dropped off by boat on the opposite shore at Camp Cove. After my circumnavigation of the bay I reach my gear and enjoy an icecream at the resort, it’s time to consider my options. While camping at Camp Cove looked idyllic surrounded as it is by forest only a stone’s throw from calm waters, I still have plenty of light and energy left for the day. I continue on.
So I leave the cove and warm up my riding legs, pointing my front tyre up towards the top of the peninsular ridgeline. With effort, I eventually reach the saddle of this steeply serrated sliver of land that divides the Queen Charlotte and Pelorus Sounds. The view up here is impressive, but as I pass Eatwells Lookout I am starting to fade. The journey to capture data for the app has been a demanding series of multi-day rides recently; and the regular hill climbs on the track with a heavily laden bike is taking its toll.
After a refreshing descent I am faced with an impossible looking slope – in my poor state the hill looks more suited for funicular transport than riding up under my own power. I am beat. Reluctantly and slowly I push on up. If there was a low point of my ‘Great Year’ cycling all the 22 New Zealand Great Rides then this is it. Right here. But my dark thoughts don’t linger long as I crest the hill and arrive at the Bay of Many Coves campsite. Sweet relief!
I am greeted at the campsite shelter by a fresh looking German couple who are walking the entire country on Te Araroa. I’d like to stand and talk but I am shattered with tiredness. There is no hiding my fatigue as I lean against my bike, and I am generously offer a cuppa. As I drink I am quickly rehydrated and energised and soon we are in deep discussion. Having headed south from Cape Reinga two months ago these hikers are roughly half way through their expedition … and are they loving it! They tell me the route gives them a perfect way to explore the countryside and mountain terrain; often places most kiwis never visit.
Like Cook, these folks are on a journey of discovery of our southern land.
I wish them well in the fading light, pitch my tent and bunk down.
Up with birdsong, I am renewed. A colourful sunrise beams shafts of light across the valleys to spotlight the many coves below. Feeling refreshed and in a better state of mind I eat, pack up camp, log a waypoint and ride off towards the highest point along the track. The trail is really starting to open up now and I am rewarded with views down to both sounds from the ridge. I love the way the aspect of this track changes, flipping each side of the ridge and altering the way I see light on the landscape and the many arms of the waterways.
Just when the heat of the day peaks, the track dives into shadows of the cool forest that cloaks the hillside like a textured green fabric providing me with cover. Then the towering heights of the ridge relents, my wheels pick up pace in a grand descent; it seems like the ridgeline is taking me for a ride, its backbone swiftly scooping down to take a sip from the saline waters. The rush of air past my helmet ceases as I reach Torea Saddle barely 100 metres above the tiny coastal settlement of Portage.
As a cartographer I love the name Portage - a place with meaning. The toponym is derived from a time when Maori carried canoes over the narrow saddle between the two sounds, thus avoiding 100 kilometres of paddling. The saddle also has two war memorials remembering the 29 soldiers who did not return from the world wars. For a small community, the fall of this number of men must have been tough, no more so than for the grieving parents of the three Taylor brothers who never returned home.
I take short detour down to Portage, and rest at Cowshed Bay camping area to dip my feet in the water and to have a late lunch. Restored, I ride back to the saddle and continue in a south-west direction past Te Mahia saddle and down on an easier trail towards Anakiwa. Before you know it I reach Davies Bay campsite, which looks like one of the best on the track with its grassed lawns growing right down to the water’s edge. It looked like a perfect place for a dip. I grant myself another spell at this peaceful camp, the ebb of the tide like the receding amount of trail left before I return to civilisation. I could have quite easily pitched my tent here and spent a day or two in recovery, a perfect place to relax and unwind from any of life’s pursuits. My boat pickup awaits so I keep cycling.
The last couple of kilometres are a joy to ride and offer little glimpses of the upper Grove Arm and the settlement of Anakiwa – my journey’s end. I reach the cluster of homes and find shelter under a large tree to await the water taxi back to Picton. I save the GPS track data that records the 70 kilometres of joy and toil and celebrate with a cool drink from the nearby shop.
While sitting, sipping and talking to a local I discover where my journey finishes another trail begins. Had I known earlier that I could cycle back to Picton via the new Link Pathway I would have continued. The new purpose-built path is nearly finished and links the various settlements in the area; the Trail Trust hopes to complete the missing links before the Cook anniversary celebrations commence. I will need to return to ride this new coastal trail that terminates at the twin ports of Picton and Havelock.
The skipper departs my port of call and motor across the arm to complete the circuit. The sea spray keeps me awake and my weary mind wanders as my eyes follow the green slopes searching for the faint lines of the track I had pedaled hours earlier. I had enjoyed the ride, the people and the Marlborough Sounds by both boat, boot and bike. Despite my desire to camp, I passed a good range of accommodation along the way. Some people I met were shuttling their gear between lodges to reduce the burden of lugging it, while others I talked to opted for shorter day trips.
I had found that this track explores heritage that is tucked away into the snug coves, it’s both a ride on ridges and a coastal cycle providing options for both comfort and challenge. For me, the Queen Charlotte Track is a resounding ride, a trail that snakes between the sounds offering a journey of discovery of water, land, history and oneself. Like the legendary navigator who repeatedly returned to the Sounds, I too will plot my way back next time via the Great Rides App!