Mountain Biking The Queen Charlotte

February 23, 2014

So way back on the last weekend in November, we did this epic bike ride. At first, Scott really wanted to write the post about it. Then life, work, visitors, holidays, and bikes happened, and he never got around to it. And I’ve been putting off writing about it because it was such an incredible and ridiculous excursion that I don’t really know how to put it into words.

Anyways. Here goes.

The Queen Charlotte is a 71km long walking track in the Marlborough Sounds, located on the northern tip of the south island of NZ. It is a ridiculously popular walking track because of the beautiful tree fern lined views of aquamarine bays and crystal clear water. Because it is so popular, it is closed to mountain bikers from Dec 1 to Feb 28. So we went on November 30.

The track is neither flat nor straight. It requires a water taxi (we used Cougar Lines) to take you and your bike out to Ship Cove, the furthest point out, from which you will ride back towards civilization. The bike taxi drops off your overnight gear to the hostel of your choice. There are many along the way as many people hiking it take 4-5 days.

The sounds are like little wiggly, arthritic fingers extending out into the water, so the path is constantly twisting, diving and gaining elevation as you go. We rode it in two days, 50km (!) the first day, and 21 km the second day. For perspective, here’s the Strava map from our ride:

Day 1, Ship Cove to Portage Bay
Day 2, Portage Bay to Umungata Bay

And for more perspective:

We started way above the green dot, ending at the checkered dot.
So we left for our adventure after work at 5pm on Friday night. After a 5 hour drive, we (sleepily) ended up in Picton and crashed out for a short night’s sleep. Bright and early Saturday we woke up and headed down to the ferry terminal. Unfortunately for us, and the next 12 hours of my life, it was an overcast, windy, soon to be rainy Saturday.
Getting the bikes ready to go on the water taxi.
Ominous view from the boat…
The boat ride was 45 minutes of the choppiest, gnarliest boating I’ve ever experienced. Deep down all of us knew we were in for a hell of a ride, but no one felt the need to point out the obvious.
Before we arrived at Ship Cove, the water taxi stopped at a closer point to drop off and pick up a few hikers (cheaters and quitters). Then we headed out to the furthest drop spot.
Unloading from the bike taxi, in desolation rainforest.
Scott ready to tackle the climb.
Wheelies are the best way to start the day (also look at what the wind is doing to the water!!!)
The 6 of us, oblivious of what is about to happen to us.
I was warned that the track started with a climb. I was also warned that most people walk it, so I was prepared to do just that. Unfortunately, the rest of the crew are fit and furious dudes, so they all took off at a sprint, leaving me in the dust… er, mud.
The climb went forever, and ever, and then when it finally flattened out, you went ’round a bend and it began climbing some more. It felt like forever.
Ok, it was actually only a mile. And on Strava reflection, it was actually only about 800 feet, but damn it sure went straight up and was so muddy. Oh, and by the way, it began to rain.
Forcing a smile at the top of the climb.
So we had finally come to a descent (ok we’d only been at this for an hour). I strapped on my kneepads and enjoyed what I didn’t realize would be the only dry-ish descent of the day. It was slippery and muddy, but enjoyable.
Let me also point out that I had my Garmin on my handlebars for a constant reminder of how far we’d gone. I knew we had 50km to do on day one, and I was a bit worried that after 8k I was super tired, and it was raining.
Then it rained harder.
We had descended all the way back down to sea level (and apparently a beautiful cove, but we couldn’t see a thing in the rain). So we climbed again, 700 feet this time, apparently closer to the meanest, angriest storm cloud around. Massive torrential rain drops started assaulting my face and body. By the time we had gone 15km, I was soaked through. My shoes had miniature oceans inside them, with waves crashing from toe to heel with each pedal stroke. My gloves were saturated, my hair dripping, my jacket completely pointless in water repelling. We won’t even talk about my chamois.
15km down, 35km to go. Things were looking grim.
Andy pretending this is fun.
The guys waiting for me on the bridge. That is water on the bridge.
Soaked. Through.
The trail became a river. Sometimes a creek, sometimes a deluge. In some areas, the water and mud combined to create a swamp trail nearly as deep as my pedals. We descended and climbed, descended and climbed. Around 25km in, I had given up on pretending to have fun. This was also around the time Andy’s bike broke and he had to keep his brake lever attached with a shaved branch. This was when I found my sandwich had gotten practically soaked through with rainwater (and gluten-free bread disintegrates in water…)
Around 30km I had a hysterical laughing fit because the whole thing began to seem so ridiculous. Why were we doing this?
One of the “epic” views I had been so excited to see…
Soaked, muddy, freezing, not entertained. 20km to go.
Around this time my brain gave up. I think it accepted the fact that my body was nuts and it had no power to stop this madness. Every climb that came up (and there were many) no longer felt like a personal insult. I glared at it, pedaled or pushed, and just kept going.
Around the 35km point it stopped raining. It sprinkled lightly for awhile, and then stopped. We took this as a good omen and stopped for a moment to eat the last of our soggy food, to wring out our gloves and take in the stormy view. We also met a mama and baby Weka, a native NZ bird that kind of reminded me of a little brown chicken.
Dirt freckles and the first smile in many hours.
Mama Weka.
This was our last real rest, and the last time I saw the guys (except for Scott). They too had had enough, and I think decided to pedal as fast as possible to the hostel we had booked for the night. After 40km, fast just wasn’t in my vocabulary. But then a miraculous thing happened.
The sun came out.
Scott enjoying a berm on the final descent.
The final descent of day one was approximately 1000 feet of vertical drop. Completely my kind of mountain biking. Unfortunately for me though, I was so damn tired, I could barely hold on. It was all I could do to keep my shaking quads and achy hands going.
After 9 hours straight of riding mountain bikes, we got to Portage Bay and our hostel. Which was on top of another hill. Seriously.
That evening the sun came out and warmed us as we drank beer and ate fish and chips on the deck of a fancy hotel. It was like the whole thing had never happened, and we were just enjoying the end of a summer day.
Acting like it was beautiful the whole time.
Scott and I booked our hostel much later than Andy and the gang. So while their proprietor was washing and drying their cycling clothes, packing them a lunch for the following day, and drying their shoes and helmets for them…. Scott and I found a portable heater and set all of our clothes, shoes, helmets, packs, etc in front of it in an effort to dry it in 10 hours and possibly burn the house down. This was after we used the garden hose to literally spray each other off like wet labradors, which is probably what we smelled like. I have never, ever deserved a shower more than that night. I slept like I was dead.
The next morning was everything that the day before wasn’t. Sunny. Hot. Beautiful. Scott and I had a less than amazing breakfast of oatmeal and peanut butter on toast while the guys gorged themselves on pancakes and bacon and who knows what at the fancy hostel. (Hey, we saved like $200 bucks! That totally would have been worth spending, but whatever.)
View from the superior hostel.
We got a leisurely 10:30am start on day 2. Which, of course, started with a long, steep, gnarly climb. Despite the beautiful weather and stunning views, I wanted to cry. My legs felt completely powerless, my hands were aching, and I was still so sleepy. I was getting no credit for my 50km mud slog the day before! I was expected to just bounce back and do it all again!
1,200 feet (in the first 3km!) of climbing seemed to adjust my attitude however (or beat me back in to submission), and I found myself just surrendering to the numb limbs and beauty of the ride.
I can’t imagine how phenomenal the first day would have been if we had had weather like we did on Sunday. The riding would have been faster without the mud slog, but I would have been stopping every 5 minutes to ooh and aah over the views and take way too many pictures. I’m glad the good weather was on the second day as well, because it ended the trip on a positive note.
Lee and Dave
Anyways, after the initial climb, we climbed 3 more smaller peaks but with a general downward descent. I should also point out that up until this point I actually found the trail quite boring. Wide, with few technical sections or fun downhills. Being a walking track, most of the cool stuff is taken out as it is not that cool to hike. Anyways, half way through day two, we got one really fun descent!
Dunno where I’m going?
We had lunch and sunned ourselves after about 15km. At this point all of the climbs were behind us, and I was promised a fun, flowy, ferny descent to the end. I found myself with the most energy I’d had on the whole trip at this point, which is either because I was so relieved that I was probably going to live, or because I’m tougher than I thought and was ready for more. But probably the first one.
Riding through the ferns.
Never forget to look up.
It wasn’t long, and then we made it. We popped out into the sun, just about 1:30 pm and laid down on the grass. I took off my shoes, socks, gloves, helmet, and pack, and felt warm and dry for the first time in 2 days. And relieved. And thankful that I did it. And happy, because I proved to myself that I was just a little tougher than I thought.
We cruised back to Picton on the water taxi, enjoying the sun and sitting. Sitting down can be a beautiful thing. If you’ve earned it. Which we clearly had.
We also earned these.

You Might Also Like

No Comments

Come on, you must want to tell me something!