Sunday, April 7, 2013

An Easter Adventure on the Queen Charlotte Track

I have this theory that the best adventures are the ones where you can't buy your way out of trouble. It encourages you (with rather compelling consequences) to think laterally, work hard, and rely on the good nature of other people. When I explained to people what Sasha and I had planned for our four day Easter long weekend, I gave the general impression that we were being purists, when, in actual fact, we were probably more realistically just being tight-arses. I love going on adventures with Sasha Smith. She's an amazing rider and just an all-round positive, fun chick to hang out with.
Most people who ride the Queen Charlotte Track shuttle by water taxi to the start point at Ship Cove, then have their gear dropped off at various prearranged points along the track so they can ride the track over a few days without the burden of a load. I've always been a big advocate of the school of thought that the fitter you are, and the better rider you are, the more fun riding becomes. Being a fit, nutty mountain biker opens the door to a myriad of crazy adventures that most people would never even consider undertaking. So I arrived at Sasha's house in Palmerston North quite late on Thursday night. Our plan was to drive to Wellington early the next morning, park somewhere where we didn't have to pay for parking, ride our fully loaded bikes to the ferry terminal, catch the ferry to Picton and then ride all the way to Ship Cove from Picton and back (with a few side trips) fully loaded and fully self-sufficient, camping along the way (with the tents we were carrying for ourselves).

Our trip to Wellington early the next morning saw us score a very lucky parking spot right near the ferry terminal under the motorway. We double and triple checked for signs and resigned ourselves to the fact that when we returned, it was very possible my van may have been towed, or stolen (hopefully the latter... They would have been doing me a favor!). After only three hours sleep the night before, we both spent the ferry trip dozing in and out of consciousness before moving to the top of the ferry to check out the scenery as we arrived in Queen Charlotte Sounds.
Compared with our recent run of good weather, the forecast wasn't looking too flash. It wasn't looking bad, either, but there was rain on it's way and we were hoping not too much of it! As we neared Picton, a freezing cold wind nipped at us on the deck before abating as we pulled into port. I couldn't wait to get on the bike. I was quite tired and just wanted to get moving and shake the sleep out of my body. After picking up our track pass at the local iSite (you DO NOT want to get caught on the track without this if you don't want to be trespassed!), we were finally moving through Picton towards the start point of the Queen Charlotte Track at Anakiwa along 25km of roads. It's funny when you first get on a fully loaded bike at the start of a trip (and considering we were self-sufficient and camping, we traveled pretty light!) and you start riding and think to yourself "Oh my god... What have I got myself in for? How am I meant to haul this thing 220km???", then by the end of the trip, you are climbing everything like a mountain goat on steroids. As we made our way along that first section of road, we had to get used to the odd centre of gravity on our bikes (getting up out of the saddle was a no-go to start with!) and the extra weight on our sit bones from our backpacks. We reassured ourselves that as we ate and drank through our rations for the week, we would get noticeably lighter, but I really think we were just clutching at straws.
I had opted for my newly-assembled Yeti ARC hardtail as my weapon of choice for the weekend. Hardtail bikes are stiffer and generally lend themselves to carrying a load more efficiently than a full suspension bike. Asides from a minor hiccup which meant I needed to do some creative cable re-routing to put my rack on the back (thanks to the crew at Bike Culture for obliging at such short notice!), it performed brilliantly. It was my first sizable outing on this little beast and I was surprised by how nimble it was for a hardtail. The bike itself was super super light, even though I had just chucked some second-hand gear on it and it performed really well under the load I had on it, too. Our set-ups were pretty basic... Freeload racks with drybags strapped on top and a backpack... But it was all we needed, realistically.
The beginning of the Queen Charlotte Track is like stepping through the wardrobe into Narnia. The road ends and you wander into a native bush wilderness of lovely, flowing trails bordered by bluffs that drop perilously into the ocean. Every corner we turned, I wanted to take a photo (much to the annoyance of my accomplice!)... It was stunning. Our first day was a bit shorter, given that we only arrived in Picton at midday, but we had enough time to make our way a good 25km into the Queen Charlotte wilderness, a total of 50km for the day, which may not sound substantial, but isn't a bad day out when you are fully loaded off-road. The first section of track between Anakiwa and TeMahia Saddle is actually quite well-groomed and the terrain is fairly easy. There was also quite a lot of pedestrian traffic along this section of trail. But as we made our way beyond that, we were greeted by some heinous pitches of climbing, followed by some pleasantly surprising technical, gnarly descents.
I remember climbing the section out of TeMahia saddle, and grovelling my way up a climb in my easiest gear, out of the saddle... We passed a group of walkers coming back down and one of them said, "I'd love to tell you it's not much further to the top, but I'd be lying... You're only about half way". I appreciated her honesty, but felt that a little white lie on such an occasion would have been far more appropriate for the morale of two sweaty riders struggling their way up what could only be described as a near-vertical trail with fully-loaded bikes. The steepness then taunted us by adding switchbacks and technical rocky sections. We would become accustomed to this sort of climbing over the next few days. I remember thinking at the time that this must be the reason the recommended direction of travel along the track is in the opposite direction. I then changed my mind when we descended the other side, which was just as gnarly.
Descending the technical terrain with our drybags bouncing around on the back took a bit of getting used to, but, in actual fact, the weight on the back made it easier to gain climbing traction, so we could actually get up out of the saddle and drive all our weight forward onto the front wheel whilst the drybag on the back put weight on the back wheel to stop it from slipping. I wouldn't go so far as to say the load made riding in general easier, though!
Our original intention was to stop at Cowshed Bay for the first evening, but upon arriving, we discovered the campground to be quite full and decided that we would carry on another 7km up hill to Black Rock Shelter. Black Rock sits high on a ridge with stunning views either side of the sounds. There is no vehicular or boat access, so we expected that there would likely not be a lot of people camping up there. We arrived to find we had the site to ourselves, with a cool little cooking shelter that overlooked Queen Charlotte Sounds all the way back to Picton. We set up a clothes line and cooked our modest dinner of Moroccan rice with dehydrated veges while we watched the spectacular sunset. It was such a perfect end to the day. One lone tramper arrived just on dusk and set up camp next to us whilst a couple of cheeky Wekas poked around waiting for us to leave our prized possessions unattended for them to thieve.
I never sleep well when I camp. It's not that I'm uncomfortable, or scared or not tired... I think it's just the overload of sensations that hover around me all evening... Listening to the wind, the rain, the bird life... Seeing the moonlight bathing the tent and beckoning me back outside... It really is quite a neat experience to just sit within your element and experience all those cool things that you miss out on when you are curled up inside a house. Often I will doze off to sleep, then wake up and lie listening to the wind or rain, then doze off again. Our first day had been a tiring one, but relatively uneventful until probably about 2am, when I heard Sasha unzip her tent and yell out "POSSUM!". I had been very aware of something stalking around outside the tent, but I knew everything was (supposedly) secured in my backpack and drybag zipped up under the vestibule of my tent. This crafty little bugger had snuck under the vestibule and opened the zip on my backpack to steal our bagels!!! The nerve of him! It was nice to not have to carry them anymore, but it did mean we were one lunch short for our trip... I guess we would deal with that on day four... From that night onwards, I stored all my gear inside the tent while I slept.
I could have sworn I heard it raining during the night. There was also quite a bit of wind... But when we got up in the morning, everything was bone dry to pack away and get moving (I'm not sure if I had being completely mistaken about it raining or if the wind had just dried everything off before we woke up!). It stayed dark quite late in the morning, so by the time we got up, fed ourselves and packed everything back onto the bikes, it was probably about 9am. The weather was still holding out for us, but that would change in the afternoon. We had a big day planned for this second day, where we would move off the QC Track and do a couple of side trips. We continued to climb out of Black Rock Campsite and then eventually descended over another ridge into the Bay of Many Coves Campsite. This was an equally spectacular spot (if not slightly moreso) than Black Rock, with a camping platform that looked directly out over the Sounds. When I do this trip again, I will definitely be looking to spend a night in this stunning little posse.
As we made our way along the track, we found "world distance" signposts hand painted and dotted along the side of the track, which was all kinds of awesome. We traversed the ridgeline along the top of the Queen Charlotte Sounds, swinging from one side of the ridge to the other, treated to stunning views in both directions to the south into Queen Charlotte Sounds and to the north into Kenepuru Sound. Just before our descent into Keneperu Saddle, we were privy to what I believe is one of the best viewing platforms I have ever seen. The coolest thing was that this spot was on private land. To ride the Queen Charlotte Track, you have to buy a track pass. These funds, I am assuming, go to the land owners and towards track maintenance, so it is super important that don't flaunt this rule when you choose to do this ride (and you really do need to do this ride!). The cool thing was that the land owners on this part of the track had gone out of their way to make it something really special. They had hand-painted info signs up in places, memorial chairs and even one sign as you entered their property welcoming you onto their land and wishing you an enjoyable experience. It was a really neat vibe.
The descent into Kenepuru Saddle was great fun. It often worries me when I am on a dual use track the possibility of colliding with trampers, but I found in general that the sight lines were pretty good and that most trail users stayed alert and were polite. At the saddle, we moved off the track and headed up the gravel road towards Titirangi, which was a constant climb. As we climbed higher, we became shrouded in cloud and it started raining. The highest point we climbed to was about 800m, which was relatively substantial considering our highest point on the QC track was about 400m. The views disappeared and we put our jackets on to keep warm. We didn't talk much during that climb... I'm not sure if that was because we were keeping each other honest or if it was because the weather had rolled over our spirits temporarily. We reached the entrance to the Antimony Mine track, which we would later descend to rejoin the QC Track, but to start with we rode past towards the road end at Titirangi. As we descended towards Titirangi, the views would reappear and disappear as the clouds washed over us with the wind. A clear day would have been lovely, but this was quite spectacular, and it was bizarre looking down on the more desirable weather the sounds were enjoying below us.
We reached the junction which looked down upon Titirangi and stopped for lunch. Our standard fare for the weekend's lunches was nutella smeared on a piece of flatbread with a combination of muesli bars, one square meals and jet planes or jelly beans to keep us going during the day. The clouds parted for us to enjoy the view while we ate and studied our maps. The road into Titirangi was a 500m descent on a steep gravel road, which we would then have to climb up again... We had looked at this road on the map earlier in the day when we were planning our route and had payed particular attention to the way it wound it's way down contour lines so close they nearly mashed into one. We decided not to descend into the bay... Not because we were soft (because we are definitely hard women!) but because there just wasn't much there for us to explore or check out, especially considering everything appeared to be on private land, so we couldn't really explore tracks off the main road. It blew me away just how much of the coastal land around the sounds is privately owned. On the one hand, I guess if the landowners develop the land in a way that gives people the opportunity to experience it's beauty, that's awesome, but it's a bit sad that such stunning parts of the coast are off-limits to explore for the general public.
We climbed our way back up to Antimony Mine Track and dropped into the trail. Looking at this track on a topo map really didn't do it justice... It was steep... And the showers we had received that morning had turned the shale and bedrock surface into a precariously slippery descent. To be honest, that trail, in that condition was probably right at my comfort limit with an unloaded bike. But fully loaded, I found myself sliding down the trail with very little grace or skill, holding on for dear life as I spent all my energy correcting and overcorrecting the movement of the bike and the load underneath me. On a number of occasions, I saw the rear wheel appear in the corner of my eye as it began to overtake the front wheel. To be honest, it scared the crap out of me, and I loved it. You know that a trail is truly gnarly when the likes of Sasha Smith tells you that she found it a challenge. I found this to be some sort of consolation. To make things more difficult, as we descended, we would get momentarily distracted by stunning glimpses of the ocean that appeared over the tops of the trees. I ungracefully dismounted over the bars once and had some other close calls, but made it down in one piece. I think that was the best piece of trail we descended the whole weekend!
We rejoined the QC track at Endeavour Inlet, where the weather was stunning once again. The spirit of local landowners was alive and well again at Miners Camp, where the owners of the camp had a little "treat stand" and an honesty box set up on the track side... We would make good use of this on our way back through the next day! Our planned stop for the evening was Schoolhouse Bay, another DOC campsite with no vehicular access. We also had tentative plans to unload our gear and ride over to Ship Cove that evening, but it depended on what time we got there and how much daylight we had left.
I thoroughly enjoyed the section of track that climbed out of Endeavour Inlet. We rode through quaint little bays where there were houses that overlooked the track (how awesome would that be to live there??!!). It was rooty, rocky, technical riding that required a degree of uphill technical prowess. It was super hard work and quite slow going, but highly entertaining and challenging... So you can imagine how gutted I felt when we were just about to reach the high point of the climb and we came across a digger working it's way back from schoolhouse bay smoothing and grooming the track... Now, don't get me wrong... Diggers are cool, and we were both like spoilt schoolchildren climbing into the cabin of the digger to pose for photos... But I couldn't help but think it was an absolute crying shame to be removing all the fun, technical bits from the trail.
Sasha didn't entirely share my sentiment. She pointed out that the ride was still fun for more experienced riders, and made the trail more accessible for less experienced riders, therefore encouraging more people to ride the track and buy bikes and support our industry... This is also true... But to be fair, there are more appropriate places for people to discover their love of biking than on a 71km multi-day wilderness ride... Furthermore, a ride that is, by nature, quite a challenging ride. Do we want to make these sorts of rides accessible to people who may not have the skills or knowledge to look after themselves over this sort of distance, on this sort of terrain? My thoughts are that this is the sort of ride people should be able to aspire to do as they gain their mountain biking legs, get fit and develop their technical skills. I also think it defeats the purpose of biking through such a stunning natural wilderness if you are going to take a digger through there and damage the natural environment that sits within it... It just seems so backwards. There is then also the issue of dual-use track safety... Making a trail so well-groomed lends itself to being ridden quite fast, which increases the possibility of accidents. I can imagine the "upgrade" would also make the track less interesting for trampers, as well. It made me so sad to think that the next time I ride through here, that lovely, challenging, technical terrain will be gone and the rugged, natural beauty of the Queen Charlotte track would have been replaced with a well-groomed highway. That's just my thoughts on the topic, anyway. Many may not agree with me!
Schoolhouse bay sits on the other side of Ship Cove (where most people start the QC Track) and we rolled in about 5pm and unloaded our gear to set up for the evening. We toyed with the idea f doing our unloaded trip over to Ship Cove that evening, but I wasn't too keen on setting up camp and cooking in the dark when we could just knock it out in the morning. To be honest, I hadn't even considered the possibility that it may be raining the next day. So we set up camp and cooked up another packet meal. The campsite had it's toilet positioned in prime real-estate, overlooking the bay... I daresay that this particular campground toilet was the only crapper in the whole of NZ with such a fantastic view. We took the liberty of using the campground signage to hang our smelly biking gear all over. Traveling light pretty much means one set of kit, and whilst my merino jersey was still doing a pretty good job of passing the whiff test, there were other parts of my kit that weren't faring so well, including my Camelbak, which I could smell whilst I was wearing it on my back!
We had, once again, chosen this campsite with the hopes that we would get some peace an dquiet for the evening. Our hopes seemed to be dashed when we arrived to find a party of about 30 people on the beach who had moored their boats in the bay. To our relief, we discovered that they were not camping there and were returning to their boats to turn in for the evening... They were a rowdy bunch, and I think one of the funniest things I saw on our trip was the look on their faces when two grubby bikers came to a skidding halt right in front of them as we bombed down the hill onto the beach on our fully-loaded bikes. We must have looked a bit of a sight, and we made a pretty impressionable entrance.
With a belly full of food, I was actually feeling a bit like I wouldn't mind a beer... "Fat chance of that" I thought, then the realisation hit me that there was likely quite a substantial amount of beer consumption occurring down on the beach at that point in time. "Hey, do you want a beer?", I said to Sasha. She seemed pretty confused by the question. Before we knew it, I was down on the beach turning on the charm for the party and telling them how we had ridden our bikes all the way from Picton and really felt like a beer and did they have a couple they could spare. I wandered back to camp a couple of minutes later with two beers in hand and we had a toast to a good couple of days of riding. The beers were only Tui, but they tasted like the best beer I had ever had after a day of riding (YEAH RIGHT!). Even better was they were in cans, so we could crush them to pack them out with our rubbish... I didn't have to carry bottles around on my backpack looking like a right bogan. The sunset that evening was spectacular, once again, and we crawled into our tents for a good night's rest.
We woke up the next morning to two small challenges. Firstly, it appeared we had left our skim milk powder outside overnight and it had been stolen by a greedy Weka (this was the only conclusion that seemed to make sense, anyway), so we ate our muesli mixed with water (not particularly delicious!). There were cheeky little Wekas hanging around at every campsite we went to. And whilst they are very very cute, they are also quite mischievous little fellas. The second challenge was that it was pouring with rain. We kept putting off our departure hoping it would ease off or clear, but every time it did, it just came back. We crawled out of our tents and left them erected with our gear inside and set off to do the trip to Ship Cove and back unloaded. It was weird riding unloaded, and the tire pressure was all wrong for my puny weight on the bike by itself. I couldn't be bothered changing it because we only had a hand pump, so the bike bounced around underneath me while I struggled to gain traction. The climb up was steep, but the descent down the other side was so hairy that walking sections was more hazardous than riding them, especially in the wet. We made it to Ship Cove, which was stunning, and even moreso in full storm. The grey sky that descended down to meet the horizon coupled with an eerie wind to highlight the craggy cliff-like borders around the bay. When we turned around and looked back landwards, the dark sky fell in stark contrast on top of the vibrant green forest. The wind threatened to blow anything loose off the wharf (including me!). We checked out the cove and then decided to head back over to Schoolhouse Bay, pack up our gear and get moving. As we went to head back up the track, Sasha said "oh my God, did we seriously come down there??". We were faced with a hideously steep, rocky climb, which had now turned itself into a makeshift waterfall with the rain. I was now kicking myself that we didn't do our Ship Cove mission the evening before. It also crossed our minds that for most riders, who took a water taxi to this end, this was the first part of the track they would attempt to ride! How cruel!!!

We half walked, half rode back up to the top, then descended back into Schoolhouse Bay, brakes squealing, completely soaked and covered in mud. I was cold, too. I prayed that the weather would clear and dry us out sometime soon. Back at camp, everything was wet. We packed up our soggy tents as best we could and set off after fixing an unfortunate flat on Sasha's front wheel. It was pretty miserable, and my legs felt a bit stiff and used but loosened up once we got moving. As we made our way along the track, the viewpoints from the day before were completely clouded over. In a sense, it was kinda cool to see the track we had already ridden and it's surroundings in different conditions. We passed the lifeless diggers and descended the gnarly, rooty goodness we had climbed the previous day. By the time we reached Endeavour Inlet, the weather had cleared, but we still looked like we had emerged from the swamp... Every person that walked past us gave us exactly the same look, as if to say "what the hell HAVE you been doing???". There was definitely noone out there who had set out in the same weather as we had that morning.
The Miners Camp stall provided some good nutrition for us in the form of ginger beer, apples and muesli bars in exchange for some loose change. We then set out along the section of track between Endeavour Inlet and Kenepuru Saddle which we hadn't ridden on our way out. The sun had come out and had begun drying our clothes and warming us up, which buoyed our spirits, but the rain and the cold is always quite draining. We had originally intended to camp at Cowshed Bay that evening, but instead decided to do a hard push to make it to Te Mahia Saddle. Mistletoe Bay campsite is a private campsite, and we were making the desperate assumption that they would have, in the very least, showers... Maybe even laundry with a dryer.
It ended up being our biggest day yet, as we made our way back along the track, climbing bits we had previously descended and descending things we had previously climbed. The weather remained amicable for the rest of the day asides from a short period of rain between Bay of Many Coves and Black Rock campsites, where we found ourselves wet and muddy all over again. I didn't take too many photos that day (which probably helped us to keep moving), mainly because the weather made it inconvenient to get the camera out, but also because the battery was running low... I was hoping for a powerpoint at our next campsite, as much as it kind of removed the point of traveling self-sufficient and roughing it.

As we pulled into Torea Bay (Cowshed Bay campsite), we knew we had about 10km to go, but we were fully aware it was going to be hard terrain. I remembered descending this track thinking it was quite steep to descend, let alone to climb, and moreso when it was wet underfoot. I was hoping it wasn't going to be as bad as I remembered, but it was... It was heinous... I climbed as much on the bike as I could because once I got off to walk, I would struggle to get purchase for my carbon-soled shoes on the slippery, clay-based mud on the steep trail. I found myself kicking small steps into sections of trail with the studs on the front of my shoes just so I could make progress up the trail. We regained our composure at the top of the trail and then prepared ourselves for an awesome descent. The descent was as slippery as the climb, and I came to grief once, probably largely because I wasn't concentrating properly. I remember how overjoyed I was as we popped out onto Te Mahia saddle and cruised down the gravel road to Mistletoe Bay.
As we made our way towards the camp, a lady driving up the road (obviously the camp owner) stopped us and told us to just pick a spot and pay in the morning. She was lovely. I could nearly see the pity in her eyes as she looked us up and down, caked in mud that had dried onto our weary bodies and our clothes... "There are hot showers" (my face must have lit up like a Christmas tree at this point) "They use $2 coins... You do have coins, right?"... She looked at us pleadingly, as if to say "please tell me you have coins!!!". We did, and we set off down the road, looking forward to a hot shower and a feed.
The campsite was stunning, and had been set up as an eco-friendly village. There was also laundry and a drying room, and a huge kitchen with couches to chill on... It was totally worth the big day in the saddle. I can only imagine how miserable our night (and the next day) may have been had we just stopped in at another basic campsite. We unrolled our wet tents to set them up. I was quite lucky... I must have somehow rolled the fly in on top of itself so the tent inner wasn't too wet, but Sasha's tent was quite soggy. I hit the showers, rinsed my clothes and put them in the drying room, then prepped myself a feed. I was also quite lucky to find a couple of powerpoints in the kitchen. It was lovely to chat with some awesome people at camp. I always find it so refreshing to be surrounded by people who truly love the outdoors and can share cool stories of their own adventures. The long day also meant that we only had 40km to ride back to Picton the following day, and most of it on relatively easy terrain.

The next day, we had a fairly leisurely morning packing up and having breakfast before setting off up the hill and back onto the track, heading back towards Picton. On our way through Anakiwa on the way in, we had noticed an ice cream shop at the trail head... We were dreaming of smashing back an ice cream as soon as we got back to civilisation, but it just wasn't to be... We got there and it was closed! We headed back along the road, me appreciating the stunning array of different mail boxes that the locals had built (they were actually pretty cool!). We stopped off for an ice cream on the way and then made it back into Picton about 1pm. With 5 hours to go until our ferry sailing, we decided to add some distance by going for a little pedal to Waikawa Bay before returning via some cool trails for a good feed (I had started to get hangry by that time). A burger and a huge ice cream sundae later, we headed to the ferry terminal for the trip back.
My planning had been slightly amiss when I decided on the 6.30pm ferry sailing. My main concern had been making sure we got as much time on the trail as possible. What I hadn't considered was that we would get back to Wellington about 10pm, then drop Sasha back in Palmerston North about midnight, then drive back to Rotorua (the van was still where I left it, and I was actually nearly surprised it hadn't been broken into!). I never drink coffee, but my midnight mocha kept me going long enough to arrive home safely at 4am, with work that morning at 8.30am... I was a wreck, but it was totally worth it!!! What a cool weekend! And with such awesome company!
I'll definitely be riding this track again. If you haven't done it, you need to make sure it's on your bucket list. I'd be really keen to come back with no load and catch a water taxi to the start and smash it out in a day as a ride, as opposed to a trip. It's really just a different experience. I love the freedom of doing a bike trip fully loaded and fully self-sufficient. It's an adventure, and presents it's own special set of challenges and benefits. I'd love to experience the track in a different light next time... Every time I do a trip like this, I get hooked all over again... I really need to do this more often!


  1. Wow! Looks like good times! I had a few friends do something similiar over spring break. Now, I wished I had joined them.