Blog: Queen Charlotte Track and a painful dilemma

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New Zealand South Island Queen Charlotte Track

Wellington, Picton, Ships Cove, Picton, Havelock, Nelson – 201km (Total 7137km cycled)

Highlights: Ferry, warmshowers, mountain biking the Queen Charlotte Track, bays, stunning views, broken hands.

Day 321-324 – November 21-24 : Ferry to the South Island

Queen Charlotte Track

After two days rest up north we took the bus to Wellington, we had heard from other cycle tourers that the last bit into the capital wasn’t the most enjoyable to ride. It was also clear that I needed more time of the bike. So I time in Wellington was spend going around bicycle shops figuring out options for me. This wasn’t too bad since we are not so keen on walking around a big town looking at churches, queuing at museums and window shopping.

ferry from north to south island new zealandThe ferry from Wellington to Picton we had booked departed at 8:15am, which meant a 5am wake-up call to give time to pack up and ride to the ferry terminal for a wonderful check-in time of 7:30am. We found a cycle lane that ran between the highway into Wellington and the train line. We didn’t see that as we’d cycled out to the campsite, it could have made a more enjoyable ride for sure.

We had great weather and Peli even commented that she is getting better at sailing. She hasn’t been seasick on our last few crossings. (Though my idea of getting a boat and sailing the seven seas got shot down before I finished the sentence…)

When sailing into the fjords and sounds of the South Island as you cruise into Picton harbour, you get spoiled with some beautiful sights.

We disembarked and cycled the long 1.5km to our warmshowers hosts to a great welcome and tea.

Next job was to try to fettle the difficulties I have been experiencing with my painful hands. We ordered butterfly handlebars from the bicycle shop in Christchurch to be send to our hosts in Picton in a few days. While we waited for our delivery we decided to give cycling the Queen Charlotte Track a go, which runs from Ship Cove, where Capt Cook had his base while exploring the South Island and fixed the his ship the Endeavour, to nearly all the way back to Picton.

Day 325 – November 25 : Queen Charlotte Track

boat to Ship CoveWe took a small water taxi come mail boat out to Ship Cove. This service ships out hikers/trampers to the track, guests to the various B&Bs along the way and also delivers the mail to the locals who live in the many remote bays, only accessible by boat or a long walk.

It was amazing to see the track from the sea. We disembarked at Ship Cove which is a stunning piece of nowhere, looked at the statue and read about the history of this place. While snacking up before setting off Peli got stung on her inside lower arm by a bumble bee. Her response was something along the lines of: “BEEP! That BEEPING hurt! BEEP, ouch, BEEP off BEEPING BEEPING thing!” I censored a little here just to keep the wonderful Peli ladylike, but you get the gist. You should have seen how big the bite area on her arm grew over the next few days – a full-on reaction to the sting. And Sod’s Law dictated that antihistamine was the one medication lacking in our huge mountain leader first aid kit.

Ship cove with bicycleWe first heard about this track in Wellington and the brochures described it as suitable for any level of hikers/trampers and easily rideable on a mountain bike. The more we heard about it, the more we were sure that it would be doable on fully-loaded touring bikes, though we’d been warned that the first climb out of Ship Cove was very steep.

One thing we have learnt in New Zealand is that people in general have a different level of abilities. For example, when a walk is described as easy you might find that it’s actually more like ‘intermediate’. They do love their outdoors activities down here so they have grown up with it much more than people from elsewhere. There were some parts of the Queen Charlotte Track that I know a few people who be hard pushed to complete because of the surface, so I wouldn’t call it a track that ‘hikers at any level’ could do.

peli pushing at ship cove on the Queen Charlotte TrackWe set off from Ship Cove with Peli’s bitten arm inflating by the minute. The first 200m climb was directly up a very steep, very rough track with roots and large loose stones. Peli did question whose idea this was a couple of times as we swore, sweated and dragged our bikes up the hill. (Honestly, I’m very sure that the whole thing was actually Peli’s idea.)

We just needed a French tandem, a Swiss family, a Portuguese chap and heavy rain and we would be back doing the O’Higgins crossing between Chile and Argentina.

And now a word from our sponsors! Find yourself on a steep, rough track with a heavy touring bike, struggling to make progress? Look no further! Call upon your fully-automated Peli’o’matic! The Peli’o’matic will turn your two-wheel drive bicycle into a four-wheel drive off-road vehicle, in a flash! All you need to say is: “I need a bit of a hand please, love”. And up you go with Peli pushing, no matter how steep or rough the terrain.

Queen Charlotte Track viewsI was joking that she was my personal pusher.

Even the downhills were rather hard to cycle, very steep, rocky and plenty of tree roots on the track, so we ended up pushing a fair bit.

At every bend, hill top and clearing we were treated to what Peli called glorious views over the various coves, bays and islands. It’s a truly magnificent bit of the world here. We were told that in one bay there were around 80 houses but you would be hard pushed to spot ten hidden in the dense forest. It was beautiful, remote and wild – just our cup of tea. And we easily forgot the sweat and swearing.

We even managed to overtake two hiking couples who were on the boat with us out to Ship Cove, this made us feel better.

We arrived in Endeavour Inlet rather spent and tired and still had 11km to the DoC campground at Camp Bay. We tried to push on but a kilometre down the track we came upon the Madsen Camp. It was already past six pm and given the state of the track it was doubtful we’d make it before dark. So we pitched up on one of the terraces overlooking the inlet and learnt that the owner, Tony Madsen, had Danish ancestry – his grandfather came over from Denmark a few moons ago. The campsite was lovely and had the poshest and cleanest long drop loo we’ve ever seen!

woolly enjoying the viewDay 326 – November 26 : Back on the road

The next morning we were well and truly beat after putting our bodies through the mill. We ached in areas we didn’t know could hurt. The main reason for the slow start, however, was the fantastic view from our little terrace at Madsen Camp. It must be tough to live in such a place. How does one bear such a view every morning?

peli on queen charlotte trackThe next 10km was on an easy surface compared to yesterday and we made good time. Enjoying the view isn’t like normal cycle touring on roads, where you can just look around and take it all in. Here you really had to be on the ball as you were flying down the single track, over rocks and stones, you couldn’t just turn your head and exclaim at the beauty of it all, as you’d fly off the track and exclaim in an entirely different manner. So we had many stops to take in the views.

As we filtered some water at the Camp Bay DoC Campground we found a brochure we’d not seen before. Let’s just say that if I’d read this one at the start, we wouldn’t be tackling the track fully-loaded! It was clear that yesterday’s first section was an ‘advanced’ mountain biking track and the last 10km was at the easier grade of ‘intermediate’. And it also warned us that if you are not a skilled mountain biker it would be advised to either walk the next section or take the road.

queen charlotte track new zealandSo we pushed up the next steep, hot 200m climb, this time a little easier since we could do it without help from each other, though with many stops to put our lungs into their rightful places. And then we rolled down on the other side to take the gravel road. It felt a bit like giving up at first, but we both knew that we didn’t have enough food or energy to make it to the next camp along along the track and it would also make it into a four day trek if we did.

We arrived at Cowshed campsite, a DoC just outside Portage, cooked up and crawled into bed rather tired.

riding queen charlotte trackDay 327 – November 27 : School trip

Our alarm clock went off at 5am, not that we had anything planned, just because a whole forest full of birds thought it would be a good time to have a sing song. Boy, can they sing. It sounded like an orchestra, we had the strings to the left, rhythm section to the right and so many variations of bird song all around us.

We had a decision to make: climb 400m rather directly up an advanced level MTB route, or cycle 7km around the bay to a more gentle climb and only 200m up, we took the latter. So we joined the Queen Charlotte Track at Mistletoe Bay for the last 12km on a wonderful track that is more cycle-touring friendly.

enjoyning the view from queen charlotte trackA few km in we picked up the Therma Tech Outdoor School group, who we’d been leapfrogging since we got off the boat to Ship Cove. Nine kids age 14-15 and two instructors on a three-day trip mountain biking. They were having their lunch and had cycled the whole track. We were rather glad to hear that some of the young lads with super-light bikes had pushed up some of the hill we’d dragged our bikes up. And they had found the middle section a bit hard too, so we didn’t feel too bad about taking a detour.

A few more km down the track we found a backpack at one of the view points. We checked it over and found a camera loaded with pictures of the lads. So Peli, never scared of wee bit of extra load, strapped the backpack to her bike and set off after the lads.

This 12km bit was nice singletrack with more great views of beautiful bays than you can shake a stick at. It was well good fun to ride along, and we’re already looking into getting mountain bikes when we get back so that we can do some singletrack riding. Plenty of bumps, twists and turns and steep bits that I nearly tried to cycle down. I’m even more appreciative of my excellent brakes.

And now a public safety announcement: slip, slap and slop. The sun is a killer down here so cover up, wear a hat and use suncream, the strongest you can get, and reapply often.

Though don’t use Nivea on two counts. Firstly: it is hard to rub in (see second point), you look like a ghost for a while, it smells (see second point) and your body exudes the suncream when you sweat, a thing that you often do while cycle touring. Then you end up a layer of sweat and a white layer of suncream that is ever so sticky that anything will stick to it from bugs to dust and everything you touch will be covered in Nivea. Yuck.

pushing and walking the great walkSecondly: it rendered this user into a shaking wreck, reliving nightmares of bygone years. Haunting flashes of trips to the beach when a wee boy, just from the smell.

I’ll set the scene for you: let your memory go back a little, OK over 35 years back, to a hot summers day at a great beach in northern Denmark, with wall to wall sunshine. You spot a little woollypigs, yep that is me you see there, without the beard and in the nuddy, running around in the dunes, diving in and out of the waves having a whale of a time. Then you hear a concerned mum call out to the wee lad, “Get here you little bugger, it’s time for the suncream again. You’ve washed the last lot off in the water!” This is where the nightmare starts. Not that that my mum was calling me, but the very distinctive smell of Nivea and that my soft and tender skin was about to be rubbed hard all over with what felt like a whole beach-worth of sand. Back then you had to reapply every time you went in the drink, which was often for a little woollypigs. And now repeat for each summer in the 70s and early 80s. 1976 was a bad year too, blistering hot, Europe-wide heatwave and a second degree burn on one’s derriere, but I digress, that is another story and nightmare.

mountain bikes on queen charlotte trackWe arrived at Anakiwa where we found the school party resting and paddling in the water. Except for one sheepish-looking lad who was very happy to see his bag again. Oh, there was also an ice cream parlour and it would have been rude not to put in an order. As we placed it one of the teachers came up and said it would be coming out of the young lad’s pocket, as a thank you for our bag delivery service.

We got a water taxi with the school group back to town which would save us around 30km riding. Arriving back to our friendly warmshowers hosts we were again invited to make ourselves at home.

The handlebars we had ordered from http://www.cycletrading.co.nz in Christchurch had arrived. Along with a message that – rather wonderfully – one of the bike shop’s staff recognised us from a cycling forum we frequent. So, tea and cake is now booked in Christchurch before we fly to Tasmania, Australia.

Day 328 – November 28 : Middle earth

Not a day has gone by since we arrived in New Zealand that we haven’t been reminded that film version of The Hobbit is about to be released. Posters, TV and a massive Hobbit outside a cinema with a big sign saying “6 days to go” greeted us in Wellington.

Even today’s weather forecast on the telly wasn’t spared along with live broadcast and news reading delivered right next to the red carpet. A bit weird to see the news being read to you… “Today, Mr Arafat’s body will be exhumed…” while the news presenters are dressed as if they’re off to a fancy dress party with hundreds of screaming people in the back ground. Very odd.

I fitted the new butterfly bars and we cycled the massive distance of 1km to the Picton Top10 campsite, where we enjoyed more fettling, cleaning of the bikes and some resting in the sun.

Day 329-332 – Nov 29 – Dec 2 : What the future holds

Sometimes we have been pondering if we should change the title of this tour from “The world cake pootle” to “How many ailments can cycle tourers endure before changing one’s plans?”

ferry wellington to pictonIt’s clear now that my arms and shoulders need a much longer rest, or even surgery. Even after taking anti-inflammatory drugs, fitting new handle bars and changing my position very often my symptoms are unfortunately getting worse.

So yet again we are re-planning our tour. We will push on into Nelson and try to weigh up our options.

Our ride today from Picton to Havelock was on a nice rolling and zigzagging road along the bay with great views. The next day we had the option to push on through to Nelson, a 71km ride, or do two short days with a wild camp in the middle. It ended up being a 77km ride, probably not the best option for my ailments, but the idea was to get it over with and then rest, instead of dragging it out over two days.

While writing this we are now pitched up in Nelson pondering our options: pack it all in and fly back to Blighty to get mended? Rent a car as a support vehicle for Peli and do some walking? Find a nice spot in NZ and hang around until the 10th of Jan when we will fly out to Tasmania (tickets already booked). Or… ?

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