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Marlborough Sounds Getaway

Marlborough Sounds Getaway

This is a story by Gaz@Nzo for New Zealand Mountain Biker mag from a trip we did in September 2020. Republished here because somebody asked about it.

Picton is a town most people like passing through.

As the ferry terminal for the South Island, travel in either direction involves Picton. If you are a lucky Northerner arriving in the South Island, it is a sort of welcome sign that flashes past as soon  as you can hit the road out. You might spend a couple of hours there on the way back, but if you are anything like us you will be exhausted, and in a kind of funk about having to head back to normality.

That’s why the idea of being based in Picton while sampling some of the region’s iconic trails piqued our curiosity. 

Located at the head of Queen Charlotte Sound, the town is small enough to feel crowded almost into the water by the surrounding bush, but large enough to support a great variety of accommodation, transport, and eating options.

Our base was the excellent Picton Yacht Club Hotel, a thirty second freewheel from the docks. 

After getting bikes organised we strolled across the road to the Irish Pub – with the big ride we had ahead of us the next day we didn’t say no to anything offered, and everything we tried was great. The ginger cake on the dessert menu is a definite must. 

Picton is the traditional hopping-off point for the Queen Charlotte Track. Scratched out of the tough terrain in the early 80s, based on sections of historic trails, the Track was opened to walkers in 1983. Keeping a track that is 71 kilometres long in operational condition was beyond the capabilities of the determined people that instigated it, but with the formation of the Department of Conservation in 1987 and a big effort involving people from DoC and the Air Force, the Track was cleared and improved and has been a favourite ever since.

Open to bikes except for a section that closes over the height of summer, the Queen Charlotte was a shoe-in to the National Cycleway project. Unlike many trails developed since, Queen Charlotte was not built for bikes, and that is what makes it so unique as a bike ride. More on that later!

The real attraction of this trail, and what sets it apart from any other, is its marine aspect. You travel to the northern start point by boat, it’s the only way to get there - a scenic jaunt from Picton that takes about an hour. You step off the boat in the solitude and spectacle of Ship Cove / Meretoto, the hills ringing with birdsong. This was the first place where face-to-face interaction took place between Maori and European in the Sounds, when James Cook landed here in 1770. He visited five times between 1770 and his last voyage in 1777, and the Cove remains much the same as it was in his day.

Many people choose to use the other unique feature of Queen Charlotte – a fine selection of accommodation literally en route. Riders can have their gear ferried to many stops along the trail, and make the ride last two or three days with no need to be weighed down with baggage. That is what we did on a previous expedition, and it was a really good way to do it – another special feature is that anybody who doesn’t want to ride a section, or in fact any of the trail at all, can go by boat, and be located in a deckchair with a wine and a book by the time the riders come along.

On this outing, we took a different tack, and based ourselves at the Yacht Club for the duration. There are solid arguments in favour of either approach, but the upside of a fixed base is the opportunity to let your kit explode across a room, and only have to round it all up again once. As we had two days to do Queen Charlotte, and a third day to ride the legendary Nydia Bay Track, the fixed base won out. The bonus was a couple of extra boat rides, and spectacular dinners at Picton.

Our first day was pegged to be a 51 km effort from Ship Cove to Torea Bay. We had breakfast in the Hotel, and then did that freewheel to the waiting ferry. We were riding state-of-the-current-art trail rigs – Liam on board a Pivot, myself on an Ibis Mojo, and Cam, weighed down with tons of camera gear, had a Cannondale e-Bike. 

The boat had a very nice roof-rack with space enough for heaps of bikes, ours as well as some bikes belonging to friends we had along for surprise company – Kylie and Matty were out for a day ride before heading further south. There was space for several more.

Cam McKenzie, the photographer, and Liam Friary, the publisher. 

The start of Queen Charlotte Track at Ship Cove is stunning. There is ancient forest, clear water under the jetty, and on this day, a certain trepidation on my part about the first part of the route. On our previous mission, the first climb was very hard. It went straight up, and was almost impossible to ride. To my relief, the track has had some major upgrades, and the new line is a textbook example of how to get to a pretty decent height without too much pain. 

The trail switchbacks its way up through the forest and there are some good outlooks along the way, before the climb tops out at 237m and a long view toward the rest of the ride. Diving off the saddle there is a really nice section of very fast and wide open trail down almost to sea level in a couple of kilometres, before the climb to the next saddle gets underway. The trail is classic back-country mountain biking, getting to some prodigious heights for big views, and hugging the coastline through small settlements accessible only by water. 

The excellent lunch we packed from the Gusto Cafe in Picton was inhaled on a rocky little beach, nobody else around, a very Aotearoa moment.

The Sounds is an amazing place to be – every piece of land seems impossibly steep, and shore is so convoluted that the Sounds contain 20% of New Zealand’s total coastline. Every high point presents another aspect of that complex geography.

It is after the climb to Kenepuru Saddle that the trail starts to be a grind. Following the ridge gives many opportunities to look out across the Sounds, but it also results in some very steep climbs. Still, among the relentless, almost unrideable ascents were some neat little sections of downhill. The final descent to Torea Bay and the surreal experience of rolling on to a jetty where a ferry waited was a fitting end to the day’s ride. 

A quick trip back to Picton, and we were straight into the bar of the Oxley Hotel, bikes in a pile on the footpath outside. We refreshed ourselves, then headed back to our digs for a welcome shower. The Oxley was that night’s choice for dinner – another winner.

The boat ride the next morning was back to Torea Bay, to complete the Track with what looked like an easy sort of effort, only about 19 kilometres. 

That little beach down there is where we got off the boat. Heinous climb.

We knew the day would start with a grunt, we had rolled down a pretty decent section of tarmac from the trail to the waiting boat the day before. And a grunt it was – followed by a climb that was truly epic. The combined tarmac and trail ascent gets riders to 407m, according to the sign at the top, in about 2.5 kilometres. You can peer almost straight down on the jetty where you started. That sort of caper continues for quite a way, and it makes things tough. The effects of the previous day’s ride were still there, and there is no chance to pedal your legs into shape. You are either committing completely to anaerobic bursts, or walking on the climbs, and freewheeling on the downs. All that effort was rewarded with a spectacular view from the day’s second high point, and a very exciting switchback descent on rocky trail to a road crossing.

The relatively mellow ride from there to Anakiwa was made more interesting by the clock, we were running late; and by the e-Bike, which for the second day had run low on power at the pointy end of things. Where the first day’s battery outage was softened by a mostly downhill finish, the run to Anakiwa was rolling trail with plenty of ups. The section from Mistletoe Bay to Anikiwa was through very beautiful beech forest close to the sea, and would have been nice to dawdle along. Instead we rode it at the best pace we could muster, and got to a slightly miffed ferry pilot about 20  minutes behind schedule. And then had to wait for the unfortunate e-Biker, who sprinted down the jetty five minutes later. Luckily Cam is a strong bike rider, so the lack of battery power was funny at the time. For somebody else, running out of e-power could be a disaster.

A long discussion over beers at the Oxley ensued – how to recommend the Queen Charlotte to bike-riders? Moving on to the excellent if slightly rustic Jolly Roger Cafe the discussion continued at dinner. We reckoned all of it would pay back reasonably fit and able mountain bikers in spades – every section has something to put a smile on your dial. We also decided that the new wave of mountain bikers jumping into the sport, especially the ones on e-bikes, should read the notes on the QC carefully before planning their trip. Even though there are plenty of places to get off the trail by boat, big sections of it are hard, and remote. 

The gem is definitely Ship Cove to Camp Bay, and that is the part that is closed to bikes during summer: December 1 to the end of February. The rest of the trail would be fairly brutal on a hot summer day, and you would miss the best part during the height of summer. We reckoned a shoulder season foray would be best.

Nydia Bay Trail. One of the absolute highpoints of my 40 years of mountain biking.

The last day of our Marlborough adventure was to be an assault on Nydia Bay. This trail has been talked about for decades, and even raced in the NZEnduro. How I had managed to miss out on it until now is a mystery, but my time had finally come. The weather forecast was fairly worrying, but the day dawned bright and clear, so we headed out early for Havelock. With a stop at the Bakeriij in Picton for the all-important food supplies. 

The drive to Havelock behind us, we met up with the very helpful Kelly from Destination Marlborough, who would drop us at the trailhead and then drive around to Kaiuma Bay to retrieve us. That is an aspect of the Nydia Bay ride that needs to be factored in, if you want to take in the entire 27 kilometres in a single serve. There are shuttles available from Havelock.

We decided to add in the Opouri Bridle Track, so Kelly delivered us to the Opouri Saddle and we dropped straight into some of the best trail you will find, anywhere. Benched into steep terrain, the Bridle Track drops over 530m in about 5 kilometres, so it is nearly all downhill but never very steep. Towering Beech forest at the top gives way to more jungly growth at the bottom, with huge Rimus, Matai and Miro supporting an amazing variety of undergrowth.

The trail is all rideable, but not by me. The consequences of failing on some sections would not be good, and we were on a day-long mission we wanted to complete intact. Having said that, on the Bridle Track there were only a few spots that needed a quick dab or a dismount, and most of it was ridiculous fun. 

The arrival at Duncan Bay, where the road ends, is an anticlimax: the trail pops out directly on to the road, which meanders along the shoreline to a jetty, and the start of the Nydia Bay Track proper.

While we were checking out the jetty, an older gent was delivered to the trailhead by car. He set off walking. We passed him fairly soon, and we exchanged greetings. He finished by calling “see you at the roots”. Must be a Marlborough thing, we thought, and motored along the first section of the trail.

The trail climbs gently, hugging the coast and offering up views of the water all the way. We stopped at a random spot that seemed timely to eat half of the slab of carrot cake we were carrying, but otherwise wasted no time. There were a few root snaggles along the way, but pretty soon the trail tipped upwards and the real fun started. 

The Nydia Bay Track is a nicely benched trail on a very climbeable grade – but every so often it presents a very interesting challenge. It might be a tangle of roots snaking across the line, the biggest ones standing high enough that unless you are really moving they are going to stop you. And off to the left it could be a sheer drop. So you stop. The next little heart-stopper might be a rocky outcrop that has resisted the trail builder, and has since crumbled away a bit. If you were going downhill, you would easily make the high line, but you’re not. And you might stall, and once again, the downside of the trail is a vacuum to your left. So you tripod over it, or dismount and walk a few paces.

Intermittent watercourses traverse the trail, some are dry and can be crashed through, some are running with clear water, are steep sided, and slippery as eels. We would stop, clamber, maybe take some photos. 

On about our third stoppage we realised the old boy on foot was catching us. He stayed on our heels for the entire climb. We would gap him when there was an extended section that was easy going, but he would close up again when we were busy with the camera, or doing more clambering than riding. 

The other thing we found ourselves doing a lot, which definitely slowed our progress, was staring awestruck at our surroundings. The forest on the section from Duncan Bay to Nydia Bay is spectacular. The views out from the forest are equally jawdropping, and the common theme as we tried to discuss what we were seeing was how fortunate we felt to be there. Yes, we were mountain biking, so it’s all good. But the venue was very special, and the freedom we enjoy to get out into places like this is what makes being a kiwi such a privilege.

Anyway, about a kilometre shy of the top of the climb, our pedestrian partner walked past us, and wandered off ahead. We had a good catch up with him when he was on his way back down, and he sketched out a lifestyle that was as enviable as it was unique. Live at the end of a remote road, take a trip to a small town every three weeks or so. Set a net every so often to keep the table in fresh fish. And take the odd walk up to the ridge for a look around. Seemed like a retirement plan.

From the ridge to the sea at Nydia Bay must be about as much fun as you can have on a mountain bike, as long as you watch where you are going.

It is possible to ride most of the ‘maybe’ bits with the momentum of going downhill on your side, and cackling to yourself while you clatter down a tricky but rideable section unscathed is a rare pleasure. Except when it isn’t rideable, and those bits come along without warning, see above about watching where you are going. Cam would go ahead to scope out photography opportunities, and sometimes station himself so he could catch us as we came along. I saw his head and shoulders over the crown of the trail ahead, and looked at him for a poofteenth of a second too long. Just enough time for my front wheel to drop off the trail, which I got a close look at a split second later. It was a funny crash, no harm done, made funnier by the fact that Cam hadn’t stopped for a photo op, he had also upended himself. But seriously folks, pay attention. When you go and ride this trail, and you really should, you don’t want to crash. It is a long way from anywhere much, and there are a lot of pointy rocks under your wheels.

We dropped in to Nydia Bay at the same time as the rain that was forecast, and we were glad to have completed the descent in relatively dry conditions. Pristine forest gave way to scrappy pine forest, with every piece of machinery that has ever come in by boat, and then worn out, still laying around. 

Simple little houses were dotted among the trees, and the trail became muddy and almost swampy in spots. At Nydia Bay Lodge we pulled off the track to have a look and a bite of lunch. The Lodge managers were in residence, although the Lodge was a month or so from opening for summer. They were keen for a chat, and brewed us a coffee which was a welcome treat.

We sat in the verandah and watched the rain, chewing over the day so far, as well as our sandwiches. We reckoned anybody who relished riding a difficult trail would love Nydia Bay track, but anybody at all would enjoy walking in for a stay at the lodge, and the walk back out out again the same way. 

An out-and-back bike ride would also be a goer, with a bit more hike-a-bike on the return trip, but an easier descent to finish, and no need for a shuttle.

For us though, we were heading up another climb, now in a howling gale and sideways rain. The climb through farmland and up to Kaiuma Saddle is actually higher than Nydia by a few metres, but it’s a lot less difficult. So is the descent – it is not easy, but it is not as gnarly as Nydia, even in the rain. That weird transition from native forest to plantation pine always amazes – it is like being transplanted to a different planet. The trail surface changed from weather beaten rock and tree roots to cushioned orange pine needles and we dropped the final few kilometres into a valley and across a stream before a last fairly brutal climb. 

The last downhill was wide open, an easy run down to the Kaiuma Bay road, and Kelly in a waiting car, complete with a change of clothes and a warm dry interior.

Havelock put on hors d’ouvres at the Mussel Pot, and the bike trip was done.

We were all pretty pasted by this time. Over 100kms of unfamiliar trails, saving the toughest for last, and a solid 4000m of climbing, made for three long but incredibly rewarding days.

Marlborough had turned on a varied and top quality selection of mountain biking, and Picton had become a new favourite New Zealand town. The top of the south has a heap more trails to offer, and we were all thinking about the next visit before we had even departed.


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