It was a misty Thursday morning, and I woke up refreshed but a little pensive. After packing my bags, I still had about ninety minutes of free time before breakfast. It was our last day on the rugged west coast, so I walked down the road towards town to do some exploring. The constantly evolving gravel banks of the Punakaiki River made for a brief but excellent cross-country hike. I watched from a respectful distance while a colourful pair of paradise ducks (Tadoma variegata) led their brood of seven chicks on a sunrise tour of the riverbank.
I hopped a fence and skirted across an empty lot to access the Tasman Sea. Good-sized swells were rolling over the beach. I walked along the shifting sands, thinking about the day ahead. We were scheduled to cross the north part of the island and would be breaking into three groups after lunch. Cathy, Sally and Colin were going on a two-day backcountry hiking tour in the mountains. Cam and Bil were set to embark on a cool sea kayaking adventure in Mahau Sound. I was looking forward to two days of breathtaking mountain biking along Marlborough Sound with Milton and Shellie, but was starting to feel the first pangs of separation anxiety. Little by little, my soul grew more forlorn as wave after wave lapped at my ankles. I suppose it’s only natural to ponder one’s existence and the mysteries of life in such surroundings.
The beach to the south of Punakaiki provided an interesting perspective on the rocky Tasman coast. The previous day, we had walked above the Pancake Rocks and marveled at the odd formations and the power of the sea. The relentless cycle of wave action was just as interesting when viewed through the early-morning fog from sea level.
On my way back up the road to the motel, I came upon a small grove of Pōhutukawa trees. The trees were decorated by dozens of brush-like, blood red flowers with yellow tips. It was late November, and these so-called “New Zealand Christmas trees” were well on their way to maximum early-summer bloom.
After breakfast, we loaded our gear onto the bus and set off for our next destination. The highway hugged the coastline for the first hour or so. We passed a herd of cattle grazing in a pasture, seemingly oblivious to the gorgeous ocean view maybe two hundred metres behind them. This made me chuckle, since our cows back home had a panoramic view of nothing but the flat and featureless Red River Valley horizon. Just before Westport we turned east and headed inland. Considering the twisty coastal highway and the winding traverse of Buller Gorge, I was quite happy to not be hung over. Others weren’t so lucky.
Around noon, we stopped for lunch at St. Arnaud on the northern edge of Nelson Lakes National Park. Our tour guides had their hands full – not only did they have to pull off a lunch for 18 people inside an unserviced picnic shelter, but they also had to work out the final logistics for our crew’s three side trips. I went for a short walk down by Lake Rotoiti with my buddies, but I could sense that we were all a little apprehensive about being split up. Back at the bus, I helped Cathy adjust the straps on her cool new backpack and gave her some tips on how to load it for comfortable backcountry travel. Sally and Colin had chosen to rent backpacks from our tour company, and before long they too were able to make the proper adjustments. I didn’t envy them having to carry 10 to 15 kilograms of gear and food up the trail, but I knew they were set for a great experience.
After lunch, a shuttle arrived to pick up the bikers and kayakers. With a lump in my throat, we bid the hikers good luck and began a two-hour drive east to the Marlborough area. The Southern Alps soon morphed into rolling foothills and forests. In turn, the forests gave way to alluvial plains, with fruit groves and vineyards irrigated by the Wairau River.
We were treated to our first views of the famous Marlborough Sound region east of Havelock. The northeast tip of New Zealand’s south island is home to dozens of picturesque sounds and bays, where the sea has inundated the gradually subsiding land mass. We marveled at the tranquil beauty of the Mahakipawa arm of Mahau Sound as we gradually made our way east. It was 3 pm by the time we reached our bike and kayak tour operator’s headquarters near Anakiwa. After a long travel day, most of us were keen to get outdoors and get moving. With misty eyes, I waved goodbye to Bil and Cam and the other sea kayakers who were headed north to a different arm of the sound. We wouldn’t see each other again until Saturday afternoon in Blenheim.
Our merry trio of cyclists got changed into our riding gear at the bike shop. We were introduced to Glen, our trail guide and expert bike mechanic. Glen worked quickly to set us up with excellent full-suspension Cannondale RZ120 mountain bikes. After a few quick adjustments, we were ready to go for a test ride. Glen pointed the way and I led our pack of riders down a relatively easy trail to the town of Anakiwa. Once I got my rear suspension locked out and my seat post height set correctly, it became a very comfortable ride. I loved the way that the Shimano derailleurs smoothly shifted gears, and the disc brakes provided excellent and predictable stopping power despite the rain showers.
Milton and Shellie and I were still suffering from varying degrees of the “Ann-Slam”. Our hacking and wheezing was so bad that Glen probably thought we had all just stumbled out of an emphysema clinic. Nevertheless, we were eager to do some technical riding. Glen led us up the first portion of the Queen Charlotte Track as an appetizer for the following day’s big ride.
The Queen Charlotte Track is 71 glorious kilometres of continuous singletrack. Parts of the track are relatively easy to ride, but there are also many long and challenging hills to climb. The presence of hikers on the trail, not to mention two-way bike traffic around blind corners, also makes for an interesting ride. Since we were pressed for time, we rode for about half an hour on the track to Bottle Bay. We returned by the same route to the bike shop then Glen led our ‘bike gang’ to our B&B in the nearby hamlet known as The Grove.
We checked into our accommodations, and I was grateful for a hot shower after a long day on the road and our 20 km ride. We met our hosts Steve and Linda for dinner at 7 pm. Steve enlightened us with stories about the earthquake reconstruction efforts in Christchurch and elsewhere, while Linda put the finishing touches on a monstrous chicken dinner and a scrumptious Pavlova cake. I found myself occasionally glancing out the windows at the rain showers, silently hoping that my friends had safely made it up the mountainside to their backcountry hut.
After dinner, we checked out the glow worms in a little alcove behind the B&B. I spent some quiet time writing in my journal and catching up on emails before turning in early. The next day promised to be an epic ride.
Song of the Day: “Little by Little” by Oasis