Queen Charlotte Track in One Day
A combination of a mountain bike addiction and bold stubbornness
Butterflies bounced around my stomach as I woke up at 5:30 am Friday morning to quickly do some work emails and make lunch before the big day. I’ve always loved the road trip prep. It was still dark outside. The air was nippy and adrenaline flowing. The tea was my solace during the 1hr 50 min drive from Nelson to Picton.
The Queen Charlotte Track, located at New Zealand's northern tip of the south island, is meant to be completed in 2-4 days, walking or riding. I chose to do it in one day because I wanted to prove that I could, I was sure that I could, it was a great training ride, and I didn't want to take much time off work. I couldn't actually find any information online about anyone doing the QCT in one day...which was slightly nerve-racking, but kind of exciting at the same time.
Upon arrival at Picton at quarter after 8, I paid the $5 for my full day parking, the $10 for the day use of the track, ate one of my three sandwiches, and organized my gear. The sun was shining beautifully across the water touching the edges of Picton. A seal was lazily floating on his side in the bay, one flipper out of the water, lazily waving good morning.
I rolled my bike over to the Cougar Line water taxi service. An elderly couple eyed my bike and my intentions warily. It cost $55 for the ride, and $5 for my bike. What a strange feeling watching my bike being tied onto the top of the boat. The small string the captain used scared me a little, but I chose to trust his judgment. He assured me that he tied tons of bikes on during the summer. We departed just before 9am.
Every time the boat accelerated my heart rate increased and I glued my eyes to the back of the boat...trying not to imagine my bike pulling loose from the tiny string and plunging into the ocean.
We made a few stops along the way to drop off supplies at various 5-star resorts that looked out of place amongst the bushy native trees. There was a short pudgy dog on board named Tui (the name of a native bird). His owner, a middle aged women with hair down to her waist, told me she lives at Resolution Bay. Her parents lived there before her, and she’s never left. There’s no power. They use a diesel generator and solar panels.
Finally, we arrived at Resolution Bay just before 10am. The woman with her hair down to her waist gave me directions to get onto the trail, since it was slightly off the main route. Tui let me give him a scratch for good luck. Resolution Bay is 5km from the actual start of the Queen Charlotte’s track, Ship’s Cove. I wasn’t complaining though, because I’ve heard those first 5km are viciously steep.
I awkwardly pushed my bike up the slippery stairs up to the main trail. A slippery step caught me off guard and slammed my forearm into my handle bars. Good start...
A little further down the track, the signs for the Queen Charlotte’s trail appeared. The trail was beautiful, climbing steadily, then descending to pass through a small stream or over a bridge, then climbing back up again. The hills were a little sharper than anticipated, and the rocks were a bit more bouldery too. The repetitive ups and downs got my legs feeling it within the first hour. Around an hour and 40 min I had a banana and enjoyed the views of the bright blue ocean. I don’t think I’ve ever seen the ocean so blue. The water was a brilliant turquoise.
There are a couple small communities/villages on the side of the trail - passing through Endeavour Inlet was strange to come from mostly isolated forest track, to weaving in between houses and dogs.
Around 2 and a half hours I had a granola bar. I was getting pretty bagged and close to having a headache. Around 3 hours and 40 mins I finally stopped, got right off my bike, and put on my rain jacket to stay warm from the wind. It was too late by the time I had that delicious soggy sandwich. I had crashed but kept moving through headache, shakes and exhaustion. It took about half an hour of dragging my ass before the sandwich kicked in. And I was back. I found myself getting annoyed at the short downhills followed by the immediate sharp ups, where most of the time I had to walk. And by walk, I mean clumsily slip and slide my way up the slime clay of the track. If I tried to ride, I’d spin out or my legs would give out because they were too burnt.
I tried to keep my mind positive and enjoy the scenery and wildlife around me. There were countless wekas, pigeons, stinky goats, sheep and little birds chirping from their hiding places in the trees above.
After that energy crash, I was more careful with my eating. I ate a bite of something every 45 min, but had to think about rationing, because as it turned out, I hadn’t brought enough food. I didn’t know the trail would take as long as it did, because I hadn’t accounted for the amount of walking I had to do.
The views on the Queen Charlotte Track were stunning. It reminded me of looking at the Gulf Islands surrounding Vancouver Island. The fuzzy lumps of land slowly sinking into the deep ocean. The ruggedness of New Zealand’s native bush is a texture I have yet to get used to. It’s beautiful and makes me feel as though I’m somewhere tropical. I love the satisfaction of climbing a tough hill, and catching my breath while staring out into the beauty of this planet. I was at Shamrock Ridge to enjoy these fews and thoughts, as the dark clouds were rolling in.
It’s amazing what happens when you just keep moving. “I am completing this ride with safety, confidence and energy” was my positive mantra. I find mantras or positive affirmations extremely helpful for me to stay focused, especially when getting tired. I realize it’s quite daring/brave/stupid (whatever adjective you want to use), to do these large missions solo, especially when I haven’t done the trail before. I understand the risks of being out in forest solo, and doing dangerous sports solo, but it’s just as risky, if not more, to get in a car and go on the motorway. You chose how to live your life, I’ll chose how to live mine.
At dusk (around 5:30pm), just after passing two other mountain bikers who were heading to Mistletoe Bay, I sat down and ate my last sandwich. Soon after, I had to put on my light at the viewpoint. The darkening Anakiwa was waiting all the way at the end of a long looking inlet. It was mostly downhill and I was ready.
Night riding on a new trail is always tricky. For some reason, it always seems that as soon as it gets dark, and as soon as I put on my light, the trail turns to bumpy boulders, mixed with deep, slippery mud holes. I tried to laugh it off and keep repeating my mantra. In a way, night riding makes it easier because you have to stay focused on where the light is pointing, but it does mess with depth perception a little bit.
After about 45 min in the dark, I randomly popped out of the trail beside the youth hostel of Anakiwa. There was a group of travellers playing pingpong inside. I kept going on the road with a big smile on my face, which quickly disappeared knowing I wasn’t quite finished yet.
I rode the 22km from Anakiwa to Picton in about an hour and 20 min. There were many hills, and I was hungry and tired. Finally arriving at the top of the last hill and looking down to see the lights of Picton sparkle, my heart almost burst with joy (and relief) because I had done it. I loaded up on chips, cookies and a fizzy drink to get me back to Nelson, with some vegan curry waiting for me at home.
This 90km ride wasn’t the longest the ride I had ever done...but it was the longest on a mountain bike, and the longest distance with a 2400m elevation gain. Also the first mission where the trail is actually meant for multi day use. It was hard ignoring the “average times” for hikers and riders between checkpoints.
This is a gorgeous trail - highly recommended. It will definitely be more enjoyable to take your time, or if you're a fan of Type 2 fun like me, smash it out in one day. If I can, you can. Cheers!