The Marlborough Sounds in New Zealand are a labyrinth of inlets and the Queen Charlotte Track leads over jungle hills. A cycling tour.
Those who come to Picton usually want to move on soon. The restaurants and cafés on the palm-fringed waterfront are great places to drink a flat white, eat green scallops and look out to sea. But afterwards, most travelers take the ferry to New Zealand’s North Island. Or they drive south on the coastal road in a rental car.
They all miss something: the Queen Charlotte Track, a 72-kilometer trail that winds along bays and over the highest ridges between two South Sea-beautiful fjords.
Getting there: From Germany, several airlines fly to Wellington or Christchurch with a stopover. From Wellington ferries cross over to Picton, from Christchurch buses go. By mailboat or water cab you can get from Picton to several starting points along the Queen Charlotte Track.
For the past five years, it has carried the Great Ride designation, making it one of New Zealand’s 22 premium bike trails. Modeled after the famous Great Walks, these are intended to boost cycling tourism and attract tourists to remote areas. In 2009, the government pledged the equivalent of around 27 million euros for the project. The money is also to be used to upgrade the Queen Charlotte Track for cyclists.
However, little has happened so far, says Steve Gibbons, 51, “but the fact that the track has been declared a Great Ride has certainly brought us additional attention,” explains the owner of Wilderness Guides in Picton. The number of cyclists who rent mountain bikes from him is now increasing year after year, he adds. One reason for this is probably the journey to the starting point alone: a crossing in the mail boat, which is so enchanting that many tourists book it as a day cruise.
Vacation homes in solitude
From bay to bay, the catamaran plows through Queen Charlotte Sound, with densely forested hills towering all around. With a little imagination, you can still see that the inlet was once a river valley, just like all the branching fjords of the Malborough Sounds. When the sea rose at the end of the last ice age, it washed into the valleys and side valleys. And thus created a picture-perfect labyrinth.
The European colonists recognized this beauty early. As early as the mid-19th century, excursionists in boats and seaplanes came here from Wellington via the rough Cook Strait, and some built vacation homes.
Their successors apparently appreciate the seclusion to this day. Their cottages are scattered in the bays at great distances. Only very few inhabitants live here all year round.
In Blackwood Bay, there is exactly one man: an elderly gentleman with a broad jaw and white mustache. The captain hands him a rough cloth sack with his mail through the side window, the two chat briefly, then the boat sets off again.
At each stop, enviably spry seniors come onto their pontoons. A lady in capri pants has two boxes full of groceries loaded onto her hand truck. “We deliver not only mail, but also groceries, electrical appliances or bicycles,” the captain explains.
Calmly, he steers the catamaran from bay to bay. Until he suddenly brakes, turns and drives right into the middle of a flock of short-tailed shearwaters. Dolphins chase between the seabirds, dive down, jump through the air. “These are black dolphins,” the captain explains. “The smallest of the four dolphin species here.”
The footsteps of a great navigator
250 years earlier, James Cook sailed through these inlets. On Motuara Island, now a predator-free bird sanctuary, the explorer raised the British flag – claiming the entire South Island of New Zealand for the British Crown.
But the great explorer anchored permanently in the bay where the Queen Charlotte Track starts today. Cook spent a total of 168 days in Ship Cove, spread over seven years – more than at any other place in New Zealand.
Reason enough for the New Zealanders to erect a finely carved pouwhenua, the Maori version of the totem pole, in his memory. And to build a strangely chunky monument: a white cuboid with an anchor on it and three cannons in front of it.
One quickly understands that Cook liked it here. Tree ferns and club lilies grow around the turquoise bay, clear water rushes in a stream. It’s a wonderful start to the tour, especially since a new path for cyclists has already been built to the next bay, bypassing the overly steep hiking trail.
Relaxed, you arrive at the first hostel in the evening and are delighted. A fountain gurgles in front of the more than 100-year-old mansion of “Furneaux Lodge,” gravel paths lead to the bungalows and to a barrel tub with 39-degree hot water from which one overlooks the bay. For a New Zealand hiking trail, such luxury is unheard of. Generally, you have a choice of tent or mattress camp. On the Queen Charlotte Track, however, there are about a dozen lodges, hotels and resorts within easy reach.
Freshly showered and well fed, you get on your bike in the morning and ride along Endeavour Inlet, through sparse forest and over several wooden bridges. In front of a cottage an old man chops wood, sheep graze in his garden.
The section from Ship Cove to Camp Bay is actually the most popular of the entire trail. But you hardly meet any people this morning. Only two young men are lounging on the edge of the path. They want to hike down the entire South Island, they tell us, they will be on the road for two months. You would like to talk to them longer, but time is pressing. And the way is still long. But at least one detour is necessary: to Punga Cove Resort.
The café on the jetty is buzzing with reggae music, and sailboats are moored in the turquoise sea. “Many cyclists take a break here,” says Mariana Teran, the 25-year-old waitress from Mexico. “Some also wander over from Ship Cove, pick up the bike delivered by the mail boat and continue on their way.”
Sounds strange, but there’s a good reason. From early December to late February, the trail from Ship Cove to Punga Cove is closed to cyclists – most of the summer. “I hope they lift the ban soon,” Steve Gibbons said. “If the cyclists start in the morning before the hikers, there won’t be any conflict.”
Beyond Punga Cove, the trail climbs steeply for the first time. Despite the caffeine boost, you have to dismount and push. Fortunately, after fifteen minutes, the trail joins a road that leads more leisurely up to the saddle – where the next crisp climb awaits.
A visit to the zoo awaits at the end
Up and down it goes on the ridge trail. On the sun-drenched ridge, the studded tires bounce over a stony path, in wonderful curves you brake through the pine and southern beech forest, in the shade of the dense canopy of leaves, the mud splashes up to your neck. Again and again, magnificent views open up over the fjords that branch out into many bays to the right and left of the ridge.
Behind Torea Saddle, where a tarred road crosses the path, you have to push the bike up another steep slope. Soon this climb is to be defused by a flatter bypass.
Shaken and exhausted, you roll into the “Lochmara Resort” in the evening, past fleeing alpacas and llamas – the hotel is also a private zoo. Hundreds of excursionists come every day to feed the goat and jumping parakeets in the hall-sized aviary or the stingrays down in the bay.
There are starfish to touch in a tank, and from an observation chamber under a boat you can see the newly cultivated reef with its clams and crabs. Outside the windows, silvery schools of mullets and snappers pass by. And at night, the larvae of long-horned gnats glow in the bushes. No one wants to move on quickly here at the latest.