By Paul Smith
When mountain bikers think of Marlborough, I suspect the Sounds and the Queen Charlotte Track first come to mind. While that is a great ride, there is far more to the region. On this trip from Wellington I wanted to explore beyond the Queen Charlotte Track and experience some lesser-known Marlborough riding.
Mt Richmond Forest Park is an imposing barrier, separating the Marlborough Sounds from Marlborough wine-country, around the Wairau River. Three roads punctuate the hills and converge on Blenheim, but two other routes take a more tortuous path - the Waikakaho and Wakamarina tracks. My plan was to ride these tracks, cut by miners over a century ago in their search for gold. This was a loop ride over three days. I'd be carrying overnight gear and riding terrain that I couldn't experience on a day trip from home - a real adventure.
Travelling over the Cook Strait on the Interislander is a perfect start to a cycling adventure. The crossing allows excitement and anticipation to build, adding a sense of commitment - it feels like there is no turning back once on board.
Although my adventure was already planned, I made a brief stop in Picton at the Marlborough Adventure Company for great coffee and a chat about future trips. Planning and organising a trip like this can be a little off-putting, but it doesn't have to be difficult. The Marlborough Adventure Company can arrange transport and accommodation in the region and provide riding itineraries.
I rode out of Picton along Queen Charlotte Drive a little later than anticipated at 2pm. The Waikakaho trail heads south from Linkwater, halfway between Picton and Havelock. The metalled valley road ends at the site of Cullensville - a century old gold mining settlement. There isn't much here now, but a board of old photographs show it as a once thriving community. From here an old miners track heads into the hills. This mostly rideable, but steep, single track sits high above Cullens Creek. I was rewarded for my climbing effort by wonderful views back down the valley and dramatic exposure to the river valley below. After a long series of steep switchbacks, rising through a pine plantation, I reached the bush edge, where the climb continued and became rougher - pushing turned into hauling and carrying. Fortunately the scenery was exhilarating. The forest air was cool and damp and formed a still, misty and eerily beautiful backdrop to my exertion. From the saddle, the terrain became easier and the descent began in earnest (the up-side of all that climbing is actually a down-side). Altitude was lost quickly and old growth beech forest turned into regenerating bush and then lower altitude scrub. The track was a fast and furious ride, graded to maintain speed but not too steep for comfort. Exhilarated and tired, arms pumped and brain frazzled, I emerged into a paddock with a final 15 kilometres of valley road ahead. It would have been a cruise to end the day, but my late start meant that I might not reach Renwick before the supermarket, dairy and pub kitchens closed. So the cruise became an anxious race in failing light. With hopes of a good meal fading and thoughts turning to the emergency food I carried in my bag, I rolled into Renwick. I made the fish and chip shop with ten minutes to spare. I was their last customer.
Renwick is just off the loop between the Waikakaho and Wakamarina tracks. I stayed at Watsons's Way, run by Paul and Pat Watson. They offer comfortable accommodation, comprehensive cooking facilities and a friendly welcome. Renwick is right at the heart of the world famous Marlborough wine region. Many wineries are within an easy pedal and it was tempting to linger here and spend a relaxing day, sampling the local Sauvignon. But my itinerary was set and the Wakamarina track was calling.
My Wakamarina day started with a 30 kilometre ride along quiet back roads through the Onamalutu valley. The last six kms climbed steadily through a pine planation to reach the bush edge - all on good forestry roads and rideable for strong legs. However, my previous exertion and overnight gear were good excuses to walk part of the way up. From the bush edge, I would spend five hours within Richmond Forest at an altitude between 800 and 1200 metres. This was a big ride! The Wakamarina varies from rideable, grade three forest track to steep tramping track. The first section up to Fosters Clearing at 1070 metres is popular as an out-and-back ride with a return trip to the bush edge, taking two to three hours. However, from there the trail becomes far more daunting. A steep descent and even steeper climb reached the high point of the trip. This section was only a couple of kilometres long, but very slow going. Descending was incredibly technical, involving many dismounts. For much of the climb I hauled myself and my bike over rock and root steps, following marker arrows that indicated a half-hidden trail switchbacking up impossibly steep bush-clad slopes. It would be faster without the bike, it was unlike anything to be found on dedicated mountain bike trails - a real adventure. And, like the previous day, it led to an incredible descent - over 800 metres of height loss, via a seemingly endless series of switchbacks. It was rough, technical, fast and almost as exhausting as the climb up. I rode well within myself as I was riding solo in remote country - it wasn't worth risking an accident. After the final few kilometres following, a fun and undulating trail high above the Wakamarina River, I emerged into sunshine on the valley road to Canvastown. Unlike the previous day, I had allowed plenty of time and I really did have a wind-assisted cruise for the last 20 kilometres to Havelock.
The YHA at Havelock is well placed to end the day. The town has lots of eating options - from a well stocked supermarket through to fine dining. Green-shell mussels are, of course, a fixture of most menus.
The following day was arranged around my 1pm Interislander sailing back to Wellington. Although my legs were toast, a gentle ride along part of the Queen Charlotte Track was a manageable option. This needed an early start to meet a pre-arranged Cougar Line water taxi at Mistletoe Bay at noon. The Queen Charlotte Track is rather beautiful and, compared to the riding of the previous days, smooth and fast. The climb out of Anakiwa was dispatched quickly, with plenty of time to stop and soak up the sun and views and enjoy the freshly baked pastries I picked up in Havelock. I was left with a rip-roaring descent to Te Mahia saddle and on to Mistletoe Bay. I arrived, tired and happy, in plenty of time to doze in the sunshine waiting for my ride.
Thoughts about staying in a cabin here, refuelling, washing my clothes and spending an extra couple of days riding filled my head. The Cougar Line arrived right on time, before I succumbed to temptation, and whisked me to Picton. The Interislander crossing home was calm and easy, an opportunity to reflect on a superb adventure and to start planning my next visit over the Strait to Marlborough.