A tip: if when going over a trail map with a local, and said person asks you if you’ve ever mountain biked before, and then starts laughing when you say no…that is probably not a good sign.
I anticipated a leisurely day. We would rent mountain bikes, board our water taxi, head to our drop off point at Torea Bay on the Queen Charlotte track, ride downhill on gravel roads, and end up at our pick up point with enough time to chat about the day’s events with a cup of coffee and a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. I had no idea what I was getting into, as evidenced by the photo below. Probably the last (and only) photo you’ll see of me smiling on this trip.
Look how cluelessly happy I am – in my head I was thinking that this would be a piece of cake, especially since we were on bikes.
The first part of the trail was on a paved road – we were told this was the easier way. By ‘easy’ the guy at the mountain bike store just meant ‘paved’ — it was a complete uphill climb, where we not only got lost several times, but had to get off and walk our bike uphill more than once.
And then we hit the dirt trail, and I understood why the mountain bike guy said the paved road was easy. The Queen Charlotte track is a single track. I understood that to mean the roads were narrow, but that they would be otherwise rideable and mostly gravel. When they said single track, they literally meant a track…like a tiny train track-like groove carved in mud, created by people riding in the exact same spot over many many years. On many portions of the trail, you had to hit your bike wheel just right into the slot/groove no wider than a couple inches, and then ride the track exactly in a straight line. Sounds easy enough, right? Try riding a bike on a straight line and tell me if that’s easy. Now add to the fact that your other option was jumping over slick rocks to get down hill. Those were the two choices: track or rocks, each with their pros and cons. Rock path was wider, but slippery, and if you caught the edge of your wheel, sayanara. Track path was grooved, but muddy, and impossible to stay in a straight line. If your wheel varied at all within the track, catching the side of the track wall, then it was curtains for you. Rock trail + track trail together was less than 2 feet wide. On the right side, a cliff, on the left side, a drop off.
Did I mention this was sold to us as a trail for “novice” mountain bikers? Maybe novice in NZ terms, considering NZ people are probably like 100x more extreme than the average American or something, but for a first time mountain biker like myself – a true novice – this scared the crap out of me. When the trail was wide enough to be what I thought was closer to my idea of a mountain bike trail, it was composed of all rocks and gangly roots. I should also mention that my bike had no shocks whatsoever (and again, I learned the hard way what ‘shocks’ meant). Let’s just put it this way. If it were humanly possible, I could have had babies with that bike. Holy. Crap. It was the rockiest, worst, most uncomfortable biking experience ever. And we did it for something like 9 hrs.
At one point, while negotiating my bike wheel in one of the tracks, my wheel caught the edge. The next thing I knew, I was being pulled down the hill, and not like down the hill in the direction I wanted to go, but OFF THE SIDE OF THE CLIFF. I started screaming for Sly who had ridden ahead of me, while trying to frantically untangle my leg from the wheel. Slowly but surely the momentum of the heavy bike pulled me down. I was terrified and forced myself to face plant just so that I could get a grip on the rocks and have a fighting chance of using my arms to keep myself from going overboard. I thought for certain that I was going to lose that bike, if not myself and the bike. Somehow, I managed to scrape and claw my way back up the moutain (dragging my stupid bike behind me, legs still entwined). Sly finally realized I was MIA and came back to find me trembling and shell shocked. By then, I really wanted to quit, but we didn’t have that option. We had to get to our pick-up point or figure out another (worse) way to get back home (most likely by riding 50 miles back to town).
So, as cliche as it sounds, I got back in the saddle and gritted my teeth the rest of the way down, bottom lip quivering, and practically in tears as I crossed slippery, muddy bridges composed of a single busted plank of wood, “jumped” over slick, wet rocks and gangly roots, and did my best to keep the stupid wheel of my bike in the track. In total, I fell off my bike no less than 10 times, although none as dramatic as when I almost got dragged off the side.
If you’re wondering how Sly was handling this bike ride — he thought it was fun.
Notice the complete change in expression: completely terrified, focused, and anguished. This part of the trail was easy, I wish I had photos of the “train track” portion that comprised like 60% of the trail.
A ‘bridge’ – you can’t tell from this photo but since the trail was mostly down hill, when you hit a ‘bridge’ like this as you picked up speed, only to hit rocks on the other side, all the while looking at the drop off on the left-hand side, well it basically sucked.
These photos don’t do the trail justice. From these pictures it looks like everything was great, and the trail was a cinch, which is what I had originally thought from looking at lovely photos in all the brochures. What a joke.
We were about 2 hours out when we saw a sign (like the only sign on the trail indicating where to go) that said our pickup point was many miles away. I had a mini meltdown. I thought there was no way in hell we were making that boat, and that we’d be stuck on the trail til the wee hours of the morning either lost or trying to find our way back to our car. Sly went into military mode and started drill sergeant-ing me all the way to our final destination. Miraculously, we made it just in time. By the time we arrived at Anakiwa, the boat had already arrived and had already started loading. And then, just as we were about to board…we realized that we couldn’t find our return tickets!@()#$!)@!___@*@#@
Thankfully, the captain had a roster, our names were on the roster, and they let us board the water taxi. It was the best feeling ever, like winning the World Series or something.
When we returned our bikes, the mountain bike guy asked us what we thought of the trail. My response was, “Uhhhhhhhhhmmmmmmm…” And once again he started laughing with a slight michievous look in his eye. He replied, “pretty rocky, huh?” and then laughed like we were finally in on the joke. Stupid tourists.
That night, we left the South Island behind and took the ferry across the water to the North Island (another reason why it was imperative we made it to our pick up point on time), where we would resume the remainder of our trip before leaving for home. As sad as I was to say goodbye to the beautiful South Island, I was really really happy to be leaving the Queen Charlotte track. All said and done, as much as I whimpered the entire time, I would do it all over again (although I’d get a shock absorbent bike seat next time. Holy Moly). It was definitely one of the most memorable experiences on our trip, and one that Sly and I still laugh about today.
On the Ferry to Wellington – goodbye South Island!