A good life on two wheels

00:01, Dec 26 2012

I am up to my hips in the salty Marlborough Sounds washing off mud and sweat, but not the underlying bruises.

There's the shriek of a plunge, a hasty retreat to shore, then the blissful knowledge that all that remains of my day will be spent on a sun-drenched deck over lapping waters, sipping beer and eating fries like I deserve it.

And I do.

The day started with an hour's boat ride through the gorgeous sunlit Sounds to Ship Cove. It is recognised as Captain Cook's favourite New Zealand base, with 170 days spent at this anchorage between his first visit in 1770 and his last in 1777.

The historical information supplied on large panels at the site, was made even more fascinating by its ability to delay the first leg of the Queen Charlotte Track that I had been warned would be gruelling.

A boat-load of garden tourists on a Hunter's Garden Marlborough tour provided further opportunity for procrastination, but eventually the call of that deck and beer and sunshine tore me from historical yarns and flora small talk and up the hill.


It is a long push up, on feet not pedals, but over before we know it, and then a rattling, squishy ride down, over rock, mud, brook and tree root, putting my fairly basic mountainbiking skills to the test, and an exhilarated smile on my face - in between the grunts and grimaces at each unexpected bump.

I've been a tramper for many years, prone to frowning at mountainbikers tearing past on their metal projectiles with flying mud, whining brakes and warning cries; so it was with apologetic smiles and effusive greetings that I made my way past walkers.

By the end of the first hour, however, I had decided biking the track was far more fun than walking it, and had mentally justified our defection to metal projectiles by considering the input of the cycling contingent to track fees, water taxis, restaurants and accommodation on the track.

At 71 kilometres this is one of the longest pieces of continuous single track in the country and its coastal access means riders need not carry much food and clothing, instead having their luggage shuttled from one port to the next by boat.

Mark Nelson, at Picton's Department of Conservation, says best-guess estimates are that 11,000 people complete the track each year "and a reasonable percentage" of those in summer are cyclists.

Many experienced mountain bikers do the whole track in two days, or even one, racing up and down those hills with finesse.

But for those of us with less time in the saddle, prone to pushing their bikes up hills and gripping the brakes the whole way down, three days is a better bet.

We're on a three-day package that balances the mud, sweat and muscle ache of the ride, with the hot showers, good food and comfy beds of a lodge. We stayed our first night in the backpacker wing of Punga Cove Resort - preceded by swim, spa and long hours at the great waterfront bar - and the second at the lovely Lochmara Lodge.

While the package is "budget", it feels luxurious after four hours on a bike. Even better, we are handed a brown paper bag at the start of each day with our delicious packed lunch, which we devour at beautiful vantage points while looking down over the stunning blue Sounds.

On our second day, we climb another few saddles, earn some new bruises on the way down, and finally come to the Lochmara Lodge track, aware with every metre we descend, that we'll be climbing it again the next day.

But within half an hour all thoughts of climbs are gone, as we plunge again into the sea, then sit on the beach watching our children, brought out for an afternoon visit by my babysitting parents, giggling on an inflated tyre in the water.

From there they are off up the winding pathways in the hills behind Lochmara, visiting the eels, weta and kakariki within metres of the restaurant; these creatures just a fraction of the lodge's ecological endeavours

Just 10 minutes from Picton, this is an easy spot to catch up with friends and family, and it has to be said that there's nothing to make a parent feel more free than to have their children pop in for two hours, then disappear before dinner.

Fair dripping with hammocks, from the edge of the beach-front restaurant, to glades in the art dappled bush, Lochmara is built for relaxation, which is lucky, since Mark is asleep in his chair by 5pm.

We eat a delicious meal, including poulet we saw hot smoked by the chef that afternoon, then sink into bed in our gorgeous Bellbird room, bothered only by a rowdy tui outside the window.

The three-hour cycle out from Lochmara to Anakiwa, even including the climb back to the track, is the easiest of the trip, with an undulating trail through beech forest and peeks to the water below.

That's a nice coincidence, since my body is too tired for much more than a gentle, though muddy, exit from the Queen Charlotte Track.

The Marlborough Express