People who come to Picton don’t tend to spend much time there.
Of course you can sip a flat white coffee in a waterfront cafe and stare out to sea. But after that, most people hop on the ferry to New Zealand’s North Island, or rent a car and cruise south along the coastal road.
They are all missing out on something special.
There’s a 72km trail called the Queen Charlotte Track that winds along the bays and climbs over the highest ridges giving you the perfect view of the two beautiful fjords.
It’s one of the top 22 cycling trails in the whole country, and was listed as one of New Zealand’s “Great Rides” about five years ago.
And thanks to its stunning scenery, the number of cyclists who rent mountain bikes in Picton is rising every year.
The starting point alone is worth it, as cyclists head out on a post boat, a journey that many tourists book as a day trip.
Gazing down, a catamaran sails through Queen Charlotte Sound, framed by densely forested hills. You can see that the inlet was once a river valley, just like all the fjords branching out in Malborough Sounds.
When the sea rose at the end of the last ice age, it washed into the valleys and side valleys, creating a picture-perfect labyrinth.
Tourists have been travelling here at least since the mid-19th century, taking boats and seaplanes from Wellington along the rough waters of the Cook Strait. Some even built holiday homes.
Nowadays, too, tourists come here for the peace, staying in secluded cottages dotted throughout the bays.
In Blackwood Bay, older gentleman with a white moustache stands waiting for his mail. The captain of the post boat hands him a sack through the side window. After a brief chat, the boat pulls out again.
The captain calmly steers the vessel from bay to bay.
Suddenly, he brakes and turns into a flock of short-tailed shearwaters. There are dolphins chasing about, diving and jumping among the seabirds.
“They’re black dolphins, ” he says. “The smallest of the four dolphin species here.”
Some 250 years ago, Captain James Cook sailed through these inlets and hoisted the British flag on Motuara Island, now a bird sanctuary. Cook claimed the whole of New Zealand’s South Island for the British Crown.
He then dropped his anchor permanently in Ship Cove, the bay that marks the beginning of the Queen Charlotte Track starts today. He spent 168 days in the cove in all, over seven years.
He clearly liked it and it’s obvious why: The turquoise waters of the bay are framed by ferns and palm lillies, and there’s a creek rushing alongside. It’s the perfect start.
You can reach the first hostel by evening and it’s a joy. The Furneaux Lodge is a century-old mansion with a fountain in front of it.
Follow the gravel paths to the bungalows – and there’s also a hot tub overlooking the bay, a real luxury for a hiking trail here, where the choice is usually between a tent or a dorm. But there’s about a dozen lodges, hotels and resorts along the Queen Charlotte Track.
The next day, you can cycle along Endeavour Inlet, through a sparse forest and crossing several wooden bridges.
The section from Ship Cove to Camp Bay is the most popular part of the whole route.
It’s a long ride but a detour had to be made, to the Punga Cove Resort.
The cafe on the jetty is buzzing with reggae music. Sailboats are moored out at sea. “Many cyclists take a break here, ” says Mariana Teran, a 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.”
That’s because the section of the trail from Ship Cove to Punga Cove is closed to cyclists from early December to late February – most of the summer.
The first time the trail rises steeply is after Punga Cove and you have to get off and push – despite the caffeine boost. Luckily, after 15 minutes, the trail joins a flatter road before you reach another steep section.
You head up and down along the ridges. Some parts are stony but drenched in sun. On other sections, you find yourself slowing down as you curve your way through the forest of pines and southern beeches, splashing through the mud beneath a dense canopy of leaves.
Magnificent views open up over the fjords again and again. After the Torea Saddle, you’ll need to push the bike up another steep hill.
By evening, you’ll wheel past alpacas and llamas as you head for the Lochmara Resort. It’s also a private zoo, attracting hundreds of daytrippers who come to feed the goats and admire the parakeets and the stingrays down in the bay. You can reach into a tank and touch the starfish. And at night, the larvae of long-horned mosquitoes glow in the bushes.
It’s a spot no one is in a hurry to leave. – dpa
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