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The boat ride the next morning was back to Torea Bay, to complete the track with what looked like an easy sort of effort, only about 19 kilometres.
We knew the day would start with a grunt. The combined tarmac and trail ascent gets riders to 407m, in about 2.5 kilometres. You can peer almost straight down on the jetty where you started. That sort of caper continues for quite a way, and it makes things tough. All that effort was rewarded with a spectacular view from the day’s second high point, and a very exciting switchback descent.
The relatively mellow ride from there to Anakiwa was made more interesting by the clock, we were running late; and by the e-Bike, which for the second day had run low on power. Where the first day’s battery outage was softened by a mostly downhill finish, the run to Anakiwa was rolling trail with plenty of ups. We rode it at the best pace we could muster, and got to a slightly miffed ferry pilot about 20 minutes behind schedule, then had to wait for the unfortunate e-Biker, who sprinted down the jetty five minutes later.
A long discussion over beers at the Oxley ensued – how to recommend the Queen Charlotte to bike riders? Moving on to the excellent (if slightly rustic) Jolly Roger café, the discussion continued at dinner. We reckoned all of it would pay back reasonably fit and able mountain bikers in spades – every section has something to put a smile on your dial.
The gem is definitely Ship Cove to Camp Bay, and that’s the part that is closed to bikes during summer: December 1 to the end of February. The rest of the trail would be fairly brutal on a hot summer day, and you would miss the best part during the height of summer. We reckoned a shoulder season foray would be best.
The last day of our Marlborough adventure was to be an assault on Nydia Bay. This trail has been talked about for decades, and even raced in the NZ Enduro. How I had managed to miss out on it until now is a mystery, but my time had finally come.
The drive to Havelock behind us, we met up with the very helpful Kelly, from Destination Marlborough, who would drop us at the trailhead then drive around to Kaiuma Bay to retrieve us. That is an aspect of the Nydia Bay ride that needs to be factored in, if you want to take in the entire 27 kilometres in a single serve.
We decided to add in the Opouri Bridle Track, so Kelly delivered us to the Opouri Saddle and we dropped straight into some of the best trail you will find, anywhere. Benched into steep terrain, the Bridle Track drops over 530m in about five kilometres, so it is nearly all downhill but never very steep.
The trail is all rideable, but not by me. The consequences of failing on some sections would not be good, and we were on a day-long mission we wanted to complete intact. Having said that, on the Bridle Track there were only a few spots that needed a quick dab or a dismount, and most of it was ridiculous fun.
The arrival at Duncan Bay, where the road ends, is an anti-climax: the trail pops out directly onto the road, which meanders along the shoreline to a jetty, and the start of the Nydia Bay Track proper.
The trail climbs gently, hugging the coast and offering up views of the water all the way. There were a few root snaggles along the way, but pretty soon the trail tipped upwards and the real fun started.
The Nydia Bay Track is a nicely benched trail on a very climbable grade – but every so often it presents a very interesting challenge. It might be a tangle of roots snaking across the line, and the next little heart-stopper might be a rocky outcrop that has resisted the trail builder. So you tripod over it, or dismount and walk a few paces. Intermittent watercourses traverse the trail, some are dry and can be crashed through, some are running with clear water, are steep sided, and slippery as eels.
From the ridge to the sea at Nydia Bay must be about as much fun as you can have on a mountain bike, as long as you watch where you are going.
It is possible to ride most of the ‘maybe’ bits with the momentum of going downhill on your side, and cackling to yourself while you clatter down a tricky but rideable section unscathed is a rare pleasure. Except when it isn’t rideable. Those bits come along without warning, see above about watching where you are going. Cam would go ahead to scope out photography opportunities, and sometimes station himself so he could catch us as we came along. I saw his head and shoulders over the crown of the trail ahead, and looked at him for a poofteenth of a second too long. Just enough time for my front wheel to drop off the trail, which I got a close look at a split second later. It was a funny crash, no harm done, made funnier by the fact that Cam hadn’t stopped for a photo op, he had also upended himself.
We dropped in to Nydia Bay at the same time as the rain that was forecast, and we were glad to have completed the descent in relatively dry conditions. Pristine forest gave way to scrappy pine forest, with every piece of machinery that has ever come in by boat, then worn out, still laying around. Simple little houses were dotted among the trees, and the trail became muddy and almost swampy in spots.
At Nydia Bay Lodge we pulled off the track to have a look and a bite of lunch. The Lodge managers were in residence, although the Lodge was a month or so from opening for summer. They were keen for a chat, and brewed us a coffee which was a welcome treat. We sat on the veranda and watched the rain, chewing over the day so far, as well as our sandwiches. We reckoned anybody who relished riding a difficult trail would love Nydia Bay track, but anybody at all would enjoy walking in for a stay at the lodge, and the walk back out out again the same way.
An out-and-back bike ride would also be a goer, with a bit more hike-a-bike on the return trip, but an easier descent to finish, and no need for a shuttle.
For us though, we were heading up another climb, now in a howling gale and sideways rain. The climb through farmland and up to Kaiuma Saddle is actually higher than Nydia by a few metres, but it’s a lot less difficult. So is the descent – it is not easy, but it’s not as gnarly as Nydia, even in the rain. That weird transition from native forest to plantation pine always amazes. The trail surface changed from weather beaten rock and tree roots to cushioned orange pine needles, and we dropped the final few kilometres into a valley and across a stream before a last fairly brutal climb.
The last downhill was wide open, an easy run down to the Kaiuma Bay road and Kelly in a waiting car, complete with a change of clothes and warm dry interior. Havelock put on hors d’oeuvres at the Mussel Pot - another excellent dinner at the Captain’s Daughter, and the bike trip was done.
We were all pretty pasted by this time. Over 100kms of unfamiliar trails, saving the toughest for last, and a solid 4000m of climbing, made for three long but incredibly rewarding days.
Marlborough had turned on a varied and top quality selection of mountain biking, and Picton had become a new favourite New Zealand town. The top of the south has a heap more trails to offer, and we were all thinking about the next visit before we had even departed.
Words: Gary Sullivan
Images: Cameron Mackenzie