Mountain biking axe weilder

Trip Start Jan 16, 2007
Trip End Aug 20, 2007

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Flag of New Zealand  ,
Tuesday, May 1, 2007

I know this is tardy (again). An inundation of entries is about to begin.

Thankfully the ferry crossing from Wellington to Picton was pretty much as smooth as it could have been. I didn't see any of the famed dolphins that grace the Marlborough Sounds on this leg, but when I returned nearly four weeks later there were several pods relatively near the boat. From the look of them they were Hector's Dolphins, but I could be wrong. The distance from Wellington to Picton is not especially long, but a good proportion of the time is spent negotiating the Marlborough Sounds. These are possibly one of the most picturesque entrances to an island I've been through - relatively large hills (500 metres or so) cloaked in native bush. Whilst some introduced plants, noticeably pines and gorse, have colonised some areas, one can imagine that the sounds are pretty much as they would have been several hundred years ago when the first Europeans sailed into them.

As the weather was absolutely fantastic at Picton, I chose to hang around there and see what I could do in the area. I'd seen a reference to mountain biking in the guide book, and after looking into it at the tourist office, had booked myself a bike for a couple of days. The idea of this was to mountain bike the Queen Charlotte Track - one of the Great Walks of New Zealand, and one of the only ones that you are allowed to mountain bike. A great attraction of this track is that you carry no more than your day pack with you. Some bright spark had the idea that, as the whole thing is surrounded by water, bags (as well as you plus bike to the start) could be transported by water taxi. Fantastic. Beats trying to lug everything around. Neither are there any basic backcountry huts to contend with, as hostels are the order of the day. This absolutely sold it to me (plus the weather being pretty good).

With the afternoon to spare after the ferry had docked and the bike booked, I took myself on a tour of some of the Marlborough regions wineyards. As it was just me driving, I could only visit a few, and had a bit of a rest after the second one so that I stayed on the road. Famed for its sav. blanc as well as others, it's quite a cool setting for vineyards, surrounded on two sides by quite impressive mountain ranges, topped off with a dusting of snow on the high peaks.

I set off for that the next day on the first water taxi up to the start, and on the boat found someone else who was doing the track as well on a bike. On a gap year just out of school, he'd also thought it'd be a laugh to do. As it turned out, he was doing the track over the same length of time as me - 2 days, and though he started further round the peninsula (slacker!) I caught up with him before too long.

I'd forgotten how much tougher mountain biking is compared to regular road biking. Not only are tight gravel bends down hills a hazard for your health (especially when there's a 200m drop on the other side!) but roots and the subsequent erosion around them are a pain in the arse in more ways than one. The first day was absolutely miles longer than the second - it was something like 50km compared to 21, and as the days were closing in, the night caught up with us before we'd finished. Luckily Joe (the chap I met) had a torch with him, so we were able to see where the hell we were going through the last couple of kilometres of mountainous, rock strewn bush. What added to the excitement were the constant rustling sounds in the bushes. More likely to be Weka (looks like a Kiwi, but is one of the cheekiest birds ever, and without the big beak) than wild boars, the possibility of being charged by a rabid beast on a mountain side with no mobile reception is always something fun.

The heavy rain that fell overnight made the second day brilliantly muddy. Apart from a couple of slight uphills to begin with, it was nothing like the first day, where it felt as though you went over every available hill. The final 11km were the best of the two days in terms of the speed you could keep up. Racing through groves of tree ferns, it felt as though you'd suddenly been transported back several million years. It would not have been out of place for a dinosaur to waddle round the corner! After a dip (albeit extremely brief) in the chilly waters of the sounds, it was back to Picton. I could have cycled the remaining 20km on the road, but when someone's got a water taxi, why make the effort!

After resting up in Picton, I made my way over towards the West Coast. On the way I made a start on my investigation of the Fives courts in New Zealand. I've managed to find quite a few during my time on the South Island, and all (apart from two in Nelson) are of the same style - esentially a Rugby court in their overall layout (no butress, regular floors and walls) though Eton in the sense that they have no back wall. There's no roof either, which can be a problem when it rains (as it often does) in New Zeland.

As I went down the west coast I passed a fur seal colony at the otherwise rather unimpressive town of Westport, as well as the Pancake Rocks at Punakaiki. The cliffs at this particular place look as though a mad chef has stacked several thousand years worth of pancakes together. Scientists aren't too sure how they formed as they did, but the current boffin thinking is that they are a partial product of stylobedding (google it).

Aware that the weather can, and generally does, play havoc with any plans arranged too far in advance, I left organising anything weather dependent until the last possible moment. One of these was anything ice-bound on either the Fox or Franz Josef Glaciers. As it happened, the day that I wanted to do anything was forecast to be crystal clear. Wanting to save my pennies for something else, but also wanting to have a cool (pun!) time, I gave the heli-hiking a miss but plumped for the ice climbing instead. This proved to be rather a good choice, as we still got to walk pretty far up the glacier to the ice walls (obviously they move all the time, so how far you walk can vary week after week) but also spent quite a bit of time weilding ice axes and crampons on walls of varying degrees of difficulty. After an initial teaching session on a low bit of wall, we were off - 6 of us to 3 guides. Not a bad ratio. Relatively easy once you've got the hang of it, it's amazing how much the crampons hold you. There's only one rope holding you up should you fall, and this goes someway to focus your mind when deciding where to plunge your ice axe, as one false slice could send you plummeting 20 metres down the glacier. We did a couple of climbs on the 20 metre section, and a couple on the 7-9 metres ones. The past week was probably the most exercise I've had in a while, what with the biking and the ice climbing. It's pretty easy to do something physical every day in New Zealand. The distances are much more palatable than in Australia, and it only requires a couple of hours driving to get from one place to another, rather than a day or so in Oz.

Pretty much as soon as we'd got off the glacier for the day, it began to rain. The for came in as well, and it was like that for much of the week. Timing!
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