Rambling Around the Marlborough Sounds

by Dave Mitchell

The Marlborough region at the top of NZ's South Island is a mecca for mountain biking - covering the full gambit from "ego" singletrack to impossibly steep fire trails. You could get lost there for a fortnight and still find new bits to explore. In this first hit of a two part tale, I'll yarn about a couple of the Marlborough Sounds' outer islands. In the second part we'll get down 'n' dirty on some tasty singletrack.

For over a decade our beloved Margaret Thatcher advocated short sharp shock therapy for the masses. Being declared mtb masochists, four of us picked up the baton and ventured to Arapawa Island, sandwiched between the Queen Charlotte Sound and the head of the Tory Channel (birth place of the eponymous party). The hills there are short, sharp and a bit of a shock. The Island has a big reputation for its goats, bad weather and strange occurrences. Well how do you get there? Swimming with your bike is out of the question, so we hitched a boat ride with the kind people at Dolphin Watch. They off-loaded us at Te Aroha Bay where we were greeted by our hosts - Mary and Roy. Bikes and gear were hauled to our cabin hidden amongst the manuka in this cool valley at the base of Mt Narawhia. Tons of space for tents. There's no electricity but gas for cooking and candles for lighting, plus the obligatory outside loo and shower.

Arapawa Island is a mixture of open farm land, scrub, exotic forest and DOC reserve. It is spectacularly steep and gnarly, with views to match. We headed up the steep, loose and rutted track on the south ridge of Narawhia to inspect the secret "UFO landing site" (another government cover-up). No flight due today. Then more of the same along the tops into the DOC reserve - quite a grovel. The North Island is within spitting distance - Cape Terawhiti being a mere 20kms away, as the moa flys.

The following day we headed west around Otanerau Bay on a rough farm track then up and over the back bone of the island to Okukari Bay. Some interesting sites with WWII gun emplacements complete with "secret squirrel" tunnel and the old whaling station in Whekenui Bay. DOC have done a grand job restoring this tasty morsel of NZ history. Further around in Te Awaiti Bay are relics of NZ's first shore whaling station of 1827. So much history, so little time. A huge lunch and then Pete went and busted his rear derailleur. We quickly converted his bike to a trendy single speed and continued up to the Arapawa summit before traversing back to Te Aroha Bay in the mist. There are other tracks which head north to Otonga Point and south to Umuwheke Bay. All are on private land and require permission but Mary and Roy are happy to help - just bemused that anyone would want to mountain bike there.

We then relocated to D'Urville Island - a cool place inundated with native bush, thanks mainly to the absence of opossums. It's just a short hop from French Pass on the water taxi. The skipper (come mail man, come tourist guide) fixed us up with some accommodation in Kapowai Bay and gave us the contact details for the local farmers. From Kapowai at the south end of the island we headed north on the main drag - a little used shingle road which climbs to around 600m then bobs along the tops for about 40km. Around three quarters of the island is DOC reserve so you are cruising through beautiful native bush most of the time. Shortly after Mt Ears you pop out of the native scrub to discover a relatively barren section - not unlike Nelson's ultramafic zone. Weird. Continuing on to the sharp end through undulating farm land we eventually made Cape Stephens. What a spot, with awesome views of the Bishops Cauldron, the Sisters, Hells Gate, Stephens Island and of course Stephens Passage. So much to absorb and we still had to return to the blunt end. We staggered into our little house well after dark.

The next day it was an easy jaunt to the west coast, some different bush, great views and a well deserved rest. Our final day took us towards Wells Peak and Owhata. Good fortune saw us stumble upon a local farmer who suggested an alternative route. We scored a rip roaring ride down to Bullock Bay and back around the coast to Owhata and home. Then back to the mainland to dream up our next excursion.

Nitty Gritty

Arapawa Island:
  • Getting there: contact Dolphin Watch. Ph (03) 573 8040. 
  • Accommodation: cabins or tenting - Arapa cabins, Te Aroha Bay. Contact Mary and Roy Ph 0800 222 467 
  • What to bring: bike, tools, spares, sleeping bag, tent, lots of food, plenty of fleece, rain shells, plus a big heart and lungs. 
  • Riding conditions: Farm track - some very rough, most quite steep. A good 3 days riding to be had. 
  • Maps: NZMS 260 Q27 
D'Urville Island: 
  • Getting there: contact French Pass Sea Link, John and Charmane Ruesink, Ph (03) 576 5337. 
  • Accommodation: Many options - inquire at French Pass Water Taxi. Try to position yourself centrally (unlike us). 
  • Riding conditions: Gravel road with very little traffic; 4WD track; and some steep bulldozed pylon tracks. A good 4 days' worth of riding. 
  • Maps: NZMS 260 P25, P26 
  • Follow the Mountain Bikers' Code. Respect Others; Respect the Track; and Respect the Rules.