Discovering Pelorus: Missing the Boat

Startled by my alarm, I awoke, pulled on my long johns and searched for the tent zip. Time for a brew. It was still pretty dark, but I could just see a few mountain peaks starting to emerge above us.

At this point, I realised we were in steep, steep country. No flat white for breakfast today. Nick says, “Camping added a whole other dimension to the trip. Free camping on the first night was a highlight for me. Although we rode a couple of hours longer than planned and then were only able to find a barely habitable spot to pitch our tents at 2 am. But the feeling of being out in the middle of nowhere, and the tranquility of our location when waking up to Tour Leader gently yelling ‘Get up, time to roll out!’ makes for awesome memories.”


After searching for the flint, I lit the stove, boiled the kettle and pressed some fresh coffee with my American Press. Four thick, dark coffees to go would get us ready for the challenges ahead. I knew it was going to be a long haul. We needed to get up over the Maungatapu Track (800 metres above sea level) and into Havelock before 10 am in order to catch the Mail Boat. We packed up, pushed our laden rigs onwards up the steep track, and reached the summit after several hours of pushing with a touch of riding. At one point Bob said, “We’ve [only] traveled 2 km in half an hour.” I think we summited around 10 am. Given we still had about 30 km of riding until Havelock and the Mail Boat, the day’s plans needed to be altered. We chewed on raisin bread while discussing options B, C and D, staring off at the sunlight creeping through rows of alpine peaks.


With new plans in place, we descended a rough, rocky, but incredibly scenic track. From high above the tree line, we plummeted back into the forest. Black beech was abundant on the steeper slopes while hard beech was more common on the lower slopes. The road sent us out alongside the Pelorus River, whose rapids, rocks and milky turquoise water were definitely southern.

We popped out onto Pelorus Bridge, amongst a crowd of backpackers and campervans.  Pelorus Bridge is home to a variety of forest birds, both native and introduced. Although not always easy to see, their birdsong can often be heard. The Te Hoiere/Pelorus River drains a large, mostly forested catchment.


We walked into the Pelorus Bridge Cafe a little jaded, and grabbed cold drinks, pies, iceblocks and coffee. Once replenished, we held a planning conference. There’s nothing better than an old-school map on the back of a brochure to explain the rest of the day’s proceedings. By this time it was 1 pm. Note: Give yourself plenty of time for the bikepacking leg before a transfer trip, and expect the unexpected. We hatched a plan to ride the entire way to French Pass, the day’s final destination. First we needed to negotiate a main highway, Rai Valley and Okiwi Bay; then we’d be out in Pelorus Sound. The final section from Okiwi Bay into French Pass would encompass 40 km of mainly gravel roads with around 1,200 m elevation gain.


During our ride in and out of Rai Valley, my phone came into reception range and I was bombarded with messages. I ignored most of them (as I was busy?!) but responded to the text from the Pelorus Mail Boat skipper, which read, “No sign of you this morning. We are going to have to leave without you. You don’t have signal, so you must be too far away.” Clearly, we missed the boat.

The road into Pelorus Sound traversed the peninsula’s spine, offering sea vistas in every direction; particularly incredible were top to bottom views of steep, rugged bush mountains dropping into the sea. We were now in our eighth hour of riding. Nick cautions, “A good attitude is essential. This is something which is easy to say, but not so easy to accomplish when the going gets tough. There were definitely moments when I was not enjoying the sweltering heat as I labored up a slightly-too-steep-for-my-gearing climb. At times like that it’s invaluable to have a riding buddy to suffer alongside. Or know that you’ll be regrouping in 30 minutes to tuck into those gourmet licorice bars you bought at the last outpost of civilization you passed through.”


At around 7:45 pm, after riding through a high pass with almost no visibility, we finally rolled into French Pass, the end of the road at the peninsula’s tip. We high-fived each other on the pier, exhausted but stoked by the day’s effort. We had covered 102 k with 2,600 m climbing on mostly track and gravel roads in ten hours! Not a bad day in the office.


Setting up camp right on the beach was something special. The sun ducked behind the horizon and we fired up the gas stove. Yes, I was hungry—but more thirsty; No, I didn’t want water—I needed a bloody beer! Earlier on the pier, I’d befriended two campervan owners and jokingly asked if there was a local pub. Of course, there wasn’t, and even the local store was only open an hour per day (if that). They pulled out four beers from the fridge in their camper and said, “Here you go, these are well deserved.” I swear beer has never tasted so good.

Stay tuned, the next chapter will be published online on the 26th of March.

Words & Images: Liam Friary & Nick Lambert

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