Saturday, March 9, 2024

Getting back to my roots and rocks

As regular readers will have noticed, my cycling volume dropped away considerably over the last few years.  There were multiple factors, including work pressures, my "new road" addiction (and the lessened interest in roads well worn), and that my now 50-year-old body was increasingly not coping with the stresses and strains of sitting on a road bike for hours on end.  

Strictly speaking, I was a cycle commuter long before I ever put knobbly tyres on, and started the slow and sometimes painful process of mountain-biking.  My first three rides were to Red Rocks and then two laps of Karapoti in 1998, which in hindsight wasn't the nicest introduction to the sport!  I hit my peak on or abouts Karapoti day in 2013 (an account and comments that literally just brought tears to my eyes as I reread them).  Dabbling here and there since has generally triggered some relief that hard-won skills had hung around to a decent extent.  But, I never rode so regularly that I was able to experience the stress-free haven that riding on the road came to provide.  

About a year ago, I decided to take a punt by treating myself to a new mountain-bike, on the basis that it would force me out.  As a tip of the hat to past support given by Kashi Leuchs way back in 2011, there was never any doubt that the new bike would be a Yeti, and the shortest travel fully (then the SB115, now SB120) seemed to be a best match to my skills and inclinations. 

(Fortunately,) that strategy seems to have worked a treat, to the extent that virtually every homeward commute this year has involved at least 25 minutes of singletrack.  It has been fascinating to note how over that time, the trails have seemed to become wider, and the trees further apart, and that despite going faster, features that require attention and careful management seem to come at me more slowly.  The virtue of practice, I suppose. 

I haven't yet come a cropper (thanks in no small part to my front tyre hanging on for grim death on a couple of occasions), and the fuller body workout that is MTBing seems to be agreeing well with my lower back.  Cadence is all over the place, I'm up and out of the saddle more, and engaging my upper body and core - all good things, I think.

After a wonderful bit of travel with Sarah and Khulan just before Christmas, commuting, the occasional weekend ride with Khulie and/or Sarah, and a Wellington Anniversary trip to Rotorua, a discount voucher in my Inbox for the Motatapu Marathon event was just the prod I needed to book a trip to Queenstown.  I'd been acting dean throughout January, and since that had pushed my workload through the roof, heading south on the Wednesday seemed a good way of clawing some of that time back. As we watched cars on the Crown Range Road out the window of the plane, anticipation was high!

Shakedown ride - Wednesday evening

Our flight got in the late afternoon, but by the time we'd got to our hotel, and reassembled the bikes, there was still plenty of daylight ahead, and a short ride beckoned.  I needed to buy a whistle for the event, and at the bike store asked for a recommendation that didn't involve shelling out $55 a head for a single gondola ride.  With some loose instructions in hand, we set off towards Fernhill.

After a few minutes on the Link Track, we turned onto the Wynyard Loop climbing trail, which was beautifully constructed on steep terrain, without ever being steep itself.

We lost the scent when that track ended at a 4WD road.  We should have gone downhill slightly to pick up the Fernhill Loop track, but instead grovelled uphill on the road, and ended up in the midst of some humungous jumps.  There were dozens of spectators there, and we joined them for a few incredulous minutes.

Almost everyone we asked for advice was "here for the first time", but we did find our way onto McNearly Gnarly (about half way down) which took us to the start of the Fernhill Loop climb.  From there we rode to the very top of McNearly, before descending all the way to the lakeside, and cruising back to base, all the blood on the inside, and with bikes and legs appearing to have travelled well.  

We celebrated with a 3-foot long pizza, much of which was demolished, with the rest packed into baggies for ride snacks the next day.

Stats:  18km ridden

Day 2 - The Coronet Loop

Contrary to common sense, the Motatapu event wasn't the planned centrepiece of the trip.  Rather, I was most looking forward to doing the Coronet Loop with Sarah.

We had sampled bits of it on previous visits, namely an unpublished ride down the Bush Creek Track with Ash in 2020, and a foray into Skippers Canyon on our Opens on Christmas Day, 2021.  At those times, the loop hadn't been fully established, and I'd been looking forward to checking it out since it had started popping up in my Strava feed.  

As the Canadian's would say, we'd lucked out with the weather - a good thing, strangely.  After breakfast, we drove to Arrowtown, and after a quick coffee and muffin, located the start of the Bush Creek section, and started climbing under gorgeous clear blue skies.  One of the many Motatapu events was coming through here two days hence, and they'd already begun taping off short cuts.  

When we'd ridden with Ash there had been a number of challenging creek crossings which eventually soaked three pairs of shoes.  These had now all been bridged, and to make matters even better, deviations had been built here and there to lessen the gradient.  It was fascinating riding up something we'd only once come down, and trying to piece together years old memories to anticipate what was coming up. 

Having left the beech forest behind, we veered left, and before long were at the start of the Coronet Face Water Race section, with absolutely glorious views over Speargrass Flat and towards Queenstown.

The trail has some serious exposure, and it was kind of nice that the two riders we'd seen so far hadn't appeared along this section - for the time being there's no railing, but it wouldn't surprise me if some sections do have protection added, though hopefully not in response to tragedy.  

After sidling for a long while, we began climbing up to the road crossing - this we had ridden in the same direction, which mitigated the need for memory juggling.  We at a wee rest at the road, and I put up with a few grizzles about the effort required so far.  

Alas, we had a bit more climbing to do before the fun descent of Pack, Track and Sack.  I was curious to see what this was like on a more suitable bicycle.  Our fat-tyred road bikes had been remarkably capable, but I was nonetheless looking forward to doing it with proper brakes, excessive grip, and suspension!

Sarah moments after a tactical walk

We both successfully navigated the gnarliest section, albeit Sarah on foot.  The turnoff away from Skippers Road was a touch sooner than I was expecting, but it did cut out elevation loss.  Figuring correctly that Sarah's mood for climbing wouldn't have improved, I left her to it, giving me plenty of time to enjoy the stunning views from Greengates Saddle.

After chugging some of our pizza, we descended to a nifty old stone hut, very happy with our bike choices.  

We had a quick look inside, but didn't linger.  

Greengates Hut

Next came the climb up to Picnic Rock, and we sat for a while and soaked in the views.  After a bit more riding, including some stream crossings for which some effort was required to keep the shoes dry, we came to the base of the final significant climb of the loop.  Sarah got herself emotionally ready by having a lie down in the stream!

The climb took quite a while, and included sections of trail that seemed to have been built by lawnmower!  Occasionally, I thought I could hear some talking, and then spotted a fluoro orange jersey up the way.  It turned out this was being worn by a drone operator, to whom I spoke briefly before reconnecting with Sarah.  Before the top of the climb I passed a couple of women, who were the fellow's models.  After a brief rest, Sarah and I began the long descent to Arrowtown.

Our next milestone was Deep Creek Hut, which wasn't quite as quaint as the earlier stone hut.  

We soon after arrived at Macetown Road (actually a 4WD road) and began ducking and diving around bogs.  I'd mistakenly assumed we'd immediately joined the course I'd ride on Saturday, but it was quite a while before we came to a "Runners merge with Riders" sign that identified where the Soho descent actually hooked in.

Sarah and I had a bit of a debate at a bridge across the river.  She was reluctant to take it on account of the steps and steep track on the other side.  I'd seen the sign that indicated this was the actual loop, but succumbed to her desire to stay on the "main road".  Minutes later, we came upon the first of very many "Enter Here" / "Exit Here" sign pairs, guiding racers as to how they should cross the Arrow River.  Fuckity fuck.  

When we finished the ride about an hour later, I was rather cranky and was really regretting not taking the dry-feet route.  I got over myself soon enough, but...  ARGH...!

After loading the bikes into the back of our rental (no mean feat, as it turned out, but we were up to the 3D jigsaw puzzle), we set off for Lake Hawea to rendezvous with the Peters family: Steven, Ash, and Brook.  Our first glimpse of the wee one was atop a balance bike, being adeptly ridden no less!  

Stats:  50km ridden, a must for any fit MTBer in the region!

Cafe Ride Friday

The next day, Steven was off to Queenstown then Christchurch, so we were without his company.  Sarah and I dropped Ash's vehicle in Albert Town while Ash wrangled Brook.  Back at home, we were glad to have missed a random heavy downpour, but it had us wondering if our already underway plan would backfire.  Fortunately, the rain amounted to little and was perfectly timed.  We were soon rolling out without coats on!

We rode initially along the lake, before connecting onto the Hawea River Track which would take us to Albert Town.

Three of my favourite people in the world

We enjoyed a nice tail wind, plus a bit of gravity, and a mostly-content Brook.  Sarah and I became useful entertainment at times, with Brook reciprocating for the sake of the adults.  

We were all excited about a second breakfast at the Pembroke Patisserie.  We shared a table with a Tibetan family, who were holidaying from their current home in Canberra.  They were headed to Queenstown and Milford Sound next, and it was both nice to hear about their holiday past, present and future, and to be able to make a few suggestions.  

After driving back to Lake Hawea and catching up with a bit of work (email for Sarah and I, parenting and phone calls for Ash), we were well ready for a late afternoon outing, which included admiring That Wānaka Tree, or rather, gawking at the tourists going crazy over the once-willow-fencepost.  Despite visiting Wānaka a few times, I'd never seen it (or even heard the legend), and the feeding frenzy was something to behold.  

Dinner included an ill-fated order of Firebird Fries.  The menu did say "smothered in liquid cheese", but the order was more like "liquid cheese with fries", and my usually bomb-proof guts started screaming "ENOUGH ALREADY" surprisingly early into the meal.  I did stop before things got too dire, somewhat confident I'd inhaled enough calories to get me through the next day's event.  

At dusk, Sarah and I walked to the lake, and I watched her go for a short swim, during which I sat shirtless in order to minimise the pressure on my stomach!!!  (Yes, I literally took my shirt off to try to make myself more comfortable...)

Stats:  15km ridden

Motatapu Race Day

The event I think of as the Motatapu Marathon has been running the same weekend as Karapoti since 2005.  At first glance, the 8am start time was very civilised, but when we did the morning arithmetic, it still demanded a 5-something alarm.  

To speed up the breakfast process, I soaked some muesli overnight.  I felt a bit bad disturbing Ash so early, but on the other hand it was lovely to be able to say a proper goodbye to her, albeit while we were both a touch sleepy!  

We'd contemplated me driving alone and stashing the key for Sarah to collect later, but in the end, she decided to come with me to the start.  After registering, we had a quick coffee in the car together, before I said my farewells.  I was glad we hadn't started any earlier, as I think I would have felt underdressed, and later, I was glad to be done before the day really heated up.  

Only the day before, I'd discovered that Tour de France organiser, Jonny Douglas, was going to be in the field, and was delighted when he spotted me in the start chute.  A minute later we were rolling over the timing mat together, and a few seconds after that, I was stationary, giving his lovely lady Julie a big hug - a strange but totally necessary mid-race activity!

Jonny and I rode side by side for a while, chatting away - the first time we'd seen each other since a low-key 5 year anniversary celebration of our fundraising trip to France in mid-2023.  He stressed that I should go ahead if I wanted to, but we didn't separate until a longish climb about 7-8km into the event.  At the top, I'd sensed he'd drifted back (or that I'd drifted ahead), and after a quick glance over my shoulder, I decided to press on.

Jonny, on one of Anton Cooper's retired race rigs

The course was pleasant enough for a while - always double track, generally uphill, and in this big open country, the riding was simple, yet arduous.  After the second aid station, the course veered to the left, and we started climbing up a wide valley.  While visually dramatic, it was a real grind - there were regular stream crossings - all eminently rideable, but deep enough that I started feeling bad for my bike.  

To add insult to injury, the 4WD road wasn't seeing a lot of use, and often-times we were riding on grass - very sluggish indeed.  I'd felt relatively strong on the gravel surface in the first half of the race, and a few e-bikes aside, was generally passing people.  I could feel myself slowing down reinforced by the occasional rider who would overtake me.  This was a combination of growing physical fatigue, and I think a bit of a subconscious tantrum over the unmotivating surface.  Nonetheless, it wasn't lost on me that the best course of action was to get this over and done with, so I kept pedaling as hard as I was able!

Good things come to those that do, and that included the Soho Descent.  This was a win-some-lose-some affair, with the double track generally having a good side and a bad side.  The bad included some really muddy sections, which were sufficiently trench-like that it wasn't always easy to pop out of them.  At least bike washing services weren't far ahead.  

Soon enough, I was on familiar territory, namely Macetown Road.  There awaited a surprising effect - bright sunlight plus a white-ish clay from time to time combined to create a whiteout, and as far as my brain could discern, I was riding on an unblemished bit of pavement.  Of course that wasn't the case, but damned if I could tell, and there was nothing for it but to trust my bike.  Fortunately, it was well and truly up to the task, and I arrived at the first river crossing rubber side down.  The same couldn't be said for the half a dozen or so riders I'd seen tending to punctures - so many that it became weird to keep seeing them.

I hated the river section with a passion.  Most competitors were riding the crossings, and I'd flip flop between feeling bad for my bike (and carrying it across), and feeling like a bad racer (and riding through the water).  Even though the latter approach was pretty guilt-laden, it was interesting to note how possible it was to ride even when hubs and the bottom bracket were fully submerged - the modern mountain-bike really is quite incredible, and a sucker for punishment...

Eventually the torture was over, and a short section of dry land was a welcome way to finish.  

I wandered around in a daze for a wee while, but shortly after Jonny's arrival, connected with him and Julie.  Seeing them snapped me out of my river-funk.  

Rather than sift at the finish area, we made our way into Arrowtown, and enjoyed sitting in the sun out front of a pub.  We were visited there by Mark "Willy" Williams, who is an old university mate of Jonny's, one of the driving forced behind Queenstown Trails, and who I'd met at the 2012 Cape Epic.  Not long after seeing Willy, Sarah arrived, and after ducking to the shop, we all agreed to relocate to the Shotover River for a swim - a fitting reminder of the event handily completed.  

Just upstream of the Arthurs Point bridge over the Shotover River

Given Sarah hadn't had much time to catch up with Jonny and Ju, we had dinner together, and there made a walking date for the following morning.  That call enabled me to pack both bikes up - they wouldn't be needed again prior to the next day's flights back to Wellington.

Stats:  47km ridden, and a not-too-shabby 9th place in the 50+ men's category

Mt Crichton Loop Walk

We met the next morning after breakfast, and after a 10-minute drive towards Glenorchy, began our walk.  This was another great opportunity to natter, but also was spectacular in its own right.  We did the loop clockwise, at various times lamenting not being on a bike!

Highlights included more fantastic beech forest, and some pretty crazy evidence of the mining activity of a century ago, including a slot cut through rock to drain the water being used to wash away the hillside.

After Sam Summers Hut, the track got steeper, but no less beautiful.

Not sure if this waterfall was called "Sam Summers Shower" but it might well have been

Surprise of the walk came just before we started descending again.  We found ourselves out in the open overlooking Lake Dispute, which Sarah and I had ridden past on our Moke Lake Loop back in 2021, a few days before visiting Skippers Canyon with Khulie.  I knew the descent from that Lake had been fairly long, and it was amazing to realise how much elevation we'd gained during our walk.  

Lakes Dispute and Wakatipu

The walk back to the car was a good reminder of the previous days' activities, and from time to time I fantasised about being atop a bike.  Once back at the car, with no rules broken, Jonny and Ju dropped us back to our rental.  We thanked them for their wonderful (and surprise) company, and we hoped we see each other again soon.

I dropped Sarah at the airport, before returning to the hotel for the bike bags - much more easily crammed into the car without our additional luggage, and with Sarah's seat rammed forward.  At the destination, one's own bike is a godsend, but travelling with it is such a pain in the arse!!!  

Arrival into Wellington went smoothly, and we caught the airport bus into town, stashed our bike bags in my office, before connecting with Khulie for the drive back to Karori, tired but happy.  

Stats:  8km walked not ridden

* * *

Long term review of my Yeti SB115 purchase is that it has had the desired effect and then some.  It has not only been a great platform for a handful of adventures - this trip and Tasmania the notable ones - but in no small part has been the motivator for them.  In addition, the bike has also hugely enhanced my physical and mental wellbeing through regular commutes between town and Karori, sometimes with Sarah and sometimes alone.  Not only has it been lovely to ride, but it has also taken good care of me, and I'm under no illusion that on a lesser beast, I would no doubt be sporting a few extra scars!  

I may have been a bit rude about the Motatapu course in my description of the event, but it really was a privilege to be able to ride through the various private lands between Glendhu Bay and Arrowtown.  I described it largely as I experienced it, but that of course was tainted by the race-like effort that I was putting in.  Had I been riding at a more sustainable pace (and keeping my bike out of the water), it would have gotten a gold-star rating for sure.  If you haven't had a chance to do it, stick it on your list.  

This was also our first time travelling with the MTBs in our dusty old Evoc and ChainReaction bike bags.  Great success, in no small part due to a pair of after-market mounting stands for the bags (now available as Evoc Bike Stand Pro).  I install in the dropouts while the bike is upside down, and then standing upright on the garage floor, it becomes a breeze to remove (or replace) the handlebar for packing into the bag.  My SB115 clocked in at just under 24kg in the (12-13 years old) Evoc bag, while Sarah's heavier SB130 was sitting at under 23kg in the lighter CRC bag.  Both travelled well.    

Exhibit 2

Motatapu was a great excuse for a long long-weekend away, during which time we clocked up a nicely balanced amount of riding, swimming, walking, and socialising.  The stunning scenery and trail infrastructure were the foundation, but great weather and great people made it all the more enjoyable and memorable.  Thanks to all involved!    

Wednesday, December 27, 2023

MTB Road Trip Tasmania

Not twelve months ago, in summing up a curve-ball laden road cycle tour of Tasmania, I described it as "a spot that is begging for a rerun, perhaps with a mountain bike and campervan."  Not one to let a good conclusion go untested, once it became time to sort a summer holiday, I began digging into the idea.

Having committed to riding mountain bikes, the travelling party soon followed.  While Kaitlyn hasn't touched her bike since starting university some 5 long years ago, Khulan averages a few rides on hers a week, and by now has probably spent more time mountain biking in her life than I have in mine.  While I can still hold my own on a climb, it only took a couple of years for her skills to surpass my own, and the gap has only widened since!  Wonderfully, she was interested in joining Sarah and I, and we booked a period which would include Katy's final law exams, hopefully to soften the blow on all of us that she wouldn't be joining us this time.  

I was initially less sure about the motorhome side of the equation, but upon exploring options for getting three people and three large mountain bikes around Tassie, it did seem like a good way of ticking both the transport and accommodation boxes off.  I booked a whopping 6-berth vehicle, figuring that while Khulie and the parents slept in two of the double beds, the three bikes could occupy the third.  None of us had any campervan experience, so there was an appealing novelty factor too.  

Transport to the airport was a bit of a hoot.  Stacking three bike boxes on the roof of our corolla might have been possible, but I discovered one box sat very nicely between the boot and our bike rack.  It was remarkably satisfying getting three large boxes, and three beautifully proportioned riders across town, and thanks to my brother Ed's imminent PhD graduation, my father Geoff was on hand to be our driver.  

Unwilling to inflict the drive on Geoff at 3-something in the morning, let alone ourselves, we booked a room at the airport Rydges, and the next morning, after a smooth check-in process, hit the Air New Zealand lounge moments after it opened at 5am.  Khulie was a bit battered and bruised once we finally buckled up on our flight to Hobart - a quick dash back to the domestic terminal was required to retrieve her helmet, but her carry-on load was lightened due to some oversized lotions and potions.  I guess in the scheme of things better to be replacing creams than a helmet.  

Thanks to the early start and the 2-hour time difference, it was only late morning when we landed in Hobart.  I caught a cab to pick up our RV, and that done it was a short drive back to the airport to collect Sarah, Khulan and our luggage, ever mindful of the necessary 3.5m clearance!  When I stood at the doorway with the first box, the door suddenly seemed incredibly small and the box incredibly big.  It was some relief to get not one but all three boxes up into the vehicle, and our game of 3D-Tetris underway.  

Mount Wellington, Hobart

By the time we'd plugged in to our first powered site at the Hobart Showground Motorhome Park, hangriness was threatening to overcome both Khulie and I.  We set out on foot to a nearby cafe, and ate before either of us were tipped over the edge.  Our return trip took us past a huge outdoor store, where Sarah and I picked up a pair of heavily discounted jandals each, which were put to great use for the remainder of the holiday.  Bellies full and feet freshly shod, things were looking up!

Back at the RV, we decided to assemble the bikes, and that done, put them to some good use.  The North-South Track on the flanks of kunanyi Mt Wellington beckoned!  

By good fortune rather than good management, our parking spot was perfectly positioned.  We were not only a few minutes' ride from the Intercity Cycle Path which would take us into Hobart, but also just down the road from the Glenorchy Mountain Bike Park, from which we'd emerge a few hours later.  What's more, a stonking tail wind would help us get our legs warm and take the emotional edge off the paved start to the ride.  

It took us a couple of hours to get onto the North-South Track itself, forgoing the final paved kilometre by skipping the very top section from the carpark at The Springs.  We'd climbed almost 600m vertical to reach our version of the trail head, but within 600m horizontal, it dawned on us that we would be justly rewarded.  Indeed, it was apparent our very first ride was setting the bar incredibly high, and it wasn't lost on any of us that this might just be the best track of the trip.  

When the bush wasn't blowing my mind, the use of rock in the trail surface was.  

When we reached the upper boundary of the Glenorchy mountain bike park, the style of the trail changed dramatically a couple of times, becoming narrower and steeper initially, and then into a slalom of jumps and huge berms.  It paid not to be distracted by the grazing kangaroos!

As shake-down rides went, this was one hell of a pick, and it was well worth sneaking in.  In all, the loop was 38km and soaked up about 5hrs, including a sit-down dinner and a supermarket mission.  

Maydena Bike Park

The next morning, we drove 80km to Maydena, a small settlement part way down a long dead end road.  Upon arrival, we rebuilt the bikes from their travelling configuration (front wheel installed for Khulie's bike, and both pedals and wheels added for the parents'), and that done, made our way to the Maydena Bike Park Guest Services centre.  

Having done zero homework, I was guided through the various options by a helpful staff member, drawing the conclusion that for the first day at least, we'd require only a $20 Mountain Pass each.  This gave us access to a 380vm ascent on a series of Climbing Trails as far up the park as the Midline traverse, beyond which we would need to use the shuttle.  

Sarah on Giddy-Up

Between Midline and the bottom of the park was the top of the "Lower Mountain Uplift", and while consulting a large map there, we were helped by a friendly Australian, who described our "decision paralysis" quite accurately, and then helped ease it somewhat with suggestions!

Heading along Midline to the Outer Limits track

Having made two ascents to Midline, and enjoyed some very well designed and built track below it, we retired to Left of Field campground, about 12km back down the road, and after showers, walked to the nearby pub for dinner.

The next morning, it was pretty wet, and for a while we contemplated alternative options, including a drive to the Gordon Dam at the end of the road, and even a gravel road loop.  In the end, we hardened up, and decided to have another two and a half laps of the lower park, the last of these fueled by a very good pizza from the park cafe.  

For our third and final day, we upgraded to a shuttle pass in order to enjoy the upper reaches of the park.  The first descent was very cold, and I was glad to have worn a woolen t-shirt under my riding jersey and jacket.  To this point, Sarah and I had generally ridden the same trails as Khulie, but we separated more often so she could enjoy putting her superior skills to good use!  

We did three full uplifts, each giving us a good 40-plus minutes of descending time, peeling off a whopping 700vm per lap.  

Sarah on Green Room

By the time we were done, the three-ride mix of pedaling and shuttles seemed perfect.  There were many more trail choices below Midline, and the climbing trails had been a fun and cost-effective way of sampling them.  

We did find the track grading a bit hit-and-miss, with some of the intermediate (Blue) tracks definitely being a step up from the harder (Black) trails.  We found it was best to keep your wits about you at all times, and be prepared for the odd tactical walk!  

Yeti SB115 looking splendid atop the Maydena Bike Park

After a bit of bike cleaning, we settled in for the three hour drive to our next spot - Queenstown on the West Coast.  Sarah and I had toured on much of the route we drove, and it was fun to reminisce.  

Mt Owen MTB Trails, Queenstown

We awoke to pretty grimy weather, and I was kind of glad I hadn't been organised enough to book shuttles into the upper reaches of the Mt Owen MTB Trails.  

Shuttle-only access to the North Owen Descent

Nonetheless, we were able to climb almost 400vm over six very nicely designed kilometres of trail, before clocking up almost as much distance on the descent.  

Near the top of Sledge Track

The network basically followed a ridge parallel with the road we'd driven down the evening before, with the spectacular Horsetail Falls feeding the valley between them.  We were afforded great views over Queenstown itself, and the road, and at various times could make out the airport perched atop a hill.  

Going down on Sticht Up

The geology of the area was apparently very complex, and the track surface was constantly changing, at times spectacularly so.  There were a few white-out sections where it was pretty hard to make out where the track was.  Aside from the upper-most loop which got a bit muddy at times, it was a pretty perfect surface to be riding on in the wet.  

Welcome to Queenstown

In the Tour de France, they'd call this a transition stage, but the short ride in cold conditions helped break up our driving foray into the West Coast.  I'm sure that a sunny day would call for at least one uplift to the top of Waterfall.

After a bit of arithmetic, I decided to forgo a visit to the Silver City trails in Zeahan, instead driving as far as Devonport to set us up for our next ride in the Wild Mersey network - a recommendation from a fellow I chatted to during one of our shuttle rides at Maydena.  

One of Khulie's superpowers is the ability to sleep upright, and as far as I could tell with regular glances in the rear-view mirror, she missed a fair bit of the scenery on the 200km drive.  Much of the route was new to me, and overlapped with last year's riding route only between Tullah and the Cradle Mountain turn off.  Sarah and I had a short walk to see the Anthony Dam at Lake Plimsoll, though the best views from below the dam were probably off the road.  Cycle tourists take note!

Looking up Lake Plimsoll from Anthony Dam

Wild Mersey

Our overnight stay in Devonport was short but pretty action packed.  When we arrived at our campground in East Devonport, the whole side of the town was experiencing a power cut, thanks to  someone in a ute who had recently decided to take on a power pole.  From our table at an Indian restaurant by the Mersey River, we watched one of the massive ferries departing for Melbourne.  It couldn't have been much more than 100m from us, and the restaurant was virtually at sea-level, and the boat was incredibly imposing from our vantage point.  After we'd turned in, the heavens really opened, but at some point our brains decided that we no longer needed reports of the heavy rain on the campervan roof, and we all slept soundly enough.

After breakfast, we made the short drive to Sheffield, where we had an extra coffee and picked up a paper map of the Wild Mersey trail network from the information centre.  Google helped us to find the trail head carpark off Nook Road.  

For me it was pretty much love at first sight.  A section of the Tasmanian Trail bikepacking route took us through to the small town of Railton, along which time we snuck in a beautifully designed wee loop of Shredwater Creek + Ewoks.  Perhaps the heavy overnight rain in Devonport had completely bypassed this area, but if not, the area had drained incredibly well, and fears of a mud-bath were unfounded.  

Tasmanian Trail section aka the Railton Rattler

We stopped for a pick-me-up at a very bike friendly cafe in Railton, replete with MTB magazines on all the tables, before setting off on an almost 100% single track loop back to our vehicle in Sheffield.  

As we climbed away from a suburban area on Green Hornet, I thought I saw either a small snake or a large lizard.  Whichever it was, it disappeared pretty quickly off the track as I passed it.  

After a couple of short but fun climbing trails, we were offered a track which wasn't on our paper map - Raptor Ridge.  We'd just added a short loop, and so incorrectly assumed this extension wouldn't be much longer.  WRONG!  The extension actually added 10km, and took us an hour and a half!  The track was sweet, but it was both physically and mentally demanding.  

Trying to keep the troops entertained!

Back on the main loop, we continued climbing.  We lost Sarah for a few minutes when she decided to take an unintuitive turn up at a 4WD crossing.  That was briefly stressful, but was no match for what came next.

With words like "exquisite" and "sublime" running through my mind, I was greatly enjoying a technical climb, and like a typical Kiwi cyclist with nothing particularly worrisome on the ground to watch out for, was intently focused on a spot just beyond my front wheel.  Consequently, I didn't spot the snake sunning itself on the trail until I was alongside it.  At that point, stopping would have been catastrophic, as one of my feet would surely have ended up on or very near the snake, so I pedaled increasingly frantically.  Initially this propelled my bike forward, but then my chain dropped and for a couple of pedal revolutions my bike went nowhere.  At that point, I hit the eject button, and ended up in a heap off the side of the trail.  I didn't lie there for long, not really knowing where old-mate snake was...

Back on my feet, I looked at my bike only to see the snake's head trapped between my chain and the lower jockey wheel of my rear derailleur.  In many respects, my dear Yeti could not have done a more perfect job of saving me than this, with the pointy end of the snake being kept well away from my ankle...  

By this stage, Khulan had stopped a few metres away, and we both watched as the snake successfully extricated itself from my drive train, and slithered away into the bush.  

I ran diagnostics, and concluded that all my divots were caused by hitting the ground, rather than directly due to the snake.  It seemed that I'd probably live to tell the tale.  Far from feeling great about that, this whole experience was a real buzz kill, and very chilling.  

For a start, I felt stupid for not being better prepared to avoid this, by adjusting my riding style to suit the potentially treacherous trail conditions.  It was also incredibly freaky to come so close to having a serious incident with this "large and highly venomous" Tasmanian Tiger Snake.  Getting bitten would have put us all in a really bad situation, and we hadn't studied up how best to act if it did happen (i.e. we hadn't read the likes of this advice in advance which compelling advocates for staying completely still).  

The good news was that I'd appeared to dodge a bullet.  The bad news was that we still had plenty of riding ahead of us.  Taking point once more, I desperately tried to interrogate every tree root, fallen branch, shadow and blemish on the trail ahead, this time well before passing it.  Between that impossible task and the snake encounter, the absolutely stunning trails through to the end of our 50km loop were not much fun, and I was absolutely frazzled by the end of it.  The distance blowing out the way it had, plus the drama, had worn all of us down.

Luckily we were the only ones that day who had bitten off more than we could chew...

After loading the bikes we were able to calm our nerves with a 150km drive to Bridport.  In hindsight, we should have stopped for dinner in Launceston, but fortunately a pub were willing to serve us after their kitchen had begun to wind down for the evening.  

Blue Derby

The next morning, it was a relatively short drive to Derby, where we set up camp in Derby Park in the absence of a powered campground.  We were a touch unprepared for there to be no convenience store in the wee town, so had to make a couple of trips to nearby Branxholm - no big deal in a car, but a bit of a drag in a motorhome!  

We found a flattish parking spot, and who did we find as our next door neighbour?  None other than the fellow who'd kindly given us advice at Maydena.  This time we properly introduced ourselves to Kevin, who was making his second months-long break from work and as a result knew Tasmania and its MTB jewels very well.  He was getting ready to head out for a ride on his E-bike, and invited us to join him.  

Kevin treated us to a short but stunning loop in Blue Derby, the self-proclaimed "home of Australian mountain biking".  The orientation ride was really helpful, the trails were beautifully designed and built, and fun to ride, AND THERE WERE NO SNAKES TO BE SEEN.  

Below Tasty Trout Falls

Heading into Krushka's

Khulie on Krushka's

Khulie, Kevin and Sarah at the top of Twisties

Heading into the long and (fortunately) lit Derby Tunnel

Derby main drag

After showing us back to the trail head, Kevin headed in for another lap, while we celebrated with a half dozen donuts from one of the main bike-stores on the main road.  It remains curious to me that a town that can sustain no fewer than five bike shops doesn't have a shop where you can buy groceries (the Post Office sells a few bits and pieces, but I think stock goes pretty quickly, e.g. all the loaves of bread first thing in the morning).  That said, at least there were plenty of dinner options, and we opted for some delicious wood-fired pizzas.  

The next morning, we set out on our own.  One of the nice features of the Blue Derby network are a set of seven loops of varying lengths and grading.  These are displayed on a map board at the trail head, but better yet are signposted throughout the park, and are easy to follow.  We (or, I, on behalf of...) chose loop 7, which is the longest of the loops, and usefully, less difficult than "Very".  

We were soon heading up a nifty set of switchbacks, and enjoying what I have no doubt are among the world's best climbing berms.  Sarah decided to follow Khulie and I up a rocky short-cut, but didn't quite give it the commitment it required, and my photo captured disaster-in-progress rather than success.  

From there were gathered ourselves, and headed up to the Black Stump shuttle point and beyond. A trail aptly named Dambusters took us around a lake perched a couple of hundred vertical metres above the town.  

Cascade Dam

Sarah and I took a different descent to Khulie, and actually made it down to the bottom before her, thanks to an echidna she felt compelled to stop to admire.  Despite energy levels flagging, we stuck to my plan, and ascended Krushka's for the second time in two days, enjoying the quirkily-named features along it, as well as the trail itself.

De La Vu

Big Mama

Sarah and I decided to join Khulie on a descent of Cuddles, and soon found ourselves at the top of an imposing rock face.  There were a couple of lines which looked rollable, including the one that Khulie had long since taken.  Among the spectators at the bottom was Kevin, and we were peppered with advice about how to proceed (and how not to).  I had a mind to attempt the middle line, but as if the track weren't intimidating enough, the hollering from below had me chicken out.  I stewed on that for the rest of the ride, testament to the saying "better to regret something you did, than something you didn't".  

Khulie on Cuddles

 Loop 7 done, Sarah and Khulan were happy to head back to the camper.  I'd had a mind to add on Loop 3, but made do with a blat around Lake Derby.  But not before popping in to a couple of shuttle operators.  The second I tried, Vertigo Bikes, had not long before cancelled a shuttle of Blue Tier and Altas, two of the higher profile rides in the area, but with the three of us keen, kindly agree to haul us the next day.  

Lake Derby, in front of the bike shop laden town

The shuttle booking wasn't quite what I'd intended, but I realised it was likely the only way it was going to happen.  The Blue Tier trailhead was almost an hour's drive from Derby, and sets you up for a lovely 22km ride into Weldborough.  From Weldborough, the ride up to the start of Atlas would have only been 7km on a 4WD road, but our package included a shuttle of this leg as well.  I figured best just to embrace it!

Aside from the chilly start to our third day at Maydena, the temperature had mostly been perfect - never too hot, and generally not too cool that a riding jersey wouldn't suffice.  This morning was a bit of an exception though.  I used the same strategy as I had with the Maydena shuttles, and wore a merino t-shirt under my long-sleeved jersey.  Sarah seems to be warm no matter what - sturdy Mongolian stock, I guess - but Khulie only had a couple of winters there, and to make matters worse, I hadn't provided clothing advice before we'd left.  Luckily, in the first 10km of trail, we only descended 50m, so there was plenty of pedaling to generate some heat.

We'd now become well accustomed to the Tassie style, and expected the beautifully shaped trail, and stunning use of rock as "natural" armouring.  Blue Tier was no exception, but strangely none of us were willing to rave about the trail once we were done.

We opted out of the Little Chook climb to re-ride the final couple of kilometres, and instead made a beeline for the pub, where we sat and ate a very grand lunch of burgers and chicken parmi, alongside our driver. We excluded him from the family consumption of a serving of bread and butter pudding, with croissants being the secret ingredient.

Thanks for the special service, Vertigo MTB

Kevin hadn't been a big fan of Atlas, but for some reason, I really loved it, and in some respects, it might have been the track of the trip for me - our very first, the North-South Track in Hobart, being the closest contender.  Eventually, we converged on Dambusters from Day 2, and soon after, sidled across to join Krushka's once more.  Khulie descended on Trouty, while Sarah and I took a less technical but much longer series of tracks back to base.  

We farewelled Kevin, and thanked him for his helpful advice both at Derby and Maydena.  An hour's drive later, we were on the hunt for dinner in St Helens.  After our dinner-like feast at lunchtime, we made do with a picnic lunch, albeit in the camper, and back at the Big4 campground.  

St Helens Mountain Bike Trails

The next morning, I was the only one with any inclination towards an additional ride.  Unfortunately the timing and relative location of the trailhead meant that we would need to check out from the campground, and the park hub was deserted when we all arrived after a 5km drive.  I aimed to ride for only an hour, and figured that Sarah and Khulie could give their bikes a fit-for-NZ-biosecurity wipe down while I rode.  

I didn't quite wrap my head around the stylised maps at the St Helens Mountain Bike Trails carpark.  There were three, each at a different zoom level, but I didn't click that they weren't completely nested, so the most zoomed-out map didn't have everything on it.  The user was meant to splice them together, which this user didn't realise...  Anyway, I wasn't intending to go far, so jumped on the first track away from the Trailhead, and followed the arrows!  

Makes perfect sense, now I'm not in a rush!

I wasn't carrying a pump, so wasn't delighted to see a lot of very angular rock on the tracks, but I managed to avoid having any issues.  Despite being dry and a bit skatey in parts, the design was familiarly awesome, and I really enjoyed the solo blat.  Without consulting my photographs of the maps, I turned back half way up Garn Up, and that brought me back to the carpark only slightly outside my predicted hour.  

That had us well on track for the 240km drive to MONA, for which we had 2pm tickets booked.  I made an ill-fated and premature stop for food before we hit State Highway 1.  Khulie reported that her coffee at least smelled like coffee!!!  Khulie seemed to enjoy her first visit to MONA, and Sarah and I both agreed that twice was probably enough.  In any case, it was well worth giving up a bit of flexibility for.

Looking at Mt Wellington and the Glenorchy bike park from MONA

6-berth Deluxe Motorhome

I said to a few people before the trip that I expected to either love or hate my first campervan experience.  A few dents in my head aside, the latter certainly wasn't true.  

The vehicle was surprisingly easy to drive, though my experience improved when I found how to turn off the lane encroachment alarms - it would ping me whenever I tried to smooth out a corner, either by cutting into the shoulder, or crossing the centreline, and avoiding this was both stressful and meant the van rolled around a wee bit more than I liked.  I also ended with slightly more tolerance for campervan drivers that do not pull over to let following vehicles pass - at least on the narrow Tasmanian roads, this was surprisingly difficult to do.

Khulie and I were definitely in sync inside the vehicle, and seemed to flow around each other well.  Sarah was more often in the wrong place at the wrong time!

We had three configurations that we swapped between:

1A.  Bikes mid-vehicle with the rear in dining mode.  We ate breakfast together at the back of the vehicle each morning, with a bit more space each than we'd have got in the middle berth (which also had a table).  Khulie's bike went into one of the two small boxes inside the single larger box, with both pedals on and the front wheel removed.  With the rear padding on the seats in the central berth, the large box would be nicely wedged in, and we didn't have to secure it.  We would take both pedals and wheels off the two Yetis, and rest the frames vertically inside the third bike box.  After a bit of experimentation, the best approach seemed to be to have the forks in the centre of the box, and in the corners have one of our handlebar grips.  A bungee kept the frames together and a second bungee to Khulie's bike was used to stop the box from tipping out.  

Early version before we'd realised the merits of removing all pedals

1B.  Bikes mid-vehicle with the rear in sleeping mode.  We'd set this up just before bed-time.  The rear table became a mattress base, and we'd have to move some padding around to build up the mattress.  We'd jointly committed to never using the in-van toilet, and also chose not to bother with the shower, so the bathroom compartment became a useful storage facility for Sarah's and my bedding during the day.  

2.  Bikes at the back of the van for driving purposes.   This was necessitated by the fact that the only additional seatbelts were in the middle berth, so we couldn't leave the bikes in the middle berth.  Fortunately, the boxes fitted snuggly in the rear space, so they wouldn't slide around when I was driving.  The wheels were a bit of a pain in the arse, but we mostly lashed these together with a bungee and used them to stop one of the kitchen drawers from flying open around corners (its latch was busted).  

We never took the boxes outside, so they remained pretty clean.  Moving them around in the vehicle did add some wear and tear though, and had they not got a drenching on arrival to Auckland, probably would have been destined for the recycling bin anyway.

I regret not watching the instructional video a couple more times, as I never fully got my head around the power systems in the vehicle, and in particular the LPG option.  We were pretty light users really, even considering the two nights in Derby Park where we couldn't plug in, but it would have been good to have a better sense of what the contingencies were, and to know how far we could squeeze the power consumption while free-camping.  Another time, perhaps!

Ever so occasionally, I wouldn't think far enough ahead, and stowed the bikes post-ride in the wrong place, but by and large, operating in and around the vehicle was a fun use of my overly analytical approach to life.  I drove Sarah a bit crazy, as she was used to being the bossy one in the home, rather than the object of bossiness.  And, comically, back in Karori, our home feels a touch too large, and moving around it to do things (or find one another) is taking some getting used to!

* * *

All three of us agreed that this was a wonderful holiday!  

I clocked up almost 275km of riding, on my brand-new-to-this-blog 2022 Yeti SB115.  I've had it since March, and bought it hoping it would reinvigorate my interest in riding.  While I haven't ridden it a huge amount, every ride has put a smile on my face, and it has helped mix my exercise regimen up a bit. While Sarah is on a beefier SB130, the 115 really seems like a great match to my skills and inclinations.  The bike and I seemed to work very well together, and while I had a few refusals and short walks, the fat tyres, suspension and frame geometry all contributed to papering over the cracks in my technique, and I very much enjoyed the riding as a result.   

Try as I might to elicit some direction from Sarah and Khulie, the destination choices ended up being all mine. I haven't bought a MTB mag for years, and nor have I done many events, so am not really in tune with what is cool these days.  However, I knew to expect good riding at Maydena and Derby, and our touring route a year ago had me curious about Mt Wellington and Queenstown.  The rest I pieced together on the fly, with various online sources as reassurance - this expose from Flow Mountain Bike would have been a great source from the get-go, and probably wouldn't have made much of a difference to our ultimate itinerary (though might have had us regretting the "shortness" of our 10-riding-day window).  In terms of the "ones that got away", top of the list next time would be the Bay of Fires ride from the start of Blue Tier out to St Helens, and Silver City out of Zeahan.  

Previous touring route, plus the MTB destinations named in red

As far as mountain bike destinations go, having sampled Tasmania in this way, I cannot recommend it highly enough, particularly to those that aren't averse to pedaling.  The trail design and construction starts to feel very familiar, but it really is top shelf, so never starts to feel boring.  Stitching the destinations together isn't trivial, i.e. you do need a vehicle, and while we didn't explore Airbnb-type accommodation options, I'm sure there are plenty that would make a station-wagon or similar a viable option for a couple of people.  The wildlife is mostly of the cute variety, but do watch out for the snakes - a close encounter is fucking terrifying, to put it mildly. 

The cost of living in NZ has been prominent in the media for a long while now, so I was quite surprised by the high grocery prices.  Meals out were also expensive, so worth planning around that.  Maydena, Queenstown and Derby all had paid riding options (indeed, at Maydena, you couldn't ride at all for free).  In future, I'd tend to reserve shuttles for the long point-to-point options rather than the multiple uplifts of a single hill.  Otherwise, you're looking at adding $100 a day to your budget, which adds up very quickly (especially with multiple riders).  

At regular intervals, we lamented the absence of Kaitlyn, even acknowledging that the RV would have been pretty cosy with a fourth person.  From time to time, someone would bring up an anecdote from some of our early family holidays, but particularly our last to the Bay of Plenty.  Kaitlyn will move to Melbourne soon to finally be with her man, Danny, and we all wonder if a campervan holiday might be a good way for her to get acquainted with back-country Victoria, and us to spend some quality time with her.  In June we will reunite for a two-week (no bikes) trip to Mongolia - Khulan's first in over a decade, and Kaitlyn's first-first.  Where one door closes, others open, and rest assured we will look for any opportunity to pop over for a visit. In any case, Katy was never far from our minds, even though this trip format almost surely wouldn't have suited her well.  

It is easy to forget how far Sarah has come from the early crash-marred days of MTBing.  She did end up considerably more bruised and battered than I was, but nonetheless seemed to have a very successful time across a range of challenging terrain.  No surprises that she remains my very favourite travelling companion!

Having Khulie with us was both an honour and a pleasure.  I dare say she feels grateful for being invited, but to my mind the gratitude is more appropriate in the opposite direction.  I've no doubt that she would have had a wonderful time riding with anyone but her parents, and would have instantly made friends with the cooler set that were in abundance at Maydena and Derby in particular.  It was nice that she didn't ditch us, on many levels.  When she started out-riding me on the descents at 15 or 16, it never struck me to feel stink that I was slower than my daughter, and today, I feel a great sense of pride, admiration and love for her generally, but also for her incredible talent on the mountain bike in particular.  We were also regular beneficiaries of her work ethic, particularly when it came to assembling or disassembling the bikes.  She was a great companion, and a privilege to ride and be with.  I can't wait to do it again some time.  

After an incredibly shitty year at work, this trip feels like just the anti-venom I needed, and a very nice note to end 2023 on.  Wishing any and all a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.