I kitted up with a sense of trepidation this morning. A small bump on my right sit-bone on night one had changed dramatically somewhere during day 2, and the small shaving mirror revealed a raw patch of skin about 2cm across - not unlike the result of tearing a blister off. I'd showered each night, and though I was wearing the same pair of shorts each day, I was giving the chamois a good rinse each night. I was also applying liberal quantities of some Sweet Cheeks Butt Butter which I'd been given by Simon and Sarah for Christmas. This barrier cream has all sorts of goodies in it which take care of the skin as well as act as a traditional chamois cream, so by and large, my skin was in good nick... Except for this rather large raw patch... Lashing of cream on each sit bone, and a little more around the place, and I was as good to go as I was going to get.
We made our way to the office almost exactly on 7am, only to find Andrew McLellan waiting outside, eating from a bag of chippies. He reported that the proprietor was off collecting the mail, so Simon - notoriously a slow starter - asked if I'd mind sorting out the bill, and he'd get a head start. No worries...
The payment process seemed to take an eternity, partly due to the strange behaviour of the EFT-POS system, and it's reliance on the motel's in-house system. I was getting pretty annoyed and was about to suggest he just process the payment, and sort out his paperwork once I was safely underway, but the third attempt worked, and with that I was off.
The road over to Reefton tipped up almost straight away, providing an immediate response from my legs. At the same time, light rain started to fall. Initially I stopped and put my Ground Effect Flash Gordon on, sans sleeves, but by the top, the rain had picked up, and the temperature had dropped, and on went the sleeves.
The climb to Rahu Saddle was very pretty, but it was weird to be on the road with traffic whizzing past after so long off the beaten track. The descent on the West Coast side was very fast in places, and suited me well. Once down in the valley though, my lack of a good aero position, and the minimal breakfast I'd had before leaving the motel started to take their toll. Even my iced (instant) coffee prepared the night before didn't seem to perk me up much. Just as I had had enough of trying to keep pace with Simon, who'd summitted Rahu Saddle before me, but who I'd caught up to on the descent, we entered the outskirts of Reefton. Minutes later I was in the queue at a likely looking cafe on the left.
While I was deciding what to eat, I saw the largest coffee ever being delivered to another customer. I quickly scanned the blackboard menu to see a 4-shot latte on the list for a paltry $6. On the one hand it seemed like a great idea, but I was not confident I'd hold it down and restricted myself to a mince and cheese pie, muffin, and a large (but not enormous) latte. These all slipped down nicely, and I started to feel a little more human. Andrew, Simon and I ate together, and chatted to a couple of cycle tourists who were also enjoying their meals. I grabbed a BLT sandwich for lunch, and headed outside to make the call-in. As I did so, a woman cruised up the street with an enormous touring load - front and rear Ortleib panniers fully loaded - twice as much as Andrew, Simon and I had combined was my remark to the message service.
After a quick stop at the local supermarket for some bars, bananas and drink, and a quick detour back to the cafe, and then further back to the public loo for a pit stop, and it was time to ride Big River.
The turnoff was not quite what I remembered from the mapping I'd done, and I think Andrew had the same misconception that I did. We stayed on the highway a little longer before making a left turn up Soldiers Road. The note I'd typed on my cell phone read "Big river rd signposted 100m after alborn car park. 4wd to big river. Track into Waiuta". That didn't give much insight into what was to come, and I hoped it would be as obvious as what I'd obviously thought from the Kennett Bros' write-up.
After a long climb up the gravel road, we passed a campervan parked off to the left, and then a sign to Big River. There was also a red Powerade bottle lying on the side of the track, which I picked up. 30m up the track, Simon had stopped and was applying suncream. His bike was leaning against a sign, partially obscuring it. I asked "which way", hinting that I couldn't see the directions on the sign. He laughed, and pointed me up the wrong way.
The Big River track was mostly ridable, with some nice sections of riding through native bush. Simon caught me in a pretty spot and suggested a photo, and after I'd retrieved my phone from him, he disappeared up the track. I wouldn't see him again for quite a while.
The last bit of climbing before making it out to Big River itself was littered with fist-sized rocks, and I had little choice but to walk my bike through here. This was the first sustained section I should have been able to ride, but couldn't, and so I was a little disappointed with myself. Nonetheless, progress was good, and walking was a nice opportunity to ease the pressure on my butt and hands, and give slightly different muscles a chance to take over.
Big River was a fascinating place, with all sorts of infrastructure from an earlier time. There were large rusting steel tanks which were used to retain some chemical or other, and there were signs of an old pipeline on a the cliff beyond the river. I was astonished to see the state of the building nearby. Someone had mentioned that Big River Hut would be a reasonable overnight stop for the front runners who'd have easily reached Reefton the night before and might have chosen to push on for another few hours before stopping.
Closer inspection indicated the building was in no state to house anyone, and seconds later I noticed a modern hut sitting on a ledge elevated 20m or so above the valley floor. I pushed my bike up the track towards the hut, to find Simon sitting with Chris Tennent-Brown.
I grabbed some lunch, while they gave me a bit of an update. It turned out Tim had only just left minutes before, but they were virtually tripping over themselves to tell me Chris' story of the last night. He'd arranged to sleep on our floor, except we'd seen no sign of him since Blenheim (in fact, I'd not met him at all until now). It turns out he'd arrived at our motel around the time we must have pulled our bikes inside. They'd probably sat outside for a good 30 minutes while we showered etc, so it was pretty unlucky on his part (or maybe it was good luck). There had been a bike parked outside room 2 (we were in room 3), so he'd knocked on the door. The woman who answered hadn't seen us, but when the no doubt knackered Chris had explained his predicament she'd offered him one of her spare beds! We must have missed each other by minutes, but at least he'd got a good comfortable sleep, and a great story to boot! As for the morning, he must have left within minutes of us getting outside, depriving us of a good laugh at his fortunes for another half a day! Chris left a few minutes later, figuring we'd catch him quickly since he was on a cyclocross bike. We were on the move soon after.
I don't recall riding much of the Big River-Waiuta Track. There were bits and pieces that were ridable, but the uphills were largely walked, and there were many little waterways to cross which required the bike to be lifted first down into the creek-bed and then up out the other side. I pitied some of the riders with heavier loads, and hypothesized that some would have to unload their bikes to portage them across the more difficult sections.
During one of the crossings I caught up to Tim, with his rear panniers, and heard that he'd not only lost an hour or so by taking the scenic route up to the Reefton lookout, but had also had his rack implode and had had to do trailside repairs with a zip tie. I later read in his account of the Brevet that he'd also been stung by a bee during this episode. I stayed behind him for a few obstacles, but eventually my lighter set-up allowed me to get past.
The last bit of track into Waiuta was actually very nice, and mostly ridable. I had a classic mountainbiking spill - stall on a narrow bit of track, end up overbalancing towards the outside of the track, clip out to find nothing but air beneath your foot, quickly sort out a likely landing spot, and jump for your life! Luckily the bike and I both landed unscathed, and after getting us both back on track we were underway again. Simon was waiting at a style which surely indicated the end of the track was near.
Sure enough, we soon dropped down onto a 4WD track, and then rolled down to a T-intersection. My scant notes said nothing about this, and while a left turn seemed pretty obvious, I doubled back to a map board we'd only just passed. This seemed to indicate a right turn, but I neglected to correctly locate myself on the map. After a short ride up the right, we went back to the map and clarified that the exit onto the 4WD track was the right turn, and the map board was at the second intersection, with a left turn in order. A few minutes later we were passing through a seemingly tiny settlement with a name (Waiuta) which does little to indicate how remote and how tiny it is. Beyond this was a 4WD descent to SH7 and hopefully a late lunch at Ikamatua.
The descent was disrupted somewhat by a SUV cruising down the road. To that point, I'd been enjoying riding hard, and so when the driver apparently slowed and yielded to the left I little, I made a lunge for the right. Luckily years of cycle commuting on the narrow, hilly streets of Wellington have given me pretty good instincts around moving vehicles, and I aborted the passing manoeuver once I sensed the car cutting in towards me. While I'm sure at least the rear passenger had seen me, the driver seemed to prefer having both Simon and I hot on his tail than easing briefly to let us past. As the road straightened up he got away from us and stopped 300m up the road for a photo. I contemplated stopping for a quick chat, but thought better of it, and made my way past with out acknowledging them in any way.
The next distraction was a cyclist 150m up the road. After a quick discussion, Simon and I decided it was probably Thomas - our first sighting of him since just before Picton 48 hours or so earlier. We knew he'd almost got to St Arnaud on the first "day" something close to 400km, so it was no surprise that he'd made slightly slower progress in the next days. He perked up a bit when he saw us, and we cruised together into Ikamatua.
As we pulled up to the supermarket there, Jasper was just heading off, and I got stuck into some shopping. I think I made 3 or 4 separate purchases here, as my body kept asking for more. In addition to scoffing some sandwiches and baked goods, and sculling the odd drink, I also grabbed some tuna and crackers, and a tin of penne and meatballs for dinner and/or breakfast, as well as the standard One Square Meals, and other high-energy bars. While we were waiting for some manpower to arrive, I borrowed a phone book from the shop and rang the Jacksons pub, to discover that their kitchen would be closing at 8pm, giving us about four hours to get there.
The next section to Stillwater and around the north side of Lake Brunner through to Jacksons, Otira and up to Arthurs Pass was long, but relatively simple relative to the mission that was Big River and Waiuta. By the time we set off, there were five of us: Simon, Thomas, Chris, Tim and myself. We made good progress along Atarau Rd towards Blackball, with our 5-man paceline. For some reason I always seem to struggle in this format, and was happy when it fell apart as we neared the bridge back across the Grey River.
I was expecting a left at SH7, but made the correct right along with all the others. We soon turned up Arnold Valley Rd, and back onto the gravel. I was starting to wane at this point, but the 8pm deadline was looking pretty unlikely. Missing it would be pretty unpleasant, with no hope of food until Springfield back on the eastern side of the alps, at least not without jeopardising the schedule through to Hanmer Springs the next day. We passed dear Jasper on his singlespeed, amazed at how long he'd stayed away, and the group seemed pretty happy to let Simon and Chris forge ahead to Jacksons, and order on behalf of the group. While I wasn't feeling flash, I somehow felt uncomfortable with this plan, and sat on their wheels for a while, unable to rotate, but hoping to find some energy in time. I opened a pack of Gu-Chomps recommended to me by Peter Burke, and popped one of those down, and soon after drifted off the back.
As usual, as soon as I was able to get into my own rhythm, I started to feel more comfortable. And then, the scientists' good hard work paid off as my Gu-Chomp hit my system. I started pushing larger gears, and the gap to Simon and Chris started to shrink. I made the catch on a descent, and rolled past them imitating a train driver sounding a steam-horn: "TOOT TOOT". They jumped on board, and for a short while we were three again. My GPS got powered up at the end of Blair Rd, and we made the left turn into Kotuku Bell Hill Rd. As the road tipped up, my accelerants continued to give me the edge and I drew away from them.
I stayed away until about 7:30, at which point I was within 10km of Jackson's pub. It was good to know at least one of us would make it on time. When I looked around, Simon and Chris were in sight, and soon it was the three of us cruising alongside Lake Poerua. Simon stopped for a leak, and Chris and I finished the ride to the pub together.
First order of business was to grab a menu! Actually, the first step was to work out what to do for the others. Once I'd told the very helpful barman that there were another four or five famished cyclists back down the road, he agreed to keep the kitchen open for them. My job done, I promptly ordered a glass of coke, a basket of garlic bread, and a plate of bangers and mash. Chris ordered some seafood chowder, and Simon some soup. (Soup?! Man, he really does run on the sniff of an oily rag!!) Tim appeared too, and Darren (though I can't quite remember where he came from - he might have been behind our group of five?). Thomas also arrived, ordering a couple of pies, which cutely arrived on separate plates with separate cutlery - he demolished them both. It was a nervous wait for Jasper, but the barman was true to his word, and he ate as well as any of us. Before setting off, I ordered a pie to takeaway for breakfast. If I'd thought a little more about it, I wouldn't have had to wait for 10 minutes for it, but I got it in the end, piping hot, and stuck it in my back pocket.
Lights on, I headed alone up the road towards Arthurs Pass. Just before Otira I caught up to Thomas and Tim, with Simon and Chris up the road somewhere. There was a gravel section due to some roadworks which was very soft in places, and felt like a bit of a rip off given the challenges of the Brevet course. It was supposed to be sealed there, dammit!
My first ascent up the Otira Highway was done in the pitch black, and with a misty rain, so I didn't really get to enjoy any of the stunning vistas it no doubt offers. This is one of the sections which I really must get back to someday. The climb was fairly arduous, and we all made full use of our gears - 27 for Tim and I, and 14 (with no overlaps) for Thomas with his Rohloff geared hub. At the top it was cold, so parkas etc all got zipped up for the quick descent into Arthurs Pass. Tim and Thomas headed through town towards a camping spot, while I pulled into the YHA to hook up with Simon and Chris.
It took me a good 20 minutes to find them - the last thing I wanted after arrived at 11pm. After a walking trip through the hostel, an unanswered knock on a door with the key sitting in it (I wasn't game enough to try the door), a ride east of town as far as the police station down at Mt Bealey Rd, and an aborted climb up Gentian Lane and Brake Hill, I finally took the correct turnoff up School Terrace. I hate stylised maps at the best of times, and the one I was following was really trying my patience. In hindsight it's pretty obvious, but the "largest and most expensive public toilets in the world" and the School Tce shown off to the side of the street (I was looking for a school, but didn't see one) were all red herrings.
Eventually I spotted Simon's bike out on the street. Luckily the envelope I'd been carrying with the key in it failed just as I pulled into the driveway, and not while I was hurtling around the town trying to find the cottage, so it was no drama to retrieve the key off the ground and make my way inside. After a hot shower, and some food, and a bit of a debrief after a long, tough day, it was into bed. I sure felt like 5 hours was not going to be enough. At least I'd eaten well, and my bike was rocking along nicely.
Please excuse the blurry image of Simon chowing down on some food. It just seems to reflect nicely the way I too would have been feeling...
Even though it would be a disappointingly short sleep, at least I managed to fall asleep quickly - I sure felt like 5 hours was going to be marginal enough, and it would have been a shame to spend any of that time counting sheep...