It's been a bloody long time since planetary alignment has been consistent with writing about biking, but the day has finally come! This weekend I did my first ever ride research trip, and boy was it a shock...
My first copy of "Classic New Zealand Mountainbike Rides" was a gift from Linn and Mike back in 1999, and since then I've upgraded a few times, and managed to track down some previous editions. Don't they look sweet on the bookshelf?!
As I read them, I find myself envying the authors -- imagining them living the life -- cruising around the country, from Classic Ride to Classic Ride. I've never imagined their bikes getting filthy, or the bodies growing weary, and instead have focused completely on the cool aspects -- fancy exploring for a living!!!
The combination of a successful cycle tour through the "Forgotten Highway" and the Kiwi Brevet, has had me thinking about putting together a Brevet-style event in the North Island, with the Whanganui River catchment being my target. I've got a name "Te Tāwhio o Whanganui", literally meaning "a round trip of the Whanganui", a weekend pencilled in (Waitangi weekend, 2011) and 99% of the route sorted. This weekend trip had a bunch of aims, largely to eliminate that pesky 1%. I also hoped to kickstart some fitness (not fatness).
I picked Simon up from his place on Friday evening, after hanging out a Revolution Cycles for a bit. I loaded up his venerable old Schwinn next to my CRX commuter bike, sporting cyclocross tyres for the occasion. The drive north was far from relaxing, though somehow foul weather is less irritating than foul traffic. We'd both had rough weeks at work, and it was good to vent a bit, and basically enjoy winding down. Driving through Bulls we reassured the motelier that we were indeed on our way, and soon after we were making ourselves at home.
While it would have been lovely to sleep through Saturday morning, we had work to do. We piled into the car, and headed for the 'naki. We stopped briefly in Waitotara, in search of a phone number for a landowner we hoped to meet on Sunday. We weren't entirely successful, but did get the number of Kyle the postie, who would hopefully be able to help us out.
Next stop was Eltham, where I grabbed a coffee, and we stretched our legs a bit. It seems to be one of those towns on the wane, but there were a couple of very cool old buildings which deserve visitors! We hung a right towards Omoana (pronounced o-mo-na would you believe?!) and the middle of nowhere. As we would up-valley, we were confronted with some pretty neat scenery, topped off nicely by a very funky one-lane bridge. It had 6-foot concrete walls either side, and a sign warning motorists not to use it if its surface was under water... You reckon...?!
The road turned to gravel a while later, and began to climb. It leveled out on a ridge top and would its way along, reminding me of a section of the Old Motu Coach Rd which I'd ridden in January. We were looking for the Waitiri Track, an old paper road which links the ridge we were on to the valley north of it, into which you are ejected from the "Bridge to Somewhere" ride south out of Whangamomona. We overshot the start of the track a little, and then headed back to a likely looking gate. We popped up a driveway adjacent to the gate and gingerly made our way up a ramp to the front door. (The ramp was impressively steep - the sort of ramp which an able bodied person might attempt in a wheelchair and end up in the wheelchair for good). No-one was home, so we headed back to the car and started unloading the bikes. Just as we were about to set off, the driver of a passing SUV kindly confirmed we were heading in the right direction.
The first few kilometres of the track were awkward. There were a few forks which we needed to check out, and take note of. Also there was a sign with details of the landowner which we copied down. Then there was the mud, and the fact that my compact road gearing wasn't quite the ticket for the sort of climbing we were doing... Simon was also keen to get a few riding photos of some of the glorious scenery for the guidebook. I suck badly as the subject of such shots, and often had to give him another few cracks at it... Bike photos are so much simpler to compose!
We had a few more navigational challenges before making it to the top of the big descent into the next valley. After a pretty neat cutting, we took a prominent track down a grassy spur, and then rode down a steep slippery bit of track to a point a few dozen metres above a farm house. From there we scratched our heads a bit as to where the track went, and eventually were forced to pop into the farm yard. We were greeted by three dogs, fairly well dispersed on the size spectrum. Their owner came out with a rather inquisitive "where the hell did you come from?!" look on her face. She was a wealth of information, not all of it good news. We'd come down her private track, and left the paper road far behind. She also didn't think we'd have much chance finding it from the road which would have been a good option having lost all our precious elevation. Further, she didn't hold much hope of us getting down it from the top either... We had no choice but to push our bikes back up her farm track, and see if we could find the correct route.
The climb was a bit of a grovel, and completely a push for me. Simon wasn't able to climb much of it in the wet, and so by in large we walked side by side. About half way up we looked across a small valley to a pocket of native bush, and 30 minutes or so later we were leaving our bikes and walking down a track leading into it. As the woman had suggested, it was pretty overgrown, and we reluctantly eliminated it as a potential route for the event.
The cutting we'd come through earlier had almost certainly not been on the paper road, and Simon elected to take an alternative once we'd rejoined our bikes. I couldn't be arsed pushing my bike up after him, so rode back the way we'd come, slipping and sliding as I went. A mountainbike would have been nice... I had a wee wait for Simon, but had some pretty sweet bush to admire.
He appeared on the horizon a minute or so after I started to get anxious, and soon we were underway again. The ride back to the car was prettyquick, especially as we no longer had to stop to take notes or photos. The car was as we left it, and I loaded up my bike while Simon rode the descent back into the valley. I picked him up about 6km later, and we were soon underway. There was one road signposted to our right, and we checked it out in anticipation of a miracle. I ended within a few hundred metres though, and we turned back to the "main" road. We'd seen a 4WD road on the 1:250000 map we had, and confirming that this road wasn't it, decided it might just be worth heading back the way we'd just come...
At around the right point on the map, we stopped at a house, and called out to the bloke working on the roof. He got his wife for us, and before we knew it we were in business. It couldn't have been a better connection to make. She (a) worked for the Taranaki Regional Council (b) owned the "bible" (he's one of the twins who wrote the book) (c) had been thinking about putting on an event in the area (d) owned a 4WD road coming from the other valley, and (e) was the sister-in-law of the woman who we'd talked to earlier!!!! We may yet get access between those two valleys. We resumed our drive in pretty good spirits. We may have even given each other a high-five!
Back in Eltham, we zeroed the odometre of the car, and took the planned route through to Patea. We tried to keep away from SH3, and used some pretty cool roads in the process. We had a couple of false-alarms, but all in all things went to plan. Navigation and note taking got harder in the dark, as did the driving, but before long we were raiding the shelves at the Whanganui Countdown... I drew the short straw, so Simon cooked dinner while I washed the bikes. Dinner was good, and I ate like a man-possessed, in anticipation of a big ride the next day. We watched a bit of Babel, but sleep was more valuable to me, so I hit the sack...
We checked out of the motel at about 8:30 in the morning, and spent a bit of time scoping out a potential start, and the route out of town. We argued a little about the relative merits of cyclepaths and the road, but eventually nailed down something we were both happy with. During our drive, we stumbled upon a sign to what strikes me as a potentially unique attraction: a commuter elevator.
A few minutes later we were standing atop the Drury Hill elevator, built between 1916 and 1919 to provide easier access to the new suburb of Drury Hill. The lift is accessed by a 200m tunnel into the hill and climbs about 80m!!! Unfortunately it was closed, so we couldn't take a ride. The view was pretty cool though. In the pic, Simon's looking at Moutoa Gardens, the likely start/finish area of the tour.
Next up was the i-site, where again we failed to get details for the landowner at the top of Makakaho Road. The postie had had a few too many whiskeys the night before, and couldn't give us a number. The i-site stop was not wasted though, and we got valuable contacts within the local council.
As we drove westwards out of town again, we slowly but surely uncrossed our wires. I'd eaten the night before anticipating a big old loop ride heading in at Waitotara and out at Kai Iwi. Simon had other plans (just as well), and so we didn't park at Kai Iwi. Instead we drove along SH3 to Waitotara (perhaps an hour's riding) and then 43km up Waitotara Valley Road. We parked at Makakaho Junction, and then headed up Makakaho Road, in search of Tuahiwi Farm and its owner Dave.
The road was in pretty good nick, and although it was damp, the traction was generally good. Evidence suggested good-humoured locals...
(You probably can't quite make out the two giant penises etched into the sand...)
At some point I noted that "this is my sort of mountainbiking", to which Simon responded "this is my sort of road ride", he on a mountainbike, and me on a flat-bar roadie...
About 12km up from the car, we rode up a driveway near the end of Makakaho Road. No-one was home, so we continued, only to come to a fork in the road and a couple of gates. I took the right one while Simon guarded the left. Another Simon, working in the woolshed a wee way up, confirmed the elusive Dave was the man we needed to speak with, and left me feeling generally hopeful about getting through to Watershed Road up in the hills.
I rejoined Simon, and we headed up the other road, in seach of "the Management" (being the folk the OSH sign indicated we needed to seek)... About 200m up was bridge with a quad bike parked up. Tied to the front of the bike was a freshly shot doe, complete with dripping red. There was no hunter in sight, and we figured we'd just wait for someone to show. We patiently admired the kereru in the tree nearby...
Soon, two hunters arrived on a second quad (also adorned with a dead deer). They also assured us we needed to speak with Dave, and told us he'd be back tomorrow... They were pretty adamant we'd not get up the track "on those" but said that in summer it might be a different story... Our day was pretty much done at this stage, and it was a bloody good thing the car was only 12 km back down the road, not up yonder...
We quietly rode back to the car. At one point I got dropped by Simon. He has a nasty habit of upping the pace without saying anything, leaving me feeling like a bunch of arse in his wake. Further, from behind he doesn't look like he's working hard, and it's far too easy to conclude I'm on a go-slow. My legs weren't really in the mood, and I was feeling a little dejected. The head wind was cold, and it was a pleasure to get back to the car. I packed mine onto the rack, while Simon took the opportunity for a few more minutes on the bike.
I enjoyed some loud, angry music on the way back down valley, and soon had Simon loading up as well. It was a long drive back out to SH3, through a valley packed with deciduous trees which will surely look prettier in summer. We drove down the main road of Whanganui, across the river, and couldn't help parking up at the bottom of the commuter elevator.
We checked out the awesome tunnel into the hillside...
...but never rode the elevator. We had a yarn to the operator though, but without a cent between us, we weren't able to get a ride up to the view we'd enjoyed earlier in the day.
The drive back to Wellington was uneventful, though my mood picked up as we got closer to home. We'd actually had a very successful weekend, at least as far as the event was concerned. It had felt a lot like work in many respects, with plenty of thinking to be done, and long, busy days. On the other hand, it was nice to get out of town for the weekend with my buddy.
The main problem was my expectations were all skew-whiff. It turns out it's a hell of a lot nicer to just get out and ride, than to set things up for other people to ride! Those poor Kennett Bros!