Friday, December 30, 2011

Nowhere Special

Soon after my good buddy Mike Lowrie took me on my first MTB ride (in early 1998, down Red Rocks), he and his partner Linn gave me my first copy of "Classic New Zealand Mountain Bike Rides, 3rd edition".  My next was the 5th, and I now have the full set, thanks to the Bros themselves and a bit of trademe action.  I enjoy flicking through each new release, searching for motivation, and there's always plenty.   

A special ride first appeared in the 7th edition:  Bridge to Nowhere, in the Whanganui National Park.  By now, I was fast friends with Simon, and had heard on a couple of occasions his account of the Bros' "ride" through this loop in the late 80s.  The scale of the write-up when it finally appeared (prior to the 7th, it had been an out-and-back ride to Mangapurua Trig) hinted that this particular trip was something else, and it's since been on my to-do list.  A subsequent canoe trip down the Whanganui a few years ago did nothing but make me want to ride there even more.  While I'd now seen the Bridge, I wanted to be on a bike when it appeared out of Nowhere.

Finally, the pieces fell into place. Jo and Dave did a great job of booking a jet boat while I was away touring with Marjolein.  We'd be joined by Matt and Sarah, and the five us were booked for a 4pm collect on the 27th - a perfect way to use up recently stored Christmas calories. 

We rendezvoused early in the morning at Sarah's family crib in Rangataua, not far from Ohakune.  With five of us riding, we'd enlisted Simon and Miro to help with the logistics, and after a short drive, four bikes were being unloaded from the two cars at Ruatiti Domain.  I was soon back at Raetihi, parking up next to Dave's car at the holiday park, and as 10:30 clicked over on my clock, I was rolling out.

My day's ride started fast - I had an extra 22km to ride back to Ruatiti Domain and including my drive back to Raetihi, I'd given the others an hour's head start at the domain!  About 3km along the highway towards National Park was the well sign-posted turn off, and the first grand sign featuring a logo which with luck will soon be commonplace around the country.

After a few undulating kilometres. the road tipped downwards, and I was afforded great views down towards the river. 

Despite being keen to catch my cobbers, I couldn't resist stopping to investigate a sign we'd seen on the drive in.

Alas, it wasn't much more impressive up close, but better to regret something you did than something you didn't.

The descent was over pretty quickly, and a few kilometres away from the domain, I met Simon and Miro heading back to Rangataua.  We wished each other a good day, and I headed off, soon to be accosted by a stunning view up the Manganui o te Ao River.

That bridge marked the end of the tarseal, and a few minutes later I was past Ruatiti Domain and into foreign territory.  As with my cobbers up the road, I entertained myself trying to work out when I'd catch them. Simon had predicted I'd see them before the top of the main climb, and while I had no idea how likely that was, I kept banging away at the pedals...  And, stopping for photos.  The highland cattle at Ruatiti even seemed worth a short backtrack after I'd blasted past them.

When I reached the start of the Mangapurua Track I had a short breather, before steeling myself for the climb (by taking some more photos). 

No worries!
The Kennett Bros' ride profile made the climb appear steep, and so I was pleasantly surprised at the relatively mellow gradient.  There were a few gates to negotiate, but otherwise the track was in great condition and the riding was fast.  A sign indicated I'd just entered the Takahe Conservation Area, and this marked the end of the main climb and the beginning of an undulating section along the ridge to the trig.

After a few more minutes enjoying my impersonation of an XC racer, I spied ahead a bunch of four - the breakaway had been reeled in!  I quickly learned Matt had won the "when will we see John" sweepstake, and the peanut slab prize.  It was just after 12:30, and about time for a bite to eat.  We stopped at a gate and letterbox - number 2 - only a hundred metres short of the top end the Kaiwhakauka Track from Whakahoro.

It was especially nice to see my bro Dave enjoying himself.  If memory serves me correctly, the sum total of his MTB experience is:  Queen Charlotte Track and a couple of hours in Rotovegas back in the late 90s, a ride through Long Gully and along the South Coast with Kaitlyn and I four or five years ago, and Tree Trunk Gorge this time last year!   As we blasted along together, it was very cool to see him on board my Flux, and it made the ride that much more special for me to see him enjoying something I love doing. 

Dave, on his first MTB ride of 2011!

The views along this section were so good we made a couple of stops.  During one, I almost came a cropper falling down a bank after setting my camera's 10-second timer! 

After promising Matt a few times that the Trig was imminent, it finally appeared to his and my relief, along with a toilet (to Jo's relief)!  Miles away from Nowhere still, but well catered for.

We'd been regularly passing signs marking the names of the settlers who'd lived in this area.  I caught myself joking that they were pikers, before more carefully thinking through the circumstances that brought them to this wild place, and realising what a hospital pass they'd been thrown, and how hard it must have been to turn their back on it.  I felt ashamed for my initial comments. Those poor, hard bastards...

We didn't bother climbing the short track up to where we presumed the Trig was, and instead cracked into a rip-snorter of a descent down into the Mangapurua Stream valley.  I followed Dave all the way down, and was impressed with how well he was handling the Flux.  I was also glad that the track was in such good nick, and didn't often offer up curly surprises!

Down in the valley, we came across the first of many swing bridges.  We all walked the first one but subsequently discovered that the bridges were mostly rideable - just the beginning and end took a bit of negotiating with our wide handlebars.

The riding along the valley was pretty cruisy.  Sections through bush were interrupted by grassy clearings, and the biggest challenge was avoiding the thistles lurking in the long grass at the edge of the track.  The track surface was almost always dry and predictable, and we were making good progress.  Nonetheless, time was marching on, and we made regular stops for photos and food!

As we neared the Whanganui, bluffs became more common and here the double track would become a very narrow bit of singletrack perched half way up a sometimes sheer face.  Signs warned us to dismount, and to not all be on the bluff at once, lest many birds be killed by one stone.

It was always a relief to ride past the sign reading "Safe to remount"!

Battleship Bluff was the most impressive of these sections.  It was bizarre knowing the scale of the Bridge up ahead, and trying to imagine what would have prompted them to build such a major structure with these frequent pinch points on the access to it.

Matt safely negotiates Battleship Bluff, recorded by Dave and I!
The view from Battleship Bluff down to the stream was absolutely stunning, and a sharp reminder of the power of erosion and the costs of a stuff up at this point!

DOC had done an impressive job with signage along the track, and every so often, at least one of us would heed the advice to the letter.

It was after 3pm when we finally burst out of the bush onto the Bridge and through a dozen or so people being told by their jet-boat operator of its  history and that of the unfortunate settlers. 

We didn't have too much time up our sleeves, but nonetheless we enjoyed the views down to the stream from our vantage point high above it, and a bit of a spell off the bikes! 

I blasted ahead on the track to the river which I'd walked a few years earlier, longing for my bike.  I was feeling a hell of a lot more nimble than earlier in the day when I'd had a backpack stuffed with water, tools, brownie, PB&J sandwiches and one square meals, and it was fun to let rip for a bit!

When I reached the landing, already there was another party of three cyclists - parents and their 12-year-old daughter - and some trampers.  Eventually Dave, then Matt, Sarah and Jo arrived, and we sat for a while admiring the massive Whanganui River slipping silently by.

Looking upstream
Our jet boat operator arrived a few minutes after we'd begun to get a little nervous, but within acceptable limits of the 4pm booking.  Soon there were 8 bikes stacked on the racks at the back, and we were getting our in-flight safety briefing.

My inner bogan was awakened immediately upon the engine being fired up, complete with its lovely throaty growl.  Within seconds of my first ever jet-boat ride beginning, I was in seventh heaven, and a big grin was spread across my face as we blasted away from the landing!

My GPS unit out of reach on the stem of my bike, I could only guess at our speed.  In any case, the 30-odd kilometres we travelled down river passed without any energy expense, and was a quirky highlight of this mountain bike ride!  En route to Pipiriki, we passed a few canoes and kayaks, and made one stop across from Tieke Kainga, where a few years earlier I'd awoken on Easter Sunday to find the locals had slipped eggs under everyone's tents.

Despite my bike being the last on and first off, I helped unload the boat at Pipiriki.  That done, I didn't linger while the bikes were loaded onto the shuttle van, and slipped away before the temptation of the easy option overcame me.

As with the start of the day, I was back in race mode - this time away from my cobbers.  I'd done this climb twice already - back in 2008 with Simon as an out-and-back, and earlier this year at the end of day one of the Tāwhio.   On the one hand I was disappointed to find the whole thing had been since sealed, but on the other, I was pleased for the slightly easier ride.  The catch was inevitable, and it came just before the top of the main climb.  Luckily I was offered only encouragement (and not a seat in the van), and I kept plugging on towards Raetihi.

I'd said goodbye to Dave and Matt down in Pipiriki.  As I rode through Raetihi, I expected they'd be out of their riding gear, and heading towards Taupo with golf on their minds. 

My legs started to wane as I started the road to Ohakune, and I struggled to muster 30km/h.  It didn't help that the road was gently climbing, but the largest factor was the fatigue in my legs.  About 10 minutes out of Raetihi, Jo and Sarah drove past in my car, four bikes on the back, and plainly surprised to see me.  They slowed, giving me the opportunity to wave them down.  Instead, I reluctantly waved them off...

Despite being only 5km from home, I stopped at the servo in Ohakune for a chocolate milk and a red bull.  I didn't spare much thought for which was the least gross order to drink them in, and instead skulled one after the other.  The ride to Rangataua, still uphill, passed slowly but surely, and I was soon at home and getting cleaned up for an evening of food and stories.

Simon and Miro had had a great day, as had the five of us on our special ride to Nowhere.  Our group had a huge range of cycling backgrounds: from Sarah's two decades of cycle touring and MTBing to Dave's once every year or two, with Matt, Jo and at various points in the spectrum between.  Nonetheless, we had all had a ball.

For my part, the ride was everything I'd hoped it would be.  I really enjoyed Jo, Sarah and Matt's company, but particularly revelled in riding with my bro.  Between Tree Trunk Gorge and this year's ride, we've established a fine tradition.  I wonder where we'll ride together at the end of 2012?!  Perhaps we'll even get out before then.  I can't wait.


  1. Nice one. Sharing is such a great feeling, especially when it's with family. That's what this time of year is supposed to be all about. Cheers, bro.

  2. This one is special, my darling Sifter. One of the things I adore most of all about my children is their great love for and pride in each other. I am so glad of it, and for the joy it brings us all.

  3. Brilliant article thanks- we're off for a mid winter ride to the bridge this weekend - going to be an early start!