Wednesday, November 18, 2009

New Plymouth to National Park (from the vorb files)

When Kaitlyn was young, there were many times when I was driving through Stratford in deepest darkest Taranaki that I would look at the "Forgotten Highway" sign and feel a flicker of desire in my legs... Fast forward five years or so, through in a cycling conference in New Plymouth, at which Simon would be a speaker, and the Kiwi Brevet in February, for which some miles are required, and I finally had my opportunity. A flight to New Plymouth and a day's annual leave were duly booked for the Friday of the conference, and a seat on the Overlander from National Park back to Wellington and we were locked and loaded.

As the Firday drew near, other preparations made evenings a bit more interesting. I fired some Maxxis Locust knobblies on my Giant CRX commuter bike, and dug out my old Blackburn rear carrier which hasn't seen a bike for about 10 years! On Wednesday night I practiced loading up a GPS course onto my Garmin Edge and on Thursday I perfected my packing, Simon had given me a 5L drybag for my birthday. Into it went Icebreaker long johns and long sleeved top, a Ground Effect Baked Alaska, some Ground Effect 3/4 overtrou, and a fresh pair of socks. I put my muesli bar bag on the bike, and two bottles, and into the pockets of my riding jersey I had my cell phone, wallet, some photocopied pages from Classic New Zealand Mountain Bike Rides (3rd edition for the Forgotten Highway, and 7th for Fishers Track), my Ground Effect Flash Gordon to keep me dry, and toothbrush and toothpaste (which never ended up in the drybag), and my sunnies case with hayfever pills, suncream and yellow lenses inside. In a saddle bag I had a spare tube, tyre lever and puncture repair kit, and a Lezyne multi tool. Not a huge amount of gear, but an interesting experiment... For the first day, I also had a couple of huge pieces of lasagne which I'd frozen overnight on Thursday, and would thaw out nicely on the ride around Mt Taranaki.

My plane left Wellington just after 11. I left my car in town with my bro, and rode out to the airport, stopping briefly at Burkes to frot my new Giant XTC Advanced SL frame, and at Rongotai College to say gidday to Mum and Dad. At the airport there was no drama getting the pedals off and the back end of the bike bagged up. I took the lasagne off in case the baggage handlers felt peckish.

I stepped off the plane to a windier day than I'd left, and there was a bit of a chill in the air too. I cruised into town and met Simon during the lunch break of the conference. We conferred about the best way of getting the lasagne to Stratford, and since he had no access to a fridge, we decided I should haul it. I grabbed a sub-of-the-day from Subway, nipped into a supermarket for a nasty green but cheap and relatively palatable (watered down to half strength) Mizone, and a 3 pack of my favourite Apricot and Chocolate Bumper Bars, and I was set to go...

With the route all set up in the GPS unit, all I had to do was follow the pink line, and soon enough I was climbing Carrington Road (or is the Street? One on the map, the other on the ground...). The bike was a little heavier than usual, and I was in no rush, so didn't push it too hard. In all, the 400m climb was spread over about 20km and an hour later it flattened off in amongst some native bush. I looked back a few times, and never really got a stunning veiw of New Plymouth, but it's down there somewhere!

I stopped in at Pukeiti Rhododendron Gardens and had a coffee, before setting off again.


Soon after there were some very funky road cuttings, and shortly after taking the next photo, it started raining, and the sleeves went on.


 During the long descent which followed I lost about half my elevation, and sensation from various bits and pieces on my body. I stopped to say gidday to an incredibly heavily laden cycle tourist who, judging by the amount of gear he had in his four panniers, was doing the entire country by bike. He was pleased to hear the coffee shop wasn't far away, and even more thrilled that he didn't have much climbing left to do...

The course I'd laid out on got its knickers in a twist at some point and had me cross a ford on a gravel road, and then the "road" disappeared entirely. So, I winged it for a we while, before the "peep" from my handlebars indicated "Course Found..." and I could relax again, knowing I'd find my bed...

The rest of the route looks fairly flat on the elevation plot looks pretty flat, but the variations in speed highlight the constant rollers in there. I worked pretty hard with what was almost a tail wind, and before long was making my way into Stratford. A quick photo of the clock tower to prove I'd been there...


 ... and then it was off to my digs for a hot shower and a lie down. Simon arrived soon after I started to get bored, and about 30 seconds after it had started to piss down. After he'd settled in, we nuked up the lasagne, and went for a walk into town. I bought a double chocolate muffin for dessert, and was astounded to read on the packaging that it consisted of 29% of my recommended daily calorie intake. On the walk back we passed a chinese takeaways, and although I had my heart set on a deep-fried mars bar, I made do with a sugar-donut...

We then walked home, alongside a mouse running along the gutter for a short time, before hitting the sack.

We were in no real rush in the morning, and woke to a beautiful day, looking west at least.


After packing up, which doesn't take long with the amount of gear we had, we shot into town for some pancakes, and then hit the road...  With full bellies, we started our 150km journey from Stratford to Taumarunui along SH43. This was my first time ever, and Simon's first time in a looong time.


 Surprisingly, Stratford sits at a higher elevation that Taumarunui does, and most of that difference was burnt off in the first stretch. Going west to east we were typically travelling up valley, before climbing over a saddle to drop into the next valley. Over the course of the day, we'd have over half a dozen such climbs, but all within a 200m range. The Mt Vic sessions no doubt were going to help a lot.

About 60km or so from Stratford, we arrived in Whangamomona, where we stopped for lunch in the old hotel. To the right is the road which leads to the Bridge to Somewhere ride, which I'd heard about from my friend Mike Lowrie  

and which was one of the reasons I'd always been interested in coming through here...


 After a very nice sandwich for lunch, we set off again, leaving a dude on horseback, and an assortment of motorcyclists and tourists to their business. I bought a frozen muffin for afternoon tea, which I stashed on my bike. Shortly after Whangamomona, and at the top of a climb, we ducked into a gully and were confronted by a very cool old tunnel, with trusses in the top, and which has been lowered from its original level over the years. The walls were all bare rock, and it was well worth the photo stop(s)...


At the bottom of the descent, we had a 12km section of gravel road, but the surface was dry, and there wasn't much loose gravel to slow us down much (I think I can spot a decrease in speed around the 80km mark on the Garmin graphs...). Another climb, another valley, another climb, and slowly but surely the day ticked on and we got closer and closer to dinner. We shared the muffin, and various other snacks for afternoon tea before knocking off the second to last major hill and dropping into a nasty little valley at around the 106km mark. There were three short but nastly little ascents followed by a 180-odd-m climb which almost had me walking! I'd faltered a little on the second hill in this valley, and felt great on the third, which was a little less steep. This longer one kicked up towards the top, and it got to the point that I could barely muster the strength to push the 36x25 gear. Simon all but vanished up the road, while I grovelled, spending a few minutes at 7km/h!

Things came back together a bit after that, and any climbs weren't as steep, and afternoon tea had kicked in! We made it to Taumarunui after about 8 hours riding, and pulled into the service station for a bloody good feed. Lollies, bars, cinnamon buns, croissants, coffee, powerade, bananas - you name it, down the hatch it went... We must have spent almost an hour there before tottering across the road to the Hilton (Motel), where we checked in, and cleaned ourselves up.

The evening's a bit of a blur, but I do remember that by the time we headed out for dinner, the supermarket had closed, as had most everything else - probably everyone had gone home to watch the footy. We dared not walk past a kebab joint in case it too shut up, so we ordered kebabs, and headed back to our room. I made the mistake of choosing "Extra hot" from the chilli options: Mild, Medium, or Extra Hot. I'm usually a hot guy, when confronted with a choice of Mild or Hot. I suspect Wellington's Hot is Taumarunui's Medium, and within a couple of bites, my innards were spasming, and Simon had to put up with all sorts of weird sound effects as I fought back hiccoughs and giggles... Eventually I finished my kebab, and washed it down with a nice hot cup of tea. I have a vague recollection of watching some TV - perhaps a movie - but no details come to mind...

We'd covered a fair distance (across and up!) that day, and the rest was well deserved.

I woke at 6:30am to find Simon stretching his legs. Figuring I wouldn't be able to get back to sleep, I suggested I join him on his intended walk, and we did the length of the main drag. On the return journey, we decided not to wait for cereal from the supermarket, but to grab some breakfast from the bakery instead. Assorted goodies slipped down very nicely, and before long we were on the bikes again.

At the far end of town the highway rose to a bridge over the rail line, and in a fit of intimidation, I put us down a deadend along which I'd hoped to avoid the measly 10m climb. Instead, GPS unit on my bike, I had the embarrassment of conceding we'd gone the wrong way, and had to do the climb anyway. We stopped a few times in the first few kilometres to adjust clothing - always difficult to get it right early in the morning. We also passed the spot where at one stage the 350km ride was going to start from.

We went off course at some point during the next hour, and instead of following a back route to the outskirts of Owhango, we continued along SH4. We declined to take the first rpad down into the valley, thereby avoiding some climbing, and a whole lot of descent on wet gravel road - by this stage it was drizzling on and off. Instead we took Oio Road which is sealed all the way down into Kaitieke. We had a short climb to get out of the valley Owhango's in, where we stopped by a funky road cutting to admire the view.



The next descent was cold, long, and wet as we burnt off about 300m. We were a little nervous as to what state we'd find Fisher's Track in, and we thought about climbing the sealed road up to Raurimu. In the end we decided we'd rather walk significant chunks of Fishers than grovel back up to the highway, with another shitty climb from Raurimu to National Park still to do, so we pressed on down valley along Upper Retaruke Road. This promptly turned into gravel, which our machines were well set up to deal with, and we made good progress.


 After about 10km of gravel, the road turned off and started to climb, and before long we reached the start of Fisher's Track, beside a flash lodge at the bottom of a cloud-filled valley.

The climb was quite remarkable, and we both had little trouble maintaining traction. We didn't move particularly quickly, but we both really enjoyed the climb. The ride had been written up by the Kennett Bros as a descent which is dodgy when wet, but it is absolutely mint as a climb. I carried my bike over a few bogs and things, but Simon rode just about all of it.



Time flew by fairly quickly, but our deadline never really threatened, and we enjoyed the ride up through patchy native bush. We chatted about MTBing, MTB parks, and what makes a Classic NZ Mountain Bike Ride. This one for me was exactly that, and I recommend doing it if you're ever in National Park. I reckon rocking down the highway to check out the Raurimu Spiral before dropping into the valley and climbing back up Fisher's Track would make an awesome loop ride - probably good for half a day if done at a sensible pace with plenty of photo and picnic stops.

We made it to the railway station about 40 minutes before the train was due to depart. There was hardly anyone around, and since we were sodden, we started to get changed in an open wood shed adjacent to the platform. No sooner had we committed to this than the train arrived, and dozens of people piled off. So, not only did we no longer have any "privacy" but we were also at the very end of the queue for lunch... Waaaaa....

I couldn't stand the thought of staying in my wet pants, and after checking out the train's toilets, bared my butt to anyone that cared to look my way. It was well worth it though to get my dry long johns on. We hosed the bikes down before loading them onto the train, and then had a few minutes to organise some lunch. Hot soup was off the menu on account of the competition, but there was plenty of yummy, although pricey, counter food. It all disappeared pretty smartly, followed by a couple of wraps from the train's pantry, and coffee or two...

Simon jumped off at Taihape to meet his wife and daughter, and I enjoyed the rest of the trip home on the train.

What a great way to spend a weekend! Super company, super countryside, and great training for the Kiwi Brevet. All I covered just over 300km, with over 3500m of climbing. Conversation was excellent throughout, and the gear I packed was pretty much spot on. A pair of jandals would've been nice, but at least I didn't have to haul them around!\

Originally published on vorb