Thursday, February 10, 2011

Te Tāwhio O Whanganui

I was nervous as the week of the inaugural "Tāwhio O Whanganui", a tour of the Whanganui catchment loomed.  I'd failed on a couple of attempts to negotiate access through private land, and was bummed that poor Simon had had to intervene on one section.  Turned out my answerphone message had been truncated before I'd said my phone number...

My physical preparation for this odd-year alternative to the Kiwi Brevet had been far from hard core, but it seemed to suit this event, which by design has some similarities to the Brevet - unsupported riding through some neat back country - but many differences - here, riders would be all in the same towns each night, but could choose their own routes in between.  By the time I loaded my 69er on the back of the car on Saturday morning, I'd not yet decided where I'd be riding, but, finally I was looking forward to it.

I'd packed more gear than for the Kiwi Brevet.  I had a sleeping bag and liner, slightly more casual clothes, and a pair of jandals.  Just about all my gear was in a dry bag bungied onto a freeload rack, installed on the rear seat stays of my hardtail.  I had an Ortlieb handlebar bag for bits and pieces which I wanted better access to, including a nicer camera than the one on my cell phone.  My GPS charger was on board this time too.

Day 1:  Whanganui to Raetihi

I was accompanied for the drive up by Dave Sharpe, Pat Morgan and Simon.  The noon start time allowed a reasonably relaxed morning's drive, and the atmosphere and conversation helped pass the time nicely.  Shortly after Bulls, we spotted Tim on his road bike, heading to the start from Palmerston North.  We'd see him in virtually the same spot, heading in the other direction, a little over four days later.

I had 19 confirmed starters for the event, and added another three to the list as we assembled at Moutua Gardens.  Barryn, Bill, Brett, Jakub, Nathan, Peter, Simon, Trevor and myself had all been part of the Kiwi Brevet the previous year.  As had happened at that event, it was a lot of fun to check out people's setups.  There was yet again a Surly Pugsley in the field, though under John, not Jakub.  29ers were very common, and there was Tim's road bike, and Dan's 5" travel Mojo ensuring plenty of diversity.

I was mildly astounded to see how much gear some folk had.  Peter told me in Patea that he'd reduced his Kiwi Brevet load from 11kg to 4.5kg, and he was still camping on this trip. I hadn't weighed my gear, but was happy I'd got the tradeoff between comfort and weight about right.  Besides, at 90kg, I can cope with a bit more weight if I need to.    I didn't envy Megan her load - she's probably literally half my size, and had about 4 times as much gear!

At about quarter to noon, we gathered in front of the fountain for a quick introduction and some photos, and at about a minute to noon, we headed off, unable to wait any longer.  No clock tower chiming for this event, alas...

I rode alongside Brett for the first 500m or so, during which he admitted surprise upon discovering I was "sifter".  He'd expected a "scrawny cycle geek", and I guess only found a "cycle geek"!  Jakub shot ahead and photographed us crossing the Whanganui River for the first time, and then I raced ahead and took some more photos as we cruised out of town.  It was all very civilised to start with, and it was a blast watching people strike up conversations, knowing that from some at least, new friendships would form.

At Upokongaro, I stopped, and parked my bike outside the St Mary's Anglican Church, built in 1877 by my ancestor John Randal (I think the grandfather of my grandfather, also John Randal).  The steeple has a rather curious design, but it's obviously stood the test of time!  Unfortunately the church itself was all locked up, and so I jumped back over the fence, back on my bike, and took off after the bunch.

I soon turned off SH4, and soon after the road tipped briefly up.  It was a bad time to try to chat with people, and as the bunch fractured, I made my way past one after another.  The top of the hill had a great outlook up the river valley, and it was nice to see people enjoying it.  

As we moved slowly up valley, the temperature got hotter and hotter.  After about half an hour I caught up to Simon and Geoff, and we were soon joined by Trevor who'd stopped at a dunnie by the side of the road and had almost passed out at the smell of the ammonia!  Relief from the heat came soon after at an unexpected cafe stop.  A sign on the road advertised Jarrah coffee was for sale, a far cry from Havana, or People's Coffee, or any of the multitude of locally roasted beans here in Wellington.  Sitting outside was the River Queen - although it looked from a bygone age, it was only about 10 years old - a prop from the movie of the same name.

Inside, I bought a couple of drinks and a muffin. It was great to escape the heat.  Simon was really red in the face - not something I see very often.  And, it was a nice opportunity to acknowledge another family connection to the river - this time on my Mum's side - my great aunt and uncle had both taught at Parikino, and were both known to the woman selling us drinks!

Simon and I headed off together, and after a brief stop for Simon to coat his sweaty arms with sunscreen, we were back under way.  I wonder if the Whanganui River Road is unique in its bilingual nature.  Towns Athens, Corinth, London, Jerusalem had all had second signs:  Atene, Koriniti, Ranana, and Hiruharama, sometimes the English first, other times the maori.  It was a neat highlight of the day. 

It was nice to be riding with Simon for what felt like the first time of the day, and it reminded me how much I actually love riding with him!  Our sixth Akatarawa Attack the weekend before (words yet to come) had been stressful, but riding side by side up this road in stunning scenery felt pretty damn perfect.  We've clocked up very many hours together in the last four and a half years, and its as nice now as ever.  Neither of us has to worry about pace, knowing the other will be up for whatever, and nor are simple things like stopping to organise a photo or two ever a problem.  Enough of this damn heat though.  We rolled into Pipiriki to read 36 degrees on a thermometer sitting on the side of a sun-bathed building...

We left the river behind at Pipiriki, but not before devouring an icecream or two, and some more cold drink at a tiny store.  We were joined by Geoff and Barryn, with only Trevor and Dave up the road.  Simon and I caught Trevor after a long gravel climb.  I had been incredibly hot work, with only a tiny amount of shade, but the legs and company were conducive to a relatively quick climb.  Trevor looked like he needed a lie-down when we saw him at the top, but Simon and I moved on, knocking out the last of the day's 103km in short order.

We stopped outside the 4-Square, and each made a couple of trips in.  After about 45 minutes' sifting, we moved down the main street checking out the dining options, before leaving for our accommodation.  As we did, a ute pulled up and out jumped Pat.  He looked in a bad way - his body had objected badly to the sun, but luckily, he'd been able to get a lift into town, no doubt avoiding what would have become quite a serious problem.

Before long we were checked into the Snowy Waters Lodge, on a small hill overlooking the town.  We'd seen Dave walking back into town, and he'd told us to expect a warm welcome.  It was indeed, and soon enough the drying room was brimming with bikes, tents were appearing on the lawn, and weary but happy riders were swapping notes about the day's ride.

Day 2 had plenty of options and there was much discussion about route choice.  Taking the highway all the way through would add up to about 160km, but Dave seemed keen on the 42nd Traverse.  Simon wasn't keen, but I was interested, and with Dave's company decided to commit to riding it with him. 

There had been some mention of dinner, but the invitation had been a little vague, and the only definite item on the list had been "salad".  Finally, my patience wore off, and I wandered into town with Dave and Geoff.  While we missed out on a rip-snorter roast (with salad on the side), it was good to catch up with those who weren't staying at the lodge at a pub in town.  Steak, eggs and chips, and a beer, slid down very nicely, and after the Sevens final finished, we wandered back up to the lodge, and hit the sack. 

Day 2:  Raetihi to Whangamomona

An advantage of traveling light is making a quick departure, and after chugging a can of creamed rice and a tin of peaches, I hit the road with Dave at about 7:15am.  The first stretch to National Park felt horrible - as we moved away from Raetihi at about 22km/h, our legs both felt like shit, and we were getting rather despondent about our slow progress.  Technology let us off the hook though, and both our GPS units confirmed what our eyes couldn't see but our legs surely knew about - we were climbing.  

Once we'd got our heads around what was going on with our legs, things were much better, and we enjoyed the quiet roads, and each other's company.  Dave was on a singlespeed, and I had to laugh at the Tui sign as he drew away from me on the final climb into National Park...  The gap opened up a tad as I fumbled around for my camera, but still!

Hang on mate, I'll pull over so we can talk.  Classic!

It wasn't cold, but it was drizzling, and we were both a bit on the damp side when we pulled into National Park.  I had a nice hot pie, and a couple of coffees, and was soon feeling ready to attack our first bit of proper mountainbiking on this trip. Dave's incredibly strong, but I was comfortable we'd have a good ride through the 42nd.  After about half an hour on the road, we arrived at the Kapoors Road turnoff, and after a quick rationalisation of clothing, we were underway. 

We soon came to an intersection which confused us somewhat.  We both wanted to keep left, but the road had recently been metalled to the right, making it look like that was the main route.  We consulted my Tongariro Forest Map, which didn't really give us much insight, and eventually we went with our instinct and took the left fork.  After a minute or two, as an afterthought, I flicked my Garmin to the map screen, which immediately confirmed we were still on Kapoors Rd.  I wonder why I didn't think to consult my $600 unit sooner?!

A few kilometres down the road, we came to another large intersection, this one adequately sign posted.  My GPS also knew of the 42nd Traverse, and we were able to follow the whole route on it.  Nice one!

The scenery was much much nicer than I remembered it from my trip through here with Mike Lowrie back in 1998 (one of my first MTB rides!)  The riding was reasonably straightforward, though Dave gallantly alerted me to one incredibly uneven and slippery patch of clay by flinging himself and his bike down across the track.  Apart from a broken rib, and a bit of mud around the place Dave was all good, and we were soon underway again.

Before too long we were at the Waione Stream.  After a clean, and a blast down through some incredibly shaped berms, we were soon across the knee-deep water. 

The second half of the ride had a bit of climbing in it, and it was impressive to watch Dave wrestle his machine up all but the steepest pinches.  We met a guy coming in the opposite direction and I stopped for a bit of a chat.  The kilometres ticked by as the day heated up, and apart from my drive getting increasingly filthy we had no problems.  The scenery was again glorious, and we were often treated to more beautifully shaped corners.  I'm looking forward to doing that ride again!

The climb up to Owhango was a bit of a grovel, but we stopped outside a local hall about 3.5 hours after leaving National Park.  We had a short stop for a couple of snarlers from the BBQ, and I gave my chain a bit of a clean and lube.  We backtracked ever so slightly before taking some sweet back roads through Hikumutu to Taumarunui.  There were a couple of ostriches en route, and a couple of short sharp climbs, which Sharpie handled with aplomb, despite his silly gear system!

Taumarunui couldn't come soon enough for me by this stage - at about 120km we still had a way to go, but I was ready for a bit of a recharge.  First we had a bakery stop, and then a bit of a picnic across the road.  We were joined by Geoff, who'd done the Ohakune Rail Trail and then Fisher's Track to clock up almost exactly the same distance Dave and I had.  Remarkable.

While Dave and I grabbed drinks and then some cash, I saw Geoff set off along the Forgotten Highway, SH43, and soon we were hot on his heels.  I'd come this way only once before, in the opposite direction, with Simon on our NP2NP tour (New Plymouth to National Park).  The last big hill on that ride had pretty much broken me, and it wasn't much better today. Dave had softened me up on the rollers leading up to it, and as he soldiered up the big climb, the elastic finally snapped.   By the top I'd caught Geoff, but we'd lost Dave for good!

Geoff would disappear behind me on each of the climbs we faced.  As I crested each, I wondered if I'd see him again, but at each I would.  On one occasion I actually said "You again!" much to our mutual amusement.  Geoff proved an excellent companion, and we toiled away making good progress en route to Whangamomona.  Tangarakau Gorge was an absolute blast.  Down-river we had gravity on our side, and somehow the MTBs seemed to go better on the gravel surface.  Speeds in excess of 40km/h were pretty standard, and it was a blast. 

One stretch of road consisted of a bridge to cross the river, about 100m of road and then a bridge back to the other side.  We laughed at the expense of this, and concluded that there really had been no way for them to build the road without the bridges.  I bet they tried though!

The highlight of the last few dozen kilometres was the tunnel atop Tahora saddle.  Apart from being very cool, it reduces the amount of climbing somewhat.

Geoff and I never really got our pace line sorted, but we quickly approached Whangamomona.  We passed Pat, Dan, John, and Nathan about 15 minutes out, and arrived just as Simon was wandering down the main street checking out the historical notes on the buildings that lined the streets.  I clicked my GPS off reading 212km with an elapsed time of 11h40.  Not a bad day out, all in all.  It didn't kill me so it must have made me stronger.

The evening was a great occasion, involving great conversation about this trip and that, and of course accounts of the day's riding.  There had been a variety of routes taken, some taking a greater toll, and time, than others.  When I headed off upstairs, full of not one, but two pub dinners (an omelette, and a burger and chips!!!!), Paul had only just arrived (he'd had a crash and some derailleur problems down Fishers), and Megan and Jakub - who'd taken a not quite ready track through to Whakahoro from Mangaparua trig were still awol.  Before finally turning in, news came that 4 of the 6 who'd set off through the Bridge to Nowhere, followed by a jetboat down the Whanganui, the Matemateonga tramping track, and the Bridge to Somewhere ride along the Whangamomona River had arrived after an 18 hour day.  Bill and Keith were kipping in a hut along the Matemateonga and would see us in Patea the following night.  And, Megan arrived after a tough day out - she'd had to unload the panniers from her bike for multiple stream crossings - the costs of not packing light!

Day 3: Whangamomona to Patea

The next morning we were treated to a communal continental breakfast at the decidedly civilised hour of 8am.  It was again nice to have most of the group together, scoffing down cereal and toast. 

After a bit of a communication mix up, I walked down to the campsite only to have Simon appear 10 minutes later ready to ride.  I scurried back to the hotel and got suited up, then rode down to the campsite with Dave.  The plan was for Dave, Simon, Geoff and I to head through the way Trevor, Barryn and Mark had come the night before - down the Whangamomona River to the Bridge to Somewhere, and then gravel roads towards Eltham.  

The Bridge to Somewhere ride was a real gem - a Classic New Zealand Mountainbike Ride if ever I did one, and it was sweeter still on account of how bloody far off the beaten track you have to go to do it!  Our foursome had become five - and we were in illustrious company, having been joined by ex World Adventure Racing Champion, and current World Rogaine Champion, Marcel Hagener.  He was in fine form, and was not content with his ride in the opposite direction the night before.  He kept us all well entertained, and kept the pace high.

The majority of the ride was dry, the exceptions being the far end of a couple of funky tunnels cut out of the clay.

Of the five bikes on this leg of the journey, four were 29ers, and so my 26" rear wheel was the only little one in the fleet, and boy, it was finding the bumps.  This was the only stretch I regretted loading my gear on the back for, but I had little choice but to suck it up, and nurse my bike as best I could through the rough.  We made frequent stops to regroup after photo stops, or to get through gates. 

 Most of the time we were heading downstream, but ever so occasionally, Simon would have me going back the way we'd come, all in the name of a decent photo...

Before too long, the valley widened, and we had a quick blast through some open farm land. 

Dave, Marcel and Geoff, all travelling suitably light

Just before we reached the bridge, across which was Somewhere, we had to pass a rather large bull, who was showing off his not insubstantial  manhood.  We all had a jolly good giggle at Marcel's German-accented description of it, and then it was off to Somewhere. 

After at least five minutes with cameras firing left, right and centre, we were back on the bikes.  The day had begun to warm up, and we were "treated" to some pretty arduous climbing on gravel roads.

While most of us spun away, Dave was often up off the saddle...

After what seemed like an eternity, we reached the Soldiers Road turnoff.   Dave had no sooner started thinking about conserving the little water he had left, when his bottle had jumped out of his cage and lost its contents.  While we had a bit of a spell, and gave our chains a bit of love, Dave, exhorted by Marcel popped into a farm house but to no avail.  Marcel's excitement would have been hilarious had it not been for Dave's concern, and our respect for him, but eventually Dave decided he'd continue on with us rather than taking a shorter route to Stratford.

A few kilometres later we filled bottles at a tap and Marcel nuked each with his UV steriliser.  We had a sweet ride that Simon had negotiated through a pine forest, before a steep climb up a ridge to take us into the next valley. For a while I felt like I was watching an Italian road race with Marcel calling after Simon/Coppi while I played Bartali.  Coppi took line honours on the day, and I pulled the pin on the climb at an opportune spot.  I probably should have kept going until I fell off, but my self preservation instinct was too strong.  Simon rode away from us all pushing our bikes, the only one with a decent excuse being Dave with his singlespeed.

The traverse of Brad and Jo's farm was not without incident.  After a rip snorting descent, we ended up at a bottleneck with about 8 or 9 nervous looking cattle.  They got increasingly agitated as we slowly approached, then started circling around, before one decided to jump a nearby gate. The first one did very well, but the half dozen that followed it weren't quite as adept at hurdling.  We straightened a couple of battens, and stared gloomily at the bent top rail of the gate before continuing on.

We met Brad and Jo five minutes later, and Simon let them know about the gate, and the relocation of the cattle.  We thanked them very much for their kind permission, then headed off towards Eltham, 27km away.  Only 2 hills en route, apparently. 

Despite having seen this warning before, I absolutely had to stop to photograph it again.  Luckily the deck was not overtopped with water and I was able to follow Geoff and Simon in the distance...

The last hill was laid out in all its glory as we approached it.  Luckily the gradient was pretty mellow, and a very late lunch was just over the other side, so it passed quickly. 

Mt Taranaki was visible to us for the first time at the top, and after a quick photo I leapt back on my bike and powered off towards Eltham.  

Arriving for lunch just before 4pm, we could at least take solace in the massive tailwind, and 200m descent we were going to have through to Patea.  We snuck into a local cafe just in the nick of time, and made good use of their counter food.  I ate far too much - a stuffed potato and a bit of lolly cake and a chocolate croissant, preceded by some chocolate and washed down by a pot of tea.  I rolled out feeling bloody uncomfortable, but soon the legs were firing nicely, bouyed by the strong wind behind us.

The five of us were like pigs in muck, as we blasted along the back roads northeast of Hawera.  Marcel almost got taken out by a young punk probably trying to make a point, but apart from that the ride was incident free.  Marcel and Dave put a bit of a gap on Simon, Geoff and myself, but within an hour and a half of leaving Eltham, we were all starting to wind down and get washed for dinner.  Had the wind been turned 180 degrees, we probably would have taken twice as long, and probably would have shed a tear or two!  Fortune smiled on us!

Geoff was booked in at a motel, but the rest of us were down at Carlyle Beach Campground, down by the mouth of the Patea River.  Once again, this was a great opportunity to catch up with some of the others.  Most were in good spirits, and it was fun to hear about others' rides.  The 156km of the day, over 10 hours had taken its toll though, and it was nice to finally lie down and get some rest!

Day 4: Patea to Whanganui

Simon's alarm went off at 7:30, but I didn't hear it, so got an extra 45 minutes' sleep.  When I finally did wake, Simon and Dave were pretty much ready to go, so I quickly packed and got ready to ride up to the township for breakfast.  My riding gear was wet and the day looked to be cool, so rather than suit up, I threw on my jacket and Ground Effect overtrou, and rode up in my civvies.  

I passed an impressively devastated pine plantation - what looked to have been started by fire was being finished off by the wind. 

A few minutes later I was ordering a cooked breakfast at the cafe.  By the time I was done, only Dave was still there, and he patiently waited for me to get changed.  We were soon on the road, and heading towards Whanganui.

We again had a good wind and made good progress along the highway.  We bypassed Waverley by taking backroads south of the highway.  When we were forced back out onto SH3, we found we'd made good headway into the others who'd left before us.  Six cycle tourists spread out in front of me was too good a photo opportunity to give up, despite the fiddle-faddle of getting my camera out.

Just before Maxwell, and our next turnoff, we caught John on his Pugsley.  It had been perfect for a bit of riding over railway sleepers the day before, but it looked like hard work on the tarmac.

I stopped by a cemetery to take my jacket off, but apparently missed the rather grand grave of Dalvanius Prime. We then hung a right, and were soon blasting along some more quiet back road.  We chatted to Dan on his Ibis for a bit, and I enjoyed watching him blast through a pothole that would have caused just about every other bike in our group a bit of mischief.

A hill near Kai Iwi Beach saw Dan fade back, and Geoff back to us from ahead, and once again we were three.  We were soon passed by a woman on a road bike, who Dave identified as Cath Cheatley.  No sooner had she put 20m on us, but all three of us got a bit twitchy, and within a few seconds we decided to mount a chase.  

Camera safely stowed, we accelerated in earnest, just as Cath ahead leaped out of the saddle and started to sprint.  We concluded she'd heard us coming, and kept accelerating ourselves.  She sooned eased off though and before long we were alongside.  Dave stayed to chat, but I hammered on.  I felt a little embarrassed about it, but it was lovely to have a bit of fun, especially after so many hours of hard riding with little stimulation beyond the glorious scenery and the thought of one's next meal.  I had a 30 second wait for them at an intersection in Westmere.  Cath cheerily called out "Wanganui's that way" pointing us left, as she blasted around to the right.  We were after the right ourselves, but she was long gone, and so there was no more mischief.

We had a bit of rain on the final few kilometres into town, but it was nicely cleansing.  The day's ride had been short and sweet - about 70km in 2h40 - and was a nice way to top off a good hard three days before it.  Not at all like the last day of the Kiwi Brevet, a 17 hour slog from Culverden through the Molesworth to Blenheim.  At about half the total distance, these four days were not going to need months to recover from.

Dave and I didn't have long to wait for Geoff, and then a bunch of others arrived.  We'd passed Simon and Marcel without realising it. Marcel had an elaborate story involving a wrong-turn to Waverley Beach, Simon had suffering a puncture, and a dental nurse - it was hard to tell what was real and what was not!  Classic stuff!

We got changed, and then rode off to a cafe for a debrief, and some coffee and cake!  We caught up with about a dozen others, before I rode off to get the car.  Soon after, we had four bikes on board, and were heading south.  Our heads were filled with fantastic images and memories, and our legs with that dull ache that only 500-odd kilometres of riding has a knack of bringing on!  After 30 hours in the saddle, a 2 hour drive flies by, and soon I was flicking through photos with Kaitlyn.

While nice to be home, as always, it was bloody good to get out!


  1. Wicked stuff! The writing and the photos make me want to follow in your tyre tracks...

  2. Thanks for organising the event. It was a pleasure to read. These events are on the list...

  3. John, I'm not sure which was longer the write-up or the ride! We'll have to call it Randle’s Rambles! Well done on dragging a few crazies out into the country for a wee bit of fresh air...