Friday, January 5, 2018

Family riding - native forest edition

One of Family Randal-Tumen's finest annual traditions is a few nights away together in the height of summer.

We've hit some fantastic spots:  Nelson, Northland, Rotorua and the Central Plateau, and the lure of a return visit has been strong.   On the other hand, New Zealand is packed with wonderful riding, and the chance to go somewhere new is hard to go past.

This year's trip took shape when Kaitlyn mooted the possibility of a Christmas afternoon flight to visit her maternal grandparents in Tauranga.  Not long after, we'd agreed to pick her up on the morning of the 29th, and had accommodation booked for that evening in Whakatane.

* * *

Sarah, Khulan and I set sail from Wellington relatively early on the 28th.  We figured the chance to sneak a ride in at Rotorua was worth forgoing a sleep-in.  We inadvertently left when the roads were quiet, and made good time up the lower North Island.

It's been a while since I've ridden at Rotorua, and had forgotten that they're not big on climbing trails.  They are big on glorious descents though, so smiles were restored eventually, and it was nice to take a break from the car.

Our accommodation for the night was in Putaruru - a bit of a random choice, but within easy striking distance of Tauranga.

The Pakihi Track

We met Kaitlyn and her grandparents in Bethlehem the following morning, and then made our way into Tauranga to find some breakfast.  The "Best Metro Cafe in 2015" signage all over the windows was a good drawcard, as was the convenient location on the edge of the city.

Not long after leaving the cafe (satisfied, but a bit lighter in the pocket), we found ourselves with a choice of the Tauranga Eastern Link toll road, or the "free option" that most drivers seemed to be taking.  For novelty value, the $2 was value for money, especially given the recent legislation permitting 110km/h along this stretch - elsewhere it can be a lot more expensive to go that fast...

I disregarded Garmin's suggestion to stay on SH2, and instead followed the sign to Whakatane.  As a result, the day had really marched on by the time we parked up at the top of the Pakihi Track - the jewel in the Motu Trails' crown.

Before setting sail, we had a big ol' picnic lunch, and wished the car a safe few hours on its own.

The track immediately plunged into some of the finest native forest I'd seen.

Exhibit 1
The Pakihi is given a Grade-4 rating, but only really because the trail is exposed in places.  The track surface was almost uniformly wide and smooth.  Interestingly, Sarah seemed nervous, and had fared much better on the feature-laden and more technical trails of Whakarewarewa the day before.  Observing her nervousness engendered my own, but at least the girls seemed to be having a blast (and the scenery was off the hook).

We popped down to see the Pakihi Hut, which necessitated a bit of a grovel back up to the main track, and queries as to the point of the side-trip.

Pakihi Hut
Soon after, we'd peeled off most of the 400m altitude we'd lose, and the remainder of the ride was spent just above the beautiful Pakihi Stream.

Pakihi Stream, and Sarah off in the distance

While I was going to have my work cut out for me to get back to the car before dark, my companions had a lot of time to kill.  As we all gazed longingly down at one of the many swimming holes we passed, I did try to point out that there was no particular need to rush.

At the end of the single-track, I left my companions, and enjoyed smacking it along the gravel road towards Opotiki. That soon turned to seal, and I was stuck with an unfortunate tail wind - nice while it lasted, but I was going to soon turn 180-degrees, and would have preferred it on the road up to the car.

Just before hitting town, I jumped onto the Otara River stop-bank, which served as a useful bypass of civilisation, to a large extent.  I did make use of the cell-phone reception though, to communicate with our evening's land-lord, and the operator of the White Island tour we'd take the next day, and to let Sarah know those things were sorted.

After a very brief spell on SH35, I popped onto the Dunes Trail which sits between the Pacific Ocean and the highway.  At times I questioned my choice - not because there was anything wrong with the trail, but simply because I was keen to get back to my family, and the faster progress the road would afford was tempting.

Who wouldn't rush back to these beauties (and the photographer)?!
I had a short break at the foot-bridge between Jackson and Motu Roads, and then it was onto the latter for the 600m climb up to the car (which I hoped would still be there!).  I'd been up the road back in January 2010, when the signage was a bit newer!

December 2017
January 2010
Before the climb-proper started, I saw a cyclist coming towards me.  Bloody small world - it was Ben Knight, owner of the AvantiPlus store in Masterton.  It was lovely to catch up briefly, and he seemed interested to hear how nice the Pakihi had been.

The climb is broken up into two large and one small chunks.  By virtue of the drive in, I knew pretty much what I was in for, and while my energy levels were waning somewhat, I did have plenty of food in my pockets.

Meremere Saddle - top of the first pinch.  

Water was another story, so it was lucky I was surrounded by so much native bush, through which surely (hopefully?!) flowed drinkable water.  I assumed so, and filled my single bottle - a downside of riding the fully - a couple of times.

I had soon crested Toatoa Hill as well, and from there it was just a short push up the final ascent to the car.  I'd ridden into light rain, not worthy of a rain-shell, but cooling enough to don my vest.  And, the car was indeed unmolested.

Not a 5-star look on my face, but definitely a 5-star ride

The Pakihi Track itself had taken us about 1.5 hours, and the full loop just over 5 hours. By the time I was back in Opotiki, it was getting pretty dark, by virtue of our 2pm start, and long drive back down Motu Road.  In total, the return car trip must have added 3-hours to the day, and did have me wondering about the best way to tackle this track in the future.

Actually, I wouldn't recommend anyone replicate our approach.  The climb to the trail-head is fairly long, but quite stunning, and worth cruising up.  The Pakihi Track is not particularly physically demanding (if you're fit), and so little energy is required once you've tipped downhill.  The end of the singletrack is alongside a lovely river, and soaking in the water on a warm afternoon would be a nice place to kill some time while the driver boosted around to the bottom of Motu Road for the car.  If the wait there got boring, a cruise down the road to Opotiki would just about fill the gap perfectly, I think.

* * *

The awkward timing and specifically the late start on the Pahiki was mostly to make way for a trip out to White Island.  It was the first time I'd been, and the crew at White Island Tours looked after us well.  Once we got back home in the early afternoon, I dropped Kaitlyn and Khulan at Ohope Beach, and then gave my bike a bit of lovin'.  The chain in particular was desperately in need of some lube after the damp finish to the ride.

The next day we took a side trip to Rotorua, and spent a few hours riding with Ashley and Steven...

About to head into Te Tihi o Tawa - a gem, and in native rather than commercial pine forest
...followed by another couple on our own.  Then, it was off to the supermarket to get supplies to last us a couple of days, followed by a 90 minute drive to Minginui (including a lap of Murupara).  We were booked in with Whirinaki Forest Holidays, and were warmly welcomed by Garry and his partner, who were about to go out on the ran-tan to celebrate New Year's Eve.

Our room - "The Surgery" was small and simple, but had an awesome shower, and pretty much a full kitchen, so we were able to prepare a normal dinner, and finally clean some of the Whakarewarewa dust off our legs.

Not a soul was keen to see in the new year awake, and we all hit the sack early.

The Moerangi Track

The Moerangi Track was on my short list of "ones that got away".  Nailing it on the first day of 2018 was surely an auspicious start to the year (The Tourmalet, I'm looking at you...!)

Simon and I had decided discretion was the better part of valour back in 2011, when neither of us had a fully-functioning rear brake, and we'd ridden straight into Minginui on the road.  It was good to be back, albeit six years later.

While the top of the track was officially "Closed", Garry reported cyclists had been getting through, so I made the executive decision to give the full track a go - Plan B had been to do an in-and-out as far as Roger's Hut.

The Kennett Bros' book points out the ends of the track are 37km apart.  When we set off in the car, I had that figure in mind, but hadn't stopped to think about the implications of neither end sitting on the state highway.  To make matters worse, my memory of the Okahu Road turnoff bore little resemblance to the actual intersection, so I didn't recognise it when we drove past it not long after leaving our accommodation.

Once you've passed what you are looking for, you could go on forever without finding it.  And, as the drive went on, I tried massaging the data to fit.  Perhaps the speedo was under-reporting distance due to the gravel road?  The trail starts high, so surely the intersection is at the top of this hill?  Both attempts to deny the increasingly obvious:  you've gone too far.

In the end, it was clear that we'd missed it.  In fact, had the track been a dead straight-line, we were probably too far from Minginui for it to get us home.  What a shambles, but the plus was we were sufficiently close to Lake Waikaremoana that it was worth continuing a little longer just to admire the view for a moment.

A small but beautiful consolation
Sarah, Kaitlyn and Khulan probably sensed that I was beating myself up for the mistake, so kindly didn't rub it in.  My screw-up was not without its implications though.  Our sedate start, and the 100km detour, meant we didn't start our ride until 1:30pm, close to three hours later than if I'd paid more attention to detail.  In any case, no point crying over spilt milk, so focus turned to the task at hand.

We parked at the DOC campsite a few kilometres up Okahu Road.  There were half a dozen tents up, but we didn't see anyone.  Despite some evidence of storm damage, the road was in good condition, and the 8km through to the trail-head passed relatively quickly, despite the steady climbing.

Moerangi trail-head
The first section of single track was a lot steeper than the road had been, and there was even a short flight of steps to push our bikes up.  That soon ended though, and once gravity was on our side, we had a good 5-minute hoon down to our first compulsory dismount.  Nonetheless, the trail behind us was good enough for Khulan to remark that this was her favourite track on the trip.  Premature, as it turned out!

Negotiating the first bit of damaged track was a breeze, and as yet, our feet were dry.  But as we progressed, the hike-a-bike sections became more regular, and more worthy of attention.  In a couple of places the track had disappeared into the stream, necessitating us to do the same temporarily.  The water level was low, so it was no problem, but had the stream been pumping, a short ride back to the car would have been our only option.

As we continued, each obstacle seemed to be more time consuming than the last, but the riding in between was nice, and the surrounding forest and stream were as beautiful as any you'd find.  It was also a damn sight better than being stuck in the car on a windy gravel road...

Wet feet on this one, I'm afraid
It was 7km to Skips Hut, but it took is 1h15 to get there from the trail-head.  By the time we left, it was already past 3:30pm and as we tucked into some afternoon-tea, we sincerely hoped our rate of progress would improve.

Skips Hut (not shown, Onga Onga - a nasty stinging nettle in the vicinity that the 17-year-olds brushed past)
Our hopes were ill-founded, and soon enough we reached a massive slip.  There was probably about 10-15m of track completely missing, with a 40-50m slip face dropping right down to the stream in the valley below.  We were about two-thirds of the way up the slip, and short of going back a way, passing below it was out of the question.

Trampers (or other cyclists) had been over the top of the slip though, and there were both fluoro tags to follow, and footprints.  After a quick recce, it was clear I would need to ferry the four bikes to the top at least - a time consuming and somewhat exhausting process.  At least the girls were able to cope with the descent on the other side, and soon enough we were all back on track.

It was almost 5pm by the time we arrived at Rogers Hut, but not before one of the daughters had asked if we'd be better to go back to the car.  I'd given an emphatic no, but didn't really qualify that answer.  The question came not long after the big slip, and the thought of undoing all that hard work was too much to bear.  I also knew the track was fine (i.e. open) from Rogers Hut onwards, and felt that the ordeal-half of the ride was almost over.

Rogers Hut with 22km out of 35km still to ride
The second hut did indeed signal the end of the damage.  Our new annoyances were rain-laden ferns which often completely obscured the track below, and drenched us as we rode between them.  I was on point, and hoped that my companions weren't getting quite as wet as I was.

Our next milestone was the turn-off to Moerangi Hut - it was a 1km side-trip that none of us were remotely interested in, though I couldn't help myself but ask if anyone wanted to go there.  After that, the fairly mellow stream-side climb turned into a sterner challenge, and while Khulan and Sarah went ahead, Kaitlyn and I paced ourselves slowly but surely up the 300m ascent.

I jabbered away, hoping to distract and/or motivate - Katy was low on physical energy, and stress levels were high.  She was justifiably concerned at the time of day, and had extrapolated our very slow progress on the first third of the track right out to the end.  As much as anything, I think the emotional toll was a bigger factor in her apparent fatigue than the physical effort.

We could see Moerangi Saddle getting closer and closer, by virtue of the angle of the daylight through the trees.  As we crossed from one catchment to another, we both cursed the trail builders for not immediately starting the descent, and it wasn't until another few minutes had passed that we met Sarah and Khulan and began our 500m descent.

I was fascinated to watch the daughters disappear off into the distance.  Kaitlyn looked like she was just starting a ride, and not at all like someone over five hours into a somewhat stressful mission.  It's interesting how fatigue articulates itself non-uniformly - we'd been on and off the bike on the climb, and as we switched modes of progress, each change seemed to bring a wee boost of energy.  Similarly, once gravity was helping rather than hindering, she seemed to have plenty of gas in the tank, not only to safely manage the descent, but to actually enjoy it.  (PHEW!)

Sarah was in fine form, and it struck me as strange how the relatively benign Pakihi had given her the greatest problems.  The descent, while damp, was tacky, and it was a lot of fun hooning along.  This was just as well - we'd worked bloody hard for this reward...

There were a few short climbs to negotiate before we reached the River Road carpark, and some huge rimu and other trees to admire.  We could hear kaka screeching above us too, which made a nice change to a ride relatively devoid of bird-life.

Celebration, and some relief
The Moerangi Track itself had taken us 5h20, which even despite the initial grovel, was near the lower end of the Kennett Bros' ride duration.

While the Tumens engaged in a bit of cat-and-mouse racing down River Road, Kaitlyn and I got into time-trial mode.  The width enabled me to ride alongside her and give her a helping hand from time to time, which I think we both enjoyed. 

It also gave me a chance to admire the strength of the Tumens.  Khulan had been rock-solid, despite riding the bike I least enjoyed ferrying around the slip (i.e. the heaviest)! And I've never seen Sarah mountain-biking so well.

We caught Khulan together, and when I drifted off ahead, I decided that was a good point to make for the car.   When I passed Sarah, I told her so, and then cranked up the legs.

I contemplated ditching the back-pack at our digs, but in the end kept going.  The highway section was over in about 20 minutes - the 150m climb was almost entirely sealed, while the descent was gravel.

When I got to the intersection, I was both grateful that it had come so soon, and bemused that "we'd" missed it earlier.  Despite there being no overt signage about the Moerangi Track, it was clearly a road that needed investigation...

Ohaku Road turnoff
The campsite, and car, were a couple of kilometres down the road, and as I loaded up my bike, a camper came to say gidday.  The 71km loop had taken just over 7 hours, and while it was not yet dark, it was virtually so by the time I got back to our accommodation at Farm Road.  There, I found my family in the process of deciding to eat without me, so my timing was impeccable!!!

It was a pretty impressive effort by the team, and although Khulan downgraded the track's "favourite" status, I reckon absent the time pressure, it would have retained its initial status.  Aside from the large slip, and seeing Kaitlyn a bit stressed out, I would have to rate it as one of my favourite mountain bike rides, and when I described the day to Simon on the phone a couple of days later, I told him he'd have loved it.

Kaitlyn made an interesting observation on instagram...

#goodthingstaketime #whatgoesupmustcomedown

While I accept we probably get back from these family "holidays" a bit too pooped, I make no apologies for challenging them.  They're now more than capable of going for a ride on their own (and each does, often), and to a large extent, I feel like my role is to show them (in a supportive and sensible fashion), exactly how capable they are - in many ways, just as Simon did for me starting about a decade ago.

As I said to Kaitlyn on the way up to Moerangi Saddle, her general fitness and skill level were a huge asset to her, and I would like to think that she, and Sarah and Khulan, got a great deal of satisfaction from a job well done.

And so it was.  I'm immensely proud of them, and glad we got out and gave it a nudge.  Maybe one of these days, they'll plan a family holiday at the beach, and drag me along (kicking and screaming probably), but until then, I'll be looking for more opportunities like these.