Saturday, November 3, 2018

Labour weekend off the beaten track

One of the downsides of my focus on racing and solo or family adventures over the last few years has been a dearth of quality time with my old buddy Simon.

Not that I needed a reminder of how much I enjoy riding with him, we did a solid three days together in late-January, just before he and his amazing daughter Miro rode the North Island leg of the 2018 Tour Aotearoa on a MTB tandem.  They'll be heading to do the South Island in December, so I took it upon myself to suggest we hang out over Labour Weekend, partly for the company, but also as a bit of a training block for Simon.

Our last "spring tour" was way back in November 2012, and while it was an absolute cracker, we didn't follow up the following year.  Traditionally, Simon has taken the lead on route planning, but this time, I had in mind the remote and surprisingly vast area around Pongaroa - east of Pahiatua - in the northern Wairarapa.

During a cycle tour between National Park and Featherston, Sarah and I had spent a night at the Glenross Backpackers 9km south of the tiny township - Pauline had been a great host, and I'd been looking forward to staying there again.  While Simon and I had previously carried overnight gear on our bikes, I thought Glenross would make a great base, and a couple of nights' accommodation would give us the opportunity to do three decent rides in the area.

We decided to break the  relatively slow 190km drive from Wellington into two chunks, and stayed in Carterton on the Friday night.  The next morning, we packed the coffee machine into the car, and then made our way up Route 52 via Masterton New World.  When we arrived at Glenross, we found we had the place to ourselves, and grabbed the two rooms nearest the communal lounge area.  After loading the perishables into the fridge, it was time to suit up for our first ride of the weekend.

Critical section of the most excellent AA Touring Map

Coastal Loop:  106km, and about that many kowhai trees

We set off south along Route 52, and within 10 minutes came to our turnoff onto Huia Road.  It was gravel right from the get-go, so instantly our MTBs felt more appropriate.

It didn't take long for us to pick up on the fact that this valley is full of kowhai trees - in bloom at this time of year.  These trips together always serve up something unique, but not usually within the first hour!!!

Kowhai central
Our mountain bikes helped smooth out the bumps (micro and macro), and while the hills were less noticable as a result, from time to time we got stunning views which reminded us how isolated we were.

Looking north
We joined the main road from Pongaroa out to the coast about mid-way along its length.  It was gravel by the time we met it, and with a stonking tail wind, we made good time.  The first views of the ocean were exciting, and the surf was putting on a good show for us.

Just before Akitio, the road turned to seal, and it was about then that we encountered our first car, over 40km into our ride!  The are plenty of place names on New Zealand's maps, and it always amuses me that you can never quite be sure what you're going to get - from a house or two (or sometimes less), through to a quite substantial settlement.  Akitio was one of the latter, and the road in traversed the hill above it, giving us glimpses of the dozens of seaside holiday-homes.

Simon nabbed us a spot with a view and made good use of the unexpected cellphone reception, while I went in search of a shop - not really because we needed one, but just because we could!

I got a few friendly waves, and returned to Simon with a couple of drinks from the holiday camp store, and a smile on my face.

Main drag, Akitio

Akitio was a lovely spot, and it was a shame to leave, not least because the wind that had propelled us towards the coast was now in our faces.  I took point, and tried to make sense of the wind, ever-changing gradient, and the sluggish MTB tyres, going hard enough to make good progress, but not so hard to cook myself or my cobber!

After about 30km of mostly false-flat sealed road, we came to the intersection with Route 52.  We'd foregone a side loop to the north, but I'd made a pitch for a back-road towards Pongaroa.  I succeeded and we made the right turn off Route 52 after a mere 50 metres on it.  It was nice to hear the crunch of gravel again, and to be out of the wind.

The gradient was sweet as we climbed out of the valley.  We crossed a saddle and descended, before passing through an intersection we intended to come back to the next day.

Turnoff to Waihi Falls

We rode parallel with Route 52 for about 10km, climbing as we went, before dropping down to rejoin the main road at a high-point, leaving us a short and fast ride into Pongaroa.

The pub was open, and we headed in for a bowl of fries and a cold drink each.  After smashing those down, I volunteered to ride back to Glenross for the car - estimating a 45 minute round trip, Simon was happy to entertain himself, and I even treated myself to a short shower before heading back in.

I had a rare case of food envy upon spotting a neighbouring patron's "Fish Meal", but we got back to Glenross with suitably full bellies in any case.  I'd brought a stack of unread Listeners from home, and we cranked up the fire, just because!

The loop was just shy of 107km, with perhaps 50km of sealed road.  We could have done without the strong, cold wind, but the company was mint, and the scenery constantly engaging.  I honestly believe I saw more kowhai trees on this ride, than I'd seen my whole life up to this point!.  Data:

Day 2:  Crossing the Puketoi Range

After a solid sleep, and a hearty breakfast, it was time to roll out again, this time initially north along Route 52.  The Pongaroa store was closed, so there was no temptation for an early morning tea, and as a result, our first stop was at the turn-off to Waihi Falls.  I've passed this sign half a dozen times now on a glorious road loop connecting Eketahuna, Pahiatua and Pongaroa, and I was excited to finally be checking the falls out.

Puketoi Ranges in the background

The road was immediately gravel, and before long we were riding only a couple of kilometres east of our previous afternoon's route.  I love the sense of adventure that riding in totally unfamiliar places brings, but also, enjoy when unfamiliar and slightly familiar intersect...

A little bit of navigation was required, but the falls were signposted, so there wasn't really any need to pay attention to the maps we had, and they were more so for the riding after we'd finished our sightseeing.

The falls themselves were beautiful, and also quite intriguing - water seemed to be cascading off the entire length of a ledge, despite it appearing to fall away from right to left.

This was a great spot for a wee picnic, and a viewing point from the track on the way out gave some insight into why the water was not completely favouring the lowest point of the shelf.

Waihi Falls, in all its beauty
The falls sits at the end of a dead-end road, and once we'd undone that, we had to back-track to a three-way intersection, whereupon we turned right onto Towai Road.  We had a 550-metre ascent ahead of us, but it turned out the road-builders had been incredibly careful, and despite the foothills being quite complicated, they'd been inconceivably successful in finding a route that climbed all the way up to the crossing of the main range.

Destination:  the we dip in the ridge above Simon's helmet!

After a long climb featuring a short snack stop, we reached the saddle, and despite feeling like we were in the middle of nowhere, laughed as our phones started pinging off...!  While the sun was out, there was a cold wind blowing, and I was annoyed to have under-dressed.  Nonetheless, we tried as best we could to find a spot out of the wind, and admired the view - yesterday's ocean was just visible at one point on the horizon.

Looking east

The descent wasn't at all what I was expecting, with much less bush, and a slower loss of elevation that I'd predicted.  Oh, and a massive limeworks...

As we neared the valley floor, there were always interesting things to look at, including pockets of native bush, large rock outcrops and a stunning pile of firewood.

As with Saturday's ride, from the intersection to Coonoor, we had a brief glimpse of the next day's route.   From there to Makuri, we were on a bit of road we were intending to ride in the opposite direction the following day - about half of it was sealed, so fast travel.

We had a long sit down below the church in Makuri - the nature of the roads we'd been riding meant plenty of talking, but it was also a pleasure to do so without distractions.  Eventually though, it was time to crack into the remaining hurdle, namely the road ascent back over the range.

Simon about to round the bend about half way up the climb

The wind was mostly in our favour, and we made relatively short work of the climb.  After only a couple of minutes descent, we swung right onto the gravel Rimu Road.  Once again, we found ourselves on a ridge that eliminated a lot of climbing (the main road goes up and down constantly), and we descended virtually all the way back to Route 52.  Our accommodation was a minute or two north, and I was glad to be getting there with all the blood on the inside, after almost screwing up an off camber corner a few hundred metres before the end of Rimu Road!

We ate in - taking advantage of the carload of groceries we'd arrived with - but did treat ourselves to a spot of dessert (and WiFi) back at the Pongaroa pub!

By the time we hit the sack, we'd laundered all of our riding gear, and were basking in the glory of another successful day's riding.  All up, we covered 87km, with about 30km of sealed road.  Aside from a bit of wind chill, the day had pretty much been perfect.  Data:

Some Classic New Zealand Mountain Bike Riding

I'd mapped a third ride, along the lines of the previous two, but with neither the mountain range, nor the coast as features.  Simon had countered with "The Makairo Track (and old road a little bit like Fishers track, the last time [he] did it at least)."  Sounded like fun!

We packed up the car, and stashed some cash for Pauline under our bed linen.  We decided the very direct Rimu Road route was not worth the hassle, and instead drove to Makuri via Pongaroa.  We were too early to grab snacks at the store (who'd advertised being open despite the Labour Day public holiday).

After parking at the Makuri School, we were soon retracing the ride up to the turnoff to Coonoor.  At the intersection, I took an almost identical photo, amusing to me given the completely different significance of the way-finding signs.

Sunday:  Pass of the Rising Sun to Makuri; Monday:  Makuri to Coonoor

If we passed through Coonoor en route to the Makairo Road turnoff, it wasn't evident, but the ever decreasing scale of the road was.

Go - no turning intended

There were a couple of vehicles parked at a road-end, though the line on my GPS map continued unchanged.

While it is always nice to ride off road without having to stop for obstacles, I'd switched off a little, and through lack of concentration, aversion to riding through mud and/or puddles, and eagerness not to brush any of the nasty onga onga in the area, was considerably slower than Simon.

Eventually the track came to an end, at least as far as the GPS map was concerned, but on the ground it wasn't at all obvious why.

End of the road?!  NOT!

The quality of drainage was highly variable, but the gradient pretty constant, and it was a pleasure to ride.

The Makairo Track traversing immediately behind me, and on the ridge in the background, the saddle we'd crossed the day prior.

At the summit, we sat down in the sun - a bloody pleasant experience without a cold wind blowing.  Once again, we found ourselves reflecting on how nice it was to be riding together, and also on our good luck (and/or management) over the years in picking great places to ride.

Looking west from our picnic spot

Between the valley road and the Makairo Track itself, we'd gained about 400m since the car, and we peeled off all of that height plus a bit more over the next 9km or so.  Near the end of the single-track (or, overgrown double track), we found the likely reason that the track had slipped off the map - a partially washed out bridge - and soon after we were flying on along on a dry gravel surface again.

The foundations at the near end have long since vanished from under this bridge

At the intersection with Surreydale Road, we had a decision to make.  An old map at the backpackers had shown a through route straight back to Makuri, but the more recent maps suggested no public access.  We hadn't had the wherewithal to research the legality of riding through, and weren't keen to get shouted at (or worse), and didn't particularly feel like adding extra kilometres, potentially elevated stress levels aside.

We stopped by a house near the intersection and asked the fellow there about access - he was friendly, but wasn't encouraging, so we took the longer option.  The gravel Millers Road took us through to the main Pahiatua-Pongaroa route, leaving us with just shy of 20-sealed-kilometres back to the car.

The upside of that was getting to ride the beautifully scenic Makuri Gorge...

... though Simon did point out a nasty Old-Man's-Beard infestation.

We continued the tradition of returning to an unmolested car, and after a food stop in Pahiatua, and a shower stop in Carterton (during which time we also unloaded the coffee machine and a few other bits and pieces), we were soon bidding each other farewell in Petone.

The final ride was only 64km, and the shortest time-wise too, despite the slow travel on the Makairo Track - probably half of the loop was sealed, and we literally saw only two moving cars the whole time.    Data:

* * *

As it turned out, this made a bloody fine alternative to a traditional cycle tour - and it was certainly nice not to have overnight gear on board.   The base was a long drive from Wellington, and while the area's beautiful, you'd have to be pretty committed to drive all the way out there and back just for a day-ride.

I've scoped out a great loop which I'll do from Alfredton one day this summer (Pori Rd to Makuri and then Rimu Rd across to Route 52), and there's more north of Pongaroa waiting for another long weekend!

The quality time with Simon was long overdue, and I'd like to think neither of us will put up with such a long gap again.

Three anti-clockwise loops, done successively westward

After a wonderful month in France, my enthusiasm for riding is rising with the ambient air temperature.  Work is nuts, and it's all too easy to fall into the trap of the double whammy that is not riding (more time to work stresses the brain even more, coupled with less physical and mental recharge), but this weekend definitely helped on all fronts!