Sunday, August 30, 2020

A late winter bromantic getaway

 Following a successful long weekend in Whanganui with the WAGs, Brendan and I seized on a five day gap I had in my meeting schedule in late-August, and began to plan a spot of credit card touring.  Inspired by the successful pattern Simon and I established, I advocated for as short a drive as possible, followed by some heavenly back roads.  

Brendan made a couple of suggestions which sounded a lot like The Triangle Trip I'd done with Simon, mashed up with a ride Sarah and I had done from National Park to Featherston, ten and five years ago, respectively.  I countered with a loop out of Stratford, and eventually my powers of persuasion won out.  

As work pressures mounted and the days started to show signs of lengthening, the wait grew increasingly agonising, but it did give me an opportunity to get a bit of kit from Bryce at Cyclewerks - a bolt-on "Gas Tank" top tube bag for my Open, and a Pronghorn handlebar bag, both from Revelate Designs.  I've had a fantastic experience with various Revelate seat bags, and these additions were as well thought out as I'd come to expect.  

Bryce had also supplied some Teravail Sparwood tyres, but I ran out of time to replace my pretty worn WTB Byway rear tyre.  Not very pro, and I left home with my fingers crossed that it would survive another 600km or so.

My tried and true gear list is always worth a glance at, though could probably do with an update to reflect the few tweaks I've made over the last few years.  I stowed tools, chain oil, toilet paper and some hand sanitiser in the Gas Tank, overnight stuff in my trusted Revelate Viscacha, and storm-wear in the Pronghorn.  Packed up, the bike felt very nicely balanced, and ready for its shake-down tour.  

We managed to sneak away from a wet Wellington at about 2pm on the Wednesday afternoon, and the drive to Stratford passed easily, helped along by coffee in Levin, and some Pad Thai in Hawera.  

Day 1 - Stratford to Mokau

Mt Taranaki was looking majestic when we woke up, though it set horribly unrealistic expectations for the day's riding ahead.  

We managed to stay dry for the 5 minute ride into Stratford-central, but by the time we'd finished breakfast, ridden 5km on the main drag down to Midhurst, and jumped onto our first back roads, the weather had become pretty grim - wet, and about 8 degrees with a cold wind blowing.

Between the weather, a somewhat confusing road network, and my Garmin's unwillingness to show any roads on the map screen when the scale was any more than 300m per centimetre, I ended up taking us on a detour past Lake Ratapiko.  The lake itself was mighty scenic, and there looked to be a wee island with a homestead on it, but sadly the unnecessary 10km or so were probably not worth it.  Brendan was paying more attention to the wind direction than I, and detected we'd gone wrong soon enough to prevent us riding in a full circle.

Brendan had done a number of Tours of Taranaki over the years (typically a time trial plus three road stages), and soon after we turned onto Otaraoa Road alongside the Waitara River, he realised he would soon be passing through a hand-cut tunnel that he'd raced through years ago, and had never been able to work out where it had been.  It was a nice moment for him, I think, and fun to observe.  

After a bit of ducking and diving, we rejoined SH3 just before Urenui.  There, we had a number of cafes to choose from, and fortunately picked the one that had an open fire cranking (note to self:  look for smoke emitting chimneys when choosing a stop on a cold day...).  Since this was the only guaranteed mid-ride shop we would pass on our entire route, we made the most of it, and left feeling quite sated.

Once underway again, we had only a few minutes on the main drag before turning inland onto Okoki Road.  The seal lasted a short while, but soon we were onto gravel, and not long after that my drive train starting groaning.  

We stopped at the intersection with Uruti Road and a rinse with some of my drinking water and some fresh lube seemed to quieten my chain down a lot.  This happened to be where we got onto a section of road I'd ridden on day two of the second Tāwhio o Whanganui.  Uruti Tunnel was definitely familiar - who could forget it!

Uruti Tunnel

Out on the other side, a cheeky motorist had spun one of two speed limits around, but it was hard to tell which.

Our third tunnel of the day was the Moki Road tunnel...

... but it wasn't our last.  Part way along the gravelled Kiwi Road, we stopped to chat to a guy in a car.  He'd driven from Whanganui, via the River Road up to Raetihi, and then through Taumarunui, and on to the middle of nowhere.  While we were doing a very similar thing, it surprised us to think that someone would bother doing it alone, and in a city car.  

A sign near the beginning of Kiwi Road had understated the distance to SH3 by about 10km, but I'd found the riding otherwise great.  When we hit the sealed Okau Road, we turned left - the last time I'd been at this intersection, I'd turned right en route to Ohura.  That time, I'd been disappointed to miss out on the Okau Road tunnel, and while it was still cool to ride a bridge straight into a tunnel, in the intervening years, the road up Taroko Gorge in Taiwan had really upped the ante, and as a result, this was a bit of a let down...

We were feeling a tad weary when we reached SH3, and unfortunately, we had a nasty headwind for about 20km into Mokau.  By the time we reached our accommodation, the very lovely Mokau Motel, I was feeling pretty shot.  I was delighted to find the room came with a mini-bar of sorts, and I smashed back a choccy bar and can of coke that I could have done with 20km earlier, before jumping in the shower.

The Awakino Hotel sent a courtesy shuttle for us, which made for a very nice dinner, all the better to ride a long way the following day!  Had there been no shuttle, I'd have rather gone hungry than ridden my bike any further!  

Stats:  163km ridden.  Almost as many tunnels as cars off of SH3.  

Day 2 - Mokau to Te Kuiti

The next morning, our priorities were food and bike cleaning.  Our moteliers kindly donated an old t-shirt to assist with the latter task, while the convenience store at the bottom of the driveway had a more-than-capable coffee machine to help take the edge off the morning.  

After demolishing a big breakfast, I bought a couple of sandwiches for lunch further down the line.  

The road to Awakino passed by quickly, and a few kilometres up river, we turned left off SH3 onto Manganui Road.  Almost immediately we passed an intersection I'd been through before - Simon and I had dropped down to this point on a stunning bit of gravel road back in 2012.  My memories of the next 40 kilometres of road turned out to be very patchy, but I remember the quality of the company vividly.  

Notable highlights were the near complete absence of traffic, a quarry which looked to be systematically dismantling an entire hill, and sweet pockets of native bush.  Despite our overnight host's encouragement, and the apparently flat terrain out to Waikawau Beach and its resident (and intriguing) "stock tunnel", we weren't willing to add 10km to our day.  It gives a bloody good reason to go back, I suppose!

I'd completely forgotten the two saddles en route to our turn off onto Pomorangai Road, the point at which we deviated from Simon's and my parcours.  The road was briefly sealed, and after a quick stop to top up bottles, we were underway.

The road conditions were very slow going, and as we got further and further up the climb, they increasingly worsened.  It was clear someone was in the process of laying fresh gravel, and it seemed like the laden truck going up and down was the only form of compaction being undertaken.  Consequently, the surface got softer and softer, and it was a blessed relief to finally out-ride their effort.  Mercifully, the slop didn't seem to adhere to our tyres, so at least our bikes were relatively clean and unscathed.  

After some much faster travel, the road broke out of the native bush cover, and we had great views out to the north-east.  While we stood and admired them, a postie pulled up and made the most of the human interaction we provided.  His 6-hour daily route covered a very-remote 200km, and we suspected he had very little opportunity to chat to anyone while working.  

After a fun 10km descent, we stopped for a bite to eat, and soon after getting moving again were cowering in a wee shelter at the end of someone's driveway.  No sooner had we left there than the heavens really opened, replete with a very impressive thunder-clap which sounded like a train moving off into the the distance.  The sound effect was either a very unusual illusion, or indicated a very long and fast moving discharge up above.  

The road turned to seal around about the time we had a flurry of traffic, which, given the hour, Brendan suggested they were likely parents on a school-pickup run.  The conditions either side of the road changed too, and we passed many natural amphitheatres and cool rock outcrops.  

Oparure Road was lumpy as it took us across to SH3, just north of Te Kuiti.  After 500m on the main drag, we peeled off to connect with a back road which took us all the way into town, the centrepiece of which seems to be a massive railway yard.  

Stats:  110km ridden, about as many feral goats startled.  

Day 3 - Te Tuiti to Taumarunui

The Te Kuiti locals have a slow start on a Saturday morning, or at least their cafes do.  Nonetheless, we managed to get a decent breakfast at the large BP station, from which we quickly knocked out our final main-road kilometres of the trip.  

About 12km from Te Kuiti, we turned off SH3 onto SH4, and a couple of minutes later left that to begin one of the finest back-road sequences I've had the pleasure to ride.  The network was initially complex, but guided by the AA map, and some lucky choices, we navigated through to our main target, the Aria-Matiere Road.  

Aside from a few sealed kilometres on Tikitiki Road, we were treated to a really nice gravel surface, making for fast and stress-free riding.  The scenery was fantastic, and the gradients were incredibly mellow too - a 40km stretch was about as flat as you're likely to find in NZ, despite the road being surrounded by hills.  

We passed hundreds of turkeys, which typically gobbled at us as we rode past.  There were also occasional pheasants, who had this neat trick of gliding mid-flight, temporarily looking like an inanimate projectile.  Kererū were also pretty common, but the countryside definitely seemed to have been taken over by exotic birds.  

Morning tea at a saddle before dropping down to cross Mokauiti Rd

Eventually the road tipped up, and over the other side of a 5km climb, we stopped for lunch at a one-lane bridge.  Not only did the concrete curb make for a fine seat, but it was also bathed in sunshine, necessitating shedding of the knee warmers, one of the first times in months that I've ridden without them.  

Nearing Matiere, we opted not to cut across to Mangapapa Road, and instead took a chance with a longer route.  As a north-American might say, we "lucked out", and contrary to the apparent negative connotation, it was more of the same, glorious, easy-riding that we'd become accustomed to.  I'd been keen to prolong the gravel riding a bit longer, and we were both bloody glad that's exactly what we'd done.  

Matiere looked like a reasonably sized settlement, sitting on the main route to Ohura from the north.  Dave Sharpe and I had passed through here on Day 3 of the 2013 Tāwhio, though the riding conditions then were a far cry from those Brendan and I were being treated to.

A few minutes up the Okahukura Saddle Road, we passed a wee turnoff marked Otahu Road.  I think what made me stop and consult the map was that it didn't have "No Exit" showing.  My excitement grew when I noticed that despite the AA map not featuring the turn off we were at, it did have a short section of Otahu Road coming off Opotiki Road way above us, and I managed to convince Brendan to indulge my inquisitiveness.

A short way up the road we passed under the railway line, and not long after that the road shown on my GPS unit stopped.  We didn't though, until we came to a farm gate a few minutes later.  Access rights were unclear, but we had cell phone reception, allowing a spot of research.  

Determined to feel OK about pushing on, my internet research led me to, and a search in the "Public Access Areas Map" for Otahu Road, yielded the legal route we were hoping to find.

We made our way through the gate, but were soon staring up a steep fenceline and an unridable farm track, laughing at the warning we'd both seen on the walking access site:  "Please note that legal access is not necessarily practical to use."  All told, we lost about half an hour on this fool's errand, but the warm conditions, and unanimously pulling the pin before things got overly ridiculous helped avoid strife!

Our return to the "main" road signalled the permanent end of the day's gravel riding, but the climb dished out at least one reminder that the route we were taking had been around since long before the automobile, and tarmac.  

Once over the saddle, the descent took us down to SH4, and while Dave and I had ridden the highway into Taumarunui, I can only surmise the foul weather had discouraged us from crossing straight onto Ongarue Back Road, via a neat road/rail bridge.  (Warning to trains, while you can get over the river OK, someone has flogged the next bridge that used to get you over the highway.) 

Our sense of acceptable traffic volumes was completely out of whack, after a four-hour stretch with about a vehicle per hour.  On the "back road", we saw about a vehicle per minute or two, but nonetheless made it unscathed to our digs at the Forgotten World Motel, both fizzing on the back of a brilliant day of riding.  

Stats:  116 glorious kilometres, and more degrees than cars.  

Day 4 - Taumarunui to Whangamomona

Overnight, Brendan broached the issue of separating en route to Whangamomona.  I'd ridden "The Forgotten World Highway" direct route a couple of times, westwards on the first first Tāwhio, and eastwards with Simon a couple of years earlier on a cycle tour between New Plymouth and National Park.  Given that both times I'd been on a mountainbike, I was shocked to notice how many unsealed through routes there were off SH43, and was keen to check a few of them out.   Brendan, on the other hand, had a much heavier load, and wanted to make some use of the camera and tripod he'd been hauling, without frustrating me.  I wasn't hard to convince!

We'd availed ourselves of the New World across the road for breakfast supplies, and the well stocked kitchenette in our room to eat in, though after admiring the couple of dozen tuis gorging on a nearby tree, we went for second coffees in Maccas.  

After climbing out of Taumarunui on SH43, we dived off together onto Kururau Road, which didn't appear to add any distance to the main route to Whangamomona, definitely added to quality of the experience.  The road almost immediately turned to gravel and tipped up, affording us a lovely 30 minute climb to get the legs warm.  

Goats were yet again in abundance, and while I didn't stop to assist one whose short horns and poor technique were had its head trapped through a wire fence, Brendan reported doing so on his subsequent way past.  

What goes up, must come down, and as with the climb, the descent to the intersection with Whakamaro Road was wonderful.  After a few minutes on sealed road, we continued together on Kururao Road.  The surface deteriorated for a while, but soon we passed a grader sitting in a clearing, and beyond that travel became more enjoyable again.  

As we neared the terminus of Kururau Road on SH43, I heard sealant escaping from my rear tyre, and stopped to investigate,  I turned the bike upside down to find a hole just off centre on the fairly worn centreline of the smooth-by-design WTB Byway - time to use a tyre plug in anger for the first time.  

I'd thrown a Genuine Innovations repair kit into my Cyclewerks order at the last moment, and while I had never installed a tyre plug, understood the basic principle.  As I used the tool to push a "bacon strip" through the puncture, there was a gush of air signalling I'd made a small hole bigger, and I held my breath hoping that the combination of the plug and Stan's sealant would work their magic.  They seemed to be doing so as I trimmed off the excess plug as closely as I could to the tyre, using my Leatherman Squirt.  To be honest, I was sceptical that this would work, given that the plug would hit the ground on every single rotation of the wheel, but it seemed sensible to give it a whirl.

When I said goodbye to Brendan not 5 minutes later, initial signs were positive, albeit hardly a guarantee of ongoing success.  As the minutes and kilometres passed on Roto Road, my anxiety levels decreased.  I had three tubes and some old road racing tyre which I could use to reinforce the damaged part, but, there seemed to be a good chance it would be unnecessary.  Go the bacon strip!

I hadn't seen a vehicle since Taumarunui, and wondered if a woman going for a blat on a horse in an adjacent paddock counted as "oncoming traffic"?!  Another woman was walking her dogs on outskirts of Ohura.  Otherwise, the roads were deserted.

I was hoping to find two things in Ohura, and I wasn't disappointed.  The public loo even had its own NZ COVID Tracer QR code, and after availing myself of it, I returned to Fiesta Fare for a coffee and scone with jam and cream.  I lamented having hauled a couple of service station sandwiches this far, made worse when the fella after me ordered a pulled pork burrito!!

This was the "tyre's playing up" bail out point, whereupon I could have ridden sealed road most of the way to Whangamomona.  But, my tyre wasn't playing up at all, and both weather and legs were also behaving.  So, I set off over the "Waitangaas", as per the local parlance (minding my head as I went).

This was another bit of road I'd previously ridden, though in the opposite direction and some years ago.  Consequently, it wasn't overly familiar, and I enjoyed not knowing what was to come.  Once the main climb was over, I had about 20km of easy riding on great gravel before a stunning sealed descent.  Not long after that, I made my left turn onto Okau Road, not 4km upstream from where Brendan and I had emerged from Kiwi Road, a couple of days earlier.  

A signpost told me I had about 29km to ride to Tahora, a few kilometres beyond the intersection with SH43.  Initially, the gradient was very mellow, and followed a stream up the valley.  After curving around an escarpment, I could see ahead a tight switchback, and once around that all hell broke loose, and I had to muster all my reserves to stay on the bike.  The 1.3km long stretch of sealed road was a consistent gradient, but at 14% average, it still took me over 11 minutes to get up it!!

I bumped into a DOC ranger a couple of minutes later, which was a great excuse to stop and regather myself.  He recommended I take a short detour to see Mt Damper Falls, and when I got there, I bumped into a quartet of Sutherlands: Diana, Linda, Scott and Phil (brother of Chris) who recognised me.  While Brendan and I had been able to natter away on much of days 1-3, it was somewhat ironic to me that I'd had so many conversations while riding solo, in the middle of nowhere!

Mt Damper Falls was indeed worth the side trip, and I was really glad that I'd taken some time out.  They weren't quite as impressive as Bridal Veil Falls (about 210 kilometres ride north, visited with Simon), but still pretty majestic.

Sightseeing done, it was a fairly easy ride down to SH43, during which time I passed the other end of Moki Road, a spot that I'd almost visited about 20 years ago with Mike Lowrie, when we mountainbiked the "Mythical Moki" and Rerekapa Tracks (see Classic New Zealand Mountain Bike Rides, editions 1-9).

Once on SH43 itself, the remainder of the route was not only sealed, but covered fairly benign terrain, and it took me a little under an hour to reach the Whangamomona Hotel, where I found Brendan ensconced.  

While anticipating my arrival, he'd obviously told those in the pub which way I was coming, and I got a few respectful smiles, and a couple of thumbs up.  Before heading upstairs to shower, I celebrated my arrival with a beer and a mocha, and once cleaned up, a pulled pork burger.

We got to talking with the publicans and some locals after our meal, and got distracted from the dessert menu.  It was interesting to hear about the way of life well off the beaten track, and to hear that I'd ridden past a honey outfit that produces to the tune of 100 tonnes of honey a year from manuka and other natives downstream of Mt Damper Falls.  

Stats:  131km ridden.   More conversations than you could shake a stick at!

Day 5 - Whangamomona to Stratford

Two hunters had been in the bar the previous evening while we'd eaten, notable by their choice of drink - what looked like strawberry milk, but apparently laced with gin shots.  In any case, their handiwork was apparent when we went to collect our bikes in the morning.  

After two days of fine-weather riding, it was a shame to see the temperature had dropped again, and that wet shoes were certain.  Brendan had expressed a desire to get back to the car relatively quickly.  It was stressful to discover my legs had stayed in bed, and in hindsight, I had heavily dialled back the calorie intake after a long hard ride.  As we rolled out of Whangamomona, and I yoyoed off the back, I realised my brain was starting to get bogged down in the circumstances.

On the other hand, one of the upsides of wet shoes was one of the lowest altitude rainbows I've ever seen.  

We had a couple of short climbs, both sealed, and at the top of the second was the only diversion we'd not ruled out.  I was delighted that Brendan seemed keen, if only in the hope that getting a bit more gravel in might snap me out of my fretting.  Indeed it did, and after a bit more climbing, we bombed down to our turn onto Matai Road.  I was fairly certain I'd been through this intersection before, with Simon, Dave and Andrew McLellan en route to Ohura.  When we reached Kiore Tunnel not long afterwards, I knew for sure.  

We ignored a couple of roads that would have taken us back onto SH43. and as we neared Stratford, both the elements and the terrain seemed out to get us.  I felt a lot better once I'd put on my Ground Effect rain pants - even though my legs weren't feeling particularly cold, keeping the wind off them helped everything else warm up a bit.  The rain hadn't set in, and for a few moments we thought we might get a complete glimpse of Mount Taranaki, but alas, it wasn't to be.

We did eventually join The Forgotten World Highway a few miserable kilometres from Stratford.  As Brendan pointed out, we were essentially climbing a mountain, and in that respect, the horrible false flat made sense.  Still, it was a pretty shit way to finish an otherwise fantastic five day ride.

Stats:  72km ridden, fifth best ride of the 592km total.  

* * *

It was great to get away with Brendan, following our very enjoyable East Cape Tour of 2019, and particularly since a planned multi-day ride out of Dunedin at Easter had been scuppered by COVID.  We both agreed that the third day had been one for the books, with some great supporting acts either side.  Given our different preferences for Day 4, the split had been an easy call, and we were surely each better for it when we met up that evening.  

I was really pleased with the route - for a ride almost 600km long, we'd managed about 30km on SH3 on Day 1, 5km on Day 2, another dozen on Day 3, and about 500m on Day 5 - less than 50km in total.  The remaining roads had been gloriously remote, but had brought us to convenient and sufficiently well equipped overnight stops to better make the next day's ride well fuelled and enjoyable.   

We have very different approaches to packing.  Brendan's loaded bike was pretty hefty, with a couple of panniers and a handlebar bag, while my Open and gear probably didn't weigh any more than his burlier Trek 920 adventure touring bike and racks.  Nonetheless, we both seemed happy enough.  

My rig ran like a dream, and it was great that the tyre plug got me home without any fuss - the tyre's been binned now though.  It really is the bike of my dreams, and I can see myself clocking up some serious back country miles on it.  I read somewhere today an opinion that 50-34 compact road gearing is no good for gravel bikepacking, but I found it perfect, and never had to resort to a tactical walk.  The WTB Venture/Byway combo were pretty sweet too, and once the world gets back to stocking bike parts, I'll be ensuring I have a couple of spares.  

Sarah and I had a Christmas plan to ride the North Island route of the Tour Aotearoa, but having reviewed the course, and in particular the amount of sealed road riding, I'm inclined to stay west south of Auckland, and show Sarah some of these magnificent back-country roads.  

Bring it on.