Wednesday, December 27, 2023

MTB Road Trip Tasmania

Not twelve months ago, in summing up a curve-ball laden road cycle tour of Tasmania, I described it as "a spot that is begging for a rerun, perhaps with a mountain bike and campervan."  Not one to let a good conclusion go untested, once it became time to sort a summer holiday, I began digging into the idea.

Having committed to riding mountain bikes, the travelling party soon followed.  While Kaitlyn hasn't touched her bike since starting university some 5 long years ago, Khulan averages a few rides on hers a week, and by now has probably spent more time mountain biking in her life than I have in mine.  While I can still hold my own on a climb, it only took a couple of years for her skills to surpass my own, and the gap has only widened since!  Wonderfully, she was interested in joining Sarah and I, and we booked a period which would include Katy's final law exams, hopefully to soften the blow on all of us that she wouldn't be joining us this time.  

I was initially less sure about the motorhome side of the equation, but upon exploring options for getting three people and three large mountain bikes around Tassie, it did seem like a good way of ticking both the transport and accommodation boxes off.  I booked a whopping 6-berth vehicle, figuring that while Khulie and the parents slept in two of the double beds, the three bikes could occupy the third.  None of us had any campervan experience, so there was an appealing novelty factor too.  

Transport to the airport was a bit of a hoot.  Stacking three bike boxes on the roof of our corolla might have been possible, but I discovered one box sat very nicely between the boot and our bike rack.  It was remarkably satisfying getting three large boxes, and three beautifully proportioned riders across town, and thanks to my brother Ed's imminent PhD graduation, my father Geoff was on hand to be our driver.  

Unwilling to inflict the drive on Geoff at 3-something in the morning, let alone ourselves, we booked a room at the airport Rydges, and the next morning, after a smooth check-in process, hit the Air New Zealand lounge moments after it opened at 5am.  Khulie was a bit battered and bruised once we finally buckled up on our flight to Hobart - a quick dash back to the domestic terminal was required to retrieve her helmet, but her carry-on load was lightened due to some oversized lotions and potions.  I guess in the scheme of things better to be replacing creams than a helmet.  

Thanks to the early start and the 2-hour time difference, it was only late morning when we landed in Hobart.  I caught a cab to pick up our RV, and that done it was a short drive back to the airport to collect Sarah, Khulan and our luggage, ever mindful of the necessary 3.5m clearance!  When I stood at the doorway with the first box, the door suddenly seemed incredibly small and the box incredibly big.  It was some relief to get not one but all three boxes up into the vehicle, and our game of 3D-Tetris underway.  

Mount Wellington, Hobart

By the time we'd plugged in to our first powered site at the Hobart Showground Motorhome Park, hangriness was threatening to overcome both Khulie and I.  We set out on foot to a nearby cafe, and ate before either of us were tipped over the edge.  Our return trip took us past a huge outdoor store, where Sarah and I picked up a pair of heavily discounted jandals each, which were put to great use for the remainder of the holiday.  Bellies full and feet freshly shod, things were looking up!

Back at the RV, we decided to assemble the bikes, and that done, put them to some good use.  The North-South Track on the flanks of kunanyi Mt Wellington beckoned!  

By good fortune rather than good management, our parking spot was perfectly positioned.  We were not only a few minutes' ride from the Intercity Cycle Path which would take us into Hobart, but also just down the road from the Glenorchy Mountain Bike Park, from which we'd emerge a few hours later.  What's more, a stonking tail wind would help us get our legs warm and take the emotional edge off the paved start to the ride.  

It took us a couple of hours to get onto the North-South Track itself, forgoing the final paved kilometre by skipping the very top section from the carpark at The Springs.  We'd climbed almost 600m vertical to reach our version of the trail head, but within 600m horizontal, it dawned on us that we would be justly rewarded.  Indeed, it was apparent our very first ride was setting the bar incredibly high, and it wasn't lost on any of us that this might just be the best track of the trip.  

When the bush wasn't blowing my mind, the use of rock in the trail surface was.  

When we reached the upper boundary of the Glenorchy mountain bike park, the style of the trail changed dramatically a couple of times, becoming narrower and steeper initially, and then into a slalom of jumps and huge berms.  It paid not to be distracted by the grazing kangaroos!

As shake-down rides went, this was one hell of a pick, and it was well worth sneaking in.  In all, the loop was 38km and soaked up about 5hrs, including a sit-down dinner and a supermarket mission.  

Maydena Bike Park

The next morning, we drove 80km to Maydena, a small settlement part way down a long dead end road.  Upon arrival, we rebuilt the bikes from their travelling configuration (front wheel installed for Khulie's bike, and both pedals and wheels added for the parents'), and that done, made our way to the Maydena Bike Park Guest Services centre.  

Having done zero homework, I was guided through the various options by a helpful staff member, drawing the conclusion that for the first day at least, we'd require only a $20 Mountain Pass each.  This gave us access to a 380vm ascent on a series of Climbing Trails as far up the park as the Midline traverse, beyond which we would need to use the shuttle.  

Sarah on Giddy-Up

Between Midline and the bottom of the park was the top of the "Lower Mountain Uplift", and while consulting a large map there, we were helped by a friendly Australian, who described our "decision paralysis" quite accurately, and then helped ease it somewhat with suggestions!

Heading along Midline to the Outer Limits track

Having made two ascents to Midline, and enjoyed some very well designed and built track below it, we retired to Left of Field campground, about 12km back down the road, and after showers, walked to the nearby pub for dinner.

The next morning, it was pretty wet, and for a while we contemplated alternative options, including a drive to the Gordon Dam at the end of the road, and even a gravel road loop.  In the end, we hardened up, and decided to have another two and a half laps of the lower park, the last of these fueled by a very good pizza from the park cafe.  

For our third and final day, we upgraded to a shuttle pass in order to enjoy the upper reaches of the park.  The first descent was very cold, and I was glad to have worn a woolen t-shirt under my riding jersey and jacket.  To this point, Sarah and I had generally ridden the same trails as Khulie, but we separated more often so she could enjoy putting her superior skills to good use!  

We did three full uplifts, each giving us a good 40-plus minutes of descending time, peeling off a whopping 700vm per lap.  

Sarah on Green Room

By the time we were done, the three-ride mix of pedaling and shuttles seemed perfect.  There were many more trail choices below Midline, and the climbing trails had been a fun and cost-effective way of sampling them.  

We did find the track grading a bit hit-and-miss, with some of the intermediate (Blue) tracks definitely being a step up from the harder (Black) trails.  We found it was best to keep your wits about you at all times, and be prepared for the odd tactical walk!  

Yeti SB115 looking splendid atop the Maydena Bike Park

After a bit of bike cleaning, we settled in for the three hour drive to our next spot - Queenstown on the West Coast.  Sarah and I had toured on much of the route we drove, and it was fun to reminisce.  

Mt Owen MTB Trails, Queenstown

We awoke to pretty grimy weather, and I was kind of glad I hadn't been organised enough to book shuttles into the upper reaches of the Mt Owen MTB Trails.  

Shuttle-only access to the North Owen Descent

Nonetheless, we were able to climb almost 400vm over six very nicely designed kilometres of trail, before clocking up almost as much distance on the descent.  

Near the top of Sledge Track

The network basically followed a ridge parallel with the road we'd driven down the evening before, with the spectacular Horsetail Falls feeding the valley between them.  We were afforded great views over Queenstown itself, and the road, and at various times could make out the airport perched atop a hill.  

Going down on Sticht Up

The geology of the area was apparently very complex, and the track surface was constantly changing, at times spectacularly so.  There were a few white-out sections where it was pretty hard to make out where the track was.  Aside from the upper-most loop which got a bit muddy at times, it was a pretty perfect surface to be riding on in the wet.  

Welcome to Queenstown

In the Tour de France, they'd call this a transition stage, but the short ride in cold conditions helped break up our driving foray into the West Coast.  I'm sure that a sunny day would call for at least one uplift to the top of Waterfall.

After a bit of arithmetic, I decided to forgo a visit to the Silver City trails in Zeahan, instead driving as far as Devonport to set us up for our next ride in the Wild Mersey network - a recommendation from a fellow I chatted to during one of our shuttle rides at Maydena.  

One of Khulie's superpowers is the ability to sleep upright, and as far as I could tell with regular glances in the rear-view mirror, she missed a fair bit of the scenery on the 200km drive.  Much of the route was new to me, and overlapped with last year's riding route only between Tullah and the Cradle Mountain turn off.  Sarah and I had a short walk to see the Anthony Dam at Lake Plimsoll, though the best views from below the dam were probably off the road.  Cycle tourists take note!

Looking up Lake Plimsoll from Anthony Dam

Wild Mersey

Our overnight stay in Devonport was short but pretty action packed.  When we arrived at our campground in East Devonport, the whole side of the town was experiencing a power cut, thanks to  someone in a ute who had recently decided to take on a power pole.  From our table at an Indian restaurant by the Mersey River, we watched one of the massive ferries departing for Melbourne.  It couldn't have been much more than 100m from us, and the restaurant was virtually at sea-level, and the boat was incredibly imposing from our vantage point.  After we'd turned in, the heavens really opened, but at some point our brains decided that we no longer needed reports of the heavy rain on the campervan roof, and we all slept soundly enough.

After breakfast, we made the short drive to Sheffield, where we had an extra coffee and picked up a paper map of the Wild Mersey trail network from the information centre.  Google helped us to find the trail head carpark off Nook Road.  

For me it was pretty much love at first sight.  A section of the Tasmanian Trail bikepacking route took us through to the small town of Railton, along which time we snuck in a beautifully designed wee loop of Shredwater Creek + Ewoks.  Perhaps the heavy overnight rain in Devonport had completely bypassed this area, but if not, the area had drained incredibly well, and fears of a mud-bath were unfounded.  

Tasmanian Trail section aka the Railton Rattler

We stopped for a pick-me-up at a very bike friendly cafe in Railton, replete with MTB magazines on all the tables, before setting off on an almost 100% single track loop back to our vehicle in Sheffield.  

As we climbed away from a suburban area on Green Hornet, I thought I saw either a small snake or a large lizard.  Whichever it was, it disappeared pretty quickly off the track as I passed it.  

After a couple of short but fun climbing trails, we were offered a track which wasn't on our paper map - Raptor Ridge.  We'd just added a short loop, and so incorrectly assumed this extension wouldn't be much longer.  WRONG!  The extension actually added 10km, and took us an hour and a half!  The track was sweet, but it was both physically and mentally demanding.  

Trying to keep the troops entertained!

Back on the main loop, we continued climbing.  We lost Sarah for a few minutes when she decided to take an unintuitive turn up at a 4WD crossing.  That was briefly stressful, but was no match for what came next.

With words like "exquisite" and "sublime" running through my mind, I was greatly enjoying a technical climb, and like a typical Kiwi cyclist with nothing particularly worrisome on the ground to watch out for, was intently focused on a spot just beyond my front wheel.  Consequently, I didn't spot the snake sunning itself on the trail until I was alongside it.  At that point, stopping would have been catastrophic, as one of my feet would surely have ended up on or very near the snake, so I pedaled increasingly frantically.  Initially this propelled my bike forward, but then my chain dropped and for a couple of pedal revolutions my bike went nowhere.  At that point, I hit the eject button, and ended up in a heap off the side of the trail.  I didn't lie there for long, not really knowing where old-mate snake was...

Back on my feet, I looked at my bike only to see the snake's head trapped between my chain and the lower jockey wheel of my rear derailleur.  In many respects, my dear Yeti could not have done a more perfect job of saving me than this, with the pointy end of the snake being kept well away from my ankle...  

By this stage, Khulan had stopped a few metres away, and we both watched as the snake successfully extricated itself from my drive train, and slithered away into the bush.  

I ran diagnostics, and concluded that all my divots were caused by hitting the ground, rather than directly due to the snake.  It seemed that I'd probably live to tell the tale.  Far from feeling great about that, this whole experience was a real buzz kill, and very chilling.  

For a start, I felt stupid for not being better prepared to avoid this, by adjusting my riding style to suit the potentially treacherous trail conditions.  It was also incredibly freaky to come so close to having a serious incident with this "large and highly venomous" Tasmanian Tiger Snake.  Getting bitten would have put us all in a really bad situation, and we hadn't studied up how best to act if it did happen (i.e. we hadn't read the likes of this advice in advance which compelling advocates for staying completely still).  

The good news was that I'd appeared to dodge a bullet.  The bad news was that we still had plenty of riding ahead of us.  Taking point once more, I desperately tried to interrogate every tree root, fallen branch, shadow and blemish on the trail ahead, this time well before passing it.  Between that impossible task and the snake encounter, the absolutely stunning trails through to the end of our 50km loop were not much fun, and I was absolutely frazzled by the end of it.  The distance blowing out the way it had, plus the drama, had worn all of us down.

Luckily we were the only ones that day who had bitten off more than we could chew...

After loading the bikes we were able to calm our nerves with a 150km drive to Bridport.  In hindsight, we should have stopped for dinner in Launceston, but fortunately a pub were willing to serve us after their kitchen had begun to wind down for the evening.  

Blue Derby

The next morning, it was a relatively short drive to Derby, where we set up camp in Derby Park in the absence of a powered campground.  We were a touch unprepared for there to be no convenience store in the wee town, so had to make a couple of trips to nearby Branxholm - no big deal in a car, but a bit of a drag in a motorhome!  

We found a flattish parking spot, and who did we find as our next door neighbour?  None other than the fellow who'd kindly given us advice at Maydena.  This time we properly introduced ourselves to Kevin, who was making his second months-long break from work and as a result knew Tasmania and its MTB jewels very well.  He was getting ready to head out for a ride on his E-bike, and invited us to join him.  

Kevin treated us to a short but stunning loop in Blue Derby, the self-proclaimed "home of Australian mountain biking".  The orientation ride was really helpful, the trails were beautifully designed and built, and fun to ride, AND THERE WERE NO SNAKES TO BE SEEN.  

Below Tasty Trout Falls

Heading into Krushka's

Khulie on Krushka's

Khulie, Kevin and Sarah at the top of Twisties

Heading into the long and (fortunately) lit Derby Tunnel

Derby main drag

After showing us back to the trail head, Kevin headed in for another lap, while we celebrated with a half dozen donuts from one of the main bike-stores on the main road.  It remains curious to me that a town that can sustain no fewer than five bike shops doesn't have a shop where you can buy groceries (the Post Office sells a few bits and pieces, but I think stock goes pretty quickly, e.g. all the loaves of bread first thing in the morning).  That said, at least there were plenty of dinner options, and we opted for some delicious wood-fired pizzas.  

The next morning, we set out on our own.  One of the nice features of the Blue Derby network are a set of seven loops of varying lengths and grading.  These are displayed on a map board at the trail head, but better yet are signposted throughout the park, and are easy to follow.  We (or, I, on behalf of...) chose loop 7, which is the longest of the loops, and usefully, less difficult than "Very".  

We were soon heading up a nifty set of switchbacks, and enjoying what I have no doubt are among the world's best climbing berms.  Sarah decided to follow Khulie and I up a rocky short-cut, but didn't quite give it the commitment it required, and my photo captured disaster-in-progress rather than success.  

From there were gathered ourselves, and headed up to the Black Stump shuttle point and beyond. A trail aptly named Dambusters took us around a lake perched a couple of hundred vertical metres above the town.  

Cascade Dam

Sarah and I took a different descent to Khulie, and actually made it down to the bottom before her, thanks to an echidna she felt compelled to stop to admire.  Despite energy levels flagging, we stuck to my plan, and ascended Krushka's for the second time in two days, enjoying the quirkily-named features along it, as well as the trail itself.

De La Vu

Big Mama

Sarah and I decided to join Khulie on a descent of Cuddles, and soon found ourselves at the top of an imposing rock face.  There were a couple of lines which looked rollable, including the one that Khulie had long since taken.  Among the spectators at the bottom was Kevin, and we were peppered with advice about how to proceed (and how not to).  I had a mind to attempt the middle line, but as if the track weren't intimidating enough, the hollering from below had me chicken out.  I stewed on that for the rest of the ride, testament to the saying "better to regret something you did, than something you didn't".  

Khulie on Cuddles

 Loop 7 done, Sarah and Khulan were happy to head back to the camper.  I'd had a mind to add on Loop 3, but made do with a blat around Lake Derby.  But not before popping in to a couple of shuttle operators.  The second I tried, Vertigo Bikes, had not long before cancelled a shuttle of Blue Tier and Altas, two of the higher profile rides in the area, but with the three of us keen, kindly agree to haul us the next day.  

Lake Derby, in front of the bike shop laden town

The shuttle booking wasn't quite what I'd intended, but I realised it was likely the only way it was going to happen.  The Blue Tier trailhead was almost an hour's drive from Derby, and sets you up for a lovely 22km ride into Weldborough.  From Weldborough, the ride up to the start of Atlas would have only been 7km on a 4WD road, but our package included a shuttle of this leg as well.  I figured best just to embrace it!

Aside from the chilly start to our third day at Maydena, the temperature had mostly been perfect - never too hot, and generally not too cool that a riding jersey wouldn't suffice.  This morning was a bit of an exception though.  I used the same strategy as I had with the Maydena shuttles, and wore a merino t-shirt under my long-sleeved jersey.  Sarah seems to be warm no matter what - sturdy Mongolian stock, I guess - but Khulie only had a couple of winters there, and to make matters worse, I hadn't provided clothing advice before we'd left.  Luckily, in the first 10km of trail, we only descended 50m, so there was plenty of pedaling to generate some heat.

We'd now become well accustomed to the Tassie style, and expected the beautifully shaped trail, and stunning use of rock as "natural" armouring.  Blue Tier was no exception, but strangely none of us were willing to rave about the trail once we were done.

We opted out of the Little Chook climb to re-ride the final couple of kilometres, and instead made a beeline for the pub, where we sat and ate a very grand lunch of burgers and chicken parmi, alongside our driver. We excluded him from the family consumption of a serving of bread and butter pudding, with croissants being the secret ingredient.

Thanks for the special service, Vertigo MTB

Kevin hadn't been a big fan of Atlas, but for some reason, I really loved it, and in some respects, it might have been the track of the trip for me - our very first, the North-South Track in Hobart, being the closest contender.  Eventually, we converged on Dambusters from Day 2, and soon after, sidled across to join Krushka's once more.  Khulie descended on Trouty, while Sarah and I took a less technical but much longer series of tracks back to base.  

We farewelled Kevin, and thanked him for his helpful advice both at Derby and Maydena.  An hour's drive later, we were on the hunt for dinner in St Helens.  After our dinner-like feast at lunchtime, we made do with a picnic lunch, albeit in the camper, and back at the Big4 campground.  

St Helens Mountain Bike Trails

The next morning, I was the only one with any inclination towards an additional ride.  Unfortunately the timing and relative location of the trailhead meant that we would need to check out from the campground, and the park hub was deserted when we all arrived after a 5km drive.  I aimed to ride for only an hour, and figured that Sarah and Khulie could give their bikes a fit-for-NZ-biosecurity wipe down while I rode.  

I didn't quite wrap my head around the stylised maps at the St Helens Mountain Bike Trails carpark.  There were three, each at a different zoom level, but I didn't click that they weren't completely nested, so the most zoomed-out map didn't have everything on it.  The user was meant to splice them together, which this user didn't realise...  Anyway, I wasn't intending to go far, so jumped on the first track away from the Trailhead, and followed the arrows!  

Makes perfect sense, now I'm not in a rush!

I wasn't carrying a pump, so wasn't delighted to see a lot of very angular rock on the tracks, but I managed to avoid having any issues.  Despite being dry and a bit skatey in parts, the design was familiarly awesome, and I really enjoyed the solo blat.  Without consulting my photographs of the maps, I turned back half way up Garn Up, and that brought me back to the carpark only slightly outside my predicted hour.  

That had us well on track for the 240km drive to MONA, for which we had 2pm tickets booked.  I made an ill-fated and premature stop for food before we hit State Highway 1.  Khulie reported that her coffee at least smelled like coffee!!!  Khulie seemed to enjoy her first visit to MONA, and Sarah and I both agreed that twice was probably enough.  In any case, it was well worth giving up a bit of flexibility for.

Looking at Mt Wellington and the Glenorchy bike park from MONA

6-berth Deluxe Motorhome

I said to a few people before the trip that I expected to either love or hate my first campervan experience.  A few dents in my head aside, the latter certainly wasn't true.  

The vehicle was surprisingly easy to drive, though my experience improved when I found how to turn off the lane encroachment alarms - it would ping me whenever I tried to smooth out a corner, either by cutting into the shoulder, or crossing the centreline, and avoiding this was both stressful and meant the van rolled around a wee bit more than I liked.  I also ended with slightly more tolerance for campervan drivers that do not pull over to let following vehicles pass - at least on the narrow Tasmanian roads, this was surprisingly difficult to do.

Khulie and I were definitely in sync inside the vehicle, and seemed to flow around each other well.  Sarah was more often in the wrong place at the wrong time!

We had three configurations that we swapped between:

1A.  Bikes mid-vehicle with the rear in dining mode.  We ate breakfast together at the back of the vehicle each morning, with a bit more space each than we'd have got in the middle berth (which also had a table).  Khulie's bike went into one of the two small boxes inside the single larger box, with both pedals on and the front wheel removed.  With the rear padding on the seats in the central berth, the large box would be nicely wedged in, and we didn't have to secure it.  We would take both pedals and wheels off the two Yetis, and rest the frames vertically inside the third bike box.  After a bit of experimentation, the best approach seemed to be to have the forks in the centre of the box, and in the corners have one of our handlebar grips.  A bungee kept the frames together and a second bungee to Khulie's bike was used to stop the box from tipping out.  

Early version before we'd realised the merits of removing all pedals

1B.  Bikes mid-vehicle with the rear in sleeping mode.  We'd set this up just before bed-time.  The rear table became a mattress base, and we'd have to move some padding around to build up the mattress.  We'd jointly committed to never using the in-van toilet, and also chose not to bother with the shower, so the bathroom compartment became a useful storage facility for Sarah's and my bedding during the day.  

2.  Bikes at the back of the van for driving purposes.   This was necessitated by the fact that the only additional seatbelts were in the middle berth, so we couldn't leave the bikes in the middle berth.  Fortunately, the boxes fitted snuggly in the rear space, so they wouldn't slide around when I was driving.  The wheels were a bit of a pain in the arse, but we mostly lashed these together with a bungee and used them to stop one of the kitchen drawers from flying open around corners (its latch was busted).  

We never took the boxes outside, so they remained pretty clean.  Moving them around in the vehicle did add some wear and tear though, and had they not got a drenching on arrival to Auckland, probably would have been destined for the recycling bin anyway.

I regret not watching the instructional video a couple more times, as I never fully got my head around the power systems in the vehicle, and in particular the LPG option.  We were pretty light users really, even considering the two nights in Derby Park where we couldn't plug in, but it would have been good to have a better sense of what the contingencies were, and to know how far we could squeeze the power consumption while free-camping.  Another time, perhaps!

Ever so occasionally, I wouldn't think far enough ahead, and stowed the bikes post-ride in the wrong place, but by and large, operating in and around the vehicle was a fun use of my overly analytical approach to life.  I drove Sarah a bit crazy, as she was used to being the bossy one in the home, rather than the object of bossiness.  And, comically, back in Karori, our home feels a touch too large, and moving around it to do things (or find one another) is taking some getting used to!

* * *

All three of us agreed that this was a wonderful holiday!  

I clocked up almost 275km of riding, on my brand-new-to-this-blog 2022 Yeti SB115.  I've had it since March, and bought it hoping it would reinvigorate my interest in riding.  While I haven't ridden it a huge amount, every ride has put a smile on my face, and it has helped mix my exercise regimen up a bit. While Sarah is on a beefier SB130, the 115 really seems like a great match to my skills and inclinations.  The bike and I seemed to work very well together, and while I had a few refusals and short walks, the fat tyres, suspension and frame geometry all contributed to papering over the cracks in my technique, and I very much enjoyed the riding as a result.   

Try as I might to elicit some direction from Sarah and Khulie, the destination choices ended up being all mine. I haven't bought a MTB mag for years, and nor have I done many events, so am not really in tune with what is cool these days.  However, I knew to expect good riding at Maydena and Derby, and our touring route a year ago had me curious about Mt Wellington and Queenstown.  The rest I pieced together on the fly, with various online sources as reassurance - this expose from Flow Mountain Bike would have been a great source from the get-go, and probably wouldn't have made much of a difference to our ultimate itinerary (though might have had us regretting the "shortness" of our 10-riding-day window).  In terms of the "ones that got away", top of the list next time would be the Bay of Fires ride from the start of Blue Tier out to St Helens, and Silver City out of Zeahan.  

Previous touring route, plus the MTB destinations named in red

As far as mountain bike destinations go, having sampled Tasmania in this way, I cannot recommend it highly enough, particularly to those that aren't averse to pedaling.  The trail design and construction starts to feel very familiar, but it really is top shelf, so never starts to feel boring.  Stitching the destinations together isn't trivial, i.e. you do need a vehicle, and while we didn't explore Airbnb-type accommodation options, I'm sure there are plenty that would make a station-wagon or similar a viable option for a couple of people.  The wildlife is mostly of the cute variety, but do watch out for the snakes - a close encounter is fucking terrifying, to put it mildly. 

The cost of living in NZ has been prominent in the media for a long while now, so I was quite surprised by the high grocery prices.  Meals out were also expensive, so worth planning around that.  Maydena, Queenstown and Derby all had paid riding options (indeed, at Maydena, you couldn't ride at all for free).  In future, I'd tend to reserve shuttles for the long point-to-point options rather than the multiple uplifts of a single hill.  Otherwise, you're looking at adding $100 a day to your budget, which adds up very quickly (especially with multiple riders).  

At regular intervals, we lamented the absence of Kaitlyn, even acknowledging that the RV would have been pretty cosy with a fourth person.  From time to time, someone would bring up an anecdote from some of our early family holidays, but particularly our last to the Bay of Plenty.  Kaitlyn will move to Melbourne soon to finally be with her man, Danny, and we all wonder if a campervan holiday might be a good way for her to get acquainted with back-country Victoria, and us to spend some quality time with her.  In June we will reunite for a two-week (no bikes) trip to Mongolia - Khulan's first in over a decade, and Kaitlyn's first-first.  Where one door closes, others open, and rest assured we will look for any opportunity to pop over for a visit. In any case, Katy was never far from our minds, even though this trip format almost surely wouldn't have suited her well.  

It is easy to forget how far Sarah has come from the early crash-marred days of MTBing.  She did end up considerably more bruised and battered than I was, but nonetheless seemed to have a very successful time across a range of challenging terrain.  No surprises that she remains my very favourite travelling companion!

Having Khulie with us was both an honour and a pleasure.  I dare say she feels grateful for being invited, but to my mind the gratitude is more appropriate in the opposite direction.  I've no doubt that she would have had a wonderful time riding with anyone but her parents, and would have instantly made friends with the cooler set that were in abundance at Maydena and Derby in particular.  It was nice that she didn't ditch us, on many levels.  When she started out-riding me on the descents at 15 or 16, it never struck me to feel stink that I was slower than my daughter, and today, I feel a great sense of pride, admiration and love for her generally, but also for her incredible talent on the mountain bike in particular.  We were also regular beneficiaries of her work ethic, particularly when it came to assembling or disassembling the bikes.  She was a great companion, and a privilege to ride and be with.  I can't wait to do it again some time.  

After an incredibly shitty year at work, this trip feels like just the anti-venom I needed, and a very nice note to end 2023 on.  Wishing any and all a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year. 

Saturday, December 9, 2023

Finding (the source of) my mojo in Malaysia

I returned from our recent trip to Taiwan feeling like I needed a break, and hoping like hell that a work trip to Malaysia would prove the necessary antidote!  

A decade-long institutional relationship with a private college in Melaka had taken me annually to the region, but this would be my first trip back since the pandemic.  I'd taken a bike with me only once before, and had a wonderful time, simply following my wheel.  I hoped to have a similar experience, and to make space for it, extended the trip by five nights over the much shorter stay of my boss.  

Prep was simple - I unpacked my bike solely to wash it, and pulled together a very minimal gear list, thanks to an incredibly predictable temperature range.  Riding solo, I thought I might want to take a couple of selfies using the drone, so had the Revelate Egress Pocket to stow it and its controller.  Sarah's lower profile seat bag would be more than enough for overnight gear and a pair of jandals, and tools etc were still stowed in my frame and top tube bags.  The necessary GPS base map was simple to download and install from  

The work leg of the trip came first, and it was great to see the folk from KYS in person for the first time in four years, as well as colleagues from UC and UoA.  It was also a real treat to spend a few days "on the road" with my dean - someone I see often at work (and once, randomly, in Raetihi), and have great respect and admiration for.  

Prior to leaving NZ, I'd explored a few route options.  One was to cross the peninsula, riding from the west coast to the east coast and back again.  Another was to ride to Kampung New Zealand, a curiously named place I was aware of thanks to my father, a former NZ High Commissioner to Malaysia.   In the end, the allure of a border crossing into Singapore won out, and as I transitioned from work to play, a southern target for my first "leisure day" of the trip, in the parlance of work's insurance officer, was locked and loaded. 

Day 1 - Melaka to Pontian

After breakfast, I began preparations to leave the hotel.  I'd booked a single night prior to heading to the airport, and they were more than happy to store my bike bag and luggage until my return.  Three nights on the road beckoned.

While seemed to have good saturation in the towns between Melaka and Singapore, there weren't that many towns!  Consequently, I'd decided to give myself a fairly ambitious day, hopefully to enable a bit of sifting once I arrived in Singapore on day two.  I figured that riding alone, on flat terrain, great road surfaces, and a fast bike, would give me a helpful range boost.  

In 2019, I'd ridden as far as Muar, but decided not to fuck around searching out "new roads", and made a beeline for it down one of the main coastal routes.  Despite being on a big road, traffic wasn't an issue, and from time to time there was something interesting to see.

Functional hat sculpture

It wasn't too hot when I set out (mid 20s), and as both my legs and the day warmed up, I enjoyed playing a bit of a game trying to match my speed to the air temperature, occasionally to great success.

After crossing the Muar River, and navigating a strange one-way setup, I decided it was time for a late morning tea stop.  While nutritionally questionable, the "roti canai and teh tarik" combo from the ubiquitous Nasi Kandar restaurants - generally positioned at a ground floor corner of an office block - slipped down very nicely, and cost not even $2 all up.  Paying would often involve the price being displayed on a calculator, and I was now alert to the possibility that there'd be no decimal point (the previous afternoon, I thought I was being charged NZ prices, but 41 ringgit turned out to be 4.10...).  

The region was predominantly palm plantation, and therefore the scenery was pretty uniform,  I try to keep my eyes peeled for wildlife, but sadly roadkill are easier to spot than the real deal.  A top-10 list of exotic creatures which notably includes a French badger and many Tasmanian wombats, had various puny snakes replaced by a whopping and only partially squashed python.

Incredible to think of things like this lurking to my left...

Fatigue, and an ever sterner target had put paid to my "speed = temperature" game, and I started to fixate on my bike setup.  My saddle appeared to have slipped backwards (or had been dramatically aft for a while - who could say).  In combination with sweaty hands, this was making me feel quite uncomfortable when I had my "hands on the hoods".  I stopped a couple of times to faff around with allen keys, but had probably waited too long, so even useful changes weren't having the desired effect.  

I pulled a U-turn to check out what two young Malaysian women were selling at a road-side stall.  Among the extensive selection was a dessert I recognised from Little Penang's cabinet (one of our go-to Malaysian restaurants in Wellington).  After a short conversation with them, I rolled out with a family pack of sri muka - layered glutinous rice and pandan custard - in one of my pockets.  I dipped into this every once in a while, and enjoyed the taste from home...!

Sri muka was not the only souvenir of this stop!

As I should have expected, the day dragged on and on, but at the pointy end I found my hotel easily enough, about a kilometre from the main road.  There looked to be a couple of food vendors across the road, but by the time I was washed up and ready to eat, both fatigue and a heavy downpour meant the 20 metre walk was a bridge too far, and I satisfied myself with a very unsatisfactory "meal" from the convenience store in the same building as the hotel.  

Malaysia, known for its great food...

Stats: a somewhat ambitious 172km, average speed 27.5km, average temp 31 degrees

Day 2 - Pontian District to Singapore

My room came with free breakfast, which included energy-laden banana-leaf-wrapped nasi lemak.  I spent quite a bit of time messing around with various mapping tools on my phone, but never really got myself completely sorted.  In any case, it would be a ride of two halves: the first to the Woodlands Crossing into Singapore, and the second, from there to my hotel on the far side of the island.  

Having seen no cyclists on day 1, only a few minutes into my ride, I saw a sharply dressed peloton heading the other way.  While a Saturday for me, the locals were enjoying the second day of their Friday-Saturday weekend - not uncommon in Malaysia.  

One of the downsides of route planning on a phone is that the screen doesn't have enough real estate to get a good sense of an area.  Zoomed out, a cyclist tends to get too little information about suitable roads (seeing only major highways), while zoomed in, it is hard to see the wood for the trees, and again, it feels like you're getting too little information.  Target one was a bridge over the Pulai River, and from there I would need sort out how to get to Woodlands.  

South of Pontian really felt off the beaten track, and I enjoyed ducking through a couple of plantation roads, one of which was barely wide enough for a car, despite being beautifully surfaced.  

That spat me out onto a major road, in the form of the not-even-one-year-old Pulai River Bridge.  There, I was passed by a trio of roadies who were really hauling, though I passed them stopped at the "summit" of the bridge.  The bridge itself gave spectacular views, north up the Malay Peninsula, and south over impressive port infrastructure.  

Soon after, I was passed by a group of 8 cyclists, which probably included the threesome.  They seemed happy for me to jump in, and I enjoyed sucking wheels for 10 minutes or so.  Once again, they were moving at an impressive clip, and when I pulled the pin and left them to it, I noticed that one guy was being pushed up the hill by a cobber on an E-bike, shedding useful light on our pace along the flat.  

It was a shame I hadn't been able to hang on, as navigation through to Woodlands was tricky, and at times I found myself on busy major roads.  That said, cyclists were out in abundance, and served to reassure myself that I wasn't breaking rules (or norms, at least) by riding where I didn't belong.  

A common design feature of the three lane roads was that approaching a crossroad, the middle two lanes would have an overbridge bypass of the intersection, while the outside lane would stay low and deliver to a set of traffic lights.  This felt like a damned-if-you-do / damned-if-you-don't decision point, as crossing the outside lane felt dodgy amongst fast moving traffic.  On the other hand, I soon discovered that going "straight through" the set of lights was often not possible (at least for a law abiding car), with left and right turns being the sole options.  Hopping a curb allowed me to pick up the on-ramp, but it started to feel like the greater of two evils.  

The stress of the approach to Woodlands meant the border crossing, which I'd been looking forward to and had been to a great extent the motivation for the ride, was a bit of a blur.  I'd dutifully filled out an SG Arrival Card, though had joined an SG to Malaysia Cycling Facebook group for guidance on how to handle "bicycle" not being an available vehicle option for Land entry.  As a result, my declaration wasn't 100% accurate, but this seemed not to present a problem at the well signposted manual lane, and I was soon through, with a Malaysian exit stamp in my passport as a memento.  

Stress levels rose soon after, as it became apparent I'd missed a bicycle-friendly exit ramp on the Singapore side.  I managed to get off the fantastic but illegal shoulder of a freeway, by jumping first an armco barrier, then a deep gutter, then a small fence, and riding out of the road reserve on a small path.  

The difference between Malaysia and Singapore was stark, and I mistakenly thought supply stops would be abundant.  The first was easy to find, and was a hub of various fast food options.  I made do with a seat in a drinks bar, from which I could both enjoy some air conditioning, and keep a close eye on my bike.  Their specialty gula melaka drink took me a great step further towards sugar overdose - I quite enjoy teh tarik once a fortnight or so, but the overly sweetened drinks were rapidly pushing me towards my threshold, and a different approach was beckoning.  

As somewhat of an av-geek, I was keen to ride around Changi Airport perimeter, and keeping the water on my left also made for simple navigation.  En route (having done very little homework), I was surprised to find another airport - Seletar - and a dearth of shops.  In the end, needing both food and drink, I asked a young couple for directions and deviated from the Round Island Route that I'd stumbled upon (and was proving to be nice cycling, lo and behold).  After the best part of ten minutes, I noticed a supermarket, and duly raided it.

Without retracing my steps, I tried to hook back into the cycle path.  A promising sealed track through a river-side bush reserve had regular public service announcements on "what to do when you encounter wild boars".  Literally 20 seconds after stopping to photograph one, I encountered none other than a wild boar.  In my surprise, I both struggled to remember the instructions and was unable to capture the moment for posterity, failing the latter completely, and the former somewhat.  

For whatever reason, I was not having good sensations, and to break things up I stopped often, both giving a chance to recover physically and to observe the weekend in action.  The downside of the regular breaks was that the ride duration began to mount up, thus adding to fatigue and the inclination to stop.  A couple of bad turns didn't help, and the day was slipping by.

An interesting ship at the Loyang Jetty

At Changi Village, an ice cream and coke supplemented my usual convenience store purchases of 100-Plus electrolyte drink and cold water.  From there, the ride to my hotel looked simple, but while "around the airport and along the foreshore" were quick to say, they still represented 30km on the ground.  

The airport was huge, and while I was momentarily in the flight path at the northern end of the runway (and got to enjoy some departing planes overhead), much of the perimeter could have been big, straight, flat road in an industrial area anywhere in the world.  

Approaching the runway axis again, I left the roadside and entered a lovely parkland, which was full of people walking, riding, and whatnot.  I was delighted to discover that a big plane overhead was none other than an Air New Zealand flight landing, though didn't have the wherewithal to wipe down my camera lens before taking a snap through the trees.  

NZ284, almost done for the day

By this stage, it was 5pm, and I was well and truly ready to stop.  Despite the many potential customers  and yours truly craving a pick-me-up, I was unable to spot a food or drink vendor.  On the positive side, the busyness of the park kept me entertained.  One of the more interesting sights was the Singapore Wake Park, with a collection of overhead tow ropes providing forward propulsion for people on boogie boards.  Some runs were a dedicated out-and-back type arrangement where the sole rider was responsible for sweeping U-turns at each end, while others were a big loop, which a rider did as one of many on the minute-long circuit.  Recovering from a crash on the latter involved a long swim, whereas the former was a relatively simple recovery as your tow rope came back to you - I presumed there was an operator tasked with helping a fallen rider get going again, but perhaps it was an automated system that returned to where sensors told it things had gone pear-shaped! 

I arrived at my hotel to discover I'd stayed there before en route to Malaysia!  Once showered, I paid crazy money to use the guest laundry (to the extent that the attendant seemed amazed that I wanted to proceed), and while I was waiting for my wash to finish, the heavens really opened!  The rain was of biblical proportions, and while I may have been able to borrow an umbrella, I didn't feel like aquaplaning in my jandals, so made do with a simple meal from the mall below the hotel.  I had enough Singaporean cash to cover a somewhat eclectic combination of laksa and fries before heading up to bed.  

Stats:  147km ridden, moving time = 7h22, elapsed time = 8h46 (which came as a great surprise to me when I looked it up just now - was expecting to find at least 2h of sitting around...).  

Day 3 - back the way I came

Reflecting on my lack of energy and enthusiasm the previous day, I'd drawn the conclusion that I hadn't eaten nearly enough and tried to force myself to go a wee bit overboard at the breakfast buffet.  Fearing more of the same nonetheless, I plotted a fairly direct route back to the Woodlands Crossing, and picked a destination which would cut the 270km back to Melaka almost exactly in half.  

I hadn't rushed out of bed or away from the hotel, but soon concluded that most of the city-state was still slumbering.  The roads were very quiet, despite being engineered for a lot of traffic!  

As I neared the bridge back to Malaysia, I was fortunate to catch a sign reading "Motorcyclists to Woodlands Checkpoint use BKE via Turf Club Ave", which I took to apply to me as well.  Had I re-read this blog, I wouldn't have left this to chance, but suffice it to say, the route got me there in one piece (albeit wondering if I was turning a blind eye yet again to freeway rules).  Cyclists were definitely less well catered for on this side of the border, and I didn't see any bicycle signage at all, more's the pity.  

At the Malaysian border control, I had to wait in a 15-minute queue for a manual counter.  There, I struggled to hear the fellow behind the heavy glass, but after showing him outbound flights on my Air New Zealand app, he, apparently begrudgingly, let me back into the country.  

My accommodation at Ayer Hitam was on Route 1, which runs north parallel to AH2 (Asian Highway Route 2).  By this stage, I was in the "are we there yet" frame of mind, so made no attempt to find a more interesting route through Johor Bahru, or beyond.  

Slowly but surely, I sensed the city coming to an end, and traffic thinned considerably when the road intersected for the first time since Woodlands with AH2.  I grabbed a service station pick me up, and enjoyed a bit of shade half an hour later just outside a Hindu Temple.

I made do with some snacks for lunch at yet another service station, favouring the air conditioning (and predictability) over local food.  In the face of "better to regret something you did, than something you didn't", I'm still kicking myself for not stopping for afternoon tea at a place I passed later, which was teeming with people.  The queue looked to be a good half an hour's worth, and it seemed absolutely certain that something delicious lay in wait, not to mention a nice cultural experience...

An hour later, I was desperate for a break, and settled on the first Family Mart I'd seen since the thousand or so Sarah, Brendan, Viv and I had passed in Taiwan a few weeks prior.  As a tip of the hat to them, I decided to brave the dreaded door chime, only to find that this venue was bucking chain policy by not having one (or muting it!).  Despite having tables for eat-in, my request to have some instant noodles there seemed to elicit confusion, but we got there in the end.  

A messy and unmemorable day, mostly due to my headspace, had a messy ending thanks to my accommodation's location in the system being completely wrong.  Thankfully, the incorrect location was en route to the actual location, and a hotel with a vaguely similar (but not identical) name was searchable in Google Maps.  It was on the far side of Ayer Hitam, so I rode past very many restaurants to get to the hotel.  

There, I was relieved to be able to check in, and after stashing my bike in the staff area, and then showering, I stumbled down to the next door Nasi Kandar for dinner.  I ordered a mee goreng, which was tasty, but a fried chicken wing had been chopped with a cleaver before being stirred into the meal, so I had to eat more carefully than I'm prone to do.  A shame, as I was well and truly in the mood to wolf my food down.  (Anyone who's ever seen me eat would be forgiven for wondering if that is ever not true...!!!!)  

Stats:  134km at an average speed of 21km/h, a far cry from Day 1's pace of 27.5km/h.  Are. We. There. Yet...?

Day 4 - back to Melaka

I started the day with a very nice nasi lemak and a couple of roti canai, determined to have a better ride, energy-wise.   

Breakfast of champions? I hoped so

After a short time on Route 1, I turned off and took relatively minor roads to hook into Route 24 which went all the way to Muar.  The spell away from the highway had been nice, and returning to it (and its traffic) not so much.  In my eagerness to take another back road, I didn't do as much due diligence as I should have, and a "parallel route" turned out to add quite a bit of riding.  Despite that, it was nice to be on smaller roads, and between the occasional stops for shade, or at stores for a pick-me-up, good progress was made.  

I probably should have found a decent meal at Muar, but continued to make do with service stations, where I was guaranteed cold air and cold drinks.  I began tipping cold water down my back and over my head, which was refreshing, but I made the mistake of stowing my cap in a pocket.  A couple of weeks on, a strip of badly sunburnt head has both stopped hurting and stopped peeling!  I've thanked my lucky stars for my height, presuming that from above and behind, I've looked bloody silly!!

I think through a combination of motivation-to-finish, somewhat better attention to what I ate, and the physical and psychological effect of the cold water, I managed a higher average speed back to Melaka.  I spotted another dead Malaysian Civet, the first of which I'd ridden by without stopping a couple of days prior.  Sad, but fascinating.  

A Malaysian Civet, a touch smaller than a labrador dog, at a guess

Nearing Melaka, I took a series of back-roads to Ayer Keroh, where my hotel was waiting!  After a wash, I decided that I couldn't be bothered with an outing, despite again having access to a proper pair of shoes.  In any case, the hotel restaurant made a mighty fine laksa, which marked a happy ending to a surprisingly unenjoyable cycle tour.  

Stats:  137km ridden, average temperature 35 degrees.

* * *

The solo cycle tour was something I was craving, and yet it was an experience from which I came to a surprising realisation.  

Harking back to the VORB days, I had a thread titled "Sifter Goes (Bike) Riding", in which I used to say something about almost every ride I did.  When I shifted to this blog, I documented a lot of racing and exploring, but when I look back at recent years, almost every post describes a trip with Sarah.  This year alone, we've ridden in Tasmania, Thailand, Mongolia, South Korea and Taiwan - latterly joined by Brendan and Viv.  In 2022, we did a mix of domestic and overseas riding (South Island and Coromandel, Fiji and Australia).  I have to go back to an Easter 2021 ride with Brendan to find a cycle tour I did without Sarah, and to June 2018 to find a cycle tour I did (mostly) alone.  

Le Cycle Tour de France, ridden back in June 2013 and described via daily posts in June 2018, remains a period I vividly remember as one of great calm, great enjoyment, and encompassing 4800km over a period of 29 days, a ride in which I devoured kilometres without ever feeling sated.  

I think my lack of enjoyment of the roads between Melaka and Singapore was a combination of many factors, all pushing in the same direction:  

  1. a lack of fitness had me poorly prepared for 590km in four days;
  2. I didn't fuel well, with low appetite and poor choices both contributing;
  3. my route choice was not great, focusing on the destination (i.e. border crossing) rather than seeking interesting terrain.

But, I think the single biggest factor was that I was not in the company of my dear wife.  I set out thinking that this was a feature, and that I wanted to be alone.  But I finished knowing it was actually a bug, and discovering how much she's become a factor in making a good ride just that.  

On reflection, I realise how much less I stress about her now - every pothole, or car, or bit of debris in the road used to trigger a fear reflex as I hoped that Sarah would notice it and successfully pass it by.  That is a wasted reflex nowadays, such is her level of experience - touch wood, gone are the days of phone calls from roadside or emergency rooms reporting another silly crash.  

I also realise how much Sarah entertains me when we are out on the road.  When she's ahead of me, I enjoy watching her pedal, and full of admiration, the hours fly by.  At other times, I constantly have my eyes peeled for opportunities to take photos of her in a way that showcases our surroundings.  We stop more deliberately, enjoying food, drink, and conversation.  In trying to ensure she has a good time, I ensure I have one myself. 

In the bike racing scene, you often hear that "you're either winning or learning", but this trip was both.  I did get some solid exercise, and enjoyed eating some great, cheap food.  The ride wasn't fulfilling in the way I expected, but I would argue that it was much more than I could have hoped for.  Far from returning to say "I really must do that more often", I think I'll be hesitant to ever do it again!  Instead, I will make damn sure that Sarah, my riding-super-power these days, is part of the plan.