All posts by bpheasant

Mega Grind 2017

Erik and Pete are the masterminds behind the Geyserland Gravel Grinds. The GGG was the only bikepacking event I did last year, and was full of relaxed days of riding followed by social evenings at shared campsites. Familiar with the calibre of route-planning, I was excited to learn this year that they had expanded their suite of events to three: an overnight Mini Grind, the GGG and the 800 km Mega Grind. As soon as it was announced, I signed up for the Mega Grind, as it was the longest and would take me to parts of the North Island I’d never been to.

Very much in a touring mindset, eager to see new places and spend some time biking, my preparation was suitably low-key. I figured I could finish in four and a half days, 160 km per day not being too much with my base level of fitness. Maybe I’d finish closer to four days if I pushed it. Up to Rotorua after work on Thursday it was a relaxed trip to the night-before gathering.

Close to fifty of us gathered Friday morning near the museum in fair weather; after a short briefing we were off through the early traffic – not much to deal with as we were soon on cycle paths and then heading up the Mamakus. I was familiar with the first few hours from the last day of last year’s GGG – up on to the Mamakus, lovely gravel riding along the ridge before descending to Tokoroa. There was plenty of group riding to be had as people chatted away and it was all very leisurely. Only stopping for a short pit stop and to grab a pie (the first of quite a few), I was soon on the road again leaving town.

Gravel roads and bunches of bikepackers atop the Mamakus.

Shortly after I was caught by a couple of riders. It was great to ride with Pete, whose brainchild this route was, and chat away; Pete had a fantastic top-ten finish in this year’s Tour Divide, so to chat as we rode a similar pace (I think he’s a fair bit faster than me, but was being nice) was most helpful. I’d planned to get to the start of the Timber Trail (~175 km) that day and sleep there; with Pete’s knowledge of the trail I was beginning to think I could maybe do a little more.

I was familiar with this section of the Waikato River Trail from last year’s Tour Aotearoa – so was not surprised by the relentless number of pinch climbs appearing each time we got close to the mighty river. It was warm, but not hot, as we made reasonable pace. There was a big group of riders in Mangakino, refuelling and restocking for the remote Timber Trail ahead – I stocked up for potentially more than 250 km between shops.

Six hundred metres of ascent was slowed on the road by the southerly we were riding into. There were a few riders around, just ahead or behind me. Back to the infamous wire swing bridge after the road petered out to an overgrown double track, there was a fair queue of riders waiting to get across. Somehow it was more manageable than on the TA and I was soon over and making slow process up the bush track before eventually joining gravel forest roads again. I passed a few people before Pete caught up to me, again, and it was about now I was easily convinced I’d have enough time to summit the Timber Trail (the highest point on the course, just under 1000 m) – unfortunately my dynamo light had showed itself to be faulty the previous week, so I had borrowed a headlight and was unsure just how much run-time I’d get out of it.

Pausing to eat at the historic Caterpillar tractor (which I slept next to the previous year), another group gathered. Some decided to call it a day while a fair few pressed. The climb is steady and my legs were still reasonably good, to my surprise, and it only took us an hour and we managed to descend a fair bit before it was finally too dark to go on without lights. Crossing a couple of the massive swing bridges (my photos were better last year on a misty morning) we were soon at the shelter Pete had told me about. Pleased with almost two hundred kilometres, I thought it sensible to get some rest and I bedded down for the night on a bench in the shelter. The rest carried on into the night, aiming to finish the trail that night (another sixty kilometres of slow-going bike trail).

Up at dawn, I’d slept OK – but not great as I had been in a constant state of peril of falling off the bench. The Timber Trail was as good as last time – I’m determined to return and ride it with a more fun bike (suspension please) in far more than six hours to appreciate the scenery, the forest, the native bird calls, and the extensive history. As it was, I loved it – especially the lovely chorus of native birds. The trail is in pretty ordinary condition from kilometres fifty to sixty and again around the seventy kilometre marker – I was not the only one to have a very sore back from the section just before the Ongarue Spiral.

Off the trail at the planned time of ten o’clock, I was now on completely new-to-me roads. Excited to say the least.

I think the Ongarue Rugby Club has seen better days – I like to imagine what those may have been like when riding through such places.

I spotted another rider! So I pulled in, slightly off route at the Flashpackers – and somehow ended up with fried eggs, toast and a big pot of tea. Luxury, I didn’t even have to drink out of a rolled up newspaper. Enough faffing (stops can really extend themselves easily) I said goodbye to Les, and that was the last I’ve seen of a Mega Grind rider.

Turning south off a short stretch of highway, I saw this sign and knew it to be a very good sign:

Gentle valley floor riding, overall descending, ensued surrounded by hills, hills and more hills. It was stunningly beautiful and I was loving it – also very happy at how I was getting along and wondering if I might make it past Mokau and 175 km that day. Suddenly, a railway line. I wasn’t expecting that; clearly disused I clearly hadn’t paid enough attention to where we were heading. Soon in Ohura, yet another place I’d not heard of, it was clear that this was the old line that used to go through Whangamomona (of this trip last year) to Taranaki. With a bit of refuelling to be had, from my own supplies as the Cossie Club was not open yet, I gave a couple of local youths on bikes a crash course in bikepacking before leaving town and straight into a big climb and wonderful gravel.

A bit of descent had us on a the farming plateau of Waitaanga before a huge plunge through a beautiful native-bush clad gorge of upper reaches of the Tongaporutu River, which we then followed out to the coast at a more gentle gradient. Thirty kilometres of highway was not too tedious as there was sometimes a shoulder and the wind was now, apparently, at my back – it did not always seem so.

Baches at Tongaporutu.

I made Mokau, my provisional goal for the day and almost halfway around the course, around five o’clock – still many hours of daylight left to get a bit further. So after a huge burger, I was fuelled up again and rolling into the evening. Leaving the highway behind it was a very pleasant, gentle, gravelled climb up one river valley before cresting the watershed and plunging down into the next catchment area. I hadn’t really come prepared for much night riding – my fingers getting the coldest (I had enough other layers) once the sun had gone.

The last two climbs were steeper, but surmountable – I still seemed to have energy left in my legs. Only four kilometres out of Marokopa, where I would sleep, there was another climb – hot work going up, cold whizzing down. Well over halfway now, I found a verandah to sleep under and laid my head for the night – pleased with my first 200 km+ day since the TA, and surprised with how “easy” it was (easy in inverted commas because obviously it was still a fair bit of work propelling a laden bike, but my body seemed far stronger than it should be, had been before; especially considering the amount of riding I’ve been doing recently – few long or hard rides). In part this was because I’d lost over six hundred metres of altitude that day, but there was still a fair bit of climbing – I went to sleep happy, and slept well.

For a change, actually managing to get riding before six o’clock, there was a fair bit of flat riding on Sunday deserted roads – this didn’t help in warming up any. But as the next two hundred kilometres showed plainly, you can’t go far around here without finding a hill. Climbing to the highest point of the day (a staggering 250 m!) there were still no more cars, but the hills were still stunning. Then, there’s Kawhia Harbour in the distance:

Riding around here, on the flat for a bit, was very pleasant as the day warmed.

Stopping for bacon & eggs after three and a half hours, I’d been feeling a little more sluggish than the previous day. Still I was nowhere near wanting to leave my bike on this fence.

Leaving Kawhia Harbour we headed for Raglan. If anything, the hills became more numerous – but not bigger. With more fuel in me and the day warming, I was getting my legs back to normal. By my estimate, I’d be in Raglan by three; as the route got near to Raglan it turned off west for the coast, a definite long-cut around Mt Karioi. Immediately the road turned to gravel and one could see why it was sign-posted as closed during the upcoming NZ Rally – it was utterly sublime. Full of twists and turns, snaking down valleys to sea level and then rising back up – this section was the highlight of the route for me. The sea crashing into the rugged coast, the trees long since succumbing to the prevailing wind and bending away from the coast and there were wonderful, large stands of native forest.

I stopped here a bit to take in the trees forming not merely a canopy, but a blanket of purest green. Mesmerising.

Closer to Raglan, the view opened up north and the traffic increased a little – which wasn’t hard, for an hour or so I’d seen next to none.

I did make Raglan by three o’clock, my plan was coming together as I tried to estimate just how far I’d get that night. I was bemused to see I’d, without getting more than 250 m above sea level, already climbed 2000 m that day – there were many, many little hills. Two pies devoured I hit the highway out of town.

It was awful. A sunny Sunday afternoon seemed to have brought most of Hamilton to town, and they were now leaving. Thankfully the course looped off the highway and onto a gravel back road for a bit. I was displeased to have to join it again, mercifully for less than two kilometres. Turning left at the T-junction, I watched in disbelief as a van just in front of me, at speed, locked up its wheels to avoid another car, started fishtailing, went out of control and barrel-rolled down the highway eventually coming to rest on its now crumpled roof.

There were plenty of people around the gas station rushing to the aid of the driver, so I turned around and did a spot of traffic management before deciding it was time to get off this mad road. Rather subdued when I realised that if I’d been a few seconds faster I’d have been occupying the same time & space that a crappy old Ford Econovan seemed intent on rolling through, I slowed a bit rather keen on messaging loved ones. I was surprised to see an ambulance already heading towards the scene from a back road. Then I came across a recently wrecked road bike (of the motorcycle kind) in a ditch and understood the ambulance’s apparent promptness. Suddenly, I wasn’t so keen on riding a bike on roads – especially remembering some of the tragedies in the international bikepacking community earlier in the year.

After that drama, the roads to Ngaruwahia turned out to be very pleasant and I soon got my head back in a good place and pedaled on. I was surprised to be informed by a sign that I got as close as seventy-five kilometres from my old home of Pukekohe – which is Auckland now. I’d come all this way to get so close to the big smoke?! Unimpressed. But at least I now know where Glen Massey is. We turned away from Auckland.

Stopping to snack as the route joined the cycle trail beside the Waikato River, I set off into the evening through Hamilton to Cambridge. I had been wondering why I’d not bothered to remove the bell from my bike – it turned out to be mighty useful along the busy pathway that evening. The section through the Hamilton Gardens was tedious and poorly signposted for all its twists and turns, but I was soon on back roads in the failing light.

I was having dinner in Cambridge at nine o’clock still rather keen on the plan I’d been formulating to all day to push on and finish this thing that night. It was just over a hundred kilometres and involved the decent climb over the Mamakus. I figured I could be in Rotorua around three in the morning. Just as I was about to leave, I witnessed yet another car crash – I’d recommend not going anywhere near a road in the Waikato!

Having already ridden two hundred and forty kilometres, getting to the finish would be by far my biggest day ever on a bike. Alas, in my effort to try to conserve what light I did have for the Mamakus, I made it too difficult for me to see and I just wore myself out more. I probably wasn’t mentally prepared for more hills near Arapuni Dam and for the first time in seven hundred kilometres I got really slow. It just wasn’t fun (Pete’s words of Friday ringing in my ear), so I realised a bit of sleep would be best and I gave up on my plan of finishing within three days. It was a little disappointing, but as I’d planned on a four day finish the pill wasn’t too bitter.

On back roads through dairy farms at that time, there was little night time traffic so when I saw a strange little (shorter than me) two and a half sided corrugated iron shed, I’d found my resting place for the night. Only after I’d set up my bed did I realise all the grass was making my eyes a little puffy & my nose run, and I had invaded a small bird’s home.

We stared at each other a lot; I slept well and woke to find I still had both my eyes. Success.

An earlier start (five-thirty) and I was off to Putaruru for breakfast. I wore extra layers as it was chilly and as it was relatively flat (compared to the previous morning anyway) I never really warmed up. I was feeling average, but with only seventy kilometres to go it was easy to keep on going. With a full English breakfast in me from the Crazy Cow Cafe (I was too tired to appreciate all the amoosing puns), I was away again and heading for the hills – well, the last hill. Ascending four hundred and fifty metres it’s pretty steady, with a few little pinches; Leslie Rd does seem to be one of those hills that just keeps on giving. Finally I was at the top riding into a stiff easterly and negotiating the huge puddles that form the end of the paper road.

All downhill from here! Or not, the wind was strong enough to necessitate pedaling down hill. Height of rudeness. Still, at least it had nothing on my Invercargill to Bluff TA experience. But that couldn’t come close to dampening my spirits as I turned the pedals around all the way to the finish.

Time to lie on the grass, too tired to ask the small guided tour group to move so I could get a better photo.

I was, and still am, so thrilled to have ridden far stronger and longer than I ever have, or imagined I might. At three days and three hours, that’s an average of 250 km/day – compare that with 180-odd/day I did on TA. I had the same bike and carried the same gear, and had done even less preparation this time around – not to mention entering this event with less of a deadline and firmly just wanting to have a look around a different part of NZ. (Admittedly, this was only three days in a row, not two weeks – and the weather was amazing too.)

So I’m a little taken aback, how did this suddenly happen with no plan or desire? In part, taking a bit more care of what I’ve been eating in the previous six weeks has meant that I am currently carrying significantly less weight on me than for the last ten or so years. As has been usefully pointed out – how much money would one pay to get fancy gear to lose so much mass from one’s bike and gear? The answer would be thousands and involve titanium and fancy composites. After mentally spending these thousands in my mind, sense prevailed remembering what some guru said a few years ago: “Ride what you have”. Another component of this step-change I guess is more in my mind – and that comes from talking to, reading about other people that perform absolutely amazing feats of endurance. Obviously, I’m nowhere near that – but it does open one’s eyes to what is possible, and maybe just rubs off a little, eventually.

Now I’m looking around for more events and routes I can challenge myself on. The cool thing is I can see many areas to improve and with a bit more discipline I should be able to push my boundaries far more (I did after all carry a tent the whole way around and not use it, oops – which is what I did for all but the first night of TA; I think I may be learning slowly!).

Thanks to Pete and Erik for such a great route and well organised event – the hours and days that go into planning such a thing are immense, and all for the love of it. I certainly got to see parts of this country that I’d not before, and probably wouldn’t have otherwise. More importantly, I’ve suddenly seen other things I did not see before.

Apologies for shortage of good photos, I was having too much fun riding my bike. But I suspect if you’ve managed to read this far, you might not mind so much.

Mangatutu Three Hot Springs

Deciding it was high-time that Carl put his recently acquired bikepacking set-up to good use, we finally found a weekend free of other commitments and headed for the hills. Choosing a much hotter and head-windy day for the third annual overnighter to Mangatutu Hot Springs, it was great to have some company on this iteration of the trip.

I managed to cobble the requisite gear onto my bike in plenty of time – note extra water portage for the hottest day of the season so far.

Carl didn’t faff for too long after I arrived at his house and soon we were off into the strong northerly wind, conscious of the high-twenties of centigrade to deal with. With tyres, that have actual tread on them, it was noisy and slow going as we climbed up Puketitiri Rd. However, there was little traffic, the weather was pleasantly warm and the whole road fills me with nostalgia. Carl kept a good pace and there were few photos stops – so these two links will have to do.

A brief respite at Patoka School was used to fill water bottles and prepare for the last thirty-odd kilometres of climbing. Up to Patoka the road approaches five to six hundred metres above sea level; after Patoka the road undulates, constantly flirting either side of six hundred metres. At Ball’s Clearing the seal finishes and we enjoyed the change in surface to gravel – if not the steep hills as we rode into the evening.

Passing a collection of pick-ups, we missed the Search & Rescue training exercise and, thoroughly spent, dropped off the last pass to the campground. Almost-matching tents were pitched, dinners cooked & consumed before well deserved soaks in the eponymous hot springs. It was a brilliantly clear night, with the full moon casting long shadows as it rose. Despite the clear night, it was warm; rather worn out from the hills and the headwind, we slept well.

Cattle kept beady eyes on us as we climbed out of the Mohaka River valley.

There were plenty more hills to lay eyes on as we were pushed along by the warm northerly.

Carl shows me again why I really should get around to fitting some aerobars to my bike.

Leaving the Mohaka far behind, we were soon back at Ball’s Clearing and whizzing down the seal back home.

Yet, there were still many small hills to get up. Nearing Taradale it was fun to be caught up by someone on a gravel bike (who’d ridden roads I’d half-hoped we’d have the energy for) and consequently yarn about past & upcoming bikepacking events.

Beer & refreshments awaited us as we returned – pleased with a successful outing where Carl proved a capable bikepacker and excellent riding buddy. Now, to find some more hills and get some more miles under the wheels.

Hawkston Rd gravel seeking

For about two years I’ve meant to vary a ride I did soon after moving to Napier. Saturday last, it was finally time to go and explore some different gravel roads up near Patoka. The spring weather was wonderfully warm, sunny and still – and I’d had enough of chores around the house. Also, it’s time to get a bit more distance in the legs as we head towards summer and more bikepacking & mountain-biking trips.

The memories came flooding back, now having ridden up Puketitiri Rd a few times – mostly on overnighters to the Mangatutu Hot Springs, which reminds me it must be about time for the annual trip. I stopped at some of the usual spots as the views were worth it, as they generally are. There was little traffic and the riding was very pleasant – I got to thinking that I don’t really want it to get much hotter; late spring is plenty nice, thank you very much.

The Kawekas in the distance, I wouldn’t be getting quite as close this time.

It’s definitely very green up there this time of year, that’ll last for another month, or two.

Facing a bit more south-west than west – the direction I was headed.

Nearing the three-hour mark I passed through Patoka and turned off the “main” road. There was a long cruise down on a sealed road that, judging by the signs, was nice and wide due to logging traffic.

Finally, gravel! It was very nicely surfaced.

At the furthest point of my loop, there was a little bit of a spur – it seemed a shame not to explore this road too. Dropping to a rather lovely stream the road was to then climb steadily to gain a couple of hundred metres. I was surprised at the number of farmhouses on this short stretch of road – even some dairy farms, which are generally in short supply around these parts (which I am still getting used to having spent so much of my life in dairying regions).

I met two farmers approaching on quad bikes – the second stopping to ask me rather incredulously “you know this is a dead-end road?”. I answered I did, and was helpfully informed that it was all uphill to the end of the road. He was right. But that meant it was all downhill on the return, at least to the stream.

Sure enough, the road ended in a forestry block – lo & behold one Pan Pac’s, it shouldn’t be too hard to arrange permits for further exploration. Time to turn and head for home, with still a few new bits of gravel for me to discover.

Undulating, but trending downhill towards the ocean, it was wonderful riding.

I arrived home well pleased with what I’d seen and found, and pleasantly tired from my longest ride this year – most excellent. Quite looking forward to more such rides, both local and further afield this summer.

Wombling in Wimbledon

With Mum and Dad having come to stay for a ten days or so mid-winter, it was decided that we should go away for a few days together. Often I’d driven the highway south of home and looked east towards the coast and wondered at the long line of big hills and what might be there. This was as good a reason as any to choose north-eastern Manawatu for a quiet few days in the countryside. A house was duly booked on a big sheep farm.

Taking a couple of days off work, my birthday got off to a wonderful start – I even had presents to unwrap, most unusual. A leisurely morning of sorting bikes, strolling in the sun and packing over – we were off south on rural roads I’d not been on before. Lovely countryside, many hills and turns – we arrived at Spring Creek, just past Wimbledon (which seems to be pretty much a pub and little else).

We had this lovely old, spacious farmhouse for a few days.

The house was great to poke around and find all sorts of old things – just the general day-to-day items were interesting enough.

Birthday dinner was down the road at the Wimbledon pub – the seafood basket is huge and delicious. So big, that I found out two days later that a half serving satisfies even my hunger. I’ve long wanted to bikepack along Route 52 (a road that lost its state highway designation) – I may have to make that a priority just so I can have the seafood basket again.

1886 counts for a pretty old pub in NZ.

We were enjoying learning of the pioneering history of the area, how it was cleared of native forest (unfortunate as the hills are so steep, erosion and slips are now quite a problem), supplied from the coast (there was no road to Dannevirke, or anywhere for that matter). Our hosts, Shaun and Sue, were fifth generation farmers – so there were plenty of stories to hear.

With enough bikes for the three of us, we were keen to go for a ride to the coast. With only a couple of small hills and a stunning day on Friday, the thirteen kilometres was achievable for Mum & Dad – who hadn’t done a lot of riding recently.

I had plenty of time to stop for photos, admire the scenery.

Heading for Herbertville – we turned right at the foot of those hills.

I carried on a bit past Herbertville, just because – gravel!

Looking back towards the wonderfully named Cape Turnagain – where Captain Cook decided he’d gone far enough south, and turned back north.

South towards Castle Point – another place I’m yet to make it to.

Back to the house for a late lunch, we were all well pleased with our rides. Sue and Shaun had said we could drive to the top and back of the farm, passing some old buildings on the way. The Corolla somehow made its way up the steep hill and we found a old woolshed and some ruined houses.

Circling the woolshed trying to find a way in.

Mum made it in.

Said disused woolshed.

Carrying on up the hill – a bit of fun for the little car.

South over Manawatu.

Back north over the farm which reaches across the valley to the hills in the middle distance.

We went hunting for old farm houses – instead Dad got dwarfed by old pine trees.

The living room could do with a bit of a touch up.

I was determined to ride around the farm, so dragged the mountain-bike out Saturday morning and was rather chilled riding back up the same steep road we’d driven up the previous afternoon. Crossing a muddy ford opposite the abandoned woolshed, I finally discovered the elusive tumble-down house and laden lemon tree we’d been looking for yesterday.

Most of the remaining structure seemed to be supported by ivy.

Ivy did at least frame the windows nicely.

This may be a part of why we initially struggled to find the ruined house – yes, there is a house in there. Somewhere.

I ground my way to the top, huzzah for single chainrings up steep hills, and was rewarded with clearer views over eastern Manawatu.

The Ruahines in the distance.

I had a blast following rugged farm tracks along the ridge line before a steep, steep plummet back to the house.

The afternoon’s outing was to head back to the beach for a walk to Cape Turnagain, or thereabouts. We drove there this time. Wide, flat and with the cape rising out of the sea it was a very nice walk in the afternoon sun. Two hardy surfers followed and passed us, before heading into the Pacific. There were a few others out on quad bikes, but the crashing of the waves easily drowned out any potentially annoying motors.

We found dozens of seals enjoying the sun at the cape, so turned around and returned with the wind at our backs.

The tiki-touring continued – we drove past where I’d ridden south the day before to see how far the road went. Not much further was the answer. Back to the pub that night for dinner – Dad managed to find somewhere to watch the Bledisloe Cup test. Mum and I had one of our occasional close-fought Scrabble battles, I was particularly average.

I was determined to find some gravel roads and thought I’d planned a good loop around Birch Rd. Dad joined me on the Route 52 section getting up a couple of decent hills. Turning off the tarseal, it got much steeper and I bade farewell to Dad. As expected, it was all very hilly. The land use alternated between sheep pasture and pine forest; forestry dominated. Every section of pasture gave a different view. At times I could look right back across the farm and spy the route I’d ridden around the farm previously.

There was clearly some logging operations going on somewhere up the road. The gravel varied from nice smooth, old road to big chunky gravel that had recently been laid. Areas of perpetual winter shade were quite damp and the surface up the last big climb was hard going – almost muddy gravel that hadn’t packed down. I was keen to get to Weber, mainly just to explore more back roads and see what was in the village. But aware that that would be cutting short even more the time spent with Mum & Dad, I opted for the short loop and hurtled down the hill to Route 52.

I was surprised not to lose even half the altitude that would take me back to the house. The short section of Route 52 that remained really must be steep. Certainly, it was. Mum was also out riding when I returned. The rest of our wonderful break away from it all was spent lunching, packing and loading bikes. What a great stay – so much to do in a place that seems to have little of the trappings one is used to.

With plenty of time up our sleeves, we could stop and read off the longest place name in the world. Yes, it’s quite easily pronounceable – it’s not Welsh after all.

The even-more scenic (roundabout) route was taken as we didn’t have to be at friends of Mum & Dad’s until five-thirty for a very informative walk around their vineyard, sampling of their wine and a fantastic “simple” dinner. A late return home after a very relaxing weekend.