Buster Diggings – Johnstones Creek Track epic

One of Adele’s teammates for the upcoming adventure race, Garry, thought that a good training MTB ride for Adele would be the Buster Diggings & Johnstones Creek Track combo. Naturally, I thought this was a great idea as Central Otago is beautiful and riding bikes is great. It’s not a well-known trail, not even making it into the NZ MTB trail bible (Classic NZ MTB Rides), so we were a little taken aback as we checked it out the night before. Over two and a half thousand metres of climbing in sixty kilometres?! It looked like it would be a long day – especially as Adele has not spent much time riding recently.

Consequently, it was an early start for the eighty minute drive to Naesby (which I am assured has great MTB trails in the forest – but I’ve not ridden there, yet) to meet Garry. Having arranged a car shuttle we left town & managed to drive a few kilometres up the Mt Buster road before setting off on our bikes – Adele taking her brand new one for its first outing. It was a glorious day and the first few kilometres along the undulating gravel road were pleasant riding. Before long we were entering the Oteake Conservation Park and the first of three tough climbs began. Progress slowed markedly as it took over an hour to go 3.5 km and climb almost 600 m! The surface was pretty good (all of the day was spent on double-track/4WD track), with just one particularly rocky & loose section causing me to push my bike for a hundred or so metres. I had plenty of time to take photos while I waited, so here are a few of typical Central Otago hills & plains – the hills invariably covered in long tussock (a type of grass found in the high country around NZ).

Entering the conservation park, looking ahead to the first big climb of the day.

Part-way up, looking south over Central Otago.

In that pick-up are the only people we saw all day – we were out for over ten hours and only heard birds, streams flowing & the breeze (apart from any sound we made obviously). It’s quite remote up there.

Eventually the hill plateaued and we got some respite. We took a small side trail to look at Buster Diggings – the result of the highest gold mining ever undertaken in NZ at 1200 m above sea level (Otago had quite a gold rush in the nineteenth century).

The results of alluvial mining, and Mt Buster in the background.

A lot of our hard work was undone as we plunged off the plateau down to the head waters of the Otematata River below.

After the quick descent, we followed the small river for about fifteen kilometres. Often we had to cross the river – I lost count of the number of river crossings we made, probably up around twenty. All except three were rideable with the current level of water in the river. Before another climb started, we stopped at Tailings Hut for a bit of lunch. Somehow twenty-six kilometres had taken four hours – I think we deserved some food and a bit of rest.

A typical NZ back-country hut – and Adele’s brand new bike no longer so clean & immaculate.

From the river, it was another steep climb around the end of the ridge – but this was much shorter before plunging to the river for another crossing. Unfortunately, at the high point in this section we could look across the valley and see what was to come.

All the downhills of the day were great, and not just because they were such welcome relief.

Yes, another opportunity to get one’s feet wet – by this point Adele was quite soaked due to a previous unplanned dip further up the river.

That was a small part of what was to come.

This was the most brutal climb of the day – six hundred metres up in only five kilometres along. The first half was noticeably steeper than the second, but the surface was very good and it was all rideable for me. With the sun beating down, it was getting hotter as the we were sheltered from the wind. Regrouping on the next plateau, the riding got easier – but was still generally climbing.

Waiting on the plateau amongst the tussock.

Eventually we came across the second hut of the day – the Ida Railway hut. Originally down on the railway that was converted to the famous Otago Central Rail Trail, the old station was somewhat unbelievably hauled up the route we had just ridden some decades ago for use as a musterers’ hut. I was pretty thrilled when Garry pulled a large slab of Christmas cake from his pack (he was wearing the large, for mountain-biking, pack that seems to be standard equipment for their team in the adventure race). It was good cake and excellent to be sitting out in the sun in the wilderness with great company enjoying it as the stream babbled close by – especially sharing a big bike adventure with my sister.

The climbing reared up a bit more across the plateau as we got to our highest point so far that day – about 1550 m. Across the plateau we could also look north to the Southern Alps and pick out Mt Cook (NZ’s highest mountain) easily.

Looking back across a small part of the plateau we’d ridden across. For perspective – if you look very closely you can just see Adele rounding the corner at the right of the shot.

Depending on whether one was climbing or descending (for me, at least), unfortunately & then fortunately (respectively) the trail condition got a lot poorer from this point on. The Canterbury greywacke stone used to pave the route suddenly became much larger, looser and more sharply edged. As I alluded to above – this was fantastic on the next steep plunge as the riding became much more technical and thrilling.

But after that steep plunge, we were left looking at this:

About a quarter of the last climb of the day…

While not the toughest, biggest or longest climb of the day – due to the poor surface it was definitely the most technically challenging. Starting off at the bottom I was starting to feel a little tired, but from somewhere found some energy and managed to ride all but about a hundred metres when it just got too loose & tricky. Whether going up or down on the chunky loose rocks, I found it much easier to carry a bit more speed than normal to avoid getting bogged down in the greywacke.

Finally we were at the magic point of no-more-climbing, looking out across Central Otago again. All that hard work in the sun was about to be rewarded by a glorious, fast descent dropping 800 m in five kilometres. That was even steeper than what we had climbed – I would not recommend riding this route in the opposite direction considering the surface at the west end. I know the other two didn’t really enjoy this rather technical, steep downhill (Garry had been preparing us all day to be disappointed with it after all the work taken to get there) – but I was grinning all the way down. So many big rocks moving all over the place, plenty of water bars to jump off and a grand view.

You can just see the trail snaking its way down from the right of the Hawkdun Range.

With a few more miles to ride down on a gravel road to where Garry’s car was waiting for us, there was plenty of time to savour the biggest, hardest and most-epic day mountain-biking I’ve had in ages. If even obscure trails like this that I’ve never heard of are so good, that bodes well for the rest that this country has to offer – perhaps I’ll be able to stay, now I just have to find a job sometime.

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