Category Archives: national park

The Christmas Letter 2016

Once again, I try to look back on the year. 2016 has definitely been momentous in many ways and on the whole, another excellent year. I’m still loving life in Napier, my work is great overall, having my own house is fantastic and I’m riding bikes plenty (with twelve days to go, I’m rapidly closing in on 10,000 km for the year – easily my biggest year ever; half of that is commuting to work).

The year started off with a couple of overnight bikepacking trips as some form of light training. This one riding the gravel road from Wairoa past Lake Waikaremoana towards Rotorua.

I also persuaded Steve to join me on a great local ride to Everett’s Campsite for another overnighter. The hills back there are well worth seeing and riding.

That and commuting to work was basically my preparation for my Tour Aotearoa attempt. Mum & Dad came up to Napier and dropped me off at Cape Reinga – the goal being to ride 3000 km to Bluff self-supported on a new route that was a mixture of as many cycle trails and backroads as possible (two-hundred odd others were also doing this). It was a grand adventure and I was thrilled with all I saw, the experiences I had and how I rode – finishing two days sooner than I needed to, in sixteen days, overcoming some horrendous weather and slight illness to do so.

Crossing the Hokianga to Rawene – I was feeling far less than brilliant and rested/was sick for a couple of hours in the heat. I got better.

The Timber Trail in the Central North Island was a highlight, even in the early morning mist. I must return.

Much to my surprise, my favourite day was through northern Manawatu. So close to where I went to university – yet I’d never been there, the rural landscape was sensational. The hilly gravel roads were excellent too.

Another highlight was staying overnight in the remote old gold mining area of Big River; even better because best-sister Adele joined me for a couple of days.

The West Coast Wilderness Trail is also on the must-return-to list, as it’s supposed to be beautiful – but it sparked the start of about four-hundred kilometres of rain for me, so I didn’t see much.

After freezing riding up the Cardrona Valley, being blown by a storm to Mossburn and then battling the same storm (reduced to pushing my bike alongside a flat highway into 120 km/hr winds) I was well pleased and satisfied to finish in 16.1 days.

It took quite some time to recover from that; I kept riding to work, but I was eating five meals a day for weeks afterwards – on the ride, I lost about four kilograms that I didn’t really have spare!

My winter break was a week down in Central Otago for Adele & James’s wedding. A fantastic time of family, friends, celebration, beautiful scenery and good food. I loved it.

Perhaps my only bikepacking event for this season, was a very enjoyable four days on backroads around Rotorua. It was fascinating returning to an area near where I grew up and seeing it from the different perspectives that a bike and being older give.

Still recovering from 550 km of riding in four days, came the sudden (but ultimately unsurprising) news of the passing of my grandfather (the last of my grandparents to go). Thus set in motion a whirlwind November. One weekend I was in Sydney for the funeral (it went as well as could be expected), then back to work for a blur of a week, before being back in Australia the next weekend for a long planned trip seeing best-friends from Canada (who were back for a family wedding). A month after all that, it still looms large.

We stayed at Arapiles, where Adele joined me for the renowned rock-climbing (it was quite a family & friends month). I almost popped my other shoulder and swore off rock-climbing forever. I didn’t sleep much camping in the west-Victorian weather, but it was a great trip.

I did, of course, take a bike and managed a great day’s gravel riding in Grampians National Park.

Later this week I head south for two weeks with my family – I’m really looking forward to it. While generally quiet, which is how I tend to like it, 2016 has proved to have its share of momentous occasions and has been one of the best yet. I’m eagerly looking forward to next year and seeing what it holds. There are no fixed plans, but it promises to be another great year in Hawke’s Bay, exploring a little further afield, work will be busy and challenging, and I sure hope for plenty of riding, in different places, with whoever will come along for it.

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year – do come and visit Napier if you’re so inclined.

Grampians Gravel – a late DirtyRat16

I was excited to have a reason to drag myself out of the tent at dawn. It turned out to be worth getting up just to see the sun rise on the rock – the best light I saw all week.

I drove into Horsham to breakfast and get supplies for the day. I was horrified to discover that the first two bakeries I went to weren’t even open at seven o’clock! What kind of country is this? I had to resort to a chain bakery, as such my subsistence for the day was bread-heavy with little in the way of tasty fillings or toppings.

It took about an hour to get to the parking lot at Reed Lookout in Grampians National Park. On the slow, narrow windy road (by Australian standards, not so much NZ) the bush thickened as I left the plains and climbed. Up a hill! A very large deer leapt from nowhere and thoroughly put the wind up me as I avoided narrowly, through no emergency action on my part, the biggest scare I’ve had on the road in a long time. The day continued to brighten as forecast, but I was beginning to notice a bank of cloud behind the approaching ridge – where I was going.

Megan had provided inspiration for this ride, noticing that some of her friends had been on a gravel ride the weekend before. Before departing NZ I managed to contact the organiser of DirtyRat16 and get the GPS file and useful trail beta. Unfortunately Megan couldn’t source a suitable bike (there was little interest in the hardtail I’d seen seemingly abandoned on the edge of the Arapiles Big Sky Trail), so it was left to me selflessly to go and have a big day in the saddle, exploring solitarily.

I’d chosen a different start point of the DirtyRat16 loop to cut down on the driving. This was Reed Lookout, the parking lot was strangely busy with tourists at eight-ish in the morning. There wasn’t much to see however, as the entire valley was filled with cloud.

Nothing to see hear folks, move along.

But that was where I was going, so I set off climbing a little more on the road before turning off onto a dirt road. It wasn’t long before I came across a road-closure sign, which reminded me that the park had had an awful lot of rain recently and there was much related damage. I figured as the event had run this route ten days previously, I’d be OK. The gravel dumped me down to the valley floor, very quickly losing four hundred metres of elevation. At speed, under the cloud it was very chilly – but I knew the cloud would burn off eventually, so enjoyed the freshness while it lasted.

The road widened for a while before I turned off.

Onto another closed track, which narrowed, I startled many a kangaroo. They, sensibly, all bounded off away from me.

I’d been warned that the roughed-up Henham Trail had nearly finished off a few of the riders on the event – but suspected that was because they did it near the end of a big day. As it was, it was all rideable bar ten or twenty metres. There was signs of storm damage, particularly at the many creek crossing – but they were all negotiable.

The roughest bit of the day & the only bit I ended up walking. There’s a bit of a climb there and the surface deteriorates half way up.

Some of the creek crossing were fun to try and get across without dabbing. I soaked a foot in an earlier, deep, one – but as the cloud burned off this didn’t bother me.

The hills that had been in the distance, steadily got closer.

The nineteen kilometre track took me to the furtherest extremity of my loop, but only just over a third of the distance – the return took me west to the other side of the valley. I turned on to a road and it was much faster. I took to riding on the right side of the road to take advantage of the shade – and sometimes I like to pretend I’m in a country that drives on the right.

Easy gravel road riding. Smooth, wide – & red!

The route turned off the road to another 4WD track, to thread between two hills over a slight saddle. To no one’s surprise it was closed, but easily passable on a bike.

Just another sign to ride around.

I stopped for lunch where there was half a view, and finally decided it was warm enough to remove my gilet; sleeves stayed on as they are good sun protection and it still wasn’t hot. Perfect.

The road north up the western side of the valley was also fast & easy going. I hadn’t seen anyone since that sole car early on. I was having a blast, but thought it might be more fun with some company to remark at various animals, trees and other sights. Maybe they’d have been able to educate me on the types of eucalyptus trees I was seeing – they all look very similar to me and I saw thousands of them. The washboard surface of the road became a little tiresome, but that’s a very minor complaint in the scheme of how good a time I was having.

Even the swamp in the bottom of the valley, was looking good – I’m not sure if it had a castle or two lurking in the bottom.

Suddenly a water-logged airfield. The top of the hill on the left was my start and end point.

After crossing the valley floor, I passed where I’d originally turned off the big dirt road and headed north through a camping area. About this time I started to startle pairs of emus. This was alarming as they are big, fast, have big pointy beaks, fearsome feet – and seem to be rather skittish, preferring to run back in front of an opposing threat rather than away from it. I was hoping I was big enough on my bike that they’d leave me alone.

The only photo I managed to nab of an emu.

Through more closed track, where I actually had to lift my bike over a fallen tree – as opposed to riding around the dozens I’d encountered already – the only climb of the day began in earnest. Considering I had almost five hundred metres to gain, it was mostly gentle as the kilometres-to-go clicked down with moderate ascent.

I took a small side-trip to some falls, reasoning that they might have water over them.

There was only one kicker in the climb, where a track back to the road quickly gained metres and I sweated my way up. Then back to the road for a little seal to Reed Lookout. It was a ninety-five kilometre gravel section – fantastic riding and an excellent route by Will. I was looking forward to seeing where I’d been now that the cloud had burnt off. I was not disappointed.

I’d basically ridden from the bottom of the left of shot, towards the reservoir before continuing beyond it to the left, going between those two small hills and then heading back right on the other side of the reservoir.

Following that, I came back towards the camera in this shot before heading around the spur in the centre and finally back up to the lookout.

And there are even some rocks.

I took some time to cool down, admire the view and load the bike in the car. Getting word the others were down in Halls Gap, I made haste to be slightly social, and refuel on salt & vinegar crisps and gelato. While I’d taken plenty of water, I’d eaten all my food and was peckish.

It was most definitely worth bringing my bike all the way to western Victoria for a well good loop of gravel and exploring unfamiliar lands.

Tour Aotearoa – My Day Seven – Kaiwhakauka Trail to Whanganui

I’d long given up the plan/hope of reaching the first jet boat down the Whanganui at eight o’clock. So I could afford a bit of a sleep-in as the forecast rain fell – I set off into the pre-dawn gloom at six. The rugged walking trail that I gave up riding the previous night didn’t last long. Instead the valley opened up a bit and flattened out into grass, that was being lightly grazed. Route finding in the semi-light and through the long wet grass wasn’t the easiest, but the GPS track meant I couldn’t go too wrong.

Leaving the valley floor, the route was now on a decades old-road and much easier riding. The rain strengthened and weakened with enough regularity to make layering & delayering a bit of a nuisance – it was too hot & muggy to keep the wet weather gear on if it wasn’t raining. It’s always a little disappointing to miss out on seeing as much as normal when the clouds are so low, I was curious to know what was out there. But the conditions helped to add to the feeling of isolation and remoteness – that people came to live up here seemed improbable at best. But more of that later in the next valley.

Found this where the track met the road/track in from Raetihi. Bike looking very lightly loaded as I’m wearing all my wet-weather gear.

Two hours after setting off, I had crested the highest point and was on the long downhill to the Bridge to Nowhere. As the old double-track descended further into the Mangapurua Valley, clearings now slowly being reclaimed by the bush became more numerous and larger.

This valley was one of the places around the country that servicemen returning from World War One were given marginal land to farm. Marginal is of course a complete understatement – as I was seeing, this land was extremely rugged and very isolated. I was astonished that a few families managed to labour here for over twenty years before the settlement was abandoned – and they had nothing to show for their toils. What a reward for surviving the trenches.

Every so often there would be some sort of introduced flowering plant still surviving – the contrast was stark. Still quite a few non-native pines growing strongly.

There were also many small signs with surnames displayed – remembering the families that had those particular plots.  This simple method of memorial was quite poignant – as there really is very little left showing forty-odd families lived here.

Across the valley – there are many ferns there reclaiming the grassland.

The riding was pretty easy, still heading down. There were quite a few bits where riders were advised to walk – but as they had nothing on the Old Ghost Road, I rode most of them.

There were many rather skinny bridges on the route – it got a little tedious regularly upending one’s loaded bike & wheeling it through on its back wheel.  Finally, I was at the Bridge to Nowhere!  A place that had held almost-mythical status in my mind since I’d first heard of it at the age of ten or so.  It really is a substantial concrete feat of engineering in the middle of nowhere.  Rather bizarre – it wouldn’t be out of place in many big cities (it reminds me a bit of Grafton Rd bridge in Auckland), here it is linking two sides of a valley covered in ferns.

It was built to give better access for the families described above – to save them clambering up & down the valley walls. But by the time it was built they had the road (that I’d just ridden in on from the north) for access – so it was of little use and therefore little used as river access was no longer important.

But river access was now important to me. After savouring my time at the Bridge, it was a short ride down to the Whanganui River and the landing to meet the jet boat. There was a big rock on the side of the river and not much else. Ten-thirty rolled around and no jet boat. The rain continued to roll in waves. Quite alone with no other riders, and most importantly no boat – this was most definitely the most vulnerable and not-in-control I felt on the whole tour. Which was a bit silly as of course there were plenty of riders somewhere behind me, but I’d not seen any all day and it was rather wet and miserable.

My bike, a rock and quite a river.

Eventually a jet boat appeared around the corner and zoomed up the river merrily ignoring me. Just as I traipsed a bit back up the trail to a shelter, other riders started to arrive and the rain stopped. Things were looking up. They had a boat booked at one o’clock, I was confident I’d be able to blag a seat on it. So there was a couple of hours to kill – spent chatting, cleaning bikes, snacking and enjoying the non-rain.

So it happened that I did get a ride on this boat – I think we had ten bikes and riders. I was pleased my bike didn’t go on a rack projecting out from the stern.

Still a bit miffed that the boat that was supposed to pick me up never arrived (apparently they ran one at about nine o’clock) – don’t use Bridge to Nowhere if you want a jet boat on the Whanganui, go with Whanganui River Adventures – they were great. It did make my decision to ride into the night before look even less sensible than it already did. In the end I made that two or three hours lost over the following couple of days.

In one of the more surreal moments of my Tour, one of the other riders was carrying a ukelele the length of the country. Someone else got hold of it and there we were sitting on a jet boat waiting to cast off listening to a rather stilted rendition of Cows with Guns.

I realised that I’d never been on a commercial jet boat ride in NZ before – so I soaked up a quintessential NZ tourist experience. It was magnificent – the dense native forest coming right down to the river, steep cliffs and numerous waterfalls after the morning’s rain. Wonderful.

Our third boat ride of the Tour over, most of us went up to the company’s base to stock up on what ever food we could and clean our bikes of the morning’s mud. It was now sunny and warm. I set off for Whanganui – the largest place we’d been since Auckland. It was mostly undulating road, a mixture of gravel and seal, near the river with a couple of larger climbs to keep us honest. I was intrigued to cycle past Jerusalem on the Whanganui River after studying James K. Baxter way back in sixth form.

Number plate shed caught my eye.

Just before dark I was in town and as there were no campgrounds near the route, I booked a comfortable room in a backpackers. Apart from the jet boat not turning up, another excellent day. I had made it through what I considered would be the most remote and challenging section of the course and was rather pleased with that and excited by what I’d seen – although I still want to see it all again at a more relaxed pace and in better weather. Only just over a hundred kilometres for the day had me back on average to make it back to work on time – but I wasn’t worried as I knew the route would get a lot faster than the previous two days. Tomorrow there would be more new roads, I was looking forward to seeing parts of Manawatu that I’d never seen the four years I lived there.

Bikepacking Waikaremoana – Wairoa to Rotorua

The possibility of riding between home (Napier) and Rotorua had been mentioned a couple of times at work by Steve and me. While not initially put off by the idea, the thought of doing over two-hundred kilometres of highway (the start hilly and quite narrow) in one day rather discouraged me. Then a cycle-tourist who stayed the night carried on north to Wairoa and then rode the Waikaremoana highway. This is a highway in the loosest sense of the word – winding its way through the rugged and remote Te Urewera National Park, it is mostly gravel, sees little traffic and there are few settlements along the way. It is, however, yet another beautiful part of the country.

Convinced of the brilliance of a two-day bikepacking trip through the area, I just had to bring Steve around to the idea of a lot of unsealed-road riding. Although he’d never been bikepacking or cycle-touring, it wasn’t hard to get Steve onboard with the promise of a big, new type of adventure. A representative triathlete, I was a bit worried I wouldn’t be able to keep up with Steve as he’s one of those people who is so unbelievably active, it’s tiring just thinking about it; also, with Steve’s sizeable dose of Fear-of-Missing-Out I shouldn’t have been surprised he was a surefire starter-for-ten for my mad (the general consensus around the office as our plans leaked out) idea.

Unfortunately, we didn’t even got to Wairoa on our first attempt as I, unusually, got ill just in time for New Year’s weekend. This worked out well, as the weather turned horrid over much of the North Island that long-weekend – I was glad not to be out riding in such weather and sleeping in a tent. All the details worked out well for a repeat attempt the following weekend, so off we set for Wairoa early that Saturday morning. Delightfully, the fabled Osler’s Bakery was just opening as we drove into town – steak and mushroom pies are OK at eight o’clock in the morning for second breakfast, aren’t they? It was already 24ºC as we emptied the car and got our bikes and luggage sorted. It was clearly going to be a hot day, but we had all day to do 120-odd kilometres and the breeze blowing into us wasn’t too strong as we headed north over the Wairoa River and turned inland.

It was all rather flat for quite a while as we went up the broad river valley.

I was pleased to find classic Tip Top ice cream and Fanta advertisements on the side of a long-since-closed corner store in Frasertown.

I’m sure this sign is to warn off inexperienced gravel-road drivers and people who expect state highways in NZ to be up to a much higher standard than some (read: most) of them are. For the bikepacker, this serves to add to the anticipation for lightweight travel through remote places; I was well pleased to see this sign.

It was still all smiles as we had plenty of practice taking photos while riding along. This a particularly good one of Steven’s thumb, and for a change I make a photographic appearance in my own blog.

The sealed road ended after about thirty kilometres, but the climbing up to Lake Waikaremoana didn’t start in earnest for another fifteen or so. Another advantage of not doing this trip the previous weekend, was a lack of public-holiday traffic. That being said, there was a fair few people returning from the lake with boats and caravans at the end of their holidays. But the surface was good and we never had a problem with the traffic. Even the persistent norwester wasn’t too much of a hindrance on such a fine day – it had more of a cooling effect than a slowing one.

Taking a slight detour off the highway, we began a little side-tour; that of the Waikaremoana Hydro Power Scheme. This the lowest of three small power stations linked together, all using water flowing from the Lake Waikaremoana.

Riding across the dam of the hydro lake at Tuai – the power station in the distance. Most of our riding was now surrounded by either water or vast expanses of native bush.

First swim stop of the day for Steve.

As is quite common, a small town (large village, really) was to be found near this hydro power scheme. This one, Tuai, obviously built for the construction of the dams & powerhouses and still looking in really good condition. Just a representative house that I happened to snap while riding past.

We rejoined the highway and the climbing continued, but never steeply. Here we look back down to Tuai.

We lost a bit of altitude taking another detour to the third power station, Kaitawa. These penstocks bring water down from Lake Waikaremoana after it’s travelled through a tunnel. It was at this point Steve suggested we should ride up there as a shortcut; I suggested he go jump in the lake while I had first-lunch.

A rather reflective sign about the power scheme: in case anyone still cares and so I can stop banging on about it so much.

Quite picturesque really, despite the infrastructure. We set off on a short walk around the lake, but it never opened up and gave us good access to or views of the lake. So we turned back.

Steve did take that second swim, while I enjoyed my bacon & egg pie from Osler’s. Only when he tried to get out of the tailrace, did Steve realise the walls were really quite high.

We did make it up the access road beside the penstocks – it did save a bit of backtracking distance and in our granny gears the 20+% gradient was OK.

After that steep climb, we were pretty much at lake (Waikaremoana) level after about five hours and sixty kilometres. From there it was undulating for seven kilometres around the lake edge to Home Bay and second-lunch. You may have noticed a bit of a theme here: not travelling solo meant taking a large tent, which somehow Steve ended up with (still didn’t really help me to tire him out). Which in turn meant I had a lot more room on my bike to carry delicious, and necessary, food.

Finally, more of Panekire Bluffs came into view – much as I remember them from my last visit to the area to do the three-day hike around the lake with Adele.

Once again it proved impossible to keep Steve out of the water – just a swim across Home Bay & back this time, about a mile. I sat under a tree and enjoyed the $80/kg pastrami from the store at the campground.

Following the north edge of the lake on pretty flat road (now with even less traffic than not-much), I was confident that we would easily make the saddle and highest point on the route well before we’d had enough for the day or run out of daylight.

When we rode over the bridge atop Mokau Falls, we didn’t even realise they were there – let alone, that they looked like this.

This was our final view of Panekire Bluffs, perhaps the best yet.

Heading away from the lake towards the saddle, it was a gradual climb up a gentle valley shaded by the dense bush on our left. Crossing from Hawkes Bay to Bay of Plenty it wasn’t long until the summit. While the route was an awful long gravel road, it was interspersed with short stretches of seal – mostly around settlements and on any steep hills. Over the saddle I was pleased that the steep descent was sealed – my cross tyres proving a bit sketchy on anything too loose and fast.

We’d heard much of wild horses all over the road once over the saddle. Here, our first sighting; also memorable as just past all those cars was our first being-chased-by-a-fierce-dog experience of the trip (something else we’d also be warned about).

We took the opportunity to fill water bottles at a derelict motel in Ruatahuna – I haven’t got sick yet – before a few kilometres up to where there was supposed to be a campground. At least I was hoping so, details were elusive online – I think it was once a DOC campsite, but no longer. Anyway, it was there with a picnic table, plenty of space, a toilet, the Whakatane River in its infancy and masses of persistent sandflies (a bit like Scottish midges, small bitey insects that attack by stealth [unlike mosquitoes]). Steve made camp and just for a change from lakes, got in the river for his fourth swim of the day while I whistled up the culinary delights that are freeze-dried meals.

What a fantastic day’s riding – great route, excellent scenery, lovely summer weather, plenty of food, good adventuring company and even a bit of engineering history. Well pleased and well worth the effort.

Our set-up for the evening, I probably should have been not still sitting down.

We even had blue ducks visit our campsite! An endangered species native to NZ, they feature on our ten dollar note/bill and I don’t think I’ve ever seen one before. Fortuitously, we didn’t even have to go searching for them, as they can be hard to find (obviously, they’re endangered & therefore rare) – they came to us.

A few of the locals dropped in for an evening graze.

After a warm, surprisingly restless night considering the previous day’s efforts it was a leisurely start to the day. Fueled up on porridge and many other snacks (jerky for breakfast? – if you’re going to carry excess food, you may as well eat it) we were on our way. The morning had cooled a fair bit and it was slightly cloudy too – just as well we started with an easy climb to warm us up again. Seemingly in the middle of nowhere, we came across a fair few people just walking along the otherwise deserted road. Rather odd, until we got to a rather small settlement with a marae.

Our gentle climb to start the day, just kept on going and turned out to take us to the highest point of the day – we were done with it within an hour and the road turned back to seal (mostly) for the screaming descent to the Minginui turn-off. And that was the gravel road riding done for the day – things weren’t quite so interesting as we got out of the remoter areas. Actually, things started to look vaguely familiar. When Dad was a dairy management consultant in the Bay in the ’90s, this area was on the outer edges of one of his patches. So when we stopped to talk to local roadies on their Sunday morning rides (not a cafe stop in sight out here), I recognised a fair few place names.

The steelwork of destroyed picnic tables makes for great bike-stands; here at the highest point of the second day – looking back over the Ureweras.

We stopped at this old service station shortly before Murupara to fill water bottles – we’d been warned about the dogs in town, so avoided that.

From Murupara it was a twelve or so kilometre climb up through boring plantation forest with fast-moving traffic into the wind. Definitely not with the pleasure of the previous day’s riding. Still, the closer we got to Rotorua the more familiar things seemed. We started passing places I remember from my first bike tour twenty years ago (crikey) – a school holiday camp.

It was strange seeing Mt Tarawera looming up from a different angle – but all the same, there it was.

We turned off the highway just before Rainbow Mountain and joined the Te Ara Ahi for our final stretch to Rotorua and Steve’s car. Stopping at Lake Okaro (a rather nice little lake I didn’t even know was there – there are many lakes in the area) to finish off the food for lunch, I was surprised that Steve didn’t have a swim. There’s a slim chance he was getting a little tired, but I think it unlikely. Heading west from Waimangu, we bore the brunt of a vigourous westerly – it was awful. But then the cycle trial turned for twenty kilometres of downhill to town – the wind didn’t matter so much then. I don’t recommend that cycle trail – it’s basically a concrete path right next to the highway: dead boring and quite horrible.

At least it was an easy finish to a most excellent adventure – with a bit of luck I’ve opened Steve’s eyes to the possibilities of exploring all sorts of places by bike. We got to Steve’s parents’ place, cleaned up, ate a bit more and filled the car.  Somehow we fitted in three bikes, all our touring luggage, some Christmas presents, two collapsible workshop benches and countless tools.