Just past the half-way point of the 1150 km course, the end was starting to seem near on the fifth morning. Quite why this was, I’m not sure – there was still much over five hundred kilometres to ride. The fifth day turned out be the best of the lot, despite by far the worst weather of my ride. This was due to the three and a half hours on the ten kilometre Big River Trail & ~twenty kilometres of 4WD road out on Soldiers Big River Rd.
The day started off innocuously enough at my steady (slow) pace on the road to Ikamatua up the left bank of the Grey passing many large diary herds making their way back from the morning milking. I was quickly caught by a few of the riders faster on the road, Gary dragged me to the village store (I think he scratched later that day with recurrent shoulder & back pain) – but as a non-coffee drinker I wasn’t keen on hanging around. Not far north up the highway, the course turned east up the slightly steeper Blackwater valley and the surrounding bush-clad hills closed in ever closer.
At the much-smaller-than-in-its-heyday Blackwater I happened upon the old school. Intrigued and with plenty of time I investigated to find the door unlocked and a few signs of birds having been inside. Suddenly I was transported back a varying number of years – items in the school varied from about a hundred years old to chairs of the type that I spent many hours sitting on while at school in the eighties and nineties. There was a small display providing some details of what was once a bustling gold-mining community.
These chairs will be familiar to so many New Zealanders of my generation.
For me, that’s not a bad selfie.
Moving on, the road became gravelled and steadily climbed up to the old Waiuta township through a mixture of native and plantation forest. Just as I crested the rise, Grenville & Glen from earlier in the morning caught me again. Waiuta was also once a bustling, remote West Coast gold-mining town and it was tempting to spend hours looking around the remaining buildings and gold processing equipment. Alas, there was a remote backcountry trail to ride.
An old pack trail for reaching small mines in the remote forest, it now goes to the Big River Hut and is open to biking as well as walking. In dense forest on the wet West Coast, the trail was predictably damp but never that muddy (too much time riding real English mud). Still gradually climbing a further two-fifty metres, the trail twists and turns incessantly following the contour of hills. The beech forest was immense, with little light filtering through on to all the various shades green coating the trees, rocks and trail.
With plenty of rocks and roots, off-camber too, for one of the few times in the week my tyres made sense and I was so happy they did. While I passed Grenville & Greg very early on pushing around corners – I could and did ride large stretches of the trail, occasionally dabbing or dismounting to get around tight stream crossings or particularly tricky sections. After all, a bad fall here would be a long way/time from help.
As seeing new beautiful places of the country was one of the prime motivators for undertaking this event, I was having a grand time in such a remote little corner of NZ. Admittedly, it was slow going – the ten kilometres took almost two hours of solid riding, with only the occasional stop to snack, take a photo or admire the surrounds. But I loved it all and was thrilled to have such opportunities.
One of the many shafts to long-abandoned gold mines passed during the day.
Eventually the trail seemed to settle on & around its highest point – parts of it seemed to go straight down stream beds, with varying degrees of water in them. Coming out of the bush onto a swampy section the route had been boardwalked for a little before dropping down past the Big River Hut (a fair few of the breveters had stayed here over previous nights I think) and the site of the old Big River township. There are still plenty of ruins to poke around, but I carried on crossing the river and getting my feet wet – much to my dismay, but in the grand scheme of the eventual day that didn’t matter. The rain that the forest had kept out got a little heavier out in the open.
The 4WD trail started off with following and crossing Big River a few times before plunging a hundred and fifty metres on a track covered with big chunky rocks. Steep and fast, it was challenging and extremely fun before bottoming out to leave a good honest climb on a similar tricky surface recovering all those metres just lost passing many more disused mines. Then it was back to an even longer rollicking downhill on more of the same fun trail. I was lucky rounding one corner to not integrate myself into the front of a large Mitsubishi pick-up, but the three people inside were very chatty and interested why there were all these crazy people up there with heavily loaded bikes – so I obliged and talked for a few minutes.
Finally, five hours after leaving Ikamatua I was back in civilisation ecstatic about the riding I’d just experienced. What a great trail – easily the best part of the whole brevet course for me. I’m sure it would be much faster with a lighter and full-suspension bike, but I didn’t really miss one on my set-up and don’t think I could hope for more fun & enjoyment – it was sublime. But it was definitely time for lunch and catching up with a few faces I hadn’t seen for days. The other best pies of the week come from Nanna Nii’s Pies Pies Pies store – I recommend the Steak and Bacon & Egg. Leaving (Somerset) Oliver, who I hadn’t seen since early on Day Two, looking for a replacement phone charger, I headed out on the highway towards Springs Junction on a long gradual climb to Rahu Saddle following the Inangahua River.
Soon I’d caught up to Kirsty & Robyn and with Oliver catching up to us, a merry little group was formed as we soon caught John and Hamish. The weather didn’t particularly like us however, or maybe just one of us – I’m unsure who, as the heavens opened and a downpour ensued for the best part of an hour. I made the mistake of not putting my rain trousers on soon enough, but I’m not sure it made much difference as we were all soon soaked and with still twenty or thirty clicks to go before reaching the Junction. With little choice, the cranks kept turning and cresting the saddle it was fast, wet and damn cold down to Springs.
The dryness and warmth of the cafe at Springs Junction was welcome. As it was still utterly miserable, it was not long before the last rooms in the adjoining motel were snapped up as the certainty of a hot dinner and staying dry won out for a few of us – over continuing to Maruia where they weren’t serving food. But still, some hardy souls later rolled in and out again into the rain. Finishing riding for the day at half past five seemed a little ridiculous, but it had been eleven hours for me – so I was happy to have a warm shower, turn our motel room in to a laundry of drying cycling clothes and eat a lot in good company before hitting the hay.
What a fantastic day – even the torrential rain for nigh on an hour couldn’t dampen my spirits. Exploring remote backcountry trail with some sort of epic quality is just fantastic.