Tour Aotearoa – My Day Twelve – Murchison to Big River

Regular shift work and being a much more extreme adventurer than me, meant that a six o’clock start on a weekend after a full week of work was no problem for Adele. I faffed a bit when I realised that a gas station was open – always time for a meat pie for breakfast. We rode off south slowly gaining altitude up the Matakitaki valley. There are a fair few farms up here and I was glad to be riding this road early in the morning – last year coming down the gravel road, I had at least one rather close encounter with a milk tanker that was fair hustling.

The early morning ride was very nice and I was pleased with the company, despite the constant noise from Adele’s drivetrain – I’m a bit spoilt as far as maintenance- & noise-free drivetrains go. The mist around the surrounding bluffs slowly lifted and we crossed the river on a concrete bridge that looked about the same vintage and substance as the Bridge to Nowhere.

Shortly after crossing the river, we left it behind and started climbing out of the valley to Maruia Saddle. It’s a fairly gentle (around five percent gradient) climb and I found it much easier than from the other side; the beech forest was as sublime as I remembered and I thoroughly enjoyed the climb and sharing it with one of my most favourite people. Evan, an American-Kiwi from Wellington who also stayed at The Old Bank overnight, was at the top – so we hung around and chatted for a while, listening to the wasps before I said au revoir to Adele. The plan was for her to ride back to her car, while I carried on, and then meet me in Reefton for a late lunch.

We even got a picture together, not as frequent an occurrence as either of us would like.

I was pleased I put an extra layer on for the quick blast down through the trees to another highway. The Touring Gentleman caught me on the road; to no-one’s surprise, I couldn’t stay with their brisk pace – not that it mattered, we were all shortly at the cafe at Maruia for another big meal. It was great seeing the next twenty kilometres (off the highway, on the other side of the Maruia River) as I’d been through this native forest well before it daybreak last year.

Relieved to have no reason to stop in Springs Junction, I also knew I’d have a stiff climb up to Rahu Saddle. It was nowhere near as bad as coming down the road last year in the pelting rain – in fact, it turned out to be a quite reasonable climb to the top.

Looking back along another quiet West Coast highway.

Just a bike picture at the rather agreeable saddle.

I much preferred this direction of going over Rahu Saddle, the climb while steeper wasn’t too onerous and the downhill to Reefton was thirty-five kilometres gradually losing five hundred metres. Admittedly, while climbing that distance out of Reefton last year it did rain heavily – so my opinion may be very clouded by that.

I must have made good time, because Adele drove into Reefton at much the same time I rolled in. Over another big cafe meal, Evan joined us and plans were hatched. A few of us had thought that staying in Big River Hut the night would be a good distance for the day and a cool place to stay. Good news came through, Adele’s colleague once again generously offered to cover for her – so Adele could come to the hut too. I’d often said that the Big River-Waiuta part was the highlight of my Kiwi Brevet and strangely, I’d been to a great place in the South Island that Adele hadn’t. I was eager for her to see it before she moves further south again.

The plan was that I’d carry on on the course, obviously, and Adele would drive around to the ghost-town of Waiuta and then ride in to the hut; hopefully both of us getting there a) before dark and b) at about the same time. I knew I had over twenty kilometres to ride, mostly on rough four-wheel drive track and a big climb to gain over five hundred metres – I should make it in the four hours before dark; whereas Adele had a forty minute drive before even starting on the eleven kilometre walking track (not designed for bikes, frequently slippery and off-camber) that took me over two hours to ride the previous year. First a call to a store to stock up for the night was needed. I’d been inspired by Zach and managed to fit a large can of beer in my frame bag (as well as food) – with all water bottles filled (the water around the old gold mine processing area is not to be trusted), I’d added considerable mass to my bike.

Out of town, as we progressed up the gravel road the valley closed in and the four-wheel drive track took over when the road officially ended.

“Road Closed Use At Own Risk” – I think this road hasn’t been maintained for a very long time.

As it happened, the climb wasn’t nearly as rough and steep as I expected from traveling it in the opposite direction. I think this was because last year it was mostly downhill, but for a steep and rocky climb of 170 m which was how I assumed the rest of the track would be when going up. Thankfully it wasn’t and despite constant drizzle that had set in there was plenty of green forest to look at, as well as mine heads and one red Suzuki SJ413 wrecked down the side of a bank. With the cloud so low and dense it was very gloomy from the beginning of the evening and the metres ticked by with some effort. Eventually it plateaued at the summit before a little descent to where the Big River mining operations used to be.

Big River looking rather benign – this can rise very quickly and did a few days later. So much so, that the Big River-Waiuta part of the course became optional.

Old cyanide tanks for the leaching part of the operation.

Looking around for the hut, which I vaguely remembered passing last year, I was hopeful that this wasn’t it.

Perhaps one day I’ll return to have a proper look around the old mining equipment that is further off our route.

One only had to look up and see the hut prominent as the night drew in.

I’d got through the river crossings with dry feet, but that didn’t last traipsing through the grass up to the hut. Evan had worked a lot harder than I did and was there to greet me, trying to get the coal range going. But five or ten minutes after my arrival, Adele turned up having conquered the long, slow, slippery and gradual climb from Waiuta. It was almost dark while I was stashing my bike on the balcony and I looked down to see a lone cyclist down near the chemical tanks. Zach had put in a big effort to make the hut before dark and was very pleased to hear my excited shouts of greeting – he’d had a big detour, & had to retrace his path, after missing the turn off the highway after Maruia.

In the end there were seven of us in the hut, well satisfied with being there. It was a great hut and Evan did eventually get the coal range roaring – it was a rather warm night despite the weather outside. Even if I wasn’t too excited by riding places I’d been before, this was easily my favourite day of the South Island. The dinner of cold meats and bread and so on went down a treat and it was well worth dragging that almost-kilogram of beer (Sapporo cans are remarkably hefty and strong it turns out) up the hill. Maruia Saddle was just beautiful in the morning, I do like the area around Reefton and Big River is a special place, with a satisfying ride in to get there. What’s more, I was on one last hut-trip with Adele before her upcoming wedding.

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