Epic Cycle Trip
Last week my bicycle and I finally completed an approximate circumnavigating of Kahurangi National Park. Two years ago I set off to do the same thing, but accepted a ride after completing The Old Ghost Road. The hut on the Old Ghost Road that was within cycling distance of Murchison had been booked out, so I had to stay at a hut three hours further back. I had it in my head that the end of the track was just a skip and a jump from Murchison. It’s not. When I left the trail I didn’t have enough fuel in my tank to tackle a thirty km ride to Murchison in drizzle on a main road with failing light, and I accepted a ride. Fair enough, but then in the warmth of Beechwoods Café with a hot scone and a mug of hot chocolate I made a dumb choice. I accepted a ride all the way to Richmond. At the time I reasoned that I had done the hard stuff, and continuing on was just an ego thing.
The next day two days I felt very disappointed in myself. On those two days I should have been making my way home under my own steam, and to make matters worse, the weather was glorious. There was even a slight Southerly blowing. Those two days would have been heaven.
The full circuit is nine days worth of cycling. I’m sixty two now, so central to undertaking this epic was finding out if I still had the right stuff. I would know on the first day. The Takaka Hill was to be the litmus test. Two years ago I rode up that hill with one stop for lunch. If I could repeat this, that would give me confidence. I comfortably did so. But then I had to ride to Collingwood. Two years ago I arrived at Collingwood well past dark and very grumpy. This time I knew to stop at Takaka, have a burger and chips, and then continue on into the night.
When I got to Zantori Retreat (the old Collingwood nursing home), there seemed to be no-one home. I pounded on the door to no avail, and then thought to check if the door to the accommodation was locked. It wasn’t, so I made myself at home, had a great sleep, and met the proprietor in the morning.
He had gone to bed, assuming that I wasn’t going to turn up. Incidentally Zantori Retreat is great, particularly in the winter. The setting and facilities are hard to beat, particularly when you’re the only guest. There’s even a few dining options in Collingwood, not that that interested me. I was off by 8:30am into a headwind down the road to the Heaphy Track.
Langford’s Store at Bainham is much as it has been for the last ninety years. Sukhita Langford , (granddaughter of Lorna Langford, who ran the store for sixty one years), brought me a scone and hot chocolate to where I sat surrounded by memorabilia, including a shelf of second hand books.
Amongst the paperbacks there was a hard cover called ‘The New Propaganda’, published in 1937, and in mint condition. There was even a flyer tucked in it encouraging you to join ‘The Left Book Club’. I guessed this was a book pushing communism. I don’t know how long it sat on the shelf, but it was to remain no longer. It joined me on my cycle adventure.
The head wind must have really held me back, because two years ago I arrived at the first hut in good time. This time I was still on the trail after dark and drizzle closed in. I had to resort to my mind game for getting through tedious ordeals. That is counting in French. I find that sufficiently distracting to move my mind to another place.
Two years ago, on the Heaphy Track, I didn’t encounter a single solitary, or otherwise, tramper or cyclist until the very end. I was alone everywhere. This time I shared the hut with five others, four cyclists going the same way as me, and an Italian tramper.
Moments before a school party from Buller High arrived, the four cyclists and myself reached the final hut at the west coast end of the track. We bolted inside to claim our bunks.
The final stretch of the Heaphy Track is along the coast but includes a number of Bluffs. There was a big swell and froth up to half a meter deep had built up in indentations in the shore. When a big wave surged in, it looked exactly like cream being whipped.
I arrived at Karamea’s ‘The Last Resort’ in the early afternoon of day four. This gave me luxury time to service my bike and wash my clothes. I had the place pretty much to myself.
Rain was forecast for the afternoon of day five, so I hit the road an hour before sunrise, hoping to get where I was going before the weather packed up. The Karamea Bluffs stood between me and the start of the Old Ghost Road. This is a hill of significance. I remember it being a mental test two years ago. This time I cooked up a new mind technique to make the hill disappear. I imagined taking a different choice at an earlier stage in my life and then creating a life story from that point. It was fun and interesting, and that old hill simply melted away.
Not only was the Heaphy Track deserted two years ago, but also at that time I had had the first hut on the Old Ghost Road all to myself. This time it was packed. So packed that I sat out on veranda reading ‘The New Propaganda’. It wasn’t a book promoting communism, as I had thought, but a commentary on the psychology at play in Europe’s fascist countries. (Germany, Austria, Italy, Yugoslavia , Greece, Portugal). The word fascist was coined in Italy, and the fascist leaders seems to be perfectly conscious of how they were manipulating their populations. War was inevitable because in order to maintain control there needed to be an enemy, otherwise the people would lose interest in being a part of the rigours of living under fascism.
My next day, I was to encounter the Skyline Stairway. The Old Ghost Road is not the resurrection of a historical track, as many believe. Except for sections at both ends, the route was conceived only twelve years ago. A troubling problem during its construction, was a cliff bisecting the proposed route. Work parties were converging from both ends, with the day loaming ever closer when one group would stand at the edge of a cliff looking down sixty meters to the other party looking up at them. When a decision could be deferred no longer, it was concluded that the only financially, ecologically and technically feasible solution was a stairway. During two years since I last tackled these steps, they had been growing in my mind. Nobody I met could tell me how many steps there are and I didn’t care to count them, but I know that between rests I could do thirty to forty while carrying my bike and all my gear. I rested about eight times, so there must be about 300 steps. Because the task had grown so large in my mind, when it came to D Day, the challenge was, in fact, much less than I expected.
The five kilometres beyond them were, however, daunting. There was a sign apologizing for the state of the track. During the two years since I last tackled this section, some terrible storms and thousands of gung-ho mountain bikes, had taken their toll. I pushed my bike the whole way. How anyone could have stayed on their pedals is hard to imagine.
At 1200 meters, the Ghost Lake hut was my final waypoint. There, I was greeted by a family of keas. They loved having their photos taken, or perhaps they were just interested in having a chew on my leather camera case. One came so close that, had I clicked the shutter, all you would have seen would have been a close-up of feathers.
I also encountered a party of three spectacularly well kitted out doctors, all half my age. They were doing something similar to me, but at twice the speed. At least that was the plan. Their intension was to do a round trip starting and finishing in Murchison. I had taken two days to ride from Karamea. They were planning on reaching Karamea in one day. Likewise they were planning on nailing the Heaphy Track in one day, and so on up to the Cobb dam and across-country to Murchison. They seemed confident and competent, but if their result matches their plan, I will eat my woolly hat. I think that cycling over rugged tracks with a party of others bent on asserting their prowess is extremely dangerous. The only time I have ever crashed was when I was trying to keep up with someone else on a wet road. I was fifteen at the time, but I’ve not forgotten that lesson. When there’s a competitive element, caution can be side-lined. Plus, on boulder strewn paths, you need a clear view of what lies ahead. Chasing someone else is, in my view, a recipe for disaster.
So that the doctors could get away, I told them I would sweep out the hut. While getting in some firewood, a small helicopter arrived. It was loaded with gear for cyclists wanted to experience the trail unencumbered. The pilot and I exchanged a few words. The Helicopter was a French made Guimbal Cabri. Apparently there’s about twenty- five of them in the country. You too could have one for $800,000.
I then I was treated to one of the coolest sights ever. La petite hélicoptère lifted off, shimmied to one side and dropped down the steep hillside in front of me before sweeping across the valley. Being a helicopter pilot must beat the hell out of battling traffic to a job in town.
I’m not a real mountain biker, or at least I wasn’t before completing my final morning on The Old Ghost Road. This section is a historic cart track (the carts must have been very narrow). It’s a section where you can gain exhilarating speed. For an hour I taught myself how to get around corners at pace. It’s a long way and my fingers went numb. Within one kilometre of the finish, I had my closest near miss. I choose to go to the out-side edge of a bend rather than over a big rock. By the time I discovered there was very little beyond the rock it was too late to do anything about it. While I was still processing this information I safely passed to the other side. Whew! I slowed down a bit after that.
On the second to last night of my journey, I stayed in a cabin at the Riverside Motor Camp near Murchison. As expected, there was hardly anyone else there.
I was now hankering to get home, and even thought of pushing straight through to Richmond on the following day, but I had booked at the Hu Ha Farmstay near Glenhope, and to make it home in one leap I would need to ride on the highway. I decided to stick to the planned itinerary.
Good plan! I arrived at Hu Ha with plenty of time to get to know the owners, and hike up a hill to view their glorious valley. I then had a long evening in the old homestead, set up to accommodate a dozen, though I had it all to myself. There was a turn table, amp, huge speaker and a vast collection of vinyl. Bob Dylan was on the top of the stack, but alas the album had been mishandled so the needle skipped ahead, rendering it unlistenable. No matter. There was plenty of other artists to choose from.
The final day was the best of all. I took what people call ‘the dry weather road’ from Glenhope to the Tadmor Valley, and onto Tapawera, then I picked up the road to Dovedale, Pidgeon Valley, and Wakefield.
At bicycle speed there’s no end of creativity to behold in the Tadmor Valley. At the southern end there are homesteads built around caravans, solar panels, and diverse vegetable gardens, all evidence of free spirits at work. Further down the valley there is lots and lots of hops, and a few raspberry gardens, but what felt worth stopping for were the old churches and grave yards
Going home via Wakefield rather than Lower Moutere obliged me to summit the Dovedale Hill. That malevolent bump is not my friend. It’s steep, but I don’t mind that. What made it obnoxious was that the going-up side had just been graded and it was all loose gravel/dirt. Thankfully the downhill side was hard packed.
At Wakefield I picked up the cycle trail and once I’d crossed over the Waimea River it was a perfectly straight run across the Waimea Planes all the way to Eyebright. I arrived just as the sun was setting.
Did I love the trip?
It’s the things before and after the trip that I love. I loved the feeling of excitement mixed with dread leading up to it. I loved having to be my best, physically and managerially. I love reflecting on the people I met, and the things I saw. And I love articulating these things, as best I can, in writing.
So thanks for reading about my holiday.