Oh that West Coast Wilderness Trail

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Day 1

After riding the Heaphy, but before going to Christchurch to do some work and watch some roller derby, I thought it would be nice to ride this thing called The West Coast Wilderness Trail. So I hitched a ride with Coo, Sugar and Crunch, down the West Coast to Ross, and stayed the night at the quietly awesome Empire Hotel. In the morning, my plan was to find the the cafe described to me by the proprietor of the pub as “just next door”, have a pleasant breakfast and then get going. But I couldn’t find it, so I went to the dairy instead. I bought a a cup of tea and a prepackaged fridge-muffin, neither of which was very nice. As I sat outside consuming them and talking to a local person, I saw a couple on bikes emerge from a side street and go into what I now realised was The Cafe (two doors up from the dairy). Appalled at my navigational incompetence and with my sad breakfast concluded, I rode off in the direction of the sea.

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The first section of the trail was an old railway line heading down the coast for a few kilometres. It was flat & pleasant but not overly interesting. Then there was a brief bit of highway riding then down a side road for some more ks before being pointed toward an old tramway that led through some bush. And this was where the trail started to get good. The track was firm, the bush was lovely, and the historical information panels were bit interesting. There were some people coming the other way on bikes – it was all on. One group was a parent with several happy looking children, the other was a middle aged couple on touring bikes with the full complement of Ortlieb panniers.

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The next section of trail was out on the coast, over some bridges to Hokitika – home of ’Sock World’. I stopped at a cafe there for a cup of tea, but they were playing the particular kind of jazz that I hate, so I went somewhere else. I also had a chat to the very helpful women at the I-Site. I was looking for a place to camp about halfway along the trail. But the options were pretty limited – there was a DOC campsite at Lake Kaniere which looked nice but was only 50km along and was just before the only climb on the trail. The weather forecast was predicting rain starting in the evening and becoming heavy the following day. So that would mean packing up a wet tent and then riding over a hill in the pouring rain. Which didn’t sound ideal. According to the map, there was a campsite on the other side of the hill at about 80km, and then just a little further on was a toilet/shelter where they told me it would be fine to camp. So I cycled off from Hokitika, not sure where I was going to spend the night.

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The trail from town spent some time running next to the river before moving on to some quiet local roads and going uphill a bit. Then it was off on to a gravel road next to a canal and some nice single-track through the bush. It was lovely and empty. I saw 2 other cyclists, one guy going the other way on a mountain bike and I was passed by a woman on a cyclocross bike.

The track to Lake Kanniere was next to a kind of canal too – I’m wondering if it was all built to supply water from the lake to Hokitika. I stopped for lunch at the lake and decided to keep riding. It rained a bit while I was on the quiet gravel roads of the lovely Arahura Valley. I didn’t see any people but the horses were very friendly. There was a bit of a climb and a downed tree blocking the track going up to Cowboy Paradise. Which is a weird place. You emerge from the bush in to a clearing and it’s just there. A few half built buildings, a couple of cars and a big generator.

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I leaned my bike against a hitching post outside the building that seemed the most finished and opened the front door. Inside were some restaurant style tables, a couple of very friendly staff, and a man with a 3 or 4 year old child watching Frozen on an enormous television. I ordered a cheese toasted sandwich and a cup of tea, and chatted to the man. He and his son had stopped for the night on their way along the trail. I told him I was intending to camp somewhere up ahead and he confirmed that there was “a guy with a truck in a field” on the other side of the pass (which didn’t sound promising).

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So with “Let it go, let it go!” stuck in my head, I climbed back on my bike & rode out of town and over the pass. Which sounds like how you should leave a place called “Cowboy Paradise”. It wasn’t very steep & I was soon enjoying a pleasant downhill run on a lovely quiet track through some bush in the rain. I found the first potential campsite – it was indeed an old house truck in a clearing, alongside a stack of firewood covered with a tarpaulin. It looked a bit creepy so I kept riding. Not long after, there was another clearing with a plywood shelter & a toilet next to a canal. The rain was still falling and I did stop for a few minutes to think about whether this would be a good place to camp. But there was a guy walking up & down the canal waving a fishing rod around. I mean he seemed ok but it wasn’t raining much and it wasn’t a great spot to stop, and it was only another 20ks to Kumara so I just kept going.

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The trail led me next to a canal again which after a while fed in to a lake. A lake surrounded by by bush with what looked like a drowned forest on one side, with severed trunks & branches reaching up through the silvery surface of the still water in to the misty twilight. It was beautiful and quiet and a little unsettling. Until I came across a cartoon style sign informing me that “Only animals pee and poo in the bush – not you!” and that if I needed to there was a public toilet block behind me. And sure enough, when I turned around, there was. An apparently virtually new toilet block squatting unsympathetically by the the lake.

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With the light fading I started down the trail, checked my dynamo lights were working (they weren’t), fiddled with the wiring until they did, and then rode down to the collection of houses known as Kumara. I had a quick ride around, before inquiring at the very flash looking Theatre Royale. They had cheap ($50) rooms across the road, and food & drink available. So that’s where I stayed the night. I spent the evening in the bar eating a pizza and listening to a fat American man sniff every 30 seconds while he ate a pizza and a pie & chips and drank beer, while he watched a baseball match on his tablet. The other patrons were a very drunk, very loud Australian woman who was talking to a much older man, who kept telling her to calm down.

Day 2

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I awoke to the sound of rain on the roof and the smell of bacon frying. When I got up and went to the kitchen, my fellow guests were up. I’m guessing they were a mother & her 20 something son. I had seen her the previous night, standing on the pavement outside the Theatre Royal holding her laptop, I assumed she was scrounging their wifi. She had also cunningly set a trap for me with the same laptop in the kitchen. Stringing its cables between the counter and the table, nearly tripping me up in the middle of the night. This morning her son was eating a bacon & egg sandwich so thick, he could barely get his mouth around it. They seemed nice enough.

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I packed my bike, expecting an easy 28km ride to Greymouth. And while it wasn’t far, with rain coming & going, and quite a strong headwind coming down the coast for the last stretch, it felt like hard work. The trail was pleasant though, first there was some bush, followed by farmland and then running along next to the highway, the airport and the Greymouth harbour.

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I arrived in Greymouth & found a friendly but slightly weird backpackers featuring an zoo theme. Each room was dedicated to a different animal. They gave me the ‘pig’ room. Hand painted pig mural on the wall, pig soft toy on the bed etc. It was ghastly. The next day I caught the Trans Alpine train to Christchurch.

More pictures here.

Riding The Heaphy

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Day 1

We met Machete & Bec at The Quiet Revolution in Takaka, where Coo, Sugar and Jason were picking up their rental bikes. Paul, the very helpful proprietor, told us that he wouldn’t be renting bikes out for much longer. He’d recently had a guy hire one to do The Heaphy, and then call a few days later from Karamea complaining that the bike had broken, so he’d left it on the trail, walked out and his holiday was ruined. It later transpired that the guy had in fact smacked the bike in to a tree & broken the frame in half. Retrieving the remains of the bike was very expensive and had put Paul off the whole rental thing.

While the others were all riding fully suspensioned mountain bikes, with their baggage strapped to their bikes or themselves, I was riding my fully not suspensioned Breezer Radar. With panniers. And a randonneur-style front bag. Was this going to be a huge mistake? Should I have rented a mountain bike too, I wondered?

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We rode to the airfield after (a nice but disorganised) breakfast at The Wholemeal, where a strange woman politely jumped the queue because she was “just buying some coffee”. On the way, there was a big red button by the side of the road, next to a sign that read “Cyclists Please Press”. So I pressed it. When we talked to a local later, he told us that the button hadn’t been connected to anything for about 3 years.

I’m not sure if I find the casual way that people treat flying in small planes, scary or reassuring. When Mit (our pilot) pushed the plane out of it’s hangar (or garage) and folded down the wing-mounted bike racks he had made himself, he certainly gave the impression that we were about to do something that he did every day and would almost certainly not lead to us crashing and being engulfed in a horrific fireball. But as we would soon discover, an even more terrible fate awaited us, one that would make a plane crash seem fun. Yes, just after arriving at the airfield, Jason put on his bib shorts.

In the early afternoon, on a clear day, the flight was kind of almost fun. After landing in a field at the other end, we rode up a short section of gravel road to the start of the track, took a photo, got savaged by sandflies and then we were off. The track itself consisted of stones & gravel, and led us fairly consistently upwards. It was never particularly steep, but it was pretty relentless.

Our group, now generally know as “The Baker Party” was of mixed experience and fitness. So there was some getting used to this whole mountain biking thing to be done. People acclimatised by falling off in a variety of ways. Some stalled while gently cursing as their legs were gauged by the pedals. Others worked out a sideways fall, while at least one person claimed to be able to dive in one direction and simultaneously push the bike in the opposite. There was also some periodic snacking, regrouping and a puncture was fixed. We eventually all arrived at the first hut as darkness was falling.

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The hut was fairly new, fairly crowded, and very warm. Most of the guests were in bed by 9pm. We stayed up long enough to eat & play a reluctant game of Bananagrams before hitting our sleeping bags. On the way to hers, Coo woke up half the hut by dropping her hip flask. And then woke up the other half by dropping her metal water bottle as she bent down to pick up her hip flask.

Day 2

I woke up early, soon after Coo, and we sat at the corner table while the sun wafted through clouds that surrounded us. By the time we had eaten our breakfasts, packed our bikes, gotten our shit together, and taken a group photo, the weather hadn’t really changed much at all.

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The track was different today though, instead of relentless uphill, it was relentless downhill. Those who had not enjoyed day one very much and were quite honestly thinking that this whole thing was a huge mistake and why weren’t we walking instead, totally cheered up. For those of us who had chosen to ride fully rigid bikes, it wasn’t such a revelation. Still, the scenery was nice, particularly The Valley of the Boardwalks where a couple of us came close to falling off in to a swamp.

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Because it was the school holidays, we came across more children than we normally see on Great Walks. None of them appeared to be enjoying themselves. I’m not sure their parents were either. I suspect it was ‘character building’ for everyone. I did see a couple of kids who, while not actually happy, were at least not complaining as they sat in the Gauld’s Shelter talking about sweets. “Have you got any Bumper Bars? They’re my favourite.” etc.

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At every shelter and every hut, was at least one weka, and they were all named ‘Shirley’. There were signs everywhere telling us not to feed the keas, but there were no signs telling us not to feed the wekas. There was however a sign that could help you tell the difference between a weka and a kiwi. Apparently some mistakes are being made.

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We stopped for lunch at the James McKay Hut, by which time the sun had come out. The ride from there down to the Heaphy Hut was very nice – almost completely downhill and through some beautiful bush. It seemed to go on for hours, but eventually we arrived at the sandfly-infested and weka-guarded Lewis Hut. From there we rode along a gorgeous flat track through a nikau grove, to the Heaphy Hut.

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There was a little hiccough on the way, when we came to a river with only a super narrow swing bridge over it. Bec went over first, balancing her bike on its rear wheel. But she had such a horrible time that Jason decided to carry his bike over the river and through the bush. That also went very badly with him being nearly strangled by supplejacks. By this time, the rest of us had discovered a fairly easy way to carry our bikes across the river and then up the bank.

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The hut was getting full by the time we got there, with the same bikers from last night, but different walkers. It was an amazing spot, sitting next to an estuary, with big waves rolling in to a huge beach, depositing masses of driftwood and rolling up the river.
For dinner, Coo and I ate more of her Dad’s Italian organic, artisanal, vegan camping food (whose instructions include a suggested wine match). Which was nice, but we were still hungry. So we also cooked an instant pasta & sauce which was significantly enhanced by some of Jason’s butter. I had initially thought that butter was an excessive thing to bring, but I have definitely come around. And it almost makes up for his bib-shorts.
There was another kind of butter that was popular on the ride – Butt Butter. I took a jar with me, and everyone one had a scoop in the morning before we started riding. One rule – no double-dipping.
Then Machette cooked some kind of camping chocolate pudding, and more Bananagrams were played. In one round, Coo played the word “icy”, which Bec pointed out should be spelt “icey”. I disagreed, but there was no Internet available to settle the argument. So other hut residents were consulted. One guy just agreed with whichever spelling was suggested to him & the other was on my side. The sum of $1 was wagered and we resolved to consult Uncle Google when it became available. The Baker Party were the last to bed again.

Day 3

Our final day on the track started pretty early again for Coo and I. The only other people up with us were two members of a family group walking the track – a boy of about nine and a woman in her sixties maybe. We assumed she was his grandmother, and they seemed to have a really nice relationship – they looked out for each other. Fuck knows what nationality she was though. Coo thought she was Scottish, Sugar reckoned Irish, and I was pretty sure she was German.

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We weren’t in a huge hurry to get going, because we had been told before we started that we would need to get up at 5am so we could make it to a section of the track that was only passable around low tide. But when Coo checked, they had the time wrong. Then Bec talked to other people cycling, and they didn’t know anything about a tide/time issue. So Coo & I went for a lovely walk on the beach.

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We picked our way through the driftwood and tried to decipher the animal prints in the sand. There were various bird feet and some deep beak holes – kiwis perhaps? There were some mysterious paw prints – possum? Mustelid? Rangerdog?
Then I got carried away filming waves and one washed up nearly to my waist. Coo only laughed at me briefly and then we wandered back to the hut.

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The track that day was amazing – smoothish and following the coastline, it wound through tropical-feeling nikau groves and beautiful deserted beaches. Quite nice really. By now The Baker Party had settled in to a bicycle train, with Bec, Machette & Jason in the front carriage, me in the middle carriage, and Coo & Sugar in the caboose.

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Just before we left, we were packing our bikes and the local Shirley Weka snatched Machette’s lunch and absconded with it. Coo immediately gave chase, diving heroically in to the bush and flushing Ms Weka out. Bec & Machette pursued her down the path while the rest of us stood around assessing their chances of success. I was pessimistic given that this was Shirley’s home turf, but I was proved wrong when they returned 5 minutes later, triumphantly holding a sandwich bag with it’s contents intact (apart from a large beak-mark through the middle of one).

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We stopped for lunch at Scott’s Beach, anticipating one more climb before the end of the track at Kohaihai. This turned out to be little more than a bump in the road, and nothing at all to worry about.
We took a group photo at the Heaphy finish line, and then got back on our bikes to ride 16km in to a headwind, to get to The Last Resort in Karamea, the actual end of our ride.

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I’m voting Weka for Bird of the Trip, and Bird of the Year. As well as The Sandwich Thief, there was one that popped out of some shrubbery and tried to eat me while I shot some video just before Scott’s Beach. Best comment of the trip was from Sugar, who, at the end of the ride was told that The Heaphy is rated as Grade 4. “So we’re grade 4 mountain bicyclists now, right?”. I reckon we are.

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And what of my bike choice – was I vindicated or proved wrong? A bit of both really. You can definitely do The Heaphy on a rigid, fat-tyred drop-bar bike with panniers. And for most of it, you’ll be perfectly fine. In some parts you be faster than the ‘real’ MTB crowd, in other parts you’ll be working harder and getting your ass a little kicked

More pictures here.

Around the Mountains (Day 3)

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I have never visited the town of Kingston that resides in Jamaica, but I’m pretty sure it’s nothing like the (Southland) Kingston that I woke up in. This one was cold and misty and pleasantly quiet. And all I had to do for the day was ride 40km to Queenstown.

If day 1 was the beautiful scenery day, and day 2 was the long rainy day, then I was expecting today to be the scary highway day. All the guides I’d read, said that the highway between Kingston and Queenstown was best avoided. Don’t ride it they said, take a shuttle they said. So I tried to book a shuttle, but the company I emailed didn’t seem very keen. They wouldn’t come at the time I wanted, and were going to charge $90. Meanwhile the news was full of reports of foreigners driving on the wrong side of the roads all over the South Island. So I had a look on Strava, and it seemed that some roadies were managing to cycling along there quite frequently. At least one person was using the highway to commute to work! Well, it can’t be that hard then, I thought, despite part of the road being called The Devil’s Staircase(!). My strategy consisted of getting up not too early, having breakfast in the Kingston Cafe while the morning tour busses blundered past on their way to Milford Sound, and then quickly riding to Queenstown before the buses came back in the afternoon.

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So I had a shower (the luxury!) packed up my wet stuff and rode up to the Kingston Cafe for some breakfast. Much like the 5 Rivers Cafe the previous day, this place was full of middle-aged men on motorcycle tours of the South Island. They were having a loud conversation about how cold and wet the weather was, and making motorbike jokes that I didn’t understand. It was one of the most boring conversations I have ever overheard. At about 10am I decided the road was about as safe as it was going to get, and I set off.

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Either my strategy worked perfectly or I had been worrying too much, because it was actually quite a nice ride. The views were spectacular, the drivers were mostly quite considerate, and there was no sign of The Devil. In fact I think that section of the road should be renamed something much less daunting – Satan’s Wheelchair Ramp perhaps?

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I arrived unmolested in Queenstown after midday and rolled triumphantly (and anonymously) along a trail next to the lake. I found my way to a cheap but shabby campground where I spent the afternoon drying my stuff on the grass in the sun. In the evening I met up with Machete, and when I told her about being savaged by the Mavora Lakes Sandflies, she informed me that the SAS keep them away with Avon Skin-so-Soft, so that’s what I’ll be taking with me next time.

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Route here.

Around the Mountains (Day 2)

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I woke up to grey blue light filtering through my grey & blue tent and ate some flapjack. By the time I was halfway through packing up my stuff, the Mavora Lakes sandflies had formed a cloud around me and were taking turns to attack me in squadrons (at one point I ran actually ran up to the road to get away from them). But soon I was on my (itchy) way, looking forward to a long day in the (literal) saddle.PB230030.jpgThe rain began falling just after I turned south on the Mavora Lakes Road, but despite the weather I was enjoying myself – the gravel road was flat and deserted, there were fields and animals and shelter belts. There were probably mountains, but I couldn’t see them. Other than me, there were hardly people around.
PB230033.jpgI was expecting to to have to spend some time on the Te Anau – Mossburn Highway, but just before arriving at that intersection, I saw out of the corner of my eye, a little bridge. When I rode over to it I found that it led to a cycle trail that took me all the way to Mossburn. Hooray for being able to stay off the highway. Now, let me tell you about one of the serious dangers of cycling long distances – getting a catchy song you hate stuck in your head. My personal nemesis is the Manhattan Transfer’s We Built This City on Rock and Rock and Roll. I can’t tell you how much I loathe that song, but once it’s in my brain it won’t shift.
PB230036.jpgTo pre-empt such a dire event and to keep myself amused, I sang other songs on my way to Mossburn, starting with The The’s This is the Day;

Well you didn’t wake up this morning
Cause you didn’t go to bed
You were watching the whites of your eyes turn red

Followed by Billy Bragg’s A New England

I saw two shooting stars last night
I wished on them but they were only satellites
It’s wrong to wish on space hardware
I wish I wish I wish you’d care

I don’t usually get bored on long bicycle rides, I’m happy with my own (frequently repetitive and inane) thoughts. My father used to say to me that “a civilised man can spend 3 hours at a railway station and not be bored.” (I don’t know if he thought civilised women had such capabilities, he didn’t mention them). He was certainly a good exponent of this. He always seemed only lightly tethered to the real world, ready to drift off and find amusement in his own thoughts at any time. A pause in conversation, or a red traffic light and he would be gone. Only dragged back when it was necessary for him to answer a question or resume driving. These days his connection to the physical world has (thanks to dementia) come adrift in time too. He’s happiest in the firm ground of the past, while the present is shifting sand that holds him only briefly before he slips away.
PB230041.jpgI stopped at the first place I came to in Mossburn that sold food. It was not a sophisticated establishment, but the guy working there was nice. I ate fish & chips surrounded by tacky souvenirs, watching tourists in buses coming in to buy cups of coffee. The rain was still falling and I was as wet as an otter. I left Mossburn and followed the highway to Five Rivers. The official Around the Mountains route involves going to Lumsden but I couldn’t be arsed with that this time. There’s a good sized cafe in Five Rivers so I stopped to have a look. It was fairly full, mostly, it seemed with groups of men on motorcycling holidays. They were swishing in and out, dressed in soggy protective clothing, ordering large meals and complaining about the weather. It felt too crowded so I squelched out, got back on my bike and found the next section of the cycle trail. The rain continued and and I was getting tired. Seeing some alpacas cheered me up though. They reminded me of a roller derby player whose derby name was Alpaca Punch.
PB230044.jpgI started to see signs warning me that I was entering a working farm and that there were hazards everywhere. Then I saw an actual farmer – I waved, he opened a gate for me, I thanked him, it seemed like a friendly interaction. But the next farm along wasn’t so cordial. They had in fact put a padlock on and locked the gate across the cycle trail. Which meant that I had to remove my front panniers and then grunt & curse while lifting my bike over the gate. I put the panniers back on and continued riding while wondering what the hell that was all about. Then the same thing happened at the next gate, and the next and… Five. Five bloody gates in a row were padlocked. I don’t know why.
PB230048.jpgAt some point in the afternoon I arrived in Athol, and dripped in to The Brown Trout Cafe. The woman who took my request for soup and toast was very nice. We talked about sandflies and she told me that her boyfriend had a serious allergy to them and has some super strong special repellant. She tried using it once on her hands and her nail polish melted. A somewhat melancholy poodle came to see me while I waited for my food. I patted her and she stayed a few minutes before wandering off to sit by the door and stare out at the rain. According to my notes, the soup was fine and it was accompanied by “the best buttered toast I’ve ever eaten”.
PB230051.jpgSlightly revived by food, warmth and company, I embarked on the last stretch of my ride to Kingston. The track was as deserted as ever (I didn’t see a single other cyclist all day) and the rain was still falling and I was still tired. The flat terrain was punctuated with bridges now and then and I was starting to think about what I would do when I arrived in Kingston. How will I reward myself for all this effort? A lie down? A shower? A cup of tea? All of these things at the same time? Having spent the whole day wet, I decided not to camp for the night, but to treat myself to a room or cabin of some kind. Somewhere dry.
PB230055.jpgOn the last 10k’s or so to Kingston, there are markers every kilometre, counting down the distance (or counting out the distance if you’re going the other way I suppose). These were perfect for feeding my fantasies about what I would do when I arrived – 5km to a warm shower. 4km to lie on a dry bed! Ah the luxury I was anticipating. It was enormously disappointing therefore, to find that they had no, I repeat no, rooms left. Not even a barn. Even Jesus had better facilities. They did kindly let me put my tent up in the barbecue area (in the pouring rain) though. So I did that, and then spent the evening drying my clothes in front of a tiny heater in the dining room that was on a timer and had to be switched back on every 20min. I fell asleep to the sound of rain on polyester, and the humming of wind in the guy lines.

Route here.

Around the Mountains (Day 1)

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I have conflicting feeling about starting tours. I’m excited to get going, I’m worried that I’ve forgotten something vital and I’m sad to be leaving Coo behind. On this occasion I was also stressed because the scrambled eggs wouldn’t cook and I had a ferry to catch. You see…

We were staying with Machete & Bec in Queenstown. The four of us, plus four more of The Pirate City Rollers finest roller derby players had just completed the Routeburn Track the day before. And now I was setting off by myself, to ride Around the Mountains. I was catching The Earnslaw across Lake Wakatipu so I abandoned the eggs to Coo and scampered out the door. Bec told me it was best to ride in to town on the trails rather than the road. So I did, until I lost them around the airport and rode the rest of the way on the proper road. I had a couple of things to do in town – first, I bought some food. And second, pick up my camera (that I had somehow left behind) from the post office. I didn’t have much time before the ferry left, so I was anxiously waiting in the queue when an older couple came in. They had the air of people who were unfamiliar with the place and they sounded European, so I tried to stay in front of them, assuming they might be awkward customers. I succeeded, and as I scampered out, tearing the bubble-wrap off my camera, I could hear a man yelling in what might have been a Belgian accent “IS THIS BONK?”. I got to the ferry just in time to line up behind a million tourists waiting to board.

I made it safely on, stowed my bike and fought my way to the refreshments bar to buy a cup of tea and a muffin. The ferry was crammed with people and the only seat I could find was downstairs on a pleasantly warm bench, facing the water. I was just finishing my tea when I was forced to accept that the the formerly pleasant bench was now in fact burning my arse (damn steam-powered vessels) and I spent the rest of the journey standing upstairs leaning against a banister

I got off the ferry Walter Peak, left the tourists in the gift shop, said hello to a couple of sheep out the back, and got on the road. The scenery was beautiful, the sky was bluer than the National Party logo, and the mountains were more spectacular than Mike Hosking’s ego. My plan was to ride 60km to the Mavora Lakes, camp for the night, ride 120km the next day to Kingston and camp again, then ride the 40km back to Queenstown the following day. Where I would stay in relative luxury (something with a roof and walls perhaps?) before flying back to Auckland.PB220009.jpgI was trying not to make the same mistake I made last time I visited this part of NZ, which was to have an overly ambitious but inflexible plan. But it was starting to look like I might have done exactly the same thing this time. The first day should be fine, but tomorrow looked hard. And riding along (up?) the ominously named ‘Devils Staircase’ amongst tour buses and tourists sounded scary.PB220010.jpgIt was a great start to the ride though – I had the road almost to myself, as it led me down the side of Lake Wakatipu. There was quite a headwind which slowed me down, but I was in no big hurry. According to the Kennetts, there was only one significant hill I needed to get over, but it wasn’t until the road turned away from the lake. I saw a few other cyclists going in the opposite direction but they didn’t appear to be traveling far.PB220014.jpgAfter a while the road indeed turned left and started to climb and I wondered if that was the ‘significant hill’. It wasn’t too steep, although I did have to slow down when I was surrounded by hundreds of sheep who were all on their way somewhere. I didn’t see any people (or dogs) around so I didn’t know what prompted this expedition. One of them was limping a bit so I tried avoid her. But sheep have a way of always going where you want to go, and you would rather they didn’t go.PB220019.jpgOver the hill and past the sheep I rode through a beautiful valley. There was a river on my right and cows on my left. The wind had gone to bother some other cyclists or ruffle a cat’s fur, or maybe give a hawk that extra bit of lift it’s looking for, so I made better progress. Then the road started to go up quite steeply and I eventually realised that this was the ‘significant climb’. I knew it was a ‘significant climb’ when I had to stop for a little rest. At the crest of the hill I could see the road stretching for miles in to the distance between mountain ranges. It looked amazing and the wind had finished it’s business elsewhere and returned, this time to give me a push and I flew down the road.PB220026.jpgIt was brilliant riding all the way to the Mavora Lakes turnoff where I was suddenly cycling through a forest next to a lake.PB230029.jpgAs I put up my tent, it became apparent that this area’s reputation for being popular with sandflies is well deserved. So I hid in my tent and ate noodles. Pretty soon I was lying down. Not long after that I was reading, and drifting off to sleep.

Route here.

More pictures here.

The Worst Shortcut

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Generally speaking, I like a shortcut. I enjoy the little surge of smug pleasure I get when riding along a little path between two city streets that people driving cars can’t use. Or riding down a backstreet that means I can avoid a nasty intersection or a steep hill. Like using Sarawia Street in Parnell to avoid cycling down Broadway, or that path between Sylvan Avenue East and Sylvan Avenue West in Eden Terrace. But some shortcuts turn out to be slippery slopes that begin with overconfident foolishness and end in misery. Let me tell you about one of those.
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Back in November of last year, I thought it would be interesting to see if I could find a better route through the Hunuas. I had tried Hunua Rd (ok but a bit busy) and the Tour Aotearoa Route (scenic but hilly) but recently I had been in the area and made a typical navigational error, which took me some way up Ponga Rd. Which was both scenic and quiet. When I looked at a map later, it turned out that Ponga Rd joined Hunua Rd further up and looked worth exploring. So on a drizzly Saturday morning I trundled my newly resurrected old Bridgestone MB4 off the train in Papakura and set off South West. Ponga Rd was indeed a nice way to go and I was nearly at the top when I got a phone call from Guy, saying he was keen to come for a ride and would meet me at the Upper Mangatawhiri Dam. So I kept riding while he drove down with his bike in the back of his car. We duly met up and pedaled to the top of the dam and then up Lilburn Road.
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It was a nice gravel road that led up a hill along the side of the reservoir. When we got to Piggots Hut, there were some trampers having lunch. We wandered around a bit and looked inside the hut. There were a couple of bunks, a tiny christmas tree and bugger all else. The ultimate destination I had in mind when I set off in the morning was the far end of Mine Road. I had been part way down there before (walking) but I wanted to go all the way to where I hoped the ‘mine’ would be. But to get there, we would have to ride all the way back down to the dam, and then up the northern side of the reservoir. I had a look at the map painted on a sign outside the hut, and it showed a track that would take us from where we were, to Mine Rd. Aha! A shortcut! So I walked over and had a look at the entrance to the track. Unfortunately it was just a walking track and not suitable for cycling. So that was disappointing. But Guy had the same idea and he was not daunted by what was clearly just a walking track.

“Lets give it a try.” he said.
“Umm…” I replied.
“There might be a bit of pushing.” he suggested.
“Uh… Okay.” I mumbled tentatively.
“So this is a joint decision?” said Guy.
“Sure.” I replied, thinking that we might be making a huge mistake and I was just accepting half the responsibility.

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And that was it, we were off down the track and had to get off immediately and carry our bikes up some steps. At the top of the steps we could ride briefly before getting off to push for a bit. We passed the first hour or so that way – cheerfully pushing our bikes, riding occasionally and carrying them up various steps.
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Then we came upon a seat in a small clearing at the top of a hill. It had a nice view across the reservoir so we stopped to drink some water and consult my topo map. Which gave me a somewhat different perspective to the map on the sign outside Piggots Hut. That map, it seemed, was more symbolic than accurate. My map was also (as the name would suggest) more topographic, and showed several hills on our route. I started to feel the first twinges of concern, but Guy and I said things to each other like “Well we’ve come this far” and “It’s probably not much further” and then kept going. And the path deteriorated and we were doing more carrying and less pushing and no riding. We passed some more trampers going in the opposite direction who were (understandably) surprised to see bicycles. By this time I was no longer enjoying myself and was treating this as a part of the journey that I would just have to put up with to get where we wanted to go. Then it go a lot worse. The track had pretty much disappeared and now there was just bush with triangles on trees every now & then and the hills got really steep. So steep that just walking would have been hard work, but dragging bikes along was just awful.
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It’s something that I hadn’t really appreciated before, how your friendly and docile bicycle, your useful assistant in daily travel, changes when the terrain no longer suits it. Your bike becomes an awkward, pointy, scratchy, worse-than-deadweight that seems to be actively trying to hurt you. All the time. The pedals are constantly scraping your legs, the handlebars keep swinging around to poke you in the chest or crush your fingers. Getting a rabid cat in to a bath would be more fun. The hills were so steep going down that at times I could just lay my bike (that I now kind of hated) on it’s side and let it slide down through the dirt and leaves until it would get caught on a tree root or something, and then I’d slither down after it and try and untangle it. At one point, Guy said to me from up ahead “I think I’m getting the rhythm of this” and immediately fell over. I was too tired to laugh so I just thought sarcastic things like “Oh, and falling down is part of the rhythm?”. And so it went on for actual hours, hills, valleys, falling over, bikes scratching and biting us. It was truly horrible.
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Eventually I started to worry that we would have to spend the night in the bush, or abandon our bikes. We had started ‘The Shortcut of Horror’ (as I now thought of it) at about 1pm and six hours later we were still in the bush. After a a particularly steep climb, where I had to carry my the MB4 on my shoulder & stop every few meters to rest, Guy (who was coping better than me) said he’d go on ahead and see if we were near the road. I reluctantly agreed, worrying about being left alone in the bush. He came back within 20min or so with the glorious news that it wasn’t much further ahead. With Guy carrying some of my stuff, I struggled along the last bit of “track” and emerged thankfully on to Mine Road.
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By this time it was dusk. The ‘shortcut’ had taken us seven and a half hours to traverse (I checked later and the distance we had covered in that time was about 7km). We still had 10km left to ride, to get back to where Guy’s car was parked and I expected this to be really hard after our ordeal in the bush. But the gravel roads transformed our bikes back in to efficient vehicles, carrying us quickly and pleasantly along through the gathering dark. We had such a great ride that it almost overtook the certainty that this had been The Worst Ride Ever.
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Ride here.

Bike Camping in Miranda

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Some time ago, I started a bicycle club. It was an offshoot from Tumeke Cycle Space, an opportunity I thought, for us volunteers to get together and go for some rides. Either around Auckland or further afield. So far the club has no rules, no official positions, no logo and no regular meetings. What generally happens is that someone has an idea for a ride, they talk to some others via a Loomio group or in person. And then those who want to go, go. It was Alex R’s idea to go for a camping overnight in August. I suggested taking the train to Papakura and then cycling down to Miranda, staying at the campground and riding back the next day. Others said they were keen. Then an astute member pointed out that they were no trains going to Papakura that weekend. Let’s ride all the way(!) I suggested. Thinking quietly to myself that 100km each way might be quite hard. Alex R and Josca both expressed their enthusiasm and we met in Onehunga on Saturday morning, ready to go.
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I didn’t know what would be the best route to the Hunuas, so I copied the one taken by riders in the Tour Aotearoa. This passes through Onehunga, past the airport, down Puhunui Rd, up a hill in Pakuranga and through Totara Park. I wasn’t familiar with Totara park at all, but actually, it’s pretty nice. We did have a little incident when we came upon a dog running about, barking at some some cows. So I leaned over the fence and yelled really loudly and angrily at it to “GETOUTATTHERE”. And the dog ran away.
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Soon after that we started to leave suburbia behind and roll in to ‘The Country’. This part of ‘The Country’ has quite a lot of traffic in it though, and it wasn’t until we turned off the Papakura-Clevedon Road and on to Ardmore Quarry Rd that things quietened down. There were no cars, lovely scenery, creepy abandoned houses in the bush – now this was more like it. There were also some steep hills and a bit of getting lost, before arriving in Hunua, where Josca purchased a cup of coffee.
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From there we rode down the Paparimu Valley and out to the coast, pausing fairly briefly to fix a puncture on Josca’s rear tyre while Alex disappeared off in to the distance. Alex was in more of a hurry to get to our destination, mostly I think due to his unwise decision to use this trip to ‘break in’ a new Brooks saddle. When we caught up with him a few kms from the campground, he complained about us being slow so I told him about Josca’s puncture and tried to make him feel bad for not coming back to see if we were ok.
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The campground in Miranda was nice, although quite big and busy. There were lots of campervans, and buses full of a children’s softball team (we got to know them a little better later on when they stole our table in the kitchen and their parents had a really loud birthday party). On the up side, you could buy beer from the camp office and children aren’t allowed in the hot pool after 8pm. The hot pool by the way, is really nice, particularly after a long day on a bicycle. Josca, Alex and I floated around for quite some time talking a lot of boring shit about bikes for an hour or two before retiring to our respective tents.
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The next morning we scoffed a First Breakfast in the campground kitchen, before heading back to Auckland. We paused for a little while on the way at the Miranda Farm Stop, where we had Second Breakfast (tea & scones) and again at the garage opposite that weird, tacky (and now closed) ice-cream place that looks a bit like a castle. We were a bit slower, and a bit more chatty riding back. The weather was pleasant and the road was quiet all the way up to Hunua, where we stopped for more food (a nice cheese & onion pastie for me). It was even quieter through the back roads down to Ardmore, the only significant event being Josca getting another puncture.
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From Ardmore to Pakuranga wasn’t very pleasant – too much traffic going too fast. Alex & Josca were ahead of me as we entered Totara Park and they went the wrong way. So while I retraced our route through the lovely park, taking a little detour to the top of the hill, they were climbing fences and struggling across fields. I met up with them again at the park gate and didn’t gloat at all. The stretch from Pakuranga, past the airport to Onehunga felt like a slog, and as we rode up the hill through the Onehunga Mall, Alex said goodbye and turned left to make his way home. Then Josca turned off too, while I continued up to Cornwall Park & back to my house.
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Route here.

More pictures here.

The Road to Trollville

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I was at Tumeke Cycle Space the other day (either selflessly helping someone or standing uselessly around) when I mentioned something about “cycling through the Hunuas”. Guy pointed out that I hadn’t really cycled through the Hunuas – I had cycled around them. Ok, I thought, fine I thought, I’ll show you who can ride through them. So on a rainy Saturday morning, I packed a couple of peanut butter & cheese sandwiches in to my bag, filled 3 waterbottles and got on the train. I disembarked in Papakura and rode off up the hill to Hunua, and then down towards the dams. I hung a left in to Moumoukai Rd and visited the Wairoa Dam.
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After basking in the morning sunshine for a bit, I followed the gravel road to the scenic Upper Mangatawhiri Reservoir.
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At the western end of the dam, I rode along the unexpectedly beautiful Waterline Rd.
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As I puffed my way to the top of the hill, it started to rain. So I had a little break. I ate a sandwich, put my jacket on and then remounted my bike & turned right on to Keeney Rd, which was a much less pleasant grade of gravel.
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If the rocks are the size of cricket balls, is it still gravel? I’m not sure if bicycles are really welcome on that road – I saw some signs with bikes on, some signs with bikes with lines through them. Also the native bush had turned in to pine plantation, so I suspect that some logging goes on here sometimes.
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Eventually the road improved and I emerged from the forest in the artisanal Ness Valley. I could tell it was the Ness Valley because I saw some artisanal water buffalo. I also rode through a monkey’s wedding, and set a record for slowest ever Strava ride through the area (hurrah!).
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Cycling from there to Papakura seemed like hard work, maybe there was a headwind, maybe I was just tired. But when I actually got to Papakura it felt too early to get on the train, so I thought I’d ride home. I’m not very familiar with that part of Auckland so I took the simplest route north – the Great South Rd. Which started off ok with some cycle lanes, but they disappeared around Te Mahia, and the local car drivers started to get a little too aggressive. So I ducked off to the Te Mahia railway station, which I think might be the horriblest railway station in Auckland.
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After about 20 minutes a train arrived and took me safely north to Puhuniu, where I got off to go looking for a shortcut between McLaughlins Rd and Prices Rd. I had tried to find this before, searching from Puhunui Reserve, but without success. After circling the area for some time, going in all sorts of wrong directions, I finally found the entrance to a reserve off Aerovista Place.
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My joy at finding it was somewhat tempered by the fact that it’s not a very nice reserve. There was a bundle of clothes in the bushes that I at first assumed was a dead body, then there was a scary bridge (that could easily have trolls living under) leading to a dead end.
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I eventually got on the right path, that turned out to be signposted as part of the Te Araroa Trail(!). But after a few minutes the trail ended and the place where the shortcut should have been, turned out to be a big muddy field with sheep in that I had to push my bike across. At the other side of the field, I lifted my bike over a fence, climbed over myself and found a sign telling me I had just crossed some private property. So I give up, there’s no shortcut.
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Prices Road was nice enough though, with it’s alpacas, horses and aeroplanes. And then I just had to ride the back way through the airport, and through Mangere & Onehunga back to town.
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So I think that a) there’s definitely more exploring to be done in the Hunuas, and b) I really need to find a better route from Papakura in to town.

Route here.

The Cheese Run

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It was sunny in Pukekohe when we got off the train. Sunny and cold. Cold enough to put a layer of ice crystals on the handrails at the station, and for puddles to have frozen over. As Emilio and I rode off in the direction of Tuakau, I could hear him shivering behind me and cursing his own foolishness in not bringing any gloves. I wasn’t quite so cold inside my Buffalo jacket, but still keen to get moving and warm up a bit.

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The road to Tuakau is a little too busy on a Saturday morning, but as soon as we got over the bridge, things were quieter. And mistier, and more mysterious and beautiful.
There was no wind and mist was sitting like polyester fill over the countryside.
We rode up the hill and then down another hill and across the river to Mercer. To the cheese shop. While we coasted down, the fog condensed in to droplets on my eyelashes.
The Mercer cheese shop is my favourite cheese shop. I like the modest signage, the obscure location, the honest staff (sample conversation – me: “Is the wasabi cheese nice?”, staff member: “Not really.”) and of course, the excellent cheese. As the character Della says in the TV series ‘Raised By Wolves’ – “In my book, if you can’t handle cheese, you can’t handle life.”
With the cheese purchased and stuffed in to my front bag, we went for a little ride down the road next to the river. I love the way the landscape looks in fog – things in the distance disappear, and things close up look like they’ve been clear cut. We saw some horses.
Some toilets made from concrete watertanks, marked “Wahine” and “Tane” looked beautiful.
So did this hill with a tall flagpole/cross on it.Then we rode up and over the highway toward Maramarua. The road rose taking us out of the mist, and the sun first pushed through gaps in the trees and then came out completely.It was a lovely day for riding up the Paparimu valley, through the Hunuas and on to Papakura. Where we caught the train back to town.And what kind of cheese did I buy? Mature Gouda, Nettle, and Goat Supreme. All of which were brilliant.Route here.
More pictures here.

Coromandel, the Hard Way

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It was early on the Sunday afternoon of Queen’s Birthday weekend, and Guy & I were chatting with the local park ranger at Fletcher Bay. We were lying on the grass congratulating ourselves on completing a ridiculously difficult section of our weekend tour and feeding bits of apple to some ducks.
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Ranger – So where have you ridden from?
Us – Stony Bay.
Ranger – Yeah that track’s pretty hard.
Us – Well it’s a big hill.
Ranger – Hill? You took the walking track didn’t you?
Us – No, the the mountain bike track.
Ranger – The mountain bike track? What, over the hill?
Us – Yes.
Ranger – Really? You rode over the hill?
Us – Yes.
Ranger – Oh, um, we always tell people not to go up there. It’s too hard. We tell them to take the walking track.
Us – It is quite hard. You should tell the people who look after the Stony Bay campground, they’ve got a sign up telling people on bikes that they have to take the mountain bike track.
Ranger – Oh… Ok… I’ll have a word with them.
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This whole thing had started when I was talking to Guy at a Sunday afternoon shift at Tumeke Cycle Space. He asked if I was keen to go for a ride around the Coromandel Peninsula. I said I was keen. He said that it would probably be quite hard, because there would be several thousand meters of climbing. I said that would be fine. So I bought a sleeping bag, borrowed a tent, packed my stuff on to the Space Horse and cycled over to Guy’s house early on Saturday morning. The drive down to Coromandel Township was beautiful. I’m always reluctant to get up early, but it’s always worth it. There was plenty of mist covering parts of Auckland, the sun came out as we sped over the Bombay Hills, and the mist returned as we descended toward the Hauraki Plains. It was freezing, even the cows looked cold.
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After getting our bikes loaded up, our first challenge was to get over the Coromandel ranges between Coromandel Township and Kennedy Bay. This wasn’t too hard, despite our bikes being fairly heavy. But we established as we coasted down to Kennedy Bay that I’m a much more timid descender than Guy. I could blame the narrower tyres on my bike, but I don’t think I will.
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Kennedy Bay was very quiet – a few houses, one dog, no people and nice marae. There was very little traffic around as we headed North toward Stony Bay. Not surprising really as the quality of the ‘road’ deteriorated significantly. Sometimes we would pass through a bay with some houses and tar-seal, but then the gravel would return and the size of the rocks making up the gravel would increase.
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The hills were pretty steep too. So it was a relief to arrive in Stony Bay  at about 5 in the afternoon. It’s a beautiful place with a big campground. I pitched my tent, Guy set up his hammock, and we ate our dinner on the stone & driftwood covered beach.
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I woke up just before dawn on Sunday morning and wandered down to the beach. It was nice. Then Guy fell down a bank and met me on the beach for breakfast. It was pretty cold, but not cold enough to deter some backpackers from going swimming and taking pictures of each other. I wonder what the hashtags were? #nothypothermia? #shivveringissexy?
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It was about 10am by the time we packed up and got on our bikes. There is a walking track that goes from Stony Bay to Fletcher Bay via a fairly flat route around the coast. There is also a designated mountain bike track that takes a different route (over the top of a 500m hill). There’s a DOC sign at the start of the walking track saying that people on bikes should take the MTB track. So we did.
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The track started somewhat inauspiciously with a couple of rivers to ford. Then it went uphill a bit. Then it went uphill a lot. In fact it wasn’t long before the track was stretching ahead of us like a big clay ski jump.
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Parts of it were as rideable as a ski jump too. So we walked. And rode, and walked. It was all very difficult. Finally we made it to the top, and stopped for something to eat. When we continued riding, it became clear that we were still some distance from the top. Which was very disappointing.
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Finally we got to the real summit. Helluva view.
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Descending to Fletcher Bay wasn’t quite as fun for me as it was for Guy. He immediately tore off downhill, brakes squeaking loudly enough for me to keep track of him (and frighten the sheep). While I went much more carefully, even (ahem) walking at times.
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After a rest and (the previously related) conversation with the ranger in Fletcher Bay, we rode the remaining 60km to Coromandel Township.
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The road along the coastline to Colville was lovely, one of the most spectacular rides I’ve ever been on.
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The last 25km or so was hard – we were tired, it was cold, it was dark. Guy actually whooped when we arrived in Coromandel at about 7:30pm. Fair enough I thought.
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Would I recommend this ride to other people? Not really. The section from Coromandel to Stony Bay was nice but hilly, the section from Fletcher Bay back to Coromandel was lovely. The mountain bike track from Stony Bay to Fletcher Bay? No, I wouldn’t do that again. Not with a bike. I reckon it would be nice to ride up the Western coast, camp at Fletcher Bay, walk over to Stony Bay and back. And then cycle back the same way. I might do that one day.

Route here

More pictures here