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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.