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.
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.
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?
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.
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.The 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. I 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. To 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
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. I 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. I 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. At 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”. Slightly 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. On 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.
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.I 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.It 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.After 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.Over 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.It was brilliant riding all the way to the Mavora Lakes turnoff where I was suddenly cycling through a forest next to a lake.As 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Now, I know not everyone is as enthusiastic as me about daylight saving. There is apparently a woman in Queensland who blames all those extra hours of government sponsored sunlight for making her furniture fade. But riding home from work while it’s still light is nice isn’t it? And this is the bicycle that got me through the long, damp Auckland winter.
Yes, it’s my old friend the Bridgestone MB4 – looking much more ride-to-work friendly than when it came out of the factory back in the early 90s. You will notice, it now has some comprehensive mudguards (Planet Bike) new tyres (Compass Bicycles) moustache handlebars (Planet-X-Bikes) and a discrete, yet semi-permanant light (DKG).
As I have blathered on about before, I reckon mudguards are virtually essential for a practical bike, and I think these ones are very good. Easy to put on and specially designed for mountain bikes – so they’re pretty wide. They are also very sturdy & non-rattly. Except when you don’t bother to tighten up the bolt on the rear brake bridge properly, and then the nut falls off while you’re riding home. But even then, there’s enough other stays to hold them on, so you can fix it when you get home. Or so I’ve heard. Ahem.
The previous set of tyres I had on this bike were Schwalbe Super Motos. Brillliant though they were, mudguard-friendly they were not. So I replaced them with some similarly exotic, but more conservative looking tyres from Compass Cycles. They are made by Panaracer for Compass, which is why they look very much like Panaracer Paselas. According to Compass, their version of the tyres are made to a higher standard, and therefore roll better. I haven’t tested this properly, but they certainly feel fast.
The front light is slightly unusual – it’s an LED Maglite held on with a bracket from DKG. I really don’t like the way most bicycle lights these days are clamped on to the handlebars with crappy plastic brackets. This one is machined from solid aluminium, and is of excellent quality.
Is this the perfect ride-to-work bike? Not really. But it’s pretty good. The 26in wheels make it agile for city riding, and it looks crappy enough to be fairly theft-resistant. Also, there’s a shortcut I sometimes take, which involves a brief climb up an incredibly steep street. So, thanks to the mountain bike gearing, I can chuck it into first & grind slowly up – a handy feature at 7:30 in the morning when you’re half asleep, and cold.
I mentioned in my previous post, that I would test the MB4 with the Schwalbe Super Moto tyres, to see if it really was fast or if I was just imagining it. So I took it out for a ride. It’s a loop I’ve got worked out that goes from Newmarket railway station, up Remuera Rd to St Johns, down to Tamaki Drive, in to the city, up College Hill, back along Ponsonby Rd & then through Grafton back to Newmarket.
In the manner of a modern and sophisticated rider of bicycles, just before I left, I started up the Map My Ride application on my phone, and told it to log my ride. As I sped through St Johns about 20min later, I heard a voice just behind me. A woman’s voice saying something about my speed or the time or something. It like totally freaked me out & I nearly fell off looking around to see who it was. Eventually I realized it was my arse. Or rather it was my phone sitting in my back pocket telling me something about my “workout”. So I calmed down & kept riding. Later on, I got home & whipped the phone out so I could tell it I’d finished, and read statistics about speed, distance, calories burnt, increases in gluteal firmness etc. Only to find that the battery went flat 20 minutes ago and the phone thinks I’m sitting in a bus stop next to Victoria Park.
I have a book (actually I have more than one book – I may even have too many books) called ‘101 Experiments in the Philosophy of Everyday Life‘. Each chapter of this book is (as the title would suggest) an experiment you can perform that may change the way you experience the world. Chapter 88 is “Prowl at Night”. It suggests that you wander around your city at night. To look for things that you don’t see during daylight, and to see things you’re familiar with, in a different way. I think this is an excellent idea, but I think that riding is better.
The other night, it was raining and I had just finished making some significant changes to a bike of mine that has been lying about in the shed for a while. I had an idea that it might be interesting to take this old Bridgestone MB4 mountain bike, fit some really fat, slick tyres (Schwalbe Super Motos) some On-One Midge drop handlebars, a set of bar-end shifters and see what it was like to ride. So I did.
I rode through The Domain and the down to the waterfront.
I stopped at The Cloud to shelter from the now-torrential rain. I didn’t realise that the “building” is full of lights that change colour. Makes it hard to photograph.
So what’s the Monstertruck MB4 like to ride? Well, I really like it. The tyres do what you would expect – they smooth out the bumps while still feeling fast. I say “feeling fast” – don’t really know though, I’m not a fast rider. I’ve overtaken the odd mobility scooter, but only when it’s battery was running low. Sometime I’ll give the bike a proper test & let you know. The Midge handlebars are nice too – riding with my hands on the brake hoods was comfortable, and since the drops are very shallow, the shifters are never far away.
I know that when it’s wet and cold and dark, you’re supposed to stay home. But can I suggest that you give winter night riding a try sometime? You might see a bunch of things that you’ve never seen before, and the city can be quite beautiful when the lights are reflected off the wet streets. Also, when you get home (wet, cold and tired) you can feel fully justified in having a hot shower & going to bed. Maybe even have a hot-chocolate – you totally deserve it.