Magnetic West

by Dave Mitchell

Orchestrating multi-day mountain bike traverses has become an unhealthy obsession over the past few years. Last summer's jaunt was conceived over a hearty helping of kumara balls at Main Street Café one night - it's curious how a full stomach clouds one's judgment in matters of endurance and suffering. The idea was to cut from east to west through the middle of the South Island - starting just north of Kaikoura at Kekerengu, tracing the Clarence River into the high-country, and then bounding across the main divide to meet the Tasman. I rounded up the usual suspects - and like lemmings they flocked to the cliff edge: Russ Taylor, Joe Arts, Guy Wynn-Williams and myself. A bulletproof weather forecast presented itself during February and we were away ... surfing our way up the coast from Christchurch for an early start the next day.

In the Beginning

Breakfast was consumed rapidly by all except Guy who always struggles with his helping of oats. We planned to rendezvous with the mothership again in a couple of days - so minimal rations were jammed in our packs and we headed west (but not without first zipping back to the beach and ceremoniously dipping our toes in the Pacific). The morning's temperate climes soon yielded to blistering heat as we moved from out of the bush to the scorched moonscape of the Clarence. The mercury rocketed past 40, not a suggestion of wind and the hills seemed to get steeper. Joe was dripping like a shower. We arrived at Muzzle Station in the early evening - the homestead like an oasis in the desert. The cool of the verandah and rural hospitality made it hard to move on. We eventually tore ourselves away and a couple of hours later were ensconced in the historic Quail Flat hut. Dinner was functional if not mouth watering ... cold rice with sweet 'n' sour flavoured tuna, and the old homestead providing us with some ripe peaches for dessert. Yum.

Day Two

Early up, Guy predictably struggling with his muesli. After a few hours we were re-acquainted with our friend Clarence. Its absurdly low flow let us criss-cross the riverbed without so much as splashing our shorts. This allowed us to avoid the usual lengthy detours through neck high rosehip. Joe & Guy regularly seized the opportunity to theatrically collapse in the current - as the heat matched yesterday's oppressive highs. After reaching Cloudy Range Station, we headed cross country to avoid the upper gorge - climbing and sidling over a saddle and down into Stoat Creek before emerging at the Acheron Accommodation House - a rather grand title for an old musterer's hut. With daylight a scarce commodity we pushed off in search of our supplies at the pre-arranged campsite at the base of Fowler's Pass. The shingle road made for fast travel but after an hour someone turned the lights out. Joe and I rode by braille, arriving at around 10pm. Russ and Guy arrived an hour later guided by the beam of Russell's fading Maglite. Guy was strangely silent after fifteen hours in the saddle.

The Day After

The morning brought us climatic relief with high cloud and a light northerly in no hurry. We allowed ourselves a leisurely start, broke camp and restocked our packs with meagre rations for the next few days. It was a joy to pull on clean riding clothes after two days of grime. Joe was denied this pleasure as he had somehow confused the packing and re-supply arrangements. The climb over Fowlers Pass and descent into the Stanley River is a fabulous section of benched singletrack complete with zippy descents, switchbacks and dodgy drop offs. Our progress down the Stanley slowed as the track deteriorated to nothing. For a couple of hours we struggled to navigate through a thick maze of broom and manuka. Fortunately we stumbled onto a blazed trail used for horse treks, otherwise we'd probably still be in there. We arrived at Boyle Village in the Lewis Pass at around 7pm. The flaw in our cunning plan was that we had anticipated being here at around lunchtime! We considered continuing to Hope Kiwi Lodge but after two honest days (over 100kms each day in 30 something degree heat, with a total of 5700m of climbing) we figured we deserved an "early" finish. We hastily arranged lodging at a bach owned by friends of Joe's and slept like dead possums.

Tomorrow

We awoke to a threatening nor' west sky, but with the West Coast firmly in our sights. After crossing the Boyle River, we ambled up the farm tracks of the Hope Valley. The lads were recharged and on a roll as we stormed onto the next map. "Crossing a map" is a great feeling - one that was repeated twice each day of the trip. The rapid travel gradually petered out, leaving us to "push and carry" the last stretch to the Hope Saddle. Joe led the bush-bash down a horribly overgrown track to the Tutaekuri River. We were greeted with a typical West Coast boulder hop - big rocks and steep terrain for about 6kms. The River then promised to ease into wide river flats - only the succession of floods over the last year had annihilated them, leaving a continuation of the riverbed-grovel. After 7 hours walking we arrived at Waikiti Downs and proper tracks at last, although we were quickly confused at the confluence of some deer fences. We took the long way around, ending up in a swamp. "I confess" I heard Russell mutter, before we returned to the true and righteous path and promptly arrived at the homestead. Obligatory tea and cakes duly consumed, we grabbed the remaining few hours of light to pedal on to the old sawmill town of Kopara. We scrounged some food and settled in for the night.

Extra Last Day

Leaving Kopara in low cloud, we anticipated a little rain and a lot of food by the time we hit Blackball. 60km of dirt road and (regrettable) tarseal got us to the town as famous for its Hilton Hotel and salami as it is for being the birth place of the Labour Party and NZ's first Trade Union. But we weren't concerned with history - food was the priority. We cleaned out the local store and staged a feast under their verandah. 

 

The inner man satisfied, we rode up a forestry road to the start of the Croesus track. Sublime benched singletrack awaited our tyre treads - the damp surface and slippery rocks merely adding to the technical challenge of this fabulous track. After reaching the hut, the benched track thins as it continues to the tops. We then reverted to push 'n' carry mode along to Mt Ryan. The rain held off but the Paparoas were characteristically shroudedin low cloud. The steep descent through primeval forest is exhilarating - riding opportunities rare and grasped with both hands before crashing. After a few hours of this, pristine benched singletrack suddenly appeared. We sped to Barrytown negotiating tree roots, jumps, cuttings, and zigzags. A well deserved reward for the previous five days' hard labour. The track stops abruptly when it meets the main drag. A keen lad could end up decorating the grill of a Holden, or be catapulted into the pub for a Monteiths and vinegar crisps. We dodged this hazard and coasted down to the beach to ceremoniously dip our toes in the Tasman as the sun set on an epic journey from coast to coast.

Captain's Log

  • Ride distance: 462km (425kms of riding; 37kms of pushing/carrying) 
  • Altitude climbed: 9850m 
  • Duration: 5 days 
  • Average hours per day: 14 hours 
  • Punctures: 10 
  • Sore butts: 4 
  • Follow the Mountain Bikers' Code. Respect Others; Respect the Track; and Respect the Rules.