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Charlie's Saddle - Racecourse & Amphitheater

23 October 2015

By Dave Mitchell

St James

The infamous James Gang hung out on the wrong side of the railway tracks for the most part, as we all have at some stage in our lives, but this didn't stop them from scoring a sainthood somewhere along the way. An unexpected tail-wind was pushing Ditte and I along the gravel road, speeding us towards the Edwards Valley turnstile, under the watchful eye of a blazing sun and the clearest blue sky since the big winter southerly of '94 blew through. We headed west now, taking this cool breeze on the chin, peddling up to Peters Pass then that rapid decent to the valley floor below. Little trace of winter remained at ground-zero but snow clad tops gave the game away. It was spring after all.

The s'west had run out of puff, replaced by a breeze, as we made rapid progress down the 4WD track to Cow Stream. Below the twisted and tormented face of Mt Plinlimmon, trolls had been busy digging tunnels in the flank of Mt Douglas above the river bank. The attraction for them, and us, is the excellent natural hot pool less than a kilometer upstream, but don't get caught there at night. The pool is marked with a big red danger X on the Ada Flat BT24 Topo Map (in case you were wondering).

Scotties Hut was just around the next corner and below it a new suspension bridge spans the evasive Edwards River in preparation for the short steep climb up to Charlies Saddle. From the saddle we took the barely bench and barely ridable Stanley River Track. It hugs the contour then heads up the ridge line following orange topped warratahs for no good reason. Much to our surprise the track then veered west, newly cut and narrowly benched heading into a stunted manuka and cedar pine forest. Its rather narrow and technical in places but very rewarding to ride if you are that way inclined.

We popped out into daylight at the bottom end of the appropriately named Racecourse. Winter snow had left all the track markers every which way but up. The trick is to hug the east side of this two kilometer flat thus avoiding the swamp of no return. Racecourse Stream and what remains of an old dozer track, exit to the Stanley River on a triple sandwich decent. We had lunch before crossing the river, then wet feet invaded our afternoon. An old farm track then takes you on a bit of a roller coaster ride to Stanley Vale, crossing and re-crossing the river, belt and braces climbing with baby-head boulder-field descents. 

From the vale we continued up the Stanley River Valley to Smyths Stream heading for Fowlers Pass. Track builders have again been busy resurrecting the old track that headed through the upper gorge. We crested Fowlers Pass after the usual grovel up the tight fisted zig zags that dominate the last jigsaw puzzle piece of the climb. Some improvements have been wrought even on this section of track. The smooth, fast, single track downhill loomed larger than life before us. An air of anticipation held us back for just a second and then we were off. Its amazing, after a winter spent under snow, the track just keeps coming back better that before. Well maybe the St James boys did deserve a sainthood after all.

Upper Waiau
Caroline Creek Biv

Strange things happen when you wake up the next morning after a hard day in the saddle to a blue sky and the sun is doing what suns do when clouds don't get in the way. Yes we went big-day-out riding again. We headed back west, on a gentle climb up to Mailing Pass. The snow clad Spencer Range was a sight for sore eyes, legs, arms and butt, but the downhill to meet the incompressible Waiau River bought tears of joy to our eyes, all those aches and pains were forgotten or ignored.

A farm track veers north nearing the bottom of the descent, then heads through a gate festooned with DOC signage prohibiting motorized vehicles, on pain of death. This old track has been recently flattened by a 4WD which proved great for riding, its occupants heads no doubt were being paraded on pikes in the provincial capital. The track meanders up the true left of the valley heading for some impressive mountains and the Waiau Pass. A logjam of fallen beech trees marks the end of the road and we were left to our own devices on the wide river flats that wander further up this picturesque valley.

The upper Waiau River is but a shadow of its lower glory with plenty of wide shallow spots to cross, but like an eel it's slippery bottom proved a challenge to riding in a straight line. We crossed and recrossed the river picking up bits of Te Ararora trail and animal tracks all the way to Caroline Creek Biv dolls house. In the hut book there was a four month gap over the winter months. The river flats beyond kept us amused for a kilometer or so to our final lunch stop while admiring the view.

A reasonable tail wind had popped up while we dined, and that, plus a slight downhill gradient, made the return trip a breeze, until the elephant in the room appeared at the bottom of Mailing Pass. We selected granny gear and did what any self respecting mountain biker would do, grovel our way to the top. The top duly appeared as all top usually do. We had forgotten what a great descent it is back to the road end. Fast a furious is the term that comes to mind, but I suppose most riders don't go in this direction. We packed up and left mtb paradisimo, heading for fish and chips in Culverden and home.