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A Brief History of 80's Mtb, Part 1

20 May 2020

Analogue Photos: Dave Mitchell

Dave Mitchell was amongst the small clan of kiwis who embraced the then embryonic pursuit of mountain biking back in the eighties. The fashion was appalling - a mash of tramping kit, sagging lycra and sometimes even gaiters over leather walking boots. Shocks, clipless pedals, disc brakes and dropper posts were yet to be imagined.

They poured over topographic maps and racked distant recollections of prior outdoor adventures to short-list potential mountain bike worthy tracks. Not all proved to be rideable but many were and have endured to be must-do trips in the modern world of carbon and dual suspension. 

Dave religiously hauled his trusty Nikon SLR around on those early pre-digital adventures. And consequently has an immense, well-catalogued, archive of slides from those early years.

For more tall stories from the 80's, readA Brief History of 80's Mtb, Part 2

Golden Bay was like entering another world and the Aorere Gold Fields Trail proved an adventure full of mining relics and limestone caves. We found a massive old stamping battery in a side creek and water races and tunnels for Africa.

Reefton was our first West Coast MTB destination. The Big River Trail out to Waiuta was to become a firm favourite along with the Globe Hill Tracks, Kirwans Reward and the Waitaha River Trail. Dave Fenton is desperately fording the most slippery Big River, woolly hatted with knitted gloves and retro riding top to boot - long before merino took the world by storm.

Big River South Mine tended to attract a motley ragtag crew of dripping wet humans, and this occasion was no exception. Totally uninterested in going underground we continued out to Waiuta. Dion Rae, Shane Burmester, Alison Taylor, Phil Bainbridge, Dave Fenton, Paul Bainbridge, Dave Mitchell and Hamish Latter.

The Waiuta Track is mainly pristine technical single track. Alas its end bit back then was mired in mud and a devil to ride.

The Waiuta end of this famous gold trail was now firmly in the grip of a new mode of conveyance even if the protagonists seemed somewhat eccentric. Above Waiuta, which incidentally was once the richest gold mines in the Dominion, resides the Prohibition Mine site. Much remained above ground to explore. Unbeknown to us, it was highly contaminated with cyanide. The area was finally decontaminated in 2014. We glowed for weeks after.

The Cameron Hut in Lake Sumner Forest Park may have seemed a hut too far back then, but did pave the way for a later crossing of Harpers Pass. There was a bonus hot pool along the way that proved invigorating in winter.

Danseys Pass may have been a bit of a road trip from ChCh, but with the Kyburn Diggings and the moonscape of Mt Buster to explore who could resist.

The Denniston Short Cut was and still is really all about crossing the mighty Orikaka River, as to turn around so close to the end would be devastation, pain and suffering. Russ Taylor and I made it across with wading depth to spare but consider this, back then the two 4WD Denniston and New Creek pylon tracks never joined. Side bike stands were a great optional extra adding a touch of class to any mount.

This is where ravishing Russ Taylor navigates un-chartered territory to join the dots, a descent never designed for going down let alone having to head back up.

The Dun Mountain Railway hadn't long been abandoned when we chugged our way up the line and down into the Maitai Valley. It may have been dark when we got back to the motor camp but we had learnt something important along the way. Eating plenty of carrots gave Dion Rae night vision.

Helen Gilroy was No2 NZ MTB champ and proved it on the stiff climb up to the top of Fowlers Pass after a long circumnavigation of St James Station. As the sun prepared to set in the west we blasted down the amazing stock route to Fowlers Pass Hut. We loved this bit of high country and had untold adventures on its hallowed ground.

Granity was where our mate Gary Weeks lived and his contacts and local knowledge took us on many a good old coal mining trail and along the rough and ready Charming Creek Track. The helmets slowly did get better and the pipelines and rugby sox longer.

The Harper and Avoca River Valleys were sunny clear and sharp mid winter. The farm 4WD tracks with icy puddles were fast and fun but the many river crossings would freeze the balls off a billiard table. That's why we sent lanky Dion first. If he ended up seized up and wet we would remain safely on the river bank.

Ryton Station and the Clay Range near Lake Coleridge gave us some challenging climbs and descents and a chance to enjoy the great view. Dion Rae, Dave Fenton, Phil Bainbridge and Shane Bermister comparing notes.

The stunningly beautiful Lake Guyon in the St James Station with a snow capped Spenser Mountains backdrop should have made it onto a Griffins' biscuit tin lid. That's Alison Taylor, Russ Taylor, Phil and Paul Bainbridge, the spring camo twins. We had ditched the side stands in favor of trendy bum bags and Texas cow horn handle bars. The green bikes are Diamond Apex, the red one a Ritchey Timber Comp and the last two Brian Phillips customs in Reynold 531.

Lake Mason Hut on Davey Gunn's Lake Taylor Station was a challenging day ride with an exit over to Lake Sumner untracked territory. The twin lakes are shaped a bit like a dumbbell and border Lake Sumner Forest Park.

Around the 1860s when prospectors found gold in the Wild West Haven Inlet no road ventured much past Nelson. Lake Otuhie would have been amused when prospectors barged across it with stamping batteries, boilers, tons of fluming and riveted pipework for the vast claims above its southern shores. We went exploring in the Golden Blocks Goldfield and found riches parked beside Malone, Slaty, Dutchman and Dam Creeks. Rusty old stamping batteries made in Thames NZ, Australia and the USA.

Alison Taylor on the proudly NZ made Healing Mountain Cat with its Sugino cranks and hi-tensile frame, both bent when push came to shove. Crome-moly steel came only with custom Brian Phillip's frames and imports back then. The abandoned Reefton Perseverance Coal mine came with a large slag heap and the usual array of rusting paraphernalia. A common theme on the south island's west coast.

Perseverance steam shovel for sale, one lady owner, new paint. Doesn't come with idiot on bicycles. Won't ship to PO boxes.

Open cast coal mining was a popular hobby for west coasters and the attraction of driving big diggers and dozers was not lost on the hydro generation. Note the Miyata Ridge Runners extreme top tube,100mm riser bar, flat pedals and skin-wall tires, all way ahead of the curve and way too big for its rider.

When it came to epics we were up for anything. After spending about an hour in the Stanley River filling our frames, bottom brackets and hubs up with water, it was with sheer relief to exit stage rock, only to have to cross the ice filled Waiau River and head along towards Maling Pass with numb feet.

Not sure if this hut still stands beside the 4WD track that roams up the Totara Valley on the West Coast but the recycling ethos of the locals has to be commended. That is not a tiny disc rotor on the front wheel of the Miyata but an early attempt at an MTB speedo that was about as consistent as friction shifting with unsealed gear cables.

Paul Bainbridge and Dave Fenton enjoying the superb single track experience of the Wharfedale Track back when the Forest Service maintained the crap out of it, built bridges and just loved to get in there with their dirty great big two stroke chain saws and cut up fallen trees. It was a race between Lands and Survey and the Forest Service as to who could build the best huts. Guess who won.