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Kaikoura Unchained

17 November 2020

Words: Dave Mitchell
Photos: Dave Mitchell & Ditte van der Meulen

Down at the Kaikoura restrooms

Kaikoura had always been a legendary mountain biking destination for us, but the riding was restricted to the very narrow S & M band width. The Clarence Reserve featured strongly with its 1200 metre Blind Saddle entry bar set high, along with tracks both ways following the Clarence River Valley that were forever climbing and descending. Option two the even steeper 1600 metre climb up Mt Fyffe and if you were brave or mad you could continue along the Gables Ridge and drop onto the Kowhai Track to indulge your push-carry fetish over rough terrain until the hut materialised out of the mist and an old 4WD track magically appeared to carry you back out to the Mt Fyffe car park. The third protagonist in the trilogy was the Okiwi Bay to Half Moon Bay grovel with some mean climbs but rewarding downhills on a great wee series of abandoned farm tracks.

Too much choice

Much has changed in the last 10 years with the Kaikoura MTB club, the community and DOC really pitching in and getting the whole MTB destination thing on the map. On a windless cool morning with the early signs of spring on show Ditte and I rode straight out of town from South Bay. Pure single track greeted us and weaved its way along the coast in a lazy arc through a pine block and past the manicured greens of the local golf course. Four!

A foot in the tree fuchia camp

The track ducked under the SH1 bridge just before nearly plunging into the Kowhai Stream and resuming its tree weaving formulation - gradually climbing all the way to the foothills. Along the way there were majestic views of the Seaward Kaikoura Range across the cultured farmland, and of the massive post-earthquake boulder-armour stop banks. We flowed through some beautiful sections of regenerating native bush full of bird life, tree fuchias, broad leaf and juvenile totara pushing their way skyward. It all ends at the base of Mt Fyffe at the DOC carpark.

Kaikoura Cycling have been busy

From the carpark DOC have been busy building an amazing 7 km mega switch-backed climbing track that sure as mustard cuts out the steepest section of the old Mt Fyffe Road. You can continue up to Mt Fyffe if so desired, yes-no, or better still, bomb the newly minted DH track that has been so lovingly crafted for us. It would be a travesty not too.

7kms of Mt Fyffe uphill awaits

and then the downhill

For those up for a bit of tiki touring, a marked route trundles through the back blocks of Kaikoura's rural hinterland. It is well marked and heads east along Postmans Road, up Mt Fyffe Road, right onto Topline Road then Grange Road and finishes on some superb downhill trail alongside the Hapuku River. This singletrack almost freewheels all the way to the Meat Works Surf Break. It proved to be a great section as it flows through regenerating bush on the river terrace, finally crossing the main trunk line at the coast. The Old Beach Road takes you back towards town and a section of dune trail closes the loop to a wide choice of cafe and pizza in Kaikoura.

Hapuka's long and winding track

Dune Trail into Kaikoura

Okiwi Bay

Ditte and I spent a couple days exploring the old farm tracks behind Okiwi Bay. We climbed steeply on the Okiwi Bay Half Moon Track and into the steep and gnarly foot hills. DOC have re-bulldozed the route through slips and rock fall for weed control, after the Kaikoura EQs bought everything on the top shelf crashing down. Much of the land was once cleared and grazed but is now scenic reserve where the regeneration process has taken hold big time with totara exerting its authority amongst the scrub and manuka.

The climb up from Okiwi Bay

Beyond Jacobs Ladder there are large patches of original bush with broad leaf, black beech, some rimu and matai in good numbers. The climbing is relentless and steep but rewards with stunning views along the coast and up into the rugged mountains inland.

Out of shape Ohau Stream crossing exit

The rocks in the Ohau Stream crossing proved incredibly slippery and for me only a lucky dab saved a wet encounter via gravity. This is the same stream that exits into Ohau Bay down at the coast providing a perfect playground for seal pups in the spring. Alas the trail soon heads back up to the 500 meter contour and rounds the ridge heading to the Seaward Valley Track intersection. This north facing ridge reveals Mt Alexander and monstering it from behind the 2590 metre Te ao Whekere, a tall one amongst the many snow capped 2000 metre plus points on the Seaward Kaikoura Range.

A Seaward Kaikoura backdrop

Our insignificance amongst this lot was not lost on us and soon brought home by the earthquake damage wrought to the Half Moon Bay end of the main track. This proved impassable with just too much rock fall and slips to lug our bikes over and under. We were stopped mid pedal stroke. So it was 'exit stage Seaward Valley Track' and ultimately out via the Blue Duck Valley Road.

Too many rocks and slips out to Half Moon Bay

Exit Blue Duck

The drop down to ford the Rakautara Stream was fast and open under a darkening sky and the first spaced-out drops of precipitation from the edge of a building front came crashing down like stair rods. The climb out from the ford was on a narrow benched track through black beach forest and clay. It was steep in places with a few muddy patches adding to in the mix. Rain had finally settled in by the time we reached the road end and our rarely used GE Storm Trooper jackets would prove their worth. We always try to book the weather but like girl scouts we also go prepared.

A pot of gold at the end of the trail

Camp was a little further away than originally anticipated due to the detour. The ride along the coast on SH1 was a procession of 30 kph road works and 50 kph zones. The weather had done its dash and the wind had abated. All-in-all a good day out that couldn't help but build moral fibre. The Kaikoura Coast's contribution to all thing MTB doesn't end there - with Middle Hill MTB just a short drive north.

Middle Earth and the misty mountains

Middle Earth

After radically snaking most of the way from Lake Tennyson for 200 kms, legend has it the Clarence River got tired of being the meat between the Inland and Seaward Kaikoura Range sandwich, breaking out east and into the sea by severing the northern end of the Seawards, and in doing so creating the Sawcut Range. Where the long suffering mighty Clarence exits, Waipapa Road goes west to an equally legendary destination - Middle Hill Station, home of 12 micron merino sheep, their wool destined for fine Italy's finest suits. Of far more significance to our island nation is that it's home to a shuttled MTB Park roaming down steep slopes above the spectacular Wharekiri Stream, it sheer faces dwarfed by the snow capped Tarahaka and George Spur rising up the Seaward Kaikoura Range and ultimately the 2795 metre Tapue-O-Ueneku.

Beauty and the beast

The Barby barb wire downhill

For the resourceful rural sector necessity is the mother of invention and diversity the future. Needless to say this east coast bike park fits into both categories. We were greeted by G, aka Genevieve King who grew up on the station. Along with Morgz from Motueka, they have transformed massive quake cracks and up to 12 metres of uplift from the 7.8 magnitude quake in November 2016 into some pretty cool trail lines. As you can imagine most farm structures split in half and a lot of rock trundling was heard after the initial jolt during the many aftershocks. The King family got stuck in the very next day. Ditte and I arrived bright and early as a jet stream of nor-west cloud zoomed rapidly overhead but by magic we were sheltered and ready to ride.

The Mars Rover

The choice of uplift is a Rotax powered Polaris 'Mars Rover' with an ingenious Rocket Lab quintuple bike rack bolted solidly to the rear tray. A Dunedin couple joined us for a half day of bike shuttle and after a quick safety and orientation briefing we were off up the hill. The Polaris with its sophisticated 4WD drive train, powerful V8 sounding engine and amazing 275 mm of suspension travel, provided a magic carpet ride that only a chair lift could rival. First descent was a warm-up down the flowy Wild Boarz and onto Blade. Nice flow and great big banked corners had us buzzing. Subsequent runs saw us blast the rocky steep Fat Sac as it danced down a tunnel of regen' manuka followed by DDT narrow gauge and the technical Silky Rocks trail. We really enjoyed a couple of runs down our favorite, the old school hand built Azul, and finally the scenic Wharekiri Ridge with time to stop and enjoy the views and take a few pics before the sting in its tail - the rocky and gnarly steep descent back to base. We were ready for lunch and alas the wind was picking up from the west and blowing every which way but loose. You can indulge your uphill bent on the Take Me To The River climbing trail. This ascends to the mid point and you can blast the lower sections of most trails to your heart's content or 'till your E battery goes critical.

Ditte does Fat Sac

Wharekiri Ridge is stunning

We lunched on the front lawn with their famous black and white Kelpie Collie cross trail dog Paua. She was anticipating any dropped scraps that may come her way. It was soon time to fly to Whites Bay for Double Eagle and the two loops that lurk in the bush clad hills above. But to finish off the Kaikoura conundrum - Middle Hill M.T.B. should be on every mountain biker's bucket list with tracks for all abilities and styles with even more trail building in the pipeline. There is a lunch hut with commanding views being built up the hill where some interesting accommodation options will be on offer. Check out their web site for the latest postings and the myriad of ride and shuttle options available.

Middle Hill is MTB

Happy Trails, Dave & Ditte

Massive brain but low neuron density