The Pilgrim Trails of St James

by Dave Mitchell

The lights winked out on the night before - the night before Christmas, with the promise that we would awake to one of twenty seventeens longest days. We awoke at dawn, heralded with a sunny morning, set amongst the golden tussocks beside the historic Fowlers Pass Hut. Fowlers Pass with its long thin ribbon of luscious single track lay before us - roaming upwards towards the open tops where mountain bike heaven truly resides. If our loop-ride went to plan our decent would follow this track.

Fowlers Pass Base Camp Extraordinaire.

Cherie and Katie arrived early, car splattered with cow poo and dusted with icing sugar that looked like bull dust. They were obviously keen to get on their bikes and pedal out of this one horse town. We were caught amidst breakfast clean up, but soon had the proverbial circus and show back on the road heading north.

Tennyson Tarns.

On a long, lonely and dusty road we drove, following the upper Clarence River to the trail head and DOC vehicle park. The headwaters lay in an alpine valley further north, just behind the blue waters of the nearby Lake Tennyson. The river eventually flows out to sea after a mere 230 km journey, taking it between the tortured remains of the spectacular inland and seaward Kaikoura Ranges, north east and parallel to the coast, way past Kaikoura. A long journey through parched, rabbit infested, rosehip covered hillsides that move with the critters dawn and dusk, beautiful country non the less.

Splashing around on a hot hot day.

Ditte, Cherie, Katie and I pedaled west on a slow incline to the very top of Mailing Pass, catching snippets of Lake Tennyson and its surrounding tarns along the way, like falling leaves with a gentle breeze and a warm sunny outlook. At this point Ditte headed back to do the shuttle - in recovery mode after being knocked headlong off her commuter bike on a cycle lane a couple of weeks previous. Our downhill awaited.

Three musketeers monstering Mailings Pass.

We flowed over the top, descending scree and strewn rocks that masquerade as a road. It's a vast sea of snow grass, pockets of beech forest, stream fords and steep loose beds of rocky shite below the crumbling face of the Spencer Mountains with snow white highlights. That's if you can take your eyes off the trail. Destination - the indomitable Waiau River Valley of open flats with brush strokes of flowering kanuka that send waves of scent through the air to mix with the dry earth and tussock fragrances of hot summer, yum.

We cruised the valley floor on old farm track, grass growing vigorously down its middle and then onto single track, and through a sea of wild flowers hogging the trail. We were just moments above the low flow and tempting cool waters of the Waiau River. This water heads south to join the Hope River from Lake Sumner before flowing out to the east coast and mighty Pacific Ocean. We stopped for first lunch. Admired the view, compared notes and lapped in the day like a dog does when faced with a large muddy puddle.

The Lake Guyon turnoff arrived unannounced and we proceeded upwards and eastwards onto a long and wide plateau. The lake is surrounded by wild and wooly mountains and a vast array of white fluffy cloudage below a doggedly blue sky and hot, hot sun. We were not alone, the waters had become a duck and geese pond-paradise. The surrounding beech forest is slowly reclaimed what was rightfully theirs, before meat, leather and wool factories roamed these parts. The long grass was drying to a state of extreme fire danger and a sure ticket to closing the park just in time for the holiday, if no rain was forth coming.


 Lake Guyon's old mustering hut a poplar place.

We checked out the Lake Guyon hut with the whisper of a new bigger and brighter model in the ever changing wind. We inspected the hut book for evidence of our previous passing and names of people we may know. The track continues to the top of the lake before climbing abruptly up and onto the Stanley Vale, where the historic Stanley Vale Hut resides. This was our second lunch spot in the shade of a huge sycamore tree, its whirly girly seeds showing signs of life, the universe and everything. The hut had been newly bunked, mattressed, its bookshelf filled and woodshed overflowing. The smell of ancient smoke permeating every pore, nook and cranny and most likely those that reside within. Past experience blames the smoky open fire.


Relaxing in the reading room, Stanley Vale Hut.

They don't get much more historic that this (no not the bikes or girls, maybe the 26 inch wheeled Yeti).

Exit stage lunch and we bumped into Shaun Jameson, the local hunter, trapper, track builder and hut restoring bloke who has spent many a winter in the Stanley up to the door jam in snow. He was heading in for a quiet Christmas and New Year with a pack full of books away from the Charles Dickens and Coke a Cola commercialism for better or for worse. We bid farewell and a Merry Christmas before the wide terrace dropped us into the the Stanly River to roam upstream and east-ish through long grass on a vague trail beside the water flow. We followed orange topped poles to the Smyths Stream turn off and the start of Fowlers Pass proper.

Cool feet relief crossing the Stanley River.

If ever there was a boxed canyon, we were heading up there, as the mountains moved in closer, the matagouri got way to friendly and for the un-initiated no end was in sight, just straight up. But this was familiar territory in both directions and long before DOC was a twinkle in St James Station's eye, Shaun's handy work can be seen in places as the track climbs and climbs and never gives up, like a Swiss Admiral. We had spent a few weekends trimming back the matagouri many moons ago, but noted the need for a future hair-cut trip. Our saving grace was a smattering of cloud cover and a cool mountain stream to soak our feet in. A final push and a series of marginally ridable zig zags that are best done in slow motion and granny gear. The top of Fowlers Pass finally rolled into view.

Just a final zag to Fowlers Pass.

The rewards of uphill, spades of sublime single track.

We stopped for a final snack and to admire the vista, the anticipation of the amazing world famous Fowlers Pass downhill was almost overwhelming after such a hard and hot slog up. World famous for its flow, speed and mind boggling magical existence. Who would have guessed, a stock track could turn out like this? A fitting stocking filler for any mountain biker.

The blur of snow-grass and alpine flora whizzed by as we railed the contours in all four dimensions, beaming from ear to ear to the bottom. We had that fizzy feeling as we packed up and shuttled back through a spontaneous rain, thunder and lightning storm to the start. Cherie and Katie were heading back to Hanmer for Christmas, while Ditte and I where onto Lake Tennyson to camp for the night and check out the lake edge track the next day. 

A storm in a tea cup that never reached Lake Tennyson.

Lake Tennyson dreaming.

Happy Trails over the summer and may 2018 bring you mountain biking joy, and whatever.

Dave, Ditte, Cherie & Katie