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The South Face of the Richmond Ranges

28 February 2018

By Dave Mitchell

The mono culture of grapes on the Wairau Valley floor stretches forever towards St Arnaud, and across the bridge on SH6 the foot hills above North Bank Road contain the second mono culture, pine trees. They follow the grapes towards St Arnaud, fill up the gullies and ridges to the native bush line and have self seeded their way onto open tops and into vacant clearings in the bush. Interlopers that could one day rule the world. The Richmond Ranges were as dry as a wooden god and maybe a week away from being closed due to the extreme fire danger.

Riley Ace of Spies

Ditte and I kicked off the hols with what can only be described as a hike-a-bike. An up and back on the Mt Riley ridge track, its suitability ascertained from a previous Mt Sunday/Mt Riley loop tramp. With maybe 5% ridable up and the rest a push/carry grovel to 900-metres, you just have to be in the mood or your legs and bottom lip get a wee bit wobbly. We continued on foot to the summit as the mercury headed into the 30s and high humidity left us feeling like a couple of hot sticky buns. Oh but the downhill made it all worth while on crunchy leaf litter over rocks and roots that provided levels of traction found only on medieval torture racks. By contrast in the wet a downhill ice skating rink comes fleeting to mind.

“The jarring sense of solidity we experience when we bike head first into a tree trunk, for example, is really a kind of fallacy produced by our immense size compared to sub-atomic particles, which are mainly emptiness and energy rather than what we think of as impermeable matter. Even food is composed almost entirely of nothing, which definitely makes you question the merits of dieting”. The bottom arrived too soon, but the swimming hole by the Onamalutu Reserve came to the party and the reserve proved a great place to camp, fill our non dieting faces and hang out in the shade of the towering kahikateas, composed almost entirely of nothing.

The Whiteheads of Wellington

Inspired, we headed up to Top Valley Camp and after lunch cruised the Top Valley Stream singletrack to Whitehead Clearing, returning via the old Wellington Mine and cast iron stamping battery. Thus abandoned, where it once defended miners and native birds alike and without favor or affection in the late 1800s. Mt Richmond was in our sights bald above the bush line.

 Olympus Mons

A cool cloudy morning made the climb through the forestry block pleasant and the bush track 50% ridable up, in our lowest ancestral gear. With very little honey dew on offer the lack of menacing german wasps proved a pleasant surprise. The push carry sections seemed exponentially easier than Riley and we gained the top of the rocky ridge at 1300-metres in time for early lunch. Alas the track goes bush and down to the Richmond Saddle and hut, sidling and bumping through the bush in an MTB unfriendly way which restrained our urge to push on further.

The sun finally broke through the low scudding cloudage revealing peaks and all that resided toy like below. A breathtaking descent ensued, “In effect, we were in the act of biking toward the centre of the Earth, or we would be if only the planet’s surface didn’t get in the way”. Rocky ledges and chutes made way for a long flat avenue between stunted beech trees that strode along the ridge top as if straddling an eel. Steep rooty sections soon followed this intermission, then sublime single track rolled us back to the forestry clearing. The crisp cool clear air of altitude was soon replaced by a steadily rising heat haze. Nothing a dip in the Top Valley swimming hole couldn't fix before packing up and motoring up the Mt Patriarch forestry road to the “Enchanted” camp spot. This overlooks all that is Richmond, Wairau and the Inland and Seaward Kaikoura's.

Einstein concluded that gravity is not a force of attraction, for no such force is required. Instead, it is something quite different - a curvature in the fabric of space-time. We feel the force of gravity only because we are perched upon a surface that gives us weight. Remove that surface and gravity would no longer feel like anything at all. We would be weightless” and there would be no need to make anything out of titanium or carbon fibre anymore!

Holy Moly

Well on that note, the pedal to the 4WD road end below Mt Patriarch was way more scenic than I remember. With views down to Lake Chalice and out the Goulter Valley, then up to the Red Hills beside St Arnaud, and way more uphill as well, being just short of an 800-metre climb. With lunch calling we legged it to the top of an un-named 1516-metre peak above the track, before cruising our way back out to the Lake Chalice carpark.

An old Forest service 4WD track plummets down to Lake Chalice Hut. We rode the short distance from the hut to check out the lake. It was ripply and wet. A great bit of technical single trail undulates above the south edge of this steel blue water body and once upon a time, in the west when we were young and fit and full of lima beans, we followed it out past the Mid and Lower Goulter Huts to the meandering Wairau River. The killer bit then was the climb back up to the tops via the apply named Staircase Road. Those were the days.

Is gravity just an illusion roaming around in our world, a software simulation that minds immeasurably superior to ours have created for their leisure? That nagging feeling of not having a low enough gear, big enough lungs or having bought the wrong set of legs to the cat-walk, was slow to recede on the brutal climb back up. Spurred on by a couple of trampers collapsed in the shade of the forest, we finally made it up, obvious to the new theory called 'emergent gravity', which suggests gravity comes as a side-effect of the entropy of the universe. Nothing a cold beer and plate full of grub couldn't rectify no doubt. Theoretical physics are they really worth the time of day.


We accessed the Wakamarina track from Bartletts Road end, climbing high to Kiwi Road and onto the ex gold miners trail. The climb to Foster Clearing and onto the hut took us a little over an hour where we bombed down a gnarly ridge track back to the clearing. The tramping route towards Mt Baldy proved no place for a bike but worth a look see. The return to the Bartletts Road end a real blast that always delivers a big smile. The logistics of riding through to Doom Creek and Canvas Town are a bit daunting, but the switchbacks on the far side are best in Empire, followed primarily by flowing trail. For us, a shuttle from Havelock will feature next time round.

Royal Romp

From Bartletts Road and the Quarts Creek camp spot, an old overgrown 4WD track fords and bush bashes its way for a few kilometres up Quartz Creek to the base of the Mt Royal Track. Harvesting wild blackberries along the way was the fun bit, alas the ridge track to Mt Royal, at least on south-side, afforded little in the way of riding. We trudged up to meet the descending cloud layer, got drizzled on and retreated. The Devils Creek end on the sunny north side looked far more promising but the sand in our egg timer had succumbed to the illusion of gravity, our time was up and doomsday was upon us.


We'd had more than our fair share of stunning weather, dry gnarly and flowing single track and new trails. Only a handful of other ape like creatures had crossed our paths. Rain was on the way and duty called, or at least the veggie garden, lawns and work for Ditte. Exit down the train wreck Kaikoura Coast, fish and chips in whale watch town and maybe an ice-cream if the sun was still shining. The gravity of this realisation would soon come to roost. Murry Dwyer has subsequently checked out Mt Royal from the Doom creek end and gives it a C- on a good day.