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Catlins Christmas Cartel

06 April 2020

Words and Snaps: Sasha Smith

Mountain biking is much harder for me than it was five years ago.

I’m not talking about getting old and worn out; I’m talking about an affliction that hits most 20-somethings at some point. Sometime over the last five years in my confused mind, the world became less rosy, and so did the mountain biking 'scene'. Bikes should be a means of freedom for any person of any background, but it doesn’t feel like that in a typical Wellington bike park, where 14-year-olds on eight-thousand-dollar carbon machines are the norm. The bike park has become a microcosm of the very privileged part of society. I ride around the park on my fancy bike and fit right in, but it is no longer somewhere I feel comfortable. Anyway...

Recently I’ve drifted towards riding bikes in places that allow me to escape the 'scene'. I know these trips are still a privilege but at least I can escape my bike park dilemma for a bit. They are a simple reminder of the simple life-affirming joy of riding a bike and exploring new places with friends. So, this post is a description of a fun mission that I did recently, rather than a millennial whinge (mostly)!

A great crew of friends I have organises an end-of-year mission each December. Plan A last year was to head to the West Coast to ride the new Paparoa Great Walk. The most favourable dates for huts sold out in a flash, so that plan died. Plan B eventuated during an evening planning session at the local pub. Kah named our trip crew the 'Catlins Christmas Cartel', and before we knew it, December had arrived. It was time to leave the daily grind and jump on our bikes.

The Catlins Christmas Cartel loop, starting and finishing in Invercargill

Day 1: Invercargill to Waikaia

The Catlins Christmas Cartel comprised myself, Matt, Kah and Paul, with Ash joining us at the halfway point. We rocked up bright and early to Wellington airport but our flight was late departing because the ground crew were “having trouble organising some oversize luggage items”. That would be our stack of bike boxes. Oops.

Invercargill airport – the adventure begins

Day 1 was 140 kilometres from Invercargill to Waikaia via the Otapiri-Madeville Road. After reassembling our bikes at the airport, we pedalled away into a grey Invercargill day. However the weather didn’t represent our good moods, especially when we bumped into everyone’s best mate Mayor Tim Shadbolt only five minutes into our trip. We could have stopped right there and gone home - I mean, the trip couldn’t possibly get any better. Of course, we carried on, after all we might be blessed by another encounter with Sir Tim.

The first stop was at one of Invercargill’s amazing bakeries. I got a bit overexcited and stuffed way too many cheese rolls into any remaining bag space. Little did we know that this bakery was only the beginning of the culinary delights to come.

The calm before the wind

The grey clouds turned into black ominous things, then dumped their watery load on us halfway through the day. The soggy gravel made the steep, recently-graded roads a miserable grovel. This back route was my friend Kath’s recommendation (she’s a legendary hard-ass Roxburgh local). There was a lot of cursing at Kath as we pushed our bikes up soul-sucking climbs. Type 2 fun. I wouldn’t have it any other way. Then the weather presented blue sky and sun to lull us into a false sense of security, only to laugh in our faces minutes later with a ferocious headwind. By the time we made Riversdale at around the 110km mark, I was cracked - it was my first long ride in far too long. I wobbled into the dairy and smashed a cookie time and a can of coke. The sugar hit allowed me to desperately hang onto Paul’s wheel (the group’s very own fixed-gear windbreaker) for the last 30 kilometres of brutal headwind.

Waikaia, a small rural town on the road to nowhere, was a pleasant surprise. The locals were friendly and the food much better than what you would expect form a small rural pub. Pulled chicken nachos and $5 recovery pints went down a treat.

Day 2: Waikaia to Roxburgh

This was our big Central Otago day, over the Old Man Range and into Roxburgh. We enjoyed a hearty Southland breakfast in Waikaia, then stocked up on cheese rolls and treats to enjoy later on top of the Old Man Range. The massive 4WD climb started with scenic beech forest, before eventually opening up to big wide tussock tops. The remnants of snow at the top was a reminder of how harsh it can get up there, even in summer. We had a frolic in the snow and a White Christmas picnic at the hut before boosting down the seemingly never-ending descent into Central Otago. I still have an image seared into my memory of Paul tearing down the gravel on his fixie, spinning his legs at some astronomically high cadence.

Looking back down on the climb up to Old Man Range

Top of the range

AA hut


We rolled into Roxburgh late in the afternoon, keeping an eye out for our night's lodgings at Kath’s place. Roxburgh is only small, right? After a while someone thought it might be a good idea to check Google Maps, at which point we discovered that Kath lived some 40 minutes ride out of town. We decided to buy beer and wine for the evening anyway and solve the problem as to how to carry it all once we got out of the supermarket. This is when I learnt that my Ground Effect Antidote jacket makes great wine holder. Also, the Clutha River Trail is so smooth that beer can be transported for 10 kilometres by bike without getting too fizzzzzy.

Those pockets

The culinary delights experienced in Southland continued in Central Otago. Kath cooked us a feast of local venison which we enjoyed with the wine that had survived in my perfect jacket pockets.

Big grins and Kath’s shed

Day 3: Roxburgh to Kaka Point via Balclutha

Day 3 and Type 3 fun (a.k.a not even fun once you are out the other side). I have since managed to erase most of it from memory, except the image of Paul, Kah and Matt standing around a table in the Balclutha BP, none talking, all dripping wet with a pool of water at their feet, each trying to suck some joy out of the hot pies.

It rained heavily for most of the day, hence no photos, except for this lovely one of Kah which says “this sucks”. But what is a mission without at least one crappy day?

This sucks

Our energy levels lifted once we had defrosted and dewrinkled our cold and wet bodies at our Kaka Point crib. They were lifted even more when the bubbly Ash joined us after travelling down from Wanaka. We had another delicious meal at the Kaka Point pub while we enjoyed the sunset glistening on the peeling waves. Southland continued to impress us with its delicious food and equally delicious scenery.

Day 4: Kaka Point to Curio Bay

We embarked on a relatively cruisy day with many sightseeing stops. These stops included both natural and man-made attractions – from rugged coastline and waterfalls, to teapot and curio collections. The sparsely populated Catlins meant we got to enjoy quiet roads through rolling farmland and old beech forest. It also meant a lack of food options on Monday night. After realising the only food outlet in Curio Bay was closed, we made an emergency dash in Ash’s car to the local pub at Tokanui. We got there in the nick of time for a deep-fried dinner. Better than getting hangry!

Kaka Point beach

Nugget Point lighthouse

Nugget point

Grav grav

Owaka teapot collection

Curio museum

Tautuku Bay

Day 5: Curio Bay to Invercargill

A relatively short final day on some less scenic rural roads back to Invercargill. The Southland culinary experience ended with dessert at Temptations in Invercargill, and what an experience it was. We stood gazing at the menu, trying to make sense of the overwhelming multitude of choices, before the owner stepped in to help us make up our minds. He animatedly explained all his creations while whipping our desserts together. While the desserts weren’t particularly fancy (mostly just bizarre), they brought joy to my heart because it was apparent this guy was living and breathing his dream. If you’re in Invercargill, I recommend visiting Temptations, even just for the positive experience of meeting someone with contagious passion who seems to know how to live life.

We caught an early flight the next morning which involved riding to the airport at 4.30am. Rather astonishingly, the bike boxes which we had stashed away six days earlier were still there and fine to be re-used for the trip home. On arriving in Wellington, we reassembled our bikes at the airport, and rode back to our various rat-race jobs. The memory of our trip already another world away.

Matt is happy with his dessert

Fast forward to March 2020

So now, while isolating in my home during this weird COVID-19 situation, another trip like the Catlins Christmas Cartel mission is something I am really looking forward to. My bike park dilemma is a lesser concern right now. Some aspects of the cycling world may bother me, and these will change over my life. What I know won’t change is the great enjoyment of a riding adventure with a good bunch of friends. Thanks bikes, and thanks friends.