Thursday, 9 August 2018

Alsp2Ocean 5: I Must Go Down to the Sea

Only a child’s geography would have mountains leading to the sea in a smooth, uninterrupted, downhill flow. We’ve been learning that for days now, but we’re a little slow on the uptake. Day 5 hammers it in yet again.

[Lynne at Elephant Rocks: Is It Downhill Yet?] 
Our first uphill leads to and around Elephant Rocks, aptly named limestone lumps that stud the verdant grassland. The area is dotted with sheep the same hue as the rocks. We have more than 50km to ride, but there’s a relaxed feel to this, our final day. 

[Ready to leave on our final day] 
We’ve enjoyed a warming porridge for breakfast, ideal for the chill that’s still in the air. And now we’re enjoying the scene from Elephant Rocks. Beyond the green fields there’s plenty of snow on the grand sweep of higher hills and mountains to the west.

[Sheep and rocks at Elephant Rocks] 
We warm up as we puff our way up and around the steep limestone hills. By the time we’re nearing Island Cliff, the sheep have been replaced by cattle, which shelter beneath the limestone escarpment. On the downhill run Tim has raced ahead, only to ride back to us from the bottom so he can fang down the slope again. I video his antics, including some brief airborne moments and a few whoops of delight.

[Cattle and limestone walls near Island Cliff] 
We pay for the fun with a long and steady climb. I’m behind now, having stopped for a few too many photographs, and no matter how hard I ride I can’t seem to catch up. It’s Tim’s turn to video as I struggle up the long last climb. The van is parked tantalisingly at the brow of a hill, and it feels as though everyone else is lined up like barrackers on Le Tour. This feeds both my pride and my stubborn streak. I’m not getting off and walking now!

Accompanied by Tim’s mock sports commentary I wheeze and wobble my way to the top. At least I think it’s the top. It turns out there’s more hill to climb yet. That’s the bad news: the good news is that Joh is offering us a lift in Morrison for the kilometre or two to the top. She wants us in Oamaru in reasonable shape, and not too late!

My pride evaporates. As soon as I’ve got my breath back and had a coffee, I’m helping the others load bikes into the trailer. But now it’s Lynne’s turn to show a stubborn streak. She wants to keep riding to the top, albeit with e-bike assistance, so she sets off ahead of the van. We only catch up with her just before the (actual) top. Her smile is almost as wide as the views we’re now getting, including glimpses of the ocean.

Has the landscape just been playing with us these past few days? Like some half-tamed beast, one moment it’s growled at us, the next it’s lifted us onto its back for a better view. We’ve certainly never been allowed to settle into complacency. But now we can actually see our destination, and it really does look as if it’s all downhill from here!

There are some exciting twists and turns to negotiate first, including the dark of the Rakis Railway Tunnel. (So that’s why we were supplied with torches!) Beyond the tunnel the track continues to follow an old rail line, curvaceous, gently inclined and all downhill. 

["Hi Ho!" Lynne "off to work" in the Rakis Tunnel] 
We speed down to our lunch stop near Windsor. And then a route detour leads us to the fascinating Elderslie Estate, a grand Victorian era property that still reflects a bit of its former glory. Some say that the famous Phar Lap was born at the Elderslie stud, although it’s more likely that he was only conceived here. Regardless, even if he was only here as a twinkle in his sire’s eye, the stables have a grand-if-neglected place among the estate buildings.

[Tim and Lynne at the derelict Elderslie Estate stables] 
We continue on past the village of Enfield and on to the town of Weston. If it’s slightly uphill, we’re past worrying. The land-beast has continued to be in a playful, teasing mood, summoning up a final shower of rain to accompany us down the final few kilometres into Oamaru. The sealed cycleway avoids the busy city outskirts, instead taking us in via the beautiful Oamaru Gardens. Tim, Lynne and I gather together in the gardens before processing into the city proper. 

[Nearly there! A final pause in the Oamaru Gardens] 
We cross a few trafficked roads and ride into the old Victorian era precinct that surrounds the Oamaru Harbour and Friendly Bay. A large picture frame on the foreshore marks the end of the ride. After hugs and handshakes, we gather together in the frame. A friendly passer-by snaps a group photograph, and it’s all over. 5 days, more than 260km across the South Island, from near its high point to this Pacific coast.

As a final gesture I walk down to the shore of Friendly Bay and touch the water. The waves lap on the sand, small and gently percussive. I fancy it’s the sound of the land-beast wagging its tail.

Sunday, 8 July 2018

Alps2Ocean 4: Dam Cold

Yesterday’s sleet turned out to be only an hors d’oeuvre. Overnight the main course was delivered: proper snow. And not just in the mountains. A dusting covered the ground in Omarama, and as we sat down to a hot breakfast in the warm hotel, a fresh flurry blew through. Guests rushed to the windows, ooing and aahing. Our group exchanged raised-eyebrow looks. Snow and ice don’t make for great riding conditions.

[Snowy hills across Lake Benmore] 
But I had another concern. Yesterday’s downhill hammering had done me some mischief. I’d been unable to lift my heavy luggage without wincing in pain. It seemed I’d sprained my wrist and/or damaged a tendon. Lynne and Joh saw my struggles, and both were concerned about me riding. Joh decided to strap my wrist. As she finished, even though I’m old enough to be her father, she gave me one of those “doubtful mum” looks. She didn’t want me riding if I was going to be unsafe, or at risk of further injury. I made a braking motion with the thumb and fingers of my affected hand, then gave a thumbs-up. There weren’t any rough sections today: what was there to worry about?

[Signalling the start of Day Four at Benmore Dam] 
Not even the weather, it turned out. By the time we were ready to leave, the sky was clearing, and the snowline had lifted far enough to ease our worries. But it was still very cool, and we threw all our cold weather gear into the van. As Joh drove us to Benmore Dam and the start of the day’s cycling, we rubber-necked out the windows at the spectacular views of snowy hills and mountains.

There is something inherently cold about concrete, and Benmore Dam – deeply shaded beneath newly snowy hills – provided a perfect example. Jackets, gloves, leggings and wool beanies beneath our helmets were all essential for the fast downhill section from the dam to the next hydro lake, Lake Aviemore. Tim had even added some plastic bags over his still-damp socks, to keep the wind chill down.

If an uphill can ever be merciful to any cyclist apart from Richie Porte, the couple of small climbs along the lakeshore helped get our internal combustion going. By the time we’d ridden the long sealed road section to the Aviemore Dam, we were thawed enough to appreciate the spectacular views across to the snow-capped hills. And more than ready to find Joh and Morrison for a warming cuppa.

[Tim and snow-capped hills in the Waitaki Valley] 
Backroads and cycle trails took us down the Waitaki River valley, firstly beside Waitaki Lake to the next dam, and then alongside the river. Along the way I thought afresh about the conundrum that is “100% Pure New Zealand”. We spent most of the day riding past hydro-electric lakes, rivers staunched by dams, countryside criss-crossed with transmission lines and surrounded by once-forested hills that are now cleared and covered with sheep and cattle. In truth we’d found the scenery entrancing. But little of it has remained natural or “pure”. Ask around a bit, and dig beneath the surface, and you’ll find plenty of environmental problems here, from dairy farming pollution to feral infestations. New Zealand’s is an ecosystem that is anything but pure. But I suppose marketers can’t – or won’t – sell complex, compromised stories, until we tourists and travellers demand a more-than superficial response to the places we visit.

We finally reached town of Kurow. This is wine country, and we were more than happy to stop at a winery for lunch and a tasting. Lynne had been having knee problems, and opted to join the others who’d chosen to do the next section in the van. In one breath I commiserated with her; in the next I asked if she’d mind if I rode her e-bike for the next section. Given that only Tim and I were riding the next section, it was the only way I’d keep up with him!

[In the vineyards near Kurow] 
It was still windy and a little wet as we wound our way through vineyards on the very pleasant bike-only trail. Tim had plans of his own, and put me in front so he could ride in my e-powered slipstream. “As good as two extra gears” he told me, as I tried to make sure I made no sudden moves that could land us both in a ditch. For some of the trail we whizzed along beside the Waitaki River, now free from its damming, and flowing fast, braided and blue through the broadening countryside.

At a few points we had to slow to cross side streams, one of which contributed to more wet socks. After a fast and furious hour or so, the trail led us back to the main SH83 road, where Joh and Morrison (our van) met us. We had a quick look at the fascinating Takiroa Maori rock art site. A steep limestone overhang is set amongst green pasture, and from about 1400 AD, Maori decorated the cliff walls in both ochre and charcoal. Some decorations have apparently been removed or defaced over the years, and the site is a shadow of what it once would have been.

[Limestone cliffs at the Maori rock art site] 
In the warm comfort of Morrison we sped back over countryside we’d just ridden through – albeit on a different road – and arrived back in Kurow. There, in newish accommodation called Waitaki Braids, we cleaned up before spending a very enjoyable night wining and dining. The beauty of a hard day’s riding is the feeling that it’s okay to splash out like this in your down time.

Thursday, 14 June 2018

Alps2Ocean 3: Ohau We Rode!

For the first two days of our ride we’d persisted with the “it’s all downhill from Aoraki/Mt Cook to the ocean” story. And that’s because it had, as far as Lake Ohau Lodge, been largely downhill. Day 3 was to tell a different tale.

[The innocent-looking start of the track on Day 3] 
It wasn’t as if we hadn’t been warned. Joh, our guide, had always briefed us well on what lay ahead of us. Our third day was to be our longest day, and also the toughest in terms of track surface and gradient. She’d said it would take about two hours of riding, quite steeply uphill, before we reached the day’s high point at Tarnbrae. She added that, from her experience, most riders got off and walked at least part of that section. That sounded to me like a challenge in two parts! Firstly could I beat 2 hours? And secondly would I need to get off and walk at any stage?

[On the long climb from Lake Ohau] 
Pride, ego, willpower, stubbornness – I could never settle on what to call it – can be strong motivators. Part way up the nearly 500m climb I had that theory reinforced. Riding alone, I was pushing steadily upwards, negotiating the odd rough bit of track – and occasional urges to stop and rest – as best I could. I sipped from my water bottle, adjusted my position on the bike, searched hard for the most efficient gear, and generally felt I was going well. Then I heard a group coming up behind me. They were clearly going faster than me, and politely asked to overtake. I watched as the three women and three men – all a bit younger than me – slid past and cycled on ahead. Slightly stung by this, I upped my tempo, deciding I would do all I could to keep up with these upstarts! But then I noticed the tell-tale battery packs on the rear racks of their bikes. I laughed at myself, and left them to try their luck at catching Lynne, who had already used her e-bike advantage to power ahead of me.

Then the reality of using only leg and lung power started to bite. And based on Joh’s description, the slope was only going to get more severe. But just as I was beginning to mentally wilt, the track passed through the first of a series of pretty forested areas that clustered along three cascading creeks. A photo opportunity! What better way to earn a break while fooling myself that I haven’t really stopped?

[A creek-side stop on the ascent] 
And so, through a series of tricks, evasions, and sheer bloody-mindedness, I was surprised to round a bend and find the “Tarnbrae High Point” sign. I was further delighted to find that I’d taken 1 hour and 40 minutes, and hadn’t had to walk the bike at any stage. I celebrated the moment with a couple of cyclists from Canberra. We took high point photos for each other and compared notes on the ride thus far. We were all very glad that it really WAS all downhill from here.

[At the 900m high point above Lake Ohau] 
As I had been slowly catching up to the Canberrans on the ascent, they suggested I lead off on the descent. I quickly checked my front shocks, which hadn’t been working very convincingly, and set off at speed. This was going to be the fun pay-back for that 100 minutes of grunty ascent! For the first time on the trip I felt as though I was doing “proper” mountain biking. It was steeply downhill, with some sharp turns, plenty of bumps and a lot of rough gravel. I thought I must be powering ahead of the Canberra couple, but on one curve I noticed they were quite close behind. Time to put the foot on the accelerator!

It became a wild and very bumpy ride, but I gripped the handle bars, leaned forward and pedalled as hard as I could, braking only when I really needed to. Towards the toe of the scrubby slope there were a couple of rocky creeks that I ploughed through a little too fast. My arms took quite a bit of the shock, and my feet ended up sodden, but I was exhilarated. Finally the downhill levelled off, and the track closed in on Quailburn Woolshed. Joh had arranged to meet us there in Morrison for a late morning tea break.

Lynne had been waiting there for quite a while, and had some cake and a cuppa ready. Joh had been in phone contact with the rest of the group, and thought they were probably well behind. So after a good break, Lynne and I decided to push on together. We’d put in a lot of effort so far, and were a little disheartened to realise we weren’t even a third of the way to our day’s end destination at Otematata. Although the Quailburn Road wasn’t all sealed, at least it was both easy and quiet. With heads down and legs pushing, we eventually reached the pleasant banks of the Ahuriri River, and the short ride into the town of Omarama. That’s where we would all gather together for a late lunch before the final push to Otematata.

[Lynne taking a break beside the Ahuriri River] 
Of course there was one more twist to the day’s ride. Tim, Lynne and I were the ones silly enough to ride the final section. The other two had succumbed to the comforts of Morrison, and a ride in the van to our accommodation. We imagined that the downhill section from Otematata Saddle into the town itself would be a gentle free-wheeling cruise. The weather decided otherwise. Cloud had been building up all afternoon, and now a biting wind was blowing. As we rode those final kilometres, cold, sleety rain lashed us. We were supposed to meet Joh at the Benmore Dam, a few kilometres after Otematata. 

[Sheltering from the sleet at Otematata] 
But all the pride in the world wasn’t going to keep us out in that weather any longer. Instead, having reached the bottom of the hill and the town boundary, we rode just a hundred metres further to the town pub. After a 65km day, we had the energy to order drinks, call Joh to let her know where to find us, and slump down beside the fire. Sometimes enough is enough!