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!

Tuesday, 5 June 2018

Alps2Ocean 2: Cracker of a Day

We started our 2nd day with a substantial breakfast, fuel for the 50km day ahead. A quick walk outside told us we should supplement that inner fuel with a layer of warmer outer clothing. A stiff breeze was blowing, it was colder than yesterday, and showers were forecast.

[Set to start day 2 near Lake Pukaki] 
Then we clambered back onboard Morrison (our van). A certain amount of van shuttling was necessary some days, as our accommodation wasn’t always at the end of the day’s ride. So today that snakes and ladders element of the trip saw us snaking from Twizel back to Lake Pukaki. There we got back on our bikes in a stark gravelled area, a remnant from the vast hydro-electric development that has strongly marked this region.

The Pukaki Flats section was a pleasant, easy off-road ride, and it felt good to be riding again. That ladder soon took us back to Twizel, where Joh had arranged to meet us for coffee. Apparently Twizel was to be a temporary hydro-electric construction village, but it defied its use-by date. It has now become a thriving tourism hub, not least because of cycling. The coffee shop had a dozen bikes parked outside, and more lycra-clad patrons inside than most city coffee spots on a Sunday.

[Lynne, Tim and Dave nearing Twizel] 
After Twizel we rode a longish backroad section towards the Ohau Canal. Our beautiful backdrop was the Ben Ohau mountains, a range that stretches south and west from near Aoraki/Mt Cook. If we sometimes felt we were riding through a filmset, there was a moment for me where that “film” switched from The Lord of the Rings to Footrot Flats. Having stopped for a photograph, I was riding alone as I came towards a man, his young daughter and a dog. As I got closer I could see – and hear – that the man was showing the pig-tailed girl how to handle a border collie dog. He whistled loudly and called out to the dog in a gruff, commanding voice. As I puffed up alongside, the broad-hatted gentleman abruptly paused from his work, tilted his head towards me, and said through a broad grin “Gudday. Cracker of a day!”. I puffed out a “Sure is” in response, then cycled on, smiling as I left Wal, The Dog and Pongo to their work.

[A contented merino ram outside Twizel] 
The cracker of a day changed on the long, flat section beside the Ohau Canal. It should have been easy, but soon showers were battering us, and the wind became strong and gusty. The climatologist in me debated whether this was a katabatic wind draining cold air off the range, or merely a strengthening of the underlying westerly. I came to two conclusions. Firstly, whatever you called it, it was bloody hard work to cycle into! And secondly I was now officially envious of Lynne, who was out of sight ahead of us thanks to her e-bike.

[Tim riding beside the Ohau Canal] 
Eventually the squalls lessened in the lee of Ben Ohau, and we re-gathered near the Ohau Weir for lunch. The winding Lake Ohau Track took us around the shores of the beautiful lake, eliciting a few “woo hoo”s from Tim. He was clearly in his mountain biking element on this single track section. And just as patently, I was in landscape heaven. Across the startlingly blue lake skeins of loose scree slid the flanks of Ben Ohau, some right to the lake shore.

[Panorama of Lake Ohau - click to enlarge] 
We had a brief and windy afternoon tea stop beside the lake. Wind squalls were kicking up waves, which crashed noisily onto the shingle shore. We huddled behind Morrison for a while, then resumed riding, this time on the blacktop. We had “only” 10km more to ride to our overnight stop at Lake Ohau Lodge, and the countryside around us was stunning. But it proved hard going, with the wind still tearing straight into our faces.

[Wind squalls, showers and waves, Lake Ohau] 
We had one final steep push from the lakeshore up to Lake Ohau Lodge, which had a commanding position overlooking the lake and the Ben Ohau Range behind that. It was a while before I fully appreciated its position. A cold drink and a hot shower were my immediate needs.

[Lynne waits for me on the winding road to Lake Ohau Lodge] 
Walking into the lodge was like entering a mid-20th century time capsule. The pine-lined walls were covered in black and white ski photos, trophies and huge maps. Dozen of guests gathered around a generous fireplace, lounged on old sofas, or chatted around the bar. That evening the hospitality extended to a wonderfully reviving meal served by happy and engaging staff. Our cracker of a day had become a cracker of a night.