Monday 31 December 2018

The Banks Peninsula Track 3: More Ups Than Downs

[View Down to Stony Bay] 
Overnight the wind strengthens. Even here, in Stony Bay Farm’s protected woodland, cradled deeply beneath encircling hills, the wind and rain crash around us. Autumn has suddenly arrived. That’s reinforced when the walnut tree that hangs over our little cottage drops bits of its clunking cargo onto our tin roof half the night. But we’re so warm and cosy, and so used to possum noises at home, that we hardly notice. Just fleetingly we chat about the issue of walking out in the wet, steeply up, then steeply back down, particularly given Lynne’s sore knee. But before we come to any conclusion, our tired, well-fed bodies succumb to sleep.

And in the morning, while the wind’s still fresh, the sun is shining. After breakfast we learn that two of the other walkers have arranged to be “jockeyed” out with the supply van. One of them is unwell with a virus, and the prospect of the nearly 700m climb to the rim of the old volcano has proved too much. Lynne has considered the same option, but is determined to complete the circuit. We wish the others well, hoist our packs, and start to walk out the only way we know how: one step at a time.

[Ready to Leave Stony Bay] 
The initial climb is gradual, and through lush planted garden, but soon we’re climbing more steadily through rough, regenerating bush. This is part of the Hinewai Reserve, 1250 hectares of Protected Private Land. Amid weedy species such as gorse and broom, native ferns, shrubs and trees are slowly returning. The theory is that, if fire and grazing animals can be excluded, the native plants, sheltered by the weeds, will soon become dominant.

[Weeds and Natives above Stony Bay] 
I confess I find this ugly to walk through, and it seems a second-best way to achieve such a result (the best being to leave it intact in the first place). But hindsight is a marvellous thing, and by the time we reach some of the remaining intact forest, I warmly applaud this effort to make good what was once here.

[In the Beech Forest] 
The best of the remnant beech forest is on the steepest slopes, surely because they were the most difficult for 19th century tree-clearing techniques to reach. As we sweat our way up through the forest, our warm applause soon become stunned awe. The dominant red beech/Tawhai raunui (Nothofagus fusca), some of which are probably several hundred years old, are a wonder to behold. Their dappled, deep green shade gives both excuse to pause, and inoculation against some of the pain of the climb.

[One of the Giant Red Beech Trees] 
As we ascend further, the trees diminish in size and vary in species. Is it just me, or does everyone on a climb like this think “and just around this corner we’ll break out into the open tops”? The short answer is always “No!”. But thankfully the long answer is eventually a relieved “Yes!!” On this occasion, the walking track breaks out onto a 4WD track, and before too long we’re at the Tara Track shelter. We’ve reached an altitude of 690m, and it’s taken us less than 3 hours. We celebrate with our remaining cheese and bikkies, then wander along the now easy grade track, through open tussock, to our descent point.

[The Tussocky Tops] 
The rain has not only held off, the skies have completely cleared. As we stand near the viewpoint above Akaroa, the sky and the harbour seem to vie for the title of best blue. But not all is straightforward. While descending is usually easier than ascending, Lynne’s sore knee has found the opposite on the previous two days. We talk about taking it slowly; stopping frequently; resting the knee as much as possible. But it’s still with some apprehension that we start the long descent.

[Above Akaroa: It's All Downhill From Here!] 
All of that makes it all the more pleasing that we get to the bottom in little more than an hour, and with virtually no knee issue. That’s not to say we’re not exhausted, and that we’re not mightily pleased to see our car at Mt Vernon Lodge. But more than anything we’re proud of completing our circuit of the headlands, cliffs, forests and farms that make up the beautiful Banks Track. All that remains is to find a little French café in Akaroa for a celebratory drink. And perhaps a pain au chocolat or two.

Friday 14 September 2018

The Banks Peninsula Track 2: On the Edge

["You have been warned!": a self-explanatory sign on the Banks Track] 
It may be a luxury to finish a day’s walking at lunchtime, but it’s not an unwelcome one. It gives us a chance to rest, to check out our little cabin, and to socialise over lunch. The Flea Bay farmstead is supplied with a basket of freshly-laid eggs and a few other supplies alongside an honesty box. Lunch is quite an eggy affair for most of us.

After lunch we farewell Joh and Mark, whose 2 day walk requires them to walk on to the next hut at Stony Bay. We feel for them having another 2-4 hours more walking ahead of them. Lynne and I are very glad we don’t have to do the same. Instead we wander 100m or so over to Flea Bay itself. It has a cobble beach, and with the wind blowing hard, there are waves biting into the steep shore. We’re surprised to see a group of kids out swimming with a huge inflatable inner tube. The tube, possibly from a tractor tyre, is anchored by some adults via a stout rope. Every now and then there are squeals of laughter as a wave knocks the kids off the tube.

[Even the sheep at Flea Bay are laid back!] 
We chat with the adults, who are spending a weekend on a nearby farm owned by family. They’ve been coming to the bay for years, and love that the third or fourth generation of family members is getting acquainted with this remote and beautiful place.

Later the owners of the Flea Bay farm come to offer walkers the chance for a guided sea kayak trip tomorrow morning. Seals and dolphins are regulars in the bay, and its spectacularly steep surroundings make the kayaking idea very tempting. But in the morning the wind is still very strong, and large swells are breaking in the bay, so we decide to walk on.

[Sea kayaks near Flea Bay] 
Of course those same steep surroundings make for a steep ascent, firstly towards the head of the bay, and then up and over the hills and cliffs that will eventually lead to Stony Bay. Near the seaward end of the bay we look down and see a pair of kayaks. They’re hugging the less windy western side of the bay, but I still count them brave being out in these conditions.

Whether you’re on the water or up here in the hills, there’s no doubting the incredible spectacle all around you. If the bay is steep-sided, the hills further east simply tip into the sea over vast, dark cliffs. Offshore rocks and inaccessible islands make home for thousands of sea birds, and further off the coast we watch a stout fishing trawler rocking and rolling its way towards the port of Lyttleton.

[Spot the walkers: click on image to enlarge] 
The track meanders up and down, often close to the edge, but sometimes darting diagonally inland to avoid steep gulches. The inner edge of one of these gulches has an eccentric shelter hut tucked in against large boulders. Presumably it was once used by farm workers, or possibly fishermen. It features a couple of leadlight windows and an outside long-drop toilet. We go in for a look, and are surprised to see some plants growing against a window in one corner. We’re less surprised by its rough and rustic state.

[The half-way hut: note the "indoor plants"] 
Just beyond the hut our path passes a rocky shore which features a sea-cut cave. Mixed in with the swash of the waves, we hear some plaintive barking noises. Our suspicions are confirmed by a roughly-made sign: seals live in the cave. We cautiously peek over a rocky edge, but given how well they blend with the rocks, it takes a few moments before we see perhaps a dozen seals dozing in the shade. New Zealand fur seals (Arctocephalus forsteri) were once hunted so “successfully” – both here and in Australian waters – that they were close to extinction by the end of the 19th century. Their Maori name, kekeno, translates “look-arounds”. It’s a behaviour that may have helped them survive: that and the (now welcome) collapse of the whaling and sealing trade.

[Spot the fur seals! click the image to enlarge] 
We leave the seals to their wary slumber and climb back up to high cliff level. Part of the cliff-line is fenced off, not so much for our safety as for the protection of sea bird colonies, especially the sooty shearwater/titi (Ardenna grisea). This is yet another species that was hunted close to extinction, and is still rare. Near another highpoint we climb a stile and our destination, the aptly named Stony Bay, is in sight.

[Lynne at the stile above Stony Bay] 
After yesterday’s downhill difficulties, we’re a little anxious about how the descent into the bay will affect Lynne’s knees. Although it’s long and reasonably steep, we take our time, stopping to admire the scenery, and to marvel at the exotic plantings put in by the Amstrong family. In their informal arboretum we even recognise a few home plant species, including some honeysuckle banksia (Banksia marginata), which are Tasmanian endemics.

Lynne is hobbling and in pain by the time we traipse around the shoreline and find the complex of buildings near the Armstrong family's homestead. But there’s comfort to be had here for sure, including a delightful tiny cabin for the two of us, hot showers, an outdoor wood-heated bath, and a communal hut with a fireplace and a fine old dining table. The quaint buildings are all set higgledy piggledy within delightfully shady grounds, all overtopped by a mix of exotic and native trees. Best of all there’s a tiny little “shop”, with fresh and tinned produce, a selection of meats, and a surprisingly good assortment of New Zealand and Australian wine.

[Our tiny cabin at Stony Bay] 
My inner Aussie-male comes to the fore that night. Armed with tongs and a fork, I offer to cook for everyone on the little barbecue that's housed in one of the out-buildings. Of course as soon as I get cooking, a cold rain starts. And then the wind gets up as well, making me feel right at home! It’s a delightful evening. Each of us feels proud that we've made it this far, and that - thanks to the little shop - we can enjoy together what now feel like exotic luxuries. We top it all off with a final dram in front of the little fire. The wind and rain continue to do their worst: but somehow, for now at least, all manner of things are well.

[The dining table at Stony Bay Hut] 

Saturday 1 September 2018

The Banks Peninsula Track 1: Dancing on the Volcano

It’s the kind of coincidence you expect to happen in Tasmania. We’re sitting patiently next to our bags, waiting for a bus, when suddenly we’re hailed – by name – by a passing driver. But we’re not in Tassie, we’re in the village of Akaroa in New Zealand’s South Island. And while we’re frequent visitors to NZ, we’re a long way from gaining “local” status.

That’s what makes it head-shakingly odd that we do actually recognise the person calling out to us. It’s Joh, who two weeks ago was our guide on the Alps2Ocean cycle trip! Amazingly she’s here in Akaroa for the same reason we are: to walk the Banks Track. She and her Kiwi boyfriend Mark are doing the 2 night version of the walk we’ll be doing over 3 nights.

Meeting up with Joh is just the first surprise of many on this walk. The next is that we only have to walk a couple of hundred metres on our first day. It’s just as well, because the sun will soon drop below the western rim of the old volcanic cone that surrounds Akaroa, and dark will follow. A minibus picks up the 9 walkers who make up our group, and delivers us a few kilometres further around the Banks Peninsula, near the Onuku Farm Hostel which is our home for the first night.

[Joh and Mark dine with us in Onuku Hut]
Onuku has a communal hut for walkers, plus a few options for sleeping arrangements. These include bunk rooms in the main hut; “stargazer” mini-huts outside; and small private cabins. The communal kitchen/dining area gives us a good chance to meet our fellow walkers, and over dinner we relax and chat and start to get acquainted.

Another surprise about the Banks Track is that it’s almost entirely on private farmland. The whole Banks Peninsula, which covers an area of roughly 100,000 hectares, was once forested. Maori people had cleared about a third of this by the time Europeans arrived, and the pakeha greatly accelerated clearing to make way for farms.

Five of those farms, having banded together to create and maintain the walking track as well as accommodation, now host around 2,000 walkers per year. Walkers pay just under $100 per night for the walk, including accomodation. Prices are higher for private huts, and for extras like sleeping bag hire and pack cartage. The farming families – and other locals - are also actively involved in restoring forest on the peninsula, undoing some of the over-zealous work of their ancestors.

[Looking over Onuku Farm to Akaroa Harbour] 
After breakfast it’s literally onward and upward. Our first real day’s walking takes us quickly from near sea level to almost 700m. That’s steep in anyone’s language, but understandable when you're climbing the rim of an old volcano. Lynne and I had planned to adopt a head-down-plod-on approach, but the scenery is so beautiful we soon ditch that idea! At least, given how photo-worthy it all is, we have plenty of stops. The track is a mix of farm tracks and grassy switchbacks. The steep green hills are dotted with white sheep that chew casually while keeping a wary eye on us.

[On the grassy track above Akaroa Harbour] 
Soon Onuku’s farm buildings recede beneath us, and we’re gaining spectacular view back over Akaroa Harbour. We’ve opted not to have our packs carted, instead staying in private rooms that have bedding supplied. The communal kitchens have gas as well as cooking pots, pans and utensils. So our packs are reasonably lightweight, have only clothing and food for our 3 days. We’re glad of that, as we’re puffing furiously by the time we near the high point, taking in great lungs-full of air that has just a faint farmy whiff.

After a short breather we walk on, and are surprised when we almost immediately reach a small shelter with a sign declaring it the half way point. We’re happy to take the good news, even if our instinct says it can’t be right. We’ve only taken a little over 90 minutes, and the whole day is said to take 4-6 hours. We walk on, step over a stile and head into the adjacent property. From there it’s all downhill.

[Lynne at the 699m high point] 
If that feels like more good news, we soon learn otherwise. The downhill is steep and relentless, first on a road, and then on bush tracks. I’m not among those who prefer going uphill to downhill, but before long I’m reconsidering my opinion. Lynne’s knees start hurting before we’ve left the steep, winding gravel road, and mine are not much better. We try a drunken-sailor, slalom style of walk; we even try walking backwards: anything to ease the knee strain. Nothing helps except stopping, and we choose to do that frequently, taking in water and snacks even if we’re not thirsty or hungry.

As the morning heads towards afternoon, we learn how truly inaccurate the “half-way” marker is. For a great deal longer than our uphill walk we continue winding down through the 700m descent that will take us to Flea Bay/Pohatu. 

[The track passes a beautiful old red beech: Nothofagus fusca] 
There’s some comfort in the beauty of the red beech forest we’re starting to travel through, and especially when a piwakawaka (fantail) starts to escort us through the greenery. For more than a kilometre it flits ahead of us, alighting on a branch, chittering busily for a moment before tracing a dizzying flight path through the branches as we walk alongside. It repeats the whole process numerous times. We never tire of its blessed distraction.

[Our friendly piwakawaka/fantail] 
Not too far from Flea Bay we’re also distracted by a few waterfalls, some visible from the track; others audible through the dense bush. We eventually level out onto pasture land, and plod wearily into the clutch of farm buildings that will be our home for the night. 

[Arriving at Flea Bay farmstead] 
We’ve taken well under 5 hours to get here, and it’s only just lunch time. We probably should be proud of ourselves: we’re the first walkers here, and our time has been relatively quick. But we’re too sore and tired to celebrate. We have just enough energy to do a warm-down stretch, and to boil some eggs for lunch, before exploring the lounge chairs at some length. 

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!