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!