"Of all the roads you choose in life, make sure some of them are dirt" - Anon.
It’s a drive I know well and never tire of - Rangiora to Wanaka. Aside from an hour and a half of slightly less inspiring country across the vast expanse of the Canterbury Plains, this drive never fails to inspire, humble and feed my soul. It was during these drives that I started to ponder the possibility of taking another route and another mode of transport. Going on foot, on a horse or on a mountain bike, were all options I thought about at great length while motoring down State Highway 8.
The mountain bike was eventually chosen as the preferred mode of transport and with fellow mountain biking mate Hamish, we set about planning a route. It was decided we would start at Mesopotamia Station, up the Rangitata Valley. We didn't see much point in 200 kms of road riding just to reach the hills, when this journey was essentially about spending time in the back-country and maybe finding some sweet mountain biking in amongst the hours of pushing, carrying and general groveling that would be required. We had high hopes of getting the ride done in 4 days, but we perhaps didn’t quite comprehend how slow our progress would be at times. Covering five to six kms an hour was all we could manage on some of the more rugged stretches.
Plans of doing a self-supported ride quickly went out the window when we had the incredibly generous offer from friends to be our support crew and to position themselves (and their motorhome) at strategic points along the route. This saved us having to lug all that extra gear on our bikes and backs, except for the first day, when we would carry enough food and provisions and cross our fingers we'd find a spare bunk at Camp Stream hut on the Lake Tekapo side of Stag Saddle.
Like me, Hamish is a great one for dreaming up slightly ridiculous and ambitious missions usually from the comfort of one’s own couch or while idly charring a sausage on the barbecue while drinking beer. Over-estimating one’s fitness and the number of hours in a day, and glossing over small details like distance and the number and lack of space between contour lines, are just some of the hallmarks of these great "Whizzing Weka" adventures.
Let it begin - Mesopotamia to Camp Stream Hut
Finally, the day has arrived, and it is time for those big 29 inch wheels to hit the dirt and roll. We set off in search of “epicness” and find it at every bend, climb and descent in the trail. The calf-burning climb as we push the bikes up to Bullock Bow Saddle through the fog is rewarded when the sun finally breaks through. Within minutes it burns off the cloud to reveal the vast upper Bush Stream catchment. It is a fun descent negotiating screes and tussocks and the occasional bog lower down before reaching Royal Hut. We search for Prince Charles and Princess Anne’s names in the hut book but unfortunately it does not go back to the 1960's. After lunch we don't even kid ourselves that there is anything rideable ahead. Bikes are hoisted on the shoulders and we pick our way up steep slopes toward Stag Saddle. Sometime later we manage to ride our bikes along a ridge line, swept bare of vegetation by relentless winds and other extremes. We ponder how many other bikes have been ridden along here. It’s back to bike carrying as we drop down across the screes and pass some tarns before the final push to the saddle.
The view from Stag Saddle is one of my favorites - Lake Tekapo is stretched out beneath us, its azure blue waters contrasting with the tawny brown landscape of the Mackenzie Basin. The icy summits of Aoraki, De Archiac and Sibbald stand proud on the not too distant skyline. From here the aptly named 'Snake Ridge' (also known as Erica's Ridge) slowly descends to glacial terraces above the lake. It is pretty much 100% rideable save for a few rocks that wetake care to avoid, and the view is a real hazard too - I can't stop looking at it. Part of our route today is on the Te Araroa Trail and we share the hut with three ‘TA Sobo’ (southbound) hikers. It has been an honest day with about 12 hours of toil in total. Sleep comes easy in the old sacking bunks at Camp Stream hut.
Camp Stream to Lake Pukaki
Day 2 is about 100kms of riding and relatively easy. We drop down to the Lillybank Road, on cattle tracks through tussock and matagouri, then roll into Tekapo for long blacks, burgers, and caramel slice. Then it’s head down punching through the head wind and following the long blue lines of the canals until we arrive on the Alps to Ocean Cycleway (A2o) and ride to meet our support crew at the Lake Pukaki campsite. And what a great support crew they are - cold beer, a home cooked meal and hot showers are all part of the service.
Lake Pukaki to the Ahuriri Valley
Day 3 and my body seems to be a bit perplexed about having to ride a bike all day every day and starts to stage some small protests. We both, at different times, visit dark places in our minds, and in true Whizzing Weka style, neither one of us offer any words of encouragement or support and instead just use mockery and abuse as motivation. Along with a liberal dose of panadol and nurofen it seems to work. The riding is relatively easy to start off with as we follow the A2o through Twizel along the canals and along the purpose built single track around Lake Ohau. Ohau Lodge is a welcome stop for a second breakfast. Hamish wants to limit it to a thirty-minute stop, but I manage to stretch it out to forty-five. I settle myself into the softest deepest couch I can find (very sore bum by this point) and enjoy the fine hospitality, coffee and toasted sandwiches.
After leaving the lodge, it is a steady climb up to Tarnbrae and a sweet downhill into Quailburn. We soak up the history in the Quailburn woolshed and imagine ourselves as hardy sheep shearers dragging merinos across the boards in years gone by. Instead we wrestle with mountain bikes rather than sheep. We are back on the Te Araroa trail as we climb through a grove of Beech forest, a rare thing in these parts. Descending into the East Ahuriri our progress is slowed by a series of punctures, low growing matagouri bushes being the cause. The wind continues to be our loyal companion and never leaves us.
As we approach the main Ahuriri valley we pass through some real rabbit country; in fact, it is amazing we don't run over any as the ground is so thick with them. We ford the Ahuriri River without mishap although the current is difficult enough, especially in cycle shoes with a bike across your shoulders. It’s close to another 12-hour day and 100kms of riding and pushing by the time we are reunited with the motor homers andrelaxing at camp. The evening is spent patching punctures.
Ahuriri to Wanaka
The morning of day 4 and this is the crux day, and as Hamish says "the day we will be measured by"- I never did quite figure out who measured us, but it sure adds a bit of drama and seriousness to the day. The tent has flapped and trembled all night in the howling nor’west despite being pitched in the lee of the motorhome. The alarm goes off and brings some relief; we can get started - knock this day off, get to Wanaka, revel in our success and graciously understate this tremendous achievement to our respective wives who will surely be in awe and full of new found love and admiration for their husbands.
The first challenge is not the huge climb up out of the Ahuriri to the Mt Melina Saddle but in fact getting breakfast down. It is a concoction I have come up with, soaking rolled oats and dried pineapple in coconut cream overnight. Just the right mix of carbs and fat to hopefully get us up the hill, but at 4.45am there is not much either of us feel like eating, let alone 'Dan's overnight oats with coconut cream and pineapple'. We are soon into the climb, under torchlight following a farm track along the Te Araroa Trail. An old musterer’s hut appears out of the dark right at the junction of the Te Araroa and Melina Ridge Trails. I sign the book and admire the authentic interior and assorted paraphernalia such as old rusty horse shoes, fencing tools and blackened billys, such history and character so sadly lacking from modern DoC huts.
The climb up to Melina Saddle brings no surprises - it’s tough. We find most of it unrideable - we tell ourselves we are in for a long day and don’t beat ourselves up about not riding the steep bits. The views from the top are stunning, the sun is just coming up turning the tussock clad hills to gold. The landscape feels big, empty and high. There is no shortage of bulldozed tracks scaling impossibly steep slopes, and we can just imagine the old days of Land Rovers labouring away delivering men and dogs to muster sheep out of the back blocks.
Emerging on to the Lindis Highway, south of the pass we stop for a feed and to rest and reflect. Just 10 kms down the highway and we'll be leaving the tarmac and climbing over the Grandview Range (thanks to the kind permission of the landowners) and down to Wanaka. Barring any catastrophic failure of equipment or body parts, it’s looking like we are going to make it. The howling nor’west and the somewhat 'distant' view we get of the top of the range that we need to ride up and over, keeps us from any victory or celebratory high fives just yet though. And just as well. In total we push our bikes for four hours before we top out on the Grandview Range, the nor’west pounds us the whole way. We have to shout at each other to be heard and the few times we do ride it’s almost possible to get blown up the hill, but unfortunately that does not happen very often. It is impressive country, with many imposing schist tors and outcrops. Unfortunately it is real 'false summit ' country. Many times we come to the top of a rise only to see another rise in the distance. Finally we are on the descent, and what a long one it is - we both make a mental note to self - if anyone ever invites to you to ride this downhill in reverse, ie uphill say ‘NO’.
I find the last 10 kms or so on the flat from Hawea to Wanaka cruel. My visions of some ceremonial arrival at the lake, kissing the ground and posing for photos etc, go out the window. In fact I don't even argue when Hamish rings his mate to see if he can pick us from Albert Town - he can't - so we ride all the way to Wanaka.
We arrive - wives pretend to be awed - then tell us to hurry up as they have booked a table at a restaurant.
It has been an awesome trip, 356kms, 'thousands' of meters of climbing, 4 punctures, one damaged sidewall - not too bad at all! It has definitely ticked all the boxes of challenge, remoteness, amazing scenery and just that great feeling of being on a mission!
Thanks Alan and Heather for being an awesome Whizzing Weka support crew and wives for coming and picking us up and driving us back to Rangiora.
In case you were wondering - would we do it again? Definitely, although with a slightly different format next year so stay tuned.