After a quick dash down to the Murchison supermarket, I was three tins of beans and two rice puddings heavier. A complimentary mix to my mountain of muesli bars and noodles if ever I saw one – this spelled an adventurous few days ahead. I’d been convinced by my warmshowers host Owen to give it a go riding over the Old Ghost Road trail over to the west coast of the South Island, where I’d ride 70 odd kilometres north to pick up the Heaphy walking track, which at this time of year is open to mountain bikers. This would thread me through the southern Alps (where there are no connecting roads) up to the north-western reaches of the Golden and Tasman bay’s. I’d heard it was beautiful up there, and this route prevented me from having to ride a few hundred kilometres back on myself and over a 900m pass, if I fancied seeing it for my own eyes. I liked the idea of utilising the tracks to form a loop to visit the bays, so I left the next day, riding to the trail head in Lyell.
The start of the trail weaved up through a dense forest, sticking to the hillside where it started getting scarily narrow. Being loaded with front panniers meant my steering wasn’t the best when riding slow, and I couldn’t tuck in anywhere near as close to the rock face as I’d have liked. Throw in the wet weather and I was already finding the going a little tough, resorting to pushing in places already where the track got too rocky. I knew I had plenty of time, but the rough trail was already signalling a solid day ahead. It’s a 32km climb from the base in Lyell up to the Old Ghost Lake hut, up at 1200m and the highest point of the trail. Being the stubborn bastard that I am, I was pretty determined to ride as much of the track as possible, although it was obvious that this was a pretty serious mountain bike trail. I’d ridden a fair few trails so far in the country, but this was another level together. I precariously climbed up through a few streams in full flow that crossed the track, legs splayed out to balance as the odd rock hidden by the water inevitably sent me one way or the other.
After a handful of these, my worst fears came to fruition as I put my foot down to balance and felt tom my horror it disappear off the side of the track. It was a tragically slow fall that I could feel coming an age before me and my bike rolled off the side and began sliding down the bank. It was a real wet and mossy affair with me stuck underneath the bike, where I eventually came to a stop after hitting a tree about five meters further down. It was one of those ‘oh dear’ moments, my initial reaction was check I hadn’t broken my leg which was awkwardly jammed between bike and tree, to which I couldn’t wriggle free. After managing to pull free it was clear that apart from a few small cuts, I was absolutely fine and just a little shaken up. Now to get the bike back up… The bank was too steep for me to walk up, and I was worried that I might slip down further where the bank dropped down into the river a good way below. So began the painfully slow back and forth ferrying process. One pannier at a time over the shoulder, one hand gripping at the small shrubs on the bank above – hardly a smooth operation. After lobbing one water bottle at a time onto the path, preying they didn’t roll back down the way I’d come, I’d struggled the bike back up on my shoulder.
I’ll be honest about all this, I was damn scared. I knew there was no one around to help me out, and had I not been stopped by the tree, I would’ve been in a real bad situation. Even with the tree, a tweaked ankle would’ve been enough. But I was fine and my bike was working. Now, to go back down or to carry on. I had a good look at myself and decided that this couldn’t happen again – I needed to change. I would carry on, but every time the track got narrow and technical I would push, it was non-negotiable. So I did, for the next 7 hours. It rained incessantly as I rode through small sections between some serious pushing sessions. Being the winter, they’d laid down a load of fresh aggregate, piled up and ready to be flattened into the track. Even on the the gnarliest mountain bike it would have been unrideable. For me, loaded up, tins of beans and all, it was real hard work.
After 7 hours I’d done the majority of the climbing and only 6km was left as the track flattened off, letting me ride some thankfully smooth mud lines between the ridge line bushes. A brief respite of fun, a 20 minute break up at the emergency shelter hut, the Ghost Road played one last cruel trick. Moving over the shaded side of the ridge, the path was covered in snow. Starting soft and shallow, I could push my way through for 500 meters or so before my heart sank with my feet as the white stuff stacked up over a foot in depth. I had two hours to make the six kilometres before dark, an age in any other circumstance, but right then even that didn’t seem enough.
For over two hours it was very much a head down, just get on with it mentality. Progress was painfully slow as I traipsed back and forth, lugging my panniers 100m on my back before returning for the bike. A firm drizzle had set in to add to everything but I managed to find one positive – it could have been more windy… Definitely clutching at straws there. Even with my wet feet and the whole place looking arctic, I wasn’t in the least bit cold with all the hauling I was doing. Every corner I went around where the snow disappeared I would tell myself ‘from here I will cycle to the hut’, only to find 20m of dirt track lead straight back into snow again. Given the day as a whole, those kilometres were easily some the hardest of the trip. There was no other real option but to plough on, knowing there was a hut with bunks and a log fire made it all bearable – if I had to camp up there in the snow I really wouldn’t have been a happy bunny at all. After what felt like an age of hauling (usually about 20 minutes) I’d check the GPS to see the hut was agonisingly close as the crow flies, but knowing one more kilometre could spell 10 more back and forth shuttles. Between these, darkness fell and I had I not been so close to the hut, I’d have ditched the bike and just walked with the essentials.
Desperate not to be that guy who has the mountain rescue called in because he brought a loaded bike up an extreme mountain bike trail, I was so happy when the hut finally came into view. Three riders were inside and looked at me with disbelief when I emerged out the darkness. A hooded figure soaking wet and covered in snow probably isn’t what you want coming through the door when camped up a mountain in the dark. I was pretty oblivious, and just thankful to soak in the heat from the roaring fire they had running, and cook myself some noodles and baked beans that I’d been fantasising about eating for the last few hours.
The clouds had broken the following morning, meaning I could glimpse my first real view of the Southern Alps (why they named the mountain range after the Alps I have no idea). There was still a lot of snow ahead on the ridge, which I was told would quickly petter out as the trail continued on. I said goodbye to the other riders and their gnarly looking mountains bikes before starting to push my now pedestrian steed through the snow. That morning was another tough one – I made 4km in the first two hour – leading to thoughts of ‘how long will it take to complete the next 50km’s…?’ After excruciatingly shuttling my gear down a long series of steps, yes, steps (apparently the ridge was too steep for them to build a track of any sort down) I could ride again. Parts of the track were still pretty exposed, but just being able to ride again meant that didn’t bother me. The riding was tough and pushing was never far away, yet, that day felt like one of the most adventurous I’d had on a bike. Having been on the road over 20 months, that says something. I was starting to discover a real love for off-road riding, sparked being the afternoon, being able to ride the gravel switchbacks over small punchy ridges and attempt to carve nice lines down the other side. Knowing there was nobody else in these stunning valleys made it all that bit more special as I basked in the rare Kiwi sunshine where there had been snow the day before.
Just 15 km’s from the end of the trail, I was determined not to push things too far that day and opted to crash in the final hut of the track. I spent the night chatting to a trail worked called Greg and read the story behind the Old Ghost Road trail. It had been dreamt up by the gold miners in the area back in the 1800’s as a possible route to get their gold out to sea for trading, but was never completed. A few years ago these plans resurfaced, prompting a big community project to try complete the trail that was backed by the New Zealand government. A huge amount of love and hard work went into opening the 85 km path, making it suitable for bikes (not my bike though) and building the huts to stay in. The ‘Ghost Road’ name refers to the old plans being the ghost of a road that never was – until now. The whole thing was a big success with the trail being described as New Zealands best single track ride but also one of the hardest… After reading all this I was glad for my naivety going into it, otherwise I would never have started riding at all.
As I finally rode under the sign indicating the end of the road, there was a genuine feeling of achievement. I reckoned I was probably the first person stupid enough to ride the thing with drop handlebars and a laptop – that’s worth some sort of award…
After calling in at the one pub in Seddonville for a celebratory fish and chips, it was time to ride the 70-odd kilometres up the road to start the next trail. The Heaphy track is a walking track open mountain bikers in the winter months and is the only way to reach the northern reaches of the south island from the west coast (without a riding back on yourself 100 km’s). Before I could reach it however, the lovely sunshine was replaced by a classic New Zealand deluge that seeped through the holes in my pannier bags picked up riding the trail. Thankfully nothing was too badly wet, and I could enjoy the stunning beachfront campsite at the end of the road with reasonably dry socks. The sun managed to break through for the last hour before setting over the sea, making the final stretch of riding a bit of an epic. After passing through green farmlands I spent the last minutes of light out on the beach, listening to music as the big waves crashed in.
More rain greeted me the next morning as I got stuck into the Heaphy. It rained and rained. After cycling back up to 1000m things started to get wild with a strong wind making things interesting. I reached the hut I’d planned on staying in for the night, only to find it was packed out with riders. Every other hut had been empty so this was a bit of a kick in the teeth. I got straight back on the bike, starting the next 11 km’s which saw me cursing my cold hands, the wind, the rain, anything I could think of until I reached the next stop. Distances become warped riding tracks like these, where just being able to ride for me becomes an achievement. Luckily this section was in real good condition, and had it been in any other conditions myself, I would’ve loved every second of it. At best I managed a reluctant appreciation through gritted teeth at these autumnal looking moors that reminded me of Scotland. The wind and rain, that too reminded me of Scotland.
Thankfully the hut I was in was empty, I started a fire to dry my clothes and got cooking. There’s something so satisfying about being inside and hearing the wind and rain battering walls outside, especially after a tough day. You appreciate the small things: being warm, having food and somewhere to sleep. In reality I sat in, what in any other circumstances would be, a cold and boring hut, yet it felt like a palace. Being the party animal that I am, I hit the hay at 8 as it got dark.
As the sun rose over the moor, (I’m not sure if it still is a moor at the top of a mountain but I’ll just go with it) it signalled another bitterly cold morning. A biting wind, a little snow and a lot of frost adorned the path, which, with my dry feet I could now really appreciate. This was easily one of the most beautiful places I’d ever ridden. Away from any roads or people, it was a really special morning. Often when I talk about riding through Tajikistan or from Perth to Sydney, people assume you never see other people on the road. Often during the day when riding in the Pamirs, I’d see people in the villages or the odd car or cyclist riding past, and it was only in the evening’s at night that I’d find real solitude. At times here in New Zealand, I’ve managed to more ‘out there’ than at any point on this trip so far. What I really loved about this little loop, was that there was no way up by road. Knowing that you could only pass by foot or by bike between places makes it all feel like an adventure. Although I probably wouldn’t have been brave enough try something like this during the first 6 months of my trip, experiencing the world of mountain biking, albeit on a heavily loaded touring bike, has completely changed everything for me – I want more.
As I hacked my way down the last descent that was the end of the Heaphy track, I found myself already planning the next trail. Get some wider tyres, a little less weight, go further, bigger mountains… This is what happened with my early bike tours that saw me start cycling around the world. It can get out of hand. I remember my Dad telling me a line from one of his flying instructors: ‘You’ve got a pot of luck and a bag of experience, when you start, your pot of luck is full and the bag empty. Your job is to fill that bag of experience before the pot runs out otherwise you’re in big trouble.’ I’d definitely depleted the pot over the past few days, but the idea of learning a little more about bike handling and mountain biking is something that I’ll definitely carry forward with me.
Riding north towards the coast and the Golden Bay I couldn’t help but think how eventful the past 5 days had been compared to the usual road riding. Without prematurely donning the rose tinted spectacles, it had been much harder than any riding in NZ so far, but so much more interesting. I’d been living like a proper dirtbag for the past few days and so I treated myself to lovely warm bed in a dorm room in Collingwood village. There was nobody else staying, there so I basked in essentially having my own private room – the first time since Adelaide. Little things like this I definitely miss about home!
Over the next days, I cycled around the stunning Tasman Bay to Nelson, before riding up to the Marlborough Sounds and Picton, where I got a ferry to Wellington. There must’ve been some kind of mix up with my booking, because after buying the cheapest ticket the night before, I was apparently on the list for the ‘lounge’. ‘Laaanngee ticket mate, noice wan!’. I was given a gold wristband and shown up to the top deck where I could help myself to an unlimited buffet and drinks… Bloody hell, they didn’t need to tell me twice! I gleefully stacked up a few plates of everything, pushing the boat out by ordering a cold Heineken at 10am because why not? I was in the lounge after all. I definitely didn’t fit the dress code with my long cycling socks and cap, but I think people assumed me to be some strange wealthy businessman, out on some mad cycling trip into the wild for a few days, which, this being New Zealand, probably isn’t that unusual.
In Wellington I’d messaged a few people about couchsurfing and a real nice Dutch guy, Wim, had invited me to stay. Whilst he was at work, I bought a few bits from the bike shop and set about swapping over a few components in his garden. A couple of hours later he asked where I was, and quickly confirmed that I definitely wasn’t in his garden… I had all my gear spread over the grass just below a kitchen window with a light on, that I had just assumed to be his housemates. I guess they hadn’t seen me, so I quickly packed everything up and rushed over to Wim’s place, which turned out to be next door.
The next few days felt like a home away from home. Wim and his housemates were so welcoming and we spent evenings chatting away, and even celebrating the Chinese moon festival with some stunning homemade dumplings. I spent three nights with them and loved every minute of it. Although none of them were Kiwi’s, they were all outdoors people and knew most of the places I was set to ride through on my way to Auckland. As I left Wellington in a mad gale and sideways rain (they call it windy Welly for a reason) riding a gravel trail around the coast, I was glad for their recommendation. The wind kept up for the next few days as I battled my way in Zig Zags across the lower portion of the north island to Whanganui. Here I somehow I got talked into giving two lessons of Global Development about my trip to a load of 13 year olds at the local middle school. Anna, my host, thought it would be a bit of fun for me to teach her morning lessons so I couldn’t resist giving it a go. For something that was completely off the cuff, I think they went pretty well. Only one kid climbed on the roof…
The riding from here to Hamilton was lovely. The sun came out as I entered into Volcano country in the centre of the island. Huge dramatic white cones that looked very ‘Lord of the Rings’, began appearing out of nowhere. Some of them are ski resorts were packed with locals and Kiwis, all desperate to make the most of the late season snow up there. I was desperate to get out of the cold, and carried on, over the famous Timber Trail mountain bike and to a little old place called Cambridge. I’d once lived in Cambridge, but not this one. I was working in Cambridge in the UK when I was looking for a group of fixed gear riders to cycle with. I ended up joining a facebook group, where I was accepted with the caveat that this was the NZ Cambridge Fixed gear group, and they often rode in the velodrome there. There was a lovely cyclicality in having cycled from the UK to this very Cambridge. To seeing riders that were probably in that group out for a ride. I went over to the Velodrome to watch a training session there, giddy with a smug sense of satisfaction about it all.
Cambridge wasn’t my goal however, I was due to stay in Hamilton with an old friend Jago. He’s training for his pilot’s license at the airport there and had invite me to stay. This was to be the end of the line for me cycling over the next two or so weeks. I had arranged to see my Aunt over in Noosa (Queensland, Australia) and then to get stuck into a 10 day silent meditation retreat north of Auckland. With all the trail riding I’d been doing, I’d simply run out of time to cycle up there, so this would be a place to leave my bike for the time being. Jago was crazy busy studying for a surprise exam the next day when I arrived, but once he’d completed the test we had a proper good catch up in Hamilton over a beer. It was so nice to be catching up with an old friend again on the other side of the world like this. It felt the familiarity I’d been missing the past few weeks, and I knew seeing my aunt would bring more of the same. The riding in NZ had been incredible so far, but it was now time for an adventure off the saddle.