It’s always nice to take a break from cycle touring, especially when you get the opportunity to go…..well, cycle touring. This time however on a mountain bike. Rewind 2 years, to the midst of the covid pandemic and from the comfort of the sofa we were watching a documentary on the building of a new, epic mountain bike trail in New Zealand.
The trail would link the historic town of Blackball with Punakaiki on the West coast utilising a small part of the exisiting Croesus track whilst creating 50 km of new trail. The project also included a 10km side track to the site of the disaster and a memorial there, although to date this has yet to become operational.
This ambitious project to blast and build a shared walking/biking route that would become a functioning memorial to the men who died in the mine took 2 years to complete and the finished route winds through rain forest, alpine landscapes and along sheer limestone karst cliffs. It’s listed as grade 4/5 level difficulty for mountain bikes and is one of the newest additions to New Zealand’s programme of Great Rides.
The film showed the trials and tribulations of cutting a new trail out of unforgiving mountain side, crafting it to become a seamless part of the landscape and natural features. No mean feat with the project plagued by landslips and bad weather, meaning the dedicated crew who lived and worked in this remote spot took over longer than anticipated to achieve their goal. But achieve it they did and in the 2019 the trail opened for business, albeit after a major slip wiped out a mid section the night before the opening.
Since seeing this film I’d had a real hankering to ride the trail. Predictably, being the disorganised person I am, on nearing the starting place, we discovered we had left it too late to book a place in one of the DOC huts at the halfway point. With no camping on the trail, the choice was then limited to a very long day in the saddle. So it was with some sadness we shelved plans in the ‘to do another time’ file until, one night, M was idly surfing the DOC booking system (as you do) and found 2 hut spaces available on 14th January, in less than a weeks time. Fate? A last minute cancellation, who cares. We booked the bunks there are then. The only problem now was getting hold of suitable bicycles, oh and luggage, oh and getting there……
The trail is listed as a grade 4, primarily due to some technical and steep climbs as well as steep drop offs should you fail to adhere to the mountain path. Definitely not for our touring bikes. Luckily an Internet search also produced the excellent Cycle Journeys who could helpfully take care of all those logistics, so, it was with much excitement that the night before found us stuffing 22 litre dry bags with the minimum of kit to take on a 2 day mountain bike epic. The lack of stuff was actually refreshing as we left our touring bikes in the company depot, just taking with us a small sack containing sleeping bag, bowl, mug fork, a few clothes and food for 2 days/one night on the trail.
Also included was a last minute bargain/purchase for me. As I had no sturdy shoes to ride in a panic visit to the Salvation Army 5 minutes before it closed had secured a brilliant pair of waterproof trainers for the bargain price of $8 (about £4). Winner!
The next day, as our minivan wound its way up past the quirky town of Blackball which we’d visited on the journey in, I felt a little guilty we weren’t riding the extra 6km from there, opting instead to go for the traditional starting point of Smoke Ho car park. As the gravel road wound steeply up the mountain to the drop off point however I was secretly relieved we didn’t have to cover this extra ground.
On day one we were to ride around 12 miles, which sounds trifling, until you realise you’ll be climbing for almost the entirety of that, for over 3500 feet up steep grades. It would be a long day out. As we disembarked at Smoke Ho it became a race between strapping down unfamiliar luggage and being eaten alive by critters. Trying to tie down bags whilst keeping on the move and swatting bugs wasn’t the easiest but as the day was heading uphill we would have time to refine the luggage slowly on route. And uphill we headed…..for all of 200 metres through the starting canopy before the track plunged downwards and so did we…..stopping approximately every 60 seconds to rescue/re-secure wayward bags or bottles or, after a muffled scream, for M to loosen off his pedal clips, having found he couldn’t release his feet on stopping. The track demanded concentration too, steep, slick from recent rain, with large, loose rocks and roots, there’s nothing like being thrown in at the deep end. After the downhills came a series of swing bridges. Single person plank and rope suspension bridges involving the tricky negotiation of steps and ramps. We were knackered and had gone less than a mile!
After the bridges it was almost a relief when the uphill finally did start. It was tough but rideable. Steeper sections with large rocks and gullies meant powering up on the pedals or hopping off to walk when it became too tiring or you just hit a rock and stalled. Sweat poured off us in the humid air but, despite this, it was beautiful. The trail would up through huge damp green ferns and weirdly shaped trees dripping with moss. Small waterfalls musically lined the path as did birds, including the cheeky little black and white New Zealand robins. Time ticked by slowly as the garmin screen inched up the distance count and after an hour it showed we had travelled less than 2 miles. This was going to be a long day! Onward and upwards, ride some, push some, stop and take photos, drink water, eat food, repeat. At some point however the forest abruptly stopped and we emerged on to an open hillside of short, stumpy trees and vast views. On one side we could look down the valley and see the coast and on the other, joy of joys, our planned lunch stop at the Ces Clarke hut. At only 6 miles into the trail this is the stopping point for most walkers. Garmin however said we were still 2 miles short. It was at this point I realised the sat nav is set to be inactive under 4mph, basically she had been snoozing as we inched our way upwards. Happily that had meant we’d arrived sooner than expected.
At the hut we gratefully stopped to get out of the sun and boil water to replace our depleted supplies. We also met a fellow walker and a father/daughter cycling team who were also heading to the Moonlight Tops hut, as were we. Watered and fed (cheese roll number 1/3), we rolled back out on the trail and, after a half mile more of rocky climb the track began to smooth out a little, gone were the large, loose boulders to be replaced by a slightly smoother, more undulating surface. Much easier to ride and with great flow. The next miles positively sped by as we followed the rollercoaster of a track around sheer, mountainside trails, swooping up and down, plunging round blind corners, all above the vegetation line.
At some point a dense mist rolled in and all you could see was the small strip of trail in front of you, bordered each side by steep drops that fell away through the white cloud, it was surreal, it was fantastic. Swooping down a half mile section of beautiful descent it was a compete surprise to come across our hut for the night. I didn’t want to stop. At 2.30 in the afternoon we could have feasibly continued riding but, this was about the experience, especially camping in this little cabin at over 1000 metres above sea level with 18 strangers.
The DOC (Department of Conservation) huts are dotted throughout New Zealand as a haven for trampers and cyclists. Most require booking of some kind although there are emergency options. They vary too in equipment and newness. The ones on the Paparoa are very plush with mattresses, compost toilets and gas stoves. The bunk system means you are sharing a sleeping platform with a number of random strangers. Having missed out on the 8 bed room we secured the last 2 spaces on the lower platform of the 12 bed dorm, sandwiched between 4 other unknown humans literally cheek by jowl…..
They are a friendly lot however and over the course of the evening as people roll in we chat to other hikers (and the other 2 bikers) whilst cooking our rice and tuna delight and making endless cups of tea. The wet white mist shrouds everything outside reducing visibility to near zero and leaving the world, and the view, muffled. I make it to 8.30pm when a combination of hard wooden bench and detailed comparisons of camping meals, mean I bow out and head to bed. And here the problems start. A lovely couple who I have spent time talking too are already tucked up at the end of our row, asleep and snoring away. One by one, as we turn in for the night, their snoring increases in volume until the duo are producing a veritable symphony. It’s quite amazing how one of them covers the bass notes on an in-breath whilst his partner fills in the higher register in the gaps between. It’s also funny how you can go from liking poeple one minute to wanting to kill them the next. I lie there fantising about pillows and smothering, too far away to poke them, too close to tune it out. It’s going to be a long night.
As a consequence of the snoring sonata our entire hut was awake early and getting ready to hit the trails, the noise also having penetrated the other room too. Well, everyone that is apart from the snorers who, having already snoozed their alarm clock 3 times, are napping on, oblivious. There are several bleary eyes amongst us, apparently this is just one of the joys of hut life. Thank goodness we’re not sharing a room again tonight. After cheese roll 2/3 it’s 8.30am. As we head out, the thick mist is finally starting to lift and we can see some of the spectacular views as the trail climbs again over the mountain. A short while later the fun fun really begins as nearly 3000 feet of downhill starts. We still have 1500 feet of undulating climbs to cover today but the trend today is definitely downwards. Swoopy mountain edge-track winds around precarious limestone rock precipices. Helpful signage advises, danger, do not fall off of rock face…. thanks for the tip! Loose rock berms and zig zags follow and slick wet boulders on which M comes a cropper. Luckily just a few scrapes as we spiral downwards, dizzyingly over rock slabs and swing bridges, sometimes climbing, mostly descending. After 2 hours and 20 exhilarating kilometers we reach the Pohorarahi hut, destination for most walkers, a lunch roll (3/3) for us and a chance to boil water a refill bottles.
The trail is descending at a pace now, gone is the alpine, barren looking landscape replaced by moss, trees and ferns and then lush river valley. Another off for M sees a stop to bandage a split and bloody knee after speed and a corner conspire to stop play. Luckily there are only a few miles left along the leafy valley floor, following the river, before a final steep uphill, a man-made descent of bermy, cornery fun and that’s it. 35 miles, 5000 feet of climbing, some of the most stunning, exhilarating bike track, technical riding and beautiful views. The Paparoa trail ends at the famous Punakaiki flat rocks and we take the chance to grab a coffee, a breath and admire the rocks as we wait for our transport back to Greymouth and the touring bikes.
I do love how watching a random TV documentary somehow turned into a real-life adventure and some of the best days out on the bikes. What a ride that was.
It’s the story of a forty-something woman with no clue in life and no cycle touring experience. What she does have is a sense of adventure, a second hand bicycle and a skirt and the idea of riding across Canada….the wrong way.
Available on Amazon in e-reader and paperback formats.