There is a famous proverb that goes something along the lines of ‘To the man a more of, the more faff-uth there shall be’ which doesn’t ring more true when you have 10 people on a 2 day cycling trip of the Heaphy Track on the north west coast of the South Island. The probability of something untoward happening goes up by a power of ten, such as bike failures, crashes, lost equipment… good times and/or laughs – so maybe it’s not all bad.
The plan was to leave Christchurch on Friday afternoon and embark on the six hour drive to Karamea. The best intentioned departure time of 3pm quickly turned into 3:45pm by the time we had packed up the cars, organized where we were going to stop for food on the way (Toni’s fish place in Westport apparently – as it transpired, no one had actually been there, someone had just heard it was good. Turns out it doesn’t exist in any case), exchanged pleasantries regarding the weather, discussed various routes to get to Karamea (there are two) and generally hung about in the car park, staring at the ground in silence until someone decided that enough faffing time had passed and we were able to get underway.
As it happened, we may have gotten away a little too enthusiastically as about an hour later we were asking ‘What seems to be the problem officer?’ to the friendly police man knocking at our car window after being pulled over for speeding in Culverden. To add insult to the earlier faffing and $120 speeding ticket, we still couldn’t get the car radio to connect up to the ipod, leaving us with local radio (which turned to local static once we left Canterbury), one CD to be listened to on loop and car conversation – which was already a struggle as we’d used up all our A-material in the 45 minutes of earlier faffing.
As much as I take the piss though, the kilometres fell by quickly enough and in no time at all… well, three and a half hours to be exact, we found ourselves on the West Coast looking for a fish bar that doesn’t exist. We settled for another fish place instead – which had surprisingly nice fish & chips – and then drove the final 100km to Karamea. We arrived at Rongos Hostel, possibly the most hostel-ly hostel I’ve been to in a long time – by which I mean to say, it’s a very cool place. There is a shit load of tat on the walls and everything seemed to either be made, or somehow associated with Hemp. The hemp microwave was particularly impressive.
An early start the following day was required to get over to the helicopter landing pad, by which I mean to say, a square bit of flat grass by the end of the Heaphy track that, for good reason, you’re not allowed to park on. I think I had ridden in a helicopter once before coming to New Zealand. This would be the fourth time in 2 years and I still sit there with a smug grin on my face when we take off. It’s starting to become a legitimate form of transport these days. However, the grin was momentarily replaced with a look of mild concern / terror (depending on whether you could see my face or my inner emotional child) when we heard the pilot over the radio say something along the lines of ‘*crackle crackle crackle*Crash *crackle crackle crackle* Going down* more crackle’ (for the sake of comedic effect, I should clarify that the pilot wasn’t actually saying ‘crackle’, that was the white noise of the radio. But it was harder to write that… anyway). The pilot presumably must have seen my composed look of mild concern, and felt the need to clarify that in fact a tree had fallen down somewhere on the track and it had made one hell of a ‘crash’. A poor choice of words I felt for a radio communication between two helicopter pilots. Several more minutes of butt clenching aeronautics later we were landing at the Collingwood end of the Heaphy Track, ready to take on the world (via a weekend’s worth of cycling the Heaphy Track). Which we would have done, had it not been for us having to wait an hour for the final person to join our group who had been tactlessly identified by the helicopter operators as the ‘heaviest’ of our party and therefore had to fly in the next wave of helicopters. Which was good anyway as it gave him more time to eat all that ice cream he’d brought with him as it wouldn’t have kept anyway.
A brief hour later we had finally regrouped with the arrival of ‘the heavy one’ and were ready to get underway. Then it was just a small matter of waiting for all the necessary bag unpacking / re-packing I had to do that couldn’t have been started until we were all together for some reason, and then we were ready to go. Such is the nature of faffing.
And onward we went, for a good 15 minutes, until one of the guys pedals fell off. Turned out they had been put on the wrong way round, which was a shame as there was a 50% chance of him getting that right, but not this time. Having successfully stripped the thread from the crank arm, and no one having a spare crank arm to hand, it was game over. Unfortunately, a lack of pedal isn’t something you can just power through and get on with. Now, there is a bit of a long logistical back story here as to why one of our mates had to cycle ahead to catch some other mates to get car keys to give to his pedal-less mate and then have to catch us (i.e. his other other mates) up again – so I won’t bore you with the details. What is probably more relevant is that we had been out for about 3 hours and only gotten to the first hut, by which I mean to say, we hadn’t gone very far. If you look at a gradient of the Heaphy Track, it provides a good indication of how much up is actually involved in the first day. The gradient you climb is actually very manageable, and in fairness, that is pretty much true for the entire track. There are a few places where you may have to push up, but for the most part, it’s fine. The issue is that it feels relentless and repetitive. You’re aware that there are some amazing views just through those trees, and occasionally you can get a good look at it. But for the most part, it’s obscured by said trees and you’re left riding in this monotonous uphill scenery for hours. And what photos you do get, can, in retrospect, be a little underwhelming.
I don’t want to make out as if the first day was all bad, there was one good bit. Once you get to the Perry Saddle Hut, there is an excellent downhill section that opens out into this brilliant plain. The view ruining trees are removed and you are greeted with an expansive panoramic view of the area. It doesn’t cancel out all the uphill you have spent the last several hours hauling yourself up, but as neatly summed up by one of the guys ‘this ride has just got a gazillion times better’.
But as with all good things that day, it was short lived as we then had to face the river crossings. Some thoughtful person had decided to install wire bridges of a questionable nature over the two river crossings, which from the ground looked easy enough to navigate. However, once on the bridge you realise that the bridge has been designed to snag every possible part of your bike as you attempt to haul it across. I’m not sure if we ever settled on a preferred method of crossing, but a selection of techniques included: push bike on back wheel while walking forwards, pull bike on back wheel while walking backwards, lift bike above head and march over, push bike as you normally would on any normal bridge and wave fist angrily in the air every eight seconds as the handle bars, or the pedals or the front wheel or something else gets caught on the wire mesh of the bridge – also known as my technique. When we arrived at the second bridge I decided to accept defeat and get my feet wet instead.
And so we were onto the final stretch, by which I mean to say, another long climb, before we made it to the James Mackay hut, our bed for the night. By this point we were all starting to feel it and had spread out somewhat across the track. At one point I caught up with some of the guys in front and as rude as it sounds, the last thing I wanted to do was talk to them. Nothing against them, just I was fighting a bit of an inner battle and making polite conversation would tip the balance in the favour of whoever was responsible for putting this hill here. As a testament to their conversational skills, I was asked a number of queries regarding how I was, the neverending-ness of the climb, how I was again, the rapidly fading light etc. All of which were met with the same ‘mmm’ reply from me as I cycled past them, head down.
Finally, I passed the ‘Hut 2km’ sign and with it my mood picked up. Arriving as it was getting dark, the hut was a welcome sight after a long days riding. The hut itself is technically basic (depending on whether you were expecting the kitchen to stock a melon bowler or hemp microwave – there was neither) but provides exactly what you need, and nothing more. The views over the valley down to the coast were amazing from its vantage point on the hill. The evening was spent discussing the various merits of the food each person had brought for dinner. A mate and I had opted for the freeze dried, just add water meal which on initial taste was actually pretty good. However, it was pointed out that at the level of hunger we were at, anything would have tasted good. A theory that was proved correct as we made it to the end of the meal, hunger subsiding, and being able to actually taste the food with a more sane, less starved mindset. Which brought the taste level down to a solid ‘meh’. In fairness, you’re paying for the convenience with these meals, and they do the job. I just get a little suspicious of how my ‘Gorang Saag’ meal and my mate’s ‘Roast Veal in Red Wine Sauce’ meal can taste, to all intents and purposes, identical.
Sunday started much more positively and after plenty of faffing about futilely cleaning the sandy grit off our chains (more on that later) we set off on a 12km downhill. This was already an improvement on the previous day, and things seemed to get consistently better as the day went on. The weather was still blue skies and the sun was shining, and the fuss that people made over cycling this trail started to make sense. The main selling point of the track is less the views, and more the constant changing scenery you ride through; one minute it’s tropical forest, then coastal, then grassy knoll (seriously) and then back into the forest again, then beach. What’s more, the second half of the trail is a lot more horizontal, making riding much more of an enjoyable endeavour compared to the day before where, at times, I found myself questioning the very nature of the bicycle and it’s absurdity when it came to a form of enjoyment.
There were a few more river crossings on the second day, but some of them are served by a solid bridge – sturdy enough to get group photos on. Even when crappy bridges similar in design to the day before appeared, they were treated with good nature and laughs such was the improved morale of the group.
We made good pace thanks to the lack of ‘up’ and no one suffering any mechanicals, aside from the more endemic issue of sand. Seeing as a large part of the track is coastal, one downside is the amount of sand that gets into your drive chain. You can clean your chain as much as you like, but within four pedal strokes it back to how it was before, grit covered and gradually wearing away at every moving part of your bike. It became a horrible grinding noise that with each pedal rotation, reduced the resale value of the bike. But at that exact point in time, it didn’t really matter as the views and vibe of the trail made it all worthwhile. Arriving at the car park where we had been choppered out of the day before, the realisation that the ride had come to an end sank in as we were sat on the beach, in the sun, happily knackered and content with a solid weekend’s riding. In typical fashion, the moment it’s over the conversations go along the lines of ‘you know, that first day wasn’t that bad’ and ‘those freeze dried meals are alright actually’; and other non-factual statements that were discussed at length during the 6hr drive back to Christchurch.