Tuesday, May 24, 2022

Bikepacking first steps

I'd been toying with getting a bike for some time. Mainly because there are quite a few long valleys with 4WD tracks that are a little boring to walk up and down but would probably be fun on a bike. Also, it's an alternative transport option if a loop section involves a road section, to leave a bike at one end to use to get back to the car.

I thought about getting a cheap as chips second hand mountain bike, but then found very little available that would fit my small frame. I've had some really bad experiences with bike frames that don't fit me, leading to sore shoulders, arms and neck. So I decided to purchase a new bike.

I didn't want an e-bike, because I also liked the idea of doing some touring, or more precisely, bikepacking. The difference being more streamlined bags packed along the frame of the bike and the option to get off the tarseal and explore the backroads. I'm not into technical mountain biking, and having tramped The Old Ghost Road, The Heaphy and The Paparoa Tracks, I'd still opt to walk them if given the choice. Cycling for me is about covering distances that might be a bit boring if you walked them, though boredom really is subjective...

An e-bike requires you to have regular access to a way to recharge the battery. They are also really heavy. So if you want to go on a multi-day ride you need to stay in places where you can recharge, usually every day. No wilderness camping with an e-bike...

So I decided to purchase a carbon gravel bike. Super light, but strong, and able to absorb bumps more comfortably than a lightweight aluminium bike. I didn't want a bomb proof steel bike because of the weight tradeoff. With tubeless tyres so I can alter the tyre pressure to make the ride more comfortable. 

There are no shocks or suspension on a gravel bike, allowing you to mount travel bags easily. Due to supply chain issues in these COVID times, I ended up purchasing a Cannondale Topstone 6 which was pretty well the only bike around in my size. The guys at Bike It Now in Cromwell were awesome at helping me set it up for my body shape, changing out the stem for a shorter reach, adjusting the seat position, and setting the bike up to be tubeless.

After hitting the internet and purchasing a gaggle of bikepacking bags and some cycling shorts, I spent a few days working out how to actually pack the bike. I had all the camping gear, I just had to work out how to fit it all onto the bike.

Once I had sorted that out I decided to go for a short trip, and what couldn't be a better choice than the nearby Otago Central Rail Trail. A 3-4 day easy gravel cycle along an old decommissioned railway line from Clyde to Middlemarch.

It was late in the season and there were limited options for getting a shuttle ride back to Clyde. I rang around all the operators and at least 2 of them told me there were shuttles running on Friday, so I planned to leave from Clyde on Tuesday.

I drove down to Clyde and parked my car at the start of the trail. The guys in the bike hire place at the start of the trail, rather than sell me a shuttle ticket back, told me to email them my intentions. They were having an end of season celebration and didn't want to provide a service right there and then. Bit weird, but I just got on my bike and began pedalling.

The track to Alex is dead straight and flat. I considered stopping for a coffee at the cafe just next to the trail, but I'd only been cycling for 20 minutes so it seemed a bit early for a break. Through Alex and over the Manuherika Bridge the trail veered left to follow the Manuherika upstream, through typical Central Otago schist, thyme and tussock. 

There were a couple of nice old wooden bridges along the way, and a few cute siding buildings to stop at en route. Once past the quirky Chatto Creek Tavern the track climbs up over a small hill and then it's downhill all the way into Omakau, where I camped the night at the local motor camp. A really nice spot with lovely grassy sites, a decent camp kitchen and an excellent hot shower in the clean modern amenities block.

After setting up my tent and having that lovely hot shower I walked up the road to the pub and had a meal and a beer before wandering home to my sleeping bag.

The next morning I noticed that I had rubbed the bottom of my saddlebag on the rear tyre. It had only damaged the protective plastic and not the dry bag itself, so I made sure to strap it up much tighter so there would be even more room between it and the rear wheel. The problem with being a shortie is that there isn't a lot of distance between the seat and the tyre so I can only use a smaller 10L bag, but if I stuff the bag well so it is as rigid as possible, and then cinch the compression straps hard, then it will ride high enough to stay away from the tyre. The Cannondale bikes have a bit of suspension built in to the way the frame is built so that may also have contributed to the rubbing. Suffice to say I had no more rubbing issues for the rest of the trip, and I later reinforced the area rubbed with a couple of layers of duct tape.

I had a late start, because in attempting to add a little more air into my front tyre I unscrewed the valve and lost all the air in the tyre. That's when I discovered how hard it is to reinflate a tubeless tyre by hand pump.  I couldn't get enough pressure in the tyre to get it to seal around the bead, even after borrowing bigger foot pumps from other campers at the motor camp. In the end I walked the bike down to the local bike shop in Omakau and waited for their bike mechanic to drive over from Alex to help me out. He used the compressor to quickly inflate the tyre, which sealed immediately, and he sold me an adaptor I can use with the air compressors at petrol stations. That won't help me if I'm in the wop wops so I will need to add a CO2 inflator into my kit to cover that possibility. This trip sure was turning out to be a great experiment.

I pedalled out of Omakau around 11am, arriving in Lauder ready for lunch, but the local cafe was closed for the season. I wandered around to the local pub, where they made me a toasted sandwich and a coffee, then I set out again.

From Lauder the trail heads through Poolburn Gorge, across viaducts and through a couple of tunnels. I didn't have bike lights and ignored the notice suggesting I dismount for the first tunnel, to my own detriment, because a few seconds later I couldn't see a thing and promptly fell off my bike!! I walked the rest of the way until I could see the exit and had enough light to be able to continue riding without toppling over!!

The ride through the gorge is one of the more spectacular parts of the trail, but once through the second tunnel, which is shorter and doesn't turn a corner so is easy to cycle through without toppling over, you enter the wide Ida Valley and get your first taste of the spectacular Maniototo.

The trail heads north down the valley, is flat and fairly featureless, to Oturehua, home of Hayes Engineering, the very cute historic General Store and my camp for the night at Crows Nest Backpackers. I set up my tent on the lawn, had another lovely hot shower, then hit the pub for dinner. I actually brought enough meals to cook my own dinner each night, but I like supporting local businesses, especially if it means I don't have to cook.

The next morning, after a coffee or two courtesy of the coffee maker at the backpackers, I headed off a little later than planned after a squall of wind and rain hit. Luckily I had already packed up my tent when the squall hit, so I waited it out with a second cup of coffee and some toast courtesy of my host, then pedalled off once most of the bad weather had passed over.

Saturn, see https://www.railtales.nz/interplanaterycycletrail

From Oturehua the trail climbs to it's highest point at Wedderburn and then it's downhill all the way to Ranfurly. I also had a tailwind. I passed a few cyclists pedalling the opposite direction and it certainly didn't look like they were having much fun at all.

At Ranfurly I stopped for lunch at a cafe, where I ate a very disappointing spinach and feta roll, and managed to at last confirm a seat back to Clyde from Middlemarch for myself and my bike. My emails had been misread by the person I had sent them to, and they had told me there were no shuttles for Friday. When I rang them up it turned out they had confused which shuttle I was after, and there was indeed a shuttle on Friday from Middlemarch, so I dutifully paid my money and learnt yet another lesson in this bikepacking caper. Which is if you are going to rely on bike shuttle services you need to 1. book ahead and 2. cycle during the tourist season so there is actually a shuttle service to book on!!!

From Ranfurly the trail continued straight and flat, through the mighty Maniototo, to cross the Taieri River at Waipiata. There was a pub and a campsite at the domain, but I intended to camp at the free campsite at Daisybank. This is another really picturesque part of the ride, as the trail passes through a gorged section of the Taieri.

I got to the campsite around 2pm, but I couldn't find anywhere sheltered enough for my tent, as my lightweight pegs continuously got pulled out by the gusty wind and collapsed the tent. A bit after 3 I decided I needed to up sticks and keep going. At least I had the wind behind me.

The next couple of hours saw me cycling madly along the trail, stopping a number of times to consider whether various sidings buildings would give me enough shelter from the wind for a free camp, but each time I just snacked on an energy bar and kept going. Hyde Tunnel, at the end of the gorge was whizzed through, and a cursory glance around Hyde revealed nothing open so on I went. There are no photos from this section, I just rode!

I arrived in Middlemarch just as it got dark, and managed to get the last room at the pub, the local camping place being closed for the season. After 86km that hot shower felt great, as did the massive pub meal and possibly 2 beers? The comfy bed was a bonus!

The next morning it was brutally cold, with snow on the hills and a chilly southerly blowing. It was then that I congratulated myself on pedalling all the way to Middlemarch, missing out on a chilly night in a tent and a nasty headwind on the final day.

Instead, I had another hot shower and then had a wee cycle around town before hitting the local cafe for a hot breakfast. After lingering a while over my coffee I left to wander more and await the shuttle pickup. Another two cyclists turned up, having stayed at the Waipiata pub and freezing themselves solid on the ride in to Middlemarch.

The shuttle arrived, loaded our bikes, then drove us back to Clyde.

It was a great first bikepacking trip. My bike performed well, I learnt a lot about tubeless tyre intricacies and how to load your bags properly. I realised I needed to upgrade my tent pegs to a sturdier design to cope with windy conditions, and that sometimes you need to dig deep and just keep trucking. TBH there were lots of places that I could have stopped and set up my tent, but knowing I could make it to Middlemarch before dark was really the only reason I didn't stop earlier.

BUT: It was really easy terrain, both in terms of cycling surface (hard gravel) and elevation gains and losses. Sure I'm fit, but it was literally the first time I had cycled a bike for more than an hour in years, so I was pleasantly surprised to have no saddle soreness. I wore my thermal Skins leggings with mountain bike shorts over the top and was very comfortable, even a little too warm at times. A merino thermal, fleece jersey and my rain jacket completed the upper body layers, with the addition of a neck buff which is a mandatory piece of kit when cycling to cut down on wind chill.

With a few additions and modifications I feel ready to take on some more bikepacking adventures, but with winter approaching my options locally are limited. There's always next year...

Tuesday, May 3, 2022

Cutting the Paparoa in two

The Paparoa Track is NZ's newest Great Walk, and was purpose built as a joint mountain bike and tramping trail. Cyclists usually take two days to ride it, staying overnight at the middle hut. Trampers, on the other hand, usually take 3-4 days to walk it, requiring bookings at all 3 huts. As a result the middle hut gets booked out before the others, which can limit availability of the walk to trampers, who would find walking between the first and third hut a bit too long for one day.

It had taken me about 4 months to find availability, having booked my walk some time before Christmas. After my paddles at Murchison with Kelvin, Liz and Julie I headed south to Lake Brunner to ride out some bad weather over the Anzac Day weekend and took a peak at the weather for my upcoming trip. It looked like more bad weather, so I decided to check the DOC website to see if there had been any cancellations so I could change my itinerary to more salubrious conditions. Imagine my surprise to find there were indeed openings, so change I did, heading off a few days earlier.

After arranging a car relocation from Blackball to Punakaiki I received an email from the relocation providers informing me that the track had been closed partway along the track due to a huge slip and would not be open to through traffic for at least another month. DOC had yet to inform me of this!!

The relocation service refunded my money and I looked at my options. A few years ago when staying at Kirwan's Hut I had met a west coaster who had highly recommended the walk up along the ridgeline from Smoke Ho carpark up to Mt Watson and across to Croesus Knob. The closed track gave me the perfect opportunity to create a loop, so I rebooked my huts for a second time and headed up to Blackball. I stayed overnight at one of the pubs (not the Hilton) and enjoyed the hospitality of this wonderfully interesting town, with it's history of coal mining, trade unionism, women's suffrage and even being the headquarters of the NZ Communist Party!!

The next morning I headed off early, leaving the car at Smoke Ho carpark and heading straight up hill on a well marked track to the bush line a few hundred metres below Mt Watson. It was wet and boggy in places but as a result was lush with a healthy undergrowth and lots of birds. From the bush line the track followed a ridge up to Mt Watson, with views out to the west coast and to the nearby open cut mine.

Smoke Ho carpark, I would be following that ridge from bottom right to top left

Paparoa Track, southern start

Alternative track up to Mt Watson

Cool steps

Lush forest, narrow track

Nice big trees and some root scrambling

Arriving at the tree line

Grey Valley, Southern Alps in background

Ridge walking towards Mt Watson and Mt Leitch behind it

From Mt Watson the poled route headed north, bypassing Mt Leitch summit. I climbed up though so I could check out the bivy below Mt Leitch, which was currently occupied by a group of workers doing kiwi monitoring. I continued on, following the well marked route in excellent sunny weather all the way towards Croesus Knob.

Mt Leitch Biv is used by biodiversity workers doing trapping and kiwi monitoring

Looking back at Mt Leitch

Ridge walking, my favourite when the weather's good

Croesus Knob, I'm heading for that wee notch top right

Looking back south

I met some trampers walking in the opposite direction just as I stopped to repair my ripped shoe. They had come from Moonlight Tops Hut, and having been reassured that would be easily achievable I yet again changed my booking online (the advantage of being on the ridge was excellent mobile coverage) from Ces Clarke Hut to Moonlight Tops instead. That would avoid needing to backtrack from where the ridge rejoined the main Paparoa Track but would add another hour or 2 to the day. Since I was making excellent time and the walking was easy it seemed like a good plan.

My Hoka Speedgoats had ripped across the top of the shoe. This was my second pair of these trail shoes, which I love wearing because they are light and very comfortable, with great cushioning especially on hard ground. They have a weakness on the upper where they dry out and crack, causing the material to be prone to holes, and I had inadvertently caught my toe under a rock and split the whole upper part. I had some strapping tape, so I used that to repair them, and continued on.

The views all day were magnificent, and after about 5 hours I rejoined the Paparoa track after skirting around the summit of Croesus Knob. I didn't fancy the steep descent from the Knob summit, and didn't think the view would be any different to that I'd been enjoying all morning.

Heading towards that notch

Getting closer

The Paparoa Track below, heading down to Ces Clark Hut

Once back on the track I met other walkers and cyclists, going in both directions. The track closure was between Moonlight Tops Hut and Pororari Hut, so trail users needed to return the way they had come. The track continued to climb, sidling along as it continued in a northerly direction, with more magnificent views, including the Southern Alps and Aoraki. The first section of the Paparoa Track is actually part of the much older Croesus Pack Track, which soon heads off the tops for the steep descent down to the west coast at Barrytown. The Paparoa Track stays on the ridges, continuing north.

West coast cloud blowing in....

After an hour on the tops the infamous west coast mist began to blow in. These moisture laden clouds do a good job of keeping the vegetation so lush, but they kinda kill the views! They do add mood to the landscape though, and it was pleasant walking regardless. Besides, I'd been spoilt all day already.

Looking back: Croesus Knob on left, Aoraki way in the distance

One km in the moody gloom to the hut

Dracophyllum bushes

About 2 hours after hitting the main trail I arrived at Moonlight Tops Hut. There were already a few other trampers there, but no cyclists, hence why there were so many free spots in the hut. I had heard that The Paparoa Track and Old Ghost Road mostly attract the type of mountain biker who likes to ride the tracks and then skedaddle back to where they come from. Unlike less technical trails like The West Coast Wilderness Trail, where cyclists stay longer in the area and spend more money in the region. So with the thru track closed, the cyclists had all cancelled en masse!!

The evening was really pleasant, with the hut only half full, and we all scrambled up the rise behind the hut to watch the rather muted sunset. We met Jess, the hut warden, and discovered we had some mutual friends in the paddling world. She also gave me some beta on the gorges in the Pororari River, but more about that later.

There is a stunning view of the escarpment from here, but the west coast mist obscures it

Sunset from behind the hut

The next morning trampers either headed back the way they had come or, like me, they headed out along the closed part of the track along the escarpment to the shelter. The slip was actually below the escarpment, so the section of track along the top was completely unaffected, and I needed to tick that shelter off my hutbagging list!! I had booked a second night at Midnight Tops so I had all day.

Good morning!

Sunrise, Moonlight Tops Hut

It was another stunner, starting with a spectacular sunrise. The walk out along the escarpment was lovely, through wonderful gnarly mountain beech and drachophyllum, with occasional glimpses of the precipitous drop on the western side. However, the true grandeur of the escarpment is best appreciated from the hut.

Look closely and you can see Moonlight Tops Hut in distance

Pororari Hut in the distance, at the end of the first ridge to the left

There was a new shelter being built, much bigger than the current shelter, with room for a large equipment shed for DOC. The section of track down off the escarpment is where they have all the slips occurring with wet weather events, so having access to track clearing equipment is a DOC priority.

Old shelter

Enormous new shelter

After a cuppa and some lunch I headed back to Moonlight Tops. The weather stayed clear, and the hut slowly filled up with a new group of trampers. Still no cyclists, but a group on an organised tour having a very delicious looking gourmet dinner.

A small cirque and waterfall off to the east of the track

Fossil? Or explosive?

That magnificent escarpment in all it's glory

The next morning I returned back along the track, this time continuing to Ces Clarke Hut and following the old packrtrack back to Smoke Ho carpark.

Another stunning sunrise

View down to the west coast, no mist

The hazard markers are for the cyclists!

Croesus Knob on right

West coast, Greymouth, and little old Aoraki in the distance

The notch I walked down from a couple of days before

Ces Clark Hut, smoko stop

There were a few huts to visit, some off the main track, and lots of mining history. A really enjoyable, mostly downhill amble.

Back at Blackball I booked back in at the same hotel I'd stayed in 3 nights ago, and was entertained by the annual May Day debate. Topic: that the Wellington Protestors were an embarrassment. The affirmative team did a great job of dressing up as Ashley Bloomfield and Siouxsie Wiles (complete with pink wig!) and a decent argument, the negative team took themselves far too seriously with a strong anti-vax theme. The affirmative won, and no-one behaved badly, though it wasn't exactly a large turnout. The locals are wonderfully friendly, can't recommend the place more.

The next morning I headed down to the west coast. I left my car at the motor camp whilst I walked the other end of the track up to Pororari Hut and back again. I'd originally thought about bringing the packraft and paddling back out, but after speaking with Jess at Moonlight Tops I decided it wasn't worth the effort. The upper gorge was just too gnarly to be paddling alone, and the lower portion was probably better done as a half day trip, so I left the packraft in the car and just tramped it.

The track follows the Pororari River most of the way, at one point climbing up and away from the upper gorge, so I could see for myself that it definitely wasn't something I'd be paddling by myself, if at all! There were a number of rock sieves and drops, but it certainly looked portageable.

Northern start of Paparoa Track

Up through Pororari Gorge

through a tunnel

easy walking

Moonlight Tops Hut is on that ledge way in the distance

The final climb up a ridge to Pororari Hut took about an hour. There was an American couple already there, celebrating 5 years living in NZ. Later, a lone cyclist turned up, and over a few cups of tea we made great conversation and solved most of the world's ills. Awesome company!!

Random woodcarving..

The craggy limestone mountains in the north of Paparoa National Park

The escarpment, can you see the track descending off it on the left?

Moonlight Tops Hut

Sunset, Pororari Hut

We all took our time leaving the next morning, it being an easy downhill walk, even easier cycle, back out.  

I booked in at the motor camp, enjoyed a nice hot shower, and the next day headed back down to Wanaka. I had no choice, all my footwear was buggered, and there was a brand new pair of trail shoes waiting in Wanaka for me.

There was also a bike to look at. What's that?? A bike??

That's next...