Saturday, 18 January 2014

The Southern Brevet

[Photo credits:  Steve, Thomas and Julie have provided many of the photos which are all muddled up with mine so I haven't specified source - I also picked some up from the GSB website which I have noted.  If you want to look at the photos in detail and skip the boring wordy bits, just click on a photo and you can scroll through all 92 of them.]

This is my diary from the Great Southern Brevet (Link).  I was thoroughly intimidated by the whole idea but if there's one lesson out of all this, it is that these things are designed to be achieved and enjoyed by people who are not super athletes.  You'll always get your hares racing ahead but leave them to it and everyone else has a bloody good holiday adventuring around spectacular country with many chances for a yack with interesting bikers and locals.

The first time I heard about a brevet was the Great Divide event which follows the Rockies the length of America.  The idea of solo, self supported riding through all sorts of country was immediately alluring, although that event seemed beyond the horizon for me.  But the idea sat there and it was just a matter of time until something else came along.  Also the small matters of getting sufficient experience, fitness, and gear.

It took a year or two before things came into line and the 2014 Kiwi Brevet was going to be it. I picked up various parts of the course during the odd excursion in 2013, read about it and talked to previous riders.  The Taupo enduro (Nov 2013) was a goal in itself requiring a fair amount of training but from early on the possibility was in mind that it could give the base fitness needed to tackle 'the Kiwi' in the new year.

In the following weeks 'training' was chaotic and included a weekend event and five or six 100+ km off road day rides around the Wellington region. This was not really enough and I hadn't tested my bivvy bag.

Shortly before Christmas a work clash meant the Kiwi Brevet was out of the question. I was gutted. However the Southern Brevet was still a goer, although two weeks earlier and a complete unknown. I signed up.

As a voluntary enterprise, it relies on Dave's time and energy so it was quite late in the piece that the route was finalised and a GPX file available for download.  For those of us of a pedantic disposition the lack of certainty was a little unsettling.  When the files finally went up the first impression was that this would be a monster; big climbs, exposed locations, potential extremes of weather and long stretches between towns; what a pessimist!

After gleaning advice from anybody and everybody, it was time to get bike and kit together. The results are described at the end for those with an interest but let's just say it comprised my trusty old Mountain bike with various bags and bottles lashed to it.

Aint she beautiful!

Overall my clothes and sleeping gear were Arctic and my water capacity Arizona.  The experts said not to carry much food but to stop at every shop and gorge, which is what I did, but I also carried a supply of one square meals and a tin of fish for the entire distance untouched.

Friday 17 Jan: getting to Tekapo

The early hours of Friday morning sees us strapping the bike on the MX and yawning our way to the Bluebridge ferry. The 2am sailing allows a leisurely drive to Tekapo arriving mid afternoon with plenty of time to settle in and get set up.

Dinner that night is at Pepe's Pizzas with Julie, Thomas and Gordon where I listen carefully to their tips and head home to make further adjustments. Thomas is sceptical about my bottle cages so I set up hair ties to strap bottles in and plan to reduce weight in the cages and carry more on my back. I also put the synthetic jacket back in.

Last supper in Tekapo; Julie, Gordon, Thomas and me


Sat 18 Jan: Tekapo to Omarama


Before:  shiny, clean and not sun burnt

The emblematic stone church on a grassy mound by the lake is a picturesque setting for the start. Tourists pause in their pilgrimage from the car park to the chapel to peer at the 70 odd bikers as they assemble and cast speculative eyes over each others' kit.  I can't help noting that mine is on the heavy side and that many have avoided carrying weight on their backs.

The masses assemble

29ers are the choice and there are very few 26' frames; seems we are a dying breed. There are also a hand-fill of single speed bikes (as if it isn't hard enough already).

Spot trackers are handed out followed by a short tutorial. These broadcast our position, speed etc to the world who can follow progress on the internet; it is apparently quite addictive viewing (they also double as emergency beacons).  There's a few other announcements ("has anyone got a spare tube? I've already blown my two spares!"), a group photo then a bit of time to stand by my bike wondering how the hell I could ever think I might be able to cope with what is about to happen.

The cream of humanity (from GSB website)

On yer marks - too late to back out now.

All too soon (around 11am) a long stream of bikes is heading out onto the road in a 'controlled' start.  The plan; get past the two climbs and see how close I can get to Omarama before camping out. This may or may not be in concert with J&T.

Leaving Tekapo

We leave the road at Lake Alexandrina reserve to bucket across dry, stony fields. It isn't pleasant riding and various bits and pieces are liberated from poorly packed bikes.  Back on Braemar Road (gravel) , we cross the rolling landscape towards Lake Pukaki and I make a rookie mistake, hooking into a group going faster than I really want to.  I drop off the back on the approach to Twizel but by then I've burnt more energy then I had intended.

Heading off into the wilderness - there's bikes in there somewhere

About 10 minutes in - pushing already

Julie cruisin' towards Pukaki

Aoraki Mt Cook above Lake Pukaki

Being so early in the event Twizel is the one place where the full impact of the Brevet can be observed.  Around 2.30pm I am watching in disbelief as riders descend on the cafes to demolish prodigious portions of pies, chips, gravy, rolls, coke ... and stash more for later.

Sally turns up to say hello but finds a distracted cyclist set to get back on the road.  There's a short sealed stint and it's off to Flanagan Pass crossing the impressive Pukaki Canal draining Lake Pukaki to the Ohau A power station.

Small cyclist, big canal (Pukaki)

This is the challenge for the day; a 600m climb. And time for me to make another mistake. It's hot now and I grind up the first hill (Pyramid track to Darts Stream) without shedding layers and allow hydration to drop. On top of the fast start the result is a rapid tank.  It's a grovelly push wrestling the bike up the steep track and other riders pass which is somewhat demoralising. However Julie and Thomas turn up and they help more than they know as I settle from race mode (a legacy of road riding) to endurance mode.  Thomas later says: "Just come and ride with Ma and Pa, they'll sort you out!"

A couple of locals on Pyramid Track

A wee bit hot and bothered
on the way up Flanagan Saddle

Why it's called push biking

Long, glorious, rocky downhill.  Lake Ohau in the distance

At the top (1225m) the wind is rising and we briefly contemplate the views fore and aft before tipping over into an entertaining descent. Rocky in places but long, and mostly grassy on the lower stretches giving reasonably fast travel down to Lake Ohau. Another rider catches up on the way down, Steve is from Whangarei and elects to join the company - it turns out he shares a number of acquaintances with J&T.

We hit the lake shore around 6.30pm and a good gravel road takes us around Lake Ohau to the control gates where the Ohau Canal starts (it joins Pukaki Canal just above the Power Station about 8km away).  A kilometre later we cross the Ohau River which bypasses the power station, flowing into Lake Ruataniwha immediately below it.  It is also where we leave the road and follow the well made Alps to Ocean Bike Trail which skirts the shore.

Part way along, the track joins the road and Dave is standing on a fence post to encourage riders and provide information about the lodge. Sally is also there to check on progress.

Lake Ohau with Ben Ohau on the right (from GSB website)

Up the lake a line of white caps is visible in the distance marching inexorably towards us.  It hits suddenly giving a stiff head wind up to the lodge where we take a welcome breather and top up bottles. The faster group I had been with earlier have decided to stay the night and are looking very relaxed.

It's a bit after 8pm and after a quick confab we decide to head on to get the next climb (350m or so) out of the way. The gradient is easy as the trail rises giving increasingly panoramic views of the plains and the ranges to the east (Benmore closest). At one point the track winds through beech forest, which we are to see precious little of over coming days.  The Alps to Ocean is a good track and the 7km or so climb passes quickly.

Getting dim - high point of the Alps to Ocean Trail

As we drop through the zigzags the light dims and the track changes to parallel ruts in the grass but is smooth and flat giving a flowing ride. Just before hitting the road we investigate a derelict shed which could provide accommodation for the not too fussy. But everyone is happy to push on to Omarama under lights, as it is downhill.

Steve and I are a little less risk averse so fly on ahead hitting 50km/h on the hard packed gravel. The odd drift of loose grit keeps it interesting.  At the main road Steve goes on to find accommodation and I wait to make sure J&T pick up the trail entrance.

We're rolling into Omarama at 11pm with about 183km on the clock when Julie warns us of a car behind; it turns out to be Peter's bike lights. He had faithfully followed the GPS track off the Alps to Ocean Trail and spent a couple of hours thrashing around in a Matagouri infested swamp.

With good foresight J&T have a camp site booked with a food parcel waiting. So they head off to set up the tent. Steve meanwhile has rustled up a couple of ladies at the local motel, who cheerfully open reception and let us a unit with three beds.  It's about 1am when I crawl, clean and 'fed' (cold rice) into bed for 5 hours.

Sun 19 Jan: Omarama to Hawea

Steve and Peter wait for the chef and a 7am brekky while I head off into a cool morning.  Omarama is at about 430m and there's a bit of flat travel before the first climb up to the Omarama Saddle (1250m) and into the West Manuherikia. I keep a weather eye out for J&T (they left just after me apparently).

At the end of Broken Hut Road the route follows a 4WD track through farmland then into a narrow valley before diving up steeply.  I soon give it away and push as the sun starts to warm things up. Behind, Andrew M. rides an impressive way before dismounting and also pushing. When the track breasts a ridge the slope eases enough to ride to the top. Another Steve on a single speed catches up at the top, closely followed by Nathan.

Omarama Saddle looking north towards Ewe Range

It's about 9.15 and a bit hazy so after a cursory few snaps we roll on to the roughish descent. The DoC hut at the bottom of the hill is an excuse for a stop then it's on down the bouldery track along the valley bottom, countless river crossings, and another DoC hut. Single speed Steve soon leaves the rest of us behind.

Another river crossing  (Peter and Julie)

It's a long ride down the valley until we eventually reach Hawkdun Run Road, where the other Andrew stops for a breather; it turns out later that he was starting to get quite unwell and later that day had to pull out.

The roads improve and it's up the final climb then down into St Bathans and the Vulcan Hotel. She's old and rough but cosy. A constant trickle of hungry bikers roll through eating and drinking up large, filling water bottles and getting rolls and toasties for the road. One of the woman behind the bar is a bit inclined to be snippy but the bikers are all exceedingly polite and she visibly thaws.

The famous 'ulcan ho' in St Bathans - cosy with good food    (from GSB website)

It's around 12.45 and I push on alone but soon come across single speed Steve; a tail wind has risen which provides some pretty quick riding and he's looking for someone to draft (there's a limit to how fast you can push a single on your own).  However, once the road turns across then into the wind on the approach to Thompson Gorge Road, he disappears ahead.

The road starts to climb (from 440m, topping out at 980m) but not before I run into Dave coming out of the Pass. He brings news of weather in Wanaka (improving) and closing time at the Tarras Store (probably too early for my purposes).  It's an excuse to pause and chat for a moment.

Travelling into the boisterous wind makes the gorge a real slog and there are a few 'moments'. After the steep climb it meanders up and down before a final climb after passing an historic cottage. There are a few picturesque rock faces but most of it is not particularly distinctive farm country. At the start of the final up hill I have to stop to eat as energy levels are declining and the wind is starting to take its toll.

Julie enjoying Thompson Gorge Road more than is entirely natural

The promised land - coming down towards the Clutha Valley
with the Pisa Range in the distance

This is the start of a real low point. It gets hard to eat and drink and despite rocketing down the hill towards the Lindis River, the head wind on the flats is hard going. I take a long break before Tarras and another at Tarras (5.50pm). The petrol station owner has kept the shop open as long as she could and enquires if there are more to come and how long should she stick around.  I can't really help as I'm not sure how far others are behind but she says she will keep an eye out as she cashes up.  She notes an apricot I purchased has a brown spot and insists on giving my money back; decent people here abouts.

Tarras - the petrol station next door was real helpful

The route up valley follows various back roads into the wind towards Lake Hawea. There are no other riders to be seen until a group of Aussies catch up as I'm scratching my head at an unlabelled intersection. They swing around the corner and I follow. One is in a similar state to me so we travel at the same pace.

At last the gravel road hits the south eastern corner of the lake and we hit a stretch of single track that winds along above the shore to Hawea.

Arriving at the pub around 9pm there are a few bikers in already, tossing up whether to continue to Wanaka. It's getting dim and I know I'm not up to it. Getting ice cold L&P down isn't a problem but I can't face food. This is a real downer; can't eat = can't ride.  The bar manager apologises that there are no single rooms left but "we do have a room we call the dungeon."  She is very sweet and offers the room for free as I have a sleeping bag. Sorted.

J,T&S arrive having had the foresight to ring ahead and book a family room. Soon they are tucking into bar food, apart from Steve and Nathan who end up sleeping at each other in front of half eaten meals.

In the end Peter takes the dungeon and I take his paying bed with the others as he is concerned his snores might disturb, very considerate. As we head for our beds Nathan wakes up and decides to push on to Wanaka.

It's good to be in a bed again and not a biv, after another 185km in some less then helpful wind.

Mon 20 Jan: Hawea to Queenstown


From the balcony - the sun catching the tops of McKerrow Range
Corner Peak on the right

After a hard sleep, hydration and forcing some breakfast down I'm in a better physical and mental state in the morning. But in my head this is the critical day; a 1000m push up a hot rock in the heat. If anything might finish me off this is it.

Beforehand though, I have to detour back to pick up a section of track I missed on the way into town. J,T&S continue ahead and I travel the pleasant riverside trails from Hawea to Wanaka alone. They are busy with people and dogs, creating some close calls, and a bit of a maze in places but I get to Wanaka for another breakfast and stock up for the day not too far behind the others.

Julie and Steve enjoying the morning ride to Wanaka

It's very civilised chatting over coffee on a sunny morning (8.40am) and, as with other places, people are interested in what we're up to. Eventually we head out up the Cardrona Valley setting a good pace as we rotate the lead.

Peter, Julie, Steve and Andrew enjoying a hard morning's ride

The original brevet route was going to see us head around the lake to travel up the Motatapu River and over to Arrowtown.  Unfortunately this appeared to have fallen victim to land owner(s) declining permission.

So the navigation is pretty straight forward up the sealed road and it's not long (a bit after 10) before we turn left across the Cardrona River just after the ski field road on the right.  We are soon regrouping for the slog up Tuohy Gully following Meg Hut Pack Track, the climb is exactly as expected; steep, rocky and hot.

Steve about a third of the way up the big push

But as it turns out it's not so bad; there's quite a group heading up, including Lisa and Paul whom we see a bit of during the day. We take an easy pace stopping once to dunk shirts in the stream.  A few of the stronger riders ride quite steep sections, but not much faster than walking anyway.

Eventually it levels off and we're on the tops just before 1pm. The sky is clear and the barren hills bake under the hot sun.  Ahead lies a rocky, rutty track climbing and dropping for about 10 km along the tops.

Thomas and Julie rolling over the top of the big climb

Peter and Steve resting up after the big climb

Julie and Thomas about to roll over the top
of another climb

Thomas and Andrew roll over the top of another climb

Watch the Spaniard
(Don't mind him, he's from Barcelona)

Andrew resting at the top of another climb

Thomas, ditto

Steve, ditto, whilst gazing down Roaring Meg towards Cromwell

Andrew and Steve contemplating a descent before the next climb

The last decent descent: Queenstown Airport in the distance
(just above Julie's head)

It's very up and down so takes a good time to traverse. But new vistas gradually open until eventually we have a pilot's eye view up the valley to Queenstown Airport. Far below are orderly vineyards on old terraces above the Kawarau and glimpses through to Cromwell.  Cardrona ski field shows as scars on the opposite range and peaks I should know the name of line the western horizon.

At 3pm we are more than ready for the 1000m descent to Arrowtown and enjoy it thoroughly. The 4WD track is in good nick but with enough ruts and channels to make the first 400m interesting.  We regroup at the car park and repeat the experience on tarmac for another 400m on to a large terrace, where we leave the road and head to Tobin's Track, a high speed clay road down the final 200m to the river to arrive in Arrowtown an hour after leaving the tops.

Arrowtown is such a civilised place with avenues of trees, historic stone buildings and a general air of gentility.  We waste over an hour ensuring appetites are luxuriously satisfied; the local bakery being my pick for old times sake. We pick up with Peter again and have a conflab under the shade of trees outside the library.

Lowering the tone of Arrowtown

Oh yeah!

The decision; a night in Queenstown and book a water taxi for first thing in the morning.  Sally has been pottering around the tourist traps of Queenstown so we book a unit with capacity for all.

The river trails are well formed and a great ride for families although a few climbs up old terraces would be tough on littlees.  The track winds and flows all the way to Queenstown. On the way my forks collapse; signalled by the wheel rubbing on the water bottle. I've not had this happen before but there's enough expertise in the group to hatch a plan (Steve has some contacts if no bike shops are open and worst case I can continue with them collapsed).

Catching up with Paul and Lisa by the Shotover

Crossing the Shotover - these trails are nice!

There's only one point where we miss the trail and climb the terrace by the sewage ponds on the commuter trail rather than the river trail. Peter tries to warn us and rings but we eventually work it out and return to the route. We follow the trail into suburbia then around the lake shore on increasingly crowded trails to a packed Queenstown foreshore around 7.45pm.

R&R sports are still open, they take a look and advise that I can either wait into the morning for a rebuilt shock or take pot luck and carry a shock pump (which has a good gauge and can push a higher pressure than a bike pump).  I elect the latter and they sell me the workshop spare for $20. I'm happy.

We do the usual supermarket supply run where we run into Dave and a chap who has been following progress on the net (rather unkindly termed 'stalkers').  They provide news of other riders and we're happy to hear that we're pottering along in the middle of the pack.  After burgers for dinner it's a very relaxed end to the day and I'm feeling like I can cope with this lark after all; a sea change from this time yesterday.  Mind you we've only done 121km today so a bit slack really!

Steve, Julie Thomas and Andrew restocking   (from GSB website)

Helpful stalker and Dave

Tue 21 Jan: Queenstown to Nevis

Sally wisely keeps her head down as four focused bikers haul on gear, stick various, nefarious breakfasts down their necks and attend to their bikes.  Gradually, entropy reverses and utter chaos becomes orderly quiet as well stacked bikes head out under the bleary eyed control of slightly more cheerful riders.

We are waiting for the water taxi at 7am. The streets are quiet and I for one don't miss the mass of people. Wrestling the bikes on is a little tricky but soon enough riders, bikes and most of me are aboard. The air is cool and clouds are gathered about the peaks as the boat races across the dull water.

MTB commando raid on Walter peak

The boat disappears ...

... and quiet returns

As the taxi disappears off back towards Queenstown we are left on the dock as peace returns. There's no-one about at Walter Peak. Peter heads off first and the rest of us eventually get it together and follow about 7.40am.

Heading out for the Von

The gravel road parallels the lake through farmland, first west then north. There's not a lot to note; a top dressing plane provides some diversion and a helicopter buzzes over.

An hour later we head south into classic glaciation country up the Valley of the Von. A couple are droving a small flock of sheep and we pass the old stone homestead which seems to be in good nick.

The day starts to heat up just in time for the climb. It's not a huge hill at 200m but as we climb, more of the surrounding glacially formed landscape comes into view.

Looking back from part way up the hill

At 10.00, at the top we catch up with another couple of drovers. These ones look like they're out of a bad beer commercial; drizbone coats and chaps, boots, leather hats i.e. the real thing. We bike slowly through their mob.

Do not say 'traffic jam NZ style'

Coming off a bridge we are startled by a loud boom then a shriek of laughter from Julie. Her back tyre has not just blown; it has disembowelled itself.  The tyre is off the rim and the tube is all over the place. There's no sign of what caused it but a new tube is soon in place.

Julie's back wheel shows us its innards

The road is dusty but vehicles rare and the going easy until the wind suddenly changes and picks up.  Closing up, we circulate the lead as we ride towards a dark, dense wall of beech forest forming an abrupt boundary to the wide grassy flats.  It is undoubtedly some LotR location or other (Fanghorn Forest?) and although the road stays in the open the trees are a welcome sight after the dearth to date.

Someone tell me why Thomas is pushing!?

We cross the Oreti River (which flows to Invercargill) before the Mavora Lakes turn off at 11.30, this signals more traffic and more dust. We stop once for a bite then head for Mossburn.  The cue sheet indicates that the main-road intersection is just over  halfway for the trip so we stop for a photo 2 hours later. A Russian cyclist obliges and is tickled to hear that Thomas and Julie have been to his home town (I have come to realise that this is pretty much inevitable when travelling with these two).

No, not the YMCA song

Rolling into Mossburn for a late lunch and Thomas gets chatting to a couple of hitch-hikers. They (and we) can't quite believe that they have been 10 minutes without a lift, unusual for them I'm sure.  The souvenir shop/cafe has pretty good food and we take our time browsing before stocking up at the 4 Square, as this is the last chance before Alexandra. A couple of guys on single speeds arrive just as we are heading out before 3pm.

Thomas in scenic Mossburn

Poor beggars can't afford more than one gear

It's seal all the way to Garston via Five Rivers although the wind is a bit of a chore. We stop at Athol, where the store owner is at pains to give us his views on the new(ish) owner of Garston pub and the type of company he keeps; we listen politely but make no comment.

Its a short stint up to Garston; beside the road, a cycle trail is under construction and there's plenty of B&Bs in evidence.  A few kilometres out Steve's knee craps out and we limp slowly into 'town' around 5.30.

There's a bundle of bikers and Dave in situ already, few of which seem inclined to head over the hill to the Nevis: away from the bar and the prospect of steak for dinner. The pub has a boil water notice on but the honey house across the road is very obliging and a queue of dry bikers top up bottles. Thomas buys some honey thereby assuaging any guilt anyone may have been feeling.

SATJ hit the Garston pub

After a break, Steve's knee is a little better (or at least no worse), so we head up the road with the vague idea of crashing in the historic ski hut or somewhere along the road.

It's a steady climb on a good road and not too steep.  At 6pm the afternoon sun is hot and throws the green valley floor into sharp contrast against the tans of the tussock hillside. 

Winding up to the Nevis, Kingston somewhere
around the corner to the right

After about a 600m climb, eventually the ski club hut hauls into view (7.20pm or so) providing an excuse to stop (and lose a glove bugrit!). She's pretty rough inside but would be fine.  I've got a bit ahead of the others and, as there's still enough sun about, I decide to send them a text and push on the last 100m up, before rolling along and then down  into the Nevis.

Historic Garston Ski Hut

The road dives into the Nevis  (from GSB website)

The road dives into the Nevis and starts into the many stream crossings and rocky fords. The shadows lengthen and before long I'm chasing patches of sun down the valley. There's wet tyre marks fading on the ford exits so I know there are two riders somewhere ahead. But the landscape is empty and there is little in the way of options for shelter.

You can't help think of the gold miners clambering around these hills and how utterly miserable the poor buggers must have been in the bitter cold.  There's no trees, so timber would have had to be carted in, yet the scars of old workings and water races indicate how long they stuck at it.

The valley narrows and the road scrambles along the sides above the river, before finally dropping to School House Flat in the Lower Nevis and the approach to the bridge at Nevis Crossing.

Lights are on in the scattered houses but nobody notes a cyclist in the dusk. Orange sparks crack off one of the gate latches. It's near dark (10pm - so probably dark!) by the time  the bridge looms out of the gloaming, but just light enough to see a tent on a grassy flat by the stream.

Last time I was here someone had a pump in the river looking for gold. That was about 1992.  Tonight I cast around for a rock shelter and check out the bridge; nothing doing so I roll out my biv near Peter's tent, just as it starts to rain. Peter invites me to sit under the beak of his tent as I work out what to do next.

Now, bear with me as I illustrate why I hate bivvy bags. I am standing in the steady rain in my cycling gear; dirty, sweaty and wet. Inside my biv is a dry, clean sleeping bag and mat. The trick is to get into it, without getting the contents filthy and wet, and I'm not about to strip off in the rain.  In the end I tip the whole thing over and crawl underneath: stage 1.  After squashing the sleeping bag into the foot, I climb in then roll the lot over: stage 2.  I'm now dirty and wet but inside the biv and away from my sleeping bag.  I go to sleep for a bit while working out what to do next. Fortunately it's not too cold so I get by, and in the end pull the bag over my not too filthy legs.

I eat a tin of something unpleasant with crackers and go back to sleep; wake up, prise the contact lenses off my eyeballs, and go back to sleep again. The inside of the biv is dripping wet - so much for gortex.  In other words: not the best of nights after a 225km day.

Wed 22 Jan: Nevis to Lake Onslow

The rain has stopped but it's a damp sleeping bag I cram away in the misty morning. Peter is already up and gets away about 15 minutes ahead.

Peter and his damn fine Cuban fibre tent

The road immediately climbs and climbs (about 550m). The clouds are soon below and behind, and the sun lights the hill faces to the west.  Cloud fills the lower half of the Nevis Valley with a handful of trees breaking through.

Morning in the Nevis

There's nothing moving to be seen and I wonder if any MTBers are camped somewhere down there.

I find out later that Steve had pushed on and past in the night, to camp near the top of the hill.  J&T on the other hand had pitched their tent in the lee of a shack and woke in the morning to ride through the banks of mist I was looking down on.

Julie and Thomas claim squatters rights in the Nevis
(they did actually slept in their tent)

Morning sun burning off the mist

I note from the marks in the dirt that Peter has pushed up a fair amount of the steep bits, and I don't feel so bad following suit. A couple of road workers turn up and stop for a chat, closely followed by a truck that doesn't.  The sun clears the ridge and the iconic schist outcrops throw long shadows across the gold tussock.  This is Central Otago at its bare, barren best.

The downhill is long and steep eventually dropping to the Hawkburn Road. The farm land looks green and rich; a far cry from the tussock slopes above.  It's about 8.30 and the day is starting to really heat up.

From comparing the cue notes and topo map in the comfort of Wellington, I'm conscious that there's an intersection coming up that might not be obvious.  The cue notes don't describe a couple of intersections that appear on the topo map but if you look closely you can see that the road does follow through.  I've printed a section of the 1:50 map so am pretty comfortable and in the end it's straight forward.

A few others apparently have problems: the chap coming through first turns left and ends up in Cromwell, understandably he didn't go back, given that he thought he had followed the notes and would have no guarantee he would find the right road a second time.  So he took the long route around the road to Alex. Apparently this sparked debate as he didn't follow the route, but I'm not about to judge him for that.

A figure in green ahead turns out to be Peter and I eventually catch up; he has stopped to check his GPS: "It says we're on the right course but this road just doesn't feel right!?"  I have all the smugness of a girlie swot as I whip out my carefully prepared topo map and demonstrate my perspicacity.  We continue west toward the Clutha Valley and Clyde.

The road has now degenerated into a bumpy track that winds, dips and climbs along the route of the pylons.  The landscape has changed again; the schist is still there but there's now briar rose, thyme and low scrub, rather than tussock and Spaniard.

The other thing that the topo indicates is that it's quite a ways to Clyde and it takes a while before we tip over the edge for a steep descent on an improving surface.  Below, a tree lined section of the Clutha River catches the sun and the wide flat valley looks incredibly fertile.

First sight of the Clutha (centre of pic) from above Clyde    (weird shaped photo collage courtesy of Steve's phone)

At the bottom we pass an orchard where sun ripened apricots are crying out to be liberated from their leafy cages.  We exchange comments but agree that closing the intervening few metres would not be in the best interests of land owner/cyclist relations.

If you talk to anyone that was around the region when the Clyde Dam was built, they will likely lament the loss of the best apricot growing country in the world beneath the waters of Lake Dunstan.  I can dimly recall stopping on family holidays to pick up a rough wooden box of fruit so soft and sweet it had to be eaten the same day.  The other memory is of a closed store with a thick black line marking the height to which the lake level would rise.

This morning though, we ignore the dam and turn down stream to follow a dappled track on the true right of the deep green Clutha; it's very pleasant to be out of the sun amidst trees.  Walkers and dogs signal that we are back in civilised environs.

At 11am the track finally pops out into a car park where Sally is sitting reading in the sun.  We cross the river to Alexandra and convene at a local tea rooms to hoe into the contents of their fridge and display cabinet.  It's also a chance to festoon my sleeping bag and biv bag on the road side bollards where they dry nicely.

Steve turns up having arrived ahead of us and we disperse on various missions: me to buy replacment gloves.  The bike shop reports that a few brevet riders have been in, including a midnight call out for repairs.  This is not the only obliging owner dragged back to his closed shop; we hear afterwards of a group who called the owner of the Ranfurly Four Square who sallied out in the night to open the shop, but probably did alright given how much they would have bought.

Alexandra is as hot as I remember it so sunscreen is careful applied before Steve and I follow the cue sheet across the Manuherikia River (yep, we followed the West Branch on Sunday) into the rocky, parched hills after a bit over an hour in Alex.  The Kennets call this part of Knobbly Range 'Cardiac Hill', so we decide very quickly that there's no point being heroic, the top is about 780m above us after all.  Peter also turns up, after a short diversion up a side road, and we push steadily upwards.

The landscape sends Peter back to New Mexico with the rocks and sparse dry vegetation but he doesn't miss the scorpions and snakes. I appreciate the smell of wild thyme crushed under foot and the opening views across to the Old Man Range.

There's only one navigationally challenging moment but we've been pre-warned and with Peter's GPS we stay on the right route and keep climbing.  Between us we've had a bit of experience of the area; Peter visiting communications masts on the Old Man Range and Steve having ridden a number of the local trails.

Peter and Andrew at top of Knobby Range as the weather starts to change

Nathan appears in the distance ahead, evidently he'd stopped for a bit of a snooze with his head in the shade and was carrying on at his own pace.  Peter has clearly ridden with Nathan often and there seems to be some good natured rivalry involved.

The weather forecast turns out to be uncannily accurate as clouds gather pretty much on cue.  However once over the top (around 3pm), the going is easy without the long ups and downs of many of the ridges we have traversed.  We soon hit a well packed gravel road providing a swift descent at up to 70km/h towards Roxburgh.

At the bottom we catch up with Nathan and join the riverside trail to Roxburgh.  It is another well formed trail providing easy riding above the river.  Part way along the weather forecast is confirmed with the arrival of rain which accompanies us into town.

It's decision time: at 4.30 there's still a lot of daylight left, but ahead is a climb up to Lake Onslow, and by all accounts very little in the way of shelter for a good long distance.  Steve is keen to rest his knee (and I suspect, not to sleep in a biv!) so elects to stay here for the night.  We pop into the i-site where the very helpful lass soon has him booked into the last room in the local motel.

Said lass also hunts about and finds an answer to my enquiry about the Lake Onslow fishing huts.  The Teviot Fishing Society lets them to members for $20 a night. I try to entice Steve by suggesting one of us join and we fill the hut with bikers, but he has the scent of lavender motel soap in his nostrils and in the end it's a bit too complicated.

In the meantime the rain has cleared. Steve heads up the road to the motel and I to find a cafe.  A couple of bikes outside indicate where Nathan and Peter have holed up and it's a good choice.  The owner has his laptop set up and is following the Brevet; apparently he greeted someone by name when they walked in.   Peter asks where Steve has got to and before I can answer the owner chips in: "his marker has stopped at the motel."

The owner's attitude is an indication of the growing awareness of cycling in the local communities and a gearing up of associated services.  It makes sense when you think about it; cyclists may travel through but they will be in a region for a good few days and will be buying pretty much all their food and accommodation in small communities.

Having eaten our fill and bought a couple of very good toasties for the road, Nathan, Peter and I set off up the hill just after 6pm.  The road soon turns back to gravel and then to clay as it rolls and climbs and rolls.  The rain has passed through and left cooler air and dampened the dust.  The afternoon sun slants under the clouds and throws the wrinkles of the land into relief.

Think Graeme Sydney   (from GSB Website)

A decidedly cool wind is starting to pick up as we complete the 800m climb from Roxburgh to just below Mt Teviot around 9pm and look into the bowl with Lake Onslow in the distance.  The green of the Clutha Valley is far behind and it is back into tussock country devoid of trees. The last of the sun disappears and we follow the meandering road down to the lake.  Closer, the small cluster of fishing huts stand out as the only visible structures on the landscape.  We peer at them from the road wondering if there is a handy verandah but someone is about and we elect not to try to be cheeky.

Lake Onslow and the fishing huts.  The dark green bits are probably
the only trees in the entire basin.  (from GSB website, Wendy in photo)

The dam was apparently initially built in 1888 and subsequently increased in height. It is in the head waters of the Teviot River and turned what used to be 'Dismal Swamp' into a lake (now full of brown trout).  It was originally for mining but in the 1920s mining was decreasing and irrigation and power were predominant.

Lake Onslow outlet dam   (from GSB website)

It's 9.30pm and the light is dimming, the wind is strong and chill from the west.  We keep a weather eye out for shelter and eventually find some sheep yards and a shipping container.  Peter pitches his tent while Nathan and I lay our pits out on wool sacks in the container for a warm, comfortable and dry night after cold cheese toasty for dinner.  Not a long day at 140km but some hilly country behind us.

Wind and rain whip through during the night but doesn't bother us.

Thur 23 Jan: Lake Onslow to Kurow

It's a cold but dry and calm morning.  We tidy up after ourselves giving a silent vote of thanks to the farmer and layer up for a cold start shortly before 7.  To the west there's a fresh dusting of snow on what we think might be the Old Man Range.

The road is mostly pretty good although there are a few water channels to navigate.  I discover that mitts are somewhat clumsy and give the option of riding with fingers over the brakes (meaning you can't lift the wheel to clear obstacles) or holding the grips (and slowing breaking reaction time).

Rounding a corner, a washout channel illustrates that my choice of brakes over grips was less than ideal.  I can't stop in time and have a brief moment to regret my choice as the front wheel digs in and I head over the handlebars.  No major damage but for the brakes starting to rub.

A westerly picks up and gets stronger through the course of the morning as we first climb out of the Onslow Basin then roll and drop towards the Maniototo and Ranfurly.  We're in the catchment of the Tairei River now which flows north-east to round the Rock and Pillar Range before turning south past Middlemarch and on to Tairei Plains (think Dunedin Airport) to reach the sea south and west of Dunedin.

The route takes us north with a strong cross wind but when we turn east we race in front of it before turning north again for the final run into Ranfurly.

On the way we experience first hand the answer to that age old question - which are more stupid, are sheep or cattle?   A steer has escaped onto the road reserve and trots ahead of us, at one point turning to run full noise into the fence which barely holds.  We also catch up with a couple of sheep also enjoying the freedom of the road, they travel together for a bit but in short order the sheep figure things out and evade the evil two wheeled predators and sneak back past us.  Not so the steer, he continues ahead for a good while, passing open gates until he plucks up courage and leaps a fence with a twang to join some colleagues in a paddock.  We notice it's barbed wire and suspect he has a few mementos from his adventures.

It's good to sit down for a good long break in the cafe at Ranfurly around midday and tuck into their large breakfast washed down with lashings of ginger beer.  The Four Square is just along the road and supplies the usual assortment of high sugar, high fat, highly food-coloured fare.

Cafe in Ranfurly;  the locusts assemble
(Julie on right)

It's a short stint on back roads to the point where the cue notes take us for an excursion around the Mt Ida water race just out of Naseby.  The water race was opened in 1877 to wash away tailings, it runs 108km to Naseby from the Hawkdun Range not far from where we came down the west branch of the Manuherikia (Johnstons Creek).  It was used for gold mining but when that started waning around the 1920s irrigation and other purposes took over.  For more info on the race Click here.

It's a pleasant area and would be interesting to stop and explore on another occasion.  Today we enjoy the level riding beside the sizeable channel and consider the engineering that must have gone into it.  Finally we drop into Naseby and find the local dairy for a round of ice creams just before 3pm.

Dansey's Pass is the next milestone but first we have to negotiate the wind.  It's fine when it's behind but at one point a sudden side wind blows me across the road and onto the camber where my front wheel washes out.  A low speed and graceful step off but a bit embarrassing nonetheless.

River bank on approach to Dansey's Pass

Once we start heading into the hills it's a bit more sheltered until we reach Kyeburn Diggings (580m) a bit after 4pm and the Dansey's Pass Coach Inn.  It's a beautiful setting with the stone building (1862) sheltering amongst trees.  There's also plenty of accommodation available and we hear that there are bikers already booked in for the night.

We're all pretty dishevelled and I'm conscious of my dusty, sweaty state; Peter has also managed to get a sun burnt face apart from large white patches around his eyes.  Even though we're a bit of a sight, we stop for a round of cokes/L&P and a bite to eat in the historic bar, before heading on towards the pass.

Hitching post at Dansey's Pass Coach Inn

In case you missed her at the beginning

Meanwhile, Raccoon Pete and Nathan the Kid are hitting the bar

The road turns north-east and the wind is now pushing us firmly up the road.  It's a dream ride and easy going to the top (900m).  On the way we pass a spray contractor operating about 100m down off the road.  We can't tell what he's after but it seems to be some sort of grass amongst the tussock and the odd bit of gorse. 

Looking back down Dansey's Pass Road   (from GSB Website)

We reach the top of Dansey's Pass at 5.30pm, and this marks the transition from the Tairei to the Waitaki catchment, and the start of another glorious down hill.  In the course of which I lose my bottle, literally.  Despite the ingenious hair tie arrangement, at some point the last of my front bottles bounce out and fortunately not under a wheel.  No matter, I hadn't been using it for the last few days. 

The Pass road has one more surprise in store, with a wee climb of almost 200m.  At the top I break to re-pump the forks before rolling through the foot hills into the green Maraewhenua River Valley.  The evening sun is slanting in under the clouds and with a mostly following wind it's very pleasant.  I happily munch on my last Roxburgh toastie as we approach State Highway 83 (last seen at Omarama) and Duntroon at 7.30pm.

There's not much to Duntroon but a closed garage and shop but we stop for a rest and phone ahead to book rooms at the Kurow pub for the night.  They also agree to hold the kitchen open for our arrival. With the scent of steak in our nostrils Peter sets the pace into the wind.  The 23km takes a while to traverse before we are riding three abreast into town in the early evening (approx 9pm).

It's a typical rural pub; the faded splendour testifying to days when the multitude of rooms upstairs would have been full of guests and the various bars and dining rooms humming with punters.  Our host is a decent sort and lets us park the bikes in the back bar and corridors.

It's the usual soft drinks, steaks and take-away toasties all round and we're well into it when another group of bikers turn up just on dark.  They've done a marathon day from Roxburgh and had Steve with them until Duntroon. I head out to the road to make sure he finds the right pub, he looks pretty rough when he comes in, as does one of the others in the group.

There's clearly a bit of competition in the air and much talk of pushing on into the night but I'm happy to leave them to it.  Nathan and Peter are also planning a 4am start, but Steve and I arrange to 'sleep in' 'til about 5am with a view to arriving towards midday.  I feel like I've earned a comfortable sleep after 193 km and Steve has done even further having come from Roxburgh.

In the end the other group head up the road aways and camp for the night.  The option of pushing through to Tekapo that night being off the table as they would fall foul of the 4 hour break 'guideline.'

Fri 24 Jan: Kurow to Tekapo

At quarter to five the cheerful sound of the alarm drags me into the realm of the barely conscious.  I pull on clean and mostly dry cycle gear and stagger off to find Steve who looks, if possible, worse than last night.

He decides to go for a later start so I head down for the continental brekky where I chat to a digger driver who is putting in pivot irrigators up the Hakataramea Valley. It seems they are wedging cows into every corner they possibly can and splashing money about in order to get water.  There's a lot of work to level the landscape for the irrigators and it has kept him away from home in Milton for 6 months living in this rural relic.

With a bit of procrastinating I'm away under lights just before 6.  Steve shows up for breakfast as I head out, he's looking a bit more perky and has apparently given himself a stern pep talk.

Just out of town the route immediately leaves SH 83 and crosses the Waitaki River to start the slow climb up the Hakataramea.  There's a light wind draining down the valley but progress is good on seal for over 30km.  The valley is much larger and open than I expected and it's surprising how much land there is back in here.

There's  no-one to be seen ahead or behind.  I quickly discover that with such a short distance to go (relatively), I'm impatient to be done and have no tolerance for anything that appears to prolong the ride (the rubbing brake disc, long straights, downhills (you have to regain the height), slow gravel, corrugations, fords, gear slips ...). It's also a chore not to keep looking at the creeping numbers on the odo and just keep a good pace.

The long haul up the Hakataramea

Eventually the valley narrows, then the road ducks left and up Dalgety Stream for the final approach to the Pass.  The road is rougher but fully ridable and the stiff head breeze is at least cool.

9.30 and at last it's the pass at 950m; 740m above Kurow with a view to snowy mountains on the horizon hemming the arid plains of the Mackenzie Country.  And a dead wallaby ("How do you know it was a wallaby?" "It was wearing a yellow and green jersey").

The last pass

The 400m downhill is a little mixed with a few fords and rises and corrugations but gives a fast run down to the plain.  Westward somewhere is the bottom end of Lake Pukaki, Lake Benmore is hidden to the southwest, between and beyond them is Lake Ohau.  Behind them are the snowy peaks of the Alps including Aoraki Mt Cook. And to the north: Tekapo.  The horizon seems a long way off.

Big Country

Dry Country   (from GSB Website)

The wind is light but steady and it is now just a wee bit tedious trying to keep the rate up against the slight uphill (rising from 550m at Haldon Road Junction to 720km at Tekapo).  Bridges help count the passing kilometres and Dog Kennel Corner is a milestone where Haldon Road joins State Highway 8 marking the final 15km to Tekapo.

It's still not over though and as tour buses flash past, the straights seem to get longer.  One only finally passes after I drop my head and count slowly to 100.

Five kms out ... four km ... some advertising signs ... two km ... pick up pace as the road drops ... then round a sweeping bend ... into the street leading to the Church of the Good Shepard ... and at long last skidding to a halt in the car park.

High speed finish

Peter and Nathan are there along with a small group of earlier finishers.  Sally is also in location having followed my dot through the morning.  There's no-one else due in for a while so I load the bike on the car and head to the unit for a shower, food and hydration.  All-in-all I'm feeling surprisingly chipper.


I'm back at the church of the Good Shepard (the good shepard clearly not referring to McKenzie who may have naming rights but was a decidedly Bad Shepard) in time to greet Steve who is the next to turn up.

Dunnit too!

Julie and Thomas on the other hand have a long day ahead of them having stayed the night in Dansey's Pass.

Climbing Dansey's Pass in the early morning ...

... and over the top

It gets pretty hot during the course of the day and the wind stiffens meaning it's a long tough finish for them across the plains.

Hot country.  Julie cools down in the Hakataramea

Heading for the horizon

But the welcoming party are nothing if not diligent and stick around to see them safely in.  In fact this was a very nice touch for this event; I've spoken to others who finished at an empty carpark and texted in, before slinking off to their motel - a bit anti-climatic really.  This time people make a point of being around to greet each new arrival.

Hard at work waiting

Dunnit three and four!


Throughout the afternoon we pop back to the line as others trickle in.

People start heading in their own directions pretty quickly although there are a good number that convene at the pub that evening.

We have a ferry booking for Sunday afternoon so are in no hurry, and stick around for a leisurely Saturday, including lunch with Julie, Thomas and Dave and seeing a few more stragglers in.

So, all up:  bloody marvellous.

Four winners


Post Script: boring technical bits

I packed on the heavy side to cope with cold, wet and sleeping out.  The dot points below indicate what I carried (as far as I can remember) with a bit of commentary.

The bike

The trusty Giant XTC2 26' MTB was fine: stock standard with cheap aero bars; specialised cross road armadillo tyres (heavy) and absolutely no fancy bits like tubeless.  OK, the shocks packed up, the gears got a bit ropey and the front brakes started rubbing but that's pretty minor really. 

Need to rethink the bottle cages.  The sub frame bottle was mounted using custom ratchets from Torpedo7; seemed to be fine.  The fork cages were hose clip and zip tied on; this worked but one cage broke and a couple of bottles jumped out (the cages were old and a bit slack).


Revelate seat post bag, custom frame bag, dry bag bungied to aero bars (biv, and sleeping bag), small bar bag for snacks (hardly used), back pack with 3L camel back and spare capacity (mostly for toastie sandwiches), water proof map case hair tied to the aero bars.


It snowed last time and people got caught out so I packed warm.  Mostly pretty standard: lots of merino (smells less) in layers.  Good, pretested shorts are important but a more on that below.

Brand new helmet (that's another story), full finger gloves (on the warm side), merino short top, merino long top, merino sleeping top, synth jacket (could have done with out it but ...), shorts, riding tights, spare tights (for very cold riding or sleeping), merino gruts, merino riding socks, warm socks, balaclava, mitts, booties, ultralite rain jacket, reflective vest.


Aimed to stay in motels when possible but carried enough to be self sufficient: light weight down MacPac bag (Express), silk liner (keeps the bag clean), bivvy bag and exped air mattress.
This is definitely the luxury (i.e. heavy) end of the spectrum.  Next purchase is an ultralite tent or fly to replace the bivvy bag.  Also keeping an eye out for a lighter sleeping bag.

First aid, emergency and repair

On the basis that; "if you can't stop the bleeding with tape and bits of clothing than you probably have to pull the EPRB": tracker, cell phone (and charger), a few plasters, voltarin, panadol, sunscreen, chaff cream, insulation tape, needle and thread.

I wasn't sure about spares and repairs: may have been a bit light?
Two spare tubes, length of tube (for a boot or padding or ...), lube, puncture repairs, pump with duct tape wrapped around it, handful of zip ties, three spare spokes taped to frame, bike multi tool (chain break, allen keys, spanners, spoke key), leatherman (pliers, screw drivers, knife, wire cutters, cocktail fork etc).

Other kit

Black diamond head torch (fine for night-time gravel road riding; possibly not up to single track at pace).  Standard commuting tail light, cheap odometer, light spoon (no plates etc), basic toiletries (including loo paper and hand gel), micro towel and wash cloth, dimp, cash and card, 2 DoC hut tickets, maps, spare batteries (for spot tracker and lights), pen, contact lenses, glasses case.

Food and water

In the end shops were frequent enough that I probably carried a little more food than necessary.
Carried (but didn't eat): gels and selection of one square meals and bumper bars plus generally enough food for a day or two at a pinch
Would probably do so again although I will be more thoughtful about what can be forced down when you really don't feel like eating.  A tip from Gordon was sultana pasties.

Water capacity:
  • 3 x 750ml bottles and a 3L camelback (5.25L), less then 4L carried in practice
  • puri tabs for about 6L (none used)
I started with water in the bottles, took weight out because of cage damage, and ended up using the camelback for water and about half capacity in the bottles for flat coke and other performance enhancing elixirs but even gave that away for the last couple of days.  Need to rethink water: current theory is a pouch in the frame-bag and better cages.  Tried and failed to find 1L bottles in the days before the brevet: biggest I found were 860ml but gave them away on advice about what the weight would do to the light bottle cages (thanks Thomas!).

The body

Two months later: the inside of two fingers are still numb, toes were similarly effected but seem a little better now.  The odd scrape and bruise faded rapidly and the only other visible sign is tan lines half way down my thighs (looks odd in anything shorter than bike shorts).

At the time, I noted my mouth got pretty sore with all the salty, rough food.  Forgetting chapstick was a mistake resulting in sun burnt, dry lips.  Managed to get a sun burnt scalp; heaps of riders wear bandannas, a good option.  Feet were swollen for a day or two afterwards but no blisters (just).

The worst had to be the carnage in the shorts region; the minor front of thigh chaff around the edge of the chamois wasn't so bad but the ... um ... pressure 'issues' were decidedly uncomfortable.  Time for a new saddle I think.

No gastro problems. Brain was fine: a few minor headaches, most likely tiredness and a bit of dehydration.  Eyes: contacts were fine, went to sleep in them one night and had a little trouble prising them off later in the night. Wore glasses next day as a rest.


It's hard to fit training for long repeated days around work. The Taupo enduro was a good base but I should have taken a more organised approach to adapting this into brevet fitness.  In retrospect I guess this means get a strong base however you like, then train for long days with multiple steep climbs and try to get chances to string such days together. Also throw in fully loaded days and overnighters to test and retest the kit.  In the end, the middle of day one and second half of day two were tough but after that it I felt I could have continued at the end of most days. 


Studying the route carefully before hand and tailoring the cue sheet was very useful to identify tricky bits and errors (or ambivalent instructions).  I got by fine without a GPS having studied the cue sheets against topo and satellite maps before hand and printed 1:50 topo maps for tricky bits; also carried the 1:250 topo map that covered most of the course.  Riding with GPS seemed much easier (apart from Peter's one excursion). Battery management and weight seem to be the main issue.  There were quite a few occasions when someone with a GPS sailed through an intersection I was having to check carefully.  This was compounded by the cue sheet distances not matching the odo and the odd invisible road sign.  Printed elevation profiles are useful for planning where to stop and what to expect.

Julie added the distance between instructions to her cue sheet as this is the sort of simple arithmetic a cold and tired brain ain't good at.  I put a short route description including key elevation changes at the top of each leg (e.g. 800m climb over 40km, lumpy, 250m climb at 56km, 600m down, flat rest of leg).

A word about GPS apps ... I had a new Galaxy 4 smart phone and down loaded a couple of free GPS apps.  It was late in the piece so I didn't have time to experiment but found both apps to be unreliable.  I would be pretty leery about using them for serious navigation with out a lot of trialling.

No comments :

Post a Comment