Middlemarch to Raes Junction

You alright?’ said Horse glancing over with calm concern.

I was ghostly and drawn from spending a good portion of the previous night throwing up. “Foul” I replied after a pause whilst packing. I felt spent, but we needed to get out of this place to Rays Junction which was way beyond the Clutha.

That same grey veil hung low from yesterday, still shrouding Rock and Pillar and the wind was rising – a head wind. We kept packing in silence and soon rolled down the vacant streets of Middlemarch – me with equally empty belly.

Just south of Sutton was the beginning of the climb up and out of the Strath Taieri plain. A climb that kept climbing through the tail of the Rock and Pillar range with Horse at point and me struggling someway behind. Up followed by down to Deep stream and up again to Clark’s Junction and beyond to the intersection of Black rock Road.

We stopped there listening to a whistling wind playing in the overhead. Clouds hurtling by like white water over of the rock and raw of south Central. We turned wheels right from the 87 and fell down towards Lee flat.

The strange

Lee flat was short lived, in fact anything flat was equally short lived as we slushed through coarse gravel piled in small valleys that lined the trail up and over the ridge. Revealing a roughly drawn tracing of a grey-olive landscape and cross hatch of passing squal. Then down to the shore of Lake Mahinerangi and into the ‘strange’.

The strange, the strange and the road ahead. A ribbon of grey gravel shadowed the shoreline to the south, except that shore had sunk! It was at least 10 metres lower than it should have been, leaving nothing but a festering muddy ring randomly scattered with forlorn motorboats stuck on their keels in the scum. On into the pong we went, past the ruff and scuffle of small cribs (small lake houses) made complete with confederate flags and encompassed by high corrugated iron fences.

One old crusty peered out, throwing us a glare between puffs on his stained rollie before turning back to clean his rod and reel. We rode past and we rode fast, silent and on to the Edgar Stark bridge.

“Christ, what was that about?” Said horse. ‘Spooky aye,’ I replied, as we both imagined shallow graves of nameless cyclists that never managed to cross through the ‘strange’. Safe across the bridge now we peered up the continuing gravel and claw that stretched up the ridge on our side of the lake. We hadn’t escaped yet as my empty belly let out a rumble. “Pardon me Horse.”

Cheese rolls

We reached the top and thought we’d made climbs end. We hadn’t. Not even close.

Down we went, then up. In what felt like a never ending swell of rolling grey green daub to the point where hope is a candle flicker in an impending storm.

We reached rock bottom at Bungtown, as I leaned forward on my bars and laughed out “Really, what callous fuckwit decided to call this place Bungtown?” as I gazed up with heavy eyes towards yet another pinch and gravel river. We were nowhere and it felt like it. Horse passed me a muesli bar to settle my grumble. – “Eat” and I did.

The grumble subsided so I dropped gears to claw my way back up, passing scrag of gnarly pine and tussock. An old Ford V8 roared past in a spit of gravel leaving me envious as I saw it sparkle high on the Waipori pass and freedom some time later. We broke through that saddle and then down, down, down. An endless down. A beautiful down, a down to Weatherston creek and the backroad to Lawrence.

We stopped in the cool drizzle and entered the first bakery we found. “Cheese rolls and a cup of tea please miss” I said.

“Make that two” followed Horse.

She paused scowling back at two damp, stinky and steaming men, and then punched hard at the till. We made good custom that day, ordering three double rounds of cheese rolls and tea.

God has a sense of humour

Now I won’t lie – I was spent and felt like quitting, but we hadn’t made Rays Junction yet. I’d fallen for the quiet valley charm of Lawrence and needed some coaxing from Horse to get back in the saddle. It was the westward Clutha gold trail for Beaumont and bridge and it wasn’t long before the heavens really opened. ‘God has a sense of humour’ I thought.

Every drop like an incoming scud, leaving crater and explosion of mist and trail mud. The type of trail rain that quickly gets to the point of the ridiculous and with it the humour to carry on. It became ‘insanely fun’ as we ripped down the trail to Beaumont and bridge. Then the one last climb, that one mean spirited pinch, like that one last poker hand between god and the devil that makes topography so unpredictable at times.

Horse got on point.

We eventually pulled up in a clearing sky to that old forlorn and preloved pub. That brick sanctuary and the only place still standing at Raes Junction. Oh what a story that place is…

Todays top track: Radiohead – Sceptre

Waipiata to Middlemarch

Day sixteen

‘Emphatic’ – we were underway at 8 sharp. There wasn’t fuss or much in the way of talk. Everyone just got up, packed up and saddled up. An orderly pace line chasing down the last leg of the trail.

A longish 50km kind of day with bail points on route should sons have lost their puff. They didn’t.

Passing the settlements of Kokonga, Tiroiti, and then the first fang of the Rock and Pillar range. An eternal. An old place with a reach of stone protruding through the skin of tussock and raw, like the petrified bones of a beast long past.

That beast a barrier, a vertical wall on our western flank for the remainder of the day. A day warm, and getting warmer with a wind steady and strong.

The chase became race

Onward we rode south on the Strath Taiere plain, but the pace didn’t falter, it became a fever, a madness, our chase became a race. With Middlemarch appearing in the distance the boys broke order and bolted. First Joe, then Timmy, Mike and Flynn with a Tigre at tail. We all arrived in as much of a screaming muddle as when we first started days before, but for Sons and Men is was a fine way to finish.

There was no more riding, no more instruction, grind or crackle. There was only one more thing to do – “who wants ice cream?”

The curtain lowers

Winds bring change and with it weather. So with ice cream in hand we watched as the cloud gathered and fell hard against rock and pillar like crumpled theatre curtains drawing in the stage. Soon Sarah came into sight… still running the trail past old red rails and lonely wagons into a still and quiet Middlemarch. The last of the dusty champion and a fitting end to the show. ‘Well done Mrs Healy.’

Then they were gone, all gone. In that same continuous chatter back up the road from whence they came. Leaving Horse and I at camp under a heavy sky opening with the first wave of passing showers.

We spent the evening at the Strath Taiere pub, listening to the drawl from a ruddy crowd of local farm hands gathered as a swarm around the bar. Horse and I ate and quietly discussed the route ahead. He ordered seconds, I looked out the door as a second and third wave of rain washed through.

“Gonna be wet tomorrow Horse.” I said. He glanced over towards the door between open bites of his steak and onion sandwich. “Yeah”

Oturehua to Waipiata (via Naesby)

Day fifteen

I was casually leaning on a railing outside Wedderburn station supping on my second coffee, nothing going on, when suddenly he appeared. Hurtling around the pines, moustachioed, all blow and bravado riding a panniered ‘tall bike’ on the uphill trail to Idaburn.

He greeted me with an over enthusiastic ‘ello’ from up high in the saddle, as he whipped past in a spit of gravel and was gone. Leaving as quickly as he arrived, but remaining as a memory none the less. I took another sip and resumed my position at the rail. “Pom pommed Jaja’s” I said to no one in particular.

I was alone with my rail. The Wheelmen were inside deep in negotiations with sons over junk food provisions for the day ahead. They were heading south on the trail to Waipiata. Me, I was heading inland to the heal of the Ida and Naesby for the day.

With the mercury rising, it was time to turn off the trail and make for the link road. “Later Horse” I said as I got back in the saddle.

The Naesby volunteer fire brigade

I turned north east of the trail, over a vast arching plain like a giant upturned saucer ringed by the Ida and the Kakanui. There was something special in the day – an old warm dusty veil that hangs in high places. Reminiscent of the late hazy yellow glow of a sun settling on the Avenida Chapultepec in Mexico City – a familiar melancholic moment that drew a slight smile.

Then old Naesby of the Maniototo, enveloped as it was within a fragrant great coat of Douglas Fir and Corsican pine. Famous as another gold rush town of central and now its curling capital. But I hadn’t come to see the vestiges of its Victorian past, nor the curling, nor the gold, I’d come to search the archives of the Naesby volunteer fire brigade.

img_1741Joeseph Jeremiah Salmon (my great grand pappy and son of that old rogue Philip) was the most esteemed resident Fire Superintendent who led the champion South Island hose and reel team of 1892.

So finding a few relics including that old hand drawn hose reel and after paying my respects at the pioneer cemetery, I pulled up for a pint of the finest at the Ancient Briton with a venison pie for seconds. I sat quietly in the sun listening out for the clang of memory bell … calling volunteers to their hoses. It was a stunning day and long, but it was time to find Horse.

Gold dust

Down the Channel Road – gold dust of yellow clay licking like flames at the wheel as I sped south to Waipiata. It was downhill open country with a hot breeze behind me, sharp in the crackle of the dry with rising dust devils signalling other men’s mischief far the distance. Managing the rising heat I threw open my shirt which whipped, trailing like a lively horseman’s cape behind me.

I had arrived, to see an orderly line up of bicycles – three men’s and five boys. I had discovered the Wheelmen and sons once more, likely cooling off within the Waipiata Country Hotel.

I made my entrance, bursting through the double doors to find them all supping and embellishing the days adventures like only boys in a pub can. I ordered a pint of their finest and joined in, regaling stories of honourable old firemen, Victorian brass bands and lost gold dust.

I eventually stumbled back out the double doors, with a left behind cuddly bear under one arm and a box of ice cold IPA in the other – ‘A very Wheelmen & Son kind of day’ I thought to myself as I went about strapping it all down. ‘Now where was everyone and where are we going?’

Without a clue, a map or a guide I stood straddled in the car park, I giggled as I turned south and rode off to a trailing cheer from a shambles of other trail riders who had drawn closure on the day with a night at the pub.

I soon found the assembly that is the Wheelmen, cob cottage and rest. I opened the first IPA and handed it over. Horse nodded and leaned back in his chair to quench a thirst. “There’s still a sting in the day“ he said.

Todays top track: Revelry – Kings of Leon

Ophir to Oturehua

Day fourteen

I woke up squinting into a streaming sun. It was a warm evening and I’d intentionally left the tent flap open when I finally stumbled off the shoulder of big man in the early hours of the night before.

I was high on top of the Raggedy overlooking the Manuherikia valley disappearing away up the trail in the north. Eyes foggy I briefly peered out before flopping back with a thud. I wanted to lay there a while longer, but needed to get up and on the trail early as promised. I reached for my Jeds and put a brew on. It was time to pack and get back down the hill to Ophir.

Not all of us were riding. Sarah (Healy) planned to run the entire length of the trail over four days as part of her long distance training. Thats an average of about 40km a day which in the crackle and blister of central is daunting. So it meant early starts… hypothetically anyway. I rolled into the Wheelmen camp at 8:30 am. Some still hadn’t stirred, but Sarah was up. Time for more coffee.

The ‘assembly of roughage’ were finally ready to get back on trail mid morning – Sarah was long gone. A stampede of rowdy boys rolled forward to the Omakau railway station and the beginning of todays trail.

Form a line!

“FORM A LINE!” I bellowed. After the chaos of the day before the fasts and not so fasts were merged and a refresh of riding regulations was required. “AND THAT MEANS YOU BOY!” as I threw a quick sideways squint at Tigre who was still playing silly-buggers at the Omakau station passport stamp station.

The chatter quickly subsided to silence as I paced slowly up and down the rabble, hands behind back and crunching the dusty gravel underfoot. After a pause I began… “Yesterday was a shambles and this is not be repeated! We are here to ride the Otago rail trail. This is not a fight. Not a race and definitely not a search and rescue exercise. Is it Flynn?” He immediately dropped his head and nodded in embarrassed agreement. Striding up and down the line I set about explaining the finer intricacies of a pace line, about taking point and riding as a unit. Ending by stating “You WILL have fun!”

Slowly the snaking line of Wheelmen & sons (plus Megan) gathered momentum and made for Lauder. The silence gathered volume, only broken by the occasional call of “Joes got point” as one rider swapped lead for another. Good boys.

We passed Sarah with a cheer, then Lauder came and went. We began crossing the Raggedy Range only to find ourselves stalled and peering deep into the first of two Poolburn gorge tunnels. Light limited we dove into the cool blackness – a reprieve from the heat and glare of the world outside. Then united in a scream we warned the monsters hidden within the old coke crusted walls that we meant business and wanted safe passage. First one tunnel and then the next.

Our train of Wheelmen & sons eventually crossed the Poolburn viaduct making a familiar clickety clack of wheels riding hardwood and rail. It was time for a boys lunch of baked beans and sausage.

Where’s Megan?

She entered the tunnel… but didn’t make it out. Didn’t she yell? Was she now with the monsters in the deep?

Within minutes questions became schoolboy theories run rampant. She had some how staggered out with her head off and bleeding profusely from an enormous flesh wound (likely suffered at the hands of some hideous black eyed tunnel troll).

Now rescued and relieved we discovered she had only received a minor graze to her chin (and pride) from not paying attention trekking through tunnel one and walking headlong into an inky wall with a wallop. With order (and reality) restored we all reverted back to our beans.

Megan was made of tough stuff and laughed off the graze, but like her I was more concerned at the rising mercury of the midday sun. She was hot and water was running low. We needed to get moving.

Ice cream

We traversed the remnants of the Raggedy down into the windy blast furnace of the Ida valley. We only had 12km to Oturehua and in the heat and shrivel of water rationing it felt longer, but we made it.

I flung open the doors of Gilchrist’s general store (New Zealand oldest operating shop) and stepped back in time. After a brief search through old packed stalls of Lysol, Watties and Weet-bix I found what I came for: three litres of ice cold L&P and a fists full of Jelly-tips.

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Between Gilchrist’s and the Oturehau Railway hotel the thirst quenching requirements of the Wheelmen & sons were suitably satisfied. And with impeccable timing, here comes Sarah… still running.

Today’s top track: Dry the rain – Beta band

Hawea to Ophir

Day thirteen

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The chase

The day had arrived. After months of planning the ‘League of Clevedon Wheelmen & Sons’ (an assembly of ‘roughage’ – five boys, four riders and a runner) were to attempt their first combined assault on the 150km Otago Rail Trail.

At 8am with shrieks, uncertainty and mayhem the roughage piled into two trucks with assorted bags, bikes and bits for the few hours it would take them to get to the trail head at Clyde. For Horse and I, it was back on the bikes and the great chase down (120km) to find them before they got too far, or into too much trouble – whatever came first. Off they went in a fading continuous chatter of grey dust with us in pursuit.

Onward we rode, through Hawea Flat and Kane Road, then down the big valley following the eastern shore of the Clutha River to Lindis Crossing, Lake Dunstan to Cromwell.

We stopped for pie and marvelled at the malling fashionistas, bone dry jetski’s and frothing barista squeals. “It’s like bloody Takapuna” muttered Horse as he gwarfed down an average mince and cheese with accompanying onion chutney and green leafy thing. Now I can’t speak for him, but it was clear to me from the sideways glances of the flocking Cromwellians that my three day old dusty shirt with well earned stains and stench wasn’t mall appropriate. It was time for the two dusty strangers to find the bridge back out.

We made our departure and got back to work riding the road down through the Cromwell Gorge.

‘Pfft Pfft Pfft’

Three times in one day we were to hear that herald of an impending flat.

The first was mid Gorge, Horse blew the rear and we needed to pull up. He got to work as I lay back in the wild thyme listening to the endless rumble of traffic superimposed with the occasional roar and shriek of water-skiing Cromwellians. Repaired we made Clyde, turned inland from the trailhead and continued the chase cross-country.

20km later we got the second and this time it was mine. Sweltering in the dry and coping with deflation, my fuse was short as we’d already ridden 115k that day. Horse said “look” and I stared up with a sharp glare. He was slumped over his bars under a clear crackling sun with a lazy finger pointing down trail. Squinting I could see we were only a few hundred yards from a Tavern – The Chatto Creek Tavern. I got to my feet, licked my parched lips and pushed the Surly on. Within minutes we discovered five sugar infused boys collapsing in a shambles through the shrubbery.

The chase was over, we had discovered the Wheelmen and Sons.

Of lost boys and men

Repaired and refreshed with a pint of the finest, it was time to make the final 16km to Ophir for the night. We broke the group in two – me with the ‘fasts’ and Horse with the ‘not so fasts’.

In a spit of loose gravel the fasts were off. Two battling brothers O’ contesting the double track, stirring up a sea of hanging dust, as legs bucked and bit into the peddles (and occasionally each other) as they fought for first, leaving me in hot pursuit! Temperatures were rising, but by the time we reached half way the disorganised became organised, my hell raising rabble had been turned into a quiet controlled pace line with the brothers O’ taking equal turns leading on ‘point’. Discipline was enforced, enough said.

We made Omakau in good time, pulled off the trail and headed for the Daniel O’Connell bridge and the sanctuary of Ophir. That was when chaos ensued.

I got the call. It was the third flat for the day, leaving the fasts and not so fasts now spread between Chatto Creek Tavern and Ophir.

Wheelman Paddy had blown a valve back at the start line and in the pandemonium of Horse and him fumbling for a fix, young Flynn turned maverick and fled the not so fasts in search of the fasts. Now we had a lost boy on the trail and there was no choice but to turn back and find young Flynn before he overshot Omakau. I saddled up and wearily headed back to the bridge – this was going to be a long day.

There was a gravel crunch of slow moving car creeping up behind me, it pulled up parallel with an outward hand clutching an ice cold beer. “You look like you need this mate” I heard from the passenger side. I eagerly took it with a wail of “god be praised” as the car lurched back onto the hard, only to slow again a short distance later. I soon caught up and heard “spose you want that opened to?” And no sooner as I handed the bottle back there was that satisfying ‘ktink’ and now I had a freshly opened ale firm in my grasp. As it turned out the passenger (Lucy) wasn’t from these parts, she was from up in my hood – Papakura and just passing through Ophir on her way to Alexandra. Small world. So as I waved goodbye I told her to keep an eye out for lost boys and men, then guzzling the last gulp and headed back to up trail in search of Flynn.

“You’re in deep shit boy!” I found him up trail and his nine year old solo adventure was over. He followed me religiously for the seven k’s back over the bridge to Ophir mumbling the entire time that he was going quit the trail and head home. I bluntly informed him (with a some judicial use of anglo saxon slang for good measure) that “there was no going back son”. That tomorrow he was joining the O’s and me in the fasts under my tutorage and no longer would there be flights of fancy or ill discipline on the trail. With acknowledgements punctuated by silent nodding, Flynn and the O’s slunk off to await their fathers.

But where was Horse and more importantly where was Paddy?

Horse found me some time later, slumped in the shade clutching my hip’y. “Better get Paddy” he said, and I knew it.  Paddy was walking, so we saddled up and headed back up trail to find him. It was a very long double back when we eventually found him.

Big man

Paddy showed good his appreciation and shouted rounds for Horse and I down at Blacks Hotel, but it was getting late, close to 10 and I still needed to climb way up in the rocks above the Daniel O’Connell bridge to set up camp on Ron and Gary’s ‘central station’. I wasn’t staying with the Wheelmen that night, so I offered my goodnights and rolled off into the dusk, with a friendly fog rolling across my brow, the brew getting the better of me.

High above the bridge is a staunch rocky outcrop looking deep and down over Ophir. That’s big man. So fumbling in my own fog I slowly pushed and scrambled up a path to pitch my tent next to him under the ice halo of a full moon.

It was a day to remember and an equally fitting night, as I wandered warm through the tussock high in the hills under the light blue light to eventually settle resting on big man shoulder hip’y in hand. It was well after midnight as I mumbled through the lyrics of an old Tom favourite.

“Fancy a drink big man?”

Today’s top track – Tom Waits – Jockey full of Bourbon

Makarora to Hawea

Day twelve

Lamb shank pie

A pie is a pie and although hunger always makes the best judge some pies are just made more perfect than others. An early morning lambshank and watercress pie at the Makarora tavern is one of them. Pure genius.

So with happy hearts and a crunch of gravel under tread, Horse and I set off for the days short ride to civilisation. Rolling down the Makarora river to where it meets the Wanaka, and the gentle swoop swooping of the high road around the western shores to the Neck with Lake Hawea beyond. The supporting vistas a good menu match for the early morning perfection in the pasty casing. I was happy. Horse had a smirk.

Quicksilver

We stopped, stooped and straddled our bars. Gazing out at a free quicksilver sky slick as it weaved through the crag and peak of the Huxley to the torment of the trapped lake below. Then went we, slipping silently down the black ribbon of fresh road as it cut and curled over broken rock and tussock into the world below. As free as the restless wind, we soon made the tiny windswept sanctuary of town.

It was New Year’s Eve and a fitting place to rest up for a time. We too were wind beaten, weathered and worn.

Lake Paringa to Makarora

Day eleven

Opened the tent to a grey fog hanging around surrounding forest and moss like last weeks ghost. We spent a night sleeping below the winter high water mark so I was expecting cold and damp underfoot. I wasn’t disappointed and got up aching and packed to make our early exit. Dan the legend came over to say goodbye. We’d see him again.

“South, Due south Horse.”

The fog hung around for an hour as we made good time to Knights point for the early morning claw and scramble around the last great coastal climbs in the south.

Dropping down and through ships creek for the run in to Haast. This Westland passage has been carved from rock and stone by many braver men than me. Respect. Onward we raced across the expansive Haast river bridge in search of food.

What, no second breakfast?

We rolled into Haast and aimed directly for the biggest cafe sign we could find. It was huge and must have measured a good 8 x 2 metres. If I was peckish then Horse was ravenous, so big signs were good omens. We burst through the door at 10:30 in the morning with rapacious grins only to be met by a small man in a bad tie furiously polishing the brass handles on last nights pissant of a beer. Cafe closed.

We both stood there in a throng of ten hungry Germans, dazed and confused in our hyper-calorific haze wondering why dazed Germans, why the big sign, why the little man in a tie polishing his pissant knobs and why no menu with grease infused tasty things. I came to and demanded from the little man where I could get breakfast. Somewhat questioning his own reply he said “Back up the road at the village I guess?” And before you could say ‘two hash browns and a side of bacon’ we were out of there and back on the bikes.

Never a break, never a break. We got to the first available cafe… closed. Exasperated and lost for words we moved onto the next.. open, we burst through the door like two beagles on the hunt only to read a sign saying ‘breakfast from 8:00 at 10:30’. “Does no one have breakfast?” I demanded. The cafe owner with much chagrin suggested we go back down the road to a previous establishment that might open for ‘all day’ breakfast at 11. Un-flaming-believable. We stomped off and ended up at the local dairy waiting behind a que of ten hungry Germans.

“It‘s time to leave the coast Horse” I grumbled. Not surprisingly Horse was lost for words. I lifted my chin from the floor, “Steak and cheese pie please miss.”

Into the valley

The road follows the great and wide cleft that divides the Southern Alps up the Haast river into the interior. The wind at our backs, we were escourted into the valley by a number of dusty whirlwinds whipping across the river flats as we snaked our way along the heal of rough ridge. I’ve driven this road many times, but this time was different. We saw the scale of the near vertical wet polished walls of Webster Spur rising 900m above us, passed our 1,000 km milestone at Orman falls and pushed on Pleasant flat for a much needed break.

Crossing the Pass

We set off mid afternoon, with calm and a high sun turning the world to crackle. Approaching the gates to Haast bridge in soaring temperatures it felt like we’d ridden into a furnace. It was a hellish climb as we clamoured from shadow to shadow to escape the burn. Onward to the hinge and safety in the leeward shade of the ridge above. Resting and parched we peered down into the gorge to see the pure blue of the Haast river roar over rock and fall.

Thirsty, we crawled on to the top then made good our decent. The landscape opening like a deep gulping breath compared to the narrows of the constricted Pass now behind us. Riding on in the afternoon sun we arrived at the first great watering hole east of the divide. We made it to mighty Makarora tavern.

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Never has iced cider tasted so good nor lasted so little. The first never touched the sides, but we made sure the others that followed did. We sat quietly at the window and watched the sun sink low over Turret peaks in the distance. “It’s my round Horse, cider?” Our day was done.

Today’s top track: Open – Peter Gabriel