The mission

From Paihia to Kohukohu

“What do you mean they don’t serve beer?” Expectation always precedes disappointment. And there was nothing for it, I needed a boat!

That was the story at trail-end after the first of four Clueless days on the Hokianga. I’d managed to recruit a few riders for this misadventure. There is always the incorruptible Horse (Dean Ogilvie), but the posse was joined by others. The Sarg’ (Glenn Martin), Craig Richardson, Diz (Dhiren) and Pete O’Kane. A mix of freshmen and veterans… Wheelmen all.

Within minutes of the trailhead we were grappling with fresh gravels through Opua forest west towards the Hokianga. Those were old well weathered trails. The desire lines and trading routes of Ngapuhi. Those were the very same trails that later served as the passage for missionaries, this time trading the word of god.

We journeyed the mission at Te Waimate, the battle pa of Ohaewai, the lake at Omapere and onward to the hot pies of Okaihau. Before dropping down into the warm Utakura river valley onward to Horeke and our first real glimpse of the old Hokianga. Our destination was the Horeke hotel… the oldest surviving public house in New Zealand. The only issue was it wasn’t!

It has become a boutique hotel for the day-rider and urban glampers. Definitely not the kind of place six blokes can casually roll up to unannounced for a feed of fish and a pint of the black stuff.

As expectation turned to disappointment, disappointment turned to desperation. And in an audacious act of cluelessness, I convinced our ferryman to send a rescue mission.

So we waited. Sitting in the tailings of late golden sun. While faint in the distance we could hear that rythmic slow chug of the Ranui. Oily waters slapping at its shallow draft as it slew its way upriver past the Mangungu Mission house and ever closer to our salvation.

Within the hour we were holed up with locals at the Kohu Kohu tavern. Quenching our thirsts and looking back westward down the trail. I was lost in that ideal. Daydreaming how this quiet resting harbour must have once been… crowned in kauri with it’s waters flush with flounder and mullet. That reminded me… It was time for supper.

Crossing the river to rest in the shade on the other side

Thibodaux to New Orleans

With limited time, there really is only one way from Thibodaux to New Orleans, and that is to lean east of Lac des Allemands to join the Mississippi for the journey into the city. 

It was an early start, tracing Bayou Lafourche. The night was heavy with rain, a close graze from tropical storm Imelda had showed us what we’d barely missed a few kilometres back down the road. 

The rising sun was transforming the cool of the night. It licked up the damp in a wild frizz and humid sticky haze that clung to everything. Anywhere. All the time. We were soaked through to our skins, with little reprieve. Tracing the high levy close to the bayou, we continue to pass the remnant ghosts of historic plantations all adorned in tricolour ribbons and southern moss. Not at all silent but a hiss in the morning still and the steaminess. 

We were sucked along in the wake of traffic heading up highway 90 north. Crossing Des Allemands, with a glass flat tide. It’s lush shallows giving way to this molasses black water. So sticky and slow, it clung to the edges of dry land barely a few inches above the waterline. Within it lived wild things sauntering and circling. Monsters. 

Beyond that there is this bridge, the Huey P. Long bridge. Just another ‘big ol’ steel car and rail crossing from one side of the Mississippi to the other. It reminded me of that ‘gator’ we had seen days earlier. This enormously long tail of an on-ramp flicking out at an angle to the main reptilian body, which rested on its four huge feet spanning the great river.

We  continued and climbed and climbed until the mile wide Mississippi River was clearly visible far below. We rode the scales of the beast, crossed the great muddy and dropped down and deep into the heart of old New Orleans. 

We had made it. We had crossed over the river to rest in the shade of the other side. We had ridden bayou and backroads all the way from Houston to The Big Easy. 

Mischief waited within…

Southern cane, southern history

Chitimacha to Thibodaux

Old monuments and keylime pie

There is a monument in Franklin to the confederate fallen of the civil war. It’s the first we’ve seen. I realise that it’s a contentious subject, but we’re better to remember the reason than to forget the fight. 

We travelled down West Main Street past stretches of French colonial homes shaded under trees dripping in moss and history. Living in ghost of former times, we wondered what stories these trails tell.  Slow carriages and brass bands encouraging lines of young men in a trial they thought was right, history and the victors delivered a different destiny.

Riding riverways and the Teche bayou in the morning light. Silence but for the steel tack in my tyre, with its rhythmic click, click, click. Like the passage of an old engine on the line. I was reluctant to remove its fragile promise of retained pressure. We soon made the Morgan City expressway. Click drowned in the hot thunder of another passing truck. 

Crossing the Atchafalaya to Whiskey point then trailing south through broken ship yards with its parallel worlds of rusting ruin and strip bars. Nothing ever change. Boarders between worlds are always places of interest and debauchery. Frontiers of human connection. 

Then there is this bridge. Like a forced ripple on a hot rail, it bent skyward over a warm river with the Proud Mary at berth at its festering shore. We rode up a shallow levy with weeded waters at its banks. Finally we saw him. Smiling up at us from the shallows. All black steel and slow. A ‘Gator’ at least nine feet long. Handsome and brave. I think we were as happy to see him as he was eager to see us.  He wasn’t the first that day.

Backroads to Thibodaux 

We felt we’d found the true bayou. Warm wetland all a slumber. Things are slow here… but slow is a danger, speed is a friend. That one single ten mile road made the whole trip worth it, we had found bayou back roads and secret places of stills and sweet waters. 

We got to a Thibodaux at five. Our witching hour. We dove into a small bar called Rene’s.  Been around for more than a century and judged by the deaf bar-keep we understood. Six o’clock closing just meant a closed door and wickedness within.

We met Gina there,  sloshing her way across the sodden floorboards to eventual salvation. Regulars are their own legends in a small town. Her and partner Mike, invited us along to the Amercian legion for supper and stories. Mike was a veteran. Serving as a barber on the DMZ in a Vietnam, wielding clippers and a saw (M60 machine gun) depending on the nature of the day. 

We had a wonderful night with generous people and the best keylime pie I’ve ever eaten. Legion 11, you are legends.

A chance night at the Chitimacha Casino

Lafayette to Chitimacha

Somewhere a distant train horn echoes through the warm morning air. That very American of noises audibly signalling that I’ve woken in another world, another time. A humid night slept under the bow of great trees. 

The camp warden, a rotund man bursting out of his very seams peered over his wire rims and warned against hitching across interstate 10.  There are only two trails to get to New Orleans from Lafayette. That was one, the other which he recommended goes via the Atchafalaya and traces the Teche bayou all the way south to Morgan city. It influenced the trail vote. 

We rode heavy traffic south to escape the city. Riding the old Spanish trail into an ominous and building sky. It was the very fringe of tropical storm Imelda and we just managed to make shelter as it arrived. Dense humidity turned torrent, we had little option but to wait it out.

Backroads soon turned to cane. The traditional plantation crop in these parts. Mile after mile of manicured green against a lush tree-line of bayou and swamp.

We crossed the old iron bridge into Jeanerette, old, rickety and raw. With its blend of well maintained french colonial homes, marbled with the all too familiar chaotic scrabble of trailor-parks and shacks. We ordered what we could from the 5th generation Le Jeane bakery and pushed on south, tracing the still and deep waters of the Teche, passing a woman bowing to the earth, hand tilling family fields of okra and maize.

Then it happened

Just a hundred metres ahead we watched as a truck, strayed, struck, tumbled and slid its way down the road towards us. Trailing a wake of broken axles, wheel bits, fenders and shattered glass. First on scene, we removed the sole occupant and did what we could to support the emergency services that were appearing on mass from every direction.

The driver as it turned out came from the local reservation. He was a Native American. A people Horse was keen to discover, but just not under these circumstances.  As a token of their appreciation John …. (a reservation elder) offered for us to stay at their own casino and hotel – the Cypress Bayou. And after a time giving statements and helping with the mess we gave thanks and rode on. Another typical Clueless day where discovery awaits around any bend. 

It was well into dusk, the air still and heavy with heat. The smells of cooks kitchen perfuming the air. We passed old weathered homes with African American ladies fanning to cool off from day. They sat swaying on their porches and gently nodded at our passing. Today felt south. 

We were on our way to a Casino in the middle of nowhere. On tribal land surrounded in the cane.

Chasing the zydeco from Opelousas to Lafayette

From Eunice to Lafayette

We were expecting something. What we got was Sunday: church, family and football. As it should be. 

So we rolled through the tiny heart of Opelousas, this once confederate capital.  It’s old cobbled streets a broken crackle in the heat, occupied only by our imagined ghosts in all their finery peeking just out of eyeshot through broken shutters and boarded up shop windows. The only respite from the quiet came from Angelle who served us up frosted malts on West Landry Street.

It’s leafy Sunday back streets all prayer book pretty, with bright Acadian flags flying from porches and lush front yards. The same flag we’ve used on the bandana on this particular Clueless Trail. We moved on south to Lafayette. 

Travelling the backways and byways to Lafayette with the wind at our heal and the sun on our face. The heat was ridiculous. Horse suggest I wear my bandana like a hood to cover up. I said I’m not sure wearing a hood in Southern Louisiana was such a good idea. 

We rode on until camp  We were hoping for the cool of another Bayou, when we stumbled on Nicole at Shaky’s drive-through daiquiri. It seems odd, but by some legislative quirk you can buy a cocktail from a car in Louisiana, so long as you don’t buy a straw. A bit like buying a loaded gun, so long as it’s not cocked. What could possibly go wrong?

Nicole worked her magic at the ice machine as Horse and I order up the crazy in one litre pails. All chased down with a frito-pie and seafood rotel. Both heinously unhealthy, and all the more delicious. Nicole you are legend. I’d open Shaky back home any day.

Stuffed full and squishy we rode the warm pitch of evening to camp, spending the late of the evening all sway to a chorus of the night cricket and the distant whistle of locomotive working the line south.