I sat in the back. Window seat. Melancholic, flying over the indescribable beauty of Central Otago as I peered out of window and surveyed old worn trails and weathered landscapes.
My decision to ride from Cape Reinga to Bluff took me two years with six weeks of that in the saddle. In the past I have tried to articulate my reason for riding. The simple answer is no more complex than ‘because I could’.
So as I cut north, I repeated to myself that continuous inner question… “is that all there is?” And it isn’t. There is always more. Lost Pilgrims are good like that. They keep wandering in search of meaning, because they can.
I slumped back from the window, the seat swallowing my skeletal honey toasted frame as I reimagined wandering. Trails not paths – there is a difference, as Robert Moor eloquently states.
A path is predetermined, civilised, extending forward in time, linked to a destination. Whereas a trail extends backwards, an endless string of signals, aimless and mythical that need interpretation and sure footing.
You may think there is a danger in trails, but that’s a matter of faith and interpretation… ‘what would you rather be doing, laying in the path of an elephant or in its trail?’
And Horse got that. As soon as he made Wellington he was back in the saddle, heading north to round out his tour. I didn’t see him for another three weeks. He was on his own personal journey, vicariously accompanied by me.
Well done Horse, there is nothing better than to ride together alone.
So let’s raise a glass to solitary pilgrims, aimless trails and the warmth that comes from greeting strangers as soon to be old friends.
We were well past Edendale by 7am, riding rim and rush south to lands end. Horse was going like the clappers, with me in pursuit, averaging in the high twenties across the great Southland plains for Invercargill. Breakfast had been ordered by nine as we sat in the early sun skimming the paper.
“Last ride Horse.” I said. Him nodding in response as he tucked into his last trail breakfast.
We pushed on south down Dee Street to where our destination showed itself – Motupōhue Maunga. Today was special and needed to be taken slow, if is was to be savoured.
Back on the bikes we rode under high cloud that looked to have been set to a slow simmering boil. Then turning wheels west towards Omaui, following the low road that skimmed barely above the marsh on its long arch around the harbour. On over the old rail bridge to Green point, Tikore Island with its memory of foundered sea-wreaks, and in that grey distance, grey and flat against a grey sea was old town – Bluff.
Bluff – close to my heart. I’ve spent a good amount of time living and working here alongside the locals. It’s a colonial seaport, one of the oldest permanent settlements in New Zealand’s modest history, forged in the bond between wahine and whaler from 1823.
It’s the very epitome of what makes it world famous here in New Zealand – its oysters. For all appearances Bluff is tough and gruff on the outside, but when you get beneath, well, there lies a tenderness.
Of all the small towns strewn along this long land, Bluff is the one I’d choose to settle. Living high on the lee, I’d spend my days looking out for the old weathered fishers and iron-bellies making port, before ambling down to the Anchorage to trade a share in a jug for a good wayfaring tale.
The end of the road
As two dusty trail men, we rolled quietly on. Passing tussock and ruin at Ocean Beach, old Joe (Sir Joseph Ward), the Eagle to the very end – Stirling point.
There you will find a great silver chain rolling over rock and surf down into a deep pool of kelp. This place is known as the prow of the great canoe Te Waka a Māui (or Te Waipounamu – the South Island). Away in the distance is Te Punga a Maui (the island of Rakiura – Stewart island) which serves as the great anchor stone of Maui’s canoe – the place where the great silver chain resurfaces. For us this chain marks the end of the road, or as Bluffies like to call it: ‘where the road begins’.
As I straddled the bike, arms at their rest on the handles bars, gazing south towards Rakiura, Horse wandered over. He didn’t say anything, he just grabbed me by the shoulders and hongi’d.
Todays’ top track: Horse called this one: Sting – All this time “All this time, the river flows, endlessly, to sea…”
Rae’s Junction Hotel is a grand old lady – old bones with a fresh heart.
Arriving late in the day steaming and saddle sore, we swung through to the old pubic bar to a wonderful scene of family, hot food and live music (of sorts). Lena had bought the shell of the old gal’, sight unseen over a year ago and in that time has been pouring nothing back in but love.
A fast tour was followed by slow showers, then Horse and I sat down with everyone at a large family table and tucked into the best lasagne this side of Livorno. After a triple portion I flopped back with full belly into the arms of an old thread-bare armchair deep in the corner of the old mirrored bar. Soaking in warm sprits of continuous chatter of two families delirious on living.
In time I drifted into a fade, and after saying goodnight I tromped off to my room. Over old creaky floors rich with rumour of intoxicated lovers supporting each other shoulder to shoulder, plus no doubt the odd drunken lament.
My room small was flooded by warm grey twilights glow through net curtains, a single bed on one side paired with a single teal blue hand-basin on the other. The place was timeless and just, well, perfect really.
First bed rest in well over a week, I drifted off to the distant orchestra of bad drumming, electric guitars and peddle powered pianola echoing out from the public bar.
The morning was grey like the previous evening, as I wiped away the condensation from the window and looked out at sou’-easterly squals drifting over the Blue Mountains. It was going to be a slow start and I didn’t care, either did Horse. Only a few small rolling hills and we were onto the Mataura river plains of Southland.
‘I wonder if there were any left-overs?’ Hungry, yawning and scritching a scratch I stumbled off in silence towards the old pub kitchen to raid a fridge.
Waiting it out
Full, we eventually bid farewell mid-morning and turned south towards Tapanui and Gore. An hour later we stopped, stalled, slamming headlong into yet another squal!
“For gods sake!” I screaming as I stood baring down on my pedals getting nowhere. Horse thought better of it and without a word, dismounted and dove head first behind an old elderberry hedgerow to escape. I gave up and followed suit, finding him laying on the leeward side chewing on a blade of grass – looking out into the distance like nothings going on. We waited it out.
“Cup of tea Horse?” I said passing the Tapanui tea rooms. I needed a refresh and besides another squal was racing up the road to greet us. We just got safely inside as it arrived. Like a clean shaven religious zealot touting Gods latest miracle to the unconverted heathens within, it was pounding at the door trying to get an audience, but it wasn’t successful and eventually slunk off down the road to torment another passer by. We sat and sipped at our cuppa, waiting it out again.
But soon it was Gore, and then south. Crossing the old bridge at Mataura and on to Wyndham. The last night, the last camp and the last tall tale before the end of the trail.
Three Rivers Hotel
“Shit Horse!” I said laughing. Neither of us still had yet found a workable solution to refilling our respective stoves, and as a result he had inadvertently set fire to a small area of campground lawn whilst cooking his evening meal.
He looked up grinning, as he scoffed down the last of his dehydrated goodness. “Pub?” He said.
Off we wandered in the twilight, the earlier wind and squal now replaced by evening calm. We entered the Three Rivers Hotel and placed our orders. It was the typical sounds and sights of gibbering tv’s, twinkling pokies, us and a party of three that looked well settled in, judging by the empty pre-mixers stacked at the table like a strike of weathered ten-pins. Horse and I pulled up at an adjacent table, discussing the day and getting an early night in preparation for the last day to come. It wasn’t to be.
Bryn strode up, arm out and introduced himself, resplendent in puffer vest, walk shorts and sandals he extended a warm welcome to Wyndham – Bryn isa true gentleman. He was closely followed by Malcolm and Barbara, then within minutes we’d covered off religion, politics, motor-cycle racing and were tucking into a round of fat cheese and onion toasted sandwiches thanks to our new mate. Bryn was a Wyndham native, having lived his entire life to date in this wee southern gem, while others had drifted in from all over Southland in the past 30 odd years. The night wore on in a slurry of good beer and better company.
Like many a small town, Wyndham has history and an old majestic shambles of brick warehouses and shops hidden under the rusting rim of an old street awning. As I peered out the window I imagined what it must have been in times past – a river of car headlights frustratingly in search of a park along Ferry Street on a Friday night. Mums bustling for bits and bobs at the drapery, kids ordering banana thick shakes at Lees dairy and all the dads huddled in scrums around lamp-posts, keeping one eye on traffic and the other over towards the laughter emanating from the Three Rivers.
As those moments passed the buildings have remained, but not for long. The bureaucracy of a faceless District Council have condemned Wyndhams history to history. All in the name of new earthquake regulations. It’s simply not good enough to destroy a towns heritage, as without it there is little reason to go and less reason to stay.
Twilight long past we eventually shuffled out into the night, leaving new friends and bidding farewell to the old and condemned.
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.
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.”
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…
‘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”