Northland green

Koke’ to Ahipara

Sour scratch, that Koke cat sure was a mean old sour scratch.

There it was, stopped mid scritch and glaring at us from the sunny centreline with its angry and inconvenient squint. Bitterly refusing to give ground until we got within its whiskers, it then turning abruptly tail up, and sauntered back down the road towards town. All spit and hiss, it was fussing like somehow we’d just ruined its entire day, but it was barely nine that morning.

Breakfast company in Kohukohu.

Koke’ or Kohukohu is a sleepy settlement on the deep inland banks of the Hokianga harbour. It’s one of New Zealand earliest European settlements and once a thriving town and heart of the country’s early sawmills and shipwrights. They cut more than six million feet of timber a year in this one place alone. On this day we had come for coffee and treats at the Koke café before exploring some of the inland lanes for a little hidden heritage.

We left sour scratch to its scritchin’ and traced the harbour south to the white spire of Our Lady of the Assumption, Shining like a beacon to God’s faithful on the the hill beyond Motukaraka. Then we drew down to the dusty coastal trail on our way to Paponga road.

Crossing the Paponga

“Oi’ You can’t go that way!”

With a roar around the seal he hurled the battered white SL Kingswood on an under-inflated, no brake, u-turn back up the trail towards us. As his pillion pooch-hound, held his footing and surfed that old Holden bench seat like a pro.

Viv’ came to a wheezing stop in the soft gravel. He was all coarse curl and stubble held back with a pair of shop bought silver wrap-arounds. He was already talking before the dust settled. Convinced, ”absolutely convinced in fact” that the Paponga was completely impassable by car let alone bike. We looked on in silence trying to find a pause, but he just kept going. “I was born in Kohe… I know that place and this… Northland is mean bro… you know the best place to catch a kingi with a kina and a cork screw… anyone of yous fullahs got a durry…?”

This continued unabated until a van and trailer carrying an oversized load of last weekends marque descended in a dust cloud down from the Paponga. The driver saluting as he passed with a ‘hang-loose’ hand gesture. We all just stared back in silence – even Viv’.

Needless to say we rode over the Paponga to Broadwood.

There is never just the one trip to Broadwood general store. First it’s a pie, then it’s a coke, and finally a double scoop of extra green mint chocolate goodness. Which we took our time over, sitting out front on the steps, next to the all-weather peanut slab sold here sign.

A late model silver BMW three series pulled up in the rough. It was pimped out with all the tintings and doosh doosh base beats.

We watched as a barefoot twenty something got out. He had flared faded stubbies and a souvenir ‘Snapper bonanza’ singlet on. He gingerly high stepped his way across the hot mid-day gravel seal to the shade of the Broadwood general store. Five minutes later he returned with his own double scoop of extra green mint chocolate goodness.

Life sure is sweet and green is clearly good business up here.

Onward to Ahipara

One by one we saddled up and drifted on. A shambles of scattered riders, all coddiwompling* west towards the wilds, passing through Awaroa and the upper reaches of Whangape to Herekino and harbour.

It was a shave close to two as we turned north. An azure blue pearl of northern high cloud over the lush valley floor as we gazed beyond Orowhano into the Herekino valley gorge. It was a landcape of memory to me, reminiscent of similar I’d once been drawn to – Tlacoapa, Guerrero and another life.

We rode up into that gorge under a lazy northland sun, before grazing the white line through the bends in flight to Roma and Nga Marae o te Rawara below. This was Horse’s turangawaewae and he was coming home.

We had made it to Ahipara.

*coddiwompling: To travel in a purposeful manner towards a vague destination.

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.