Raes Junction to Wyndham

Day eighteen

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.

Creaking door

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.

Today’s top track: Erik Satie – Gymnopedie

Middlemarch to Raes Junction

Day seventeen

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.

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