New Zealand Mountain Biking

New Zealand Blog Post #2

Taupo (“Toe-paw”)

December 18th to 22nd

Waihaha to Waihora

I woke up in Kinloch to the sound of rain plinking off of the top of the van, along with an angry and ragged wind that was trying to drive lake Taupo into town. One look outside and I imagined a day hiding out from the elements, and started to consider alternate activities. I sent Jonny the shuttle guide an email asking if they really rode in these conditions, expecting to have my views of the crappy weather validated, but instead got back a reply of “oh its fine you will be sheltered” This sounded like a bit of stiff upper lip sort of stuff (ie: don’t be a baby) but I dubiously got myself ready and loaded up into Jonny’s van when he arrived. He handed me a hot coffee (I like this guy already) and assured me that both the ride and the boat pick up would be no problem in these conditions. Ten minutes later as we were heading towards the drop off point it occurred to me that the wind was dead calm and the sky was completely clear, which was a good lesson on listening to the local guide.

We passed an upside-down car with no wheels on the side of the road and he showed me where it hit the earthen road cut (that constantly seem inches away from your mirror) careening off and flipping over in the process. Apparently, it is not uncommon to have your car stolen and taken for a joy ride, and either wrecked or set on fire if it makes it through the joy ride part intact. I had noticed 3 other burned out cars on the side of roads in the past 2 weeks and just stupidly assumed cars were prone to simply exploding here, but I guess the northern hemisphere does not have a monopoly on criminally evil adolescents. Then, as we pull into the trailhead lot, right in the middle is a burned-out Nissan sedan! I understand all too well how embarrassing it is to want people to think well of where you live only to come around a corner and ride through a pile of redneck beer cans and diapers.

There really isn’t much of a preamble to the riding here, from the parking lot you literally disappear into what I am coming to consider a temperate jungle. One turn and your world becomes trees, moss, fern, birdsong and dappled sunlight, and if you didn’t know the car was 50 meters away, you would have no reason to suspect. The trail is a superb feat of workmanship and knowledge of the landscape. The climbs were aerobic without being lactic, the corners perfectly parabolic, and I simply lost track of how many bridges they built over the incessant streams that tumble into Lake Taupo. At intervals you pop out of the forest to viewpoints that give you a sense of the amazing wilderness that you are riding your bike through. Four hours of complete solitude later I began a series of switchback descents down to Waihora Bay, yet even the finale of stepping onto the beach took an additional 30 minutes because I had to keep stopping at the series of waterfalls that the trail crossed and re-crossed via yet more bridges and ramps between them, it was a seemingly endless series of delightful surprises.

At the beach there is this end of the world sense of “Ok now what?” It is about 50 meters long, a cliff on one end and more jungle on the other, and nothing but very blue choppy waves for as far as you can see. I didn’t see a boat or even where a boat would come from, and, because I forgot my cell phone, had no contact with anyone or even an idea of what time it was. Prior to leaving the van, we discussed what time my pick up was scheduled for but I could not remember if it was one thirty or three, and I now began to wonder if I may have missed the boat… literally. I amused myself for a while throwing the pumice rocks into the waves only to watch the waves float them back onto the beach. I also tapped into my survival skills and set up a shadow stick to get a sense of cardinal directions since I knew that the boat would come from Kinloch and that was to the north, and now I knew where to look for it to arrive from.  After about 2 hours I heard the click of a derailleur and hiss of tires, and a couple from Calgary arrived to share my misgivings about the lake being too rough for a boat retrieval, and the unpleasant prospect of reversing the 19-mile ride. There comes a point when you either have to commit to staying the night or riding back the way you came… for me I figured that point would be four thirty. Fortunately, the boat was only about 30 minutes late, unfortunately with the high waves, getting aboard was going to be a struggle.

They run the boat bow first into the beach, and you wade out and hand them your bike. Then you jump up, hopefully timing it when the boat isn’t doing the same, and grab the inflated rubber gunwale and try to mantle yourself into the boat with no footholds. It isn’t the most graceful maneuver, and everyone took a couple of tries but we all eventually ended up on board and reversed away from Waihora beach.

The lake was completely deserted of other vessels and Captain Wally confided that if we weren’t waiting for pickup he had numerous better places to be than on a lake that seemed determined to break his boat in half. Wally had the thickest Kiwi accent I had ever heard and between puzzling out what the hell he was saying, bracing myself against the kind of impacts that would make a chiropractor see dollar signs, – and now that we were out in the lake in a rolling pitching cork, trying not to succumb to the nausea that would inevitably cover Wally with my lunch.  If we had been out there another 15 minutes longer I don’t think I would have made it without chumming for… whatever the hell lives in the bottom of a collapsed volcanic caldera that blew itself to smithereens 1800 years ago.  None of us actually kissed the ground, but you could tell that we were all glad to be on solid ground.

The Timber Trail

I am pretty sure that there is no member of our government in a higher position than our local BLM officials that even know what mountain biking is. Therefore, it is hard for me to imagine a Prime Minister of a country saying to themselves, “you know what we need in New Zealand is more mountain bike trails” and then throw a few million tax dollars at making it happen. I doubt that Senator Hatch is lying awake at night scheming over getting the votes to build Utah some bitchin, cool single-track to attract the visiting mountain bikers from all over the world. Yet several years ago the previous administration here wondered exactly that and then began a project to construct 10 world class trail systems all over both islands.

The Timber trail is pretty much what mountain biking could be if you spared no effort, manpower, materials or expense in its creation. 82 kilometers of non-technical groomed trail through some of the most remote, lush, pristine and exotic forest I can imagine being able to ride through. Jonny of 4B’s guiding service made all of this happen on a logistic level, and as we walked into the woods at the beginning of the trail we were met by a life-size Maori carving that seemed, if not threatening, at least not welcoming in the traditional “let’s have a beer afterward” sense. What it did impart was that this trail and especially the first 3 kilometers were extraordinary in a deeper sense than just a cool ride.

Environmental organizations will often object to uses of wilderness areas that don’t fit into their particular ideal by asking if an activity qualifies as “roller skating in the Sistine Chapel” suggesting that only pursuits (and the sanctified individuals engaged in those pursuits) that engender a proper sense of reverence should be permitted.  Well if I was ever to have the opportunity to roll some knobby tires across the Sistine dance floor this was that chance, and it was awesome in exactly the sense that word really means, it inspired awe.  Every living thing was wrapped in a mossy, misty, muffled shroud of greenery. Light filtered down in thin rays that danced through the understory and created a sense of movement everywhere, where there is none, because trees this big don’t move around. Trunks draped in moss erupted from the unseen ground and plunge straight through the various canopy layers only to disappear upward in spikes of sunlight. Birdsong was incessant, exuberant, exotic, and seemed to come from every direction at the same instant. For perhaps the first time on a mountain bike I felt a strong urge to linger, and to allow this landscape reveal itself to me at its own pace and via its own contour, and as if in understanding the bike seemed to roll along at a properly reverential speed, it was sublime.

Building 82 kilometers of mountain bike trail through “Heart of Darkness” level jungle, was apparently not enough of a challenge for these guys, they also decided that they had to make it smooth enough that your granny could ride with you.  I was actively scoffing at the idea that anyone’s nanna would be riding over 50 miles in 2 days, when one of them passed by, giving me a grizzled and blood shot stink eye in the process. As I lagged back in utter stupefaction, the entire bunion brigade passed me by like they were late for tea and biscuits. Worse yet, here I sat on a modern carbon fiber miracle of modern engineering, while they were creaking and wheezing along on these 6 speed steel behemoths likely manufactured in the Pleistocene. I started earnestly pedaling out of both embarrassment and admiration and caught up just as the terrain began an uphill trend. As I rode up on the last in line I hear “Who the bloody hell is behind me? Just pass ya bastard,” coming from a woman who, as I complied, looked as if she knitted tea cozies and saved the wrapping paper off of Christmas presents.  The hill was taking its toll on them, eventually I passed by several pushing their bikes up, but with the kind of dogged determination that only 70 years of fighting gravity would impart, and made me believe that I would definitely see them at the lodge 40k later.

With about 2 miles of gentle uphill between me and what I was to find out later was a septuagenarian tramping club, I came to a side trail where you can hike up out of the forest to a 360-degree view of the surroundings. At the top I was barely above an ocean of trees, and yet snow-capped mountains and an active volcano of Tongariro national park floated on the sea of green off to the south.

Back on the trail the riding was a beautiful variety of bridged stream crossings, gentle switchbacks, and gradients that were neither leg burners nor downhill romps, just a steady pace through a forest that closed behind me in a way that made it seem that I was riding into an embrace… or a trap depending on the level of daylight that penetrated the particular section. Eventually I came down to long downhill section rounded a corner and was confronted by a 200’ long suspension bridge high over a literal chasm of tree tops with the sound of rushing water far below. The surface was 3’ wide and there was netting on the sides just in case you had a stroke, but the thing bounced and swung as you rode across it, which most trails don’t do, at least when you’re sober. Amazingly this is one of what seemed like a dozen suspension bridges built expressly to make this mountain bike trail possible, elements of which had to be facilitated with helicopters.

After three weeks of pretty much continuous riding I thought that 40 kilometers would not be too difficult, but by the time I got to the lodge I was ready to sit on a surface larger that the saddle of the bike, and the Timber Lodge provided just that opportunity. It is hard to wrap your brain around a facility in the literal middle of the forest that is completely off the grid and built expressly to cater to people mountain biking on this trail. As I dismounted and stepped inside I was handed a cold glass of orange juice by Trish who is one of the two managers, and shown to my room where Jonny had left my overnight bag. 30 minutes later, post hot shower, I was sitting on a large deck in the warm sunlight of my second summer solstice of the year, enjoying a cold beer and listening to the still riotous birdsong coming from the forest that surrounded the lodge.

The lodge is brand new and at a cost of several million dollars, is a huge bet on the part of the owners on the viability of providing a top-quality experience to a group of recreationalists as diverse as mountain bikers can be. Though not as prone to the dirt-bag lifestyle as climbers, there are certainly mountain bikers who are too cheap to indulge themselves in an experience this comfortable, (yes Erik I am talking about you). Yet without a facility like this, 82 kilometers of trail would not be a reasonable or worthwhile investment, as few people want -or have the fitness- to be in the saddle for that distance in a day.

Eventually all of the bikers doing the first section of the trail managed to drag themselves in, and a dinner of roast pork tenderloin, potatoes, steamed vegetables and salad was served followed by some kind of cheese cake thing for desert. I saw nothing but empty plates at the end of the meal, and most of the 30 or so guests for that night headed off to soft beds and clean sheets almost immediately, even though the sun was still low in the sky. I grabbed a glass of wine and sat out on the deck with the intent to watch the sun drop below the tops of the trees, but must have dozed off at some point because it was dusk as I stumbled into my room and soft bed.

The following day dawned as a light mist, and over a breakfast of muesli, fruit, quiche, and coffee the discussion at my table centered over whether it would clear or turn to rain. I eavesdropped on the tramping grandpas discuss the quality of their bowel movements and various prostrate issues, and all things being equal, their conversation had more substance. I departed the lodge, and rode into a misty jungle.

After a few miles of intermittent forest road mixed with single track, the trail climbed over a gentle ridge to reveal the longest suspension bridge of the ride. Nearly 300 feet long and over 200 feet above the cascades below I was again stunned at the level of development that has gone into this mountain bike ride. This one seemed to buck a bit more than the others as I rode across, and of course as any good red blooded American male would do, I had to stop at the half way point and spit into the abyss, as if to give the grim reaper a finger poke in the eye socket.

At about the half way point of the ride the trail begins to follow the pathways of the rail lines that were built in the early part of the 20th century to extract the logs cut from the hillsides. Ordinarily I would be disappointed to be mountain biking on a rails-to-trails sort of thing, but here the rail bed was so overgrown that it had become a fun, fast single track with nice wide bends, and suddenly I found myself flying through the woods thoroughly enjoying the sense of flow, speed and gravity. I realized at the end that this typified the nature of this trail, often it was not so much about “mountain biking” as much as traversing the landscape and appreciating the remoteness, isolation and wildness that I was moving through. Then, at the next corner, a mile of mountain biking would present itself and my focus would narrow to the bike and the trail. Granted there were no 8- foot tall bermed turns or table top jumps but I am finding that to be one of the beautiful aspects of this pursuit… the vast range of experiences that it offers, seem to be endless.

Off to the South Island.