I returned to the North island several days earlier than I thought I would. After really having to search out rides, and weed out the good from the stupid, I think that I got to ride most of what I had come to the South Island to do, and felt like there were a few unchecked boxes back on the North side of the straight.
The big difference between the two islands for me, was the quality and concentration of the riding. There seem to be a smattering of good and unique rides on the South Island but spread out all over the place, not having the concentration that exists in the Taupo/Rotorua area. South Island riding also seems to place a lower value on good climbing single-track than anywhere in the North. I actually witnessed this from a rider in Christchurch who turned onto a paved road to get back up to a downhill trail, instead of riding what was a wonderfully technical but thoroughly rideable section of single-track. As I gave him the stink eye, he sheepishly yelled back, “I just can’t be bothered with the technical uphill’s”. This seems to reflect a downhill or die mentality, and while I like to let gravity do the work as much as anyone, I find it to be much more rewarding to feel as if you have earned those moments.
Upon landing in Wellington, I drove up the stunning southwest coast towards the strato volcano of Taranki National park. I knew it looked similar to Mount Fuji in Japan, but I was unprepared to top a rise in the road and have it reveal itself all at once, suddenly there is a volcano in your windshield. Details eventually became discernable, but a low overcast was keeping the light from being worth photographing, and so I camped hoping for better conditions the next day. Unfortunately, it began to rain in the early evening and continued all night and into the next day. This is the best part of being here for so long, as a rainy day (or 3) is not the travesty that it would be if I only had two weeks here. After some rainy photos in a forest fit for gnomes and trolls I started to drive east.
The lost world road
There is often a bit of poetry to a place name. I can think of many places that I felt an irresistible urge to visit for no other reason than the beauty, mystery, or shear compelling nature of the name. The Cabeza Prieta desert, The Enchantment range, The Gates of the Artic, Valhalla Canyon, Druid Arch and the City of Rocks being a very short list. Who among us would not feel a sense of curiosity at a road that traverses a part of the island with no towns and named the “lost world highway”? Not only could I not resist but it was taking me where I wanted to go.
I think that there is beauty to be found nearly everywhere on this planet, but these two islands have a concentrated, intense, and dependable beauty that lurks around every bend in the road and crest of a hill. It eventually becomes difficult to describe what I am surrounded by without resorting to the same superlatives over and over. It makes me wonder if there is a language better suited than English for the task of describing the jaw dropping landscapes I am constantly surrounded by. Do hieroglyphic languages have more expansive and nuanced depictions of beauty than the Arabic based system that we use?
The lost world road began in typical Zealandia fashion, meaning there were beautiful green rolling hillsides, tree fringed streams, and riotous vegetation along a narrow winding road, and all of it crawling with fucking sheep. Eventually the farms and pastures thinned out and the forest began to dominate, with that forest slowly giving way to what they call the “bush”, meaning lush, native, virginal and dense enough to hide tribes of undiscovered cannibals. Slowly the hillsides rise along the road, riven at intervals by bisecting drainages, which offered glimpses into the misty depths of what I could imagine to be timeless pockets of existence. I don’t know that peering into one of these brief windows and seeing a dinosaur standing on the fringe of the jungle would come as a complete surprise, in fact I started to keep an eye out for them just in case. The road began to follow a contour high above the course of the river, yet uniquely in such a deep declivity, it was placid, languid, and a tannin stained brown, which is something I had not seen here until now. After several miles of staring into depths of a gorge that might as well been on the moon for the taunting inaccessibility that it represented, the road descended through a series of turns back downward and through a narrow and jungly canyon. Here the hills sharpened into peaks and differentiated themselves towards monoliths, taking on the karst limestone aspect, of sharp sheer cliffs, with spires and crenellations appearing where the stone was visible through the smothering vegetation. In the space of just a few miles travel the entire landscape had changed to something more reminiscent of South East Asia, than an island far closer to Antarctica.
Just before crossing the river for the last time, there was a small pullout and a short path that disappeared into the trees. A tributary of crystalline water slid down an s-curve of smooth limestone chutes before dropping over a series of terraces, and nosily joined the main stream. At the top of this slice of Eden was a gravesite. A whitewashed cross and simple stone-work marked the grave of one of the original surveyors of the route through this seemingly impenetrable wilderness of leaf, water and stone. The small plaque gave few clues beyond name and occupation, leading me to wonder how he came to have the fortune to have such an idyllic resting place, and what circumstances would require burying a body in what must have been a howling wilderness. With no other information my imagination took over and created an epic story of months long hardships, danger, natives, warfare, and eventual miserable death. Hopefully my imaginations do justice to the actual story, and it doesn’t turn out that he choked to death on a piece of mutton or something equally prosaic.
At the head of the canyon the cliffs began to shrink back into steep hillsides and the first hints of civilization appeared in the form of fences, pastures and eventually sheep. I was not ready to rejoin the manicured and so I turned back a few miles, camped at the side of the river, and fell asleep to the smooth hiss of the water along the shore.
A misty morning, after a night of pattering to pounding rain on the roof of the van. Birdsong greets me each morning no matter where I raise my lids. It permeates the damp airwaves, coming from every direction at once with never a moment of pure silence. With constant tittering and talking over each other I wonder how any complete messages can be either sent or received. As I try to listen closer, most are simple chirps and squawks of their kind. These birds look like oridnary sparrows, small and furtive, living out their secret lives of safety among the branches, and not worth a meal if there was anything here to stalk them. I imagine their incessant chatter to be their version of frivolous gossip, celebrity innuendo, and the morning news.
How you doing?
Good, how you doing?
Good, find anything to eat?
Nope, how bout you?
Nope, hey if we got enough of us together we could eat that guy in the van.
Nahhh, he looks like mostly gristle.
The moist air carries the occasional song of what I have come to think of as the jungle birds. These range from a jungle sound track howler monkey thing, with another that sounds like a rusted door hinge, to one that I have christened the drippy faucet bird for its annoying and incessant plunk, plunk, plunk. Yet the one that seems to stand out due to the bell like clarity of pure distinct tones, I believe is actually called the bell bird. Its song has the purest notes that rise and fall authoritatively above the inane background chatter and cicada hiss. Never close, this one always arrives to my ear as from a great distance on the very edge of my hearing, like distant drumming coming faint on a breeze born deep in the jungle. It stands out from the typical in what sound like the precise pitch of each of its notes, neither sharp of flat. And while it begins with a sense of confidence, by the end of the few notes that comprise the song it becomes plaintive and longing, with the last note trailing off in what feels like despair. I have yet to hear any distant answer to it, and after three or four refrains it simply stops, unanswered and silent. I find it strange to hear so much in a simple bird song, and yet besides the spring canyon wrens and the throaty cackle of ravens, the desert has few sounds to compare to such a daily cacophony.
In fact, the desert is perhaps the most opposite thing that one can conceive of here, and is perhaps the single environment that is not represented anywhere on either island. At various times in the past two months I have felt like I was in California, Scotland, Ireland, Thailand, Switzerland, Alaska, Maine, Wyoming, England, Coastal Oregon, and any equatorial jungle where you would need a machete to step off the trail. I don’t know that there is any other place on the planet that holds the diversity of terrain that occurs over such small linear space as these two islands.
Yet I am admittedly starting to miss the desert, its quietude, starkness, space and freedom. Moving over un-manufactured terrain here is difficult to impossible. If there isn’t a trail going to where you want to get to, good luck getting there. I struggled up a small hill off the roadside in Arthurs Pass to attain a viewpoint for some photographs, and it was a full-on battle to gain a hundred feet of elevation. I am still puzzled at the existence a bog on the side of a hill so steep and so overgrown with vegetation that I was at one-point squeezing between thickets of surprisingly un-supple branches, and yet my feet were sodden and squishing through saturated moss at the base. I can’t imagine the scope of the effort required to develop trails, tracks and eventually roads through most of this, maybe that is why they just set most of it on fire first. Though burning a bog must take a shit ton of kindling.
The Tongariro crossing
The scenes of Mordor in the Lord of the Rings trilogy were filmed on the side of a volcanic wasteland along an eighteen-kilometer-long trail called the Tongariro crossing. Since its release, the country of New Zealand has worked hard to capitalize on people wanting to see where the Hobbits lived, even to the point of marking Mount Doom on many maps. The Tongariro crossing has now become as popular as any National park trade route such as Half Dome in Yosemite, and concessioners provide shuttle service to the start after picking hikers up at their cars staged at the finish.
I have an aversion to both hiking, and crowds, and combining the two is simply not what I imagine a vacation to be. One of my many versions of hell would be to be conscripted into membership in what is called a “Tramping Club” here, a “Hiking Club” at home, and in my mind the “walk of the living dead”. This is basically old people walking around with hiking sticks discussing: A. The Weather, B. How things used to be, (including the weather) or C. Body parts that either no longer work, or are no longer installed. I would be hiking along pondering possible methods of killing myself along the way. So, when Jonny of 4B’s suggested that I should not leave here without experiencing the Tongariro crossing I felt compelled to take his advice since he was right about everything else, but loathe to cue up and make conversation about hemorrhoids and enemas. As a result of my misanthropy, I hatched a plan to start at the finish, do the hike as an out and back, and begin at 4am. Those things would take care of the crowds, there was no way to eliminate the hiking.
Rain, thunder and lightning made sleep come in bite sized portions, and when the alarm went off at 3am, I was already up and brewing coffee. At first glance the sky was completely overcast, and I considered returning to the sleeping bag, but 10 minutes later it had cleared to a display of stars I cannot recall an equal to in all of my years outside in the dark. I stood slack jawed until the muscles in my neck began to rebel: if it was raining I would have drowned like a turkey.
I had camped about 15 minutes from the start of the hike, but the rain had apparently been heavier at the trailhead, because I soon had to veer around and drive over several mudslides and rock fall that had come over the road. The trail was wet but only had about 50 meters where the rain had deconstructed it and I had to follow a still flowing water course.
Hiking by headlamp is always an adjustment over daylight as you have only a cone of perception to your world, but your awareness of everything outside of that cone is still present, and that everything else becomes the unknown. In the desert the light is rigidly trained on the ground in front of you to watch for rattlesnakes, you swing your head side to side of the path hoping to see them before they are too close. Here I could let the light play upon the walking surface but knowing that the most dangerous thing on the island is a parrot, I could swing it around and admire the way the light reflected off of certain leaves and watch it disappear into the dark forest. The trail here is completely manufactured out of plastic mats that conform to the surface, with wooden steps at every spot where the angle exceeded 10 degrees, and bridges over every stream, it went on like this for 5 miles, which was an amazing commitment to making a trail accessible to the masses but without creating an eighteen-kilometer-long ditch.
As I broke out of the tree line, a faint blue glow was just lightening the eastern skyline and the peaks of the volcanos became visible in silhouette. I have seen the Milky Way on countless occasions over this lifetime, but never have I been able to peer into the very heart of our galaxy as was possible in that moment. I am not at all versed in this type of photography but I spent 15 minutes trying to capture some faint version of what I was witnessing.
In a lightening sky, I continued upward as the plants worked their way downward, getting smaller with every foot of elevation gained until eventually only grass, flowers and moss lined the trail. Sunrise itself was uninspiring, with clouds having climbed up the slope from the valley below. This had an isolating effect, as the mountain peaks became their own world above the mists and I felt comfortably cut off, separated, and pleasantly remote from what I knew to be masses of feet that were approaching from both directions. Eventually the sun climbed up over the Eastern wall of peaks, throwing a harsh light onto scenery that was beginning to look like Mordor. After 2 months on the islands I had found the desert landscapes, they were hiding on the slopes of the volcanos. Suddenly I had the space and spaciousness that I had been craving with only the crests of the mountain ridges imposing any limit on where I could go. However, as it is an active volcano, staying on the trail seemed to be prudent especially as I was alone, and falling into a hissing fumarole or piss pot full of steaming mud would put a real cramp in my mountain bike plans.
I am not really a fan of vulcanism. It is an unseemly exposure of the entrails of the planet that I would prefer not to bear witness to. When I consider what the interface between the bowels of the earth and the outside world actually is in relationship to the human body, we are staring into one of thousands of the planets buttholes when presented with a volcanic vent, fissure, or crater. It amazes me how many people gladly endure the utter stench that emanates from various mud-pots, steam geysers, brimstone springs, or other passages to the underworld, and yet would be vociferous in their complaint if you passed gas in their closed vehicle.
My goal was called the Blue lake, and it was exactly as advertised, blue and a lake, surrounded by low hills, and some struggling plants and rocks. If you watch the movie, Mordor isn’t really the most photogenic backdrop and as there was no eye of Sauron, nor scurrying hobbits to entertain me I took a couple of photographs and began the long hike back to the van and a well-deserved cup of coffee.
Spending days alone, and suddenly being confronted with other human beings who want to have vocal interaction is often awkward. It is somewhat embarrassing to have to remember to use your voice and not just think the thoughts. Unlike many solo travelers that I hear talking to themselves, I am content with only thoughts and so with disuse my voice seems like picking up an instrument that has not been played in a long while, and sounds creaky and out of tune. Each of the hikers that I met coming up were happy to take a break from the uphill grind and have a little discussion. But as I am heading downward, stopping interrupts the flow of movement which I find both efficient as well as meditative, yet politeness dictates at least a moments hesitation and a few words of encouragement. I often have an urge to feign deafness, speak some kind of gibberish language, or just limp and drool to get them to leave me alone, but I never do.
I would like to say that going back to Taupo felt like going home, and while I had a sense of familiarity for the first time in 2 months, that dissolved when I ordered a hamburger at a cafe only to discover that they ground up beets and mixed them with the beef prior to cooking. Suddenly I was back in a culinary twilight zone being served the nastiest meatloaf I could conceive of.
There were several portions of the trails system around lake Taupo that I was unable to ride when I was here last month, but the sections that I did ride were so good that I allowed my expectations to grow, and fortunately the trails exceeded my admittedly spoiled standards. I really don’t want to call these cross-country rides, as the they constantly twist, turn, climb, dive, bank, and fall over root-fests. These aren’t groomed graveled bike path type of trails, but neither are they so manicured or manufactured to be specimens in a museum of IMBA trail features. They are the somewhere in between that we would call trail rides, back home. If you took the JEM/Crypto/Goosebumps system and ran it through a jungle this is the result. I am also very sure that these trails are the rarest kind of riding that exists on either island, and as far as I have discerned Taupo and the Craigieburn’s are about it. Everything else is either cross country, lunatic downhill, or mountain bike park manufactured. And when I think about it, this makes total sense when I remember that these are islands with limited square feet of dry land on the one hand, native Maori land claims on the other hand, and environmental moss hugger- don’t touch anything on the third hand. Large strips of clearing and digging are just not in the cards everywhere. However, the strips that have been developed here are simply the most delightful, fun, and beautiful trails, passing through stunning scenery and lush forest, I don’t know what you could do to make them any better.
I only left Taupo when I completely ran out of riding, and while the urge to begin repeating rides was certainly there, I also knew that there were new experiences to derive outside of this wonderful little region, so I headed to the north to fill in some blank spots.
After taking the bait on so many trails that turned out to be nothing that resembled mountain bike rides, I have started to read the descriptions on trail forks with a large amount of skepticism, and so did not even consider the Rainbow Mountain trails to be likely to offer a good ride. I actually pulled in to the trail head as a place to spend the night on the way to Rotorua, but after reading the encouraging signboards that described the trails I again made the fatal mistake of believing what I was being told. Morning brought sunny skies, few bugs and moderate hopes. After breakfast I got ready for what I hoped would be, if not a great ride, at least something that was do-able. But before I could even get the bike out of the van, nature called as often happens after 3 cups of coffee.
The Outhouse of the damned
I have been trying to choose places to camp that have either an outhouse or full on flush toilet within a reasonable distance, and I have resorted to digging holes just three times over the past few months. I know that I would appreciate the thoughtfulness of people visiting my part of the world to not leave a trail of shitholes in their wake, and I have been trying to live up to that ideal. In general, the facilities on these islands are as nice if not nicer than any on public lands in the US, but there are always outliers. As the trailhead where I was camping was in a sensitive natural area with a wealth of plant species found no where else on earth, (nor even in the entire galaxy that we know of) large menacing signs were placed along the side of the trail foretelling of certain damnation, likely ridicule, and possible prosecution, to anyone who would be so thoughtless to step foot off of the designated pathway. In fairness to me, there were no signs that said: “don’t dig a hole in the rare and delicate plant life that line the trail and shit in that hole” but I am not quite that stupid that I cannot make the connection. So, when nature “called” I simply headed for the outhouse with my roll of TP.
I should note that during my time in the Navy, I have been called upon to endure primitive and rustic facilities in many a backwards nearly stone age location, (places our president refers to as shit-holes). These are places where electricity, running water, soap, and a human body free of vermin are all novelties, or so rare that they are still the exception and not to be expected. So while I prefer a sanitary environment to preform the most unsavory of human needs, I am not exactly a squeamish, germ-o-phobic, pampered, suburbanite. Yet in considering the worst of the worst, the train station bathroom in Venice never had an equal, until this. But I am getting ahead of myself.
Smells in an outhouse are to be expected, we aren’t leaving behind flowers after all. The word “outhouse” itself is synonymous with, and can be substituted for, most words that imply a horrid smell (smell that induces horror). I have always thought that it would be difficult to be injured by a smell, but humans do require a fairly specific mix of gasses in our air to be able to function at an optimum level, and as far as I am aware ammonia isn’t one of those gasses. This particular outhouse offered up an ammonia level in the “atmosphere” that caused immediate flushing of the tear ducts and the kind of “wake the fuck up” sort of pain that smelling salts have on nasal cavities. Walking into that outhouse was exactly like taking a left hook in the face from Mike Tyson. Blinking back the tears, I fled towards an atmosphere lower in exotic gasses, to test how long I could hold my breath.
I figured that this situation was going to be all about timing, breath control, and limiting the duration of exposure. Waiting until I felt an “inner sense” that the timing was right, I took a few deep breaths and headed back in. Fighting through the thick Jovian atmosphere, I threw open the lid of the pit toilet and a massive black funnel of insets erupted out of the opening as if suddenly released from the stygian depths of hell, and literally filled what was now an outhouse chamber of horrors. For just a moment I considered complete retreat and capitulation, but at that point the die had been cast so to speak in terms of intestinal urgency, so with what must have looked like an entire choreographed but demented version of the Watusi, I pressed on. The subsequent 30 seconds were the purest form of torture ever devised that did not require the removal of living sheets of skin. I am not sure how it was possible to squat, dance, wave, twitch, and flail arms wildly about, all while doing the business and not breathing, mostly I tried not to think about it and just get it over with. But once I began to “contribute” a fresh cloud of flies exploded upwards, likely pissed that I had interrupted some essential aspect of their vile life cycle or perhaps it was just their way of saying howdy and thanks. I don’t really know how to describe a stream of insects banging into your nether regions, other than to relate that it is particularly unpleasant, and apparently capable of making a grown man scream like a little girl. Rushing out coughing, slapping, waving and out of breath, I was thankful that the ordeal was over, and felt that whatever was going to happen today couldn’t be any worse than those few but horrific moments. I was correct, but not by much.
I have had a good deal of time to ponder the various factors that go into making a great mountain bike trail, but I have not really given much thought into all of the elements that go into the truly horrible. I think that for me a fundamental part of a shit trail is the trench. I have always described Broken Mesa Rim trail as a trench filled with boulders. So, to make a truly awful trail, start with trenches so deep and narrow that your pedals hit both sides concurrently, and with orientations that run either straight uphill or down giving the water the best opportunity to make the trenches adequately twisty. Next, I think that hissing fumaroles and boiling mud pots while a nice touch esthetically should also lend a certain rotten egg and dead possum odor to the air to really do the trick. And of-course no shitty trail system would be complete without a really good slippery root network, perhaps with some added motor oil sprayed over the top for times when nature doesn’t cooperate. Upgrades would be literal craters in the bottom of the trenches exactly the correct diameter to trap a 27.5” tire, and a complete gauntlet of blackberry vines along the edges of the downhill portions to interrupt the flow and rip open any body parts not covered in chain mail. The best thing that I can say about Rainbow mountain is it was a marginally better experience than the outhouse of the damned.
Return to Rotorua
Sometimes it’s best to just go with what you know. After spending many hours in separating the wheat from the chaff, it seemed to make good sense to end the riding part of the trip with the best riding that I found. Every other bike park that I tried was a poor comparison to the Whakarera Forest trail system. The closest was Eskdale in Napier, which had very high-quality trails and really innovative and interesting trail features, but it was still just not in the same league as Rotorua, either in sheer size or in the variety of environments to ride in. I spent the last two riding days of the trip furthering my knowledge of this vast place, and revisiting some of my favorites from last month. I bought the five-trip shuttle pass for $40 again, and saved the final three trips for the last afternoon, spending about two hours that evening planning how to best utilize the final shuttle to the top of the mountain.
Corners is over two miles of constant turning with so many bumps and jumps that keeping the bike on the ground is nearly impossible. It goes for so long and requires so much focus and body tension that by the bottom I am usually happy that it is over. I overheard the shuttle driver passing out a piece of advice on how to ride the corners that was so completely counter intuitive that I wondered if he was just screwing around, until I tried it, and it completely changed the equation of how to ride here. Normally going downhill, leaning forward is a prescription for going over the handlebars, and so I have been conditioned to hang my butt off the seat and over the rear wheel, but on these hugely banked turns that really unweights the front wheel making control difficult. The moment I tried leaning forward as I came into the turn gave me the control to ride those features at least 30% faster and with more control than I had been able to before. World changing.
The second trip down the mountain was a series of linked up trails that flowed beautifully together and yielded about 30 minutes of continuous downhill movement. The technique change began to pay off in an increased sense of control over the bike, making many of the features far less intimidating than previous rides, creating both better flow and a bigger grin as the bike spent more time in the air than I am used to or comfortable with.
As the shuttle unloaded for the final ride down the hill, I lingered around the map board, waiting for everyone else to depart on their rides, and for the noise of the bus and trailer to fade back down the road. I don’t know if I will ever come back here and I wanted a few moments to savor the feel of this place and to acknowledge the experiences that I have had the good fortune to have here. Somewhere off in the distant woods, the rusty hinge bird, and dripping faucet bird were taunting one another, the sun was just peeking through the overcast that had hung around all morning and the air had that rich musty scent of too many plants in one place. I took one last look around, sighed and started down Eagle vs. Shark.
There is no way for me to describe an experience like this last ride without just stringing together a list of superlatives that are really nothing more than shadows cast upon on a cave wall. It took over an hour of blissful riding to get to the exit, every moment of which was jubilant. I hope that there will never be a time when I am unable to recall the deep sense of gratitude that this hour of ecstatic movement left me with. It was nothing less than the ride of a lifetime.
I am parked on a grassy shoreline watching the last sunset descend into the Firth of Thames out of the open back door of the van. The wind driven waves create a constant white noise making me hunger for the silence of the desert, though the approaching darkness has at least silenced the incessant hiss cicadas for the evening. The sun touches the peak on the opposite peninsula and is slowly absorbed into that gray silhouette. A halo of light rims a single low hanging cloud for a few moments, but soon fades leaving a light purple bruise above the horizon. High cirrus clouds catch the last rays of sunlight and play the light scale from pink to salmon to orange towards red before fading to gray. Horsetail clouds mean a change in the weather and for me that change means heading home.