What: An epic, 3-day back country ride.
When: 8 to 11 May 2014.
Where: A circuit taking in Hanmer Springs – Rainbow Road – St Arnaud – Murchison – Maruia Hot Springs – Hanmer Springs.
Who: The Natural High management team
After last week’s Lees Valley expedition to get us off the couch, we needed another ride to keep our training on track. Surprisingly, my accountant provided the final push, suggesting that the Natural High management team needed a strategic team building weekend away.
“Take Sandra & Logan, put them on the Specialized Rockhopper 29ners, strap on a Viscacha seat bag, grab the company credit card and go strategise!”
Well… it’s one thing to have an understanding wife, but an accountant who gets cycling…. that’s sexy!
Those of you who have toured with us, will unwittingly have been the benefactor of Sandra’s meticulous planning. Inspired by the Great Kiwi Brevet (the hard core, 1100km bicycle brevet around the top of the South Island), Sandra plotted our route:
The plan was to drive towards Hanmer after work and ride the first 8km from the Hanmer/Lewis Pass Road turnoff to Hanmer, where we would spend the first night. Our first full day would take us deep into alpine back country, over Jacks Pass, on to Rainbow Road, past the St James cycleway turnoff to finish in St Arnaud, approx 114km away.
Day two would take us along Highway 63, turning off to cycle over the knarly Porika Road, drop into Lake Rotoroa, then link up with the Braeburn Track to the Mangles Valley and lunch at Murchison. Then back on the bikes for a climb up the Matakitaki Valley, over the Maruia Saddle (580m) before dropping to Highway 65. The last 50km along Lewis Pass road would end at Maruia Hot Springs, a ride of 155km.
Finally, day 3, Sunday, would be a leisurely 80km downhill return to the vehicle.
Setting off from Christchurch after work…
…loaded with two bottles of wine, a dozen beers, plus breakfast, we rode the first 8km warm up to Hanmer Springs in the dark. A quick check in at the backpackers, before a rush to the pools. While soaking in the 42 degree warmth, our excited banter covered many topics but comparing rides on our bucket lists was the most interesting.
Top of my list? Ghost Trail (West Coast) and the Nelson tracks. Logan’s hit list included his upcoming trails around Whistler MTB Park. Sandra’s turn: she started with the Khardung La (5602m) in India, wrongly titled the “highest motorable road in the world,” and it went from there. Poor Logan. At this point, I think he was wondering what he’d let himself in for.
A 7.30am roll out had us all kitted up with armies and leg warmers. Within 15 minutes we were into the longest climb of the day, a 500m ascent over 5km to reach Jacks Pass at 840m. With views back towards the Hanmer Plain and the sun rising, we were eager for the great day of cycling that awaited us.
Next we followed a well-formed, 4 wheel drive track, making our way across the wide tussock-covered valley floor, alongside the crystal clear, trout-filled Clarence River. With a fresh dusting of snow from the night before and the barren, arid mountains around us, this was a deep “wow!” moment. The next climb over Island Saddle was less subtle and Logan joked if anyone had thought to pack a ladder? Sandra held off a late storming Andy to summit first, although no official race had been declared.
From Island Saddle Pass we had our first, delicious downhill to the Sedgemere Shelter, then another short climb to the gate where we farewelled the Molesworth Station and entered the privately owned Rainbow Station. A sign informed us of a $2 road toll per cyclist, but this was waived by the farm manager, who was snoozing in his Toyota Landcruiser. The reason for his generosity soon became clear: the winter cattle muster was on, and we were slowed to a walk through the narrow gorges, following beefy mothers and their almost adult calves.
Finally, we reached the tar-sealed Rainbow Road and our pace increased. We finally made it to St Arnard Alpine Lodge around 6pm, a total of 10.5 hours in the saddle. Great accommodation and a fine meal was devoured.
If a decision to leave early is agreed to, there are always consequences…. namely you have to get up early, and day two saw us rising at 5.30am, to pull away in the frost at 6.15am. With lights on and extremities cold, we attacked the Porika Track Saddle. The downhill was a challenge with large rocks. Sandra walked her bike down for the first 200m, while the boys raced to the bottom.
Once at Lake Rotoroa we linked up with the Braeburn Road, which was one of my favourite parts of the whole ride. After a steep little climb, there was a wonderful flowing downhill through native bush, a couple of fords and deer sightings. I was grinning all the way.
After a quick farmers breakfast at River Cafe (highly recommended), we headed up the Matakitaki Valley for a 7km, easy climb over the deserted Maruia Pass, which I would encourage all our cycle touring friends to experience. The final 50km took us through the farming district of Spring Junction, to the start of the Lewis Pass road climb to Maruia Hot Springs and our bed for the night. Sitting in the hot pools, under the stars, I was in my element!
It was dark again when we set off at 7.30am, reaching the Lewis Pass Summit after 6km. With the help of a little tail wind, the undulating 80kms flew by, and by 11.30am we were at our vehicle, buzzing with satisfaction, achievement and elation.
While this ride was a challenge for us in three days, we’d highly recommend it over 3-5 days. It also heightened our respect for those who participate in the Kiwi Brevet, some completing the 1100km loop in 3-5 days. Not everyone is at this level of fitness (or madness), and splitting these rides into shorter chunks gives everyone an option. The Rainbow was the standout for me and I would do it again in a heartbeat.
For those of you who enjoy a challenge, there is a 105km race that is run from St Arnaud to Hanmer Springs called The Rainbow Rage, running on 21st March 2015. See you there!