With the Queen’s Birthday celebrated with a day off it was the perfect opportunity to get a good three day mission in. Nick and Tim came up with an idea, which turned into a plan: 3 days, 3 sections of single track covering the Old Ghost Road, The Heaphy and the Flora Saddle track, a round trip starting and finishing in Murchison and just 500km to cover. Ambitious, but achievable was what we thought and that’s what made it all the more attractive!
Friday evening we all escaped from work, piled into the car and made our way north to a freezing cold Murchison. Rather than stay in a two man tent with the three of us, we managed to convince Nick it was a good idea to stay in a cabin and not too much more expensive either. In the cool evening we sorted out our bikes, packed our gear and prepared for the battle ahead. It was all very reminiscent of an adventure race.
The plan for day one was to get from Murchison to Karamea where we had a booking at the aptly named Last Resort Motel. This meant we needed to make an early start, with an estimated 14 hours of riding to get there, we emerged from the frosty cold cabin at 6am to start our journey. We rolled out of Murchison and onto the State highway in the calm quiet morning. It was seriously cold to start with, but just 30mins in we had warmed up enough to have to take some clothes off! Another hour or so and we had knocked the 35km and arrived to the start of the Old Ghost Road right on dawn. We were pretty happy to have this short little ride on the road in the bag. Now we were about to get our teeth stuck in.
The beginning of the Old Ghost road went by pretty quickly, it was turning out to be a great day, the sun was out and this time around I could actually get a good look at what we were actually riding through! We made our way onto the tops and were met with some pretty stunning views plus a whole lot of Snow on the ground. We met some trail workers building a shelter and another couple of people riding the track up on the tops. The snow made the riding a little bit tricky and all a bit more exposed on the narrow section of trail before Ghost lake. Along this narrow section we came across a bunch of trampers taking the opportunity to take some photos up in the Snow and Rocks. One of them asked us where we were heading to which we replied “Karamea!” The reply was a little bit inaudible but it was somewhere along the lines of “Karamea!? That’s a long way!” And didn’t we know it!
Ghost lake hut was deserted when we arrived, kind of fitting really. The hut was fully surrounded in shin deep snow, and it looked like the lake was frozen over. We didn’t hang around here too long as it was cold and of course we had to keep on track timewise. By the time we reached the switch backs I began to realise that this snow covered trail was going to be icy on the corners and soak up quite a bit of time. With myself in self preservation mode I decided to walk most of the corners and the others got a little ahead.
I got a bit grumpy through the next section with the trail becoming a bit “stop-start”, too hot and just a little bit hungry. I took another break to sort myself out and got back on the horse, caught up to the other guys who where waiting and we continued to the stairs. With some food in and knowing it was mostly down hill from the stairs, I was started to feel good again. The next downhill was so nice to ride, fast and flowing and again much nicer to be relatively dry.
We had a very brief stop for some more food at the Stern Valley hut, but only a short one. While we were making good progress we continued onwards and upwards, we picked our way up through the Boneyard and over Sollem saddle. The descent off here was fantastic, and so nice to have the Sun out! As the day gradually wore on, the closer we got to the end of the trail. There was a good few people sitting down enjoying the last of the days Sun in the Specimen point hut – however much we would have liked to stop and join them we had to ride on to make our schedule. There was a bit of hangry suffering left for me as I faded, and quickly chucked some sugar down me before we boosted it to the Seddonville end.
Around about 4:30pm we ticked off the Old Ghost Road and continued on to the Seddonville Hotel as the Sunset. It was almost too early for dinner but they were pretty good to us, turning the cooking vat on 15mins early just for us. We parked ourselves by the fire for a good hour or so before we headed back out into cold and darkness for the final push of 55km to Karamea.
We started out with a bit too much stopping for my liking, a little bit frustrating…but I got over it and I really enjoyed the rest of the climb up to the Karamea saddle. I did get a bit worried that we might be running a bit late, so it was my turn to dictate the pace. This is where Nick, who had been smashing it all day started to crack a bit. Nevertheless, the downhill got us into little Waitangi with about an hour until our anticipated check in time of 9pm. We opted for the sealed road for the final 10+ km stretch, and by now we were all starting to suffer from prolonged saddle contact time. It felt like a long long lonely ride along the road but we ended up only 20mins or so behind schedule and arrived at the last resort just in time for a second dinner.
Originally Nick was pretty keen on making the trip more adventurous by crashing in a hayshed somewhere and was disappointed about our booking at the Last Resort. By about bedtime I think Nick might have changed his tune and seemed pretty happy to have a bed to sleep in for the night The Night went by fairly quickly and it was slave driver Tim that made us get up around 5am ready for our 6am departure. The irony of all this was that Tim was the last one out the door, leaving us to wait on our bikes for about 10mins while he finalised his bike bag attachment…
Day 2 was another big day in the saddle, the plan was to head through the Heaphy and out to either Takaka or up to Baron Flat if time and distance was treating us well. Again we were on the road in the dark to start with, timing our arrival at the start of the Heaphy at dawn. Due to the native snails on the Heaphy, riding is restricted to daylight hours, which added some extra logistical challenge to the loop (plus an ideal reason to sleep!)
Not long into the ride along the beachside Tim put the power down up a short little hill and “ping!” snapped his chain… This set us back a good 20mins while we sorted that out, good thing we had the tools to sort it out. It gave us a chance to warm up and grab a look at the red sunrise above the West Coast. Rain was scheduled to hit the top of the Heaphy around mid afternoon so we were prepared with plenty of warm dry clothes in our heavy bags. I really enjoyed the ride along coast, it is just such different terrain from the Old Ghost road and pretty much anywhere else in NZ I have been. Along with the coast there was a bit of sand, so when we arrived at Heaphy hut the gears were grinding quite a bit on the bikes.
We took the chance up the back of the heaphy hut to wash the bikes down and re-lubricate the chains, fill up with water and then press onwards. The next section of track was super nice riding, it was almost a little hard to enjoy it too much knowing that there was a fairly solid climb ahead of us up to James Mackay hut. We encountered a whole lot more people on this section of track, helping us past the time and the stories, dulling the pain and suffering a little!
The climb which I was dreading was actually pretty nice as far as climbs go, nice and steady, not too steep and a really nice track. I attacked the climb with my usual conservative approach and let Tim and Nick ride ahead for a while, gradually as I got into my rhythm things were going well. After a few water and conversation stops, the body started to fade a bit and I needed food again. It was now lunch time and this time we needed to have a good refuel stop. Finally we reached the peak of the climb and topped out a the Hut.
The Hut was a pretty busy place, there must have been 20+ people in there, so we wandered in and found ourselves a corner. Stopping to fuel up was almost the highlight of the day for me as we quietly went about our business, mostly undetected… I also managed to free up an estimated 1.5kg of food off my back, eating about 75% of that and casting the rest off onto Tim and Nick! Unfortunately for me I was carrying most of my gear on my back due to the bike bags I had borrowed were unable to fit on my frame. So it was in my best interests to lighten my load.
Leaving the Hut fuelled up was a great feeling, there was still a long long way to go and the weather appeared to be turning, the clouds had rolled in with just a few spots of rain. The section of trail to Saxon hut consisted of a few ups and downs through some pretty crazy terrain. This is another favorite part of the trail for me, lots of little hollows, swamps and hills, something out of this world looking and some narrow little boardwalks to negotiate too. We passed several groups through here and part way to Gouland downs Hut, it was going to be a busy night in those huts….good thing we were staying down the road a bit.
At Gouland Downs hut we were treated to a flock of Takahe, about 5 or 6 of the birds were realised up there a few months prior, so it was pretty cool to see these super rare birds in the relative wild. A few more spots of rain started to fall on our way up to Perry Saddle and the rough rockness of the riding took its toll on our backsides. When we arrived at Perry Saddle hut, it was about 3pm in the afternoon and looked like there was going to be no more rain – dodged that bullet! All downhill from there, it was a short 1 to 1.5hours to Brown hut, it was actually hard work riding, not that it was that technical, just that it went on and on and on for what felt like a long time. We were treated to a bit of sunshine, and glimpses of Golden bay every now and then between the trees.
Then at about 4:30pm we ticked off the Heaphy, just 35km or so to Collingwood plus quite a few more to Takaka. As with the previous day, Nick slowed a bit on the way out, on the easy section?! I think he must have been suffering just a little bit more with a hardtail and a sore backside. Darkness arrived just before we hit the Devils Boots Road, and the shortcut to the road to Takaka. In hindsight maybe we would have been best to call into Collingwood to resupply, although we did have quite a bit of food in our packs still, so maybe it was a good thing? Not sure.
Tim’s rear light ran out of battery, right when we were on the one of the most dangerous sections of road riding. It is really amazing to see from behind how invisible someone is without lights on a bike at night. As a result of his lack of light we needed to ride with him in the front or middle which was good to keep us all together. Not too far along the road (even though it felt like a long way) we came across the Mussel Inn and stopped for some dinner number 1. As we fueled up we were able to check in with the real world for a bit and make a call on our final destination for the night. It came down to staying in comfort in Takaka and finishing early, or roughing it a bit and finishing around midnight at Moonsilver. Takaka won out with the offer of warm food, warm showers and comfortable warm beds at the Mclaren’s house, an Orienteering family in Takaka.
Some food in our bellies and we were back on the bikes, headed out for the final push for the night to Takaka. The Mclarens were the most fantastic hosts, providing us with some great company and they had a heap of food for us so we tucked in for a hearty second dinner followed by ice cream and dessert. It was a bit like stopping over at an oasis in the middle of the desert!
By staying the night in Takaka we still had a good 180km with 60km or so on 4wd/singletrack to get us back to Murchison. Now we were in Takaka we were pretty much committed to completing the loop, which seemed pretty daunting considering we had only just ticked over halfway. By now I was pretty much in “race mode” so getting up at 5am to start riding by 6am again was almost becoming normal. After some breakfast, we slipped out the door, leaving without disturbing Jenny and Piers and jumped back on the bikes. Getting on them and riding again was a bit of an effort. Both Nick and I had gone with the highly fashionable 2x bike pants combination which provided a little bit extra cushioning and a tiny bit more comfort. The legs took a fair bit of winding up again too…stiff knees!
We had become fairly accustomed to riding on the road in the dark, and it worked out pretty well, there was hardly any traffic on the roads. It took us until dawn to arrive at upper Takaka, and we moved off the main road to began the last big climb, for the last big section of single track. As an added bonus we were actually moving in a direction that was in the rough Murchison vicinity. We followed a 4wd track up to Barron Flat, which was a good gradient and was just warm enough to get a sweat up but cold enough that if we stopped we got cold pretty quick. Good incentive for us to keep on moving on. As the track levelled out a bit the going got a little bit tougher, the ground was rough and hard enough going on the full sus, let alone poor old Nick on the hardtail. At around 3 and a half hours after leaving Takaka we reached Moonsilver, and the beginning of the single track. Spirits were high after a short stop for some ablutions and food, which lead to Tim and I making some bold time estimates… “we should be in Tapawera by 2pm”
The single track through to Flora Saddle was tough going to say the least. It was quite damp, a bit slippery and there must have been some rain falling although it cant have been that hard through the trees. The trail was pretty overgrown and it was hard work riding especially given our state. The luxury of having some pretty sweet single track the previous two days had given us a false sense of our speed and ability on proper single track. As with any adventure there has to be some suffering in there so we just chipped away at it. Our progress was slow but steady, riding in places for about 20m then pushing for 20m then ride for 20m etc etc. Gradually we got somewhere, crossed a big river and started some pretty sketchy and narrow riding on a siddle track. The Bush was pretty amazing and when we did stop every now and then, I have never heard so many birdsong in the NZ bush before, it was really amazing. It really felt like we were actually pretty remote compared to the last few days, and the chances of seeing anyone else was pretty slim.
Our bold timing predictions changed pretty rapidly, now it was going to be good going if we managed to get to Flora Saddle by 2pm, let alone Tapawera! It was going to be a long afternoon and evening of riding as it suddenly dawned on me that we had to finish by Midnight to have called it a completed loop in 3 days…and then there was the small matter of us three all needing to be back at work on Tuesday! I started to play out the worst case scenarios in my head and I was getting a bit down (even taking a bit of a faceplant on a slippery tree root) so when we finally hit the track with the “nice benched track” the emotional roller coaster took an upwards turn. It was not long lived, as the benched track was not quite as Tim had remembered it… it was more solid uphill pushing for quite a while before we finally escaped across a bridge. Not long across the bridge riding became more achievable and before we knew it we had escaped onto 4wd track and the Upper Gridiron Shelter.
The going quickly turned into very plush 4wd road and the few kms up to Flora Hut went ticking on by. The rain had increased at this stage and we arrived just in time to make the 2pm estimate at the hut. Under shelter we had a short stop for jackets, some food, and a small celebration knowing that we had broken the back of the loop. It wasn’t totally complete yet and there was still 110 or so km to go, but the hard part was mostly over. As we summited the saddle, we ran into a whole heap of people out for a Monday afternoon stroll, civilisation for the first time in a few days it felt like! The downhill from Flora Saddle was pretty darn steep, a good work out on the brakes! It was pretty nice to rack up a few more k’s in short succession, making up for those slow ones we slugged our way through the bush. Finally, muddy, complete with some smiles we hit the sealed road for pretty much the first time in 3 days in the daylight!
Its funny how riding on single track you never seem to get as sore as sitting on the seat when your road bashing on a bike, especially a Mountain bike…. and that was now our situation for the final push to Murchison. We rode together for a while but gradually Nick started to fall away behind again. Eventually Tim and I decided that we had let him suffer enough and dropped back to bunch ride with us. This helped pass the time much better too and we were hungry but happy when we arrived in Tapawera. Given the logistics of the loop we were riding, the opportunities for resupply were few and far between. It was a grey old day, the light was starting to fade but the Tapawera 4 Square was shining out like a light to us! Unfortunately there were no warm pies left (understandable given it was 4:30pm in the afternoon), so it was all Coke, Chips and Chocolate, some lollies. After our first helpings, Tim went back for more, and was able to arrange some Sausage rolls to be heated for us! Tim’s 4th visit to the shop yielded pain killers and we all knocked a few back almost like lollies before hitting the road again….generally I try to avoid them but in this instance I think we all had a few reasons to need some relief for the final 80km.
With all of our mucking around at the shop it was now close to 5pm, so lights came out before we started moving again. On the road again and Nick was back up to speed. It appears we discovered the secret to keeping Nick going was to keep him well fed so we did that and we had a good old ride through the Tadmor Saddle road. At one point while going down a hill Tim’s phone came flying out of his pocket, it all happened so fast and as we were riding in close proximity it went straight under my wheel but luckily came out pretty much unscathed… a good advertisement for a lifeproof case! The time was flying by, and I quite enjoyed this fairly remote section of riding on the gravel road. Progress wasn’t quite as fast, however given that we were going up hill maybe it wasn’t a total surprise. Once at the saddle it was pretty much all down hill, and we hit the main highway to Murchison quicker than I thought.
Out onto the main road there was 40 odd km to go, it had been raining, and there was some heavy and wet mist lurking about. It was downhill and it felt like a tail wind because for the next 6 or so km we rode hard and fast. The excitement of almost being at the end of a great trip was almost too much for us to contain! Given our timing on the road we were fairly lucky with a lack of traffic, only really a few big trucks who were very courteous. One car pulled over to ask us what we were up to and offered a us a ride, but with less than 30km to go, there was no other options for us but to ride. Gradually the distance to go went from 20 to 10 and then it was all within grasp. We arrived into Murchison at 9:02pm, just in time for all of the shops (including the petrol station) to be closed! We were all pretty ecstatic to have knocked it off, it was a challenge, it definitely wasn’t easy, but we made it happen and got through, 500km in 3 days, the Old Ghost Road, Heaphy and the Flora Saddle-Barron Flat track.
Murchison was enveloped in misty cold haze and felt a bit like a ghost town, much to our disappointment there was no cheering crowds waiting for us, so we cruised back to the camping ground to pick up the car and load back up. This took a bit of time, sorting out our tired bodies, muddy gear and finding something warm to change into. Eventually we hit the road back to Christchurch for a trip that was broken up with frequent driver changes and a 2:30am arrival… not ideal for work the next morning…. but you have to do what you have to do sometimes!