Monday, March 30, 2009

Fear, Hardness and MTBing in Fiordland

I was somewhere near four foot high stuck on a crumbly tussock slope above the shores of Lake Hawea. I had wandered off to entertain myself, determined to climb a mountain. Now all four feet of me was stuck 200 feet up a 3000 foot mountain and my knees were banging. Together.

Fast forward 15 years and they were still banging, six foot of me was sixty feet up a concave crumbly tussock slope. The slippery, featureless bare rock below which had been so easy to climb up, now seemed so easy to fall down. My girlfriend had dumped me, my foot felt like it was slipping (though there was no movement perceptible to the eye) and despite the vast landscape around me I was so far in my head that I didn't know Martin had passed me until he started issuing instructions from above.

Martin Rodd redefined my appreciation of "hard"ness. Every so often you meet someone who redefines or extrapolates on the qualities that makes one strong in the mountains. Before Martin I had met Kynan Bazley and later I met Kieran McKay, but they are different stories. This story is about Martin, and although he didn't have the calm demeanour or physical fluidity of the latter two he shared their manic glint and exhibited a gritted sense of determination and brute physical force. Previously Martin and I had shared a weekend in the Eyre mountains, escaping out of a storm to a derelict hut with only the vestiges of walls. We yarned quite a bit of the night as the squalls thrashed our shelter, mainly about Martins adventures and exploration of the West Coast, and woke in the morning to snow drifts in the corners of our bunks and my frozen shoes. Martin who had slept with his watched in disdain as I had to rip my shoes to get my feet in. It was a long walk out in his footsteps.

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But here we were now on the side of Mt Wilmot, straddling Lake Manapouri and Doubtful Sound and Martin was above me and my fingers weren't gripping. The thing is, this was the objective. Martin had cornered me at work, "come and climb Mt Wilmot". Ok. The access was horrendously awesome. The Percy Pass MTB route. We parked at Borland Lodge and headed up over to the Grebe following the transmission lines. The Grebe is amazing watercourse, its headwaters leach out of New Zealand's biggest ever landslide. But it leachs out so clear, almost translucent and the beech forest is so picturesque, even when it gets stunted when you hang a left and head up the Percy Stream. We have so few places in New Zealand where transmission lines cross remote country and you can explore the old tracks by bike. My mind strains; Dennistoun incline to Lyall, spots around Arthurs Pass, out the back of Tokaanu. But this is the best. The track up to Percy Saddle isn't rideable by mortals and further reduces to a carry when the road ends in beech forest. You heave the bike on the shoulder and make for the distant pylon on the saddle.

When we reached the saddle though it was snowed in. Bikes in an alpine paradise. A crusty alpine paradise. I remember staggering down the hill dragging or pushing the bike in a constant state of fall. Once the snow clears though the downhill is diabolical,amazing. Its how you envisage a mountain road in Kazakhstan. TV sized rocks strewn over the tracks where you roar around blind corners. And the arm of Lake Manapouri is so far down there, deep blue under the mountains.

Martin looking forward to Lake Manapouri and casting a look over the shoulder at the climb to Percy Saddle

It had been a long day, but this one was meant to be longer, another 1000metres up the slope I am currently stuck on, a quick return to the bikes and a cycle down Wilmot Pass which had amused us for an hour this morning, hopefully to catch the ferry, then 50km on the bikes back to Borland lodge. No wonder my legs were shaking. I edge to the right closer to safety and my foot slips, the other digits hold. My head is gone. I grasp at the ledge and pull myself over, you can see the disappointment in Martins eyes. This ain't a man who lets his goals go easily. He gives me time out while he does a reccie. I eat food and wuss out. By the time he returns I have completely failed to regather myself.

I quit, like I did when I was four foot tall and descended desperately back down the hill. It was further home this time. We still had the bike down, the ferry and the bike back around. Plenty of time for suffering and self analysis. What doesn't kill you makes you stronger they say, but I often wonder what is that little edge inside some people that makes them so strong, so determined to achieve and endure more than I can comprehend or begin to undertake. Just genes maybe? I'm not sure

(for some more info about the trip check out this site.)

An Introduction to the Akatarawas

I received my introduction to the Akatarawas yesterday courtesy of Mick Finn. Mick has an ongoing reccie project of the area going on and wanted to check out the "runnability" of a particular gorge. Caspar and I picked him up from Moonshine Road and we headed in. The Akatarawas is one of those great wild (as opposed to "wilderness") areas. It contains a spectrum of plantation forestry, regenerating bush and pristine forest, and is criss-crossed by 4WD tracks, old roads and possum hunter trails. To the outside world it is most famous for the "Karapoti Classic", marketed as Australasia's premier MTB event.

We jogged into the forest and found a rough trail into our river. You would be wise to take a map! I couldn't quite believe how beautiful the river was. Crystal clear and placid, eels patrolling many of the pools. The place just seemed healthy. At one spot a stretch of river lay in the sun surrounded by gigantic red beech and a sapling rimu clothed in scratchy green on the riverside. I was impressed. The runnability was good too, although we weren't in too much of a hurry, stopping regularly to check the map and look at the views.

The gorge closed in; tight disorientating bends. Wading, waddling, rambling and scrambling. A pair of ducks flew away as we approached each time heading further and further up the river. At the tightest point there was a log jam Mick (with his penchant for naming things) named "Bus Stop". From which forthwith it will forever be known. Quickly the gorge ended to strange slopes of Eucalypt and union with the Karapoti course at the bottom of Dopers Hill. I can't wait to check this out on my (make that "a") MTB. After emptying the shoes we headed up Rimu Spur and back over to our carpark. Great run!! Thanks Caspar for the photos.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Titahi Bay

During the weekend we finally managed to get out to Titahi Bay to put our neo-phyte rock climbing skills to use. It was a picture perfect sunny day. Not having been here before we parked up at the wrong spot first-up (before getting the book out for directions). It was worth it though for the spectacle. Hundreds of people in yellow bibs scouring the coast and scrub for rubbish. Community care enlarge! I stepped to the edge of the carpark to where I could see the cove below and people were scurrying about like hermit crabs below.

Having figured things out we zoomed up to Whitireia Park and started looking for climbing. The first access track took us down to the "Babys Bottom Wall", which was already inhabited by a group of climbers. The tide was in blocking off travel around the coast so it was back up the sea cliffs and down access track 2 towards the "Nose" and the "Slab" which entertained us for a couple of hours, everything from grade 6 - 15. Easily toproped, some great belay spots and plenty of abseil practice. Can't wait to get back there and do some more mucking around.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Lake Papaitonga

I guess it was a Geoff Park tribute thing. As I have written on my other blog, one of my hero's, Geoff Park died the other day. I am sure history will remember him much more for the great ecologist and nature writer he was, than the mainstream remember him today.

As I wrote: through his "testament" Nga Uruora" I accompanied Geoff Park on his journeys to the last reamining remnants of New Zealand's lowland ecosystems. I learnt to see the enormity of the destruction we have caused by peering out of these remnants with him, through curtains of fern , to witness the "development" of our countryside.

One of the journeys Park took me on was to Lake Papaitonga in the Horowhenua, just a bit south of Levin. We were up there in the weekend for some orienteering in the monoculture just south of the Manawatu river. On the way back we finally took that turn to check this place out.

Its a strange story, back in the day these lands were scenes of fierce inter-tribal fighting and massacres. In 1822 Te Rauparaha with the aid of muskets annihilated the Muaupoko hapu, 600 people dying in one of New Zealand's most bloodiest incidents. Just sixty years later as European colonisation and "development" of the land rolled north from the Wellington settlement the land was purchased by Walter Buller, for use as his own private estate. As the link above explores Buller was not above devious schemes, and to prevent the local Maori population from protesting at the purchase he placed the "demons" Tuatara, of which they were mortally fearful, on an island in the middle of the lake.

I've got to say this is a great story, aye, Tuatara breeding again on the New Zealand mainland in "Zealandia" the Karori Wildlife sanctuary, awesome. But maybe, just maybe, Bullers Tuatara bred (though I guess if it was on an island it doesn't count!!).

Just walking down the hill from the carpark, the difference is amazing, the forest closes in around you, and before you know it you are on boardwalk winding through a swamp, on both sides ancient canopy trees flourish; Kahikatea, Tawa, Titoki and more. Marble leafs jostle on the edges of the swamp. From a distance the Kahikatea appear orange because of their seeding...

The complexity is overwhelming, sometimes every plant in a group of 10 is of a different species. The environment is so rich, such an artwork, you can understand E O Wilson's quote: "Destroying rainforest for economic gain is like burning a Renaissance painting to cook a meal. But although it envelops you for a time, this haven is so small! At the furtherest viewpoint you come to a look out over the lake. and you can turnaround to see a small cluster of survivors providing shelter in the middle of a paddock.

This is all there is left of the vast forest that used to cover this coast. It is the genetic pool from which we can pull locally sourced plants. Work is going on now, everywhere in these parts, to replant the streams and waterways and wetlands, walking through this primeval jungle you realise both how important and how long term these projects are.

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The squirm of Lake Papitonga and its forest cloak in the Horowhenua farmland.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Tales of Taranaki

So when most people were settling in for a week of work, the shift worker and the unemployed headed for the hills. The shift worker in fact went straight from her shift to the car and made like a log, or maybe more an Ent (with occasinal incoherant muttering or exclamations). To give some indication of the atmosphere I was listening to a couple of relatively new albums (we were overseas last year) from Dave Dobbyn and Samuel Scott and enjoyed them so much that I hardly noticed the trip from Wellington to Wanganui, which has to be close to the most unstimulating road in New Zealand. Here is the first track on the latters "Straight Answer Machine" album.

I only really engaged with my surroundings when we hit Waverley. Waverley used to have an op-shop where you could buy freshly knitted hats from a gaggle of local old ladies. It has closed, like much of the rest of Waverley. So too has Patea. It started with the works, but now there is nearly only pubs left in this beautiful little spot with the giant wooden church and imperious post office. Patea is of course famous for the Patea Maori Club and their hit "Poi E".

It was early evening when we rolled up to Dawson Falls Carpark on Mt Taranaki's southern slopes, and not long before we hit the trails eager to catch sunset on the summit of Fanthams Peak at Symes Hut. It looked like a distance on the map, so I was surprised to see the sign suggest it was only 3 1/2 hours (about 2 1/2 at our pace). Now this was mountains with hand rails stuff. Steps up through the bush, and sub-alpine belt and the bottom of the scree slope (thousands of them).

They deposited us at a loose scree several hundred metres below Fanthams Peak which we hurried up to bask (well basking in a very arctic way, sort of like I guess Walrus's bask) in the sun setting over the Tasman Sea. The light lit up the mountain, and the hut and the little concrete toilet.

The next morning it was a struggle to raise our towny bodies early in the cold. It was 8am by the time we were out the door, slipping quickly off Fanthams Peak and beginning to trudge up Taranaki's marbly slopes. While the mountain had been clear except for a whisp of cloud earlier, the mist now twisted around us and we were free to focus on the step in front of us rather than the wider world and bigger task ahead.

It cleared off as we neared the top and started to search for gravelly paths between the wind driven ice. We hadn't expected the degree of ice we encountered, contorted onto rock outcrops or blown in ladder like formations across the scree.

The last section, in its iced condition, required some route finding and some mixed ice and rock scrambling as well as some pack shuttling. I was very conscious of Taranaki's reputation for damaging the unwary and ill-equpped. We made the crater rim safely and descended down into the front wave of the hordes climbing the mountain from the other side. Jeans and tee-shirts are de-riguer up here and we felt a little out of place in our tramping dress-up clothes. We climbed the summit pyramid to get the 360 degree panorama, broken only by the subsidary summit of "sharks tooth"

Our day was far from over though as we descended the mountain down the easier northern route to the level of the round the mountain track and headed left towards the Pouakai ranges where we planned to stay the night. The track traversed the lower slopes of Taranaki pleasantly under the vertically fractured volcanic cliffs and we stopped for lunch where the track bent around the end of a large spur. The National park boundary is so distinct, from whereever you are you can see a piece of the green mottled pie, beyond this the pastoral scene extends to the sea on three sides.

As we contoured around the mountain the Ahukawakawa swamp came into view and the vast skeletal forest on its eastern flank. The forest is a standing graveyard of mountain cedar, victims of the possums eating habits. I took a photo of a stoat trap below a couple of these skeletons and apparently there is extensive possum control going on as well - though we saw many droppings. Some mountain cedars still survive and they are amazing looking trees, windblown and desolate in the subalpine environment.

We stopped briefly at the luxurious Holly Hut before heading on to Pouakai on the recently boardwalked track, a joint initiative of DOC, WINZ and the local council, great stuff! Dropping our packs we strolled to the trig station of Pouakai itself, hoping that the cloud would lift off the mountain. It didn't, but we could see over to our hut on the opposite ridge and the feet began to ache with the thought of freedom so we took off back down the hill. Unlike our sole occupancy of Syme there was plenty of company in Pouakai hut that night and I slept listlessly and was pleased to get out of there in the morning into the mist. Although it wasn't thick and cleared at one stage (funny how volcano's look the same from every angle!)

Our cunning strategy the previous day was to get as far away from our car as possible so we had to walk all the way back, and funnily enough we had no choice. Down off Pouakai, and through the stream and bush to the main road and visitors centre. A quick flat white and off up the hill to the Round the Mountain track, 500 metres vertical of easy 4WD track in the middle of the day. A quick lunch in the shelter of the Tahurangi Lodge porch then a rapid clockwise descent of the Round the Mountain track saw us at Dawson Falls carpark all freshened up from a swim in Wilkes Pool and ready for ther long drive back to Wellington. Some good exercise and a long intended mission finally come to fruition.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Enough Turkeying Around

We are going away tomorrow to hopefully, finally, climb Mt Taranki, that most beautiful of Lonely mountains way out west.

I ran a half marathon on friday and died and suffered somewhat(1:19, 2nd place - so you don't go looking it up Ross) so have been resting up housemaking. Even cooked a banana and zucchini cake today for some friends, as well as steaming some delicious terakhi bought straight from the boat with chilli, garlic and lemon. There's honestly nothing better than Wellington on a good day. We wandered up to the top of Mt Vic, our local hill, today and took some pics...

Before I went and knackered myself we went for a sift out to Baring Head and tried to boulder, something neither of us had done before, but its kind of like the climbing around you do on rocks when you are a kid but made into a sport. I maxed out at V0, and then only those V0's without any big moves. But I was better than Penny who despite much more natural talent couldn't get used to the idea of climbing without a rope! Heres a photo of me, not bouldering, but scrambling around to see if there are any bolts or potential top rope anchors to set something up for Penny next time.

Seriously though, its really cool, what the hard core group of boulderers have created at Baring head and now nearby Tutaekirae Head, all sorts of challenges for sorts of people in a really beautiful and random setting. One of the most memorable moments of the day was our return trip to the car. The tidal outlet had changed and become a bit risky (the photo below is Penny crossing on the way there) so we went back around the lagoon to cross at the "ford" near the road. It looked alright and I waded in, and waded in, and it got deeper and deeper, to the point where I sort of had to do it anyway. I was holding a plastic bag in one hand and lifted this up above my head, then as the water rose up to my shoulders I had to grab my pack with the other hand and lift it up by the scruff, like I was hanging myself on a coat hook.

I reached the far side and Penny had bailed choosing the 15minute walk up the river:-)

My brother

The one dressed as a cop.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009


Baxter's Mad Night

The other night biking home from Petone in the dark with the wind behind me and the tar seal slithering under my tires I remembered my favourite piece of Baxter, which I thought that I would share:

Getting Stoned on the Night Air

The long night fills the streets with fog
And the garages are wondblown tombs

Under the leaves of the plane trees where I run
Lifting and dropping my arms like a bird

This mad night - so peaceful, so dark and so open,
That the sea might easily flow over the land

Or the hills crumble like sand into the river
Since the town is a bed where the young and old sleep

In the sweetness of being, - man I don't need any
LSD to open the gate in the head

That leads to a land where men are birds
And Tanemahuta plays games with his children

I found my gate, carving turns through the park benches on Oriental Parade beneath the strings of lights on the Norfolk pines, Tangaroa lapping the rock walls beneath me. I am intrigued by this place and his constant moody influence upon it.

Petone Street Mile

I went along to watch the Petone Street mile yesterday and competed in the warm up race for hacks and has beens. Great fun, which appealed to my sense of the absurb. Middle distance runners these days seem to be imitating their illustrious 70's predecessors; nubile young men with shaven legs and big hair. If sometimes I feel like tyrannosaurus rex with my relatively tiny arms, around these guys I feel like a gorilla. The pace in my race felt like a comfortable 5km pace going out but with a tailwind down Jackson street it was the speed demons who took control. Those more aerodynamic swept past me with their fast twitch fibre.

Although Nick Willis wasn't running because of injury it was great to see him out there supporting the event and commentating, and it was his training partner and American champion Rob Myers who won the main race from a couple of local talents. Hopefully this race is the forerunner to a resurgence in street miling, the Queen Street races they used to have back in the day sound great from all the stories I have heard. Good on the organisers and Nick Willis for making it happen.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Wildlife at home

We've just finished moving into our new flat, high up on the backside of Mt Vic in Wellington, with a big view out over Evans Bay to Miramar Peninsula, Somes Islands and 'the Hutt'. It's a great little place, we tell people its not so much a crappy house but a cute little bach. But anyway pics will follow at some stage, but what I was really mulling over tonight was the wildlife we have encountered, so far, at our new flat.

First up were Maurice (the weta) and Harold (the gecko) who live under the stump on the deck in some wierd sort of reptilian insectivorious sort of relationship. Once we discovered them we hurriedly returned the stump to its spot and at least Harold slipped back under. The stump is now tapu from further disturbance for at least another month or so.

On the weekend we were having tea and muffins with some friends on the deck when Penny noticed a disturbance out in the bay, it turned out to be dolphins. The fizzed in towards us tracking a windsurfer who was unaware of their presence. There must have been at least ten in something of an arrow formation, the energised leaping out the front the more sedate just keeping up. I'm not sure what caught their attention but they turned in a big arc and headed back out towards Somes Island.

The last fellas that have me thinking are the snowbound Siberian Tigers I just postered up on the wall (nothing like a bit of postering to make the place feel more like home). I was wondering both if they were hot or cold and whether looking at them made me feel hot or cold. I think overall they make me feel hot.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Tararua Relics

I was sitting at Otaki Forks after having run through the Tararuas today and saw this article in the paper.Antique aircraft engine enthusiasts or some other rabble have stripped one of the Tararuas many well known aircraft crash sites. It seems a shame as these sites have provided an interesting destination for generations of off-track trampers in the Tararuas.

To quote the paper, The plane, an RNZAF Devon, was on a training flight from Ohakea when it crashed on Shingle Slip Knob, near Mt Holdsworth, on February 17, 1955.. It seems from wikipedia there were only 137 of these planes ever produced, so momentos from them may well be quite valuable in certain circles.

But anyway, the real relic I wanted to talk about was the cross on top of Hector. I didn't know what it stood for when I ran past it but looking up on the net it was put there in remembrance to all the trampers and climbers who lost their lives in the second world war. Its a beautiful gesture and has stood the test of time.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Channelling Harry Watson

Some books just aren't for putting down, they find you in the ideal state for slipping into their story, filling their water bottles and waiting for them at the finish. I found one the other day. Harry Watson: The Mile Eater, the second of the New Zealand Cycling Legends series published by the legendary (although people tell me they are very real) Kennett brothers and written (in this case) by Jonathon Kennett, Bronwen Wall and Ian Gray.

Harry Watson was the first New Zealander to compete in 'Le Tour' - the greatest of all sporting events - and he did so in 1928 when the tour was perhaps at its hardest. The near perfect circumnavigation of France in 1928 was 5500 km long, compared to todays around 3600km. The roads were not much more than cart tracks, with some like the famous Col Du Tourmalet in the Pyrenees paid for or upgraded by the organisers. Riders got by on high energy foods, much like we would today without the gu's, and a cacophony of illegal substances, they quote the 1923 tour winner;

"Do you want to know how we keep going? Cocaine for our eyes, chloroform for the boils, and pills - we ride on dynamite"

What most attracted me though was the stories of the immense missions that were road bike races in New Zealand and Australia during this time. The National champs was a gravel gruel festy from Waimate to Christchurch - the original starting place in Ashburton and then Timaru both deemed to be of insufficient length. It seems not unusual to have a week long race with 300km a day on terrible roads and the stories of the riders suffering and lifestyle really are worth reading.

But why this story made this blog (the personal experience one) was that I decided to try and channel Harry Watson. I headed out on my bike over the old Tawa Road, soaking in the retroness of the western suburbs. I crossed the motorway at Porirua and headed round the southern side of Porirua Harbour to Pauatahanui. This is still a peaceful coastline, row boats walllowing in the muddy water, lines of boatsheds hugging the road. From Pauatahanui the road very gradually gets steeper and steeper before dropping off in a rush down Paekakarirki Hill. Its the profile of a roche moutonne. As you rise over the crest first you are confronted with the green windswept swathe of Kapiti Island, then just further along the arc of the Kapiti Coast stretches away with lines of breakers into the distance. Between the beach and the island giant cloud shadows play on the rippled surface of the Tasman pond.

I descended Paekak Hill, just to climb it again. Facetious maybe, but I was trying to channel Harry Watson. I turned quickly at the bottom as I had seen a mystery cyclist 5 minutes ahead of me on the hill, maybe I could catch him. Watson used to come this way on the Palmerston North to Petone Classic race. A long flat grind, then a sudden hill, although with only a few gears to choose from the change in pace would have been quick. I spun hard up the lower part of the hill and Watson was there with me, "the mileeater", the first valley is the steepest but when you emerge from it you still see the top of the hill towering above you. Watsons psiton like pedalling style powered past me. I hung on for a while, gamely, following his wheel, before adjacent to the 400m to the summit sign I feel adrift, he rubbed it in by accelerating over the crest. Needless to say I didn't see him again I am never very good at the downhills.

As I descended the gentle slopes to Pauatahanui, now regenerating in native scrub. I thought of Watson and his rivals, hard bastards, screaming down this gravel road, with ruts and crashing into the burnt out landscape. Fighting for every kilometre, aching for every change in slope. I meandering back home over Haywards Hill, happy to be out on the bike and feeling fit.