In 2012 we acquired a little caravan; so that meant the summer holiday had to be a road trip. The festive season is a quiet time for Nzo, and as the new and improved Nzo has no staff besides us, its the best time to get away. We took the opportunity to close down for three weeks and go and visit our son, Nathan and his partner Ely. They live in Queenstown, which makes the road trip fairly all-encompassing.
Armed with the Kennetts’ latest Trail Guide, and various other accessories calculated to make life on the road a luxurious affair, we headed south just prior to xmas. Bonus: Jesus’ birthday would see us far from anybody we knew, and unable to even think about roasting anything. In other words, potentially a day of doing nothing.
That is not how it turned out, we actually swam in the ocean and ate too much.
We took a dogleg from the route south so I could go and ride Craigieburn. The drive up there goes over Porters Pass, and for the first time ever our vintage Toyota diesel got its temp gauge over the halfway mark. Lucky we fitted a transmission cooler before the trip, as soon as we had crested the pass the temperature dropped back to normal, in the way I would like my heartrate to drop as soon as I crest a climb. It doesn’t, but I don’t have a transmission cooler.
The ride is a beauty, climbing from a forest campsite for an hour or so through beech trees with views opening up as the forest thins out near Craigieburn ski field. Then a downhill starts that lasts at least as long as the climb. Well, it did the way I do it, which is partly on foot. The trail crosses several huge scree fields, and in places the line to follow is very narrow, very loose, and has no margin for error. A mishap would be very serious, and I started thinking it was a dumb ride to do solo. The bits that were not terrifying were sublime, and there was a lot of that. There are other trails around that neck of the woods but they will have to wait.
A highlight of the Craigieburn side trip was Castle Hill. Hundreds of bizarre rock formations are arrayed on a hill with easy access and no rules. Visitors are free to wander at will, clamber all over these things, and get into life-threatening locations as they wish. Nearby Cave Creek is similar, if you have a wetsuit and a decent light you can crawl through half a kilometre of underground river, and nobody will stop you. That is what is great about New Zealand, the freedom to go and do stuff like this. We didn’t.
Several days later the next ride on the agenda was Naseby. We took the road through Duntroon to see the fossil centre (one of the really good things you may not have heard of - we only found out about it by accident) and camped at the excellent Duntroon Domain. I unhooked the van and drove over Danseys Pass to get to Naseby. On the map that looks pretty simple, but it turns out Danseys Pass is the highest public road in New Zealand. Its a mission. Near the top I spotted a van parked on the side of the road with two downhill bikes in the back, no associated people to be seen. And I could see for miles. There might be some riding up there.
Naseby is brilliant. A great little town, historic and laid back with riding right on the doorstep. The riding is fun, easy to navigate, and full of surprises. It is all in a small patch of forest, but there are a couple of lakes hidden in there as well as 50kms or so of singletrack, mostly downhill. Ride up a forestry road, fang down a trail.
Our son is one of the trail creators in Queenstown, so we stayed there long enough to test some of his work on the gondola accessed hill called Skyline. While we waited for the gondola park to open we sampled some of Queenstown’s other riding, and its definitely worth a mountain biking visit. The purpose-built trails at Seven Mile and the more natural feel of Moke Lake, Moonlight and Fernhill provide plenty of scope. If the gondola is open as well, you could ride yourself into a melted heap.
Nathan has a personal obsession with the Gorge Road Jump Park, which he designed, built and maintains on council land. I don’t do that kind of riding, but whether you do or don’t, it is an amazing thing to see. If you are in Queenstown, go and check it out.
Our last day in Queenstown featured a go at Skyline, which had been closed through the very busy tourist season. As it turned several factors made our day a bit unusual - opening day, a National DH race in Invercargill a few days beforehand, and the holiday rush continuing meant there were queues - long ones. Still, much quicker than walking up, and access to a maze of trails that range from cruisy to desperate. Even with the long lines we got in 5 runs in two hours, but word is that can be a lot better most days. Good fun... I want to go back, and maybe rent a DH bike.
The heinous weather on the West Coast meant we gave that a miss took the inland route back to Picton. While the West Coast went under water again, Canterbury copped a NorWester and long-suffering Christchurch ended up with serious bush fire problems.
For us the extreme weather meant we got to see the Rakaia in flood - not to be missed if you can ever manage it. By chance we camped on the south side of the gorge with a view of the riverbed, which was about two thirds gravel and looked like a nice place for a wander. After a weird night with stars, rain and lightning at the same time, the river was up to the point where we decided against going walkies. By the time we had eaten our muesli the water was bank to bank, metres higher, and had standing waves that looked surfable. You have to see it to believe it.
One last day on the road, one more chance at a bike ride: I spotted a sign pointing to the Wharfedale Track near Oxford. We stopped and got instructions, cross referenced with the Kennetts directions, and ended up hauling the caravan through a stream and several farm gates until we panicked and got it turned around several kms short of the trailhead. We did several versions of that on the junket: take a turn off down an interesting byway, and end up wishing we had ditched the caravan somewhere simple. Live and learn. As it turned out we could have made the carpark, and there was a large turning circle up there, along with stupendous views. The Wharfedale track is incredible! A 130 year old stock route, it is well-maintained and carves a line through beautiful bush and forest to a hut, a 30km return trip. Allegedly there is a large loop that can be made out of the ride, but the out and back is 100% singletrack and the return trip flows like butter.
General observations about roaming around our little South Seas paradise: people drive better in the South. Or they are not in such a hurry. Or we got lucky down there, and unlucky up here. The proliferation of the giant irrigation rigs we dubbed ‘water-monsters’ is hard to miss. Big dairy is getting bigger. The other thing that needs some sort of control is ‘freedom camping’ by visitors in cheap campers. There are few things more depressing than a rest area with shit and toilet paper tucked behind the first available bush. And it is a theme repeated all over the country. There are hundreds (maybe thousands?) of low-rent campers on the road, from a dizzying array of companies. I wonder how hard it is to sit the renters down before they embark and give them a basic guide to where they can park their nasties? We have done plenty of trips in our van, and had no trouble whatsoever finding places to camp that were equipped with facilities. They cost a few bucks though.