Saturday, March 7th: I love the South Island’s magnificent beech forests. They are beautiful in their own right but also a little kinder, gentler than North Island native forests, which can be dark and dense. And I particularly love riding through beech forests, off road or on road. So today I was very happy. I was riding both.
What was to be a 126km day began with a leisurely 28km, slowly rising ride up the valley from Murchison, my camping place last night. The lure of the high hills, initially shrouded in early morning mist, and the prospect of two climbs up to high saddles in the beech forests drew me on.
No sooner had I taken the second view and mused on how peaceful the valley was, I heard the rumble of a truck coming down the gravel road towards me. FIrst I saw the cloud of dust, then the Fonterra milk tanker and trailer. I waved at the driver, who waved back. I’m sure he was glad I was off the road.
I turned back to savour the view while the dust settled then I continued on my way. Another 10km or so up the valley I came to the Horse Terrace Bridge, built in 1923 to span the Matakitaki Gorge. The first view is upstream and the second downstream.
Just up the road, it turned into a 4 wheel drive track up to the Maruia Saddle, a climb of some 250m over 8km. Apart from one stretch of some 50m of deep, loose gravel, through which I had to push my bike steeply uphill because the going was so hard, it was a delightful trip to the top. Below is one of the six stream crossings on the day, giving you a feel for the forest.
At the Saddle, at an elevation of 580m, was another of our “proof of progress” selfies.
Indeed we have a little knot of bikes there, with four of us TAer’s gathering in quick succession. One was Leith from Auckland who I’d first met at the Lodge in the middle of the Timber Trail way back when. I shared a triple room that night with him and his riding partner Dave.
But the next time I saw Leith was at Pipiriki, just after he got off the jet boat with his bike which had a very broken rear derailleur. He got a lift the 90km down the road to Wanganui where he got his bike fixed, while Dave rode on ahead of him. Since then he’d had another challenge. Near Wellington he partially tore his right Achilles’ tendon. Welly hospital A&E Dept wanted to put the foot in a moon boot. But he was determined to continue the Tour so he asked them to strap it up instead. The doctors warned him of the danger of rupturing the tendon completely, which he acknowledges…but so far so good, he says.
We had a swift descent through the forest and on to Maruia, a tiny settlement with an excellent new cafe the TA grapevine is extolling. I stopped for a late lunch of bacon and egg pie and salad (made on the premises), a strawberry milkshake and a large flat white.
The route continued on a gravel backroad gradually uphill for 18km to Springs Junction, where the next great fun of the day began. This was a 6km, 250m climb up Hwy 7 through the beech forest to the Rahu Saddle – a perfect gradient on excellent tarmac. Since it was Saturday afternoon, not a single truck passed me up over the saddle and down to Reefton, my camping place tonight – a distance of 44km. I didn’t count the cars but I doubt more than 20 passed me.
I crested the Saddle in 45 minutes and began the amazing 36km, 500m descent to Reefton. But I didn’t roll down the hill. I love powering down such gradual hills. So, every time my speed dropped below 40k/h I pedalled at low power at a lazy cadence in a high gear to lift the momentum a little. The photo below of the saddle gives you an idea of this wonderfully swoopy road.
I ticked off the 36km to Reefton in just over an hour at an average speed of just under 30k/h – not bad for a gravel bike plus gear weighing a bit more than 30kg propelled by a rider who’s covered 2,040 km in the past 20 consecutive days. What a beechy ride to celebrate the 2/3rds mark of the TA!
And Reefton is a characterful place. Though still a coal mining town — and I can smell coal fires burning in some of the houses this evening even though the temperature right now at 8:20pm is 17c — the Main Street has a lot of antique and other touristy shops. The Wilson’s Hotel and bar/restaurant is doing brisk business with locals and tourists like me. I’ll likely be waiting over an hour for my dinner.
While it still defines itself by its long fading heritage of an old energy source, it was once a world leader with a new one. In 1888, it was the first town in the Southern Hemisphere to have a public electricity supply.