Tuesday, 13 February 2018

California Here I Come!

This tour had originally been quite different.  I was set to buy a tandem in Eugene, Oregon, a thousand kilometres north of San Francisco, but alas, the wife changed her mind (after we had bought it, but the change of mind was luckily in time enough for the order to be canceled and the money to be refunded).  I had already bought the tickets to San Francisco - at a good price with one of my favourite airlines, Air New Zealand -  so I wasn't going to pass-up the opportunity to explore a really iconic part of the world.

With it still being winter and no need to travel north of San Francisco, this change of plan altered the route in a very beneficial way.  It meant that I avoided the colder, wetter weather further north and opened-up a more interesting route to the south.

This tour starts in San Francisco and I'll make my way south along the coast with some famous landmarks on the way.  Monterrey, Pebble Beach, Big Sur, Bixby Bridge, Santa Barbara, and some beautiful coastline; one hell of a first leg.

I then turn inland over hills and mountains and head towards the Sequoia National Park to see old General Sherman, the largest known single stem tree on earth.  This is where things get a little more uncertain because of the weather.  At the highest point of this trip, I reach just over 2300m, the highest I have ever been.  Bearing in mind that this will be in February, it is very likely to be cold up there, but the temperature is not what concerns me, it is the possibility of ice and snow.  This could make things tricky, and this is the main unknown on this trip.  This will also be the most physically demanding part of the trip, going through the mountains.

If all things go to plan, I'll make my way north through the mountains until I reach Yosemite National Park, one of the places in the world on my bucket list.  The Yosemite Valley isn't quite at the same elevation as further south, so I am less concerned about road safety here, but more concerned about having weather good enough to fully appreciate the scenery.

I have scheduled a window of roughly 3 days in Yosemite, so fingers-crossed for good weather.  There are walk-in camping sites in Yosemite that shouldn't be too busy in Winter, and indeed for most of the trip I will be camping in these kinds of campsites (it seems that California is pretty well-served in this regard).  I won't be camping wild much on this trip, if at all, for a couple of reasons.  Firstly, I am unsure of how easy it will be to do so and the potential for problems with being discovered, and secondly, in many areas of this trip I will be in bear country with mountain lions thrown-in for good measure too, so I quite fancy being in an area with a few other people and some safe and secure places to put my food.

Once I'm done in Yosemite, I'll make my way to Merced and the final part of the trip on the bike.  Merced is a couple of train rides away from San Francisco and this would leave me with a couple of days exploring the city and finding a bike box to finish-off the trip.  I'm not really a city person, but I had to schedule a good amount of time to look around one of the most recognisable cities of the world.

There will be a few interesting challenges.  For a start, this trip is more of an unknown than any other so far.  I lived in Australia before going on my tours here and New Zealand was a bit of an extension of the same kind of culture of travel, and obviously, I am from England, so travelling through there wasn't much trouble either.  I have never been to the US, apart from a one day stopover in LA about ten years ago between flights.  There are likely to be many things I don't understand, despite having been friends with a fair few Americans from my time in Korea.

This will also be my first tour cycling on the right hand side of the road, so I'll have to be conscious of this as I set-off on my first few cranks of the pedals.

On the environmental side of things, this trip brings the first possibility that I might run into significant snow and ice, although when not in the mountains the weather looks as if it will be fairly pleasant.

And finally, when it comes to wildlife, I have less concerns about snakes and spiders, but black bears and mountain lions do inhabit some of the areas I'll be cycling in, as already mentioned.  Apparently the risk is pretty minuscule, and I should probably be no more concerned than I am about the wildlife in Australia.  However, there is something a tad unsettling about animals that could conceivably hunt and eat you, as opposed to something that just bites you when you step on it.  That, and well, it is a new place.  The unknown is always a little scarier, but it is also a little more interesting.  Rest assured though, that as much as the thought of wildlife can be terrifying sometimes, I am far more likely to be wiped-out from behind from a bit of bad driving than I am bitten by a venomous snake or mauled by a bear.  

This is a super-exciting route, and challenging in the mountains too.  The US is a country I admire, unlike many who seem to love dissing the place, and has been somewhere I have wanted to visit for a long time.  With any luck, dipping my toe in the water for a couple of weeks will stand me in good stead for a return trip for a bit longer in the future, but we'll see how it goes.

Thursday, 4 January 2018

Christmas Victorian High Country Tour Down Under

With the wife away, and my family in England, I wasn't just going to sit around and do nothing this Christmas.  I had never done a bicycle tour in the Summer in Australia before for a variety of reasons; the strong sunshine worries me a little, the bushflies are annoying, and the potential for extreme heat is a real problem on a bike.

Day one:  Father Christmas on a bike, very apt. 
I think I got pretty lucky with the weather on this tour, it was sunny pretty much every day, but never too hot.  The North winds never blew, which was a huge relief, as that is what can bring temperatures over 40 degrees in this part of the world.

So things went well, without a hitch.  I did, however, change plans with the route.  After climbing to Mount Hotham, I spoke to a man in a pub at the top who told me a little about where I was planning to go next.  He basically told me that no one goes down there because there isn't much to see and parts of the road were often blocked.  This information, coupled with the fact that I had already climbed to the two highest peaks in the region, including Australia's highest road, made me think that some variety in the landscape and a break for my legs were in order.

The bushflies were pretty annoying on the first day, but I didn't need the net much after that.
I started by taking the train out to Wodonga.  The first day was a steady climb up the Kiewa valley towards the mountains.  I took the more minor road through the valley, which was a good call as there was no traffic, however, there were a fair few cows on the road and it was also the worst section of the trip for bushflies.

Mount Bogong in full view at the end of day one.
I wild camped off a dirt track and found a reasonable spot in a gap in the trees.  Throughout the whole trip, clear skies meant that the night sky was incredible, with the stars out and the Milky Way visible every night.

On the way up to Falls Creek.
Day 2 and I had a big climb up to Falls Creek, a popular ski resort in the Winter, and then a further climb to the high plains.  The ascent was quite steady, which was a relief, as I was dreading it slightly after my experience up to Thredbo (the town at the base of Kosciuszko) earlier in the year.  That road was super-steep in places, even though it wasn't as high overall.

Falls Creek was a bit of a ghost town, it obviously livens-up in Winter.  I managed to find free shower facilities and a place to sit down and charge my phone, so I had a bit of a break before going on.

Incredibly blue lake on the Bogong High Plains.
There was some nice scenery on the high plains and I was expecting an easy decent to Omeo, but that wasn't what I got.  There was obviously more down than up, but it was way more up and down than I expected, and there were a couple of killer hills on the way into town, just before stopping.  It was shear cruelty.  I stopped in a local coffee shop for an ice cold milkshake and a recharge.

On the way down to Omeo.
It was only 3.30pm, but I had been on the road and doing a lot of climbing since about 5.30am, and coupled with the heat of the day, I was getting pretty tired.  I had a good rest for about an hour or so and then had a target of another 21Km to get me to a recognised camping area.  There was about 500 metres more of climbing to be done, though, and I could hardly bare the thought of it.  Probably another two hours of hard climbing.

The first hour of this last little stint of the day was the worst.  It was without doubt the steepest climb of the entire trip and I was suffering big time.  I stopped at a look-out point for Mount Kosciuszko and when I turned around to get started again I could not believe the angle of the road I had been climbing up on.

Mount Kosciuszko in the distance somewhere.
At least the second half of the final leg of the day was a bit easier and I rolled into a much more comfortable camping area than I had on day one, equipped with a toilet, which is always nice, it beats digging a hole in the ground.

It was quite warm most nights, and it didn't rain once, so on this trip I thought I wouldn't use my fly sheet and just get a breeze going through the tent.  You can also look up at the stars while sleeping, so I rather like having the opportunity to do this.  I did make a bit of an error that night though, as quite a heavy dew came down as the temperature dipped below 10 degrees overnight, so I woke to a very wet tent and my sleeping bag was also a little wet.  Lesson learned for next time.

I had about another 900 metres of climbing to get to Mount Hotham, and to be honest, I was pleasantly surprised how little I suffered to get there.  Just before Mount Hotham was Dinner Plain, where I stopped for a break and to fill up some water bottles, before heading-off for another 14Km to Mount Hotham.

I stopped for a coffee in a pub in Hotham Heights mountain village and used the ski racks outside to dry-out my tent and sleeping bag.  It was so windy that I almost lost my tent, almost blowing off the rack and the mountain itself.  It did dry the tent and sleeping bag pretty fast though.

The highest point on the highest road in Australia.
It was after this break that the fun began.  As I said, it was blowing a gale and after a little more climbing, the road rose and fell spectacularly along the ridge of the mountain, with steep drop-offs on each side and on the highest road in Australia, I felt like I was on top of the world.  The steep drops coupled with the winds blowing me everywhere definitely gave a bit of a fear factor, but the adrenaline rush and amazing views were the highlight of the trip.  This was truly a great ride.

As I descended further, I past the road I had planned to go down, and wondered what it would have been like.  However, the decent on the Great Alpine Road was awesome for quite a lot longer, so I was pretty content with the decision I had made.

I passed several cyclists going up as I came down, all on conventional road bikes for a day trip, but they had the much steeper road.  The way up was much steadier from the direction I took, and a lot safer.

It was so windy, it nearly blew my bike over up here.
I had a very long, twisting, turning descent, with great mountain scenery all on one side.  After getting to Harrietville, I had a pretty flat road all the way to Bright.  I could have followed the same course as the 3 peaks Challenge riders.  This event sees people ride up to Falls Creek, Mount Hotham, and then Mount Buffalo all in one day, on lightweight road bikes of course.  I chose not to, simply because I had already been up Mount Buffalo, but on foot when I ran the Buffalo Stampede Ultra-marathon last year.

I decided to continue about as far as Mrytleford and I felt pretty exhausted at this point, so rode a few Km out of town and found some nice forest to wild camp in.

One of many wild camp spots on this trip.  No campfires though, super dangerous this time of year.
The next day and I had quite a flat 50 Km or so to get to Whitfield, where I stopped for a good long break before tackling another big climb, this time to about 950 metres.  My first target on this climb was to get to Powers Lookout for one of the better views in the King Valley.  It was a little detour off a side road, but it was worth it; a great little spot on the side of the mountain which had great views of the entire King Valley.  I was tempted to just camp under the shelter at the top, but thought I'd just try and make to Mansfield, especially as it seemed mostly downhill.

As always, though, it wasn't quite as easy as I hoped.  There was a big downhill ride, but before it there was some more climbing, and then the last leg into Mansfield saw me hit strong headwinds, a real drag when you are dog-tired and just want to get to your destination.

My mission once in Mansfield was to get a quick bite to eat and then head out on the Great Victorian Rail Trail.  Once on this trail, I thought it might be easy to find a camp spot somewhere a few Km out of town.

I found the start of the rail trail, and in the fading light of the evening I set off to get far enough out of town to camp without being discovered.  I found a picnic table just off the trail and camped next to that, being fairly sure that no one else would be coming down the track late at night.

Powers Lookout over the King Valley
It was a bit of a stoney, hard surface to camp on, but I was so tired I fell asleep with ease.  In 4 days of cycling (3 and a half really), mostly up and down mountains, I had covered about 450Km , and I was feeling it.

I felt like I had taken the easy option a bit by altering my route, but I'm glad I did, for a number of reasons.  Firstly, the rail trail provided a nice bit of variety to the mountains, rolling through golden hills and classic Australian countryside.  I also was wary of the hot weather that was coming for the following days.  To be honest, I am not a fan of cycle touring in hot weather, certainly not beyond 35 degrees Celsius anyway.  Exceptionally hot days were always my greatest fear for this trip and I was lucky I never got any.  And finally, despite my liking for physical challenges, the crazy amount of climbing involved for the rest of the planned route would have been miserable, especially in the hot weather.

Crossing Lake Eildon
The Great Victorian Rail Trail is apparently the longest in Australia at about 134Km, and I did the whole thing from Mansfield to Tallarook to finish off the tour.  Terrific scenery and wildlife all along the way, and I even met some fellow cycle tourers doing big rides over Christmas.

The wildlife was a highlight, as usual on Australia trips.  As well as the regular sightings of kangaroos and wallabies, I also ran into a couple of wombats, and the birds never disappoint.  Over the route, I encountered countless colourful species of parrots, cockatoos and parakeets, and one I had never seen before, one with an all orange head and a grey body in the mountain forests (this was a "Gang Gang Cockatoo" I believe).

I made it to Tallarook train station after 5 days of cycling, a couple of days ahead of schedule.  I decided to finish early rather than suffer through the heat of the coming days.  Another super tour, and I reckon that may have just about been the last of my solo tours in Victoria.  Next up is a solo tour with a bit of a difference down the Pacific coast of the USA in February, and some very different touring challenges generally in the new year.

Tour Summary

Money spent: $40 on train tickets + $50 on food ($0 on accommodation) = $90 total.

Wednesday, 20 December 2017

Mountain Madness at Christmas in the Aussie Alps

2016 was a big year; 3 massive projects that started with an ultra-marathon in the Australian Alps in Bright and then continued with two epic trips on the bike, firstly across Australia and then around New Zealand. As a married man, however, there are only so many of these you can responsibly do, so in 2017 I have scaled-back, but I haven't not stopped the bicycle touring.

I have had three trips so far this year, one back home in England for about a week, one here in Australia in the Snowy mountains, also about a week long, and a two-week tour of the North Island of New Zealand, finishing-off what I started in 2016.

For the last trip of 2017, I am heading back into the Australian Alps, for some more pain.  There were some serious climbs on my last trip up to Mount Kosciuszko, and I am expecting this to be just as hard, if not harder.

My wife is in Mexico over Christmas, so this is my first Christmas ever on my own, so why not suffer up some mountains?

I find that I just can't help myself with my bicycle tours.  I tell myself that I am going to take it a bit easier on my next one, and then I just can't resist turning it into a proper physical examination.  The next one is no different.  The original plan was to take the train out to Wodonga and do the very well-cycled route from there to Falls Creek and through to Bairnsdale and the train ride home. At just over 300Km, with a bit of hiking in between, this would have been a fairly leisurely ride over 5-6 days, despite climbing up the highest road in Australia (this is still my contingency route in case of poor weather).

However, I just couldn't help myself.  With work being quiet over the Christmas break, it seems an ideal opportunity to spend a little extra time in the mountains.  With my wife also being away, I have a nice little window.

The route snakes its way back to Melbourne, and at over 700Km it means that I have to average about 100Km a day.  This wouldn't really be an issue normally, but with huge climbs pretty much every day on the road, mounting up to over 12 000 metres over the whole trip, I am expecting a real challenge, especially as there will be unsealed sections also.

I really can't describe why I do this to myself, I just enjoy the physical workout as well as the traveling aspect of bicycle touring.  In New Zealand, on the longer trip, I took things easier, but I still had huge days there, especially towards the end of the trip.  The pain and suffering is almost addictive.

To get an idea how potentially exhausting this trip could be, my last trip to New Zealand was about 1000Km long and had a total ascent of just over 7000m.  This trip is just over 700Km long and has a total ascent of nearly 12,500m!

The route takes me up to some of the highest towns in Australia, and the most popular ski slopes in Winter, like Falls Creek and Mount Hotham.  I actually go up and down a number of times to over 1500m over the course of the trip.

The concern on this trip is not rain or cold, but heat.  You just never know at this time of year, it could actually be quite cold in places when I'm high up, but sometimes temperatures can soar to the mid-thirties or even over 40 degrees.  If it hits these highs, there is more concern than just heat exhaustion.  Forest fires are very common here in Australia, and you definitely don't want to be riding through one.

Of course the other concern - rather pain in the neck - will be the bush flies at this time of year.  Without doubt the worst thing about Australia, are these damn bush flies and I am expecting lots of them outside of the city.  I had a net to cover my face for my tour through Australia last year, but fortunately never had to use it, as it was winter.  I think I might have to this time, although a recent practice run in the ranges a little closer to home gave cause for optimism as there weren't that many flies around.

With any luck though, all I'll get is cooler temperatures up in the mountains and the opportunity to pack a bit lighter.  Not since the Northern Territory have I ridden in genuinely hot weather.  If anything, I have erred to the weather being wintry than summery (even in England in Summer).

It will be camping all the way on this trip, there aren't any hostels up there, just some over-priced hotels.  With any luck there will be the odd creek along the way so I can have a bath.  Should be a cracker, although I'm not sure my legs are going to appreciate it very much.

Sunday, 29 October 2017

Auckland to Wellington - The Dimholt Road, Cape Palliser, and Near Disasters en Route to Wellington.

The Putangirua Pinnacles, better known as, "The Dimholt Road", the home of the cursed undead in The Lord of the Rings.
Mission accomplished to Taranaki, now all I needed to do was make my way down to Cape Palliser and then across to Wellington.  The long range forecast was changing all the time, and on short tours to New Zealand, weather watching is pretty important.  I wanted to make it to Cape Palliser before the forecast rain could spoil the last really scenic part of the tour.  That meant some more big days.

I set-off from Whanganui a little after lunchtime, after the bus back from New Plymouth, and I at least needed to get as far as Palmerston North by the end of the day.  On the days I was hiking on Mount Taranaki, there were quite fierce westerly winds, which would have seen me literally breeze-through this stage of the ride, but typically, when I actually got back on the bike, the wind had shifted to the South East, which meant headwinds for most of the day.  It was a hard 70Km or so to Palmerston North.

My only option in Palmerston North was an expensive campsite, so I decided to ride on and find somewhere to free camp.

In a stroke of bad luck, the Manawatu Gorge road was closed due to a landslide earlier in the year, which would have provided a nice scenic crossing between the Ruahine Ranges to the North and the  Tararua Ranges to the South.  The route I had to take instead took me more directly to Pahiatua, but with a big climb at the end of the day of nearly 400m.  I was looking for somewhere to camp before this, but there was nothing.  Everywhere was fenced-off and the parts that weren't were boggy and impossible to pitch a tent.  I had no choice but to cycle into the night to find a campsite in Pahiatua.

I arrived after 9 o'clock at a small campsite and I only paid $5.  I was pretty exhausted, 112Km in about half a day with headwinds wasn't bad going.  My plan the next day was to make it to the DOC campsite at the Putangirua Pinnacles on Cape Palliser road, still a fair distance away, but a much flatter day, so very doable.

I made it to the campsite at about 6pm, about an hour and a half before sundown.  Just enough time to explore the Putangirua Pinnacles, an area of very eerie rock formations that were used as the path of the dead (the Dimholt Road) in the final installment of The Lord of the Rings Trilogy.  They are extraordinary structures, and certainly spooky to walk around in the fading light on your own, and especially when I had minutes earlier been given a major fright.

In one of the more stupid moments of my life, I had my phone in one hand and my camera in the other while making my way down from the high lookout to the pinnacles.  As I made my way to a clearing for a good photo opportunity, I knocked my hand on a wooden barrier, which sent what I thought was my phone - with all my money and cards - flying out of my hand and careering down a steep forested slope (very steep).  Panic swept over me and I began sliding down the slope searching among the thick, and very spiny undergrowth.

The mixture of trees and spiny bushes was making it very difficult to find my phone and after nearly half an hour of panicked looking, I decided to try and calm down and take a break and try and look carefully again from the top of the slope just where the phone could have fallen.  I made my way back up and once at the top I realised that I had just left my phone on the top of the wooden barrier all along.  I must have kicked a rock down the slope and knocked my hand at the same time, then leaving my brain to very convincingly turn that rock into a green wallet with a phone in it.  What a moron.

This buffoonery left me with less time to explore the pinnacles from the river bed, where they were most spectacular, but I still wondered around in awe for quite a while.  One of the most unique places I've been too, without a doubt.

I somehow managed to find my way, in the dark, back to my bike to set up camp.  I woke early the next morning and headed to Cape Palliser before the forecast rain set in too badly.  Cape Palliser is remote and beautiful, even in slightly dreary weather.  The last 5Km to the lighthouse is unsealed, and I wouldn't have wanted it to be much rougher on my touring bike.

On the way, there was stunning coastal scenery and plenty of fur seals lying on the grass next to the road.  There is actually a trail that continues beyond the lighthouse, but it requires a wider tyres at least and probably a mountain bike to ride on.

As the day went on, the weather started to deteriorate.  I was actually quite lucky to get most of the scenic part of the day done before the weather really set in.  I made my way back out of the Cape Palliser area, taking a few more pictures on the way.  From the lighthouse, it was about 60Km to a small settlement, Pirinoa, which was basically a couple of houses, a petrol station and a coffee shop.  I was pretty wet and tired, so I spent about an hour in there resting and charging my phone.

I was intending on going about 110Km in the day and getting to the start of the Rimultaka cycle trail, which would take me through the mountains and finishing a few Kms short of Wellington the next day.  I had a problem, however.  The rain just kept coming and didn't stop for the rest of the day.  I was getting so wet and cold, and combined with being absolutely nothing around me, I was getting a little concerned.

I needed to find some shelter from the rain, and eventually I found a picnic area with a big shelter over a picnic table.  I had internet on my phone and the weather forecast was grim reading, basically, a lot more rain.  I began to question the wisdom of doing the rail trail with so much rain about.  I took off all my wet clothes and camped there for the night, as I was pretty sure no one would disturb me.  I actually camped on top of the picnic table inside my tent, as at about sunset it was clear that my vicinity to Wairarapa lake was quite attractive for the mosquitoes.  There were thousands of them.  I find that there is always that one terrible camping night on every trip, and this was the one for this trip.  It was truly miserable.

The next day, I had a decision to make; cycle the Rimultaka trail through the mountains - a difficult 40 or so Kms - or just cycle about 15Km to Featherston train station to skip the busy roads into Wellington.  I really wanted to do the trail as a cool ending to the trip, but the weather was so bad and my clothes so wet, it seemed unwise.  I opted for the train option, arriving a little earlier in Wellington than planned.

A day before I notice that my tyre was gently brushing my brake pad, so I adjusted things slightly and thought nothing of it.  Then on the short trip to Featherston, I noticed it again.  Wet and generally a bit fed-up with just a few Km to go, I ignored it, but towards the end of the short cycle into town my bike definitely wasn't feeling right.  Anyway, I released the brake on my back wheel and I hopped on the train for the short journey into Wellington, my finishing destination.

As I took the bike off the train and wheeled it down the platform, I noticed that the back wheel wasn't just catching on the released brake pads, but actually on the frame itself!  It was wobbling around all over the place.  I looked down to the wheel, which had completely gone.  It was cracked like the picture below in several places.  I guess the combination of 20 000 or so Km on previous trips and some of the rough roads had stressed it to the point of absolute failure.  I couldn't even have cycled it another 50 metres.

It was of course unfortunate that my bike had broken, but also incredibly lucky that this was the time it chose to fail me.  I simply walked the bike to my friend Alex's house, a couple of kilometres away - who had kindly, once more, offered to put me up for a couple of nights - and that was the end of the trip.  It was even sort of handy, as on the way back from Melbourne airport, the Skybus dropped me off right outside the bike shop I go to.  Having no public transport to my apartment means that I usually have to get a taxi, costing much more money.

Anyway, it was good to see my old mate Alex again.  On my last trip to New Zealand, I also stayed with him, but that time he was in Wanaka on the South Island, which was a stunning place to stop for a few days.  He has luckily located himself in some very convenient places for me and has been the perfect host on both occasions.  Many thanks old chum, and feel free to ask anything in return in the future, as after a year or so more in Australia, I might be in some interesting places over the next few years.  That's the plan anyway.

I managed to organise a bike box from a local shop and quickly got it back to Alex's house between the rain showers and packed everything up.  After nearly 3 days of continuous rain, finally I could see blue sky again, so I went out for a run up to Mount Victoria to get a view of Wellington before I left.

It had been an eventful trip, and another successful one (just).  I tweaked the route slightly from the one originally planned, but things did go pretty smoothly.

Just a bit of warning for fellow bicycle tourers; I got slightly caught-out by Air New Zealand's baggage policy.  I had flown with them before and as long as I had purchased extra baggage in advance, they accepted one bag being over the allotted 23Kg (my bike box with other gear was about 30Kg).  However this time they didn't and I had to pay a fee of $120 at the airport.  I would have repacked, but my flight was one of the first out in the morning so the check in was open quite late because the airport closes overnight.  I did however get a refund of this when I got back to Melbourne, as I took great pains to let them know how unhappy I was with paying it.  I have found airlines quite willing to refund extra charges for all sorts of things if you do some sensible and persistent moaning.

Next on the horizon is an arduous week tour in the mountains near me in Melbourne at about Christmas time, then a very opportunistic trip to the US in February for two weeks, followed by some exciting plans for the second-half of 2018 and my biggest challenge yet!

Tour Summary

Total Distance: 965Km

Total Ascent: 7234m

Daily Average when Cycling (8 days of cycling, 3 days hiking, 2 days in Wellington) = 120.62Km

Total Spend: Approx $400 (Not including flights), working out at $30 a day, pretty much entirely for accommodation and food.

Saturday, 21 October 2017

Auckland to Wellington - Hiking Taranaki, Cycling New Plymouth to Whanganui.

Hiking Mount Taranaki was the centre-piece of this particular trip.  I was gutted that I missed out on it last time, so it was a must-do.  The problem was always going to be the weather.  Taranaki sticks out of the West coast of North Island, and with a height of over 2500m, it obviously attracts a lot of cloud from an already cloudy and rainy part of the country.

I had covered a lot of ground on the first 3 days of the tour, not only to give me time, but because the weather had looked promising on the long-range forecast on day 4 of the trip.  However, as I looked out of the window in New Plymouth in the morning, things didn't look so pleasant.  Upon checking the forecast for the mountain, the window of possible good weather had shrunk significantly.

I decided to ride to Egmont village, where the road turned towards the visitors centre 15Km away about 900m up the mountain.  Things weren't looking good.  Ever since I arrived in the Taranaki region, you wouldn't have known there was a mountain there at all.  The weather forecast was also grim for the next day, so I eventually decided to just ride on.

Yep, there is a mountain there.  It finally became visible from the road.
The new plan was to ride about 100Km to Patea on day 4 and then onto Whanganui after that,then leave the bike in a reliable hostel - which I had frequented on my previous trip to New Zealand - and then take a bus back when the weather looked a little better.  The only difficult part was getting up to the mountain and back again, as I really didn't want to pay for an expensive shuttle bus up there.

Shipwreck on the beach at Patea.
First then, the journey from New Plymouth to Whanganui.  I was preparing myself for a bit of a boring couple of days, especially compared to what I had been doing.  I was on main roads in dull and dreary weather, and also was pretty spent from the first 3 days of the trip.  The cycling was dull, but the free camping in Patea, as well as the gorgeous black sand beach and sunset there made up for it.  An added bonus was that there were working public barbecues in the free camping areas, as well as seating areas, which made for quite a comfortable evening.

The next day I only had about 60Km or so to get to Whanganui.  I was going to stay at the same hostel as I did a year previously, as they were fairly laid-back and I knew they'd keep my bike safe for a couple of days.  60Km was more than enough as I was feeling pretty beat-up and I had a headwind for most of the day.  I arrived, bought loads of food and booked my bus back to Taranaki for later the following day.

My plan was to stay in a hut near the Dawson Falls visitors centre on the Monday evening, then hike to the start of the Pouakai Circuit (the most famous long distance walk in the park) on Tuesday morning and stay at a hut on the circuit on Tuesday night, finally finishing the hike after lunch on Wednesday (the weather was supposed to be at its best on Tuesday and Wednesday).  About 36Km of hiking in total.

One of the great things about the huts in New Zealand is that they usually have plastic mattresses in them, meaning you don't have to bring something to sleep on, just a sleeping bag.  So I stuffed my smallish bag with a good sleeping bag and food, and pretty much nothing else but water and one set of dry sleeping clothes.

I caught the bus back to Stratford then, on Monday, but I still had to get to the visitors centre at Dawson's Falls, about 25Km away.  The only way to do it was hitch hike.  Because of the bus being delayed, I actually got to Stratford a lot later than planned which meant there would be less people going up to the Falls.  After about 45 minutes of trying, a kind soul eventually picked me up and took me the whole way there, leaving me just enough time to have a look at Dawson Falls and then make it to the hut before sundown.

Taranaki at sundown from the hut.
I was the only person in the hut that night, and it was quite nice, although a little cold.  I set-off early the next morning, strolling through dense forest on a slightly dodgy track that hadn't been maintained for a long time.  There were quite a lot of trees down across the path and it was generally ill-defined, keeping me on my toes to avoid getting lost.

The mountain fleetingly came into view between the trees and on the stream crossings as I made my way to the other side of the mountain.  After hiking for most of the morning, I made it to the visitors centre and the start of the Pouakai circuit.  After a spot of lunch, I was expecting a harder hike uphill, but easier underfoot, as this was a popular track and must be well maintained.  I was wrong.

Last year, Lonely Planet named the Taranaki region as number 2 in their top ten places to visit in the world, naming the Pouakai Crossing one of the best day hikes in New Zealand, and an underrated region generally.  Since then the mountain has seen a lot more visitors, although mainly in the summer months, the mountain was quiet while I was there, with few people hiking the crossing or the circuit.  My problem wasn't crowds but the state of the track.  Churned-up and eroded by people over the summer, the recent rain made it muddy and super wet.

To save weight and space on the trip, I had only packed my minimalist running shoes, so this made a hike to the summit out of the question, although the weather was very windy anyway, and a trip to the summit might have been unwise, especially alone.  I think the footwear actually worked in my favour.  There was no way anyone was keeping their feet dry anyway, and my shoes dried a whole lot quicker and were much lighter.  Still, it was slippery, muddy, and to be honest quite an unpleasant walk in some sections.

The swamp and surrounds, shrouded in morning cloud.
I stayed overnight at Holly Hut, with a few others and a roaring fire, perfect for drying all my wet clothes.  I got there with a bit of time to spare before bedtime, so I had some long chats with a few of the people who were also staying there.  It had been sunshine and showers all day and everyone was pretty wet, both from the weather and the state of the trail.

It was again cloudy the next day, which was disappointing as I felt like the views around me would be spectacular.  Fortunately, just in time, the clouds cleared and the mountain showed itself once more with the swamp in the foreground.  Absolutely spectacular.  Taranaki is an almost perfect cone volcano, and with snow near the top, it was picture perfect.

The clouds finally cleared for a fantastic view.
I had been lucky enough to get great views just before I descended into the forest again, making my way back to the visitors centre.  Once I got on the road, I was looking again to hitch a ride, this time back to New Plymouth.  Luckily, I succeeded first time; a nice old man and his granddaughter gave me a lift as far as the city park.  It was just a short walk from there to another hostel for the night.

Lovely city park in New Plymouth
I had an early bus to catch in the morning back to Whanganui, and I was feeling pretty satisfied that I had done what I'd set out to do, despite some complications with the weather.  The bus was again delayed, this time because of a clip holding parts of the engine at the back had broken, leaving a trail of sparks behind the bus, unbeknownst to the driver.  Fortunately, someone driving behind called it to his attention upon making his first stop.   After a frustrating wait for a replacement, it was another couple of hours before I was back at Whanganui, it was a quick lunch and back in the saddle again for the final section of the trip.