Monday, October 17, 2011

Going bush in the St James

Ollie pedals into the endless vistas of the Clarence Valley
With the nation descending into a monotony of rugby reflection, building to an idiotic crescendo with the semi-final showdown, I was left with no choice but to escape for a long weekend. Taking a day of leave I went bush on my El Commandante.

The rough plan was to ride north from Christchurch to Hanmer, camp the night using my yet to be tested collection of ultralight camping gear, then ride the St James cycle route with Heidi the next day. While the backcountry route has been open for a few years now, I hadn't had the chance to roll my wheels along it and jumped at the opportunity when I saw a clear patch through an admittedly cloudy weather window.

El Commandante prepped and ready to leave the man cave
Recently I've been working with outdoor industry legends Cactus and Freeload to develop a lightweight gear carrying solution for longer rides, and the weekends riding would serve as a thorough test of one design. Success would see me adopt the integrated dry bag in events like the Kiwi Brevet and the Tour Divide, while failure would see my lightweight kit scattered on the trail to be scavenged by critters or sharp eyed riders following in my tread.

Loaded to the gunnels and keen to get out of dodge, I pushed north, stopping only briefly to show the guys at Cactus what I'd come up with and get their feedback on constructibility. On a sealed highway, the ride was uneventful with the exception of a spectacular tailwind that saw me pushing 35km/h for much of the 140 km journey, and also the abundance of magpies.

It seemed that in the absence of daytime television to keep unemployed magpies occupied, they took it upon themselves to rally against me, using their ultrasonic screeches to alert buddies kilometers away to my presence. Out of nowhere they would swoop and dive for my head, some with an alarming crack. I did my best not to flinch, and fortunately these critters rated pretty low on the viciousness scale with none actually striking my head. I'd back the legendary 'Mt Pleasant Punisher' in a WMW Smackdown bout any day.

Around Culverden the rain which had been threatening all afternoon set in torrentially, with the wind switching direction to raging headwind just to drive the chilly point home. Finally arriving in Hanmer I scurried into the quaintly decorated Log Cabin for a scoop of chips, and some meat products of dubious origin. I justified the indulgence by rationalising that I'd need to adapt my body to this kind of greasy onslaught for the Tour Divide.

Dinner was a similarly uninspiring affair, with significant deliberation over choice of canned soup. I eventually opted for some Campbell's Chunky, and followed this up with a long spell in front of the precooked chickens until I discovered the beautifully warming air of a a heat pump discharging just above the beer. Pretending to read the fine print on a box of Heineken, I soaked in the warm air while I pondered the storm outside, looking increasingly more like a strange spandex clad homeless person.

Abandoning plans of camping up high, I settled for a damp corner of a campground. I showered under a cold dribble barely warmer than the rain outside, put my wet clothes back on and waited inside for a break in the weather to pitch my tent. Fortunately it went up quickly and proved to be a remarkably comfortable place to be in the storm, especially given its scant 400g weight. The company of Ritchie, Rose and Jackson was also warming, the latter two regaling tales of adventures on their off-road tandem which Jackson built himself.

Uber-tent glistening after a stormy night
Next morning I forced down more dubious canned goods and headed for the substantial Jack's Pass climb. The original plan had been to meet Heidi at the St James car park at 9am, but a corner from the top I heard a car behind and was stoked to see her car dubbed the battleship for its mottled grey paint work, had made it. We saddled up on our bikes and headed for the trail head some 36km away. Assisted by a fantastic tailwind we made short work of it, and as we turned on to the trail proper spirits were high.

Ollie gets in some trail head fettling
The landscape in this part of the world is reminiscent of a barren moonscape, and brought back memories of my time in Nepal where similar dry valleys were common  at higher altitudes. Having raced the infamously cramp inducing Rainbow Rage some 6 times, the scenery had become all to common, but revisiting it I reflected on how it exuded a kind of desolate beauty and emptiness that calmed the soul.

Heidi takes in the vistas
While the St James cycleway itself is rated as advanced on DOC's scale, there was no point where I felt the rush or thrill of a gnarly descent. I reckon that their rating must come from the fact that this amazingly scenic ride is in a very remote part of our world, and the 100km length involved (by the time we had looped back to Jack's Pass) was not to be taken lightly.

Advanced in scale, but not in content
The trail itself was fantastic, using combination of farm tracks, 4wd routes and wide purpose built singletrack. Where a cavernous gully required crossing, DOC had employed all the engineering expertise at their disposal, installing epic swing bridges that made crossing the obstacles a doddle.

Gear wise, my prototype bag was gradually self destructing. The impact of the trail early on caused one of the carbon rods to fracture leaving the bag rubbing on the tire over every bump. Channelling McGuyver, I whipped out a pocket saw and fashioned a bunch of sticks into a base support, locking it down with a zip tie when these began to wiggle loose. While the concept is good I had underestimated the sheer torture a bumpy trail can dish out, rest assured my later developments will have this part up sized.

Dry bag with ghetto modifications
We stopped regularly for snacks including my favoured trail snack an Em's Power Cookie. One of these well crafted nutrilogical concoctions even pulled Heidi from her depths of fatigue. After 8 hours in the saddle the oaty goodness helped her conquer the final climb to the car as cats and dogs began to fall.

All in all a successful weekend of riding with belt drive bike and body going not missing a beat. It was great to explore the St James with Heidi and I was impressed with how she handled the difficult challenge, gritting her teeth and knocking off personal time and distance records not to mention a bit of quality chamois time (some of it soggy).

Belt drive loved the mud
Words can't describe how refreshing it is to pack your belongings onto a bike and escape your normal world and this adventure has only encouraged me to indulge more in these weekend mini-adventures. While a bit socially backward, I'll jump at future opportunities to go-bush, usually aboard a bike and in a part of the world unexplored by me.