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Monday, 19 November 2012

St James MTB

It was a five day mountain biking road trip from Auckland to Christchurch. With no rush, we drove the main line picking off the best mountain bike trails on the way. Keen to move quickly through the North Island, we only tasted Taupo's Craters of the Moon before boarding the Picton ferry.

In the red hazy horizon, we tried to pick out Tapuae-o-Uenuku from the other Kaikoura giants - this was our goal. It would require a hilly 45km farm road approach by MTB to Branch Cottage up the Kekerengu and Clarence valleys. An enormous 2200m climb would top us out on the summit. Still caked with snow in November, we hauled full alpine kit on the ride. Sadly, we were denied permission to access the valley as the owner was out of town...

Destraught, we moved on to Hanmer to save the day. First up we sampled the local Hanmer Forest trails above the steamy hot springs. Bikes going well, we returned to Hanmer for a feed, before moving up to the St James Homestead above Jacks Pass for an overnight camp. The night was wet, and despite a good day on the Hanmer trails, the mood was made depressing by the rain....

Beauty! The next day dawned clear as we prepared to take on the St James Cycle Trail. This was one of the new productions as part of the Nga Haerenga NZ Cycle trail initiative. 25km of fast gravel road took us to the beginning of the trail at Lake Tennyson - we gazed up towards the inviting Maling Pass and to snowy spring time mountains.

From the top of Maling Pass we had an exquisite view down the wide Waiau Valley, rushing down from the heights of Waiau Pass, the southern boundary of my favourite Nelson Lakes National Park. It was great to be here, piecing parts of the puzzle together. We took on the descent with red hot brakes, screaming around switchbacks and long bumpy stretches to the valley floor. When Richard finally reached the bottom he exclaimed "Its like tramping - only bouncier!"

The Waiau Valley tracks were a summer's dream to ride through. Long grassy meadows alongside the river, with plenty of tricky side-stream crossings to ride through.

A swingbridge branched across a high gorgey section of the Waiau - below were boiling rapids and fluted columns of rock. It was a scorchingly hot day, but the frequent water features we passed through kept us refreshed.

While resting on the hill above the swingbridge, another mountain biker appeared, apparently coming from off the main track. His name was Daniel Jessop - he had strayed from the trail and become lost, until now on spotting us. We found out he was also doing a day trip from Christchurch - I was eager to start building my list of adventure contacts and quickly got his number. He also planned on attempting Le Petit Brevet the following weekend, a 300km MTB race across the Banks Peninsula. This boosted my confidence, and I subsequently met him on the start line a week later.

Back to the trail, we soon reached the southern end of the Waiau and we forced to ascend again, two viciously steep climbs to Charlie's Saddle. A fast descent took us past a hunters hut - he cycled past quietly as we spotted a group in camo gear aiming for prey on the hillside. The stream crossings here were challenging, and out of pride we tried to see how far we could bike across before losing momentum. You had to be careful here - on dismounting once I almost lost hold of my bike, quite ready to flow down river in the strong current.

Again, I found myself in familiar territory. We had emerged on the corner of the St James 7 Hour Rogaine map. I remembered well this fun event that I'd competed in December 2011 with Elisha Nutall and Joel Smith. It was a thorough rush of déja vu and emotions as we sped down the final stretch of trail to the St James Homestead. Our bike computers clocked in at 90km and 9 hours. A fantastic adventure in the stunning back blocks of Hanmer!

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