Monday, March 04, 2013

Te Tawhio o Whanganui - not your usual Brevet

Te Tawhio o Whanganui, (a loop of the Whanganui) was the brainchild of John “Sifter” Randall. It's a very different beast from the only other “Dirt-Brevet” type activities I have been involved in, in that everyone has to stay at the same town each night, but the route they take is up to them. The starting and finishing point was in Whanganui and the towns in question were Eltham, Ohura and Raetihi.

Motua gardens, Whanganui - 02/02/2013 Te Tawhio O Whanganui.
What made these stop-overs so special were the great places we were able to stay in, and they seemed to get better as the trip wore on. The main difference in this event was that you were encouraged to take any route you wanted, there was no right or wrong way, and no incentive to get there first. This should have knocked any competitive urges for a six, but as is always the case, when you get a bunch of people together on bikes, it's not long before they will start pushing each other. The multiple choice option for routes also meant that depending on which route you took, you might use a completely different bike to another rider. There were many different bike formats involved including cyclo-cross and road. Myself, I opted for a bit of a change this time, forgoing my 26inch fully I went with my drop-barred Karate Monkey with the Freeload rack on the back. Not having to carry a bivvy sack, sleeping bag or sleeping mat meant that I had I could stow all my kit into the one drybag fastened on my rear rack.

Bill's well thought out set-up at Motua Gardens. Photo by Bill Brierly.

I admit to having limited knowledge of the areas we were going into, but with the new xmas present from my wife – a Garmin Etrex 20 GPS, I was hoping I could wing it and at least hook in with some other riders. Sifter and Bill (not-Gareth-at-all) Brierly had put some routes online so it was actually possible to just follow the dotted line if you were happy enough doing that.

My first GPS mishap happened as we tried to navigate our way out of Whanganui, me being a complete newbie, I had it on the wrong setting and the whole group of us missed the first turn! Novices. We were so full of excitement from our pre-event korero and couldn't wait to get started.

We settled down into a nice rhythm in the midday sun and headed as far off the main road as we could. There weren't too many course options for us on that first day, but as we hit our first patch of gravel that amazing feeling hit us. We instantly felt sorry for anyone not out there at that moment in time, feeling the crunch of gravel beneath their wheels. Bikes, gravel, scenery, friends - we were just getting started. There was a cool moist breeze coming off the coast at times, but by the time we got to Patea we were happy to stop for some serious refueling in the shade. It was also a chance to check in with some riders I hadn't seen since the previous years Kiwi Brevet, Stephen “Stealth” Butterworth, with two more Cambridge based riders in tow,  Matt and Michael, and Peter Maindonald who had shown me how to build some DIY fork mounted water bottle holders. On the approach to Patea I had noticed Sifter gesticulating as we passed a small graveyard, apparently the resting place of the famous Maori entertainer Prince Tui Teka. Poi E was the ear-worm of the day for those that realised the significance.

Getting close to Eltham, Mt Taranaki in the distance.

By the time we got to the days destination, the Presbyterian camp in Eltham we were really looking forward to freshening up, not so Sifter and Dave Sharp, they wanted to do another 50kms and 900 metres of climbing up to Dawson Falls on the flanks of Mount Taranaki. Myself, I was content with my 120kms, a refreshing swim in the waterhole next to our lodgings and a very large Pizza from Daveys Patch Pizza emporium. Next time I will get the medium!

Outside the Pizza shop, Ash and Pilsener were traveling mostly on the road but in no way were they afraid of the gravel.

Eltham to Ohura, 151.5kms, 3121 metres climbing.
Stealth's Cotic SSer. Photo by Bill Brierly.
If the Patea Maori Club's Poi E was the theme for day 1, then “Was not Was's” “Hi dad, I'm in Jail!” was the theme for day 2. The idea of staying in the “Ohura State Prison” fascinated me, but we had about 150kms to go first, but which way ? I could see the Sharpe Sifter express entourage might be going at a pace a bit faster than I would enjoy so I rolled out of town with a group that for most of the time consisted of Matt Peploe, Stealth, Michael Hoogeveen (all from Cambridge) and Peter Maindonald, Richard Davies, and Nathan Mawkes who was bristling with info from his recent Tour Divide excursion. These guys had a good idea of where they were going, and Nathan was kitted up with some state of the art gear recently road tested. Checking out peoples kit is always interesting, and while gears themselves are advisable, they are not compulsory. Stealth was riding his new rig, a Cotic single speed, but funnily enough, he was the only one of us to suffer from gear failure with his crank loosening off a couple of times early on day two. He chose his ratio well, either that or he made it look very easy, not once did he need to dismount over the four days. The only concession we made to him was to keep our top speed limited to 42kmh, at this point his legs would turn to butter and he would lose contact. The rest of the time he was usually at the front.

Heading in to the Bridge to Somewhere
The route we took was via Toko and Strathmore to the Bridge to Somewhere and hooking back up into the Forgotten Highway. It was the first time I'd done this kind of riding on dual purpose tracks. Hunters or four wheel drivers had inflicted their own kind of impacts on the tracks which tended to interrupt the flow a bit. It wasn't the kind of trail I'd been spoilt with from my South Island exploits, but it was different. We rode through a fair number of tunnels but were ready for a hearty meal by the time we emerged onto the Forgotten Highway at the Whangamomona pub. The pub was under siege by 4 different groups of two wheelers at the same time. A group of Harley riders, a group Japanese bike riders, a bunch of roadies who had just finished a race there, and us. A steady stream of Tawhio riders trickled in, from their different directions. We'd been warned about the woman running the pub's school-mamm demeanour before we got there, and she was true to form.

Photo-ops on the Bridge to Somewhere, Matt, Peter and Michael
Matt, Peter and Stealth.
 We refulled and ventured out again into the blazing sun. More tunnels, more gravel and eventually a fair bit of undulating tarseal. Still a relatively short day by Kiwi Brevet standards, at 150kms we were ready to welcome our new digs! I can only hope that if I ever have to go to “The Big house” its as good as this. As soon as we stepped inside the Ohura State Prison Grounds, our host Trudy was offering us numerous glasses of ice cold water. Water never tasted so good. She set up accounts for us to charge up any purchases, ice creams, drinks etc. We were given a tour and a bit of history of the place which was apparently a prison for low risk white collar criminals in its hey-day. Nice for some.

Another tunnel
We sat down in the large dining room to incredibly wholesome meals and marvelled at the various kitch art works on the walls, in particular the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. The staff worked like demons to get us all fed and it looked like the whole family was involved.

Day 3, Ohura to Raetihi, 172.7 kms, 3266 metres climbing.
We thought we had cheated mother nature with 2 days of scorching weather, but as predicted (a week earlier) on the third day it started to rain. I was sitting at breakfast nattering away to Simon Kennet when I looked around and noticed we were the only two people left in the dining room. Cripes, time to hit the road. I rudely terminated the conversation and headed off, eventually catching up to Mathew Peploe on his Alfine equipped Yeti Big Top and Karin on her Cyclo cross bike. We rode in a pace line trying not to eat each others rooster-tail of water. Something was leaking into my eyes causing me intense pain, I can only assume it was years of toxins being washed out of my helmet by the deluge. We got to Taumaranui having ridden on the seal the whole time and called in at the Supermarket for supplies. We were wet, but not too cold, until I went inside to make a purchase. The air conditioning was on and I nearly had hypothermia by the time I got through the checkout.

Karin on her CX bike at the top of a rise
We picked up Michael Hoogeveen and Nathan and a few others at Taumaranui and after a stop at National Park for the worlds largest sausage roll and a coffee I shipped out with Matt and Michael who had a plan to do a ride called Fishers track before heading on to Raetehi. Matt had a crude map and I had the GPS, what could possibly go wrong ? Well, a lack of signage for a start, we found a sign which proudly proclaimed “you are here” and we were, so why question it. Suffice to say that for the next hour it was the only sign we saw, and while we found some magnificent views and a wicked climb that the Alfine's gearing was struggling with, we eventually realised we were in the wrong place. Michael talked with a local farmer who pointed out where we went wrong and we eventually found the real Fishers track, although we still saw no signs proclaiming it as such. The track itself was quite nice with some lush native bush better than anything I saw on the Forgotten highway.

This was not Fishers track, but it was a great climb with awesome views from the top.
We emerged at National Park again in time for a serious downpour. It was time to bring out the lights, as although it was only about 6pm, visibility was bad. I had my first ever “Coffee in a can” from a vending machine in the gas station there. Now I know what it must have been like as Tyler Hamilton felt a fresh blood bag infusing into his veins!

Peter Maindonald's rig. Photo by Bill Brierly.
I texted Sifter from the gas station to tell him to save us some tea and we hit the seal again. We had a massive tailwind and we soon found out that the Alfine on Matt's bike maxxed out at 48 kmh! My 26/36 chain ring combo on the front with a 11-36 on the rear was handling all extremes so far. Michael's Specialized sported a 42 on the front so he had plenty of gears, although on the few occasions he got into the little ring, it chain sucked badly. Strava tells us we did the 34kms in 59 mins.

We rolled into Raetihi to the Snowy Waters Lodge with 173 kms on the clock. We were served an amazing roast meal, with pudding, with an open fridge stacked with beers for our purchase. The hosts were once again incredibly friendly and they gave us a little talk about the work they were doing and their views on conservation and how it related to farming which they were also doing. The accommodation was top notch with comfy bunk beds and the hosts kindly ran all our clothes through the washing machine that night and the drier the next morning. Watching people trying to locate their matching pairs of Ground Effect socks the next morning was pretty funny.

Raetihi to Wanganui, 103 kms, 1720 metres climbing.
Matt's Alfine Yeti Big-Top minus gear.
The inclement weather was still about, but not quite as bad as it was the previous day. There was only really the one route to get to Whanganui, via Pipiriki. A few riders had to decided to do the jetboat ride from the Bridge to Nowhere, but the crappy weather and a dirty river put paid to that idea unfortunately. Some of the riders who were coming back north, after reaching the days goal of Whanganui decided to travel light, and pick up their gear on the way back through. It meant they could go a bit faster a bit easier. I'd never been down this road to Wanganui via Pipiriki and it was a very pleasant ride. Unfortunately it was just a bit wet for us to want to dilly dally about, which was a shame given the history of the area. Jerusalem looked very interesting, so I made a promise to myself to go back one day. Matt, Michael, Stealth and myself eventually caught up to Pat Hogan who we rode with for a while, eventually stopping for a pause at a Cafe in the middle of nowhere. Pat put down his bag of nuts to take some photos of tame pigs that had come out for a look. Too slow! Nuts and plastic bag were quickly devoured in a few seconds as Pat lined up the shot.

We'd picked up Geoff Tilbrook somewhere along the way and he was riding very well considering he had a broken finger and his Dr had told him not to do the event at all. There was one last hill that seemed to be called Gentle Annie, aren't they all. It loomed up at us laying down a challenge. This is your last chance. Stealth took off like a scalded cat on his singlespeed and spanked us to the top. I am sure that one was double points!

Karate Monkey atop the Gentle Annie climb.
It wasn't far too Whanganui now so we all formed a pace line, and careful not to exceed the Stealth limit of 42kmh we whacked it in the big ring until we got there. I'm not sure what the hurry was, but that's what happened. Geoff and I hijacked the handicapped peoples toilet to get changed and I was very glad to have some dry clothes to change into. With a very nice meal and a couple of coffees under my belt courtesy of the Big Orange Cafe I walked down the road and blew 1.99$ on a fresh pair of dry socks from Postie Plus. I was in heaven.

About an hour later my buddy Dirk turned up and we rode back to the car collection point and loaded up the MX5 for the trip back. All up we covered around 550 kms in two whole and two half days of riding. Not enough to inflict any serious butt-trauma, despite two dampish days.

I had a great 4 days, met some lovely new people and got a better appreciation of life in some of  the more depressed rural areas of New Zealand. We don't realise how lucky we have it hidden away here in the capital  - all the more reason visit the provinces and stimulate their economy. I estimate I had been on less than 15% of the roads we travelled so that was a major bonus.

Te Tawhio o Whanganui loosely translated means “A loop of the Whanganui”. Sifter has promised to move the loop further north for the next time, so it will be a completely different loop.

If you are new to Brevet/Bike Packing this might be the ideal event to cut your teeth on.

Strava stuff
 Day 4

Check out Te Tawhio o Whanganui open Facebook photo album pages, some great shots by Stealth and Pat, among others and some good bike set-up shots from Bill. 

Yes officer, we do have a number plate.....