Did you read about the misadventures of writer Karl du Fresne and friends mountainbiking the Heaphy Track last year?
Early on a party member "tumbled several metres down a steep bank, buckling one wheel and munting his rear brake".
Another suffered a broken chain which troubled him for the duration, while a total saddle disintegration forced a companion to "ride the last few hours perched gingerly on the seat's metal frame".
The group's most competent rider "crashed twice, injuring his shoulder in the first fall and luckily escaping serious harm in the second, when he momentarily lost sight of the track in poor light and rode off the side of a bridge, dropping two metres into a creek bed".
It all begs the question: "Why would you bother?"
One answer is: "Because you can."
Riders have been itching to get back on the Heaphy since it was declared off-limits to them in 1996 when Kahurangi National Park was gazetted. According to John Etherington, who runs guided cycling tours at home and abroad from his base in Golden Bay, "it's widely considered among riders to be the best multi-day trip in the country".
A designated Great Walk, the Heaphy Track is completed by an average of 5000 trampers each year, 80 per cent of which visit during the summer season. Last year about 1700 mountainbikers rode the track, most starting from Golden Bay among the virgin beech forest of Aorere Valley, before ascending to the tussocky plateau of the Gouland Downs with its 500-million-year-old rock forms. Descending to the West Coast, things get a bit wetter, with creeks and rivers coursing through lush forest spiked with the geometric form of countless nikau palms.
And herein lies the most persuasive argument for embarking on this 78-kilometre epic: its natural beauty. In his definitive conservation study, New Zealand's Wilderness Heritage, author Les Molloy describes Kahurangi as "priceless". "No other protected area in New Zealand has such a diversity of geological history and rock types, landforms and plant communities."
It also contains, according to Molloy, "an extraordinary level of endemism", a result of its isolation during the ice-age glaciations. The slow-slithering night-snail, Powelliphanta, grows up to 10 centimetres in diameter. There are cave weta that get eaten by Nelson cave spiders, New Zealand's largest spiders which have a leg span of 12 centimetres. Yikes. Birds include kakariki, kea, kaka, morepork and the great spotted kiwi, the roa.
Officially there's 13-18 hours riding between the trailheads, throwing up some tricky terrain, steep climbs and myriad other hazards set to challenge both man and machine. Etherington considers it "intermediate with advanced bits", the difficulty level cranking up in bad weather. No surprise, then, that the general consensus from last season was that the ride took a lot longer than anticipated.
Many of last year's riders attempted a two-day traverse, commonly splitting the distance roughly in half, bunking up at James Mackay Hut. Saner folk will allow three days, spending the first night at Perry Saddle Hut, and the second at Heaphy Hut. There are a total of seven huts en route.
A day trip or an overnighter are also possibilities, starting out from the Kohaihai end. Head in as far as Heaphy Hut for the night (16km/four hours each way), or just ride as far as you fancy to make a day of it. This part of the track is largely flat and arguably the most spectacular as you spin through the nikau groves with the Tasman Sea crashing hypnotically on the shore. We rode this section last winter and it was magic.
Whichever way you decide to ride it, the track is much improved from last year, with the Conservation Department having kicked-off a long-planned maintenance programme. The Heaphy needed work, and it's getting it.
The old, swaying swing-bridges are being replaced by solid suspension bridges that are infinitely easier to negotiate. The Swanburn and the Gunner bridges (45- and 60-metres respectively) have been replaced so far, with plans afoot for a 150m uberbridge to replace the twin bridges spanning the Heaphy and Lewis rivers. There are new huts ahoy, too. The new Perry Hut is open, and the Heaphy Hut is under construction. A specialist team has been improving drainage on the boggy bits, too.
Etherington believes this round of upgrades – the first of a three-stage overhaul – will see the track "more than 95 per cent rideable by an experienced intermediate mountainbiker".
The upgrades bode well for continued use of the track by cyclists, a decision on which will be made at the end of 2013.
Bob Dickson, DOC's Buller area manager, was pleased with last year's trial. "One of the great successes was the economic benefit to the Karamea business community. It also fits well with our aim of getting more New Zealanders involved in outdoor recreation."
For now, though, you've got two seasons to go. Reasonable fitness is essential, as is a well-maintained bike, spare parts and tools. And at least one member of your party should be a half-decent bike mechanic.
If this is sounding a bit tricky, go on a guided ride. John's Escape Adventures trip earns raves reviews. "One Australian client was particularly wowed, telling us that he could now die happy, knowing he'd ridden the best that there is." We presume he wasn't lying at the bottom of a gully when he said it.
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
The Heaphy Track is open to cyclists from May 1 to September 30.
The trailheads are more than 460 kilometres apart by road, near Collingwood and Karamea.
The Conservation Department's Heaphy Track brochure has full details (doc.govt.nz).
Pack carefully, but light.
A small flask of Stone's Ginger Wine may prevent meltdowns.
Guided tours and transport are offered by Escape Adventures: (escapeadventures.co.nz)
Shuttle connections, car relocations and advice:
The Quiet Revolution (quietrevolution.co.nz)
Heaphy Track Help (heaphytrackhelp.co.nz)
The Heaphy Bus Company (theheaphybus.co.nz)
Karamea Connections (karameaconnections.co.nz)
Bike Track (biketrack.co.nz)
Air services can be cost effective when shared, and offer the bonus of a spectacular scenic flight.
Golden Bay Air (goldenbayair.co.nz)
Helicopter Karamea Charter (karameahelicharter.co.nz)
Remote Adventures (goldenbayflights.co.nz)
- © Fairfax NZ News