This is the last episode of TENZA (Tommy’s Excellent New Zealand Adventure) so big-uppety thanks to the man himself, Tommy Wilkinson, for his super inspiring adventure diaries from the other side of the World, they didn’t half make us want to up-sticks and “do one”. Good work Tommy!
In the rich tapestry of Maori mythology, Maui was a Demi-God who lived in Hawaiki.
Maui loved fishing above all else, a sport where nature was pitted against nature. Maui had brothers, lesser in might than him but equally adoring of the chase and they often went out on Maui’s beloved canoe, Te Waka a Maui.
On a fine, crisp morning, he and his siblings set out with jolly hearts and focussed minds on what they were seeking – something a little meatier than your average 12lb Brown Trout. As expected Maui felt a bite on his line fairly soon. What surprised Maui was the considerable pull and after a long wrestle he pulled up his biggest and most famed catch; Te Ika a Maui – known to most Europeans as the North Island of New Zealand.
Te Waka a Maui, his canoe, is New Zealand’s South Island.
Combined they create a detached and lonesome break wall for the Pacific Ocean and the Tasman Sea to batter against of around 103,000 sq miles.
It’s a great story and it’s fair to say that life for the last 96 days on Maui’s canoe has been calm pools interspersed with some white water rapids.
Knowing this helps us understand why the riding scene of New Zealand was based on a culture of isolation for years. It wasn’t until the 80′s that new cars could even be imported.
Occasionally we’d see the odd Kiwi Pinner come to sell their wares on the WC circuit, Rankin, Kirkcaldy, Leov and those other guys who certainly could ride but never made the international limelight like Craig Pattle, Tom Holland and the late, great, James Dodds.
These guys gave those at home a sense of what could be done with a little ambition. Others, now modern superstars of DH, were drip fed onto the circus of the WC, and through their riding and un-intentional marketing, the roles have been reversed.
Unearthed and with the power of the internet and video edits, New Zealand has become an aspirational destination for many in the mountain bike world.
Queenstown takes most of the focus in much the same way as Whistler does for Canada, but it’s out of this town that the real gems lay. If you’re planning on coming here be prepared to roll up your sleeves and get out of the Bike Park. Don’t be a Dirty Smelly Park Rat – you’ll miss stuff that you simply can’t imagine.
When the chance to take a run up to Nelson in the height of NZ summer arose, it was a no-brainer, even a mildly torn rotator cuff wasn’t going to stop me. Packing up with Pang and JT, it was hard not to slip into total punter mode while travelling up the West Coast – camera hanging out the window, tongue somewhere beside my ear and taking photo’s that resemble a Jager and LSD infused night on the tiles. I also had a sun burnt left shoulder to further enhance my “je nais se quoi” sex appeal.
After a stop-over at Franz where Pang resolutely refused to let me spoon with him after seeing my fruit bowl, we reached Nelson the next day and naturally we had to go and ride before we did anything else. Pang, a man with an enviable fitness base and knowledge of the outdoors, had ridden Peking Ridge up on Fringe Hill once before, and after a 12 hour car journey a nice little “2 hour ride” sounded ideal. We’d hadn’t reached the summit in 2 hours of relentless uphill in searing heat. Our tops were literally soaked through with sweat. To some of you this may seem normal, but to me it’s just not. This doesn’t happen when you sit at a desk most days. In fact, the only time it ever happens is at the sight of a Boston Cream Cake from Ferg bakery. This was one of those climbs where there was only one option – keep going or, well, die and get eaten by a Possum.
The thing about rides like this though is that when we did reach the summit and look out over Nelson and the Tasman Bay, it was all worth it.
And the descent. THE descent. I was supposed to film but by 10 minutes, and once we’d traversed a bit, I knew I wasn’t sacrificing my ride for camera work. That’d be like taking the most beautiful women in the world to bed, and stopping to check you’d turned the telly off half way through.
Roots, loam, natural doubles, brake burning, never-ending steep chutes. This is the stuff the park rats hate and us old school riders love. It feels good to be part of this masonic like sect that still revels in a lack of whacker plates and whin dust. At one point the trail had so many lines that all three of us were side by side on the same steep chute. Different styles, same result. Smiles all round. What day. What a trail.
Defining moments in the North of the Deep South.
The ride did turn a wee bit sour after this, and we got truly lost but in the process rode the 629 trail in near dark, which was also a belter. We scaled fences, crawled under gates and got covered in shit. Arriving back at the car I was an iPhone, a multi tool, and a Nokia down. Did it matter? Not really.
(Although my Instagram account has suffered, while others have rejoiced at a lack of hashtags )
Arriving late was a hindrance but we were fortunate enough to be put up by Sven and Anka Martin, both former WC racers and advocates of the work hard play hard philosophy. They live in the most amazing spot, where one can confuse the sun and moon after a couple of Bundaberg Ginger beers and wistfully kick back.
Sven and Anka were also joining us at the Dodzy Memorial Enduro held at the somewhat mysterious and unique Wairoa Gorge. Wairoa is a private, gated estate that isn’t open to the public. Think private in every sense of the word and you’d be slamming nail heads no bother. There’s an electronic keypad on the 8ft high gate. You get the idea. With an owner who has the resources and a bit of desire, NZ Trail Solutions, of which Dodzy was an integral part, have been given carte blanche to create a network of trails sprawling across this steep sided 80,000 hectares. With over 18 trails completed so far, in perfect condition, untouched by the masses, Wairora provided a fitting destination to celebrate Dodzy’s life.
Being frustrated racers (Not good enough to make it to the top) at heart and all of a similar-ish riding ability, we had a bit of a four-way race going between Sven (Former WC regular and pro skateboarder), Pang (Former Scottish DH champ and WC regular you know), JT (Former WhiteMax Champion) and Myself (Champion of Zilch). We also had German dirt Jumper Joscha Forstreuter and his mate Max Haggenmueller to deal with for bragging rights.
As a trio we made things hard for ourselves by riding all the other trails and not the race tracks on the Saturday, but boy were they worth it. Everything from berm sensations, through to steep, rocky and exposed trails that looked like they had never been ridden. All hand built. All crafted. All Exquisite. This place should be a training ground for trail centre builders.
Meanwhile, deep in the heart of Wairoa Gorge, Sven, armed with his GoPro and notepad was ensuring that every split second could be accounted for on the race tracks. Strava had never taken such a beating.
With only 6 seconds splitting the four of us on the first 6-minute stage it looked like we’d be in for a treat and one of those mid pack grand prix battles that they always show, but no one really cares about. Things took a turn for the worse on stage two when I rolled my tyre off the rim and dropped approximately…25 minutes. Always check your rim can take Schrader valved tubes before packing one…. So that was me out. JT was holding the lead in our mini battle with a 25th overall ( 210 riders ) while Bri-man Bueller, our American riding compatriot only went and took 10 seconds out of everyone on stage one, including many top ten World Cup Riders. And he was riding a Ferrari with Tractor sized wheels on. Impressive Stuff.
Dom Stullen, an upcoming rider who also works at the Gorge took the win with some outstanding times, and good old Sambo Dale, who also worked at the Gorge for a while did it for us Brits taking a 2nd in Elite and 3rd overall.
However sometimes it’s not about the result. This was one of those races. It was about so much more and what an event it was.
Riding in Nelson is social, fun and quite invigorating for getting one enthused about bikes. Sipping a cold beer and eating fish and chips after the race, banter flying from all angles and celebrating Anka’s birthday was a great way to top off and set up for another dammed Heli Bike the next day.
A lot of people have a pop at me for whinging about these Heli Bikes but I’ll explain why I hate Helicopters. Before I go on, I do realise it’s quite a privilege to have gotten up in the bird so much while here. Ever since a group of bomber jacket wearing Russians came to buy a slightly corroded Lada Riva from my Dad when I was 6, I’ve known that one day I’ll meet my maker at the hands of a Russian. Russian fly helicopters a lot. They like Vodka. Helicopters are hard fly. You see where this going. So when Sven told me our Pilot was called Checkov, I did start to perspire a little.
Much to my relief the pilot actually turned up sober, and after freaking him out by standing very close to him so I could sniff his breath and detect any hint of both Vodka or Bolshevik in him, all seemed ok. I think his name was Dave.
An interesting fact worth knowing is that rides in New Zealand are measured by food consumption.. Not hours, minutes or even days. Not distance, severity or style – food. When quizzing Mr Martin on how long we’d be out for, he mulled it over for a second before giving us that profound technical knowledge we were all hoping for; “A two Sandwich ride with a couple of snacks” .
To say that we had a fast, capable group of riders with us was an understatement. Sven and Anka, both former World Cup DH racers were our lead guides and we had Sambo Dale in tow, Sam Blinky, Loic Bruni, the Bri-man Bueller and local pinners Jamie Nicoll, Stu, and well, errr, us three.
Cranking up to 5,500ft on a blue bird day does have its perks. Starvel Mountain isn’t a ride for those of a faint heart though.
Sambo Dale perhaps coined it well when he stated that his ” arse was twitching like a rabbits nostril “. This could almost be classed as dark humour given the precariousness of our surroundings. I actually programmed my Mum’s number into speed dial.
Stopping at the mid way point for a bathe and a cool down in the river, we now sensed this ride to be an adventure and what adventure is was. After a few more hours of hiking, biking, eating and avoiding wasps we arrived back at our starting point, complete with the perfect huck to throw ourselves into the water and recount our own tales of endeavour on this fine specimen of nature.
To a lot of locals this is typical weekend life. I can understand why the ex-pat community is so big in New Zealand.
With two more days left on our mini sojourn from Queenstown, Sven and Anka supplied us with knowledge of a couple of blinding rides. Suffering from some form of mild fatigue by this point, we cranked Hector Broklebank onto the wireless and made for Bleihem via the worlds best Warehouse. Warehouse is a store that simply boggles the mind and somewhere any self respecting bloke should be looking to spend at least one day a week. They have camping gear, food, clothes, tools, fishing gear and in the Blenheim one they had a 24kg Toblerone. I can’t do it justice. It’s amazing.
Fully stocked up on food and slowly learning from Pang that buying a 10 kg box of Haribo for each car journey wasn’t the best route to getting under 95kgs we made for the east coast.
Whitesbay feels more like California than New Zealand. Or perhaps New Zealand feels like this and I haven’t seen enough of it to know any better. The ride in the morning started out mellow enough but by 10 am the heat was once again enough to make me want to crawl under a rock. This was more Malaga than New Zealand, and the dirt had a distinct resemblance to that European playground where downhillers and oligarchs collide. The climb was easier than the previous days and Bri-Man and I hung back and treated it as a form of sadistic interval training – rest, try and nail a technical climb, and repeat for an hour or so. Pang meanwhile sailed up it without breaking sweat.
To be honest at some points I couldn’t believe how fast we were going with no pads and open face helmets on the descents. Bueller, still excited from hammering a swathe of WC racers set the pace and it was fast. Very fast. When I stopped riding properly in 2008-09, little bikes weren’t capable of this. Or rather mere mortals like me couldn’t go this fast on one.
Anka is running a guiding business in this area called RideHouseMartin and I have to say that her knowledge, route selection and not to mention riding impressed me a lot. I’m always one for doing things your own way but I’d be more than happy to spend a week at RideHouse Martin being shown trails like this in good company, great weather ( usually ) and a positive mindset.
One thing I was warned about that the old DH bike may get locked in the shed a bit more and this has certainly proved to be the case. I’ve ridden it twice since another day up at Dream Track. The trail bikes are so much fun and once again we managed to find another location in Craigieburn, just outside of Christchurch to further enhance this thought in my mind.
Moving from the tussocks and grasslands of Nelson further south brought us effectively into the centre of the Southern Alps and Craigieburn certainly has a more mountainous feel to it – steep scree slopes, that hard, muted grey colour that I always associate with the high places of the world and a crisp feel to it even when high up.
The drive in was spectacular in itself – big limestone rock formations scatter the rolling hills and these are like huge playgrounds for adults – climbing, bouldering or just sitting on top of one and watching the world go by all appeal.
Pang had told me this would be a highlight and it didn’t disappoint. The Luge is a descent that is steeped in New Zealand folklore. It’s about a 5.30-6 minute descent of pure, unadulterated, orgasmic singletrack fun. Tight trees, fast in places, more natural doubles, a ground that is fast rolling yet offers a predictability of grip that is sublime.
Nature has certainly been kind with the topography it supplied to New Zealand.
With the road trip concluded we gently sailed back into Queenstown, and being the athletes that we are, we ice bathed, ate well and slept well. We didn’t go and blow $200 dollars on a Jager Bomb induced bender or spill a Ferg Steak pie down our best white t-shirts.
Sometimes you need a rest from riding and normally I try and go fishing round here. JT had some other plans though and asked if we wanted to “Ghetto Canyoning”. We jumped at it, and DJ ENOG positively splaffed at thought of hucks to water.
Jumping into a 4ft deep pool from 20ft sounds like carnage but thankfully Jimmy Carling was on hand to show us the patented “slinky technique” to avoid us smashing our ankles on the bottom. Wicked fun and just out of town.
That’s the thing about New Zealand, yes I came here to ride and escape the bleak Northumbrian winters and keep away from the mundanity of pub life, but there’s so much more to do than that. It’s a visual feast in itself and if that’s not enough, there’s camping, the beaches, the wildlife, the parties, the people, the fishing – the freedom to almost do as you please as long as you aren’t wrecking anything.
This is my last update as I’ve been unexpectedly called back to the UK early on the offer of a decent job ( No Mum, I haven’t been deported ).
I hope I can come back one day, find a wife and do a smash and grab on the New Zealand gene pool.
The say life is what you make it, and you could do a lot worse than making it in New Zealand.
Over and out.
This trip wouldn’t have been possible without the help of everyone involved in the Queenstown Mountain bike club, Jimmy Carling, Matt Weir, Tom Hey etc. The Huck Men involved with Vertigo Bikes, Pang, JT, Cech et all, and any others that I may have conned into buying me a pint and riding with me.