Time: ~14 hours
Day 3 began with an unexpected sleep-in following a very deep and satisfying night of sleep next to the river, despite continual harrassment from the sandflies. Apparently Joel and Phil were trying to dodge the responsibility of responding to the alarm clock, while I slept right through it.
After microwaving last night's chips (mmm greasy), we were ready to hit the road and hoped to put in a good day. For the first time in the Brevet, clouds were appearing and the temperature was dropping. We headed south out of Murchison under overcast skies and along the Matakitati valley. The road was very pleasant - a gentle valley road that gradually climbed as we headed south. When the gravel transition happened, it featured a few nice forested climbs followed by swooping descents back down to the river. It boded well for the day! The only bad part was being bitten by a very large insect (weta?) on the thumb - very painful!
We paused on the bridge over the river to take some pictures of the flowing gorge and the beautiful rapids below - these sights are a rare treat, and soaking up the general ambience always leads to a good mood. The road then climbed over the Maruia saddle - a 7km climb with gentle, steady gradients. Here we backed the pace off and rode socially - once again, we were deep in beach forest with numerous stream crossings and mossy overhangs. Gorgeous country to be climbing! At the top, we were passed by a van, but given the rocky descent, decided to overtake it again. Here Joel and I let loose a bit and had a sideways drifting competition down the 3km descent to the main drag towards Springs Junction.
The town of Maruia provided a nice spot for a long food break, although it seemed our dishevelled and grubby appearance was not entirely desirable to the cafe custodians. Hopefully our excessive purchases were. We ran into John again here, and were passed by the Revolution cycles guys, so grubby cyclists dominated the rather smart premises! Jan made the (later regretted) move of ordering a beer for lunch too....
The road to Springs Junction utilised a pleasant back road that ran parallel to the main highway. This was another very social stretch dominated by silly banter while Jan's stomach declared war against cycling. At Springs Junction, we proscribed chocolate milk to soothe it a little. I think this was the only stop in the entire trip where we Aussies abstained from consuming milk, eager as we were to keep moving.
44km of sealed highway then guided us to Reefton. This was great, fast riding. A steady and enjoyable road climb guided us over the Rahu saddle, and a lush flowing descent followed almost all the way to Reefton, parallel to another beautiful white-water river. You could almost ride entirely off the damp, cool forest air! The only concern was the Jan's Shimano XT freehub was making horrible noises and clearly suffering a mechanically violent death. The freehub held for the last 20km into Reefton, where we picked up John again and offered a draft along the fast, smooth road.
After another extended food break in Reefton, where Jan had the cones tightened on his hub and endeavoured to soldier on and tempt mechanical disaster, we eventually hit the road again and headed towards the section that had been filling me with both excitement and trepidation: Big River. The guidebook mentioned a big climb on rough, rocky 4WD trail with "gnarly singletrack likely to break numerous bike parts". It was an ominous description! The 4WD trail itself was immensely enjoyable. The climb was slow - granny gear stuff - but technically challenging, with the trail carved out of the bed rock and frequently littered with puddles, moss and slime. The big Fargos ate up the rocky climb like ravenous two-wheeld Pacmen, and we soon realised we were having an absolute ball. Inexplicably, the pace turned on to the top of the climb, and became somewhat berserk when we hit the short and equally rocky descent. I would rate this section as the most fun part of the Brevet, as we jumped, hucked and hollered our way down a rocky, technical descent with mud flying everywhere and panniers crashing around. We flew past John, Ian and Scotty barely noticing, only stopping at the bottom to tighten up some loose rack bolts from all the rattling! Somewhere in here, I sheared off the bottom fastener on one of my Deuter panniers, so Big River lived up to its bike-breaking reputation. Another similar climb followed, and we kept the pace right up over the rocks to reach the Big River hut.
This is when things slowed down drastically. After a brief argument about navigation, in which it was revealed that the GPS not only didn't work in terms of mapping, but also had an erroneous compass, we trusted the old-school maps and headed along a narrow, rough trail signposted towards Waiuta. Here began the daily horror show. The track, described in the handbook as "expect some walking, but mostly you'll encounter long sections of smooth, dreamlike singletrack" started badly. The first few pinchy climbs made Stromlo's infamous World Cup climb look like a sealed road, as heavy (30kg) touring bikes were hauled metre by metre up rocky chutes. When we eventually reached the first downhill, short rideable sections on a narrow, rooty and slippery singletrack were broken up by sections that were simply unrideable. What was only 12km of trail was going to take a very, very long time to cover, and the sun was setting fast. When we reached St George's basin, the track proceeded to run up a rocky and wet creekbed. It took several minutes of staring at this section in disbelief, checking my topo map and feeling miserable to comprehend that this was actually a trail that the DOC believed bikes could ride. To the top of the next ridge was entirely hiking and lifting bikes over large obstacles. I'd rate this as the most technical trail I've ever walked!!
We reached the top just before sunset, and optimistically hoped that the downhill gradient to Waiuta would make the track rideable. Sadly, this wasn't the case - the track had a horrible camber with slick roots and numerous waterfall crossings which required complicated and slow portage manoeuvres. I really felt for the riders attempting this section alone - what if they fell down the steep slope, and couldn't get out? How could they carry the bikes across these crossings on their own? Joel and Phil were proving their immense strength and experience here, safely guiding us across the creeks and walking slowly down the trail. Nevertheless, we didn't make it down without incidents - I slipped down one of the little waterfalls, and Joel had a frightening crash off the edge of one the steep slopes. We ran over to see him metres below, clinging with one hand to a sapling and the other to his bike. Fortunately neither bike nor rider was damaged!
With darkness settling, we resolved to walk it out under lights. Some small rideable sections existed, but the general consensus was that the track was too dangerous to try riding. At about 10-30pm, we eventually emerged off the walking trail near the ghost town of Waiuta, a former mining town that was virtually abandoned following a shaft collapse in the 1950s. Our next dilemma was accomodation - Jan, like many others in the Brevet, was riding without any form of shelter, and thus needed a roof. In addition to this, his damaged achilles seemed now on the point of tearing - he could barely walk. Fortunately, ghost towns contain abandoned huts, and when we stumbled across an old gold stamping hut, it seemed the ideal place to rest for the night. Ian, Scotty and Rodney rode past shortly afterwards, determined to try and reach Blackball for the evening - we later heard they arrived at 1-30am, much to the annoyance of the proprietor, but it was a fantastic effort to push on through the night after Waiuta. Once again, we slept deeply and peacefully and enjoyed a rather long rest!
Photos to come, I promise... apparently my laptop's card reader doesn't work.