Time: ~ 11 hours
Day 4 began with waking up reluctantly in a foggy, slightly creepy ghost town. I think the fog also lent the ruined and abandoned buildings a rather poignant air, given the town's history. The night had been cold, but had yielded plenty of sleep and we were all feeling rejuvenated and keen to hit the road ahead. Breakfast included coffee in a tube with fruitloaf - ahhh, such luxuries! I remember texting on this morning that the previous day had been hard, but today held "great promise". With a course consisting primarily of sealed roads with only short gravel sections, there was a very real opportunity to punch out some fast and comparatively easy kilometres. Although the itinerary included Arthur's Pass - a slightly understated decscription of "ride SH73 over the Southern Alps" - we knew that pretty much any sealed climb would be rideable, and that we wouldn't have to deal with the slow offroad sections today.
The ride actually started very positively. A winding valley road lead down a gully out of Waiuta and descended gently and easily towards Ikamatua. As the fog lifted, a pleasant West Coast day revealed itself, with occasional clouds flecking the sky, a complete absence of wind and cool temperatures. This helped the positive vibe, and the mood riding into Ikamatua was very social as we enjoyed rediscovering the ability to propel with mechanical advantage - ie with wheels and cranks - after the previous day's hike-a-bike. The fog settled again as we hit the main road heading along the Grey river towards the coast, and came to Ikamatua. Here more iced coffee was purchased and consumed in vast quantities, and the guns in the service station window suggested that we shouldn't antagonise the locals!
The only serious matter of the morning was dealing with Jan's tendon - thankfully he was able to ride the easy valley roads, but we managed to persuade him to pull the pin and head for Greymouth to avoid a potential emergency. Fortunately, Ikamatua was well situated for this - "follow this road for 60kms and then you can get a bus to anywhere on the island". We made a call-in here to report that Jan was leaving the race - I think the call in hadn't worked at Reefton due to a problem at the other end of the line. With that weight off our minds, we hit the side road heading to Blackball.
This section probably sticks in my mind as the easiest riding of the trip - flat, sealed and straight, with a gentle tailwind. It was also a great opportunity to kick back on the bikes and do touristy stuff - I hope the songs that were sung will never, ever be repeated! We rolled straight past Blackball and headed towards Stillwater. Much to Joel's vocal consternation, there were one or two climbs, but nothing demanding the granny gear or too much effort.
Crossing the Grey river at Stillwater was another one of those "so much water" Aussie experiences. It wasn't very grey - we figured the name was derived from the reflection of typical West Coast skies. For now at least, the sun was shining.
Stillwater seemed to be a bit of a hole. The whole town was apparently owned by someone called T Croft, who ran a trucking company. At any rate, the only source of food was a hotel, which was actually closed. With a long way to the next food stop at Jacksons, we realised it would be very tight for our dwindling food supplies, and so refilled on as much water as possible and hit the road once more.
The West Coast section on Bell Hill road etc is the sort of terrain that memory contracts into a short section, even though it was quite long. Rolling farmland and repetitive scenery defined this section. Suffice it to say that the roads were fast and easy, despite some light rain and a little bit of muddy spray. There were some climbs that apparently led to Bell Hill, but nothing too strenuous. I think Phil began to contemplate the thought of trying to catch the little flightless hedge birds - the name evades me - as a form of early lunch!
As we turned on to Kotoku Bell Hill Road, we ran into Ian, Scotty and Gordon, who had made it to Blackball late the previous night. Joel thought this an apt moment to pull his trademark wheelie - this was his first of the trip, so his discipline had been impressive until that point! After a very modest repaste on the remaining apricot bars (mmmmmmmm), we hit the road to Jacksons. The scenery around here was nicer - lush, with the occasional mountain stream and even a few pleasing lakes to peruse as we rolled past. With an expanded peloton, Phil and I swapped long turns on the front, driven by the insatiable appetites all cyclists possess, and drove the train into Jacksons.
Jacksons provided plenty of food - much to the satisfaction of all! From here, it was a simple matter of crossing the Southern Alps. My big map had warned that the weather around Arthur's Pass was notoriously unpredictable, and I had heard tales of roaring headwinds, waterfalls falling halfway across the road and lightning arking between the hills. With the rain clouds lingering, I was hoping the passage would be a dry one! It was 34kms to Arthur's Pass - and we reassured ourselves that, as a national highway, there'd be regulations on the maximum gradient and thus the climb would be pleasant and rolling. Ah, the powers of delusion....
The climb did start very pleasantly, with shallow gradients and considerate drivers as we passed Otira and lots of side valleys with names like "Deception Valley". As we saw Rodney climbing ahead, we eventually bridged the cap and the gradient kicked to about 10%. We then rounded another corner in the gorge, and saw something resembling a wall.
The signs later informed me that these sections were about 16% average gradient for 2km. It certainly felt pretty steep, and the challenge was keeping the bike in a straight line and not swerving into the cars trying desperately to get past us! Eventually the Otira viaduct loomed ahead. I repressed the excitement of an engineering student who's played at bridge design and tried to concentrate on suppressing the fear. For 700m, I had the awful feeling I was either going to do a granny-gear wobble into a semi-trailer, or off the edge of the viaduct. Looking at the scree slope on our left though, we were greatful we didn't have to climb up Death's Corner instead!
The remainder of the climb looked flatter, but this was actually a visual illusion of the sheer enormity of the surrounding hills - 10% looks rather flat compared to 16%. So it was all uphill after the viaduct to the top of the pass. An easy roll into Arthur's Pass township followed, where carrot cake, chocolate milk and some naughty keas awaited us. With Scotty and Ian, we poured over maps to try and establish a suitable spot to stay the night - they were aiming for Flock Hill. We knew Springfield or Sheffield would still be about 5 hours away, with plenty of hills to come, and so went with the flow in the hope of finding a DOC hut or something.
The descent from Arthur's Pass wasn't much of a descent, but instead an undulating alpine road. The balm of this disappointment however was the amazing alpine scenery which immersed and surrounded us - views over distant snowy peaks which the evening clouded spilled over, Lake Pearson shimmering in the evening light - it was the sort of country that provided motivation for the rider just by being there. The wind was negligible, so we made good time along the alpine road as we headed along towards Lake Pearson. Flock Hill stood on the far side and was too tempting a place to stay to avoid, with promise of a shower, hot food and the chance to do some laundry, we finished up at about 8pm and camped the night on the luxurious lawns to the sound of 9000 lambs mid-weening.