Monday, March 1, 2010

Day 5 - Flock Hill to MacDonald Downs

Distance: ~150km ?
Time: ~ 13 hours

We awoke in the grey, early morning light at Flock Hill station to the continued bleeting of 9,000 traumatised lambs. It actually had a certain rhythmic quality that complemented the idyllic setting, not unlike the sound of waves.... just a little more traumatised. It soon dawned on us that there wasn't going to be much of a dawn - it was a foggy, cloudy morning in the mountains.

Riding out from Flock Hill, we were immediately confronted with a climb that doesn't actually get marked on any maps. This was part of the false descent from Arthur's Pass - the big descent to flat valley plains takes a very long time to arrive. Crossing the top of what I called "Pearson's Pass", it was clear that the cloud was very settled down on the Canterbury plains, and was obscuring the big peaks surrounding the alpine road. The other problem with this terrain was the complete lack of perspective it granted - straight sections that appeared flat would often be considerable climbs, and the rider would be foundering in small gears thrashing against an invisible gradient. This was because it was very difficult to have a reference of what "flat" actually meant in the high country. Anyway, the alpine scenery continued in increasingly heavier fog with lots of climbing. I had the vague feeling we were hitting Porter's Pass when discerning the signs for the various ski lodges through the fog at one section. As we climbed, visibility dropped almost entirely to zero. Unsurprisingly, there are no photos of this section, although I'm sure we missed some fantastic views.

Porter's Pass itself was not a strenuous climb, and at the summit we were surprised to read the signed elevation - it was actually higher than Arthur's Pass! Scotty and Ian disappeared rapidly into the fog on the descent, while we descended slower, a little concerned by the slippery corners and limited visibility.

The run into Springfield and Sheffield on the Canterbury plains was entirely forgettable. It was damp and cold, and very easy riding. One benefit of the wet mist was that we didn't need to drink from bottles - we were breathing in enough water vapour to deal with hydration, as frequent pee breaks evinced! At Sheffield, we stopped eventually at the pie shop after realising there wasn't a service station or supermarket there. Needless to say, the pies were fantastic and were consumed with great rapidity, with seconds ordered shortly thereafter. The only bad news was that Joel had cracked an aluminium nipple in his super-high tension race wheels, and there was no bike shop for a long time to come.

Refueled, we headed across the Waimakiriri gorge and towards the Wharfedale. The river itself was very impressive - braided rivers don't exist in Australia, and the power of the main channel was intimidating. We were thankful for a good bridge! The riding around here was all pleasant, easy cruising, although we were anticipating a bit of a slop fest on the Wharfedale.

The climb up the Wharfedale actually started innocuously enough, meandering firstly through farms and then up into the Oxford forest on a good fireroad. I'm sure there were nice views over Christchurch to be had here, but the sky was a uniform white all around us, so we enjoyed the lush forest instead. The start of the singletrack was very promising - a steady, rooty climb with good flow, nice bridges and only the occasional hike-a-bike.

Naturally, this deteriorated as the trail continued. While the majority was, to steal Simon's words, "long sections of flowing, dreamlike singletrack", there were also sections of unrideable slop or exposed slopes that severely chocked our progress. Still, the majority of the trail had amazing flow, and riding the downhill sections on the drop bars was an absolute blast and a very enjoyable experience.

After a while, we ran into some DOC workers out on the trail, with whom we had a quick chat and established that Scotty and Ian were a little way ahead (and taunting us). The trail would be a tricky slog over to the saddle, they said, and then a fast descent to the hut and the Townsend river.

The route over to the saddle contained a fair bit of hiking, and this began to play on us mentally - with the slop and the mud, it seemed to be another Waiuta, although not as bad. After some sketchy exposed sections, gnarly downhill runs and another broken pannier backboard, we eventually bounced out at the Wharfedale hut, and took the wrong trail down to the river. We ran into Rodney here, and returned onto the correct trail and did some more hiking before finally reaching the fords. Joel and Phil, in true Aussie style, we determined not to get their feet wet (this is New Zealand!!!!!) in case of trench foot, so the crossings took a while. A rocky and frustrating trail eventually ran us out to the Lees Valley road, and the promise of higher average speeds.

I think it was late in the day when we started out on the Lees Valley road. Fortunately, being flat and not too severely corrugated, it made for much faster riding than the Wharfedale. We had the plan to gun through the private land section before finishing, and thought hopefully of Hurunui or Culverden. We caught up to Rodney again and rode on the endless valley road towards Okoku pass, searching the endless hills for the sign of a low point to cross. Oddly enough, we were only about 30km (as the crow flies and the Weka dreams) from our camping spot the previous night!!

The climb up Okoku Pass certainly looked epic, winding its way up the side of the barren and foreboding hills. Apart from a standoff with a cow midway up, it failed to live up to its appearance. We discovered at the top that there was still another pass to cross before the private land, as well as fording the Okoku river. Another of Joel's aluminium nipples broke, but fortunately we were able to "borrow" some from Rodney and, after a quick replacement and tru, were back on the road.

The Okoku river fords were thankfully very easy, as was the subsequent climb up Lees Pass, and we moved on eagerly as dusk settled. The next section was deceptively hilly, with constant undulations, but a good road surface. We settled into Ayup lighting and pushed on into the rain, dodging the rabbits that seemed obsessed with our lights and avoiding the accusing gazes of thousands of sheep. Somewhere along here I pinch flatted against a large rock (rabbit?) and another tube change was necessary - an unwelcome slowing down! We realised Hurunui and Culverden were out of reach for the night, and were preparing for a miserable and wet night bivvying in a ditch on the side of the road.

Miraculously, we saw Rodney ahead, who was with the owner of the McDonald Downs property, and had been very kindly offered the use of the shearing shed to sleep in. It seemed like an amazing deliverance and the prospects of sleeping inside under shelter heavenly. After some of Rodney's fantastic blackberry tea, dinner (from the Sheffield bakery), a shower and some shedding of wet clothes, it was time for a very deep night's sleep.


  1. Good score! I passed through McDonald Downs with Simon the day before, and did my best to encourage him to go say thanks for the access, at which point we'd be certain to be asked if we wanted a drink, or a roast dinner, or something... We ended up passing through without stopping, more's the pity...

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