Sunday, April 13, 2008

An Oldie, but a Goodie

Friday saw me heading to Fiordland, stopping on the way to ride Mt Bee. That's a fairly average looking 'hill' from the base, but the track goes up and up and up...before you know it you're above 1000 m - well above the bushline at this latitude. So the views are massive and filled me with good vibes. After the usual fluffing around getting a decent photo, it was a looonnnggggg descent to the car and on to Lake Manapouri.

Manapouri is the sight of New Zealand's most ingeneous hydro power scheme - water from the 150m-high lake is diverted to a subterrainean power station and then flushed through a long tunnel out to sea at Doubtful Sound. The original plan was to raise the lake level, destroying mucho native forest, but the public got up in arms about the proposed destruction and forced the government to maintain natural lake levels. Our modern environmental movement was fomed and we still ended up with 700MW of renewable energy.

Anyway, all that power needs a transmission line, which needs a pylon track, which goes through the spectacular Fiordland National Park over Percy Pass. Bingo! A great bike ride waiting to be ridden. But this is very mountainous country and they couldn't quite build a pylon track all the way through - there's a 1 km gap in the middle, and that gap traverses the most rugged terrain imaginable. Way back in the early 80s, rough-stuff cycle tourers would sit around the campfire and tell tall tales about Percy Pass in hushed tones.

I got my first chance to 'ride' Percy Pass when doing a 3-week stint at Manapouri as an engineering cadet in 1987. It almost killed me. Two days ago was my first time back in over 20 years.

The boat trip across the lake was lovely - a thick fog cleared to reveal the splendid glacially formed mountains and valleys. I was heading up the 800m climb to Percy Pass by 8:30am. A straight forward climb made just a little more difficult by my determination to avoid first gear - a gear I wouldn't have had on my mid-80's bike. At the top, I gasped at the sight of the trackless void ahead. Steep scree slopes, mossy boulders, fallen trees, thick rainforest! It was easier tackling it as an ignorant teen. Now I knew what lay ahead, although a 'recommended route' marked with the occasional warratah offer some hope.

I followed the route as best I could, but it is often very indistinct and still littered with obstacles. 21 years ago, with no guide, I drifted beneath the pylons, which is where the biggest trees have been felled to keep the lines clear. I clambered over the fallen forest giants, often dragging the bike by the front wheel, until I could continue no more. My hands shook uncontrollably and I considered bivvying out, maybe dying alone in the wilderness if the weather turned nasty. Leaving the bike, I set out to find a vantage point that would reveal my location relative to the nearest pylon. After just 20 m I stumbled onto the pylon track, knelt down and kissed it. I'd overshot the end of the track and was bush-bashing my way down the valley parallel to it.

This time the warratahs lead me straight to the end of the lower pylon track in just 50 minutes. 'Yeah baby! Yee-haaaah!!!' Not the fastest kilometre-long descent, but there was till a long ways to go to the valley floor.

The next climb over Borland Saddle was another 800m grind. More fanastic scenery - this is our largest national park; the expanse is mind-boggling. The last time I climbed up to the Borland roadend lookout an eagle-eyed boy spotted me and said "Look! There's somebody on a bike." His dad replied, "Don't be silly, son. You're looking at a million hectares of uninhabited wilderness." A few minutes later I was explaining mountain bikes to an astonished crowd of 4WD'ers. This time there were just a couple of hunters declaring that I was mad.

From the saddle it's a 25 km downhill run out to the edge of the park, and then another 40 km of road back to Manapouri. Only 110 km all up, but an honest eight and a half hours none-the-less. This ride may be very old school, with not an inch of singletrack, not one jump or berm, but it'll stay in our top-50 list, for sure.

Yesterday I was still recovering. Probably would have had a rest day, but the God damn weather was still stunning so I headed for Piano Flat and another climb up to the bushline. This ride had a hard act to follow, however I was still so impressed with the scenery - beautiful beech forest followed by open tussock land. Unfortunately I just didn't have the legs to make it up to the tops of the Old Man Range (which separates Otago from Southland). Once it became barely rideable it was time to turn back to base. Still clocked up 1,400 m of vertical in a couple of hours.

Today I'm in Gore to check out their new tracks. The sun is still shining, but heavy rain is forecast. Bring it on...I need a rest!

No comments: