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New Zealand: Part IV

Maybe we should have known better than to go to Wanaka over the Christmas/New Years break. Because well, we’d spent Christmas there last year, and we full on knew how crazy it got during the holiday season.

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When we got to Wanaka, I started taking pictures of these ducklings. One of the pictures corrupted my memory card, and while I could save the rest of the photos, I lost access to them for the rest of the trip. Which is basically why this blog stopping being updated throughout the trip. Stupid ducklings, why did you have to be so cute?

Unlike in the US where Christmas is generally indoors, and dark, and not many days are taken off of work, in NZ, it’s a camping holiday where pretty much everyone takes at least a week off of work, if not two. Kiwis take their holidays seriously, and Wanaka is one of the go-to places for anyone under 30. The campgrounds are packed, people everywhere…and for good reason. Lake Wanaka is amazing for swimming, there are mountains everywhere, and the town is big enough for good coffee and food.

But if Wanaka is good for mountain biking and trail running and swimming, it’s shitty for bike touring. The only roads going anywhere are highways, and the proximity to Queenstown ensures that the roads are busy and filled with campervans.

Anyhow.  We knew that if left to our own devices, we’d spend our entire two months on the north end of the island doing gawd knows what, aside from getting devoured by sandflies, so we made it our goal to get down to Otago to spend a day or two with Scott, Jo, and Indie Dawg over the holidays. Riding, running, and coffee drinking ensued.

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Run to the top of a hill. Point at stuff. Get good and sore the next day. 

We had the brilliant idea of trying to get up early on New Year’s Day to ride over the Crown Range, trying to beat traffic, to get to Queenstown. And while this idea would have worked if we’d actually set an alarm and gotten going, we only managed a semi-motivated start, and by the time we started climbing, traffic had started.

It was one of the more terrifying rides of my life. There’s a lesson here boys and girls, don’t be lazy. Road touring in NZ is amazing…it just has to be done before 10am and after 6pm. And preferably not on mountain bikes.

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Highest paved road in NZ. All downhill to Arrowtown. Not really. 

One could argue that this was where a couple of variables started to line up against us in terms of creating frustration.

Central Otago can be hot hot hot in the summer. While last year, the warmth and dry weather was welcome after getting shit-stormed on for the first three weeks of our trip, we’d been hot far more times than we’d been cold this time around. The cold weather last year also led to a lot of forced rest days, and also created an urgency this year: While the weather is good, GO! But when the weather never turns bad (and we’d yet to classify hot and sunny as ‘bad’), bodies get tired.

And we were definitely getting tired.

But Queenstown over the holidays isn’t exactly the most ideal place to hang out. Queenstown is weird. And busy. And impossible to camp around. Even the secret site that my brother had last year was no longer very secret and led to a funny (in hindsight) and non-restful night of sleep.

So, me being me, got restless during our ‘day off’ in Queenstown, and pushed to ride the 30 miles to Glenorchy.

It’s along a lake, how hilly can it be? 3,000 feet of climbing hilly, to be exact. Plus, roasting temperatures, lots of Jeep Safari traffic going to see Lord of the Rings sites, and a narrow to non-existent shoulder.

A meltdown may or may not have happened. On the plus side, there was a little single track to ride, and we stopped to swim at least three times.

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And when we did finally make to to Glenorchy, we were pleased to find a semi-stocked store, and a dock to jump off into Lake Wakatipu.

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Little did we know at the time that we’d make this little town our home base for pretty much the remainder of our trip.

Our main reason for coming here in first place was to run the Routeburn track. It’s one of the Great Walks, and one of the hardest to set a shuttle for. I’m talking a 5 hour drive to get from one end of the 20 some odd mile track to the other. So we just figured we’d run to the high point and come back. Apparently there’s a guy in Glenorchy who makes a living driving people’s cars around and then running back. Not a bad office, if I say so myself.

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The track was beautiful. And, because of it’s Great Walk status, busy. It’s sort of like the National Parks in the US. There’s a lot of beauty to be seen, but you have to get through the crowds and regulations first.

In my mind, it’s (almost) always worth it.

We were far from ready to brave the 30 miles back to Queenstown on the road that we’d come in on, so we picked out some local mountains and huts to visit. The area had a history of Sheelite mining, which is a steel hardener, and there were huts scattered all over the hillsides. DOC had restored a handful of them, and old mining roads allowed bike access.

But mining roads in NZ are rarely straightforward. Kiwis are a special breed of crazy.

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This was definitely one of my favorite huts. A gravel floor. Six or so bunks. Views for days. It was a massive hike-a-bike to get up to…but hey, we’d get to coast pretty much back to town.

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In the morning, we headed up, me on foot, Scott on his bike, to the peak behind the hut. Maps showed a road most of the way up, but I was pretty over pushing and thought that running was a lot more appealing. And faster.

It was, and I soon got ahead of Scott. And then promptly made a wrong turn.

I soon figured out my mistake and took a sketchy ass route back down to the main road. I assumed that Scott wouldn’t have made the same dumb mistake that I had, so I carried on. Turns out, he didn’t have basemaps or a track on his GPS and had followed me up my wrong turn, and then lost sight of me as I realized it and dropped down.

So he ended up climbing a different mountain with his bike.

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He was not pleased with me when we met back up.

‘You left me!’

‘But you’re Map Man! You always know where you’re going!’ I argued in my defense.

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I think the fact that the descent was fun for him saved my bacon from a grumpy Scott for the rest of the day.

Communication. Err on the side of over-communication rather than under.

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Cruise back to the hut. Eat some lunch. Pack up bikes and cruise back to town. It was a pretty perfect sub-24 adventure, even if it didn’t go as planned.

We landed back in Glenorchy in the middle of Glenorchy Days, pretty much the biggest day of the year for the small town. Christmas horse racing season is a big deal in Otago, and Glenorchy knew how to do it right. Pretty much the only rules were that you had to be 16, and you had to wear a helmet.

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We watched some dual-slalom style barrel racing, two up elimination, some standard track racing (in shorts and gumboots), and observed heaps of Kiwis getting burnt to a crisp as they spent the day outside drinking. It was great. And what a location!

At this point in time, with hindsight 20/20, we should have joined the drinking and hung out and gone swimming in Glenorchy for a few days. But we were in New Zealand! And we only had two months! And the weather was good! And self-control is not our strong point.

We booked ourselves a shuttle to Arrowtown the next day with the plan of walking the Motatapu track and Cascade Saddle back to Glenorchy over the course of a week or so.

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The first part of the track description basically said that you could take a narrow single track on a sidehill that did lots of pointless up and downs, or you could walk up the river for a few miles. Being a hot day, we chose the river.

It was almost sad when we had to regain the track, the splish-splashing around was fun.

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The Motatapu is a far cry from the railroad graded wide Great Walks. Steep, narrow, exposed. All in all, awesome, with huge views in all directions.

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The track, and the three brand new huts were created when Shania Twain bought a huge station (aka ranch) in the area. Apparently NZ has a policy that when a foreigner buys a huge tract of land, they have to invest money into improving it, and they decided that the track and huts was appropriate. I fully approve!

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The Te Araroa, the NZ long trail, uses the track, so while we had the first hut to ourselves, the second one was filled with thru hikers. It’s a funny thru hike, apparently you can stay in a hut pretty much every night if you do it right. And the thru-hikers we met took their task of walking very seriously. It was in bed by 9pm because they had to get up early. Comparatively, most Kiwis in huts don’t actually get up until nearly noon unless there’s a really good reason.

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Still, always fun to share a hut with people. Even if all they want to do is hang out in their own little clique and not talk to anyone but other thru hikers.

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Our second day of hiking was mercifully cloudy. We would have roasted if the sun had shown its face.

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But the clouds were a foreshadowing of incoming weather. Everything we’d read warned that going over Cascade Saddle in bad weather was a very bad idea. Kiwis are very safety conscious, but they’re also badasses, so every warning needs to critically analyzed. On Great Walks or other more popular routes, warnings can be taken with a grain of salt, but we’ve found that on more obscure routes, warning need to be taken seriously.

So when we ended up in Wanaka, our mid-route resupply, and saw that our weather forecast had taken a turn for the worse, we started looking at other options. The weather looked crappy enough for long enough that we didn’t want to wait it out in Wanaka. We settled on hitching out of town to the Pisa Range and trying to make it to Meg’s Hut for the night. From there, we could wander back to Queenstown and hop a shuttle back to Glenorchy and our bikes.

The old guy who finally picked us up on the outskirts of town was a retired local who insisted on looking straight at me whenever he was talking, instead of looking at the road. It was mildly terrifying as we made our way up the mountain road.

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Meg’s Hut was one of my favorites. An old hut used for sheep herding back in the day, it looked a little rough on the outside, but was cozy and comfy on the inside. Don’t need a lot of fancy to be happy.

But what did make us happy the next morning was the thick cloud cover. It sounds so strange to say it, but we were over the sun. We wanted wet, cold, and damp New Zealand where we didn’t have to hide in the shade and put on gallons of sunscreen every day. While I’m sure we were missing big and amazing views, I think we were far happier in the clouds for the day.

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After walking for a few hours, we popped out at Crown Range Pass, the same high-point we’d ridden to just a week or so earlier where an endless stream of cars had passed us for hours on end. This time around, with our thumbs out, there didn’t seem to be anyone driving. Seriously?

We eventually caught a ride with two girls who were living in Queenstown and working as guides on the Routeburn Great Walk. They had some classic stories of people who they had guided, and were stoked to hear about us doing some of the lesser known routes.

Queenstown is definitely a tourist economy. And tourist economies are funny.

After some finangling, we got ourselves a spot back on a shuttle to Glenorchy, and before we knew it, were reunited with our bikes and gear. Rationally, we knew we needed to lay low and recover some. But…New Zealand! Tired legs be damned.

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New Zealand: Part III

Back to the town of Blackball after getting thoroughly epic’d by the Creasus-Moonlight Loop. It’s the home of the least expensive real estate on the West Coast and seemingly doesn’t seem to understand the tourism that the Great Walk is probably going to bring. (Seriously, if I were the investing type, I would buy here and set up a B&B or hostel before the Great Walk opens. You’d make a killing.)

We were pretty wrecked by our day’s adventure, having to close the loop with some km’s of pavement, and headed straight to the small store with the grumpy owners. The husband, manning the fish n’ chips fryer, seemed more annoyed at having to sell us food than anything. But then his two little doggos came out, and I made friends with them, and before long, the guy seemed to think that we were pretty okay too.

People are funny. Kill them with kindness. Or at least pet their dogs. The dogs will at least appreciate it.

We spent another night in the community center yard before heading to Graymouth the next day where we had bus reservations to take us to Fox Glacier. Someone had told us that it was all downhill to Graymouth (the mouth of the Gray River into the ocean), and then we pointed out to him that the road actually climbed out of Blackball, so there was no way that it was actually all downhill. Even discounting that hill, it still wasn’t all downhill.

Still, we made it with plenty of time to load up on 4+ days of food (we had plans! and Fox Glacier didn’t have much of a store) and head to the train station and bus station. The train arrived a dumped a whole load of what I’ll call “traditional” tourists, complete with massive amounts of luggage.

‘Please let them all get rental cars,’ we thought.

They didn’t, and before we knew it, we weren’t getting a spot on the bus. Bikes always get loaded last, and if there’s no room…well, you’re shit outta luck. There may or may not have been some cursing involved as we watched the bus drive away.

We went to the local coffee shop, pondered our options, and threw ourselves a nice little pity party. After we rebooked our tickets for the next day, hoping for better luck, we pedaled our four days worth of food far enough out of town to where camping was legal and enjoyed a nice sunset on the beach. And then we spent the rest of the night listening to the roar of waves, hoping that we were higher than the high tide mark.

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The next bus took us no problem. Thank goodness. And the driver was hilarious, though once again, it seemed like we were the only ones laughing at his jokes.

Of course, the first thing you do in Fox Glacier is go and see the rapidly shrinking glacier.

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The view points for the glaciers are always a little depressing. You can see where the viewpoint area has been moved farther and farther up the valley over the years as the ice has retreated.

But at least the signs were funny.

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While we had hostel reservations for the next day, somewhat because it was Christmas and we wanted to treat ourselves, but mostly because it was supposed to piss rain all day, we had to find ourselves some camping for the night.

Little did we know what we’d share the forest with thousands of glow worms!

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It was like sleeping amongst the stars.

Because we knew that it was going to start raining in the late morning, and we’re not so good at just accepting a chill day and going to a coffee shop and doing nothing, we pedaled out to a lake known for its tanin-aided reflections. Rumor has it that on a dead calm morning, you can get beautiful pictures of the southern alps reflected in the water.

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We were there neither early enough, nor on an exceptionally calm day.

But we did get a good look at a Pukeko playing in the reeds. Silly birds.

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Back in town, we went straight to the hostel where they graciously let us check in early.

‘We’re having some nibbles and beer in the main room at 6pm as an orphan’s Christmas celebration, if you’d like to come,’ the young guy at the reception mentioned nonchalantly.

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“Nibbles” as it turned out, was a huge platter of meats, cheeses, crackers, candies, breads, and Pineapple Lumps. Now, Pineapple Lumps may be one of the most foul candies that you can buy, but they’re a national treasure, made in NZ and loved by…well, I’m sure there are people who like them. Anyhow, the TV commercial for them is pretty funny.

The owners of the hostel had been throwing a Christmas feast of various sizes for as long as they’d run the place as a Thank You to the guests. The owners’ son, who had been the one to check us in, came back for the summers to work. He said that the general trend of people staring at their phones instead of talking to other travelers made him sad. But that times like the Christmas feast were fun because everyone mingled and talked.

The entire hostel tried real hard to eat all the food. But we failed, miserably.

It was one of the most memorable nights of the whole trip. And a Christmas that I won’t forget for a long time.

The whole point of the Fox Glacier layover was to set us up to head up to the Copland hot springs, just 20km down the pavement…and then 8 miles up the trail. It was one of those huts that had to be reserved ahead of time, and we lucked into two spots.

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The pedal was easy, the bikes got stashed in the bush. We paused to talk to a bikepacker riding the Tour Aotearoa Route. He’d just realized that he had 210 km of busy pavement with no shoulder ahead of him.

“I can’t wait till I get to Bluff and finish this route so that I can go back and actually do some fun mountain biking,” he said.

We didn’t have the heart to point out that he didn’t have to finish the route and that he could just go and ride wherever he wanted…thru hikers/riders are a funny breed.

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Sometimes this place just doesn’t seem real.

If it wasn’t for the sandfly infestation, the hot springs would have been more…relaxing. But hey, you can’t always get what you want, and all we wanted was a hot spring.

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The hut was an odd mix of people. The super popular ones tend to be. We favor the backwoods run down ones, but we had to check this one out. And it started up fantasies of going over Copland Pass in the future and dropping down into Mt Cook National Park. The more places we visit…the longer our ‘To Do’ list gets. It’s not a bad problem to have.

As with a lot of huts, people were in a hurry to leave in the morning. By 10am, the place had cleared out, so we went for a second soak. I didn’t hike eight miles up the valley to only soak one day.

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The swing bridges were pretty cool. At the very least, we appreciated the big views that they allowed. Plus swinging over a raging river is always a thrill.

We’d spent our entire trip (and last trip to NZ) trying to get a picture of a Fantail fanning its tail. They’re beautiful little birds, but they never stay still long enough to get a in-focus picture. Mom and dad were flittering around, tempting us with brief fans of their tail, while these three babies sat and watched. A prime lesson on how to frustrate bird nerds.

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There was also this guy. Introduced for hunting, I believe. But so pretty.

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Our campsite was the trailhead. It was also the gathering ground for all of the sandflies on the west coast. I’ve never seen that many bugs in my life. Having them fly into the netting made it sound like it was raining. Needless to say, we spent the afternoon reading and stayed in the tent for as long as possible in the morning.

And why not just get up and ride?

Because the Intercity bus had a stop right at the trailhead, and we’d booked ourselves a ride to Wanaka. And luckily the bus had plenty of room.

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And while the salmon farm tourist stop is probably hated by pretty much everyone who takes that bus route (the busses stop 5 or 6 times throughout the day for extended tourist stops for snacks…it takes forever to get anywhere), we were stoked for a hot breakfast.  And to not be pedaling the west coast highway.

Once in Wanaka, we picked up Heather, who’d had her own adventures coming down the West Coast and had also opted for an air conditioned bus ride instead of pointless pavement. We showed her our super-secret camp spot outside of Wanaka and watched a stunning sunset over the hills.

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It was good to be back in Otago.


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New Zealand, Part II

Well, I’m discovering that I don’t have the memory of an elephant, and I forget things that I don’t want to forget. So I’m going to get back to writing things down. I’ve spent far too much time in the past two weeks looking back at old, old blog entries to remind myself of the details of certain trips that happened a decade ago, and being so glad that I’d taken the time to document it all. So here’s to the revival of this blog, and the telling of stories about cool places.


 

We last left this blog (6+ months ago, yikes) with us wandering around the limestone karst landscape of Mt Owen, filming site of a very brief segment of Lord of the Rings where the Hobbits escape from the troll dungeons and lose Gandalf to the lava. Or something like that.

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Our original plan was to backtrack to the previous little town we’d just come from to get some extra food before pointing towards Lake Rotaroa and then on to Merchison to try to meet up with Heather, who was also riding bikes around NZ.

But first, swimming. Because when it’s hot out and there are lovely hidden pools to jump in, swimming is a moral requirement.

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When we got back down to the bikes, which were safely stashed in the bush, I argued that we had enough food to just keep moving forward.

Scott disagreed. Why would we ration food while riding roads instead of going back to town and getting scones? Because backtracking is dumb.

I won the debate, and we headed south. Rationing food.

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Scott was not pleased. I’d been accused (probably accurately) of being in too much of a hurry earlier in the trip. When we came across this sign (we were on the Tour Aotearoa route, the NZ version of the Great Divide), we thought we were saved. At least I thought Scott’s mood was saved if we could get a burger out of the deal.

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Plus with a name like Huha, we were intrigued.

So we pedaled up the hill. While we hoped maybe it was a super-fan of the race who’d want to talk bikepacking in exchange for a meal, we found just a normal hostel/farmstay. The woman running the place didn’t seem excessively excited to see us and definitely didn’t offer us any food, and we knew there was a far cheaper campground down the road, so we left. Wind out of sails.

Instead, we stayed at a sandfly infested campground right next to the highway. Shambalized. We were totally shambalized, especially since we’d run out of fuel and had to borrow a stove from some other campers in order to make dinner.

Luckily, the little coffee shop on the way to Lake Rotaroa was open the next morning. As in the owner came out in his robe, asking us what we were doing up so early. (It was 8am) Still, he made us coffee, sold us some snacks, and told us how there was nothing to do up on Mt Owen any more since the 1080 poison designed for the possums and other rodents had killed all of the deer that he used to hunt.

Knowing Heather’s route from St Arnaud would bring her by the lake that day, we stopped for a morning swim, and she showed up not long after.

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The ride to Merchison was downright pleasant with a new person to talk to.

Heather is one of those smarter people who plans rest days into her bike tours, and she had one planned for the next day before she embarked on the Old Ghost Road. Being fairly worked over, we decided to join her, booking ourselves into the cute little hostel in town.

I’m not sure what most people consider a rest day, but we started the day with a hike up to the local high-point overlooking town.

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And then Heather talked us into the whitewater rafting trip down the Bueller River. Because, why not? Our faux-guide, accompanied by a real guide, was taking some rafting test the next day, and our trip was her practice round. I’m pretty sure it was the first time she’d taken commercial clients down the river. A bit unnerving, but she was awesome, getting us through the Room of Doom without having to grab onto the Rope of Hope. I hope she passed.

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Thoroughly exhausted from our rest day activities, Heather pointed west to the Ghost Road, we pointed south along the Tour Aotearoa route, the goal being to get near Reefton, the old mining town that had endless options for bikepacking or tramping routes. While the first pass of the day was on a nice backroad, we ended up on a highway for the second half. A highway with a headwind. Pretty much the worst.

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Reefton ended up being the town with the winner of the Best Coffee Shop in the Country award. Fast internet. Power outlets. And tables were we could sit and drink coffee and eat snacks for the better part of a morning. Plus, they had a cute cat who spent much of the morning in my lap.

When we’d determined that we’d had enough screen time and were sick of working, we examined our options. We’d taken a bunch of photos of a guide book back in Christchurch and debated between a few routes. But in the end, we had a vague goal of making it to Wanaka for New Years to see some friends, and if we spent too much time dawdling, we wouldn’t make it.

So forward on the TA route. Up Big River to a hut for the night.

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If all bike touring in NZ could be like this…well, it’d be a biketouring mecca. But unfortunately, it’s not. And the highways are pretty terrifying. And windy. The bush may not have big views, but the protection from the wind is priceless.

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We shared the hut with a rather odd father-daughter couple. We pretty much spend the entire evening terrified they were going to burn the place down. But the location was perfect, and it was made even better by the fact that it pretty much pissed rain all night. Huts are the best.

The hut was located at the site of one of the bigger gold mines in the country. Someone had spent a lot of money restoring as much of the mining equipment as possible for historical purposes, and it was fun to wander among all of the machinery and think ‘How did they get all this up here?!”

Gold. Anything for gold.

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As far as we can tell, the TA route doesn’t have that much single track on it. But the route down from the hut was a well-loved section by all riders on their fully loaded rigid bikes.

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That’s not really true. I think people suffer a lot on it. Even with a heavy bike, I thought it was good fun. Even with its fair bit of BS.

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It was just so green. Every inch of the ground, aside from the trail, green.

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We dropped down into another old abandoned mining village, and on to Ikamatua.

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Now, Ikamatua might consist of a handful of houses and a gas station/small store, but they had some of the best burgers we’d eaten anywhere. It’s one of my favorite things about NZ, rolling into these towns where you expect nothing beyond maybe a small selection of frozen meat pies, and you end up with an amazing meal made from fresh and yummy ingredients.

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Look at that lamb tail!

Our destination for the night was Blackball. We knew nothing of Blackball besides that it was the start of a recommended bike ride. And there was a store that we’d been told had food. It doesn’t take much to make us happy.

As it turns out, Blackball is fascinating. The birthplace of the NZ Labour Party, because of a fight for 30 minute lunch breaks in the mines instead of 15, it was filled with some of the quirkiest people we’d met thus far. Including Quentin, the DJ for the local radio station. The town camping was in the lot by the community center, and he was on his way to do his nightly show when he stopped to talk to us. Before long, he had Scott on Blackball radio. Then he managed to get all of us locked in the building, and we had to escape via a window.

There were also the excessively grumpy store owners, the patrons of the bar who all stopped to stare when we walked in, and the community landscaper who had a teenaged boy doing court-ordered community service working for him. When the kid showed up in the  morning completely hung over and plopped down on the couch in front of the community center, he asked him in a completely pleasant voice, ‘Would you like some tea? I have some hot tea and milk in my truck. Might as well get your day started off on the right foot.’ The kid was not pleased. I couldn’t stop laughing.

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But the real reason we were in Blackball was the Creasus (I’m totally butchering the spelling of that) trail and hut. With a rainy afternoon forecasted, we thought it would be a good idea to ditch anything we didn’t need in the bush, ride up to the hut, spend the night, and then try to link up the Moonlight Track the next day.

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The Moonlight Track route had come from Dave Mitchell’s bikepacking guidebook. As we were learning, he rode some pretty burly routes, but we were undeterred.

The ride up to the hut was fairly tame by NZ standards, as in we were able to pedal most of it. We found the hut filled with a DOC trailcrew who were in the process of getting the hut ready for the of building one section of what would become the next Great Walk and Great Ride. Wide, easily accessible trail that would connect Blackball with the Pancake Rocks on the Coast with the Pike Mine as part of a memorial to the 29 miners who were killed in the 2010 Pike Mine explosion. There was an American from Flagstaff, a Czech gal who was so happy to hear someone speaking “normal” English, and a handful of West Coast Kiwis who’d perfected the NZ mumble.

The trail crew worked on the hut through the afternoon of rain, most of their time being spent making a space for a BBQ that would be flown up later in the week. They were going to be based out of the hut for the entire summer, and Kiwi’s don’t believe in roughing it too much if not necessary.

They shared porkchops and copious amounts of alcohol with us.

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When the trail gets done, it’s going to be amazing. But for now, well, at least the views were amazing.

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There was a lot of bike carrying after we got off of the main trail, but the trail crew leader had told us that once we got off the ridge and got onto the benched trail in the bush, we’d be ‘Good as gold’. We weren’t. There were still endless trees, insanely steep trail, and huge tangles of bush.

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But some of the swing bridges were the best we’d seen thus far.

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We started counting down the km’s to go based on the numbers of the possum traps. It was insanely slow progress. The trail did finally dump out in a parking lot filled with fossikers (gold panner). A toothless old man greeted us and asked us how the trail was.

Burly. Difficult. Beautiful.

‘Welcome to New Zealand’ he said and shook our hand.

Indeed.


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It’s good to be back in New Zealand

It’s our two week anniversary of being in New Zealand, and we’re wiling away our afternoon at the lovely Granity Pass hut, high up in the Marino Mountains. We could have made our way back down to our bikes after this morning’s summit of Mt Owen (home of Gollum and location of Moria in Lord of the Rings), but that would have involved more hiking and either a long camp in a sandfly-infested field, or more hiking followed by more riding, and then a short camp in what would probably be a sandfly-infested DOC campsite. And this hut is lovely. So we’re staying for a second night.

Seemed like as good of a time as any to share some pictures and stories.

Tucson -> Christchurch ->Hanmer Springs

A part of me doesn’t want to say anything about how smoothly the travel went, because then I’d be jinxing it for on the way home. But aside from a delayed flight into Brisbane and a short connection that had us worrying about the bikes, things couldn’t have gone any better.

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Weighing boxes with Lee. We learned our lesson last year.

By the end of our first afternoon in Christchurch, we’d gotten a functional SIM card for my phone, Jo had picked us up from the airport (Thanks!), taken us to her and Scott’s house (Thanks!), let us play with Indie the Doggie (Double Thanks!), and fed us some amazing food (Triple Thanks!).

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By the end of our second day, we’d had a famous Scott Emmons flat white, played with Indie, built bikes, played with Indie, went grocery shopping, played with Indie, and gone on a mountain bike ride in the Port Hills with Scott, Jo, and Dave, followed by beer and chips. Then we played with Indie some more.

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Day 3 found us on a shuttle to the “alpine village” of Hanmer Springs. The shuttle driver pointed out every cow and sheep herd on the way and talked a lot about the Scottish influence on the place.

During the previous night’s beer drinking, we’d neglected to call the Rainbow Station between the hours of 6:30 and 8:30 to request permission to cross their land on the Rainbow Road. So with a few hours to kill before we could hit the time frame again, we rode up some mountain bike trails and hiked to a waterfall. Welcome to New Zealand!

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We were expecting a No from the landowner. A series of thunderstorms had caused extensive damage throughout the area a few weeks ago, but we’d heard that people were riding through. When Scott called and was given the “You’re good as gold!”, we were stoked.

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So stoked in fact, that we motivated to climb Jack’s Pass to spend the night at the St James Homestead with another pair of bike tourists.

St James Trail -> Rainbow Road -> St Arnaud

The St James trail is one of the NZ Cycle Routes, coming in around 70km. Most people rode it in the opposite direction of what we were doing, but we were using it as a connection, and Scott Emmons had said, ‘You guys love hike-a-bike, you’ll be fine.’ Great.

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The scenery was spectacular. The detour to a little hot spring was even better.

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Following several different river valleys, first west, then north, the trail was mostly rideable. We ran into several different groups doing either day rides where they’d been shuttled to the top end or groups doing over nighters in the hut, either with proper bikepacking gear, or just giant backpacks.

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When we were solidly worked over from the day, we got to enjoy a 1.5 hour hike-a-bike over to the end of the trail. It was pretty rad, but the camping in the carpark was easy and quiet.

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Now that we were on the Rainbow Road, the riding was straightforward and beautiful. First some big and open mountains, then narrowing down to a beautiful river gorge where we stopped to chat with some kayakers from Nelson. Apparently getting permission to get into the Rainbow station isn’t that hard after all…

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Rolling into St Arnaud mid-afternoon gave us time to eat meat pies and scones at the cafe, figure out lodging and hut availability in the area, and surf the Internet before heading down to the campground outside of town.

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Our next day was spent swimming in the lake, rigging for a three-day tramp, and hanging out with a father-son pair who were hiking the Te Aorea (the NZ long trail) and sharing a suite with us for the night. Delicious pizza from the hotel next door was also enjoyed down on the lakefront while watching ducks and black swans.

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St Arnaud -> Cold Water Hut -> Angeles Hut -> Wakefield

Last year, Kaitlyn, Scott, and I had hiked up Roberts Peak outside of St Arnaud on our one nice day of weather. We knew that we wanted to spend more time up there, so we booked ourselves a night at the Angeles Hut, one of the few huts that aren’t on a Great Walks that requires advanced booking. But there wasn’t availability until Wednesday, so we decided to break the walk up and spend a night at the Cold Water hut at the far end of Lake Rotoiti.

With bikes stashed in the bush, we headed off on the east side of the lake. The walk itself was pretty flat and easy. We made a detour to Whisky Falls, because well, we had plenty of time. There was still plenty of time to go swimming off the dock at the hut too.

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We ended up sharing the hut with a pair of trampers, one of which knew a lot about routes on the island, two fisherman who were on their annual fishing vacation together, and a third fisherman who originated from Germany but had been in NZ for 10+ years and took his fishing very seriously, to the point of measuring the surface water temperature multiple times per day.

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It was a lovely evening talking politics (no, we’re still not sure how Trump got elected), fishing, and mountain biking (one of the fisherman was a mountain biker as well). And we all went out to watch the giant freshwater eels that lived in the lake and came out at dusk, circling the dock that we’d been jumping off of just hours earlier.

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Post breakfast, we headed up the hill on the Cascade Track. As with any NZ mountain track, it was not straightforward, but the location was mind blowing. Most of the way up to the hut, we ran into the school group that had booked out the Angeles hut the night before. They were not making quick progress down the steep and loose “trail.” One of the smaller kids lamented that some of his mates “hadn’t prepared properly for this trip and were moving like snails.” I had to laugh.

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At the hut, which slept 24, big by NZ standards, we dropped our overnight gear and headed towards Mt Angeles with Jon from Scotland. This was his seventh year coming back to NZ for a few months during the northern hemisphere winter and worked in both Scotland and NZ as a wind turbine technician.

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The peak was neat, our first 2,000+ meter peak in NZ. The skinny dip in the tarn just outside of the view of the hut was also pretty neat.

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Back at the hut, there were a large group of Israelis, some French, a few Kiwis, and a guided group of Americans who were getting a gourmet meal cooked for them. They’d also come up the Cascade track and lamented to me that the two-day backpack was billed as “moderate,” but it wasn’t and that they could have died.

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I informed them that Kiwis were the biggest sandbaggers in the world and that everything was harder than they made it out to be.

For the most part, they didn’t really seem to want to talk to anyone outside of their group, but their guide doled out the Oreo cheesecake leftovers to anyone who wanted them. So I guess they were alright.

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The hut warden had suggested that everyone get up for the sunrise at 5:45. And about 12 of us did, climbing up to the knoll behind the hut to welcome the sun to the new day. That was special.

Then back along Roberts Ridge to Roberts Peak, the location that had inspired the entire journey, and down to the bikes which waited patiently in the bush. After one more swim in Lake Rotoiti, we got one more lunch in St Arnaud, and headed north to Wakefield on the Golden Downs route, a route that we’d used last year.

We camped in a free camping park that was crammed full of camper vans, cars, and tents, but relatively quiet all things considered.

Wakefield -> Matuweka -> Abel Tasman Great Walk

We boogied out of Wakefield in the morning on the Great Taste Trail. NZ has a lot of cycle routes that go all around the island. They’re mostly flat, smooth, and not entirely exciting riding, but they make neat connections and get us off the road. We’re big fans.

We headed north to Richmond then west towards Rabbit Island. But what is this? A Cycleway Cafe that serves coffee and smoothies? Yes please. We watched several groups of cyclists come through, including a kids group from Nelson using the Great Taste Trail to go to the beaches of Rabbit Island. The woman also “raised” butterflies (her dad was an actual breeder) and she’d had a beautiful butterfly emerge from their cocoon that morning.

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We didn’t know much of Rabbit Island aside from the fact that we’d have to take a ferry to get off of it, and that the Great Taste Trail used it to stay off the busy road. So it was quite a surprise to find a giant beach with the warmest ocean water that I’ve ever felt. The ferry ran once an hour. We could have hurried and caught the next one, but we opted for swimming instead. It was like a bathtub. A giant, salty bathtub.

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We shared the ferry with two Aussies. They’d rented bikes to ride the Great Taste Trail, the guy was stoked, the girl was less so, but she told us about frogs that live in the Australian desert that can store a lot of water, so if you’re thirsty, you just have to find one of these frogs and squeeze it and water will come out. I need to investigate this.

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We all ended up at the same fish and chips joint on the other side in Mapua. The skipper of the ferry was also there and claimed the best fish n’ chips in the country. They were pretty stinking good.

By the time we rolled into Matueka later that afternoon, we were roasted by the heat. NZ is under a pretty significant drought and heat wave, and whenever we were faced with a climb that had a tailwind, we’d roast. Toasted is never a good way to enter into a new town, especially a busy one. But we bought a drink and went down to sit by the beach while we got our wits about us.

Somehow, I’d managed to find the motivation to book us a bus ride to boat taxi to the far end of the Abel Tasman Great Walk for the next morning. It was rushed, but I still maintain it was worth the effort. We booked some campsites (Great Walks are uber regulated), found ourselves a Holiday Park that would hold our bikes during the trip, and got rigged for the next morning in record time.

A bus ride took us to Kaiteriteri where we had a few hours to kill before our boat showed up. Ocean watching, shell collecting, and fish ‘n chips eating passed the time pretty effectively. And people watching was great. Plus, a lost dog had wandered into town and wanted everyone to pet her. I was happy to oblige.

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A boat ride is a great way to start a three day hike. So is getting dropped of on a stunning golden beach. We weren’t in too much of a hurry since we only had about 4km to walk. A section of the route goes through a lagoon that can only be crossed at low tide, so we were limited in our campsite selection for that first night, waiting for the morning low tide.

While we did have a giant beach entirely to ourselves (and we made the most of it, ‘isn’t this romantic?’ While getting devoured by sandflies). We spent some time exploring the beach, I got attacked by an Oyster Catcher whose nest I had gotten too close too, and I buried my feet in the sand to keep them away from the sandflies.

I woke up with swollen ankles the next morning. Dumb sandflies, I cried. Did I really get bitten that badly?

We didn’t have that much time to ponder it, we had to get across the lagoon. Plus, we actually had a pretty big day ahead of us, because well, sometimes I’m not a very good planner.

The walking alternated between giant beaches which were crossed barefoot with swims at every opportunity and climbs and descents deep in the bush. The heat was killing us, my ankles continued to swell, we both got blisters on our toes. We were getting epic’d by what was considered the easiest, family-friendly Great Walk on the island.

We were saved by a stop at Cleopatra’s pool, a freshwater oasis up one of the side streams. Plus, afternoon clouds. We were struggling.

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Somewhere between Cleopatra’s pool and our campsite a few hours down the trail, by ankles exploded with giant blisters. At first I thought they were from my shoes rubbing, but then I blistered in spots far from my shoes. Whatever bit me in the sand the night before did a number on me! I limped into our campsite, which was yet another private beach with an amazing view of one of the predator-free islands where birds were being protected. There weren’t too many sandflies either, so that was nice.

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I gimped my way out of there the next morning to the town of Marahau where the bus would pick us up in a few hours. Luckily, there was a cafe with coffee and smoothies, and an Aussie man who’d just finished an overnight with his wife. She was the hiker of the pair, but he owned a motorcycle in LA and went over to the States regularly to do long tours, ranging from Pruhoe Bay in AK down to Baja.

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We eventually made it back to our Holiday Park and our bikes. With a whole afternoon to recover, we went swimming in the pool (still hot out), took showers, did laundry, and played on the Internet. We’d gotten epic’d and determined that we were more freshwater people than salt water people. It was time to go back to the mountains.

Matueka -> Tapawera -> Granity Pass Hut

The whole time we were heading north on the island, we fought the prevailing north winds. When it was time to go south, the wind switched. Seriously.

We stayed at the Holiday Park until 5 minutes past checkout, then headed next door to Toad Hall, which produced the best meat pies that we found on the island, as well as coffee and smoothies, wandered over to the bike shop, to the grocery store, and finally to the library to kill just a little bit more time before hitting the road.

Our destination was a free camp spot outside of Tapawera, only 25 miles down the road, and we didn’t want to get there too early because reviews mentioned swarms of sandflies, but the location would set up us perfecto for the next day.

The ride was easy, minus the headwind. We met an American woman from Washington who was out cycle touring, but knew someone at a holiday park past Tapawera and was headed there for the night. The campsite, as advertised, was filled with sandflies, so we ate our sandwiches and read books for four hours inside of our tiny two-person tent.

The bugs were so bad we didn’t even bother with coffee in the morning, just straight to town for real coffee and scones. The Best Scone on the Island award was reissued at the cafe. They were outstanding.

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From there, it was 20 miles up a paved and then gravel road to an out-there trailhead where bikes were stashed in the bush.

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Our objective was Mt Owen, but first a night at the 12-bunk Granity Pass Hut. It was a steep-ass trail, but we found the hut perched in a stunning location above bush line. When it started to rain just as we walked up, we did happy dances.

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Mt Owen is a giant limestone massif, with the peak being the highest point in Kahurangi National Park. The scramble to the top through giant limestone buttes was endlessly entertaining. Giant rock crevasses were everywhere, and sinkholes dotted the parts of the ground that weren’t covered in rock.

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When we got back down to the hut at 2pm, the decision was clear. There was little point in pushing on when we had this beautiful hut to ourselves, so we ate lunch, took naps, read a little bit, and now here I am, finishing writing this.

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I guess it’s been a pretty good two weeks. I hope the next two weeks are just as amazing.


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South To Tucson

We had a finite number of days left before a plane would take us down to New Zealand, away from short days and cold. Well, at least from short days. Originally, we weren’t going to head south this winter, but as the days started getting shorter, I found myself starting to count down the minutes between when it got dark and when it was an acceptable time to go to sleep.

Wanting days (for multiple days in a row) to end is not really an acceptable way of living in my Book of Morals, so we bought some last minute tickets down to the south  island of NZ. Because we love it there. And now we had a timeline to get the Scamp down to Tucson for storage.

But first, Schilling and Co were riding Gooseberry in Southwest Utah. Seemed like a good first leg of the drive.

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The road to Gooseberry is as horrible as I remember it. Luckily, we’d left the Scamp down on Sheeps Bridge since we had Zioning plans for the rest of the of week. Even with just the van…yikes.

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We rode some Wire Mesa, which was new to me. Big views, fun trail.

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It was fun to see Evan from San Diego, meet some new people, and remember how much fun mountain biking can be.

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Having such a good time, Scott and I headed over to Gooseberry proper for a short lap. I was riding like a rock star, being totally stoked on all things bikes.

And then my pedal broke off of the spindle. It was one of those really sad moments when I realized that I’d pretty much have to walk my bike out of there.

And that was the end of bike riding for the week while I wanted for replacement pedals to show up. At least they broke then and not some other more inconvenient time.

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We perused some off the beaten path routes in Zion, and decided that a cloudy day was better for peaks than canyons. The pair of Northgate peaks were fun little scrambles.

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The views were like no other in Zion. Just a whole different zone with incredibly complex topography. We got good looks at both Guardian Angel Peaks, one claims to go at Class 3, the other at Class 4. They both looked intimidating.

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But the rock all around is so cool!

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Scott found the motivation to rally us to visit a different area of the park on the way home. In al honesty, I would have been a-okay with heading back and taking a nap, but I’m glad Scott fished some motivation out of somewhere.

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Because the area was awesome.

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It was like walking through a field of upside down ice cream cones that were splashed with red and hire paint. Swirl cones, I guess. It was pretty surreal.

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We went and had ice cream at the tourist trap looking place in Virgin. Turns out, they’re pretty famous for their home made ice cream. I can voucher for the prickly pear and lemon favors. Amazing.

The weather was still bordering more on the cooler side of life than the warmer, so we set our sights on Nipple Top peak. I’m pretty sure Scott just chose it because of its name..but as one of the higher points in the area, it seemed like a good route for the day.

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We nearly bailed after some route finding difficulties and rock that seemed to be turning into sand under our feet, but we eventually found the more commonly used route up.

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The views of things far away we’re pretty cool.

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The views of things up close weren’t bad either. The rock up there was fascinating to see.

Since we were up on the east side of the park, we rallied to go up a little side canyon that we’d heard about. There was a log you had to climb up, which is always fun. Getting to climb up anything makes me feel like a little kid playing on a jungle gym again.

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And the slot itself was neat, but pretty short.  A completely different type of rock from the more traditional slot canyons.

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We had one more half-day before Scott had to head to St George to go run the Baja 1000. We opted for the “known” quantity of Hidden Canyon in the Park, and then went past the recommended stopping point.

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There was some scrambling. A log to cross. Some more scrambling. Eventually, we ran out of time and flipped it. Apparently the end of the canyon gets pretty steep and isn’t really exitable without skills and ropes. I’d still love to come back and go farther up.

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There was an arch too. Arches are pretty neat.

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The, when we thought that all of the best departs of the hike were over, we heard a crashing in the bushes above up. A group of five Rams and one lady sheep were hanging out eating. One male continually hit his head against a tree. Another harassed the female. Two other ones rammed horns against each other.

And they didn’t seem to mind that we were watching.  Lucky, lucky, lucky us.

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Then it was time to head to St George for Scott to work with a steady and reliable internet. We spent the better part of four days there, riding some, running some, and finding some petroglyphs in a hidden slot canyon, which was the highlight of the stay.

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Onwards to Tucson, with a stop to hike down Cathedral wash to the Colorado River.

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Not a bad places to stop to break the drive up a bit.

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We made it to Flagstaff by dark, camped in our normal off-highway spot south of town, and froze our tails off in the 20 degree weather.

Which was funny, because by the time we got to Tucson, it was too hot to handle, and we found ourselves pretty much driving straight thru to camp up at Madera Canyon. Luckily, I was able to convince Danielle that instead of running in the Catalinas, we should run Mt Wrightson instead.

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And when I bailed on riding in Tucson because it was too hot, Katie and Shannon came up to higher elevations for the afternoon. It was bloody hot in the desert!

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Eventually bikes were packed the weighed. The Scamp was stored. And we we’re off to the airport.

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Fall in the States is officially over. It’s time for some Island life. Cheese scones and flat whites.

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Moabing

I love Moab. I love Moab to the point that we actually considered renting a room and wintering there this year. It was just a passing consideration, but the fact that I was even thinking about living within four walls for a semi-extended period of time was a pretty big thing.

This time, we were headed back for a family weekend with my parents and my brother, and Alexis wanted to make the drive down from Logan one weekend as well. Who were we to argue?

Since we were camped somewhat near Canyonlands National Park, we opted to go poke around on some lesser known routes. One of those routes described with the description of “an intrepid hiker should be able to find a way through”.

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We started with the descent down to this spot, which is semi-well known in the park. We found it on the internet, so it definitely is no secret. There was an older couple there who said they’d been coming back to this site for 30 years and had watched as the walls of the structure slowly gained height as visitors added rocks.

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Nope. We’re definitely not getting down right here.

Apparently we weren’t intrepid enough hikers to find a way through to where we wanted to be, so we made up our own route going up, mostly following sheep prints. Sheep always know where they’re going…it just sometimes isn’t the same place as we want to go. It led us to a giant field of slickrock with giant potholes dotting it.

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A lot of them still held a good bit of water, even though it hadn’t rained in weeks. The fascination with water in the desert continues…

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Alexis showed up for a day. The draw of Moab is strong in that one. We rode some trail that had just been finished in the spring. It was getting nicely beat in and was a lovely addition to the set of trails that live up on the plateau.

Melissa and I finally found a time and date for a run that worked for both of us. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about going for a “run” with Melbjoi is that it definitely isn’t going to be a run in the traditional sense of the word. Especially if Randy is coming along.

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Those two know so many neat connections on town runs that nothing is ever dull or routine. This is great for me because I don’t actually enjoy the act of running all that much, I just enjoy the places that it can get me efficiently.

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When I mentioned to Melbjoi and Randy that they weren’t really “ultrarunners” in the normal sense of the word, they weren’t really convinced. I’m pretty sure that many (most?) runners down really consider climbing fins that you could fall off and die as part of a normal training run. I definitely didn’t until I met these two.

For the next run date we made, there was debate on whether to do a route that involved a river crossing with a packraft, or a canyon scramble in Arches. We ended up back in Behind the Rocks instead.

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Melbjoi emerging from the earth.

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I mean, running, right? I think we ran the final downhill on this route. Mile six of six.

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But not before plenty of scrambling. Which is good, because running is hard. And I’m really slow on the downhills.

With another day off, I convinced Scott to go on a longer run. Scott has no issues running 15+ miles when he decides he wants to, but if I mention a route that is longer than 8, I still get the ‘Oooh, that’s long’ from him. Which is completely ridiculous if you ask me. So it took a bit of convincing to get him to come out to Canyonlands to try to find the route to loop Grandview Lookout and Gooseberry trail via the White Rim.

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We didn’t really have clear directions on how to find the weakness in the cliffs that would get us off of Grandview, so we loaded up with a day’s worth of food and water and headed out to the touristy Grandview lookout. We definitely looked out of place as we searched around the cliff edges for the route down.

We were ready to give up when we saw two other people looking very out of place, wearing climbing helmets and carrying a rope and a full trad rack. “I bet they know where they’re going! Let’s follow them!” I instructed.

They didn’t know. But we got to talking and between their info and our info, we ended up finding the way down. Which was exposed, and somewhat scary, but a lot of fun. We bid our new friends farewell as they went towards their climb, and we worked our way down to the White Rim road.

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Because Scott couldn’t stand the thought of running several miles on the road (running! gasp!) we took a “shortcut” (don’t worry honey, it’s a shortcut) (it wasn’t) up and over a saddle. It was more entertaining, but sometimes I can get behind some easy miles.

The routing up the Gooseberry trail was pretty cool once we go over to it and it was a straightforward climb back out. Now all that stood between us and our car was a mile or so of pavement. It was pretty rough. Complaining was done.

Then my parents and brother showed up for the weekend! We’d been planning this family trip for the better part of 6 weeks, and I’d been watching the forecast closely, hoping that we could get a good weather window in November.

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I was really hoping for at least one clear and warm day so that I could take them up Bell Canyon and down Little Wild Horse Canyon. I’d been sending pictures of slot canyons to the family text message group, and there was much interest from my parents to go check one out in real life.

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Andras brought Little Man the dog. He was mostly a brave Little Man and did a great job at route-finding routes that worked for him.

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There were a handful of dog-carry moments, but all in all, A+ for effort. He learned pretty quick that if there was something that he couldn’t get up or down, he’d just lay down and wait for someone to pick him up. He peed on me once because he got scared. That was awesome.

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It was really neat to have my family come and see parts of the desert that I love so much. I remember going on a family trip where we went to Zion, Arches, and the Grand Canyon, way back when, and thinking that the landscape was so neat.

I still think it’s neat.

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Boys being boys? Little Man looks on. So does my mom. 

It was pretty amazing to see Little Wild Horse completely dry. When we’d come through it five weeks ago, the water was deeper than my waist, but I’m pretty sure that the storm that had tried to wash the Scamp away must have flooded the canyon too. It was a completely different atmosphere.

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The following day, I took my parents up to the petroglyphs on Hidden Canyon. I had sent them pictures of them last fall, and I think they were one of the major motivators to come out to Moab for the weekend.

I wish my parents could have stayed longer. There were plenty of other things that I wanted to show them.

But lucky for me, Andras’ job had ended the week before, so he decided to stay an extra week. At first, I sent him with Scott to do all of the techy rides that Scott always wants to do, and I don’t. It was a win-win-win situation for all involved. But I did make sure that I got to get out and ride with Andras and Little Man at least once.

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He’s such a good trail dog! He’d run nine miles earlier in the week, and did nine with us, and seemed to love every bit of it. For a dog that was too scared to go through a doorway a month ago, he’s doing so well.

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And Andras loves him. And he loves Andras. So that’s pretty rad.

Somewhere in there, Melbjoi and Meghan invited me on a “long run”. I was scared. These are two of the most bad-ass women I know, and they wanted to go for a long run. And they invited me. ME! Yikes.

First they tried to sell me on a 26 mile route in the La Sals. I plead too out of shape and lazy.

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So Melbjoi came up with a 17 mile option with a long shuttle. I agreed to come along.

And then they changed the route on me, mostly because none of us wanted to run a long shuttle. I, of course, didn’t really ask for a mileage on the new route, because it was just a variation of the 17 mile option. This was my mistake.

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On the plus side, there was a really cool archaeological site that had both the grinding holes and the monos, the rocks, that were used to do the grinding. I’d never seen the two together before.

The other plus side to the whole situation is that M&M’s idea of a long run is very similar to mine. Run some. Wander some. Scramble some. Get lost some. Run a little more. I had it in my head that we’d be running the whole way…so I rejoiced as we bushwhacked through grass and trees and rubble and scree. It was great fun.

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I got pretty tired by the end,  as the mileage tipped up over 26 miles. I started asking how many miles were left. Were there any more big hills? Can we go get Milt’s milkshakes and hamburgers when we’re done? (Of course we’re going to Milt’s when we’re done!)

In the end, it was a lovely outing through the desert, and except for a short stretch on Jimmy Kean and UPS and LPS, it was on entirely new trails to me. And there really wasn’t all that much running.

I’ll go on a “long run” with these two any day of the week.

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And then it was time to leave Moab. We made one final outing up to the Snake, just to say goodbye to the desert. I cried a little tear. We had friends to meet farther south, the temperatures were dropping. It was time to move on. Still…I was sad.

Someday, Moab, you’ll probably be the place I call home. Until then, I’ll just spend as much time with you as I can.


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Bears Ears

Bears Ears National Monument has been in the news a lot. I followed its designation as a National Monument during the end of the Obama administration, I’ve followed this administration’s decision to reduce it’s size.

But really, I knew nothing about it. Aside from my general opinion of keeping public lands public, I didn’t really know what was so special about this huge chunk of land in central Utah. I never doubted that it was worth saving, I just didn’t really know why.

When it comes down to it, I didn’t even really know where it was.

San Juan river? Yeah, I hear people boat that. Dark Canyon? Sounds spooky. Grand Gulch? I’ve seen maps for that. 

I guess I can blame it on the fact that up until three years ago, I was pretty much a pure mountain biker. I rode to some remote places, but the Bears Ears area isn’t really a mountain bikey place, and with Moab so close, I never really got around to even looking at a map of the area. (But in the past three years, I’ve been trying my hardest to play catch-up to see lots of non-bike accessible places, so there is that, for what it’s worth.)

Leaving the South Rim of the Grand Canyon we had three days to get up to Moab. Should we go via Zion and do some stuff there? Bryce? Book it to Moab? How about this Bears Ears business?

In the spirit of visiting new places, we pointed towards Bluff and found ourselves a nice little campsite just west of town.

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We got there just in time to see the Wolfman panel get bathed in golden evening light.

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The sun was gone 10 minutes later. These were some of the most artistic petroglyphs I’ve ever seen. It’s pretty mind blowing (to me) to think of the time and talent that it took to make these. They were huge!

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There were some smaller ruins nearby, complete with their own collection of pottery shards. Thinking about the history of these places makes me feel pretty small and insignificant.

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One of the bonuses of driving a minivan instead of a truck is that there are plenty of roads that are inaccessible to us except by bike. In this case, a fat bike would have been pretty swell, but whatever, let the tire pressure down on the Redpoints and surf away.

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Our goal was the River House ruins. Pretty deluxe accommodations.

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I have no idea what’s going on here, but I love it.  

We kept riding further down the road, the rock panels littered with petroglyphs and pictographs. Some tiny, some amazingly elaborate.

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I know very little about the history of the people who made this art, but I really like their hats.

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Our end destination was the Butler Gulch panel which extended forever. Again, I loved the hats.

We pedaled back to the car, loaded bikes, and decided the day was still far too young to head back to the Scamp. So we went searching for a few more ruins in a canyon right by the road. There were several sites with amazingly well preserved kivas and other structures.

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With daylight still, we went down to the pictographs adjacent to a BLM campground in the area.

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I’ve heard that this is the only flute playing sheep that is known of. The wall was covered in endless little figures.

Moving on to get closer to Moab, we headed to Blanding, dropped the Scamp outside of town, and went to Natural Bridges National Monument to discover a neat eight mile loop that you could do on unmaintained  trail that would go by three of the big arches.

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They all had names. I remember none of them.

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Also, ruins.

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And more art. I love the dozen or so handprints below the sheep.

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One of the biggest arches in the world, I believe.

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It took just 48 hours for me to see why this place was so special, and why it really is worth fighting for. And we never went more than a mile from a road!

It’s sort of crazy that I’d never been anywhere in this area before. Now, looking at maps of the canyons, it seems like there’s at least 10 lifetimes worth of stuff to explore. I guess that’s how you get people to care about a place. Words do something, pictures maybe do even more, but to actually see it with your own eyes, there’s nothing that can match that.