Sunday, April 13, 2014

Maunga 2 Maunga: memories of the Forgotten World Highway

After the CANDO meeting, I needed to head north to Auckland. Yes, I could have got a bus, or flown. But flying creates excessive carbon emmissions, and trains are more pleasant than buses to travel on. Problem was how to get to the train. The Forgotten World Highway from Stratford to Taumaranui offers a good cycle touring route. I got offered a lift as far as Stratford, and figured I could face biking from Taumaranui to National Park. Despite the lines of Peter Cape's "Taumaranui on the Main Trunk Line" being engrained into the national consciousness, the tourist oriented Northern Explorer train no longer stops there.

This was  a rerun (in reverse) of a trip we did back in the early 1980s; cycle touring then was rare enough to make the local media.
Daylight saving had just kicked in, so when Graeme dropped me in Stratford about 2:30pm, I was conscious of the need to get going to reach the borders of the Whangamona republic before dark; a call to home reinforced that "You've only got three hours of daylight - you'd better get moving".

Fortunately a westerly tail wind sped me across the flat bits to Douglas.  The Nga Haerenga version of the Forgotten World Highway avoids this potentially boring section by heading in from Waitara; but I didn't have time for that variation.
Model students at Douglas School
Mt Taranaki receded gradually; of course I was also roughly following the route that traditionally the maunga followed when booted out of the central plateau by Tongariro, usurping his place as the husband of Ruapehu.
Taranaki selfie
I made it to the top of Whangamomona Saddle before sunset; strapped on lights for the descent, and was knocking on the door of Richard, the affable guardian of the Whangamona Domain Campground before it was truly pitch dark. "Sure - a cabin is 20 bucks - old ministry of works hut if that's OK". For one night, it was. Richard is keen on developing the campground - a range of exercise machines decorate the entrance for the benefit of campers.

I headed up the road to the Whangamomona Hotel for a beer and a plate of venison sausages. The hotel seemed to have retained it's country pub charm, despite a change of ownership; the previous management had created an interesting ambience by using Fawlty Towers videos as a customer relations training tool.

Horses meet folder, Whangamomona
Dawn in Whangamomona is always misty, which isn't a problem at bicycle speed when you meet a herd of sheep, or a group of horses.

Traffic gives way to sheep, Whangamomona
Soon the cloud, and my altitude, lifted, as I climbed to Tahora Saddle, where a small campground/ bed & breakfast exists on an unlikely outcrop; to save the final climb to the accomodation, the letterbox is a scale model.
Mist clearing on the way to Tahora
Letterbox, Tahora Saddle
The heart of the Forgotten World Highway is the Moki Tunnel (aka the "Hobbit Hole"); carved through the soft papa hill in 1936, then upgraded for triple decker stock trucks in 1989 by having the floor lowered.
Moki Tunnel
The road then dropped down to the Tangarakau Gorge - the 12 km of unsealed road left on the route. The lack of traffic, and the atmosphere of the bush clad hills, more than makes up for the gravel.
Tangarakau Gorge
The 90 km from Whangamomona to Taumaranui was more of a challenge than distances like that used to be; for the first time I walked the Tern up a hill at Aukopae, and by the time I got to Taumaranui I was composing letters to John Key suggesting that the town be moved 20km closer to Whangamona in the interest of the Nga Haerenga cycle trails. When I was back in cellphone cover I was fielding anxious calls from home about my whereabouts. I felt a bit better about the time I'd taken when a fellow cyclist at the Taumaranui Hotel admitted that he hadn't made it all the way the previous day, stopping 14 km from Taumaranui.

The next day I headed south to National Park and the mis-behaving maunga: the beautiful Ruapehu and the usurper Tongariro were both shrouded in cloud. On the way, a scrap wood dinosaur offered an excuse to stop before tackling the Raurimu hill.
Dinosaur, Raurimu
Journey's end: Ruapehu acting shy
But the National Park station cafe did a fine curry pie, and then it was a relaxing afternoon on the train, watching the North Island go by till we reached Britomart. 

Baxter, and the five minute rule: a Whanganui ride

Matukituki Valley from Cascade Saddle, 1968
1968. I'd been tramping up the Matukituki Valley, and being young and impressionable had carried a book of poems that included James K Baxter's Poem in the Matukituki Valley. I was hitching south of Dunedin when a blue VW puttered to a stop. The elf like driver beckoned me in. As we got going he introduced himself. "James - James Baxter". "Wow- I've just been in the Matukituki, and was reading your poem..." To be honest, I can't remember much about our conversation - I was rather awestruck by being in the presence of a major NZ literary figure; James K had finished a year at Otago University as the Burns Fellow, but I think he reminisced about the weeks he'd spent with a National Film Unit crew and some NZ climbers, making a documentary about climbing Aspiring. After he dropped me off at the Octagon, our paths, as they say, diverged; James K went on to convert to Catholicism, and founded a commune at Jerusalem on the Whanganui river. I did library and bike stuff.

2014. The annual CANDO meeting of cycle advocates traditionally starts with a bike ride, and this year a group of us started in Raetihi to ride down the Whanganui river.
Don rides down to Pipiriki
The first half was a largely gentle winding descent to Pipiriki, the traditional haul-out for Whanganui canoe trips. By the time we got there I was starting to think about how long it had been since lunch, and that we'd probably missed cafe opening hours, even if Pipiriki ran to a cafe which it hadn't on my last visit.
Patrick at Pipiriki
On the final run towards the landing, I spotted an uphill driveway with a sign advertising ice creams; a split second decision saw me converting momentum into climb, and riding into what turned out to be the old school playground, now the campground. Several of my companions had already checked out the camp shop, converted from a classroom. Sure enough, there were still some ice cream pottles in the freezer, I bought one and went to sit outside on one of the playground benches. The chocolate creaminess was mined with a small plastic spoon from under the lid; and life seemed good. But then disaster - a slip of the plastic spoon, and a substantial chunk of ice cream took flight, and descended onto the concrete. I thought about the 5 second rule: that any food that has laid on a floor for less than 5 seconds is probably OK to eat. 4 seconds. Nonsense, of course - once the food has contacted an insanitary surface such as a school playground, it's polluted and shouldn't be consumed. 3 seconds. "But there's just been some research that confirms the 5 second rule" - this from the delectable chocolate, lying enticingly on the concrete. 2 seconds "seems a pity to waste me" 1 second "and missing out on my calories could lead to an unhealthy dose of bonk before you get to Jerusalem". I quickly scooped up the errant ice cream, popped it in my mouth, and ignored the occasional gritty remnant of it's 4.99 second stay on the ground.

The last part of the afternoon was a pleasant cruise down the newly sealed Whanganui river road to Jerusalem, enjoying the autumn colours and river views.
Gottfried and Lynneke cruise the autumn colours
Bridge across sidestream
Pilgrim Lynneke enters Jerusalem

At Jerusalem we stayed at the convent, choosing beds with floral covers under ubiquitous crosses in what must have been the novices dormitories. We whipped up carnivorous and vegetarian pasta options so we'd be carbo loaded for the following days run to Whanganui, finishing up with Lynneke's fine vegan crumble.
Jerusalem accommodation
Dinner at Jerusalem
Next morning I explored the area - sounds of Pasifika music led me to the garden where Sister Christina was listening to the sounds of her Samoan homeland on Access Radio; the few nuns now at the convent occupy a comfortable Lockwood rather than the old convent.
Sister Christina
Leaving Jerusalem, we stopped by the bridge where a young dog and his mother were waiting. Suddenly there was the roar of a quad bike and a yell "Get out of the way, Fritz!". The pup scooted to the side as the Quad bike lead a herd of cattle over the bridge, driven from behind by a couple of cattle dogs, the working part of Fritz's whanau.
Gottfried waits with Fritz and his mum, Jerusalem
Cattle moving, Jerusalem
Cattle beast thinks about the "share the road" message
Once the road was clear, we headed off down the valley. At this point, the ice cream conversation started again. "You know how I said research proved that the 5 second rule works? Well you of all people should know that you shouldn't believe everything you read on the Internet. I'm afraid it's time to go". And so the trip down the river for me was punctuated with trips into the bush, and the 24 hour starve that usually deals to gastro problems.
River Queen at Matahiwi
Still, it was a lovely ride. The river gently flowed past bush clad cliffs and the small communities. At Matahiwi  another schoolhouse has been  turned into a cafe and gallery, with the "River Queen" from Vincent Ward's movie sitting out front.
Whanganui River cliffs
Later the road climbed up the side of the valley, and dropped over to Upukongaro, where I risked a ginger ale at the pub, and listened to flouro coated forestry workers, their conversation punctuated by an F word, neither flouro or forest, relaxing after their day in one of NZs most dangerous industries. .
Looking back up Whanganui River from saddle
The main group had headed on into Whanganui, but Max kept me company through to the Whanganui rail bridge, where the statistically likely puncture had occurred.
How many cycle advocates does it take to mend a puncture...?
A steep climb up Virginia Road got me to the Quaker Settlement, and a couple of days of discussion of cycle advocacy.

And James K? When I'd talked to Sister Christina at Jerusalem, she'd pointed out the gate and path through the scrub that lead up to the house where James K had established his commune. In front was his grave, looking out across the bush to the church. A long way from the "the altar cloth of snow/ On deathly summits laid" that he spoke of in Poem in the Matukituki Valley; but a good place for him to have found peace.
James K Baxter's grave, Jerusalem