Photo: Putangirua Pinnacles
The flight provided the first opportunity in six weeks to relax and clear my mind. I no longer had a monumental pre-trip list of tasks to stress over, and I finally had time to open my New Zealand guide book.
As the plane descended into Wellington I caught a glimpse of the dramatic landscape and was instantly excited. Below lay the most picturesque city I’d ever seen nestled behind a blue shoreline with pockets of housing within the surrounding forested steep hills.
I met an old school friend at the airport and appreciated being looked after since I’d barely slept on the 37 hour journey, thanks largely to the friends I’d made on the overnight flight and the whisky session that followed. Walking around the city felt surreal and I struggled to comprehend my new surroundings, which looked both oddly familiar and unfamiliar.
‘Over the next couple of hundred metres I felt I was regaining control, narrowly missing the bank on a few occasions, but the momentum was too great for the tyres to regain traction. All I could do was brace as I realised I wasn’t going to make the next turn and I envisioned the windscreen caving in.’
Photos: Makara Peak
On the climb to the summit of Makara Peak Welcome to the Jungle by Guns n Roses came into my head as I pedalled through dense bushland. Gigantic ferns and unusual bird noises reminded me I was in a far away place. My first peak views of New Zealand didn’t disappoint. I could see the city below, rolling green hills on either side with windmills perched on top and that blue sea. On my last run I rode Yeah Gnar, the most technical trail at the park. After riding plenty of tech earlier in the year in Whistler and the Alps I didn’t think much of it and laughed to myself over the guys reaction when I told him my plan.
How wrong I was. The track was littered with steep drops into narrow corners, steep chutes, awkward gaps and steep rocky turns. This was the most technical track I’d ever ridden and I was in a half lid and no knee pads. I was more than a little relieved to get to the end and I don’t think I’ve ever spent so long scoping lines. What beast built this track? On the way home I ran out of phone battery and got lost, setting the tone for many future outings.
Purchasing a vehicle with no prior experience was daunting and I felt well out of my depth. Like all the other planning aspects for this trip I wished I made time before I left. I settled for a 1995 Mitsubishi Delica Space Gear, set up to sleep in with my bikes and everything else inside. It seemed ideal.
After riding Makara Peak, Victoria Park and Belmont Park I craved fast jump lines since I hadn’t found any near the city. When I discovered Dirt Farm, a bike park an hour north of the city in Otaki, I sent a Facebook message asking about opening times. After initially hearing the park wasn’t yet officially open I received a second message from Tim, the owner, inviting me over.
Dirt Farm photos (top left to bottom right): Toilet Bowl, the first drop on Sky Burial, the last uplift back up after the clouds opened, Tim, his dad Bonnie (the dog) trail building on Reap the Rollwards.
I was buzzing driving out of the city for the first time and to a bike park I had exclusive shuttle access to. Tim was incredibly welcoming and charismatic and it was clear his heart was in it. He sounded excited as he described the tracks he was shuttling me to and I soon discovered why. There was no shortage of jumps, steep corners, natural terrain or unique features, including a gap jump into a tight downhill berm that continued underneath the gap - appropriately named Toilet Bowl.
Sky Burial, the pro level jump line, consists of 17 jumps and step-downs that start on the large side of average and get out of hand further down the hill. This was the craziest line I’d seen outside of FEST series. After ending up in the bushes on my first run then making the first two features clean I wanted more, but unfortunately Tim was late to a meeting and had to shoot. Just to be sure the sky sent a reminder with rain bucketing down as soon as we were leaving the trails. I knew I’d be back and I left feeling hyped - this was the most fun I’d had on a bike since Whistler.
Finally, nearly two weeks after landing in Wellington, the van was packed and ready for the biggest road trip of my life. First stop was a return to Dirt Farm before driving to the south east of the island, up the east coast to Hawke's Bay then across to Rotorua. Unfortunately the wind was too strong to ride Sky Burial so I familiarised myself with a few of the other tracks, did some trail building and hung out with Tim and his family.
On what I expected to be a short drive from a small bike park in Waiwoa, Hawke's Bay, to the nearest free campsite, I was stuck behind a particularly slow driver for what felt like an age. At last I exited onto a dirt road that passed an expanse of farmland and eventually led to a campsite. The sun was already low and I was keen to arrive with time to bath in the beach I’d read about in the campsite reviews. The unsurfaced road was in good condition and I could see far ahead so I left 4x drive off and took advantage of the open road.
Then there was that corner.
Never so soon had I regretted the speed I was going. In an instant the road surface changed from smooth and mellow to loose and steep. As I exited the bend the van lost traction and the back end swung out. Ahead of me was a switchback of turns weaving down the hill and the narrow road was steeply banked on both sides - not what I wanted to see.
Trying to remain calm I attempted to ease out of the drift by being subtle on the brakes and steering wheel. I was aware any dramatic influences could flip me over. Over the next couple of hundred metres I felt I was regaining control, narrowly missing the bank on a few occasions, but the momentum was too great for the tyres to regain traction. All I could do was brace as I realised I wasn’t going to make the next turn and I envisioned the windscreen caving in.
I hit the dirt bank.
To my disbelief the windscreen was intact and the engine was still running. I switched it off and stepped out. I really was in the middle of no-where and everything suddenly felt very still and quiet. Despite the corner of the van being wedged into the bank the headlights were intact - saved by the bullguard which had caved in on impact. At first the van wouldn't back out, but in 4x drive and with a wave of relief it did. I wasn’t stuck! When I came to a tight turn I heard and felt one of the tyres make contact with the chassis - the front had caved in so there was no longer enough turning clearance - but I made it to the campsite.
Photos (top to bottom): Belmont Park ride (where I spent most of my time lost); first night in the van (Cape Palliser); Waikare River Mouth Campsite (the campsite I went to after the crash); Te Mata park; The highest point I got on a slightly loose boulder I battled to climb but ultimately lost to off the main road in Cape Palliser (video still); Cape Palliser Lighthouse.
The crash really shook me up. I may have lost control and fallen off my bike a thousand times but until then I'd never been in a driving accident, and I knew that if I had crashed sooner before scrubbing any speed it would have been far worse. With no phone reception and no-one around on a minor dirt road, miles from anything or anywhere significant in the middle of no-where, what would I have done if I was hurt or couldn't drive on? It was a sobering thought.
I left early the next morning to return to Te Mata hopeful to bag a few laps of the grade 6 Ngati Hori trail before the forecast rain. This was my second visit to Te Mata as the winds were too strong the time before and it seemed a shame not to ride all of the features. On the drive the severity of the turning issue became apparent, so I decided to go straight to Rotorua afterwards to get the van sorted rather than spend another day in the area visiting another bike park.
The session provided a welcome distraction from recent events and the trail only got better with every run. I still couldn’t comprehend how good many of these barely-on-the-map public trails were. This one featured a few reasonably sized hips and a large path gap from a high wooden ladder although, evident by the overgrowth that made rolling into jumps with enough speed a challenge, it was clear it didn't get much traffic despite how fun it was. I was happy to get a run right before the rain that felt like I at least nearly rode the track how the builders intended.
With a surge of relief I merged onto the highway to Rotorua. The drive from the bike park through a series of towns had been a stressful one. Small residential and city roads with tight turns and roundabouts were a nightmare and I had to frequently re-route to avoid them, looking ahead on Google maps and dreading an unavoidable left turn. My first stop in Rotorua was a body repair shop and the van was booked in for the next day, with a minor bill of £80.
Despite what the guy at the Santa Cruz dealer said about the Skyline bike park I went anyway. Granted there weren’t many tracks and they weren’t very long, but I had a great time sessioning the flow and tech trails which were in prime condition.
Rotorua photos (top to bottom): Redwoods (Whakarewarewa Forest); Redwoods and Skyline uplifts; Rainbow Mountain (Maungakakaramea), which has a designated DH MTB trail.
As I pulled into the Whakarewarewa (Redwoods) Forest, home to the most renowned trails in the North Island, the van stalled. After driving around for a week since the accident with no issues I was now on the phone to the AA while smoke was billowing out of the bonnet. This didn’t look good.
‘Blown head gasket’. ‘Oh’, I said, sounding like someone who had never owned a car before, ‘how much is that gonna be’. It doesn’t get more serious than a blown head gasket on a motor but at the time I was clueless. It was game over for the van I paid $5600 (£2900) for less than a month ago. Whether it was a result of the accident or would have occurred regardless was anyones guess. I got $600 from scrappers and salvaged another $200 worth of components. In total I was down £2500, a blow that hit me harder than the crash itself.
With my girlfriend due in a few days the clock was ticking to find a new vehicle.
I was stoked on my new car, which after the unresponsive van was bliss to drive. I purchased a Toyota Wish 2004 1.8 litre station wagon from a boxer for $3700 (£1900), which had a solid reputation for reliability and low fuel consumption and was black with tinted windows. Since the van felt claustrophobic to sleep in I wasn’t bothered about sleeping in a tent instead.
It felt so good to be driving to Redwoods and Skyline again. I treated myself to the uplift service at Redwoods and had a few runs of the Nationals downhill track, which is fast and technical and finishes on some large jumps (referred to by Pinkbike as 'One of the best DH courses you're likely to find'). I was really into the riding here and ended my stay in Rotorua with a perfect day riding the woods and then the bike park. The next day I was picking up my girlfriend from Auckland before setting off on a huge three-and-a-bit-week road trip around both islands.
Initial observations and lessons learnt in New Zealand
Driving can be pretty full on with long journey times and either exciting or frustrating depending on whether or not someone is in front of you.
Most drivers don’t understand lane etiquette, although multi-lane roads are rare so this is understandable.
The sun is intense! There is also a lot of wind.
If you’re having a rough time sleeping the birds will torment you at 3am with their loud calls.
New Zealand terms: ‘The bush’ refers to the back country or woods. The ‘dairy’ is the local shop or convenience store. The name for peppers is capsicum and sweet potato is kumara. People say ‘true’ instead of ‘no way’ or 'really', and 'hey bru’ as a greeting.
Overall people are super friendly and way more trusting often leaving cars and homes unlocked. Theft doesn't seem to be much of an issue here.
There aren’t many British visitors in New Zealand, mainly Chinese, French and Germans.
There are public bike parks and designated downhill mountain bike tracks in national parks.
Food is really expensive.
I keep losing things. The most annoying loss being a micro SD card that had footage from all of the main tracks at Dirt Farm - Green Room was the only one that was exported beforehand hence why there isn't a Dirt Farm overview video.
If you have 4 wheel drive and are on an unsealed road use it. Also remember you are not a rally driver, nor is a van a rally car.