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Part 4

Back behind

bars

Photo: Trig M, Springfield

Published: 21.06.19

Pssssssst. ‘AHH, WHY NOW’. I was out of water, dehydrated and at the furthest point from my car in the baking heat. The moment I saw that sharp rock I knew my first NZ puncture was imminent. I was in the Port Hills and less than 100 metres from the end of my last proper descent of the day. The track was called Greenwoods. I had been looking forward to riding it as it was recently used as an Enduro stage for a race and the guys at the bike park dig day raved about it.

 

But I wasn’t psyched. The track wasn’t worth the slog to get to and after riding lots of not-that-great trails on the way I was done. What made me think a long trail ride in the open on a hot day was a good idea?

 

The desire for being in the cool sea below rather than here, sweating profusely under the scorching sun fixing my bike, was overwhelming. I had plans to meet a BMX friend from home at the beach later on and I was already running late before this happened. The beach was less than a mile from where I was, I could even see it, but first I had to fix my bike and ride for two hours over the hills to the car before I could get to it.

 

A mess of sealant and a tube later and I was finally on my way.

‘This was the most exposed I’d felt on a bike. Being alone in exposed places really makes you focus and I was buzzing on the thrill.’

Photos: Christchurch Port Hills

‘Nice bike, that must be worth like 10k bru’. I was about half way on the return journey and well into my personal suffer fest, when I bumped into a group of lads leaning on an old tatty car that had just broken down. Really, now… Why did they even drive down here, how did they not see that big no exit sign, were the thoughts running through my head.

 

Feeling tense, but acting like my only concern was being extremely thirsty, we chatted for a few minutes as I didn’t want to seem rude. Then a surprising thing happened. Seeing I was blown out, one of them handed me an energy drink from the car. I couldn’t say no and the can even felt cool in my hand, but I also felt more on edge in case they wanted something in return, but they didn’t. I wished them luck with their car and carried on, as relieved with not being robbed as I was stoked on the can of sugary refreshing goodness in my hand - chur!

 

When I eventually got to the beach the sun was setting and it was no longer sweltering, but running into the sea after craving it for so long felt amazing nonetheless. I listened to my mates stories about chasing girls around NZ, ending up broke and working long hours on building sites to be able to move on, and not really riding his bike. He was on an adventure of his own.

Photos (top left to bottom right): Christchurch Adventure Park from the top of Yoda and Throw the Goat, the start of Third Base, one of the many technical sections on Yoda, filming = lift pass, my first NZ puncture with where I wanted to be in the background, dig day on a downhill race track, burnt trees from the fire.

Put to work - Christchurch Adventure Park

 

I didn’t have a single conversation with a Christchurch local without hearing an account of the forest fires, which had swept over the Port Hills area taking out the bike park and other nearby trails. The devastating fire, although being two years in the past, felt like it was still burning during those conversations. The dead trees that covered a large portion of the landscape and the loss of the old trails a frequent and raw reminder.

 

As Christchurch Adventure Park was in the flames the trails, as well as the several million dollar chairlift and other park infrastructure, had to be re-built. A friend I was staying with, known as JP back home but JJ out here, worked the demanding job of operations manager at the park, which as well as one hundred other things, involved promoting the park’s activities. So in return for a lift pass I promised to make videos to advertise the women’s and men’s nights group coaching sessions.

 

Despite having a large and varied video portfolio I was nervous about this project. I struggled to visualise the result, which needed to convey a range of information and messages. I also felt under pressure from only having one chance to get all the footage I needed.

The first evening was a disaster. Many of the instructors and riders were reluctant to be filmed and encouraging people to speak on camera was about as easy as boiling water on ice. When I did chance upon someone willing to speak they’d do so in their quietest voice. The group was split into different skill sets and I needed to provide an overview of each, which resulted in me spending much of the two-hour session frantically searching for each group. 

 

By the end of the evening I came away with a few clips, a couple of barely audible voice overs and a group interview from the social afterwards, which would have been perfect if the audio quality wasn’t dire. I cringed as I reviewed the footage; there was no way I could make a respectable video out of this. I also really needed an external mic and, as a delayed kick in the balls, I’d find out a few weeks later I had a lavaliere mic stashed uselessly in my car the entire time.

 

After I shared these frustrations with Justin, a mountain bike coach at the park who was also staying with JP, he promised to encourage people during men’s night to speak on camera. 

Photos: The mountains of Craigieburn and Arthurs Pass are usually wrapped in clouds. The bottom photo was taken on the way to Avalanche Peak, which is deep in the clouds. There were clear blue skies in Craigieburn less than an hour drive from here. The weather here differs in every valley.

Going into the second coaching night I knew I had to be far more persuasive, confident and organised. One of the difficulties was the fast-paced nature of the sessions, which provided few opportunities for testimonials. The chairlift was the only place I could corner people so it became my primary interview location. During the social afterwards one of the women from the other night even agreed to do an interview, which made up for the unusable interview clip I’d filmed the previous evening. My footage wasn’t great, the audio was still terrible quality, but I had what I needed to make a video. This was for sure the hardest I’d ever worked for a lift pass.

 

The bike park has some of the most technical and rowdy rock laden trails I’d ridden, even more so than Whistler Bike Park which is renowned for its technical rock rolls. Third Base, a trail that cut through the woods with a mix of flow, loam and steep sections, was my favourite track. It was one you could ride faster every time and take chances, in contrast to Yoda and Black Pearl which always felt wild and out of control.

Craigieburn

 

I broke up my time in Christchurch with trips to the nearby mountains of Craigieburn. The first ride was spent mainly lost. Some of the tracks have signs but most do not, so finding and linking together the numerous and sometimes far between trails involves a degree of exploration.

 

One particularly gruelling fire road climb up to Edge track seemed to never end. I was mentally and physically drained from getting everything wrong that day but, determined to end on a high, kept going. When I eventually got to the top over an hour later it felt in vain as I searched for the trail that, according to the Trailforks GPS app, started exactly where I was. It was no where to be seen. In a last ditch effort I waded through dense woodland and into a clearing. The evening sun lit up the mountain ahead and, more importantly to me, the trail that traversed across it.

 

The singletrack crossed large sections of scree across the steep mountain face. This was the most exposed I’d felt on a bike. Being alone in exposed places really makes you focus and I was buzzing on the thrill, my confidence and enjoyment increasing as the trail went on - as if every section I cleared made me less vulnerable on the next. 

Photos (top left to bottom right): Scree, scree and more scree on Edge track and Mt Cheeseman, small hips on the upper section of Dicksons DH, view from Helicopter Hill and home sweet home at Mistletoe flats campsite.

A while later I nearly rode straight into the first people I’d seen all day. It turned out to be a lucky encounter as after speaking to them I realised I’d missed a turning up to Luge, my final descent of the day back to the campsite. We chatted on the way up.

 

It was a dad and his two teenage kids, whose enthusiasm towards riding and the outdoors was infectious. Never before had I seen such beaming smiles on teenagers riding up hills. They were local to Christchurch and spent a lot of time in the mountains, their parents prioritising time over money to live a life that was true to them. Their positivity made me feel good.

 

After several days in Craigieburn I felt at home. I learnt where all the best official and a few unofficial trials were and I could join them together without getting desperately lost. I was getting stronger from the monstrous climbs (while attempting not to despise everyone aboard the occasional uplift truck) and feeling better on steep descents (a big deal for me as my background is in BMX). I enjoyed spending time here and I always slept well at the Mistletoe flats campsite. 

One of my favourite Craigieburn tracks is Dicksons DH, a relatively mellow (for NZ standards) and fast ‘enduro’ trail with a long line of doubles, triples, hips and berms at the top into forested sections and flowing singletrack further down. 

 

The upper section took some time to scope out and piece together. It’s a technical jump line with cheeky transfers if you look hard enough, and like a good set of BMX trails flows really well when you ride it right. When you dial in one rhythm section you carry lots of speed into the next and clear triples you first thought were doubles with a roller afterwards. As the track is narrow and fast in places you also needed to be precise. 

 

This was definitely my kind of trail, so on a glorious mid-week afternoon I decided to self-film the upper section. I’d self-filmed BMX trails and skateparks before so I knew I wasn’t in for an easy time, but I’d totally underestimated the challenge of self-filming a mountain bike trail. With only a micro tripod framing shots was difficult and frustrating, and pushing back up again and again for retakes and extra angles was exhausting. What I thought would take a couple of hours took five, but after getting the first few shots of a new transfer I felt committed to the project so changed my plans. The Cheeseman trails would have to wait. By the end of the session I felt broken but also really in tune with the track - too bad I didn’t have my GoPro for a far improved POV over the one I recorded after I first pieced it together!

Photos (top to bottom): Picnic Rock and other photos taken along the Hog Back trail loop via Castle Hill village.

The next day was my last in the area. I did over 8000 foot climbing, taking in as many runs as I could on the Cheeseman side to make up for lost time. I rode steep scree at the top of Mt Cheeseman feeling like Darren Berrecloth on his big mountain freeride adventures, found alternative starts to Cuckoo Creek, pushed myself on the steep wooded sections of Cockayne Alley, went down unofficial super steep trails and then, despite feeling totally wrecked and nearly out of day light, set off on a Caste Hill loop. 

 

I made many questionable choices that day but the last verged on stupid, even for me. My legs felt heavy after a full day of riding and I was about to venture onto new terrain on a ten mile loop with not much more than an hour of daylight remaining. I was full of doubt on the first climb but my mind cleared as I took in my surroundings at Picnic Rock. It was golden hour and the mountains glowed in the late evening light. I had this huge place to myself and I felt like I was exploring Mars as I rode over the volcanic landscape. I didn’t expect the scenery to look so different only one mountain across, nor did I expect to have so much fun on the beginner level Hog Back trails, but they were fast and flowed well. I made it back to the car as the sun dipped behind the mountains with barely a pedal stroke left in me. Life was amazing and I was buzzing. Doing that loop wasn’t such a stupid idea after all and it was one hell of a Craigieburn send off. 

View from Trig M looking onto Lake Lyndon.

Riding Trig M the next day wasn’t planned. I drove out to Arthurs Pass intending to climb Avalanche Peak but as I headed into the valley I was greeted with a storm front, so after speaking to a ranger I decided to climb Castle Hill Peak instead, a few valleys back in the direction I’d come from back out of the rain. However I missed the turn off and when I pulled over I realised I was at the start of a walking and riding track to Trig M. It was blowing a hooley and I felt beat from the heavy previous couple of days so I decided to do this smaller mountain instead. No rest for the Nomad.

 

As I looked over to the mountain I was supposed to climb, barely able to stay upright in the gusts, I felt it was for the best I missed the turn off after all. It would have been madness being higher up on the upper exposed scree slope of Castle Hill Peak, under fire from small stones picked up by the wind. No doubt my stubbornness for reaching the top would have put me in the thick of it. On the drive back to Christchurch I struggled to keep my eyes open. There was no way I could have driven back that day if I’d had an all day epic.

Riding the bowl behind JP's house and one of Caillin's many stacks. He tried this hench step down 360 a few times, and this wasn't his worst one. You can see Gav is well accustomed to this scenario by his casual reaction.

Get a BMX?

 

Before I left Chirstchurch for good I had another old friend to see, which meant riding the BMX for the first time in NZ. Gav worked in the skateboard and BMX shop in my hometown which was central in the local scene - supporting local riders, running competitions, building skateparks and organising trips. In need of a change he moved with his wife and kids to NZ five years ago and was now happily settled and about to build a house. 

 

The evening before I warmed up in the skatepark 100 meters from JP’s house to remind myself how to ride a BMX, enjoying the small but well made concrete bowl. The next day I met Gav and his friend, Caillin, at the main skatepark in Christchurch, which was huge and busy. This was a far cry from the mountain scenery and lack of people I was used to. 

 

I felt better when we went to another skatepark out of the city. It was small and janky but we had the place to ourselves. Caillin is wild and fearless, taking some heavy slams trying some ballsy lines including a 360 out of the bowl to flat four feet below. When he was done getting hurt and myself and Gav had maxed out our two moves I headed back with Gav for an evening of reminiscing and drinking beer. 

 

After nearly three weeks in Christchurch it was time to hit the road again and head south to Queenstown, with a couple of stops on the way. The first would be a return to Mount Cook National Park to do my first big mountain scramble.