Return to the
Photo: Crankworx Rotorua Whip Off in full flow.
Finally, after I could put it off no longer, I left Queenstown. Despite knowing I’d be back I felt sad, since things were going to be very different on my return; it would be autumn and I’d be preparing to leave the country.
I broke up the 12 hour drive to Picton with a stop at Gav’s new house near Christchurch, which didn’t even have foundations when I visited him just two months earlier. That night was the best I’d slept in months. A quiet dark room with a comfortable bed - all to myself - was absolute luxury. It’s funny what you take for granted in everyday non-travelling life.
With no distractions other than the changing view from my drivers seat, I had more time than I was comfortable with to reflect on everything that had changed back home since I arrived in Queenstown only six weeks earlier.
‘The longer I was away the more I faded from the lives of those who once cared and the less I had in common with them. Soon, it seemed, home and the people I knew there would be unrecognisable and unrelatable.’
Approaching the summit of Mt Taranaki on one of those days that felt a million miles from home.
I may have pressed pause on everyday life, but it was playing for everyone else.
My long term ex, who I’d known for over a decade and was with for over half that time, recently had a child. I couldn’t understand why but it really affected me. Perhaps it was because we’d once envisioned such a future together, or maybe because since we split we remained friends and it only seemed a matter of time until the flame reignited. Fate however had other ideas, and it felt like I’d just been shaken awake; pipe dream over. She was a parent while I was travelling on the other side of the world void of any responsibility or certainty - everything was different now.
Meanwhile my current relationship was in turmoil. Our conversations became less frequent and less positive and she could no longer commit to making plans on my return. I'd hoped buying a return ticket would provide the light at the end of the long-distance relationship tunnel, a fixed date to look forward to, and justification for the hundreds of messages, hours on the phone, postcards and reassurance that everything would work out, but sadly it had made no difference. In the same week I also learnt I was no longer in my friends’ holiday plans either.
The longer I was away the more I faded from the lives of those who once cared and the less I had in common with them. Soon, it seemed, home and the people I knew there would be unrecognisable and unrelatable. I naively presumed this wouldn’t happen in the relatively short period of time I was gone but reality proved otherwise.
Photos (top to bottom): Wellington from the ring belt, Picton harbour and pulling into Wellington - I don't think I've ever experienced such nice weather on my birthday (shame it was mostly spent driving!)
Driving past Mount Cook National Park, I realised I’d made a huge mistake booking a flight home. I should have seen the signs and turned around - why the hell was I leaving? But this thought was closely followed by - but where exactly would I actually live, what would I do for work, would I really be happier here, is the grass actually greener… I wasn’t blind to the countries own problems and lack of employment opportunities for someone with my skillset. Plus, while no doubt I loved it out here, I hadn’t actually been anywhere where I thought ‘yep, this is home.’
I decided to continue with the original plan of making the most of my remaining time in the country and not burn any bridges back home.
It would be rude not to include a 360 montage from Crankworx. Soderstrom on the Speed and Style (where he came 2nd after crashing on a 360 double whip in finals) and Ryan Howard at the Whip off.
Happy birthday to me
It was my birthday on the day I boarded the 6.30am ferry to Wellington and, feeling groggy and ill not helped by a terrible nights sleep in a hostel room shared with at least 10 other people, I appreciated the morning sun on my face as I relaxed on the deck.
I decided I wasn’t going to spend the whole day travelling, and aimed to arrive in Taupo with enough time to do a skydive as my birthday thing. Time wasn’t on my side though so I was going to have to tease the speed limit to take an hour off the six hour drive.
The journey was stressful but I made it in time to be promised a spot on the last dive that day so I started completing the paper work - to then be told they’d made a mistake. I booked in the following morning and my birthday discount still applied, so at least the chaotic drive wasn’t for nothing.
'I felt like a passenger and didn’t even hit the road gap I hadn’t paid any caution to previously. Now there was a line to scope over a blown out berm for the b line and a 10 foot patch of holes into the takeoff.'
Prep for Air DH, and 15 minutes before my run.
After my morning thrill and epic aerial views, followed by a swim in the lake, I set off to Rotorua arriving just in time for the Dual Slalom, the opening event of Crankworx. In the crowd I bumped into an old friend from my hometown.
The last time I saw him he was a nerdy shop mechanic and now he was travelling the world as a professional mechanic, hanging with the pros, covered in tattoos and with a cool demeanour. I was happy things had worked out for him.
The dual set the tone for the week.
I assumed Skyline would only be hectic during races and contests, but it was hectic the entire time. It certainly wasn’t the sleepy bike park I remembered it being; Crankworx had transformed it into a village bustling with screens, PA systems, stands, people and bikes.
Tricks while racing and just racing - Speed and Style, Pumptrack and Dual Slalom.
The next day was my turn in front of the crowds racing the Air DH. I’m not fast or competitive but decided to compete since doing so cost barely more than a spectators ticket, with the added perks of lift access, parking for the week, a lanyard that said ‘athlete’ on it and the experience of being part of an international event.
During my first run of practice on Mr Black I was shocked. The track was super dusty and blown out. What I remembered being a fast and smooth track was now loose, slow and rough - with a carpet of dust hiding large holes so they took you by surprise.
I felt like a passenger and didn’t even hit the road gap I hadn’t paid any caution to previously. Now there was a line to scope over a blown out berm for the b line and a 10 foot patch of holes into the takeoff. I watched on the sidelines to see riders lines and learnt it was just a case of committing and letting the bike dance.
By my third and final practice run I was getting into it, letting the bike drift into the dusty corners, pedalling harder between rhythm sections and pinning the rough sections (after letting out more than a few PSI from my tyres and suspension).
‘We were having an amazing session until he totally mistimed a scrub off the boner log at the start of the lower set and was pitched straight over the bars onto his head.’
Photos (top to bottom): Last stage of the EWS, Christoph, hostel group shot, and one of many sections of mayhem on the DH track.
Out the gate I felt relaxed and was really enjoying riding my bike. I’d never cornered so well in my life and I let it hang loose off the jumps and features. No doubt I could have pedalled more and kept low on all the jumps for extra speed, but I wasn’t bothered about the clock as much as feeling good and getting my lines.
Thankfully it was the polar opposite to my previous race six months earlier in the Yorkshire Dales, the Ard Rock Enduro, where nerves got the best of me and I rode terribly, crossing the finish line with internal bleeding after six stages full of mistakes.
After the race I joined some rapid Aussies for a few dusty laps, failing to keep up but having fun regardless, still buzzing from my run.
Crankworx draws riders from all over the world, so the hostel was full of other people who were here for the same reason. A week later the riding group was down to just myself and Christoph, a young and tireless German guy who’d be my friend and riding partner for the next week. He was super fit, fast and fearless and his enthusiasm was infectious.
As well as the majority of the official trails in the Redwoods forest, we rode all six of the EWS stages, including ones we definitely weren’t supposed to, which made a couple of race marshals particularly angry on one occasion. We also checked out the skatepark in town taking tuns on my BMX. It was a good time.
His dad was keen for him to spend some time before flying home relaxing and visiting more places as opposed to just riding, but since we both couldn’t get enough it didn’t take much to persuade him to go against his dad’s wishes and stay for longer.
Photos (top to bottom): A another fun Rotorua riding crew, the trees providing a solid reminder you're in NZ, unofficial trails signage, and a couple on Rainbow Mountain.
On his last morning we went to Dodzy’s skills park to session the larger jump line. I was a little apprehensive since the last time I was there I left feeling pretty down from wussing out of the bigger jumps, but this time Christoph brought the stoke and seeing him hit jumps with way less jumping experience gave me no excuses. It was on.
We were having an amazing session until he totally mistimed a scrub off the boner log at the start of the lower set and was pitched straight over the bars onto his head. Fortunately he wasn’t knocked out and only had a minor concussion, and an impressive gouge in his shoulder. After I patched him up we said our goodbyes and he set off to the airport.
Sessions with Christoph, feeling the most trails I'd felt in two years, and one of the best one minute tracks I've ever ridden, which conveniently exits into Dodzy's jump park.
It felt strange after Christoph left and I was back on my own.
When you travel solo you become good at adapting to changing circumstances, whether that’s being alone or surrounded by people, or spending a few weeks in one place or somewhere new every day; but there’s always a lag.
After nearly three weeks in Rotorua I had to leave. I didn’t want to as I’d made new friends and recently discovered a network of underground trails but, as was typical whenever I became settled, it was time to move on to make the most of my remaining time in the North Island.
I don't think I fully appreciated this view while I was there, probably because I was busy getting psyched before another lap of Mini DH.
A weekend of summits
It was now my last full month in the country. How time had flown. It was also beginning to feel autumnal - leaves were falling, the temperature became comfortable to ride in and the nights were drawing in. Soon it would be time to migrate to a new spring.
I hadn’t clambered up any mountains in a while and was feeling the itch. There were three in the North Island I set my sights on - Mt Taranaki, Mt Ngauruhoe (Mount Doom) and the highest mountain on the North Island, Ruapehu. Having spent much longer than planned in Rotorua I only had one free weekend so formed an ambitious plan - to summit Ruapehu and Mt Taranaki (over six hours driving apart) back-to-back.
'Half way up, after much route confusion from the start, the weather turned and visibility plummeted to 20 feet as the sky filled with snow. Since I had no idea whether I was even going the right way I considered sacking it off. I felt out of my depth scrambling up a mountain with little idea of where I was going in treacherous conditions and by myself - but I decided to keep going.'
Photos: A few from a scary ascent of Mount Ruapehu, the tallest mountain on the North Island.
Mount Ruapehu (2797 m)
After doing a little research I discovered there wasn’t a track to the summit and at nearly 3000 metres there were even warnings about altitude sickness. There was also much more information available about how to hire a guide to take you up the mountain than how to go up it oneself.
This all sounded exciting, and since you could park 1600 metres up the mountain thanks to a ski field I presumed it wouldn’t be a big deal. I was looking forward to being at the highest point of the island and seeing the views and crater lake at the top of this active volcano.
Half way up, after much route confusion from the start, the weather turned and visibility plummeted to 20 feet as the sky filled with snow. Since I had no idea whether I was even going the right way I considered sacking it off. I felt out of my depth scrambling up a mountain with little idea of where I was going in treacherous conditions and by myself. But I decided to keep going, looking back frequently to memorise anything distinguishable (a challenge in itself as all I could see was rocks and snow) so I could retrace my steps.
And a few more! Looking out to Mount Doom (one I planned but didn't have time for), happy to be descending with other people, and a brief spell of visibility on the upper ridge of Mt Ruapehu.
I was hugely relieved when I saw foot prints in the snow, indicating I must be going the right way, so I followed them until they faded. When I got to the top ridge I was hesitant which way to go and turned left as that’s what I remembered from the vague directions I’d read.
Half an hour later, at my new high point, I looked back during a break in the clouds and could just about make out a group of people walking in the opposite direction a few hundred metres away, so in full faith they were going the right way I turned around and tried my best to catch up with them.
When I did visibility dropped to a few feet, but they, and another couple we bumped into who I would descend with, confirmed we were on the peak. Apparently I’d missed views of the crater lake by ten minutes, but at least I felt safe in the company of others and I was happy to have people to descend with who knew the route. We laughed as we took turns slipping down icy rocks and shared stories of mountain adventures.
'My face was sore from sun burn, the hostel I found on Google when my phone eventually let me in, miles into the countryside, appeared to no longer exist. Then my phone ran out of battery and wouldn’t charge because of a faulty connection when I needed to figure out where to go instead, then I realised the fuel gauge was hovering over empty and I had no idea where I was (...) I'd had enough.'
Top ridge to the summit of Ruapehu shortly before the cloud engulfed everything. I was actually walking the wrong way on the top ridge until I turned around to take this photo and saw other people walking in the opposite direction - trusting they were far more likely to have the right idea.
Back in my car I had to decide where to go next. Mt Taranaki was the original plan but the forecast didn’t look great, and I pondered whether another sketchy mountain ascent possibly without any views was worth the effort. But when I looked at the forecast in detail the morning looked promising, and since this was going to be my only opportunity I decided to give it a shot.
It was a (supposedly) four hour drive west along the appropriately named Forgotten World Highway, which felt as adventurous as the walk earlier that day. Boulders littered the road in places from rock slides, there were multiple single lane bridges and an over 10km section of unsealed road.
When I thought I’d seen it all there was even an unlit single lane tunnel a few hundred feet long. The ‘highway’ weaved its way over a mountain range and had plenty of tight turns with no prior warning and the odd herd of sheep in the middle of the road… It was hilariously ridiculous.
Google’s ETA was way out; I eventually made it to a campsite and pitched my tent after 10pm, 45 minutes from Mt Taranaki, and left my alarm set for 6am.
Turn a corner and bam, the enormity of Mount Taranaki hits you. This view made me excited for the day ahead.
Mount Taranaki (2518 m)
I channeled the frustration I’d felt the previous day from missing the views on top of Ruapehu into motivation to get out of my warm sleeping bag and step outside into the cold. As I packed the tent I was surprised the sun was rising, oblivious the clocks had changed.
I’d intended to start the ascent during sunrise so the lack of darkness was alarming. On the drive I turned a corner and bam, in front of me was a huge volcano that looked straight out of a child’s sketchbook.
Mt Taranaki dominates the landscape as it is the only mountain in an otherwise flat coastal landscape. With the top half covered in snow, it looked both incredible and intimidating.
I left the car at 7.30 and, feeling behind schedule, marched up the relatively mellow first few miles to gain time. The forecast mentioned a risk of thunderstorms late morning so I was keen to get above the clouds first, and when I got higher I could see a weather front closing in which only made me move faster. The air no longer felt cold and I was covered in sweat before I’d even made it to the snow line.
Ascending Mount Taranaki, taking photos during spells of visibility. The constantly changing sky definitely added to the experience.
The sky was constantly changing - the summit and valley below hidden one moment and visible the next as clouds sailed past. I also couldn’t believe how much snow there was, much more than on Ruapehu despite being close to the sea and lower in elevation. But this time I felt safe - there were poles for navigation and fresh foot prints, so I knew I was on track. I passed a couple of groups on the way and saw a couple of others on the summit, and I was lucky this time to catch a glimpse of the valley and sea below during a short break in the clouds.
As other people left the summit three young women I’d passed earlier arrived, just in time for a blanket of cloud to deny them any views. They asked if they could go down with me as they weren’t totally comfortable on the mountain. Since I was a little apprehensive about the descent myself and welcomed a break from myself, I said yes. Their charm and good looks didn’t hurt either, and it was comical seeing them spend as much time on their bums as on their feet and a large part could be skied down - sliding fast on your feet for large sections in the deep snow.
I learned they were German gap year students currently living in Auckland working as au pairs. They’d started at 5am and told me about the incredible sunrise they saw on the way up, and how they could see the peak of the mountain against the backdrop of the Milky Way. I was more than a little annoyed I hadn’t set off earlier, but at least I saw views from the summit.
Up to the summit of Mount Taranki, on the summit and then the cloud drove in again. It seemed it wasn't going to blow over, and the wind picked up some more, so we quickly made our way down. Half an hour later we looked back at the summit in full sunshine. You just can't predict the weather this high up.
When I made it back to my car, totally exhausted (I'd climbing and descending over 3700 m (12,140 ft) vertical over two days), everything went wrong. It didn’t help that I hadn’t planned beyond the ascent so had no idea what to do or where to go next, and I couldn’t do any last minute research because my phone had locked me out for half an hour from numerous pocket dials.
I ended up in a depressing town rather than one of the many pristine beaches in the area. Then I realised for the first time, when looking through photos, that the sensor on my camera was dirty so there was a black spot on every photo and video clip I had taken in New Zealand - the snowy white scenes from that day highlighted the dot spectacularly.
On top of that my face was sore from sun burn, the hostel I found on Google when my phone eventually let me in, miles into the countryside, appeared to no longer exist. Then my phone ran out of battery and wouldn’t charge because of a faulty connection when I needed to figure out where to go instead, then I realised the fuel gauge was hovering over empty and I had no idea where I was.
I found a petrol station just in time, but I’d had enough. When my phone finally had charge to turn on for one minute I discovered the closest sizeable town with a hostel was two hours away so put my foot down; I was ready for bed a long time ago.
'Unknown to me as I relaxed on the ferry, my final weeks in the country were about to get wild. If this trip was a party then Nelson was the afterparty, and it was about to get heavy.'
From the summit of Mount Taranki during a cloud break - able to look over the valley below out to the coast. It's crazy how this is the only hill or mountain in the whole region.
I was predictably utterly exhausted the next morning. Fortunately I didn’t have a several thousand metre mountain to climb and instead just had a 90 minute drive to Dirt Farm.
Dirt Farm was the first stop on my NZ road trip that started five months earlier in Wellington. I was excited to return for a few days for more than just the riding. I considered Tim, the owner, a friend and an all round top guy - super welcoming, driven and full of stories. I was happy enough just catching up and hanging out with him and his family at their idilic spot on top of a hill overlooking the sea.
I was plenty keen to ride (not least the pro jump line, Sky Burial), help with track building in return for their hospitality and interview Tim for a website feature, but not today; today was a rest day.
Checking out the one tourist attraction/thing to do in Whanganui (Durie Hill Tower because you totally wanted to know) after I woke up in this miserable town. I don't think anyone has ever deliberatiely visited here.
After a few hours exchanging stories with Tim, and hearing how an army exercise on Mt Ruapehu resulted in the loss of six lives, I felt humbled and reflected on my own close calls in the mountains.
Feeling a little more grateful for life and after a little encouragement, I found myself lifting my bike out the car and pushing up the rollin of Green Room. I spent most of my time on this track during my last visit as it suited me perfectly - a flow trail that takes some time to dial in.
Photos: Dirt Farm including the main guy with the vision, Tim Browne. Panorama clip shot on the top roll in, which is also the start to Sky Burial.
From the first roller I regretted my decision - my body and head may as well have been on different planets. To make matters worse, after the first straight and into the trees I discovered the clay-based track was wet.
All I could do was hang on and stay upright, and even that I failed at. It was one of those crashes you’re thankful no-one else saw. It also hurt more than it should, ripped my shorts (I had very few clothes left by this point) and scratched the chin guard on my carbon D3.
This utterly pointless and totally avoidable crash brought my NZ total into double figures. While this was a very reasonable number - I’d ridden with people who crashed as many times during a single session - it was little consolation as I exited the track onto the fire road.
My last few shots of Wellington on the Ring Belt. By far the most beautiful capital city I've visited.
I was gutted. There was no chance of the tracks drying out during my stay so gone were my plans of riding a bunch, let alone sending jumps. It was also a stark reminder it was no longer summer and I was approaching the end of this adventure.
The morning before my ferry I got up early to squeeze in a session at Makara Peak, the first place I rode in NZ, before I said goodbye to the North Island for the last time.
Unknown to me as I relaxed on the ferry, my final weeks in the country were about to get wild. If this trip was a party then Nelson was the afterparty, and it was about to get heavy.