Aorangi Adventures

Aorangi Adventures

Having stormed south for the last four days on the road I was craving a bit of adventure so it was time to head off the TA route for a few days. There was a route I'd spied called the No. 8 Wired on the bikepacking website and had decided to ride the bottom loop from Martinborough, across the Aorangi forest to the Putangirua Pinnacles around to Cape Palliser and then back up to Martinborough via Ngapotiki Station. Having read the article I knew that there would be a five hundred metre ascent where I'd be pushing BB but it seemed like a reasonable compromise to take in the remote Aorangi Crossing.

My route across the Aorangi Forest Park

It was a beautiful morning as I set off from Martinborough full of excitement for the days ahead. The sun warmed me slowly as I rode out to the Huarangi gravel road which would take me through Ruakokokputuna and to the start of the forest park.

Good morning sunshine

The gravel road was in good shape and was deserted. Rolling along the hillside with just the neighbouring sheep for company I thought that this was going to be a cool way to see the Pinnacles and visit the most southernly part of the North Island at Cape Palliser.

I was surprised to see two riders coming in the other direction and stopped to say hello. They were on gravel bikes and had light bikepacking luggage and it turns out that they'd come from the No. 8 Wired route. They'd set off the previous day and managed to get lost by Sutherlands Hut at the start of the route and spent two hours bushwhacking to find the trail. They warned me of the turn before the hut and when I asked about the uphill section they looked at each other and told me that it was like trying to defy gravity to haul your bike up the steep slope. The article said it would take an hour to walk your bike up to the top but now it sounded a whole lot more involved than that. In the end the guys had run out of time and had to backtrack rather then pushing through to the Pinnacles and the coast on the other side of the forest. Trying not to worry too much they told me that I'd be fine, I had plenty of daylight and it wouldn't be easy but I could give it a go. After checking that I had a personal locator beacon they left me to it as I continued nervously along the track, thinking about their struggles with navigating and the strenuous pushing that lay ahead.

A mile or so later I reached the entrance to the forest park. From here I would descend into the valley to two hundred metres and then start the long climb up to the summit ridge at seven hundred metres. The downhill started with a nice four wheel drive track and quickly became a rocky, rutted track winding down to the valley floor. Having reached the bottom I knew then that I was committed to a big ascent either way as having to backtrack from where I'd come down wouldn't be rideable.

Following the trail was straightforward at first and I knew there were five river crossings along the first stretch. Given the lack of rain recently they were only very shallow streams which I was glad of as I didn't fancy taking off my shoes five times in short succession. It was difficult to see where the trail went in the stream bed but I could see tyre tracks from the two guys I'd bumped into which gave me a nice feeling of not being completely on my own.

Stream crossing

The bikepacking article didn't go into great detail about the route and I had a GPS file to navigate with but I'd also done a bit of research and found an entry online about the route from an old Kennet Bro's book which turned out to be very useful. It indicated that there was a fork in the trail and to take the left turn and when I saw it I knew that this was where the two guys had gone astray in their ride. It was more overgrown than the other trail and not the obvious choice even using the GPS to navigate. It was from this point that the uphill began and as I rounded the first corner and the steepness increased, I dismounted and surveyed what lay before me.

The uphill begins

A noise behind me made me jump, I turned around to see a hunter with his rifle and I think I greeted him by saying, 'Jesus, you scared the pants off me'. I really wasn't expecting to see anyone and neither was he by the look on his face. He was out hunting for deer and after quizzing him a bit about the trail he left me to it as I started to push Betty up the steep rocky incline. I think I managed about ten steps before I realised that this just wasn't going to work. She was too heavy. Not wanting to be beaten so soon by the terrain I decided that I would have to take the heavy front handlebar bag off to be able to continue. I smiled as I remembered the long thick strap at the bottom of my saddle bag that I'd used to carry the handlebar bag as my hand luggage at the airport - it would be perfect to allow me to wear the heavy bag on my back.

Ten minutes of faffing later and we set off up the trail. It was noon and the sun was getting stronger as I straightened my arms, put my head down and started to push. Wow, this was a harder than I thought and after around twenty steps I had to stop for a breather. As the track wound up the mountainside I was forever hoping that it would level off around the next corner but instead the gradient seemed to increase. By now I was soaked with sweat, red in the face and wondering if I'd even make it to the top in the two hours I'd given myself.

I got into a bit of a routine of ten or twenty steps, a break and then continue, trying not to look ahead at the neverending hillside. It was nice to see the view down the valley behind me, confirming that I was actually making some progress on the monster climb.

Going up!

Rounding a corner to a short shaded section that was fairly level I stopped for lunch. I'd been on the go for a good four hours at this point and pushing for the last hour. Checking the GPS confirmed my estimate that I had another hour until I would reach the summit and so I was back on my feet and pushing again before I could get comfortable sitting down. It was at this point that the terrain changed again. The gravelly, rocky slope before me looked almost vertical as I stared ahead in disbelief. This is what the guys had meant when they had said it was like trying to defy gravity to haul your bike up here.

It's steeper than it looks

My calves strained at the effort of moving us both upwards and it became a game of targets. Get to the next big boulder or that bush on the right or just five more steps. I was pitted in a battle of wills against nature and gravity and at times it seemed inevitable that there would be a point where I wouldn't be able to continue anymore. Surprisingly there was very little swearing from me, just a slow-growing feeling of despair at the thought of what was over the next little ridgeline. I stopped ever frequently and then came the point where the rocks became boulders and no measure of pushing could get BB up the slope.

How the hell am I going to keep going? There is not a chance in hell that I'm going back down this horrendously steep hill to then climb up and out of the valley and retrace my steps. I'm committed. There is no way but up. One step and rock at a time. I grabbed Betty by the frame and hauled her up. It wasn't pretty, it was messy and raw but it worked! Just keep going I screamed in my head. It has to end eventually. I thought about the two guys and their nice lightly packed gravel bikes and cursed at having so much stuff. In fact for a three month trip I was travelling pretty light but I could feel every pound of weight in this struggle for summit victory. It sounds like I was climbing Everest or something but this was my personal Everest. I honestly don't think I've ever had such a prolonged physical challenge as this one. It was a full body workout from my calves, thighs, core and up to my arms, neck and shoulders. I was stunned that I could keep on pushing and pulling us both up the hillside and as I struggled to keep my footing on the loose gravel I ended up using one hand to steady myself against the boulders ahead and another to drag poor Betty up beside me.

As the hidden summit became a reality and the ground levelled off to what could have been mistaken for a pine needle strewn forest floor, I slumped to the ground in a sweaty heap.

The top!

The top, the glorious summit and not a view in sight, haha! Only the quiet sounds of the birds, bees and cicadas as I treat myself to the most amazing chocolate peanut slab reward. From here it was all downhill, at least that's what the GPS profile led me to believe. I couldn't wait to feel the wind in my hair and actually sit on the bike again after two hours of brutal physical punishment.  

As I started down the nice forest track I felt lightened knowing that the worst was over. Ah, how naive I was - the Aorangi forest had a few tricks up her sleeve yet. It was soon clear that the majority of the downhill would be technical and tricky. A rutted, rocky, rooty steep slope appeared now as I used all of my skill and concentration to stay upright.

Again, it's steeper than it seems

As the track levelled off again the views opened up of the forest that surrounded me.

Riding high

Unfortunately for me though, the view ahead was a familiar one that involved a hill and no riding. If I looked in very close detail at the GPS file I could see now that there were another two ascents in between the long downhill. Not wanting to bother taking the handlebar bag off again this time I powered through, gritted my teeth and cursed my way up the relatively small incline compared to the epic climb of the morning.

As time marched on I was wondering if I'd actually have time to make my detour to view the Pinnacles. This was turning into a much larger and longer adventure than I'd thought and one which if I was honest with myself, I'd rather be over pretty soon. My capacity for more type two fun was definitely diminishing. Between hauling bike the descents were getting steeper and harder as I progressed. Having to get off and slide our way down some parts left me further deflated and craving to actually ride my bike.

The thing is that I knew the only way out was to keep going. By now I was tiring and couldn't stop looking at the GPS to see how far was left - which as we all know is just silly when you do it too often and therefore really see no progress. Crossing the Hurupi stream the start of the last climb was in sight.

Last push surely...

As the trail flattened out again and I could ride again, I relished the relative speed of the trail. It was greener now and that brought it's own demons along the trail - evil huge gorse bushes. Taking the beatings on my legs and arms I ducked and dived across the 4WD track trying to avoid any injury to the tyres. As I saw a wooden sign ahead my heart leapt as I knew that this was the brunt of the trail over.

Finally no more hills!

Here I laid Betty down for a nap and took to the track on two feet to walk the mile out to the Pinnacles. Feeling so light and airy at not having to push anything I relished the freedom of the little wander. Craving the end of the day I have to admit that when I saw the Pinnacles I was a little underwhelmed. They are one of the best examples of erosion exposing layers of sedimentary rock built up into pillars or hoodoos as they're known. They've also featured in many films including Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.

The Putangirua Pinnacles

Back at my bike I saddled up and took in the views of the sea for the start of the last few miles to the coast.

So good to see the sea

Hearing an unfamiliar thwack from every revolution of the front wheel I looked down to find a two inch piece of gorse sticking out from the sidewall of the front tyre. My heart sank as I talked to Betty saying that we just needed to get down and to the campsite and then I'd sort her out - that's if it held out that long. Reaching a locked gate at the bottom of the track I was almost at breaking point. Removing the front bag to lift her over it and then re-attaching the bag, we rode another hundred metres down the gravel before reaching a second locked gate. Will this ever end? Another bag removal procedure, a lift over and we were within spitting distance of the road now.

The front tyre was noticeably deflating now as we rode the five minutes to the Pinnacles campsite. Relief doesn't even come close to how I was feeling now. No time for resting yet, I pitched the tent and then set about fixing the front tyre.

Ghastly gorse

Pulling out the gorse I knew that it wouldn't self-seal as I removed the tyre and searched for a patch in my repair kit. It would be touch and go as to whether this would work or if I'd need to make the hole larger and plug it with a tubeless repair kit. Patch in place I got my new CO2 tool out and attempted to reinflate the tyre. A disappointing 'pfft' of air that didn't do anything made my heart sink. The canister had been pierced but the air wasn't going into the valve. I had one more canister remaining and after checking everything was as it should be I gave it a go only to see the same disappointing result. Time for the last resort, to put an inner tube in. My only tube now in use and Betty was back in action. That put an end to my thoughts of making this a loop back to Martinborough now via the coastal track as I had little room for error if I had further problems. The good news was that she was fixed and the day was nearly done and it was 7pm.

Camp for the night

After my evening meal and a wander over to the sea for a quick wash, I crawled into my bed and turned off my alarm for the morning. If any day required a rest day then this was it. I'd take a leisurely morning as I knew it was due to rain in the morning and I was only planning on riding fifteen miles to the Cape Palliser lighthouse the next day. As I sat drinking my evening cuppa I reflected a bit on the day. I don't really know how I managed physically to get through what I felt was possibly the hardest day ever that I've had. In reality there was very little riding and mostly an extreme full body workout. I was surprised that I hadn't given up, cried, had a little paddy or even swore more. I dealt with it all quite logically I think and that had seen me through. I had wanted to do this ride after first seeing it and it was my choice to challenge myself as I could have just ridden along the road to get to the coast here but as usual I felt like making life hard for myself. It had certainly ticked the adventure box, I felt like I'd been trekking through remote forest for weeks not a day! I also felt proud, gave myself a pat on the back and was pleased that I'd managed to complete the crossing. Did I enjoy it, no not particularly but like most things I learnt a little bit more about myself, about my limits, about my body and most importantly my inner strength. I can, I will and I did! Now time to rest and recover before tackling the next part of my journey.