The sun is shining as I break camp at Lake Ohau. The lake is mirror flat a halo of cloud hovers around the mountains. Like a white fur coat draped over the shoulders of the peaks. The view doubled in the smooth waters of the lake. The sky a deep blue, the heat of the day escaping out into space. A autumnal chill in the air. I struggle to shake of the cold of the night. Only getting on the bike and getting moving will keep me warm.
As I roll out of bed a waft of stale air puffs out of my sleeping bag. Trapped in my down jacket and between the walls of the sleeping bag. Its straight offensive. It has been 6 days since my last shower. Week 6 on the road.
Alps to Ocean
The ride over to Omarama is gentle and almost all gravel. The Alps to Ocean Trail being well maintained and well signposted. The scenery looking familiar now. The waving of the endless tussock and the colour of the dirt under my wheels. It all feels like I’m coming home. Maybe just the idea of being back in Otago again, where I spent day after day training for this ride.
It’s a slow gentle half days ride into Omarama. I stop for lunch and spend a good while charging my devices. There is one more day until I reach Cromwell, there waits a bed and warm shower. I ache for the shower; my skin feels both gritty and greasy simultaneously. Sun cream and dust have merged into its own unique substance. I feel decidedly gross.
Leaving Omarama I follow the road headed towards the saddle. My thoughts of showers blown from my head by a staggering head wind. I am pointing straight down a wind tunnel. The grass lies flat in submission either side of the road. I squint my eyes against the dust and bob and weave to regain balance against the gusts, my pace crawls from 20+km/h to 12km/h. I start to look for a place to camp and hide from the gale.
Onward I push, each pedal stroke is laughable against the torrent of wind. Rushing straight off the saddle and thrashing down the mountainside. Into the valley where I am captured by the surrounding hills. A long straight road, exposed and featureless. There are metal fences either side, worn fence posts jutting out of the tough ground like the ribs of a shipwreck. A long, jagged row of rotten teeth tied by rusty wire. No cover to be seen.
Searching for Camp
I see a drainage ditch to one side. As I step down into the gully the silence rushes in. The white noise of whistling air suddenly absent. I feel my body relax, I don’t have to fight the wind anymore. This is my first spot that looked even remotely plausible for a good nights sleep. A drainage ditch by the side of the road. Far from my most luxurious of campsites. I peer out like I’m sizing up no-mans-land from the trench. The moment my head is over the lip the wind kicks dirt into my face. I wince back down.
A strong wind usually brings weather. Rain up on the hills will pour over the desolate dry land. I haven’t washed in a while but a flash flood as I am sleeping is far from how I want it to go.
The Search Continues
In the distance stands a solitary line of trees. Stunted and cowering from the wind they are the only sign of a wind break. I grab the bike and push on. Headed for the little oasis from the wind.
It takes a painful half hour of slow progress to get to the corpse of trees. A slightly demur standing of evergreens. The angle is a little shallow to be a full wind block. But I feel I am in the eddy of the current as opposed to in the centre of the rapids. I make camp as the long golden grass waves in hypnotic circles around me. Crickets call out of the swish of warm air.
The day fades quietly and serenely into a beautiful sunset. Pink and orange slashes of colour splattered with fast moving dark clouds. I fall asleep to gentle raindrops hitting the outside of the tent, the majority of the water dropped on the ragged peaks of the hills. Down in the valley I get a gentle misting, by morning it is already indistinguishable from the morning dew.
The Omarama Saddle was never reported to be easy. I always knew It would be steep. Switchbacks were a given. Rough 4×4 track was a high possibility. Looking up and seeing the whole track is always demoralising though. The pale line cutting through the hills and following the line like a tattoo on the land, all the way up to the saddle.
My thoughts were ‘I wish there was more switch backs, that looks steep as hell!’
After all the hill I had climbed and all the mountains passes. This was going to be a tough day.
The track started off wide and slightly muddy from the previous nights rain. Fresh cow pats littered the road like landmines. A real 4×4 had come this way, the kind of 4×4 that has deep tread and sprays of mud up the side. A winch and someone who knows how to use it. This was serious terrain and cell phone signal was patchy at best. I had to smile. There was still plenty of adventure to be had yet.
I slog up the track, sweat lost in my, now thick, ginger beard. The road is potholed, the cow pats switched to patches of loose skittish gravel. I zigzag trying to find the solid ground. To hold traction as my legs spin in the lowest gear.
I have one more mountain pass. Nevis road in a few days time. I don’t expect that to be any easier either. I look down into the valley almost able to make out where I camped last night. It’s taken me almost 2 hours to travel 5kms.
Below me is just as steep and rough looking track. The mirror image of what I just tackled, loose rock, potholed and steep as hell. I smile and rattle down at break neck speed. The thought flashes briefly through my mind. The quiet road, the lack of phone coverage. A slip here would be a long wait in uncomfortable circumstances! I push the thought from my mind as I skid into a steep shale filled corner. Tiny rocks fly out into the grass like a shotgun blast.
I gather speed again and drift into the next corner I actually have to put a foot down as I lose traction on both wheels. The weight of the panniers pushing the bike out of the corner. Bags are rattling and shaking as I screech to a stop and splash through a small river crossing.
I arrive at a hunting hut, panting with excitement, eyes wide and filled with tears. My face splattered with water from the stream dripping mucky streak down my shins. The obligatory Toyota Hilux sits next to the hut. The perfect vehicle for these roads and a basic staple of the hunting lifestyle.
I have a quick chat to the hunters who have come out to see what the noise was. They are camo clad from head to tail. A father and son out for the weekend. The boy is about 12 years old, tall and gawky, not quite grown into his body but looking confident out in the wild. More of a man than I will probably ever be. The father looks straight from a beer commercial, strong jaw with a greying stubble, eyes that have squinted against the wind their whole life. They offer me some coffee and jerky. I take the jerky but decline the coffee. I’m jittery enough after the adrenaline from the descent.
I am warned of plenty more river crossings to go, I follow the tracks from the Hilux. Winding through the steep valley following the little trickle of the stream. Watching as it goes from a burbling brook that I can cycle straight through. An hour and multiple crossings later I am wading through the same river. The icy cold water has numbed my feet completely, now it feels my calves are following suit. My shoes and socks are completely sodden, squelching as I carry by bike through crossing after crossing.
I pull over exhausted on the far side of Omarama Pass on a wide alpine plateau. Pour the water out of my shoes I change socks and use a towel to try and dry them out. I haven’t travelled far but it’s been tough. Lots of hills and hefting the bike through water and mud.
I finally roll into St Bathans after a few wrong turns. I pull into the Vulcan Hotel to grab some food and a rest before I have any more of an explore. Two cheese and ham toasties later I am feeling rejuvenated and check out the little settlement of St Bathans. Restored tin keeping with its mining heritage the town looks like the wild west. In the centre is a stunning multicoloured pool. Changing hues from different angles it is framed by sheer white cliffs.
I can’t take enough photos before the sun sets. I set my alarm to get up early and catch the colour changes of dawn. So peaceful and serene the little lake sums up St Bathans. A little slice of tranquility on this tough windblown hilltop.