– WILD WAIROA – NEW ZEALAND’S BEST KEPT SECRET

Australian Mountain Bike - - Contents -

Take a trip into the Dis­ney­land of moun­tain bike rid­ing on white-knuckle grav­ity trails built and owned by a mys­te­ri­ous bil­lion­aire.

Have you ever rid­den a trail that has a legacy that is passed on by whis­pers? That is so secret only a hand­ful of peo­ple have rid­den there? That was cre­ated as a per­sonal moun­tain bike play­ground for a reclu­sive bil­lion­aire? Wel­come to Wairoa Gorge, a stun­ning hour’s drive from sunny Nel­son on New Zealand’s South Is­land. As a writer/rider type, I was given the priv­i­lege of a ride at the Gorge to ex­pe­ri­ence all this moun­tain bike won­der­land had to of­fer. Trundling my brand new test bike out in the dark­ness of Nel­son’s early morn­ing, after two hours sleep due to a missed flight and sub­se­quent mid­night ar­rival, bike build and watch­ing too much Se­in­feld, there was still—de­spite the fa­tigue—a tin­gling of ex­cite­ment. I met our hosts from Nel­son cy­cling ad­ven­ture com­pany, Trail Jour­neys, out­side the ho­tel and as a hint of the sun poked through the crisp dark­ness, boarded the bus to our moun­tain bike ad­ven­ture park. “It’s a very spe­cial place,” one friend told me. An­other said: “Bet­ter get some more safety gear.” And a third added: “I hear it’s the Willy Wonka cho­co­late fac­tory for moun­tain bik­ers!” What ex­actly was I in for? The crew The crew was fierce. We had the Aussie ex-pats, good friends and for­mer World Cup cross-coun­try rid­ers turned grav­ity diehards Waz and Zoe, Shane from Trail Jour­neys, Ge­orge our pho­tog­ra­pher, and Rachel, fel­low bike media and sea­soned En­duro shred­der and Bri­tish na­tional who has made Nel­son her home. The sun con­tin­ued to rise and il­lu­mi­nate our sur­round­ings as we headed out of Nel­son, open­ing up the moun­tain­ous hill­side and lush, green scenery we can only dream about in most parts of Aus­tralia. Wind­ing up a dirt road to­wards our des­ti­na­tion, the ter­rain be­came steeper and more wild. I joked to Zoe won­der­ing if the sheep get sore hooves from stand­ing lop­sided on the steep moun­tain­sides. Turn­ing into the Wairoa Gorge park, through the heavy gate which re­mains locked for all but a se­lect few who have ac­cess to the trails, we

parked the bus at the base where “Rob­bie’s Hut” is lo­cated and where we get a safety brief­ing and talk through the pro­ce­dure for the day. When we are in the park it’s in lock­down. It’s all very se­ri­ous for a while. The loom­ing moun­tains sur­round­ing us hold prom­ise and mys­tery, and I wasn’t quite sure what was in store for us. “Rob­bie’s Hut” is where groups get dressed in their com­pul­sory gear (hel­met, knee pads and gloves), given the safety talk, and kit­ted out with ra­dios. From here we em­bark in a dual-cab ute, fea­tur­ing wooden seats and seat belts on the tray, and with a bike trailer at­tached, ready to climb to the 1200m peak. As child of the mid-1980s with a strong love of di­nosaurs, all I could think of while wind­ing our way up the moun­tain was: ‘This is just like Juras­sic Park’. After all, the park was built by a wealthy in­vestor, who hired world-class trail builders to craft a trail net­work un­like any other in his own back­yard. The fo­liage is oth­er­worldly, it’s hard to imag­ine find­ing larger ferns, more dense brush, wilder roots; and this is be­fore we even dropped in. Wairoa’s His­tory The trails at Wairoa Gorge are now main­tained by two ded­i­cated builders, spend­ing their days hand craft­ing sweet rib­bons of loam, rocks and roots, and main­tain­ing the 70+ kilo­me­tres of trail at the park. De­tails about the park’s bil­lion­aire owner are scant. While it’s known that he is a keen moun­tain biker that made his for­tune out of be­ing an heir to a fam­ily worth bil­lions through sty­ro­foam cups, just why he ini­tially built what has been de­scribed as “Dis­ney­land for grown ups” is a mys­tery. Es­pe­cially since he was the only one able to ride it at first. After years of ne­go­ti­a­tions, Nel­son Moun­tain Bike Club has been granted year-round ad­mis­sion to the trails. While ac­cess is still tightly con­trolled, Trail Jour­neys Nel­son have the ac­cess and abil­ity to co-or­di­nate The Gorge Ex­pe­ri­ence trips, in­clud­ing shut­tles to and from the Gorge from the air­port, ac­com­mo­da­tion on site, and meal op­tions. Rid­ing the trails? That’s up to you with a map, a ra­dio and a keen sense of ad­ven­ture. With the fear of lit­i­ga­tion in such a web of gnarly trails, the club and fa­cil­i­ta­tors of trail days don’t of­fer guided rides or in­tel on how the trails are run­ning. Drop­ping into the won­der­land Each group that at­tends a ride day at the Gorge must head down a manda­tory seed­ing run, to make sure the rid­ers are ca­pa­ble of hit­ting the nar­row tech­ni­cal trails. We launch into the Grade 4 Boul­der Dash, and are greeted with a type of flow trail with tight switch­backs, small jumps and met­ric heck-load of fun. Hav­ing con­quered the trail, we headed into the Grade 3 trail Florence, then into Qu­at­tro, which fea­tures sweep­ing views of the val­ley as we weaved our way down the moun­tain. The ter­rain of the trails os­cil­lated be­tween pine for­est, with largely nat­u­ral rock gar­dens and slick roots, chutes and drops. These trails were on the milder side of what the Gorge had to of­fer, but were a whole lot of fun and suit­able for a solid in­ter­me­di­ate rider. We reloaded our bikes onto the trailer at the creek, and be­gan the shut­tled as­cent back to the top hut, where we had a quick cof­fee and snack be­fore head­ing down on our next run. Waz, one of the rid­ers, said that if they’re re­ally hook­ing with min­i­mal stops, they can hit seven full runs in one ride day. Seven runs may not seem like much with the mo­tor-as­sisted as­cents,

but with over 1000m ver­ti­cal drop that’s a whole lot of de­scend­ing and brake pads to run through! After our cof­fee and snack break, the fun re­ally started. Drop­ping into an­other Grade 3 trail, Creamed Rice, we turned into the per­ilous Alaskan Pipe­line. Slip­pery roots and tight, awk­ward gnar greeted us. Though it wasn’t deathly steep, the con­sis­tently tech­ni­cal na­ture of the Pipe­line meant that we worked hard to move through the trail; though it’s a Grade 4, or black di­a­mond equiv­a­lent trail, it’s good to keep in mind that the trail rat­ings at the Gorge are quite con­ser­va­tive, and back in Aus­tralia this would be con­sid­ered a very dif­fi­cult trail. Dur­ing the Pipe­line my lim­its were pretty maxed as I os­cil­lated be­tween hys­ter­i­cal glee and white-knuck­led ter­ror, flipping over a couple of times on the wet, slick, steep roots

The dif­fer­ence be­tween the trail grades was quite sig­nif­i­cant. We even­tu­ally popped out onto the road, the sketchy Pipe­line be­hind us, and turned to Sewer Slide then Chase the Or­ange, both Grade 3 tracks that still of­fered plenty of tech­ni­cal chal­lenges. Video cov­er­age doesn’t do this place jus­tice, the steep­ness of these tech­ni­cal trails was next level; and my Aussie grav­ity con­vert mates men­tioned that “these aren’t even the dou­ble black trails.” If Grade 4 trails were hec­tic, what could Grade 5 of­fer? I will re­turn with my own bike, and fully func­tion­ing shoul­der to find out. We rolled on, pump­ing, skid­ding and screech­ing our way through a few more runs be­fore the body, lungs and legs were spent and we were ready for a big feed and an ale or two. Wairoa Gorge is the adren­a­line junkie’s wet dream; a place where more travel is your friend and you can max out your en­duro bike on a run. No more us­ing 80% of your 160mm bike, the Gorge de­mands it all, thank you very much. Even after our first full run, with my heart thump­ing, body sore and arms pump­ing, I un­der­stood why full face hel­mets were com­pul­sory. Weary Rid­ers At the end of the day we man­aged five full runs. We had taken our time, had snack breaks and re­grouped at trail heads. I was shat­tered, my up­per body sore with lac­tic and arm pump, the rest of my body aching from hit­ting the deck more than a couple of times. And yet… the trails were still amaz­ing. They of­fered what many trail net­works in Aus­tralia metro re­gions lack; a chal­lenge, a chance to work to­wards pro­gres­sion, a chance to use the full ca­pac­ity of your sus­pen­sion and drop­per post, and that white knuck­led fear you get when you’re not quite sure you can do some­thing - but you give it a go any­way. To say the Gorge wasn’t a chal­lenge would be a lie - through the day there were mo­ments of glee and flashes of ter­ror. De­spite this, I vowed to be back, to ride the slip­pery roots, to push the lim­its and bask in the amaz­ing Juras­sic Park-like* fo­liage of Wairoa Gorge. * No di­nosaurs were spot­ted in the mak­ing of this ar­ti­cle

WORDS: ANNA BECK PHOTOS: GE­ORGE GUILLE

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