Bikepacking the Whanganui River Road and Whangaehu valley

Bikepacking the Whanganui River Road and Whangaehu valley

Make hay while the sun shines. Sounds sensible enough.

March came and went, taking my overnighter, training ride with it. 
April I planned to free the mind and force my body to follow. Having seen episode 8, one might recall that motivation was a commodity in short supply, with another planned trip slipping by.

Fast forward to the middle of winter, July 15th, the sun is beating down in the distance, and FOMO beating down in the back of my mind. It's been 6 months since I’d been on the bike and I was beginning to feel an itch I hadn’t felt for some time, an itch that needed to be scratched.

The sunset on Friday, taking my motivation down with it. The last thing I needed was to beat myself up with self-imposed expectations. I heading to bed.

I woke before 6am. Half heartedly began packing while the kettle boiled. Coffee brewing as I casually loaded the Pugsley for an adventure, maybe.

I had to try. As I rolled out the gate, pastel pinks began to emerge in the sky. While there is nothing like a sunrise to signal the endless possibilities the day holds, I had a bit of an idea as I had ridden the Whanganui River Road in this direction 18 months earlier.

The calm of the Awa accompanied me throughout most of the morning, only leaving my side as I climbed to the sun above Aramoana hill. Rejoining the river in the valley at Parakino, removed all doubt in my mind. I had needed to ride this route again. The sun, distant and cool, illuminated the sleepy, misty valley, provided a contrast to the autumn memories and echoed the spirit of the Whanganui River.

Gently undulating, the road climbs its way through history. A sign near Atene identifies the former meander of the Whanganui river nearby a quaint woolshed houses a historic high flood level reminder. A reminder that the river comes to visit sometimes, for old times sakes.

The road winds gently, passing through small settlements, with the river never far. Its winter time, the Matahiwi Gallery and cafe are closed. I take the opportunity to rest in the bus shelter and refuel before passing through Jerusalem (Hiruharama), its historic convent also closed, this time due to the pandemic. I decide to break for coffee at a viewpoint above the river is a welcome rest before continuing to Pipiriki.

At Pipiriki I call into the old school, now home to Whanganui River adventures, who run a store and a campground (during summer). Fortunate, I took the opportunity to appropriate their last can of Mountain Dew. That much-needed sugar to power me towards Raetihi.

Having experienced the 27km leg of the Pipiriki-Raetihi Rd twice before, I knew what I was in for, having paced myself accordingly. I was an hour later than I had planned in my mind. The road climbed steadily for almost 12 kilometres before offering a short reprieve, ahead of yet more relentless climbing. The hours tick away, so to do my plans to make it to Ohakune via the old coach road.

Rolling into Raetihi at 4 pm, the sun that had been a constant companion, was seemingly advising me that I should be calling it a day very soon too. Making the decision to book myself into Raetihi Holiday Park for the night, heavy in my mind, I had told people of my slightly more ambitious plans.

As darkness fell, I replenished all the calories I had consumed and some more for good measure, all in the name of helping the small town economy.

Showered and fed, I began to ponder the next day. The route I had planned was another 30kms on today, a course I had ridden twice before. 
Although I had never tackled it in this direction. My lack of time on a loaded bike in the past 6 months made the day harder. Self-doubt kicked in. Trying to reassure myself with numbers, I started scrolling through Strava and RidewithGPS for route information. How many hills, how big? Should I take the easy option ad go home the way I came (with my tail between my legs?)

I awoke to yet another spectacular sunrise. Drawn to the mountain, I headed for Ohakune, the snowy white glow in the distance providing a smile that warmed my soul, while freezing my digits.

The 15 km journey to Ohakune punctuated with oohs and aahs. Some from the scenery, some from the cold, biting at my fingers. Before I had set off, I had consulted Google and knew that my New World was awake and cooking my second breakfast as I travelled. A quick re-supply for the day, a hot pie and a well-spent $10 on some ski gloves. I were back in my way and somewhat comfortable. So comfortable, I stopped to break ice off the puddles at 9 am as I meandered through the back roads before dropping into the Whangaehu valley.

Turning my back to the mountain, the landscape offered mother nature in all her beauty, the sun defrosting the paddocks, the rolling hills casting shadows, creating a patchwork of white and green. It was time to enjoy the mountains in all their glory one final time. As I paused beside the Whangaehu river, sipping a coffee, I was again drawn to the power and beauty of nature, reflecting upon the disaster that had unfolded a few kilometres upstream on Christmas eve 1953. So many lives were cut short. So many dreams, never realised. Tangiwai, the worst railway disaster in New Zealand’s history.

The Burma Hill road offered a reflection of just how far I had come. I recalled the first time I rode this loop in the opposite direction. The prolonged rests taken more than once on this climb, almost falling asleep from exhaustion at the end of a long, isolated valley, one I was only beginning. The kilometres rolled on so too did the hills. Slowly the valley widened, becoming shallow as I neared the fertile plains and the more familiar leg toward home. Just one more physical challenge lay ahead, Reid's hill. A Strava segment should tell you enough. It starts small, gentle, building up as it turns right into a strand of bush, then the final climb out of the hairpin bend. Steeper, the second half begins the last climb of the day.

Inside the final 20kms, a hard right-hand turn as I descend for the final time. The last gravel road. The last valley. Memories weigh heavy on my mind. The end of the ride, the tank is empty and mentally a slog, though this time, I have popped an energy gel at the top of Reids just for this. The lessons learned riding the Renegade have introduced me to tools of the trade and changed my mindset. Energy gels are tools, like turning off the air conditioning when overtaking. One cannot expect to treat your body like a rental car without occasionally topping up the tank.

It may not be the fastest rental car, but it is the one that I have. It is taking me places that I will remember forever. But for now, it is back to work to earn my bond back!

After beating myself up for a few days about Saturday shortcoming, not managing one of the weekend rides in the Kennet brothers book, Bike Packing New Zealand. 
I decided to flick back through that adventure seekers bible. Who knew? It is a 3-day ride.

Watch the journey on Youtube below.

Posted: Friday 19 October 2012


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