Sunday, January 29, 2017

The way of the Cheat? eClimbing Mount Climie

Wairarapa from Climie, scars of Siberia to the left
"That's cheating!" said the lady powering up Tunnel Gully with her trekking poles, followed by "Can I hop on the back?"

I'd thought for a while that Mt Climie would be a good eBike ride - a steep 4WD track where the power assistance would come in handy. I'd done it with friends a few winters ago, when I'd been somewhat fitter but still had to push the bike. Now that I'm an old age pensioner, couldn't I just cheat? I pictured myself breezing up the road, my Bosch power leaving ordinary mortals in the dust. Of course, power assistance is only one dimension of cheating. To quote the rider who must not be named, "it's not about the bike": drugs are also obligatory for the true cycling cheat.

Fortunately my multiple myeloma treatment includes dexamethasone, a known performance enhancer for climbing, which made that side of the cheating programme reasonably straightforward. My weekly dose coincided with a fine day, so from the hospital I headed to the station, and a Gold Card train to Upper Hutt.

By the time I got to Tunnel Gully, the battery was already down to 80%, so I had to decline the trekking lady's request for a lift. I've found that around 700m of climbing is about the limit for the eBike on one charge, so Mt Climie's 830m was going to be a challenge. At the carpark, I slipped past the gates, dropped into the lowest gear and cranked up the highest power level, and headed up.

At first, it was good. The quiet hum of the motor was drowned out by the occasional kereru and cuckoo call. A curiosity was the small green bags deposited at regular intervals along the trail. This turned out to be from a professional dog walker, who I later met descending with her friendly charges, collecting the poop bags as they went. I stopped for a muesli bar, admiring the ferns that formed the underlayer of the moss covered cloudforest trees.

Fern, Mt Climie
Climie Cloud Forest
But soon the track steepened, and my cadence dropped. And a curious thing happened. The bars indicating the amount of power assistance also dropped. Despite the alluring promise of "uphill flow", the Bosch algorithm had seen through my cheating ways. If I couldn't keep up a regular 60 turns a minute, I wasn't deserving of full electrical assistance. For a moment I thought the Energiser Bunny effect of the Dex would keep the pedals turning, but soon I had to admit defeat. Paradoxically, in order to eBike Mt Climie, I'd have to be a lot fitter!

A cheat's selfie
I was faced with a dilemma. The logical thing was to leave the bike behind, and walk to the top. But I'd set out to eBike Mt Climie, and walking seemed like a come down. Hadn't Scott carried on man hauling to the Pole, eschewing the less purist but more efficient dog teams? Besides, the map contours indicated that if I made it to around 600m, the gradient eased off, and I'd be able to ride again.

Fortunately the Bosch system includes an extra cheat feature: a "walk" button that grudgingly provides a modicum of power to help push the bike up hill. We slowly walked up together, my finger glued to the walk button. Eventually, we passed the 600m contour, and riding became possible again. I reached the cluster of transmission towers on the first summit, dropped down into the dip and up to the higher second summit.
The eBike waits for me to return from the last summit
The Wairarapa lay out to the east, glimpses of Lake Wairarapa between the ridges enclosing the Rimutaka Rail Trail. On the other side the urban ribbon of the Hutt flowed down to the great harbour of Tara, enshrouded in cloud along with Wellington city and the South Island.
Towers and tussock on Climie
Back on the bike, I was able to drop the power level and wish for regenerative breaking - interestingly not a feature on many eBikes, probably because apart from outliers like the Mt Climie road, most bike descents involve a fair bit of air braking. But the disc brakes did their work, and we arrived back at Tunnel Gully unscathed. By this time it was getting close to the 3pm Gold Card cutoff, and the battery was showing around 20%, so I took the main road to Upper Hutt rather than the more pleasant but less energy efficient Hutt River Trail. Back in Wellington, I nursed the bike up Victoria St watching the rapidly decreasing battery level. There was enough power left for the final climb up from the Aro Valley, depositing the bike back at the garage door with 1km of eco level range.

So my cheat's day out worked - after a fashion. The big lesson is that even with electrical assistance, you need mountain bike gearing to climb steep trails - the Alfine hub on my Scott e-Sub is geared for city streets. A modicum of fitness also helps: although eBikes are a gift for age challenged cyclists, we can't expect to do everything with them. But that's OK.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Haven't you heard of CARs? A Tern on 22.

Cycletouring on Highway 22
Waingaro Hot Springs is reached through a winding valley with pine clad hills rising on all sides. It had rained off and on all day, mostly on for the last hour or so. I dripped into the office to ask about a cabin. "Did you get here on a bike?" asked the manager, eyeing my Tern outside. "Haven't you heard of CARs?" She found a key, and directed me up the hill to the cabins. "Enjoy your stay, come again, but next time, bring a CAR!"

This was the end of the first day of a two day bike trip on Highway 22, from Pokeno to Raglan, and on to Hamilton. The weather forecast hadn't been good, so I was relieved when it was only drizzling as the shuttle from Whangamata dropped me in Pokeno, diverting from the route to Auckland Airport. "Wouldn't want you to get squashed on the motorway, mate" said Steve the driver "and by the way, there's no shops after Tuakau, so make sure you've got plenty of food". In fact there were garages at Pukekawa and Glen Murray with basic supplies, but it was good advice, and I took the excuse to boost my fat and protein levels with a steak and mushroom pie at the Pokeno bakery. Squads of road workers were purchasing morning tea and I didn't feel out of place in my high viz gilet.

Tuakau chooks wait their turn to cross the Waikato River bridge
I cruised down the Waikato River to the Tuakau Bridge where an abseiling operation had reduced the road to one lane, then climbed up to Pukekawa, the "hill of bitter memories". These memories include massacres in the 1830s when warriors with the new musket technology swept down from the Bay of Islands, and the 20th century murders of Samuel Eyre and the Crewes. But now it's peaceful farmland, making for ideal cycle touring as Highway 22 makes its way south over the rolling hills. Unfortunately I'd missed the opening hours of the 90 year old Pukekawa Library, which vies for the title of smallest public library in NZ, and seems to have had a lick of paint since cycle tourist Bruce Ringer visited it in 1983.
Pukekawa Library, open 2-3pm Friday
Highway 22 near Pepepe
Opuatia cemetery commemorates its inhabitants interests with a softball mit, football, motorbike and Steinlagers on the graves. At Glen Murray I stopped for an icecream at the garage, then had a scrog stop at Naike school where kereru flapped noisily between trees and the pīpīwharauroa called after their winter holidays in the Pacific. But with the rain setting in it was good to reach Waingaro, and sink into a hot pool as the surface was pelted with raindrops. It was a short stagger up the hill to the pub, where the publican served me DB Bitter and lasagne, and introduced me to all the regulars by name.
Dress code at Waingaro Hot Springs
Waingaro River after rain
Next morning the rain seemed to be easing. I set off down valley for Raglan, noting a bulge in the back tyre. I made a mental note to get a new tyre when I got home, but a few kilometres down road the mental note acquired an exclamation mark as the tyre burst. I thought about emergency repairs, but a passing road crew responded to my tentative upturned thumb, and took me into Raglan "We're actually going the other way, but it's too wet to work, we just have to back in time for smoko".
Tern tyre loses the battle of the bulge
Easy riding to Raglan
Cyclery Raglan sorted out a nice fat BMX tyre for me so, to borrow from the esteemed leader elect of the free world, I didn't have to drain the swamp, I could just ride it. I biked across a nice new walking/biking bridge, and out to the heads, where locals eyed the storm surges of a higher than normal tide, thought about tsunamis, and decided to forego their morning walk.
Raglan harbour and Mt Karioi
Dietary advice, Raglan
After lunch at the bakery, I headed towards Hamilton on the main road. After a while I tired of the busy traffic, boosted by fleets of tankers ferrying in dihydrogen monoxide to replenish Raglan's polluted water supply.
Maungatawhiri's Saturday night dances are small but intimate affairs
The back road through Waitetuna looked an attractive alternative. Initially the quiet sealed road wended past farmlets and a forest reserve named for Ed Hillary. However as the contour lines developed an unhealthy affinity for each other, and washouts scoured the gravel, I started to think that I should have taken more note of the words "old" and "mountain" in the name Old Mountain Road. Near the summit, concrete blocks enforced a 3m wide road limit, reminiscent of the anti tank structures I'd seen on Korean roads. But on the top where the road intersects with Te Araroa, I shared views of limestone outcrops with the resident sheep and cows, and looked out on the fertile plains of the Waikato.
Width enforcement on Old Mountain Road
Summit of Old Mountain Road
A speedy descent took me to an ice cream stop at Whatawhata, and the bike lanes of Hamilton. Next day, as the Northern Explorer sped me south to quake shaken Wellington, I contemplated the advice I'd received at Waingaro Hot Springs. Should I have taken a CAR? Definitely not - Highway 22 is one of those roads that where driving a car would take too much concentration. On a bike I could look around me as I rode the rolling hills. But if I did it again, I'd hope for a better weather forecast... and check my tyres.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

"Like Texas, only it's big": exploring West Australia with Clint and Buddy

Tim Winton, the quintessential West Australian novelist, describes West Australia (WA) as "Like Texas, only it's big".  It's fair comment: WA occupies 2.7 million square km of the earth's surface, Texas just 0.7 million. When we arrived in Perth after our journey from Sydney on the Indian Pacific train, we'd already got a sense of the size: it had taken us parts of two days and a full night to cross the Nullarbor from the state border. Our planned road trip from Exmouth to Perth was only a small part of WA's coastline, but 1200 km of driving. The rental agreement banned us from going more than 200km from the coast: in NZ there isn't anywhere 200km from the coast, in WA it excluded most of the state.

But before heading north, we had a day to reacquaint ourselves with Perth. On our previous visit in 1977, we'd been overcoming the culture shock of being in a western city again after 9 months crossing Asia. Now we just had to cope with finding our own way rather than relying on the train staff. From the train, we biked to Anna's AirBnB apartment to get the keys from Diane the cleaner. As promised, the view of the Swan river from the 18th floor was stunning, particularly when I woke in the early hours to see the Moon setting over Narrows Bridge.
Breakfast on the 18th floor, Ferry terminal and Kings Park behind
Swan River Bike trail
Kings Park beckoned, so we biked the river side path and hiked up the aptly named Kokoda track. One of the reasons for visiting WA in September was to see the wildflowers, and it looked like we could tick off most of the species in the flowerbeds overlooking the city. In 1977 we'd been getting used to Asians not being around, in 2016 it was hard not to photobomb a selfie destined for Guangzhou or Kuala Lumpur.
Marg, Kings Gardens, 1977
Marg, Kings Gardens, 2016
Next morning we caught the ferry down the river to Fremantle, past $80 million Tuscan villas, and across to Rottnest Island. Rottnest/Wadjemup, the Waiheke of Perth, turned out to also be the bike rental capital of Australia. As the crowds disembarked from the ferry, people claimed their pre-booked rental bike, grabbed a helmet from a huge bin, and cycled off to explore the Island.

Following the trend, we went clockwise, stopping first at the Kingsland Barracks, the remnants of the "Rottnest Island Fortress" defending Fremantle during the World Wars. Cycling through the tundra-like landscape, we passed an intriguing sculpture based on old bike parts, and reached the south coast beaches, which looked like they'd offer good snorkeling in more clement weather. Two Pelicans preened on one beach, and Marg found a dessicated puffer fish.

Preening pelicans ignore photobombing gull

A detour inland took us to the Wadjemup Lighthouse, where we ate our sandwiches while we waited for the half hourly tour up the winding staircase to the machine room at the top where keepers used to wind up the weight that powered the turning light through the night. We were able to repay the guide for the knowledge she shared, by giving her a test ride on Lucie, to help her research for her own folding bike purchase.

Lenses, Wadjemup lighthouse
Retrospective advice for Captain Cook, Wadjemup Lighthouse
Al and Marg with Victorian ironwork on top of Wadjemup Lighthouse
Back at the wharf, we were entertained by the endemic Quokka, the rat-like animals that gave the island its European name, and subject of numerous Internet selfies. Their survival strategy belies their cuteness - if threatened by a predator, Mum chucks the baby out of her pouch as a distraction, and hightails it in the direction of the nearest male Quokka to restart the perpetuation of the species.
Mum checks for predators and discarded muffins, Rottnest Mall
Back in Freemantle, we took the efficient and bike friendly train back to the city to prepare for our early flight next morning to Exmouth and Ningaloo National Park.

When booking, I'd wondered why there was a Monday 5:20am flight, even checking that I hadn't confused am and pm. When we got to the airport, the reason for the early flight became clear: squads of mine workers in fluoro overalls were checking their steel capped boots through airport security, heading back to work after their weekend at home. FIFO (Fly In, Fly Out) has replaced hard life in an outback mining settlement. Sadly, while heavy duty mining equipment was acceptable as carry on, Marg had to surrender her beloved pen knife that had accompanied her around the globe several times.

In Exmouth we collected our van, along with Clint (Eastwood) and Buddy (Holly). We'd been a bit apprehensive as to what slogans our van would be emblazoned with (masking tape was Plan B), but decided we could live with Clint and Buddy's words of wisdom.
Clint on gun control
Buddy, Marg and the Exmouth Prawn
Exmouth was established in the cold war era to service the Harold Holt VLF radio station (there's a certain irony in naming a naval facility after a drowned Prime Minister) used to communicate with the US submarines that would deliver the nuclear deterrent; the codes from the Presidential briefcase would be transmitted through here. Originally the town had so many US personnel with their vehicles that petrol heads from across Australia would make special trips here to view the Broncos and Corvettes.
Pure Australiana, Exmouth IGA
Now Exmouth is gateway to the Ningaloo Marine Park and more peaceful underwater activity. Just inside the circling reef is some of the finest snorkeling in Australia. We headed around the coast to Turquoise Bay, where we drifted on the current over coral and schools of fish, and Marg made friends with a turtle.
Pink Galahs, Ningaloo
Marg asks for a Wellington weather update to gloat over while enjoying another snorkel drift
Coral and fish, Turquoise Bay
In the evening we walked up to Yardie River gorge past termite mounds and scrub. The National Park campsites along the shore were booked out, but we headed up to the Yardie Homestead Caravan Park just on the park boundary to enjoy our sunset drinks.

Termite mound, Yardie Creek
Kayak fisher and cormorants, Yardie Creek
Yardie Gorge
Next day we headed back to Exmouth and south to Coral Bay, restoring our calories at the traditional bakery where the Heart Foundation hasn't yet expunged the whipped cream from apple turnovers. We spent the rest of the day snorkel drifting over coral resembling ornate cabbages and blue tipped antlers, accompanied by swarms of fish.

Next morning we had a brisk early morning snorkel, then tackled the 600km drive south to Shark Bay. On the road, ordinary saloon cars were rare, red dusted four wheel drives towing outback caravans, and multi-trailer road trains more common.

At Hamelin Pool we stopped off to visit the Stromatolites. At first sight underwhelming, they gain respect when you realise that these coral-like creatures have eschewed evolution for almost 4 billion years. I imagined an interview:

Stromatolites, Hamelin Pool
Interviewer: "Can I just ask: why have you gone for 4 billion years without evolving?"
Stromatolite: "Well, when Charlie Darwin came up with this evolution thingy yesterday..."
Interviewer "Excuse me, Darwin's Origin of the Species was published 150 years ago!"
Stromatolite: "Sorry - we've got a different sense of time than primates - anyway as I was saying we did wonder if we we'd let the life sciences side down a bit, but looking at where evolution has taken homo sapiens - Donald Trump and reality TV for example  - we think we made the right decision."

Termite proto-mounds, Shark Bay
The draw card of Shark Bay is Monkey Mia, where dolphins have learned to show up at the beach for breakfast, and tourists have learned to show up at the beach for selfies with the dolphins. A downside was that the dolphins learned unhealthy eating habits, so the Parks and Wildlife rangers now limit dolphin interaction to 20 minutes and 300g of gluten free healthy snacks, delivered by a select few tourists who persuade the rangers they are cute enough - a kid sized dolphin suit helps.

Dolphins observe human interaction at Monkey Mia
We headed back to the main road, stopping at Eagle Bluff to see a dark shadow roaming the seagrass that we convinced ourselves was a dugong, and at the brilliant white, uniform-sized, shells of Shell Beach.

Sifting shells at Shell Beach
The "only it's big" factor came into play again - Shark Bay had looked a minor detour on the map so we hadn't thought too much about fuel, but it's similar to driving from Wellington to Bulls and back, and 70km from the nearest fuel stop the gauge was reading empty. We were pleased to see the cluster of gum trees and and parked up road trains at the Overlander Roadhouse.
Road through Kalbarri
Murchison River, Kalbarri
Bottlebrush, Kalbarri
Kalbarri river mouth
At Kalbarri we headed back towards the sea through the wildflowers, stopping at the lookouts over the Murchison River. From Kalbarri town we enjoyed a morning bike ride down the coast to a scenically sited coffee cart, and Marg had her last snorkel at Blue Holes. A sign at a peaceful inlet warned of sharks.
Geraldton Wax flowers, Kalbarri
Coffee on the Kalbarri coastal path
Blue Hole
Before GPS, this coast collected errant navigators: Dutch who failed to turn left for Batavia, and Brits who didn't head far enough south for Port Philip and Botany Bay. Before governing NZ, George Grey had been wrecked on this coast, and with the help of the local Noongar people walked to Perth, so it was the George Grey highway we followed along the cliff tops dotted with scrub and wildflowers to Pink Lake, coloured by algae in its salt rich waters.

Murchison Rose
Violet Eremaea
Purple Flag
Coral Gum
Pink Lake
The must-see wildflower at this time of year was the Wreath Flower, which grows only in a very specific area. At the Geraldton Tourist Information Office we learned how specific this area was. "Head inland 100km to Mullewa, then the Mount Magnet mine road 30km to Pindar, then 10km up the dirt road to Beringarra Station, you'll see the flowers"

Pindar ensures its title of "Tidy Town of the Outback"
We followed the directions and found the natural wreaths of flowers. The spot was very localised - they only grew over a 50m stretch of road. They used to grow on fire cleared land, but with increasing agriculture and fewer bush fires, they rely on the graded verges of the dirt road to bloom.

Marg pays her respects
Wreathed out, we headed back to Mullewa for the night. Next morning we headed back out to the coast through the yellow fields of Everlastings at Coalseam Conservation Park.

Truck art, Mullewa
Coal Seam Park
At Nambung we visited the Pinnacles, hundreds of sandstone outcrops among the dunes. Geologists struggle to explain them (something to do with sand solidifying around tree roots or trunks). To the local Yued people, the pinnacles are the grasping fingers of young men who strayed into the forbidden dunes and were swallowed up. If they appeared in Wellington, we'd assume they were a Weta Workshop set for a new Tolkien movie.

Nambung Pinnacles
Google navigated us across Perth to the Wicked depot, where we left Clint and Buddy in the care of two cheery guard dogs, keen to show their skill at crushing plastic drink bottles with their bare teeth.

End of the trip for Clint and Buddy
A short bike ride and a couple of train trips got us to Fremantle, and the Hougoumont Hotel, where our compact but comfortable room was well stocked with capsules for the Nespresso machine, and the Terns were welcomed to park up in the lobby with the hotel's complementary bike fleet.

Next morning we joined the magpies, rosellas and morning joggers on Memorial Hill, then biked down through the old terrace houses to the waterfront. Having spent a morning waiting on dolphins at Monkey Mia, it was a a surprise come on a pod gamboling in the Fremantle boat harbour. We breakfasted at the old Tramway depot by the Roundhouse where Aboriginal guerrillas were interned before being exiled to Rottnest, then headed to the Fremantle Market, where stalls stocked everything from boomerangs to chocolate to ingenious plastic bag closers.

Fremantle Market
At the Wreck Museum we saw the remains of the Batavia, one of the Dutch ships that failed to make the turn. This shipwreck had a particularly dark history, its crew descending into a Lord of the Flies nightmare of violence, but it left on the WA coast its hull and an ornate stone archway destined for the Javanese colony, along with a collection of domestic goods encapsulating 1600s Dutch life.

Snap! Folding bikes are a popular choice to get to the Wreck Museum
Traditional Dutch jug at the Wreck Museum
Lunch at the Little Creatures Brewery, then we biked up the coastal trail to Cottesloe and on to Kings park on the generous separated paths following the railway line. At Kings Park we checked out the wildflowers one last time, and traversed the treetop walkway.

Warning sign, Kings Park
Treetop walkway, Kings Park
We biked on to the City West station and got the train back to Fremantle. Fellow passenger Elder Edwards wistfully admired our Terns - the Mormons now proselytise by public transport rather than the traditional bikes.

All too soon we were 10000m above the land we'd traversed, losing our sense of scale as we crossed the Nullarbor in an hour or so rather than days, on our way back to Sydney and home to Wellington. Maybe it's time to check out Texas.