Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Day Five

Waking up at 5am I looked up – the stars were gone and a cold wind rustled the grass. I rushed to get packed – rain was on the way! As I rode the seemingly endless gravel roads to Hurunui a light drizzle started and I began to think of what lay ahead. We had to get through the DOC controlled Molesworth station between 7am and 7pm otherwise we would be booted out. I was not sure how this would happen but I didnt want to find out. Having lost time yesterday through my wrong turn and general tiredness I realised it was unlikely I would make the cutoff.

In Otira Darren and I had spoken about how a sub 5 day time was on the cards. Now however it didnt seem possible at all. Did it really matter though. My initial goal had been a sub 8 day time and that was easily achievable from here. I had nothing to prove and it wasnt supposed to be a race anyway. Also getting to Hanmer today meant I could have an easy day and soak in the hot pools. It was a no brainer I would cruise from here and enjoy a stress free finish to the Brevet. I was now wet and cold from the rain and my legs were still stiff and sore seemingly taking forever to warm up. There was no way I could go past those hot pools further up the road.
After riding the most boring long straight road of the whole Brevet between Hurunui and Culverdon I pulled into a cafe for breakfast. I took my time ordering vast mountains of food and chatting with the locals – I had all day to get to Hanmer after all. I couldnt stay forever though and I headed out into the drizzle and singlespeeded the long tarseal roads to Hanmer.

I pulled into Hanmer just before midday, a little earlier than anticipated. I started to think that maybe I could still get through Molesworth today? I went to check a few things at the local bike shop. They knew nothing about the 7pm to 7am closure or how long it would take to bike through Molesworth. Hmmm..... not much help. However they said they had seen a group of bikers around 9.00am including someone on a bright green Niner. It would have been Simon. So they were only about 3 hours ahead – impossible to catch but close enough to get me motivated again. The hot pools would have to wait. I jumped on my bike and pedaled hard towards Blenheim over 200km away.

I would first have to get over Jolies pass though, one of the many big climbs interspersed regularly throughout the whole length of the Brevet. Mostly too steep for my singlespeed I spent almost an hour pushing up into the mist. Topping out and descending into the Clarence river valley I headed for the Acheron homestead and the start of the Molesworth proper. Closing in on the Acheron I looked across the valley and was surprised to see two cyclists climbing the slope in the distance. I could just make out the shape of white dry bags – it was Phil and Ann! I crossed the river and signed into the book at the gate of the Station. It made interesting reading. Andy Read, one of the two Brevet frontrunners had signed in at 6.25am that morning. That was only 7 hours in front of me. I scanned the rest of the familiar names in the book until I got to Phil and Ann who had signed in only 5 minutes earlier. I couldnt find Darrens name though – surely he was ahead of me?

I entered Molesworth at about 1.30pm confident now that I would get through by 7.00pm and set of in pursuit of Phil and Ann. It wasnt long before I passed them as they had stopped to get something out of their bags. A few quick words and I continued onwards by myself into the vast country that lay ahead. And vast it truly was. Huge valleys followed more huge valleys with great vistas in all directions. It was time for some music and I turned my ipod on.


I had decided to take music with me as I knew there would be certain sections of the Brevet where it would be a great motivator. I had many albums worth of music by Dock Boggs and Roscoe Holcombe – two old time Appalacian mountain banjo pickers and singers. They sang haunting murder ballads and strange death songs. The sound of the banjo a direct conduit into weird other worlds. This was my choice of music for the West Coast. For Molesworth though I had selected the St Matthews Passion by Bach. The melancholy grandeur and beauty of it seemed right for this landscape. I turned the Passion on and pedalled into the immense empty land ahead.

I passed a few cars that had taken advantage of the 7am – 7pm opening of the road. They quickly thinned out and I found myself on my own, winding slowly along. The weather had improved after Jolies but it looked like it was deteriorating again with low cloud and mist obscuring both the very tops of the mountain ranges and the ends of the mighty valleys that stretched of to seeming eternity in various directions. Not being able to percieve the edges of the country made it seem limitless. On I went and started to feel more and more alone and small. Slowly it was as if the many layers of civilisations accoutrements and illusions were peeling away and being left way behind. The signs of human existance ebbed away – there were no fences, no houses, no animals or trees, no structures of any kind as far as the eye could see except for some lonely looking power pylons. And you could certainly see a long way for this land was immense and overpowering. Even the gravel road started to peter out turning into two thin scratches across a rocky land. I felt more utterly alone than I probably ever had in my life – an absolutely tiny figure traversing a vast and desolate land with no apparent end.

A car approached – the last one I would see until I was well out of the Molesworth. It was an old very beaten up Japanese car. Inside were a young couple with barely any clothes on. As they passed I noticed she had her bare feet on the dashboard while picking a banjo. He was driving and smiled at me as they passed. I imagined she must have been picking a Dock Boggs murder ballad and his smile seemed more like a half mad toothless grin. Pull yourself together I thought this is a bike ride not a bad remake of Deliverance.

My grip on reality was slipping. The landscape, 1000km of riding in four days, lack of decent sleep and the sheer aloneness of it all was affecting me. Nature was no longer the nurturing mother we like to think of her as but she now seemed a terrifying, utterly inhuman thing within which we are but an insignificant, irrelevant and infintesimal part. The protective layers we armour ourselves with against this truth – beliefs, objects, buildings,civilisation and culture – were all gone here. The last vestiges of humanity I had seen – the cars – had heating, air con, protective metal shells, windows like TV screens and comfy seats. My seat was definitely not feeling comfy and my puny singlespeed that I had to power myself through this inhuman and indifferent universe did little to buffer me from its otherness.

I climbed up to Isolated saddle which then descends into Isolated flat – some of the most appropriately named pieces of landscape I had ever come across. Aria 39 'Erbarne dich, mein gott!' came on and I totally lost it. This was pathetic and embarressing! I hoped I would not see any more cars as I was a truly abject and pitiful sight. It started lightly drizzling and the low cloud brooding all around me seemed to be thickening as I crept bumping across Isolated flat. I crossed a bridge and soon after the road started to climb. I had totally overlooked the fact that I had to cross Ward pass before getting into the head of the Awatere valley. The drizzle got heavier and the temperature dropped as I climbed into the cloud. A final look back at the immensity of the Molesworth revealed nothing – no signs of life at all as far as I could see. It felt like I was the only living being left in the world.

The climb up was long and just ridable with my gearing. I was hoping that the landscape was going to be more aminable over the other side. However it was in fact worse. The rain had really set in and a cold head wind developed. The landscape became plain ugly. It was no longer the desolate but sublime majesty of where I had just been. Instead the head of the Awatere was a wasteland with no form or legible structure. It was lumpy and repetitive with small climbs and descents all blurring into each other. When was this going to end! I was getting very wet and cold. I stopped and put on virtually all my clothes and wet weather gear and continued on. I was still cold. Eventually The DOC hut that finally signalled the end of the Molesworth came into view. I stopped to talk to the DOC ranger standing in the doorway. It felt strange (and a relief that people still existed) to come across another person in this dead wasteland. I asked if he thought the weather was going to improve. He said who knows and added that we were over 1000m above sea level just to emphasise how isolated this spot really was. I could hear and smell the cooking of bacon and eggs in the hut behind. I thought of what I had for tea – energy bar lightly garnished with tinned tuna – yum!!.

Around the corner was the original Molesworth cob cottage with a bike leaning on it! Out came a bedraggled and cold looking Andrew McLellan. I was very surprised to see him. When had he passed me? The last time I had seen him was when he was being sick on someones front lawn in Murchison. He didnt look much better having stopped to shelter from the weather and have something to eat. I could see a fire roaring away inside. Tempting as it was I knew that if I stopped I would never get going again. I headed down the road towards the Hodder into the cold wet headwind. I had asked the ranger how far the Hodder was. He had looked at me strangely saying it took him nearly an hour to drive there by car incredulous that I would try to bike there in this weather at this late hour. The Brevet had hardened me up though – no wimping out allowed!

Hours later I started to regret my gung ho attitude. The Awatere was an awful, unattractive world with interminable climbs sapping energy and resolve. It was getting dark and I was getting tired – very tired. I started looking around for somewhere to bed down but there was nowhere. I had trialled my poncho tarp on the back lawn of my house one sunny weekend strapping it over my upside down bike and pegging it down. Out here in this wet, cold, dark and desolate landscape with virtually no real shelter it held no appeal at all. I kept on pedalling. I saw a haybarn someway of the road. Struggling up to it I found it sealed up solid with gates and wires. A paranoid farmer obviously did not want any wet bedraggled bikers enjoying its comforts. So I kept going as darkness set in.

I had been cycling alone for so long that I almost jumped out of my skin when someone silently appeared from behind out of nowhere. It was Andrew McLellan also heading for the Hodder. His small LED light was as pathetic as mine and progress was excruciatingly slow as we rode together squinting hard to see what was ahead. It was good to have company though and I babbled on to him inanely.

After an eternity the poles of the Hodder suspension bridge came into view and to our great relief a haybarn as well. This one was not secured off and even had the central block of hay removed to form a pleasant well proportioned room. We were going no further and bedded down for the night. It was as comfortable as any 5 star hotel with a soft hay covered floor and a roof protecting us from the rain lashing down in the dark outside. As I lay down to sleep I thought back on what had been quite a day. It was 11pm and I had been riding since just after 5am with only two relatively short stops, I had survived an encounter with a couple of banjo playing hillbilly axe murderers and had had a strange mad semi mystic revelation on Isolated saddle. Wow and I had thought the Brevet was just going to be a nice bike ride through the country.

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