At the beginning of 2017 I had a meeting with my surgeon to work out when would be the best time to have surgery on my shoulder following a mountain bike crash a year earlier....
We thought it was best to do it after the Waiau-toa packrafting trip, so we set a date half way through the year. Surgery came around and I prepared for the fact I was not able to ride anything for at least four to five months. After that it was going to be a while longer before I could ride anything gnarly. In hospital I had time to think about what type of trip I could do when not at 100% but that would also give me motivation while in rehab.
For a long period of time I had lived in the Motueka Valley and from time to time had gone trout fishing with a local mate, Ruedi. I always liked the experience of biking up and down the valley seeking out fishing spots, but I had never been fishing in the headwaters of the Baton River.
Now living in Nelson, I was keen to find a fun route starting and finishing in Nelson using cycle trails and back country roads that would take me deep into the hinterland of the Nelson region,
linking in some of the better fishing spots in the Motueka and Baton Valleys and singletrack at Kaiteriteri MTB park.
Because of the distances of the trip and the diverse range of trail that we were going to ride on I was keen to try a gravel bike, which could capably handle the various trail sections and also smash out the road sections in between the fun stuff.
As this was only a three-day trip and civilisation wasn’t far away, we could go pretty lightweight with our bike-packing setup. I managed to keep the weight of the bike with all the gear strapped to it pretty light so we could still have some fun on the singletrack. The middle section of the trip was focused on fishing so my rod was attached to the top tube. The rest of the basics were distributed around the bike. We went for a pretty burly component build for the Stigmata, running 29er MTB wheels and trail brakes, making for a pretty darn fun singletrack machine. I had never really ridden a gravel bike before and wasn’t sure of the capabilities.
Our plan was to crack on early on day one to allow time for evening fishing at the end of the day, and we had a pretty good idea how long the 100km ride would take but wanted to allow some extra time. We met at Rocks Road hoping for a view of the mountains; unfortunately they were in cloud, although we did see the sunrise. This trip was not about smashing out crazy miles in really fast times, we were looking for a different experience. Ruedi comes from a background of bike touring in the late ’80’s - early ’90’s around NZ, the States, and Canada on his custom steel touring bike that even comes with hand painted illustrations. Ruedi doesn’t do a lot of biking these days apart from going to milk his goats and mainly keeps himself fit by tramping. Grant our photographer was fashionably late, building his road bike thrasher late the night before. I have been on many trips before with Grant, and he was keen for a gravel bike mashing as he also has a long history of bike touring, having toured across the States.
We were all going pretty light on gear, hoping for good weather and many trout. Our journey started on the Nelson Tasman Great Taste Cycle trail, hoping it tasted as good as it sounds. The first part of the trail mostly follows an old historic railway that gets intercepted by roads, farms and wineries. We wanted to move quickly through this section as all the action was later in the day. Things started to get interesting around Wakefield with a brief section in the native bush and the hometown of Kelly McGarry, where McGazzaland is currently being built (pump track and dirt jumps). It was cool to get into some rolling hill country and sink our teeth into the ride. We were pretty pleased to get to Spooners Tunnel, which out of interest is New Zealand’s longest decommissioned rail tunnel. Lucky for us Grant actually brought a torch, which turned out to be kind of handy here. On the other side of the tunnel there was a fun piece of descending cycle trail, and it was good to see the capabilities of the bike and to hang it out on the corners.
We hit the heat of the day and carked out under a tree. When you are doing these slower paced journeys with big sections of riding you end up appreciating small things: subtle changes in landscapes or, like we did, an ice block in Tapawera. It only took one of us to get an ice block and then all three of us were indulging at the Tapawera dairy on $1.50 ice blocks. Suffice to say, for early December it was frigging hot.
From Tapawera we were starting to get some really good views of the mountains. Mt Arthur is a real focal point, but on this day it was hidden in mist. Cracking on from Tapawera I was keen to find some gravel roads and rivers. We passed over the Wangapeka River, and as you do we stopped on the bridge, had a gander into the river and next thing Ruedi’s eagle eye spotted a trout. So then the crew got excited and started pulling rods off bikes and piecing their rigs together and headed for the river, at pretty much the worst time of the day to go fishing; it would have been better to go for a swim. As you can imagine, no interest but nonetheless it was a great spot to get into trout hunting mode.
From here we headed to the Baton Saddle, and as we reached the foothills of the Mt Arthur range it was fantastic to enter an area unexplored by us.
Our aim was to reach a private hut found by Ruedi on the side of the Baton River, but he wasn’t sure of the exact location. We found some locals that introduced us to more locals who allowed us to cross their land to find the elusive hut. This hut was definitely unexpected, with its epic views up to Ellis Basin and Mt Arthur and with its rustic, welcoming feel with prayer flags strung across the front deck. Most importantly, the hut was located about 20 metres from the Baton River.
We were a little early for fishing but we rigged up our fishing gear ready to have a scout around in the evening. We found some really good locations and Ruedi spotted some trout that evening, but no bites. We retreated to the hut pumped for an early morning fish. In true Swiss timing, I was awoken by the door swinging open to see Ruedi standing there with a big trout in his hands saying “will this do?” Ruedi had said he was just going out for a quick look, but clearly the trout couldn’t resist. With no time to have captured this on film, the job was on to try and catch another. Clearly I couldn’t use the same pool that Ruedi had used closest to the hut, so I staggered half asleep down the river, much to the humour of Grant and Ruedi waiting for me to deck it. It was clearly amateur hour for me and my lure got snarled up on the other side of the river, then more staggering across the river, looking back at Ruedi and Grant who signalled they were off for a brew. I was pretty keen to have another shot around the corner. I decided to descend down the stream. Below the pool that Ruedi caught a trout in was a rapid, and I decided to fish into that for a bit before descending into the next pool. I’m pretty sure I cast once into that rapid and saw a trout dart across to where I had cast; I knew it was on and so casted into the same spot again, which was a minor miracle given my limited experience. Bang! I had hooked a trout and was like, ‘whoa, no one is here to see this.’ I reeled it in and then amateur hour kicked in again hard when I got the trout to the river bank. I remembered Ruedi saying I needed a stick to whack it so I placed my rod down, which was the first bad move. Instantly thinking ‘that was probably the wrong thing to do,’ at this stage I had my hand around the trout and around the rod, and when I tried to pick up the rod again the line snarled around a rock at the same time the trout had a big thrash and it jumped back into the river. As there was no one there to see it, and given my prior meagre fishing history, there was some skepticism later on from those who know me well; the fact I royally cocked it up actually made it more believable!
My luck was all used up that day, but later that morning Ruedi caught another one further down in the Motueka Valley. I had pretty much had enough of watching Ruedi catch fish and was ready for some singletrack. Our destination was Marahau but we took a big detour through the Kaiteriteri Mountain Bike Park. This park is big on flow trails and cruisey grades, so it would be perfect for gravel bike cutties - ha! Ruedi decided to take a short cut with his saddlebags to Marahau, while Grant and I shot down Corkscrew. Even though my bike was loaded up with bikepacker gear it was sweet to finally hit some trail, and the bike brought new life to a trail I had ridden many times. By the end of the trail I was grinning, Grant not so much as I decided to take a little detour to cut some more shapes on the corners. Grant was heard muttering curses from back down the trail - ‘bloody detour!’ We ended our day at the iconic Fat Tui in Marahau with one of their legendary gourmet burgers and retreated to the Kanuka Ridge Backpackers for the night.
Kaiteriteri Mountain Bike Park was too good to miss on our way out the next day, so we rode down into Kaiteriteri beach and biked back through the park. It was good to get out of the heat of the day into the bush, and it was really cool to incorporate a park like this into our journey.
This day was pretty much a day to try and stick to the cycleway and find as many places to stop and eat as possible. A quick boost followed through Motueka to the legendary Smoking Barrel for any kind of donut combination you can imagine. The trail to Nelson is pretty cruisey, the cycle trail winding its way through orchards and hill country with views back into Mt Arthur, the country we had travelled in over the last couple of days and back into Abel Tasman National Park.
The Jester House Cafe in Tasman was always a top priority, with unique food and creative and quirky sculptures. Post lunch it’s always good to meander next to the river and feed the eels. A great way to finish up the journey was to take the ferry from Mapua to Rabbit Island and then return by cycle trail back into Nelson.
This trip was really successful in many ways and was a great opportunity to explore my back yard and experience some surreal rivers with our experienced trout fisher Ruedi. I got to ride some trails I normally wouldn’t focus on and test out a completely different bike. I was quite surprised by the capabilities of this bike and am super keen to plan out some more adventures with it. It was just the motivation I needed to keep up the rehab and build back up to some more adventurous riding. There is obviously unfinished business with the ‘trout fishing,’ some practice perhaps?
Images: Grant Stirling