After the uphill slog of my first day cycling round the three volcanoes I had a lovely downhill run from Whakapapa Village back to State Highway 47 to continue south-west, on an easy up and down route past huge flax swamps to the National Park settlement. There I turned south on to State Highway 4, which was a busier road, but not too bad. Above me - well, it should have been bush clad mountain slopes and views of mountain tops but instead it was just cloud and rain. I stopped on the bridge over the Makatote Gorge to take photographs while trucks carrying logs or sheep shook the camera and had a quick look at the Makatote Viaduct but it was too wet to hang about.
I got to Horopito where I had the choice to carry on cycling the main roads to Ohakune, about 14 km away, or else turn on to the Old Coach Road, a mountain bike trail. Out of the thick rain I saw a family group emerging from the trail and thought, well that can't be too bad, and headed away from the tarmac into the bush. I passed a bank of mountain cabbage trees, looking to my Northern Europeanised eyes, highly exotic, stopped by the Department of Conservation board to read the info, and then the sun came out in strength and began to dry me out. I sat in the sun and ate my sandwiches feeling very happy, as I always do at lunchtime on any cycling day when the weather doesn't make cutting pieces of cucumber and cheese and placing them between bread impossible.
Mountain cabbage trees
The Old Coach Road was opened in 1907 to carry supplies for the construction of the railway. When the railway was complete and the state highway opened, the road fell into disuse and the bush took it over. It was rediscovered and restored in the 2000s, first of all through local efforts and then with government funding.
A smooth section of the Old Coach Road
The path was covered with big cobblestones from the old road. Tree roots were growing across it, and the rain had caused big stretches of mud. However, it's only about 10km long, so perfectly doable, and I half walked, half cycled along it, reading the Department of Conservation's information boards, which told me about the vegetation as well as the story of the surveyors and navvies who made the road. All around me was the New Zealand bush with its particular musty smell and very silent except for an occasional tui. More silent than a European forest, even more silent than my urban garden. It was of course a summer afternoon, not dawn, but I thought there should be more bird song than this. But it was lovely, as dense as jungle, but not as hot. I'd stop for a drink and look across at the steep slopes of the bush, the unphotographable layer after layer of trees, each covered with epiphytes and moss, climbed over with supplejack, every one a little eco-system of its own. Beneath them was the dense thicket of tree ferns and shrubs. Stray off a bush path for a few yards and you can very easily get lost.
There was one bit I went through with a line of trunks very green and shadowy and - as you do these days - I thought "Lord of the Rings. This is what Peter Jackson saw". Near this was a huge fallen tree, producing a little forest of moss and fern and other plants. The bush gives a sense of vigorous life growing, of every drop of soil, every surface shoting green.
So I walked the difficult, twisty bits over stones and mud and cycled the easier bits until I came out to where I could see the railway viaduct and hear a train go by. It had started to rain again but the bush sheltered me. The going was smoother now and I cycled along the zig-zag paths. I tried the brakes. They didn't work. I tried them again. I thought I must be imagining this. I got to a small slope, set off, squeezed them again, then realised no, the wheel still spun, the bike kept going and I turned off the path into the bush for a soft landing. (I had a mighty bruise on one leg after that).
Well, this was f- annoying. I had no idea what was wrong with the brakes except that they didn't work. The cables were still in the right place, and that's as far as my knowledge went. So I pushed the cycle , along a smooth path downhill on should have been an easy ride. Then the bush was on one side up the steep slopes and on the other there were a few fern trees dotting the more gently falling farmland. Eventually I came to a car park and a big sign introducing the trail.
I had no idea how far I was from Ohakune, my map being a tourist one with not much detail. I didn't know whether it was 6km on a steep road or what. And it was slewing with rain. I'd seen a farmhouse close by and walked to it, thinking I'd ask them to get the number of a taxi to pick me up. But there was no-one there, not even a dog barking. Standing in their doorway I called my accommodation. Did they know of a taxi? The manager, sounding very harassed, said she was only temporary and didn't know. So I called up Ross, the guy who had rented me a bike. He offered to come and pick me up. No, I said, if I can get to Ohakune I can get the bike fixed. He asked where I was, I gave details and he said I was only 2km from Ohakune. (I really should have been able to work that out myself - there had been plenty of signs on the way, but I was in something of a state).
I found the road to Ohakune was flat so I could cycle it cautiously till I got to a bridge over a tumbling river, and was at the top of the town, by the railway station. Ohakune is attractively set with the bushy hillsides rising sharp above it, and with its many older buildings, it is a pretty town. However the handsome pub with the double storey of verandahs was closed, and it was very quiet, even by New Zealand standards. It is an alpine town that caters for skiers. There was no-one round to ask directions. I pushed my cycle around the steep streets, thinking how annoying it was not to be able to cycle to find my accommodation but then spotted a cycle hire shop and took my bike there.
This shop mostly hired out mountain bikes and offered transport to the bike trails, but it also did repairs. The friendly guys there checked the bike and said that some water had got into the cable housing - anyway, they could fix it on the spot. A young blonde mechanic who would be a surfer if he wasn't a hundred miles or so inland, showed me his own mountain bike - no brakes at all. He was one of the thrill-seeking mountain bikers, the skiers on wheels. He'd adjust the seat height, he said, so he'd use different muscles.
I asked the guys if they were busy. They said that on a day like this no-one would rent a bike and go out on a mountain bike trail - in fact they were quite respectful that I should do the Old Coach Road in such rain. Except for the family group I'd seen at the beginning, I'd seen no-one else on the track. I had a look at the leaflets in the shop showing the variety of mountain bike trails in the area, and how you could arrange to be taken to the beginning of the trail and picked up at the end (sometimes by boat). I said I thought cycling had picked up in NZ. They said that the government had put $NZ50 million into cycling and had got in advice from England. Advice from England? So less advanced than places like Holland when it came to cycling infrastructure? On the other hand, it makes sense to get advice from those in the process of developing cycling in a car owning society rather than one which had sorted it out in the 1950s.
Later I checked this $50 million investment and the advice from England with the New Zealand cycling pressure group Cycling Advocates Network. I got an email stating that:-
"The $50m was for a national cycleway (or more accurately a network of cycle trails). You can see details of what has been developed so far at http://www.nzcycletrail.com.
While it is a great recreational/touring initiative, it is arguably at the expense of real investment in cycling in urban areas, where the Govt has reduced planned investment in this area and other sustainable transport investments (compared to the previous Govt), largely to help cover the cost of building $9 billion worth of new motorways."
They had got advice from Sustrans for the national network and Cycling England for a couple of small city urban routes.
So the policy is to build up a series of mountain bike trails for tourists, both local and international. Tourism is a big earner in New Zealand and New Zealanders love the outdoors. If I lived in New Zealand, I would certainly be doing these trails. I've been looking at them longingly as I write. and wondering if there are elegant cycling maps for them, like the ones that Sustrans produces.
However as a commuting city dweller I would also want - in fact think I am entitled to - some safe routes to my job and for work-outs in the evenings and weekends. It's like the difference between tramping and walking. I remembered the days when there was an excellent set up for tramping of four, five or six day trails, with well-marked paths, huts and wardens. You would experience the wilderness driving to the beginning of the route and then being picked up at the end. But if you lived in a city you would not take a bus somewhere and go for a walk, or set out straight on foot from your door through those endless suburbs. However, in recent years the cities have developed urban walkways, besides rivers, and through parks. I stayed with friends in Hamilton, and we did just such a pleasant stroll. Going for a walk has become more ordinary, as it should be.
Safe urban cycling may ultimately develop from the mountain bike trails. Some of the trails are easy, and suitable for family cycling and the unfit, others are for the athletic. If mountain cycling is taking off the urbanites who will go off for a week on them are going to want to get fit - which means they will want to cycle without fear in the cities, and pressure will build for safe cycling. Given the temperate climate, the cities should be whizzing with weekend cyclists working out and commuting, and then - and a vision of Auckland like Gothenburg or Amsterdam but with milder weather comes to mind, with the cars replaced by cyclists engaged in what is not a special pursuit, but an ordinary means of transport.
I tested my brakes in the car park outside the cycle shop and was much relieved to be able to stop at will, I set off through Ohakune, which has a population of 1100 and has the wide, long streets characteristic of New Zealand towns, which made finding my accommodation feel like something of a journey in the countryside. The manager of the lodge was relieved I had got there safely as she had felt bad at not being able to answer my tourist questions about taxis and had been ringing round to get the information. This place was very busy in winter, she said, but quiet at this time of the year. It offered a hot spa and after a pub dinner I soaked away. The evening was chilly for summer.
I then fell asleep on my bunk bed 9pm, and woke again at 1am to watch American crime programmes on television and continue with Amos Oz's A Tale of Love and Darkness , which is extraordinarily good on the atmosphere of Jerusalem in the 1940s among Jewish emigrants from the urban parts of Europe. Amos Oz has powers of memory - of slight gestures and expressions - which are uncanny. The people he writes about were immigrants, like my own ancestors, but utterly different from them with their high culture, intense learning and the persecution that made them leave home.