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There was all manner of terrain and all manner of weather on a trip to North Otago's highest peak, writes John Shaw.
An overnight riding weekend in North Otago this past summer involved an adventure many in the Oamaru-based Mountain Biking North Otago Club had wanted to do, but we didn't really know what to expect.
Along with the mountain-bikers we even had one "totally loving it" hard-core walker with us for the whole adventure. We were lucky to be hosted and guided by Nick Guyan and his team at our base for the weekend, the Awakino Ski Club, a remote field in the St Mary's Range above Kurow, about an hour's drive up the Waitaki Valley from Oamaru.
We assembled in Kurow, where some riders chose to cycle up the access road and gnarly 4WD track to the ski lodge, which set the tone. It's about 15km and has an elevation gain of about 1000m. The rest took the comparatively comfortable option of driving up with the club crew and all the gear.
The Saturday afternoon ride certainly gave us all a taste of what was in store the next day. The track was strewn with rock debris, there were some steep pinches and ultra dry conditions to challenge even the best riders in the group. For some of the way up, the track was just wide enough for the 4WD and bike trailer to follow in support. Eventually the track narrowed as we traversed a scree slope, which reminded us of the wild and exposed environment we were in.
Overnighting at the ski lodge was a lot of fun and very comfortable for the group, where our hosts put on a superb and eagerly awaited roast dinner. A few beverages were consumed and despite the anticipation of a "full-on" ride the next day, some of the crew didn't hit the bunks until after midnight.
Sunday dawned fine with a thermal layer of cloud below us covering the Hakataramea Valley, from where the day's light winds were forecast to come. We were also prepared for a few spots of rain, suggested by the forecast. After breakfast we set off on our bikes for the skifield and the zig-zags up to the ridgeline. The last alpine stream halfway up was a welcome sight and we topped up our water vessels. After reaching the ridgeline at 1745m, the cloud joined us from below but the judgement call from our Awakino guides was that it was safe to continue.
After a fun ride across the ridge and through a small moon-like plateau we reached the base of our final summit climb. The last 100 or so vertical metres was on foot, as biking was impossible even for the fastest and most expert riders in the group.
At the summit it was all smiles. We rested and had a bite to eat as we took in our surroundings. After all, we had just summited North Otago's highest peak - not a technical achievement mind you, but a biggie for me as my first genuine summer mountain experience. A small area of snow in a micro basin just off the summit made me think about taking skis or a snowboard up there and doing a few micro laps: nice thought, Johnno, but that's where it will stay until the next snow season comes around. It looks like a super fun skiing and board-riding terrain up there.
Darker, more menacing clouds had continued to gather around us. We had been told at the lodge before we set off that the track got more faint as it reached the base of the final summit climb, so we moved off the top and back to our bikes. We certainly didn't want to be caught out in deteriorating visibility on a faint track.
On our way down, this lack of definition and darker light caught a few of us out as we got off track when getting closer to the ridgeline. Four riders had punctures in this area, luckily the only repairs required over the whole weekend. As we neared the ridgeline for the main descent the threat of rain finally materialised and there was even some hail. I was not the only one thankful we were dropping into the main descent on a well-defined track through the skifield to the lodge at this point.
Arrival at the lodge was a wet affair for everyone. Here we assembled our overnight gear and loaded it on to the transport bound for Kurow before saying goodbye to Awakino and setting off again on our bikes for the final run back to our start point in Kurow. Downhill all the way! Near the bottom skifield car park we encountered a beautiful summer's day and fast but dusty riding conditions. It had been a very satisfying achievement and a fun weekend.
A huge thank you must go to our hosts, Nick, Nathan and the Awakino Ski Club, for making us feel so welcome and for looking after us to such a high standard. It was a magnificent "four-seasons" adventure.