"Where have you come from?" asked a curious patron at the Clarks Junction pub.
"Alexandra. Via Clyde, the Otago Rail Trail, Poolburn and the Dunstan Trail," I replied hesitantly as I tried to recall precisely where we had been that day.
"Eh? On your bike? That's almost impossible," he said bewilderedly.
"Hmm yea, it's a long way. A few big hills. We've been riding for about 12 hours."
I watched his eyes widen and his expression grow evermore quizzical. As the words tumbled out of my mouth it dawned on me..."maybe I was crazy!"
The Odyssey was another grand bikepacking adventure, following a suggested route from The Flahute - notorious for choosing meandrous loops that often include a staggering amount of climbing and sometimes avoiding many of life's finer distractions (cafes, bakeries, dairies). This was no different - a 304 km loop from Alexandra with about 4,000 metres of ascent. But it turned out to be one of the best ways to explore and experience the atmosphere of Otago.
After leaving Alexandra we took off up the single track alongside the Clutha River to Clyde, before hitting the Otago Rail Trail. We then left the rail trail highway to pop over Raggedy Range, cross the Ida Valley, and climb up to the Poolburn Reservoir. It was on the ascent to Poolburn that I had my first of many multisport fan-girl moments of the weekend - my riding buddy John informed me that also tackling this grand adventure was the champion of the very first Coast to Coast multisport race!
Up to Poolburn, up some more, along the tops, and then ooooover we go Trev! As we dropped down the hill into the Upper Taieri Plain it was like entering a furnace - the temperature soared and the cooling breeze disappeared.
We had a brief stop for lunch next to a creek that was gloriously shaded by a clump of trees - a few minutes to eat, drink, put our feet up, and mentally prepare for the next monster climb along the Dunstan Trail.
The Dunstan Trail was used by gold miners seeking the riches of the Dunstan gold diggings in the 1860s. It was the shortest viable route at the time from Dunedin to Dunstan, but due to its altitude it made for a challenging route in adverse weather conditions.
For this particular day, scorchingly hot is an understatement. The climb onto the Rock and Pillar Range would have been tough on a pleasantly mild autumn day but with temperatures exceeding 35 degrees it was enough to make a grown man "want to have a sit down and a wee cry" (as stated by one of my riding buddies the following day).
It was the first weekend of December and it seemed much too early for such searing temperatures in New Zealand. Before even reaching the real guts of the climb we were already feeling like perfectly toasted marshmallows - crispy on the outside, hot and gooey in the middle! Luckily John had his radar on for some watering holes to cool off in ... a theme that was enjoyed throughout the weekend.
Traversing the Rock and Pillar Range it was humbling to think of the hoards of goldminers chasing their fortunes along the trail, through this desolate yet fascinating wilderness, so many years ago.
And finally, with one ripper of a downhill, we left the rocks behind and descended into the lush green Sutton Valley. It was like entering the garden of Eden after many hours of gazing out over brown tussock and dusty trails.
As evening approached, the heat in the sun disappeared and my stomach began yearning for the pub feed at Clarks Junction. It was just a few kilometres away, but as we crested each rise there was always another to meet us.
I don't think I've ever been so relieved and excited to catch a whiff of deep fryer oil wafting on the evening breeze. Nor so relieved or excited to inhale an over-sized helping of soggy fish and chips.
When our bellies were satisfied, John and I rode off into the evening to bank a few more kilometres before curling up in an inviting grassy patch beside the road for a few hours' kip. With the restless night before the Sounds Fishy brevet still fresh in my mind, where John's snoring kept his 3 riding buddies awake, I made no secret of my intentions should this happen again.
"If you snore I will be upping sticks and moving into the bushes well out of earshot, and you'll have to come find me in the morning."
So you can imagine my embarrassment and horror when John woke me up before 4am to inform me that MY snoring had kept him awake so we might as well get on our bikes!
With about 1,000 metres climbing between go-time and breakfast in Laurence to wake the legs up that morning, I became very fond of road signs like this...
We rolled into Laurence about 6:30am for a compulsory breakfast at the Night 'n Day. I'm sure they did a roaring trade off us that weekend - my order alone included 1x coffee, 2x egg sandwich, 1x bag of salt and vinegar chips, and 1x Snickers bar (because I'm not me when I'm hungry).
After Laurence we hit the Clutha Gold Trail - it was great to be off the road and cruising along the smooth riding track, through peaceful scenery, with the morning sun warming our tired bodies.
The Clutha Gold Trail allowed me to see the Clutha River and lower Central Otago from an entirely new perspective. After years of driving through the area en route to the annual summer holiday I finally got up close with the history and idyllic landscape.
We stopped briefly at Faigan's cafe in Millers Flat to enjoy a coffee and wolf down some carb and sugar rich treats. John gave us the hurry up to get back on the road and the bike gang was off again!
From the end of the Clutha Gold Trail there is a short, steep climb up to the start of the Roxburgh Gorge trail. From one amazing trail and straight onto another!
I had been expecting 10km of mostly downhill, plain sailing along the Roxburgh Gorge Trail to reach the jetty at Shingle Creek - but, no, there were still plenty of twists, turns, and steep pinches to eke some more effort out of my tired legs. The scenery however was BEEEEAUTIFUL! I revelled in the opportunity to feast my eyes on this lovely area of Central Otago.
After hopping on our bikes about 4am, about 30km from Laurence, it was with great relief and satisfaction that we reached the jetty to meet our boat shuttle with 6 minutes to spare before our appointed check-in time. Laurence from Clutha River Cruises was our enthusiastic driver and tour guide. He greeted us with a grin and had a few juicy, historical tales for the journey up the river; from Mrs Heron the goldbuyer who was never robbed, to the opium dens and miners' huts hidden in the schist rocks.
We disembarked at the Doctor's Point jetty, leaving us with a 12km ride back to Alexandra to complete the route. The 304km loop for the weekend finished with high 5s, au revoirs to new friends, and a trip to the Night 'n Day for travel snacks.
This was brevet number 2 for me and I'm slowly getting the hang of it. I've met some fascinating and inspiring characters, and what I particularly enjoy is that you can ride with someone for an entire day and still not know what they do for a job!
For my own reference, as well as for anyone who might be interested, here is the gear and food I took for the weekend. I seem to be developing a reputation for carrying A LOT of food - eg. "the black hole" "hungry caterpillar" "hangry Hannah" - so I'm still working on finding the right balance for me between convenience, nutritional value, energy density, weight, and taste!
Food - Before & After