Sunday, September 25, 2011

Let the summer of excuses begin

It was only a matter of time.  I woke up this morning with the intention of going on an early-morning bunch ride.  When I looked out the window at 4:45 AM and saw that it had been raining, I immediately went back to bed.  Summer has only just begun, and already I can't face up to the prospect of riding in the heat, the humidity, the insects, the road grime, and the mud.  However all is not lost for summer cycling – in just one month Jer and I are headed off on tour to the South Island of New Zealand.

Sounds like a plan
When we first booked this trip in January, it seemed impossibly far away.  We had tons of time to get it all sorted out, so there no point in worrying too much about it.  But now with the trip so close, the next month is going to hold a lot of furious last minute travel planning.  Planning what to take, planning where to ride, planning how far to travel each day, and planning where I can stop for ice cream.

The route we'll be taking is still pretty vague, but we will definitely be starting at Christchurch and spending a day or two exploring the Port Hills and surrounds.  From there we'll pedal straight down Highway 1 to Geraldine, then inland to Lake Tekapo, and over Lindis Pass to Wanaka, before arriving at the town of Clyde.  There begins the main event of the ride, and the whole reason we put this trip together - eight days on the Otago Central Rail Trail.  I first learned of this 150km cycling, hiking and horse trail about two years ago, and since then it has completely captured my imagination.  I used to live and work in an old gold mining town here in Australia, so the moment I started reading about Central Otago, I felt an instant affiliation with the place.  I've not even been there, but just learning more about the trail has turned me into a historical railway buff over the past few years - hence my recent rides to the Brisbane Valley Rail Trail and the Yugar Railway Tunnel.  We won't just be sticking to the trail, we're planning on exploring many of the interesting towns and sites that make up the intriguing history of the area's gold mining heyday.  It looks like Central Otago will tick my big three boxes  - isolation, old stuff, and mountain views.  And my interest in all things nautical will even get a workout, when we visit the remains of a crazy old gold mining submarine.  From the rail trial we'll be heading down to Dunedin, for a few days of exploring the Otago Peninsula, before packing up our bikes and heading home.  Just researching the area gets my heart rate elevated, which is probably good for my fitness, as I'll be looking for every excuse not to ride in this Australian heat over the next month.

Operation: Preparation
Fortunately, I do a lot of long rides, and have been for a few short tours over the winter, so I'm reasonably satisfied with my bike setup - which is rare for me.  I'll be able to leave most of my bike preparation until a week or so before departure, which will only involve cleaning, servicing, rebuilding wheels, and a few small modifications.  

Physically, I'm on track - I learned my lesson after being a bit underprepared for my last NZ cycling  trip.  I now have a better handle on NZ cycling nomenclature and know that when a local rider tells me something is an "easy climb", what they actually mean is I'll be grinding up a vertical wall in granny gear for an hour.  The mountainous terrain sure does breed tough riders!  It's going to be a bit challenging to stay motivated in the lead up to departure, but I should be able to begrudgingly crunch out my daily training rides for the next three weeks or so.  

The bit I'm finding quite tough is the mental preparation - trying to shift from flat out race mode, into holiday touring cruise mode.  When I ride here in Brisbane, it's usually in the early morning, and I'm in a rush to get back home to beat the heat, spend time with  family, or get out of the traffic.  Over the past year Jer and I have also developed a habit of turning every ride into a race, which doesn't exactly make for the most relaxing riding.  This boy racer attitude isn't going to work on a slow tour in New Zealand, and I spend probably four hours each day telling myself that the longer I take to get places, the better my tour will be.  Sounds like an easy enough concept - but after years of trying to pilot two wheeled contraptions from A to B as fast as possible, it's a concept that's taking some time to sink in.

This tour has been a long time coming and it's something we're very excited about.  The clock is ticking...

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

In Search Of The Bat Cave

The plan was simple enough, we were to head out from my place, over into the Samford Valley, and go for a little bit of an explore on the local trails.  We knew of an abandoned railway tunnel a few kilometres north of the town of Samford, but had never actually been there.  The old tunnel was now home to some big colony of bats, so the legend goes.  Just to ride straight there seemed too easy, so I plotted out a slightly longer route that would take us across some dirt roads, access tracks and country lanes to our destination.  There was no need to pack much food, or water, or any of that kind of stuff –after all would only be gone a couple of hours.  At the very leisurely time of eight o'clock, Rudi and I set off from my house for a morning of easy adventure.

Rudi has his first mechanical failure of the day, about 10 metres from my front door

We rode west along Samford Road until we reached the Ferny Grove train station.  At this point, most cyclists head straight over the range to Samford on the popular Sunday morning coffee route.  We headed off the main road, to seek out a section of rail trail that supposedly offered an easier pass into the Samford Valley.  This section of railway line used to run all the way to Dayboro, about 35km north-west of Brisbane, and was decommissioned in 1955.  The line used to run where Lanita Street is now, just behind Ferny Grove station.  Although now a suburban street, the easy gradient, gentle curves and cuttings of an old steam train line are clearly visible.

A happy camper on Lanita Street, Ferny Grove - site of the old railway line to Dayboro

Given how excited I was by the fact I could distinguish this street was once a railway line, I think I've turned into a rail enthusiast

Slight confusion about where to go at the top of Lanita Street.  Just head up the rough track to the top of the bank and you'll end up on the old rail line

Here we are – smooth, flat, easy rail trail riding only 5 km from my front door

This section, known as the Lanita Rail Trail, was really surprising.  We were literally only a stones throw from the edge of Brisbane, yet we were in total seclusion, on a short section of rail trail rivalling that of the Brisbane Valley.  As we blasted up the smooth trail, we passed a few confused looking mountain bikers, who were clearly a bit unsure about our drop bar touring bikes.  We gave them an effortless wave and adopted a look of "this is so easy on this bike I am literally about to fall asleep", and were greeted in return by the usual staunch look of an overweight mountain biker trying to look all hardcore.

Only the sound of whip birds and tyres on gravel.  This area must surely be one of Brisbane's best kept secrets

There have been a lot of fires around Queensland lately, including out here in the forest.  As we rode everything was bathed in an orange, hazy glow from the smoke hanging in the air

I find railway cuttings very exciting these days.  Maybe because they are technically three-quarters of a tunnel, maybe because I've gone a bit peculiar in the head...

This rail trail is the easiest way over the Samford range, with a gentle gradient heading back down to the valley.  No traffic and no people is just a bonus

Our descent into rail nerdery
After crossing the gravel section of the rail trail through Brisbane Forest Park, we were soon out of the scrub and back onto the bitumen road.  Compared to the main road that we normally ride to Samford on, this route was a treat - completely deserted, entirely pleasant, and still following the easy gradient of the rail line.  Little way along the road we passed a cairn marking the spot of Queensland's worst rail accident.

Deserted country road riding

Here's where it all happened, apparently the train went too fast around this bend and derailed.  Not much chance of us going too fast around anything today though

Memorial to the sixteen people who lost their lives in 1947

There were heaps of these signs everywhere.  Apparently it's acceptable for crazy people to film you in the Samford Valley. I love Big Brother

Once in the Samford Valley we linked up with the Samford Pony Trails network.  These trails have something of a bad name with local cyclists – road bike riders think they're too rough, and mountain bike riders think they're too easy, and therefore not "cool".  The reality is they offer the perfect place to do some serious exploring and have some great adventures right on the edge of town.  The trails are a mix of dirt tracks, single trail, quiet country lanes, and bitumen roads, that can be easily negotiated on a touring bike, hybrid or mountain bike.  Very little information is available on the trails other than a couple of maps on the Internet, and this creates a little extra feeling of mystery when exploring the network.

One of the rocky sections of the trails.  Here's Rudi undertaking another mechanical repair

Typical pictogram along the trail network

There are no steep gradients on the Samford Pony Trails, mostly undulating country roads

Rudi negotiating one of the timber structures designed to keep vehicles out.  For the most part they seem to work - the trails are free from vandalism, litter and damage

Easy and smooth riding

Looking through the heat haze across the Samford Valley.  By this point the day was really starting to heat up

Some of the “single trail" sections, easily negotiated at speed on the touring bikes

Rudi attempting to cross a sandy, rocky creek bed along the trail.  I got my camera out in anticipation of a stack...

...It looks like he's going to go down!!!

Unfortunately it was not to be - Rudi makes it across the creek intact

Yet another bike repair.  For some reason the axle on the Fuji kept slipping under power.  This continued all day

Rudi punches down an expired gel after 15km in two hours - extreme average speeds

About as rough as the Samford Pony Trails get

By about 11 AM we ended up behind the Samford pony club.  I assume this is where the trials get their name from, and we rode along through show jumps and other equestrian paraphernalia.  From here we followed our map down more country roads and across more dirt easements until we eventually found ourselves on a grassy track on the northern side of Samford creek.  At this point the trail got slightly confusing, following a roughly mowed firebreak along the back of residential properties bordering the creek.  It was along here we also got to practice one of the more precarious touring bike riding skills – riding along the side of an extremely steep, wet, grass slope.

Bike versus grid

Rudi rides through the thick vegetation along Samford creek

By now it was around midday and starting to get really hot.  We parked the bikes and had a bite to eat in the shade by the flowing creek

Typical open grassy riding on the north bank of Samford creek.  Not the most exciting, but not entirely unpleasant either

We came across an old road, complete with road signs warning us of bridge ahead.  The bridge was clearly long gone, and we had to find another way around

Temporarily geographically challenged
At this point of our journey things started to take a turn for the “adventurous".  Our maps no longer bore any relevance to anything happening in the real world, the day was getting very hot, and we were running low on food and water.  After riding for a while down an increasingly overgrown trail, we decided we needed to get across the creek and head back into Samford if we had any hope of getting to this alleged bat-filled rail tunnel.

Slightly lost and confused following some single trial

I suggested to Rudi that the best way to cross this creek was to fly down the hill at full speed and hit the water at about 40 km/h.  I assured him it would all be fine, and I'd have my camera at the ready to capture his triumphant moment - just like last time

For some reason he didn't believe me, and chose to walk his bike across the water

From here things got interesting.  We were standing on a small trail adjacent to the creek trying to decide which way to go.  My instinct was telling me to head to the east, but the trail to the west look more well worn, so we decided head off that way.  Big mistake.  Before too long we were on a rough easement walking our bikes through mud, across fallen trees and up steep slopes.  It was apparent we were close to a road, as we were behind large residential lifestyle blocks and could see the driveways.  With confusion mounting, the only option was to take a legally "interesting" short cut back to the main road, and make a dash into Samford.  Looking at our GPS track later, I discovered that had we gone along the eastern track as first though, we would have been on the road into Samford within about 50 metres!  We arrived in town and sat in the shade at the legendary “Pancake Park", home of the now infamous “pancake incident".

The information kiosk at Samford.  It's a replica of a slab hut, and well worth a look

Rudi takes shelter from the hot sun at Pancake Park.  When we got home we saw it had been 33°C that day.  No wonder we went through a lot of bidons

Mission accomplished
After eating the last of our food, we headed off on our final push to find the rail tunnel.  We knew very little about the tunnel, other than the fact it had bats in it, and that it obviously occurred along an old rail line.  If we could find the rail line, we'd find the tunnel.  A short ride north of Samford we rejoined the old railway - now a bitumen road, but still with all the hallmarks of a rail line of yesteryear.  Now that we were massive railway nerds, we could spot such things with ease.  At the end of the road we rode up a small embankment, and onto the final stretch of well shaded rail trail.

Riding up the reclaimed railway line to our final destination

Another sublime stretch of smooth, well graded, well shaded rail line.  Hard to believe this is only 16 km from my house

And at last we were there.  The Yugar rail tunnel, last used by trains in 1955 and now a home to a colony of micro bats

 It was surprising how small the tunnel actually is.  I have it in my head that steam trains were colossal behemoths, however this tunnel was not much bigger than a large van

View from inside the tunnel.  The squeaking of micro bats could be heard all around us in the moist silence. The Yugar railway tunnel is awesome

We emerged from the cool dark tunnel, blinking in the bright light and now blazing heat. It was well after lunch time now, and we sped back over the Samford Range on the main road, back into Brisbane City.  I would usually have ridden a little more sedately in the midday sun over a mountain range, but the springtime treat of a nesting magpie smashing me in the head on the long climb out of Samford put a bit more urgency in my pace.  

All downhill back into Samford

Just for something different, Rudi had to fix his slipping axle again

The green algae all over my bike from slopping through stagnant mud added a nice visual touch

Any and all shade was welcomed.  Fortunately, much of the Samford Pony Trails are well shaded by riparian vegetation

One final stop to tighten the axle again, and away we went

So what's the go with the Samford Pony Trails?
As I mentioned earlier in the post, the Samford Pony Trails are misunderstood among Brisbane cyclists - which is probably why I've never seen another rider on them.  I think a lot of it has to do with the name - when you say "Samford Pony Trails" it conjures up images of little kids poking around a short, sedate loop on an asthmatic miniature pony, before having a lunch of cucumber sandwiches.  When I ask my friends if they want to go riding out there, they usually give me a blank kind of look and politely decline, as though I am some kind of crazy and boring person.  The reality is that the trails network offers a big taste of adventure, only a little way from the city.  Our adventure was a long and convoluted 50km route over five hours, but amazingly, we were never more than an hour's ride away from my home in suburban Brisbane.  We crossed creeks, rode single trail, visited a country town, explored old heritage sites, got lost - the whole gamut of "adventure" stuff.   It was all a bit like being a kid on a BMX again, recapturing the vibe of exploring the local area.  If you're in Brisbane and you're thinking of exploring the area, I thoroughly recommend downloading the maps and getting out there to discover it for yourself.  

And if the name puts you off, just think of it as the "Samford Multisport Adventure Network" - it's a far more accurate description.