Chris and I pedalled out of Kurow just before the first light of dawn. We were keen to make an early start - our day involved about 110km of riding, much of which would be on the dirt traverse over Danseys Pass and beyond into the Central Otago town of Ranfurly. Danseys Pass (apparently there's officially no apostrophe) is legendary in NZ cycle touring circles - a 935m remote dirt pass over the Kakanui Mountains linking the towns of Duntroon and Ranurly. As far as I knew there were no services along the road other than a holiday park near the start of the climb, and a pub after the pass about 32km later. I had no clue if these businesses would be open or closed. We decided to make an early start, have a huge breakfast at the town of Duntroon, before turning into the wilderness over the pass.
From before dawn the weather in the Waitaki Valley was low fog. There was no wind that early in the morning and the road sloped ever so slightly downhill. We rode the 25km from Kurow to Duntroon in less than an hour, just in time for a huge breakfast...
...or not. There's only one place in town to get a coffee and some food, and it wouldn't be open for hours.
At Duntroon our food options were limited to zero. The decision was made to press on and try our luck at the holiday park about 20km away towards the pass. If all else failed, we were both still carrying a lot of road food.
Historical building in the tiny village of Duntroon. This was an old blacksmith shop I think.
Leaving Duntroon we arrived at the turnoff. We knew the ride was about to get a whole lot tougher, so naturally we were tempted to ditch the pass, roll all the way downhill to Oamaru, marry a couple of local steampunk girls and live out the rest of our lives there. However we made the turn southwest towards the pass, committing ourselves to a pretty big day of riding.
From Duntroon, we headed across what looked like a reasonably flat farming valley. The low fog obscured any view of the mountain range ahead, so we had no idea of what the day held. In hindsight, that was probably for the best.
About an hour and a half into the day Chris suddenly started fading fast. He couldn't put his finger on what was wrong, but he was struggling to ride at even 15km/h. We hadn't even hit the range yet, so things weren't looking good.
We stopped for a roadside break for Chris to get his energy back. I knew the holiday park was maybe 5km ahead, so we agreed to just box on to there and take a big break to replenish before the pass.
Part of Chris' fatigue may have been due to the coarse, dead bitumen road. It even required pedalling to ride downhill - never a great sensation for a touring cyclist.
Two corners later and boom! - out came the sun. The road rose and fell through pine forests through a steep valley. As the fog lifted, so did our spirits, and in no time Chris and I were both riding strong again.
We soon lobbed into Danseys Pass holiday park, a remote spot at the foot of the mountains.
Even though by now it was about 10 in the morning, the temperature was still cold.
The selection of food at the park was pretty limited, and I expected to pay mountain prices. Imagine my delight when we jagged two tins of Coke and a large packet of chicken chips for just $6!
Enjoying my late breakfast / early lunch as I mentally prepare for the ride ahead.
Feeling refreshed and in high spirits, we set off from the holiday park onto the range. The lady at the park had boosted our egos by saying "you guys look like fit, strong men - I reckon it will take you about 4 hours to get to the hotel beyond the pass." I thought "4 hours to go 32km - we'll smash that!" Immediately after leaving the park, the road kicked sharply upwards into a winding granny gear climb out of the small valley. Once we crested the top the road turned to dirt, and a panoramic view of the roof of New Zealand opened up all around us. Directly in front was a jagged series of peaks - I was unsure where the road went over or around them, and I had kind of given up guessing mountain pass routes, but it all looked definitely do-able. The sun was out, the wind was mild, the road was drying and we were riding strong. We continued onwards through the ups and downs (mostly ups) toward Danseys Pass somewhere up ahead.
Things get steep beyond the Danseys Pass holiday park.
Chris riding along the roof of New Zealand. Lord Of The Rings references were in abundance.
I was making good on my promise to sing "Slice Of Heaven" every time we were struck with yet another scenic vista.
My surname is Hill and the sign says Hill - geddit? This was also the scene of my only mechanical issue of the trip - one of my brake adjusters had worked its way loose on a rough gravel descent.
The scenery over the Danseys Pass road was impossible to photograph, impossible to describe and impossible to comprehend. This place is the hallowed ground of NZ cycle touring.
The way up the pass was punctuated with a lot of steep, rough gravel descents. Chris surveys the descent we just rode down before setting off on yet another climb through the remote wilderness.
Stopping for a rest on the only bit of flat grass we saw all day.
Despite the up and down nature of the road, we were definitely gaining altitude as we climbed through forests, around jagged buttresses and across countless small creeks. I was tiring in the legs, however I was so energised by the landscape that I wasn't losing speed. I had also been to Ranfurly before, so I was reassured knowing what awaited us at our destination. Somewhere near the top we spied a flat bit of grass by a creek, and unanimously agreed it was time to stop for a lunch of whatever we had left in our handlebar bags. My odometer was playing up so I didn't know quite how far we had to go, but I estimated it wasn't all that far. We both went a bit loco with the excitement of the imminent pass, knowing it would all be over soon. We laughed and danced and jumped about on the grass, making stupid jokes and generally wasting energy goofing off. As we lounged around in the midday sun, we saw the only car of the day on the range crawl by, so we waved idiotically. Knowing a pub lunch was just around the corner, we hopped on our bikes and pedalled onwards towards the nearby pass.
The road continued upwards, climbing steadily past small trees and grass clumps under a radiantly blue sky. Up ahead I saw the top of the pass - the road in front of me kicked steeply and turned left behind a spur. Beyond the corner was a large tree, and past that blue sky. Approaching the corner the road suddenly turned to deep mud - I gave one final kick of strength to get me through the mud, around the bend and over the top. I triumphantly cleared the mud, ready for the descent to the pub - the only problem was that I wasn't at the pass. I was nowhere near it. I had crested a false summit. Stretching out before me the road continued steeply upwards. I'd passed above the treeline and into the alpine zone, and the wind blew strongly straight into my face. This was far from over. It was at that exact moment I realised the climb over Danseys Pass had changed from a great day on the bike, into a legendary day of cycle touring - but legendary days often aren't all that pleasant.
My trip computer registered my forward speed at 5km/h. I knew from past experience that once I drop below 5.5km/h I'm better off getting off the bike and walking, so that's exactly what I did. Chris was a way behind me after my burst of speed up what I thought was the summit, and he soon caught up with me. I could see he was pretty unhappy. He got off and walked for a while too, but after about ten minutes he started having some sort of back spasm. I could see he was in a lot of pain, and I felt sympathetic. I knew the feeling of being out in the middle of nowhere, in a lot of pain, with no way out but to continue - and I could see that's exactly what he was going through. I opted not to give it too much of the "chin up buddy" routine as I know it doesn't help and when a man is in a little cone of suffering it's best not to disturb that focus. After about fifty minutes of pushing the bikes, we finally reached the top of Danseys Pass.
Getting up above the tree line. I knew the pass was up there somewhere, but I was not at all how far.
Photos don't show the two biggest enemies of the cycle tourer - wind and steepness. They do show a man suffering a lot.
Fifty minutes is a long time to be walking a loaded touring bike.
I turned a corner and finally saw the pass. Within another twenty minutes or so of walking the bike I was finally up there.
Free cycle touring tip: when you see a bloke really suffering, but the bloke is still moving forward, don't say a word to them. I felt really sympathetic for Chris on this diabolical climb, but I also accepted there was not much I could do to help, so I opted to stay just out of earshot most of the way and keep moving forward.
Looking back down to Canterbury from whence we came
We didn't linger long at the top of the pass. There was still a long way to ride that day, and the pass was cold and exposed to the wind.
Looking downhill to Central Otago. At least it'll all be a downhill cruise from here, right?
After the effort and pain of getting up the pass, I was at least grateful that Chris would get a break cruising down the other side to the pub for lunch. I could not have been more wrong. The descent was diabolically rough, with large schist stones poking through the steep dusty track surface. We later learned that apparently an inexperienced grader operator had messed up the previously smooth road just a few weeks earlier. At any rate, it was taking a lot of my concentration to find the right mix of speed, stability, not rattling my bike to bits, not overheating my brakes and not shooting off a cliff. To be fair, I've got a pretty good bike and I'm a good descender, so I found it challenging but still fun. Chris, on the other hand, was having a nightmare of a time. This was his first experience if riding a skinny tyre touring bike down a steep descent, and this particular descent went on for a very long way. After 15 minutes or so of descending I stopped at a little outcrop to get some photos of the valley. Chris was nowhere to be seen, but after I while I saw him slowly round a spur and roll down to where I was. As he pulled up his foot jammed in the cleat, resulting in a less than graceful dismount. He very nearly landed face first in the dirt - it's a frustrating thing to happen at the best of times, but in that moment I could clearly see he was hating this ride with the power of a thousand suns. He hopped straight off his bike and walked off down the spur away from me. I hopped back on my bike, determined to keep moving and stay just far enough in front of him so that he'd chase, but not drop back enough so we could talk. When a man is in a cycle touring rage, all he needs to focus on is moving forwards, so I silently took on the role of chase target. The road flattened out a bit but somehow got worse, with deep gravel and corrugations. After spending a few kilometres hoping to see the pub at any moment, it was with a sigh of relief we finally reached the Danseys Pass hotel. As predicted, it had taken us exactly 4 hours to travel the 32km from the holiday park to the pub. 4 harrowing, dusty, tiring hours. We dumped the bikes out the front, tumbled inside, ordered 2 lunches each and sat there for 90 minutes not saying much, but happy to have each others company.
Chris later revealed he was getting a lot of front wheel skids on the descent. Never a pleasant sensation.
Just after very nearly dumping the bike and faceplanting, Chris walked around a bit to reflect on the situation we'd found ourselves in - exhausted in the middle of nowhere.
Gravel and corrugations. I can't decide if this was better or worse than the schist track. Either way, it wasn't good.
The historic Danseys Pass hotel, built right on the road.
Exhausted out the front of Danseys Pass hotel.
I totally underestimated the distance between the hotel and our destination at Ranfurly. After the hotel another couple of hours of dirt riding through undulating drainages across farmland awaited us.
As happened often on our trip, our moods swapped. Suddenly Chris was full of energy and riding away from me everywhere, while I wheezed and grumbled my way to the top of every climb.
I had in my head the idea that it was all flat or even downhill between the pass and Ranfurly, but my tired legs and a quick look behind revealed we had climbed a significant distance from the valley below.
As the day got darker we kept ourselves amused with renditions of "The Monorail Song" from The Simpsons - a logical thing to do after having already spent 11 hours in the saddle that day.
Hopping back onto the bitumen just before the steep descent into the town of Naseby was sweet relief. As we left town for the short blast from Naseby to Ranfurly, our moods swapped again as I got my trademark late afternoon second wind, and Chris completely ran out of energy. I totally lost sight of him as I powered down to Ranfurly in top gear at 40km/h across the farming plain. This sign seemed like good advice...
The main street of Ranfurly. We stopped to resupply with some evening snacks. A day off was planned for tomorrow, and my only scheduled activity was to hit the pharmacy and buy pretty much every painkiller they had. I'd had a mostly strong day, but I was getting very sore all over.
We pedalled into our luxury accomodation at Maniototo Lodge just as the last of the sun drained out of the sky.
I had been to Maniototo Lodge back in 2011, where I met the wonderful hosts Gary and Chris, and generally had the time of my life in this perfect little Central Otago spot. A wave of relief rolled over me as I ride down the familiar gravel driveway to the grand old building. Chris and I hugged it out and congratulated each other on a tough day well done, stashed our bikes around the side, and knocked on the door. Carol and Ross opened the door, exclaiming "We didn't think you were going to make it, we were wondering where you were!" Turned out Gary and Chris were away for a few days, so Carol and Ross (Gary's brother) were holding the fort for a few days - despite the fact I'd only met them at the door that moment, they were wonderfully hospitable and ushered us two dirty disoriented cyclists inside. Inside the luxuriously renovated building the fire was raging, while Carol and Ross asked us about our travels and our plans for the evening. I was so tired and disoriented and they were so awesome and full of energy that I felt a bit like an impostor in such plush surroundings with such lovely people. We made plans for dinner, I had a shower and spread my stuff out around my massive room. We all regrouped in the front lounge where I wrote up my notes, we ate some snacks and chatted about our various adventures. It turned out Carol and Ross lived up north, and were touring around NZ in a camper for a few months. Carol cooked up an awesome feast with an amazing desert in the usual NZ "it's no trouble" style - which is to say it was an awesome meal far more satisfying than I could possibly ever whip up at a moment's notice if left to my own devices. After dinner and a few drinks the exhaustion really started to set in, and I was flat out keeping my eyes open. I retired to the massive king bed in my room and crashed out - I don't even remember closing the door.
This day was the most epic day of cycle touring I have ever had - the yardstick by which all other epic days will be measured. I've definitely ridden further in a day (this one was about 110km), I've definitely ridden more scenic routes (just), I've certainly tackled more technical terrain, and I've definitely had more fun. But in terms of a 12 hour emotional and topographical rollercoaster, this day surpassed anything I had ever done in all my years of moto and cycle adventure touring. Danseys Pass has that mysterious x-factor that justifies its place in the pantheon of iconic NZ touring rides, dishing up a cycling experience that I'll never forget.