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31 Mar 2011 – The Mammoth Challenge that was the Murderous Maungatapu Track

April 8, 2011

It has always been a habit of mine to try to avoid main roads. In the UK, there are often several route options for a given destination, allowing you to choose a more meandering journey for the sake of the good views rather than a boring but faster road. In New Zealand, there are far fewer roads as result of fewer towns and some considerably large mountain ranges that roads have to go around. This in addition to the nation having less than a twelfth of the UK population in a similar sized land mass. Therefore the most common option usually set before the touring cyclist is the main highway, commonly a single lane affair and frequented by a significant number of double-length trucks hurtling along it with little room to spare. Where you have another option, it is likely to be over a mountain pass with multiple summits and unpaved making the going even harder due to increased rolling resistance. I had taken this harder “short cut” option on a previous touring effort and had quickly learned that although the main roads may not be quite so interesting and had large, high speed potential enemies along it, they are much quicker and easier overall. I guess it depends if you are in a hurry or not!

The vehicle of choice

Planning my ride out of Nelson, at the top of the south island, I spotted an alternative four-wheel drive track on the map. It looked to cut off a chunk of road distance between there and Pelorus Bridge. The road distance along Highway 6 is 53km; the ride via Maungatapu Saddle is supposedly 35km. What the map did not show was the elevation nor the condition of the track. The 4WD track I had ridden through the Molesworth and Rainbow Stations from Hanmer Springs to St Arnaud had been a well maintained unpaved double track, the worst parts being bone-rattling corrugations for some kilometres and rocky river fords at intervals that didn’t cause an experienced mountain biker much trouble. I hoped that the Maungatapu route would be the same. I consulted my two cycling guidebooks and started encountering such statements as “very steep” and “may be unrideable in places” as well as “watch out for ruts” in addition to a scary looking elevation chart showing a 600m climb in 5km. The second guidebook said “for the brave” and “lightly loaded bicycles only”. I heeded these words and decided to take State Highway 6.

My resolve did not last for long. A friend I had been riding with in Nelson convinced me that the route was mostly rideable and he thought I would be able to make it up the hills. He gave me a rundown of what to expect, encouraging me that only one short section would be too steep to ride. Easily swayed by thoughts of a traffic-free frolic through the mountains, I changed my mind. I was to tackle the Maungatapu track. This track is famous for the rare and shocking crime of five murders over two days in June, 1866 when the Burgess gang, hardened criminals from England via Australia, determined to lie in wait for gold prospectors on their way from the Wakamarina goldfield to Nelson. After netting little from their first victim, they hid behind a large rock and attacked a group of four prospectors travelling with their packhorse. The murderers were found and brought to justice after their frivolous spending in Nelson aroused suspicions. This gruesome history also did not serve to deter me!

Click on link below to see routemap:


After riding out of Nelson along the Maitai Valley road, I followed the first sign I saw for the Maungatapu track which took me up the valleyside on an unpaved road. After one pause for a sandwich in the shade to satisfy my growling stomach I reached a summit and the official start of the track. At first, I was disappointed and annoyed to see the “Closed” sign on the gate. I had already ridden 10km out of the way of the only other route as well as up some altitude and turning around to take the road route now would mean I have added another 20km on to the 100+km ride to Anakiwa not to mention the climb.
The caretaker of the Maitai water reserve and key-holder for the gate was mowing the grass on a tractor and turned off the engine to talk to me.

“Going to Pelorus?”
“Yes”
“It’s very rough over the other side”
“Really, I was informed that it was worse this side?”
“No, no, there are ruts this big” (indicating around 4 ft/1.2m with his hands).

I stood, pondered and continued to look at the gate. I think he gathered my reluctance to change my plan so he got off his tractor, offered the encouragement “You look pretty strong” and offered to open the gate so I would not have to haul my bike and load over it. If he had warned me I would be pushing my 45+kg load up a steep, rough track, at times so rocky it barely offered enough grip for my footwear for over 3 hours, I might have been persuaded to turn around despite the added distance.

The first climb so steep the road drops away behind me

The first part of the track was downhill which I tackled with caution, as my trailer with heavy load was untested off-road thus far. Then came a small river ford and the steepest of the hills to be tackled, for which I had to dismount. At only 100 metres long I overcame it; not with ease, for it took a lot of effort to push, pull and fight the bike and trailer up, but still with enthusiasm as I naively hoped that I would be able to ride the rest of the way. From this point, the track meandered and climbed with a lesser gradient. The way was paved with small rocks rather than the desired small stones, which disrupted momentum, especially of the trailer. Soon the hill became steeper again with many switchbacks built to traverse the mountainside up to the saddle. I rode the bicycle as much as I could but the gradient and the weight of the trailer behind me wanting to drag me back down meant that I was off it more often than on. I remained chirpy for the first couple of hours of this slog, setting myself to the challenge and amused myself by singing jolly songs. The sun was shining into the valley beside me but I was in the shadow of trees and I was enjoying the traffic-free pleasantness. However, rests to refuel and rejuvenate became more frequent and the view of yet another section of hill after turning a switchback corner soon brought despondency. I was exerting more effort than usual with every step and a lot of upper body tension was required to keep the train of bicycle and trailer both upright and in forward motion. I laughed as I thought of my friend’s comments as I had headed off – to let him know when I get to Pelorus Bridge and he would tell me my average speed. I can tell you that sometimes my speed was in the negative as my load would slip back despite the bicycle brakes being on, the studs on my shoes digging into the mud and my arms and legs all straining!

The loss of the final shred of humour within me happened shortly after I was enjoying a brief moment back on the bicycle. My trailer dropped onto its side stopping the bicycle in its tracks. One of the bolts securing the trailer onto the specially adapted wheel axle had dropped off somewhere along the track, most likely due to the constant vibrations from the roughness of the track. I retraced my steps down to the previous switchback but could not see a small shiny metal bolt amongst the damp stones glistening in the sun. Nightmarish thoughts ran through my head at startling speed. “I’m in the middle of nowhere, the road is closed to other traffic so I can’t hitch a ride out of this, I might have to leave my belongings stranded here with no way of coming back to fetch them.” I cast these aside, tried to think about what I could do, and inspected the latch mechanism. The bolt had dropped out of a pivoting hook which closed around the axle. I only needed something to keep this in place and the trailer would be secure enough to continue. I racked my brain for what spares I had with me. I suddenly remembered the paperclip I had picked up off the desk this morning, the one that I had stuffed in the pocket of my backpack despite wondering why I was still carrying it (I know it’s only a paperclip but I didn’t want to carry anything unnecessary). I now retrieved it, thankful for holding on to it, and refashioned it to hold the hook closed. It worked! From this point onwards, I kept an eye on my handiwork and on the remaining bolt for the hook on the other side of the wheel. I only had 1 paperclip, no more mishaps required thank you very much!

Another hour of trekking, pulling, sweating and annoyance, I finally reached the Maungatapu Saddle and simultaneously ran out of easily eatable sugar as I piled a heap more cream cheese and jam in between my last slice of bread (the rest of my supplies required cranking up the stove). There was a pretty view from the top, but not any better than I had gained from climbing to Windy Point from Nelson two days previously and without pulling the trailer behind me! I still decided that it was at least partly worth it and set about down the hill.

Summit View: Looking over Mt Richmond Forest towards Ruby Bay

I now encountered the aforementioned 4ft/1.20m ruts. Thankfully, I could avoid most of them and the one I had to get over was narrow enough to allow me to roll the bike and trailer over after dismounting. I was so busy making sure I avoided all of the large holes that I did not see Murderer’s Rock, 4.3km from the summit.
The trailer performed brilliantly on the rough downhill parts despite its load and missing bolt. Downhill, the weight was not such an encumbrance and although I was not able to go top-speed, I still was able to enjoy the ride. There were a few small valleys and river fords where I was not too happy about the hill on the upside but they were all rideable. As I continued to descend onto smoother track with vast views of forested wilderness, I reflected upon the stupendous climb. I consoled myself with the thought that though I would not recommend doing route carrying any kind of load other than self and bicycle, I was proud of myself. I had had to work at the very limits of my physical ability but not given up; I had overcome what could have been a nightmarish mechanical situation that could have left me or my gear stranded on the semi-wild Bryant mountain range. The weather had treated me well, the whole thing could have been much worse and I had had an epic adventure in the process!

Total climb: 1447m Total descent: 1413m Total distance: 39.3km

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