Australian Outback: Betty Britz and two ‘Sheilas’ drive from Cairns to the Tip of Cape York

Driving 4WD from Cairns to the very ‘TIP’ of Australia through the Red Outback

With our petrol tank starting to get dangerously low after leaving Cooktown, our first stop on the isolated Cape York Peninsula was a remote roadhouse. We joined about a dozen 4WD trucks, trailers and vans of various brands, shapes and sizes all similarly covered with a coat of that ‘bloody’ red dust. Everybody who could had parked under the little available shade while others refilled their tanks with Cape York’s famously ‘high cost’ diesel. Some folks were eating their lunch on camp chairs by their vehicle; others sat at plastic tables and chairs provided by the roadside café.

Stopping at the Road house for petrol
Stopping at the Road house for petrol

All heads were raised as a new truck approached. We parked our 4WD Toyota Land Cruiser — our “Bushcamper” — by the petrol pump. Suddenly all eyes are staring at the two grey-haired ‘sheilas’. You could see them thinking something like:

“Not two 60-plus women on their own, driving a monster like that on these roads? There must be a bloke in there somewhere?”

After looking inside for the token male, there was much scratching of heads and muttering when he was nowhere to be see. Eventually it was too much for one man who approached us with a smile. “You two girls (I liked that) drive up here on your own?”.

This was how many conversations — and friendships — started during our trip across the vast outback from Cairns to the tip of the Australian Continent on the Cape York Peninsula.

Planning for the trip started two years ago during another 4WD outback challenge from Adelaide to Darwin which was a celebration of our respective 60th birthdays. The website I had previously used www.Exploreoz.com rated the difficulty for this trip as 4 1/2 stars – 5 stars being the ultimate challenge. We were much less daunted than were family and friends who kept asking well-intentioned questions. “Can you not join a ‘tag along’ group (where one travels in convoy)?” “Will you take a satellite phone?” “Can we have a detailed itinerary?” My son even parted with his precious iPhone so we could have GPS.

The first step was to get to know the area and start drafting an itinerary. So we downloaded commercial Cape York 4WD itineraries and bought books by Moon, Hema and Lonely Planet. Next, we decided the best dates to travel. Everything we read suggested that June to September, the dry winter season, was best.

Next we booked our accommodation on wheels — the Britz Bushcamper, a popular model in the dry season. These 4WD Toyota converted campervans are not cheap – the cost for 17 days with total insurance cover (no excess), safety kit, chairs, table, linen, sleeping bags, pillows and awning was AUD 4,522 (NZD 5,625, USD 3,831, GBP 2,632)

Betty Britz - our home for 3 weeks
Betty Britz – our home for 3 weeks

Day 1

We picked up ‘Betty’ (the Bushcamper) just 4kms north of Cairns on 25th July, arriving on the doorstep of the rental yard at 7.30am eager to get under way as we had to get acquainted with her idiosyncrasies (and there were a few), buy essential food for 17 days and still have plenty of time to enjoy the drive from Cairns to our starting point at Wonga beach.

To our shock, the van was still dirty from the last trip with a thin layer of red dust inside and out. Worse, the right-hand front tire wasn’t roadworthy – and we had 3,000kms to go.   After some discussion we were finally on our way back to our hotel with two new front tires. After we’d packed her up, we noticed a couple taking photos of the van. The couple told us they had rented her for the previous two week and just returned her the previous evening – they also told us they had complained about the state of the tires after getting three punctures.

Once out of Cairns’ suburbs we drove on sealed roads through sugarcane country and along the breathtaking scenery of the northern beaches, heading north along the coast to towards the Daintree National Park and bypassing main towns. We needed to get to the campsite before dark to do some serious repacking and rearranging of gear and food before we hit the rough roads. We stayed at Pinnacle Village Holiday Camp at Wonga Beach. Tomorrow was a big day as we needed to be up at the crack of dawn for a sunrise boat trip on the Daintree River, 15kms away, and prepare ourselves for the notorious Bloomfield Track.

Day 2  Daintree River & the notorious Bloomfield Track

This was when it really started. – the long dusty red roads that we were to brave for the next 17 days! We hit the Bloomfield Track at 11am. Books and blogs described it as “exceedingly” or “hideously” steep, slippery and exceptionally winding. It is also tidal and cannot be crossed at high tide. The best advice recommended stopping at Mason’s store in Cape Tribulation, just a couple of kilometres from the start of the track, to check the state of the road and the tides.

We arrived there about 10.30am, anxiously seeking reassurance that we could drive this fearsome road. I would have been more than happy to go the long alternative route around to Cooktown at the first hint of concern from the shop owner but, alas, the very pleasant young man behind the counter could not help – he had been a Masons Store employee for only three days. Nothing for it but to grip the wheel, put Betty into 4WD and head off.

Two hours later, I felt a bit of a fool. We were eating lunch in the Lion’s Den 35kms south of Cooktown. I had built the Bloomfield Track up into a veritable Everest but it really was a piece of cake. Or maybe we were just lucky as there are many horror stories and it had not been raining. We were glad to reach Endeavor falls Campsite 31kms outside Cooktown after a leisurely wander around the town

Day 3 & 4 – Drive to Kalpowar Camp site in Lakefield NP – stayed 2 nights

However that still left the road from Cooktown to the tip of Cape York, which has has just about every 4WD challenge you could wish for, especially if you take the Overland Telegraph Line (OTL). Several of the crossings along this track are feared and revered. Bearing names such as Gunshot Creek, Nolan’s Brook (don’t be fooled by the gentle name), Cannibal Creek, Canal Creek or Logan Creek, they can leave you stranded or under water.

Fortunately, our insurance did not allow us to travel on the dreaded OTL, so we had no choice but to take the Southern and Northern bypass roads. We were, however, allowed to travel 8kms deep into the Elliott Falls along the OTL, provided we came out the same way. We heard many a tale of brave souls tackling Gunshot and knew of three vehicles that “drowned” during our trip.

The OTL started as a track through the dense forest of Cape York in 1885 and followed the path of the telegraph wires north, which was for many years the only means of communication between the residents of remote areas and Cooktown. The bypass roads –Southern and Northern — which begin at Bramwell Junction Roadhouse and end at the Jardine River, were developed later by Telecom Australia to service its newly installed telegraph wires. The first car ever to travel from Cooktown to the tip of Cape York was a 7HP baby Austin owned and driven by two intrepid New Zealanders in 1928. It took two months to travel the OTL which was then called the ‘goat’ track. They floated the car across the rivers including the crocodile infested Jardine River.

The Southern & Northern bypass road was most certainly not an easy ride. It was a long continuous red road with dips that could be shallow or deep, bone-jarring corrugations interspersed with large tracks of bull dust, a major road hazard which hides holes that can wreck your tyres or vehicle if hit at speed. Other common hazards are road kill and unannounced road works. At speeds of 20-40kms over corrugations, you feel as though you and the vehicle are being shaken to pieces. But at faster speeds of around 80kms, the corrugations are smoothed out somewhat.

Another hazard is the red dust thrown up by trucks ahead of us. Passing lanes are non existent so it was either put up with it and carry on or the more sensible option – stop for a cuppa. Of course Murphy’s Law dictates that as soon as you finish your cuppa and are ready to hit the road again, a truck passes and you find yourself eating the red dust again!

With our house on our back (well, Betty’s back) we could camp’ anywhere but this did not stop us setting out with a rough itinerary. Many books warned us of the need to book some of the more popular national parks well in advance. Also, an itinerary was a tool to keep family and friends happy. Our first remote camp site was in the Lakefield National Park where we had booked two nights at Kalpowar camp. The instructions were to drive to the Ranger’s Station, which we did, carefully following the signs. When we got there, there was nobody about and a sign read “strictly private”. It turned out that the “Ranger’s Station” is a large notice board where you write your name alongside a site and pay the fees into a box!

We chose a site from our map and it turned out to be inhabited by agile wallabies that crisscrossed the back of the site getting to and from their waterhole. We set ourselves up for two nights, cooked dinner, lit a campfire in a specially made iron base and enjoyed the night sky, the birdlife and a glass of wine by the light of the campfire.

At about 8pm our peace was shattered by the sound of several motorbikes arriving and we feared our little paradise was about to be spoiled. Instead our visitors quickly lit a fire, set up their individual tiny tents, ate their meal, donned head torches and moved around the site like mobile glow worms. They were in bed and asleep before us.

Day 4 Kalpowar Campgroud – Lakefield NP

In the morning we took a walk down to the Normandy River running alongside the camp. There were several warning signs about recent sightings of crocodiles and the dangers of swimming or even getting close to the water’s edge. The date of the last sighting was a month earlier. The shores of the river were overflowing with birdlife – ibis, goshawk, pied herons, kingfishers and grey herons, to name but a few. On the other side of the camp were walking tracks and the ranger (a real live one this time) suggested a 4.5 km loop track that took us through flowering kapok trees and a variety of gum trees and fern trees.

Monitor guarding the black snake for his lunch
Monitor guarding the black snake for his lunch

We had completed about three quarters of loop walk when we disturbed a very large goanna tucking into his lunch. He seemed displeased by the disturbance and immediately retreated a few centimetres, leaving his meal, a black snake, in the grass between him and us. We decided to retreat behind some trees and wait, hoping he would grab his meal and leave. But this was his territory and he wasn’t moving. As we approached him again he rose up on his back legs, looking ferocious. I knew enough about goannas to recognize this as an attacking stance, so after some discussion we decided to circumnavigate our four-footed friend by taking a path through the bush and back to the campsite.

Day 5 From Lakefield NP to Archer’s Roadside

The road out from Kalpowar was red and rough. We stopped briefly at the white and red lily lagoons to admire the lotus flowers and birdlife, once jamming on the brakes when we came across two brolgas dancing in the bush by the road side, beautiful elegant birds famous for their courtship displays. We watched and photographed the pair until they danced off into the long grass and out of sight.

As we drove the Nifold Plains, we suddenly came across termite mounds standing everywhere, large ones and small ones. These amazing structures can be as high as 30 feet and take elaborate shapes. They face north-south, which helps them maintain a cool temperature even in the hottest of climates. Who needs a compass when you are surrounded by anthills that show the way, all created by insects no bigger than a pinhead.

Up here, fuel is like gold dust and at the Musgrave Roadhouse one has to wait for an attendant to fill the tank as pumps are kept locked. The attendant, a 12-year veteran of Musgrave, has been pumping fuel and lived in the area all his life. Fascinated by two grey-haired sheilas driving a 4WD truck, he spent a long time questioning us about our plans. Where were headed, where had we come from?

The road from Musgrave to the town of Coen, our next port of call, was easy and straight. Coen is reportedly famous for its fruit bats and we were keen to check them out, but after driving around the town three times we gave up and enquired at the local store. The owner looked at me like I was bats. “Fruit bats in Coen – haven’t a clue lady, didn’t know we had any!” So much for hearsay.

Instead we went to visit the museum which was surprisingly informative about the local history and displayed many artefacts from people who had farmed the area over the past century or so. But there was still nothing about fruit bats. After having lunch by the banks of the Coen river, we headed for our next stopover, Archer River Roadhouse.

The roadhouse of the far north is a species all its own. The proprietors are pleasant and friendly and the locals are keen to share their considerable knowledge of the area with anyone who asks. Intended for one-night stopovers, the roadhouses let people park cheek by jowl. The generators make more noise than the crows and cockatoos. The cafés have plastic chairs and tables and the aroma of fast food mixes with the smell of diesel. Noisy 4WD cars, trucks and the huge road trains come and go until late into the night. For some unaccountable reason most drivers run their engines for a quarter hour before leaving.

Their vehicle parked and camp set up, new arrivals wander along to the café for a cold beer or (rather expensive) wine or to strike up a conversation with a fellow traveller, to use the local phone, or to take on the challenge of the famous Archer burger. The latter comes with a knife and fork because it is so full of food it is impossible to get your mouth round it. At every one of the roadhouses where we stayed, we saw local aboriginal families eating and drinking at the café, sometimes appearing to drink more than they should.

Marcia and I were becoming savvy about finding the ‘ideal’ camp site, learning to assess levels, views, proximity to toilet (not too close), neighbours and privacy. We often moved when people just drove up, and parked directly opposite so we ended up looking at the whites of their eyes instead of enjoying the trees and the birds. However sometimes close proximity to one’s neighbours cannot be avoided so friendly conversation would ensue. One night at Archer River road house, a retired couple in their mid fifties from Perth in Western Australia was spending one year travelling around the whole of Australia. They told us they had left Perth just after Christmas and the plan was to arrive back there to meet up with their kids next Christmas. They had been ‘on the trail’, as they put it, for months and [were really] enjoying it. In fact, they seemed quite addicted. British by birth but Australian in spirit, they never booked a camp site and, if they could not get into a site, they just camped by the nearest river. By astonishing coincidence, we ended up bumping into them several times during our trip, which was great for us who knew nobody.

We did meet many “grey nomads”, older people who had sold up their residence, purchased the complete home on wheels which often included a Winnebago-style trailer with boat on top and a 4WD vehicle towed behind, plus camping gear for every possible eventuality.

Day 6 To Chilli Beach 

Next morning we were up with sunrise and off to one of the highlights of the trip – Chilli Beach in the Iron Range National Park where the wind blows constantly. The weather had been a little iffy over previous days so we had some concerns about staying right on the beach, but decided that if we got there early enough we could spend some time on the beach and withdraw to a more sheltered camp site if the wind [strengthened too much.] We made Chilli Beach in 2 1/2 hours as the road was in excellent condition – we must have been along the road soon after the graders. It rained all the way there and as we passed Mount Tozer it was shrouded in mist. We drove on through the lush, wet rain forest.

Fording the Pascoe River
Fording the Pascoe River

As we forded the Pascoe river, we stopped to talk to a couple who were heading in the opposite direction. They suggested we go to the site at the northern end of Chilli beach because it was less windy there. The sun greeted us on our arrival and we found the perfect spot, parked up and went straight to the ‘ranger’ board’ to register, stopping behind the ranger’s truck to complete the camp park permit. We put money in the envelope, dropped it into the honesty box and returned to our well chosen site, completely private and only 10 seconds from the beach. Brush turkeys, often mistakenly called bush turkeys, played in the scrub. As we watched, they combined for an assault on newly fallen coconut, pecking away until they broke into it. The meal lasted for hours.

As soon as we had set up our camp for the night, we strolled a few steps onto the beach, which appeared to be deserted as far as the eye could see although we knew there were others there as we had seen a few 4WD’s investigate our site. All the sites were virtual mini-sanctuaries, hidden behind swaying palms right beside the beach. Anybody stopping there needed to be completely self-sufficient in the absence of a local pub or shop. In fact, there was nothing there but the elements. The beach was long, with white sand littered with rubbish washed up from passing ships. One managed to overlook the flotsam and jetsam and admire the spectacular beauty of the east coast of Cape York. No swimming was allowed because crocodiles had been spotted, although we had not seen one of the predators and soon began to seriously doubt all those signs warning of ‘recent crocodile sightings’. We fell asleep to the sound of the wind whipping through the palms and the sea pounding the shore.

Day 7 – To the Iron Ranges National Park

We awoke just before sunrise and took our chairs onto the beach to enjoy the first signs of the new day.

Sunrise
Sunrise at Chilli Beach

 

 

Reluctantly we left Chilli Beach early the following morning to head inland to the Rainforest camp site for the night, a fairly remote and isolated camp site still in the Iron Range National Park. On the way we decided to take a detour to visit Portland Roads and noticed a flash blue sign with white lettering announcing “Out of the Blue” café. Was this a joke in such a remote area? A café in the middle of nowhere? Deciding to investigate, Portland Roads turned out to be a beautiful little village and harbour, boasting a total population of 12. Even better, there really was a café and we ended up sitting on its deck and eating a huge plate of prawns washed down by some freshly brewed coffee. We had indeed found our oasis in the middle of the red dirt.

IMG_7623
Enjoying a prawn sandwich at ‘out of the Blue cafe, near Portland’s Road

 

This haven in the heart of the outback was owned by a young couple, the husband having been a commercial fisherman in the area for many years who had sold his license to buy the café. The business was flourishing despite opening only between 9am and 2pm every day. The menu featured six assorted seafood and fish dishes with the fine print joking that the “information comes free”. The couple talked about the need to plan their menu very carefully as they only get two deliveries a week. Growing their own vegetables was out of the question because of the foraging brush turkeys. They had persisted for several years but the turkeys just flew over a six-foot fence and feasted on the produce.

Our Rainforest camp site that night was remote and silent, still in the Iron Range. Our only neighbours, a German family who had been camped there for three days, were 750 meters away. They told us that they had spotted a green python just beside the site we had chosen. While part of me was excited at the presence of a big snake, the other and bigger part imagined a large reptile slithering over the top of the van as we slept.

We went early to bed and lay listening to an amazing cacophony of rainforest sounds before falling asleep, but not for long. We were rudely awoken around 9pm by our neighbours stomping around with torches and looking for nightlife.

Day 8 Seeing the Eclectus Parrot – amazing!

Our plan for the today was to walk along old Coen road but were faced with a dilemma – cross a stream with a sign saying “Beware of Crocodiles” or drive to the other entrance several kilometres away. We took the second option and decided to do the walk the following day. We woke to a dawn chorus which continued throughout breakfast. Then off we drove to the alternative entrance to old Coen Road where our nocturnal visitors had guaranteed we would find Eclectus parrots nesting in a very old tree. And they were right. We were lucky enough to see two parrots displaying their bold colours of red, green and blue. We watched, captivated, for about 10 minutes before they flew off, extending their spectacularly coloured wings……………….

swimming in Twin falls
Enjoying swimming in Elliot Falls/Twin falls

Next stop Bramwell Junction Roadhouse to fill up Betty’s tank. Diesel got more expensive as we headed north [where most people working at the road houses and resorts seemed to be in temporary employment for the dry season, like the young English woman at the petrol pumps at Bramwell who had been there since June. Her partner was also employed for the season as the odd-jobs man around the roadhouse. They had come straight from England but planned to travel around Australia at the end of the dry season. However the owners were putting pressure on them to stay till the end of the season, the end of September.

We were making good time and thought we might head for Elliot Falls where we could have a swim safe from crocodiles. Elliot Falls in the Heathlands Reserve was 6.6 kms down the Overland Telegraph Line but this was the only part of the OTL, as it’s known locally, that Britz allowed their vehicles to use provided they returned by the same route. What an oasis in the outback it turned out to be! We arrived at about 3 pm and already it was getting crowded but we found a suitable camp site, donned our swimming togs and headed for the falls. We swam for about an hour and it turned out to be our first and last swim for the whole trip. We made the most of it, swimming under the falls, around the falls, walking on top of the falls and then back underneath the falls.

Day 9 Crossing the most expensive stretch of water in the world?

Next stop was the car ferry across the Jardine River. We arrived there about midday and paid $88 for our return trip. The ferry that carried us across the 400-500 meter wide river was propelled by a large steel cable and manoeuvred by a man sitting in a tiny control tower decorated by local aboriginal artists.

Most expensive river crossing $88 return
Most expensive river crossing $88 return

We drove on to Bagma, one of the bigger towns north of the ‘Jardine’, arriving there in Bagma at 1pm when everything was closed except the supermarket and the BP station. As we strolled around the supermarket stocking up on food, we met and chatted to several people we had encountered along the track. The BP garage turned out to be run by a Maori from New Zealand and his son, both enthusiasts of the town and area.

Moving on closer to the edge of Australia, we headed towards Punsand Bay resort to stay for the next four nights. The road was rough, full of potholes and ruts but worth it when we arrived at our beach front site on the edge of a long white sandy beach stretching as far as the eye could see. We were now as far north of Australia as one could go without actually standing at the very tip, just an hour’s drive distant. We found an excellent site, set up camp, had a hot shower, and went off for a cold beer, wine and a steak sandwich in the camp restaurant. A thirty- something couple walking past us in the camping area stopped to engage us in conversation – “you girls (he was on a winner here) are doing great travelling around the Cape all by yourselves – whaddya reckon – there should be more of it. I am going to tell my mother about you two”. We set up camp at Punsand Bay ready for the adventure to the ‘TIP’ tomorrow

Day 10 – Finally we reach the ‘tip’ of Australia

The plan was to head off very early in the morning to reach the tip before the hordes turned up. Many people fly into places like Weipa and Seisia from Cairns to visit the ‘tip’, taking the easy route. So, bright and early Monday morning, we drove about 11 kms through the famous Lockerbie Scrub rainforest to the car park beside the track leading to the tip. We were the first to arrive there and took the Punja track. Thereafter we scrambled over rocks for about the next 20 minutes. Each rock face we climbed we thought might be our last before the tip but there always seemed to be another one. We had little or no indication that we were on the right track except for some very faint pale white track indicators as we negotiated rocks, more rocks and boulders. Finally we saw an insignificant sign in the distance and headed straight for it. It was a strange feeling to stand beside such a modest identification of the very edge of the enormous continent of Australia. Yet were felt exhilarated that we had made it all the way, exactly 403 years after the first European sightings of Cape York by Dutch navigator Abel Janszoon Tasman.

 

After leaving the “Tip” we drove to the failed trading post of Somerset, a small settlement that was established in 1864 by the first Government appointed resident, John Jardine. A natural entrepreneur, Jardine recognized the need for supply of fresh meat and started the first cattle station five kilometres kms beyond Somerset at Vallack with 2000 head of cattle. We visited the crumbling remains of the Jardine home at Somerset and strolled around what was once a bustling town, a hive of activity, with ships moored in the harbour and mainly Chinese divers seeking pearls on the seabed of the coast leading into the Torres Straits – it was known as the “Singapore” of the Pacific.

Today, all that remains are some old gun barrels, a few exotic trees and plants that once grew in the beautiful gardens of the Jardine homestead and some old graves with headstones written in the language of the pearl divers. We tried to drive beyond Somerset but met a couple in a 4WD who had to turn back as the roads were impassable due to rain. So instead we headed back through the Lockerbie scrub and went for a stroll along the Roma track for half an hour.   Back at Punsand Bay, we treated ourselves to dinner in the restaurant yet again, as an award for reaching the “Tip”, downed a bottle of wine from the limited wine list, a lovely sauvignon blanc from New Zealand.

The one disadvantage about all campsites (except those very remote sites) is that one cannot close a door when the neighbours are less than desirable. That night, expecting to find the site as quiet and empty as we had left it, we were confronted by four extremely large people in the site next door, one woman and three men. The woman sat in a chair and was waited on all evening, the men moving very slowly. The youngest of the three men set his bed roll on his camp bed stretcher right alongside our campervan – no tent or awning – and went to sleep at about two in the morning leaving a dozen empty ‘tinnies’ on the beach. His laboured breathing and snoring made sleep almost impossible.

 campfire at Punsand Bay (1) campfire at Punsand Bay_edited-1

Whenever possible, we built and lit a camp fire and became very efficient at it. There is something magical about sitting around a blaze listening to the world around you, reminiscing about the day just gone and planning for the day ahead. We had planned five days at Punsand Bay as we had hoped to take a trip to Thursday Island – “TI” to the locals — but there were not enough people in the campsite wanting to go so we missed out. That helped us to decide to head off a day earlier and spend an extra night near Laura, which would give us plenty of time to visit the many aboriginal art galleries in the area.

Day 12: Bramwell Junction Homestead here we come

As we drove out, the diggers were coming in to smooth the road – just our luck to miss a smooth ride! We stopped briefly in Bamaga to refill water, petrol and food and rang Bramwell Station to book for tonight – all guide books recommended this because of it popularity as the most northerly privately-owned working station in Cape York. We headed back down the northern bypass road, remembering to take the bright red roads this time which were in passable condition, but again we had great difficulty identifying which was the right road. On one side there was one bright smooth red road and on the other a grey rough road running alongside it. Which to take? There were no signposts. After a short discussion we chose the smooth red road because it looked so inviting.

A few kilometres later, we spotted a truck with a person under the wheel and asked him if we were going in the right direction. “Yep,” he yelled and went back to his wheel. We drove on 600 metres and came to a screeching halt in front of a huge mound of red sand shifted there by a bulldozer. We turned back and asked the our guide again. “Yep”, that was the way to Bramwell.

We did another U-turn but something about this mountain of red dirt looked wrong. Luckily another driver passed us and stopped when we asked for directions. Yes, we were on the right road but had to take the little grey gravel road off to the left!  Eventually, we caught up with the smooth red road when we suddenly came upon two trucks blocking the road ahead. One truck was feeding the other truck diesel and between them they appeared to completely block the road. The drivers, both young men, beckoned us to come on and squeeze between the tree-lined ditch and the truck. As we gingerly approached, they leaped into action and ripped out the trees, allowing us to pass through with the barest of margins. Soon afterwards the lovely smooth red road turned into one of the worst roads we had encountered so far with steep corrugations on the straight road followed by tight corners with banks of white loose sand . It seemed to go on for ever.

Finally we arrived at Bramwell Roadhouse where we filled up with fuel before heading off for Bramwell Station. We crossed the cattle stop to find a real working station with cattle everywhere. A friendly chap called ‘Bluey’ came out from an open air bar and restaurant, slap bang in the middle of the grounds in front of the old homestead, to give us a warm greeting and direct us to a camp site shared with several graves belonging to the former owners of the property. Lining one side of the property was some very basic accommodation called ‘dongos’ — a bed, a chair and a window. What more could a man want?

Bluey was very talkative, asking us where we had been and telling us excitedly that only the second-ever aeroplane mail drop was happening at 3pm that very afternoon and we could come and watch. He then showed us several photos of the inaugural mail drop last week and the local celebrations to mark the occasion. Close to three o’clock we grabbed our cameras and walked to the air strip. We waited and waited but the plane did not arrive so we walked back to the camp site. One hour later he raced over on a quad bike and said: “Hop on, it’s coming”. Off I went, hanging on for dear life as he drove like a maniac over the rough terrain.   People came rushing from all over the station to see the plane arrive.   It landed two minutes later and unloaded the mail and other goods.

When it was time to leave, the pilot was unable to restart the engines for take-off. He jumped out with a very red face and spent several minutes deeply engrossed in an open side panel. After a few minutes he hammered it, closed it and hopped back inside. The engine burst into action and the aircraft disappeared down the runway.

We fell asleep under a beautiful clear sky full of stars and woke up to the most amazing moonset in the big morning sky, lighting up a giant termite mount close by. We stood for ages watching it until the sun rose and it lost it red hue.

Day 14  Bramwell Station west to Weipa

After a big breakfast fry-up, we headed for Weipa on the west coast. We drove through the Batavia Downs road, passing nobody but the local wildlife along the road. We checked into Weipa’s only camp ground, which even at noon was pretty full but we just managed to get a beautiful site right beside the beach with a view across the Gulf of Carpentaria.

Weipa is a busy town and most of its population work at the big Rio Tinto Bauxite mines that run 24 hours a day, seven days a week – even on Christmas day. At night you can hear the drone of the machines working at the mine even though it is many kilometres away. The locals put up with the noise and inconvenience as the company bring money, employment and good roads into the local economy. The company burn the scrub and excavate the land but they replant all areas after they have finished mining. What damage they do to plant and animal and sea life was not discussed – best left for locals to discuss among themselves. One got the distinct feeling the subject was taboo. We ate our meal, drinking wine and watching a spectacular sunset as several giant black-necked Jabiru storks strolled through its rays.

Day 15: On to Laura

Next morning, we set off early to our planned stop at Hann Crossing but we made such good time we ended driving as far as Laura – a distance of 496 kilometres, a dead end spot but a very convenient launch pad for the Quinkan art sites and the Quinkan & Regional Cultural Centre. We set up in the local camp grounds behind the rebuilt Quinkan Hotel that had been burned to the ground some years earlier. The locals were very friendly and keen for a chat about where we had been. We met two Frenchmen who were walking from the top of Cape York to the bottom of New South Wales, averaging 30kms a day. With a backpack each, they carried the rest of their gear strapped between two planks on wheels. They had no idea, they said, how long it would take them to cover the continent from top to bottom but thought probably about six months.   They had flown into Weipa and got a lift to the top. During the first few days they realised they had brought far too much stuff with them, but they could not afford to pack it all up and post the parcel home to France as they were on a tight budget so the left the parcel on the side of the road with a sign on it reading: “Please use our gear as you need but if you see us along the way maybe you might give us food or drink”. Three days later a 4WD truck and trailer pulled up along side them and told them they had picked up their parcel but had no intention of using it. Instead they would take it home to New South Wales and the two guys could come and stay with them and pick it up themselves. They also gave them food and water!    When we met them they had been walking for one month and they were having their first day off the next day and were about to have their first shower in three weeks.

Hardly had settled into our very basic camp site in Laura when we were invaded by a family of wallabies – several mothers and babies bold as brass checking us out. The young one were very brave and moved towards but very quickly the mums barked at them and brought them back into line behind them. The stayed around and grazed on the long grass on the verge of the camp. Soon afterwards the campsite suddenly began to fill up with travellers going north and south. A young German couple we had met several times on the trip spotted us in the campsite and pulled up asking if they could share our spot. We were only too happy to have them next door as they were good company. They had acquired an extra passenger – Steve, an English guy who casually told us he had cycled from Cairns to the “Tip”! He even carried his bike across the rocks and boulders so that he and his bike could be photographed together there at the final destination. A school teacher, he wanted to show his pupils back home that he had achieved his goal. The German couple Annette and Jorg had driven all the way from Germany to Cairns on a motor bike, but had hired a 4WD to travel from cairns to the Tip

Day 16 – The Quinkan Art Site and on to Mareeba

The Quinkan Art site was our next stop but we very nearly missed it as we were so excited to be on tar seal for the first time in several weeks that we powered along so fast we overshot. There are no large signs for directions; you just have to keep a keen lookout. An honesty box had been set up for donations but it looked like it was anything but an honesty box as it had obviously been broken into several times, so we left our money at the art centre instead. In spite of the heath and hard going, we walked around the [outdoors] centre for two and a half hours, loving the variety of rock art along the way and the views.

We did not meet another soul on the walk but this was probably because we had gone through an area that said ‘no access’. However, the night before Annette and Jorg had told us that the person at the cultural centre had told them to do this. – there was no obvious reason for the no access sign but one did have to keep a look out for the markers as several were very faint. Sometimes we had to split and one would go ahead until the next marker was spotted and call back.

We decided to try to drive as far as possible that day after we had finished the walk as we had booked ourselves into an eco-tent at the Jabiru Safari Lodge, a treat for our last night on the road with Betty. We also wanted to get there early so that we could spend the day in the Mareeba wetlands where the Jabiru Lodge was situated. We drove as far as the Mareeba township and stayed in a very busy camp site.

Day 17: ‘Glamping’ at Jabiru Safari Lodge, Mareeba Wetlands

Next morning we arrived at the Mareeba wetlands at 9am just as they opened up. What a magic place! It was populated with many species of birds both inside large aviaries and outside on the lake, in the wetlands, the bush, the river, the trees, beside the tents and along the walkways. We saw pelicans, brolgas, pigmy geese, swans, Australian darter, pied shags and were able to view Gouldian finches through glass as the Mareeba wetlands were part of an Australian wide breeding programme with the aim to increase numbers throughout the continent. They release about 100 birds each year in November and get great feedback from local amateur ornithologists or “birders”.

Mareeba wetlands extend over 500 acres of savannas and wetlands, providing a sanctuary for some of Australia’s unique flora and fauna. It is a community conservation project combining run by the not-for-profit Wildlife Conservancy of Tropical Queensland with the help of volunteers. The money from tourism is reinvested into the upkeep of the wetlands and conservation programmes such as the re-introduction of the Gouldian finch. When we there, some ‘birders’ spotted mature and juvenile birds, a great boost to the programme as it meant they were breeding.

Right in the middle of this Savannah stood three eco-tents, our accommodation for the night. When the tourists left that evening there was nobody else except us and the animals and birds. We had ordered a gourmet BBQ meal which was sitting in a cooler beside the BBQ on arrival. After a 5kms walk around the lake, we sat in the still of the night eating our steak and salad and sipping bubbly. Bliss. In the early hours of the morning I was woken by a rustling sound outside. I got up quietly, grabbed my torch and peered outside – straight into the large round eyes of a quoll who was feasting the BBQ leftovers. Quolls are small carnivorous marsupials with a pointed snout and a long tail. The fur is reddish to dark brown to black and it is distinctively spotted with white. They are lively, attractive animals with a pink nose and sharp teeth and live in the savannas of northern Australia. I ran to grab my camera but he was gone by the time I got back.

Day 18: Last day with betty and back to Cairns

Early the following morning we took a tour on the lake where a local guide showed us the wildlife as we drifted through the red lotus lilies with their huge shiny waxen green leaves. The boat, which belonged to the Mareeba Wetlands, had been specially for use on the lake. It has no backwash so the birds, flora and fauna are not endangered in any way.

Sadly it was then time to hop into Betty for the last time and drive one and half hours to Cairns via a carwash so we could rid her of 17 days of that ‘bloody red dust’. We had enjoyed Betty for three whole weeks but now it was time to say goodbye and spend five whole days by a beach where it was safe to swim and in a hotel room that wasn’t on wheels.

A truly memorable trip.

 

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But we will be back again for more Red Roads

New Zealand Bike ride: Mountain to Sea from Turoa Ski Field to Whanganui

One of New Zealand’s great bike rides: Mountain to Sea

Biking all the way from Turoa ski field to Whanganui
Biking all the way from Turoa ski field to Whanganui

One by one we arrived at Station Lodge in Ohakune, a small town in Tongariro National Park in the centre of New Zealand’s North Island, the evening before the start of our five day Mountain to Sea cycle ride. Station Lodge, where we had booked to stay for two nights, has a variety of accommodation for all pockets from an old station house that has dorms, single rooms all with shared facilities to newly built units that comprise one bedroom ensuite and two bedroom chalets with all mod cons. Mountain Bike Station shares the same location as Station Lodge and as the name suggests it is beside the train station about 11/2 kms from the centre of Ohakune. Both businesses are run separately, but owned by Darren & Jane, whose interest is primarily the Mountain bike business where they will plan bike routes, hire out bikes, take guided bike tours, arrange self-guided bike rides or arrange/book any other activity in the area from their Mountain Bike office.

Planning for our bike trip began months earlier to ensure dates and accommodation suited all ten participants. Accommodation is fairly sparse in some legs of this trip so one does need to book early. The average age of our group was 68+ so you can imagine the look on the face of the owner of Mountain Bike Station when we began to arrive in his car park the evening before our ride! Darren, however, was not phased nor did he show any element of surprise at our advancing years (he had seen it all before!). He greeted us warmly and proceeded to discuss with us what we wanted, where we wanted to go and when we wanted to set off the following morning. The Mountain to Sea ride is about 205kms long and can be ridden in 3-5 days – we opted to ride it in 5 days with a rest day in towards the end. Four of the five sections we had broken the ride into were grade 2 but the THIRD day was a grade 3-4, to quote Darren “it is a true mountain bike ride”. We were a group of reasonably fit “for our age” pedestrian riders and had not tackled a true mountain bike track yet… As a group we have done several bike rides spanning 4-5 days but they have always been grade 2 and comfortable. In fact we were the inaugural group that rode the Alps to Ocean ride a few years ago – another beautiful ride (NZ South Island starting at Mount Cook – 300+ kms long)

What was in store for us we asked Darren? We had read as much as one can about the third day – The Mangapurua Track from Ruatiti to the ‘Bridge to Nowhere’ but what you read is all relative to the people’s bike skills that write it. Darren was very clear it was indeed a tough ride (not sure if he was influenced by the ‘fossils’ on bikes he was talking to!), there was no cell phone coverage, it had 15 swing bridges, bluffs you needed to dismount from your bike to walk across, lots of ruts and plenty of hills. It quickly moved to a grade 4 if it rained! As a group we decided there and then to hire Darren as our guide for that day – a well spent NZ$200 + expenses between us. ….and were we so glad we did! We had already booked Mountain Bike Station – owned by Darren & his wife Jane to transport our bikes and us to the start of the first three tracks and to transfer our baggage on a daily basis from one nights accommodation to the next. With Darren’s help our gear was checked, our tyres inflated or deflated and bikes were locked away for the night. Hunger then drove us down to the road to the local watering hole, the ‘Powderkeg” for some food and drink. Early to bed for an early start the following morning. We were told Jane starts to make coffees at 830 am and it is good!

Day 1 (first ride): Ohakune Mountain Road. From Turoa ski field car park to Ohakune (17km, Grade 2)

Up and ready with coffee in hand by 0830 – and it was good! We all checked our bikes, packed our lunch, donned bike helmets and watched while Darren loaded all the bikes onto the trailer. The trailer can take up to twelve bikes and it is a smooth operation. We were leaving at 0930 and we were all raring to go. Jane drove us up the road to the Turoa ski field car park pointing out tight corners, a place to stop for an amazing view of Mount Ruapehu and some waterfalls on the way down. It was cold at the top and we were all a little nervous after driving straight up the mountain road in second gear! But this run straight down into Ohakune should only take 1/2 hour non-stop so we would warm up on the way and we would give our brakes a really good test. We did stop to see the Mangawhero Falls where Gollum catches fish in the ‘Forbidden Pool’ in Lord of the Rings. Easily missed if we did not have local knowledge.

With a 1000 meter vertical decent we all flew down – some loving it more than others. there was some rubber smells from some bike and others complained of cold and sore hands from constant brake pulling but we all made it totally elated with our first ride. If you are super fit you can choose to ride up this hill!

 

Day 1(second ride): Ohakune Old Coach Road (15km, Grade 2)

Start of 'Old Coach Road'
Start of ‘Old Coach Road’

This ride is a very popular day ride and can include a visit to “Smash Palace” or locally called Horopito motors the scene of hundreds of wrecked cars and where the NZ film ‘Smash Palace’ was made in 1981. Darren warned us that this was not an easy Grade 2 ride. It seems there is huge variation within this grading system I could not equate an easy11 kms down hill (grade2) to an undulating gravel surface with several hills (also grade 2). Jane loaded the bikes onto the trailer again (with some muscle power from the group) as we had chosen to start the ride at Horopito and not Ohakune – more downhill that way. Again Jane pointed out where we would meet the road and a few things to look out for and where to have lunch. She even acted as our photographer!

The ‘Old Coach Road’ follows the the route of old horse drawn coaches which carried people in the early 1900’s between the two rail heads of the unfinished North Island trunk line. The track has many rocky patches from the old cobbledcoach road, two huge viaducts, one tunnel, many interpretive panels along the way, massive rimu trees, beautiful native forest and farmland.

We stopped for lunch at the old Taonui Viaduct (as suggested by Jane). The terrain of the track varied – gravel, cobbles, grass, viaducts and tar seal. Some cycled across the old Hapuawhenua (Hapu=pregnant, whenua=placenta) Viaduct from which you could see the river below that was used by Maori to bathe young Maori women after childbirth to aid recuperation during their post-natal period. We took our ride slowly as there was so much to see on the way and agreed it was a tough ride but most enjoyable. We did meet some riders that were doing it both ways! Back to Station lodge and with bikes safely locked up we had takeaway pizzas and some local NZ wine and reminisced on the events of the day…..32kms down and lots to go……

Day 2: Horopito to Ruatiti backpackers. (43km, Grade 2)

Packed, luggage placed by van read for transport to tonights accommodation and one of Jane’s great coffees in our hands we were ready for our second day. Our bikes were once again loaded onto the Mountain Bike Station trailer to take us to Horopito to start Day 2. Ruatiti Domain was suggested by Darren for our lunch stop today. It was 10 km before our accommodation for tonight – the Ruatiti bridge to nowhere backpackers. The first 8-10 kms was on an undulating gravel road through farmland and potato crops. we stopped at Ruatiti domain with the Mang-nui-O-Te-Ao River running through it. Locals swam, jumped from rocks and rode tyres down the river while we ate a leisurely lunch. Our support person who had hoped to ride with us but had unfortunately fallen from her bike and injured her shoulder, passed and encouraged us along the way . We all agreed it was very comforting to have someone playing ‘camp mother’ just in case….

The last ten kms leading to Ruatiti Back Packers(BP) was gravel and undulating but we were very please to arrive there and the ultimate insult is the steep heavy gravel up to the farm. One kept slipping backwards while pushing one’s bike up the drive. The backpackers has only been going for about a year but is clean comfortable and part of a working farm – sheep, cows and deer. We had arranged to have dinner, breakfast and lunch catered for and also asked for linen to be included in our tariff to limit our luggage but we did however make sure we had enough wine and beer to have with our meal. Sue, the lady who runs the BP left us all food prepared so we could just turn the stove on and cook. It was a plain honest meal and we were all satisfied but if I had one grouch it would be that we had meat patties bought from a store and we were on a farm that had many animals! Bed were comfortable and the silence was deafening. Thousands of stars lit up the sky as we sat and drank our wine and mulled over the events of the day and worried about the ‘BIG’ ride tomorrow!

Beautiful colour in the countryside
Beautiful colour in the countryside

Day 3: The Mangapurua Track. (48kms Grade 3/4)

Eight very serious faces this morning as we made our packed lunch. We were meeting our guide from Mountain Bike Station, Darren, 5 kms down the road at the entry to the Mangapurua Track at 0800. We needed an early start as he felt it would take us between 5-7 hours to make it to the Bridge to Nowhere and we had booked a jet boat to meet us at the Mangapurua landing at 1600 hours. It was a beautiful day, clear skies following a cold night. The temperature was predicted to get up to 28 degree C. We walked back down Sue’s driveway having left our bags out for transportation to The Bridge to Nowhere Lodge where we would stay tonight. We had maps, we had food, we had bikes and we had a guide who gave us a pep talk about taking it easy up the first 4 km of gravel road as we would need to keep our concentration for later in the day – and he was so right! Our first stop was the top of the gravel hill grind but we also had to be mindful of hunters on quad bikes coming back from early morning kill.

After 10.8kms we came to the junction where the Kaiwhakauka Track meets Mangapurua Track. A beautiful carved Maori Totara Pou has been erected. Darren explained the history and meaning of the carving and we looked at the board telling us how far we had come and how far to go!. Next stop 30 mins at the trig. We left our bikes and headed up to the trig via some caves that had been former explosive storage caves. The views from the trig were stunning. We are so lucky to live in such a beautiful place. The view stretched from Mt Ruapehu in Tongariro National Park in the east to Mt Taranaki in the west – over 100kms as the crow flies. We took time out to snack and drink as our guide insisted we do. Toilets and water are located here just off the main track.

As we headed downhill towards Johnson’s Clearing we met our first swing-bridge over Slippery Creek. We struggled initially to haul the bikes onto the rear wheels and walk them across, but by the time we had crossed 15 bridges we were experts!! This whole valley has a strong sense of history and all along the track there are wooden signs with names of returning servicemen’s families who settled in the valley after the war. A map given to us by Darren and called ‘Mangapurua and Kaiwhakauka Returned Servicemen Settlement Map’ is a must if you want to understand the hardships and struggles many families went through in the valley. Some stayed for only a few weeks while others stayed for years. There are many exotic trees to remind you that people once settled here.

At Johnston’s Clearing we found several camp sites belonging to hunters and met old Tom whose family had farmed here for years. He told us he and his father had brought cattle and squatted in the valley for several years and the authorities turned a blind eye. Tom himself now past retirement comes here every year for the whole summer. He has set up a little cave near a river to keep his beer and milk cold and he maintains a garden with tomatoes, lettuce and other vegetables growing. He has a quad bike so he can go and get supplies when he runs out but many hunters coming into camp for a week or so also bring him in supplies.

The next stop was the old homestead of the Bettjetman family who lived in a lovely 4 bedroom home, with outhouses and a tennis court, from 1917 – 1942. They did not want to leave the valley and offered the government $200 to buy the valley and they also offered to upkeep the road but the answer was no as the planned road though the valley had been abandoned due to increased slips and flooding in the area. Just 1.5km from this site is another swing bridge where the access for quad-bikes ends and only bicycles are allowed from there to Bridge to Nowhere.

From here on the track narrows and this is where total concentration is needed as we start to cross bluffs and narrow tracks. This is also where bikers must dismount and walk and where we began a series of four unfortunate episodes – luckily none serious. Two of our group flew over their handlebars when their bikes hit some ruts, another stopped along a very narrow part of the trail and put her right foot down to rest but there was no where to put it so she tumbled two meters down into bracken taking her bike with her. Darren reached her and hauled her and her bike up and thankfully she was ok – just pride hurt and a little stunned especially when Darren muttered when he looked over the bluff Darren that she could have fallen another 30 meters if not held by the bracken! Lastly, one rider fell awkwardly from his bike which got stuck between a rock and a rut landing on his fingers one of which became dislocated. He grabbed his finger himself and attempted to pull it back into position but Darren got on his bike and chased two of the group ahead who were nurses, one a current practising nurse who managed to pull the finger back in place splinting it with equipment that Darren first aid kit!

We all felt that we had had enough ‘trying episodes’. All had happened in the last 10km of our bike ride when we were all getting a little tired. So we steadied down and rode slowly and steadily over the last 10 km, walked the bluffs including the much improved and wider Battleship Bluff and suddenly the Bridge to Nowhere appeared!  What a fantastic sight!  We were shattered but elated. Darren set us off on the 2.7 km to the Landing where our boat would be waiting. We said good bye to Darren at this point as he was heading back the way we came! He took food and water and off he rode – he had never done this before and we asked him to report in that night to let us know he was safe and sound. He rode back in 2hours and 10 mins!!!

The last 2.7km we shared with walkers and canoeists who were canoeing down the Whanganui river, tied up at Mangapurua Landing and walked to see the Bridge to Nowhere. We reached the Landing at 1530. There were six other bikies waiting for the jet-boat also. It arrive on time, we helped load our bikes on the back of the boat (a special rail set up at rear of the boat to hold up to 20 bikes) and headed down the river for 15 mins to the Bridge to Nowhere Lodge. Our bikes were locked away and our life jackets were put in a shed halfway up a very steep long driveway to our beds. Ah but first wine and beer then a beautiful dinner and bed…….all looking back at the days adventure which for some was more dramatic than for others – but we were all safe and happy.

Day 4: Pipiriki to The Flying Fox (35km, Grade 1/2)

Up early for a hearty breakfast after which we assembled our lunches. Down to the boat where the bikes were loaded. we were all packed in with all our luggage that needed to go to Pipiriki for collection by Darren for transportation to The Flying Fox, our next accommodation. The four bikies we met the day before were canoeing down to Pipiriki and would cycle from there back to Raetihi where they began their trip.

We arrived at Pipiriki about 11am and headed off on a tar sealed road for 8kms then climbed a gentle but long hill to a a lookout back over the Whanganui River and valley – beautiful, helped by another beautiful sunny day.

Next stop Jerusalem which was the site of a historic Maori village that has a beautiful old convent and church. The convent can be booked as accommodation with shared facilities. A NZ poet and religious man called J.K Baxter lived there for some years and is buried there. Next stop London (Ranana). Lunch stop at Kawana Flour Mill established in 1854 and now restored to it former glory. It is a little walk down a grassy way to the mill but well worth the walk.

Next stop the small settlement of Koriniti and just 1km beyond it was our place of rest for the night, the Flying Fox. But there were a few hurdles to clear before finally settling into our rooms for two nights – tomorrow was our REST day! We had to negotiate an extremely steep gravel drive (not ANOTHER one!) down to a shed where we locked our bikes up and then hit a large gong to call the flying fox to our side. It travelled slowly towards us – a small two seater cablecar – coming to a stop just beside us. A Scottish voice said “Please press the button when you are in and ready to come over!” We did just that and we glided slowly over the Whanganui river for 2mins and 20 seconds to a wonderful welcome from our support person ‘camp mother’ and the owner of the Scottish accent, Kevin. We had arrived in heaven – the ten of us had the place to ourselves, three beautiful houses all hand built and decorated in an eclectic style with love. We felt peace and tranquility in every bone.

Flying Fox over to the Flying Fox Accommodation
Flying Fox over to the Flying Fox Accommodation

Soon we had all been welcomed by Kevin and shown to our rooms. Each of us had our own space to sleep, read, rest or dream for the next 36 hours. We were also going to be fed and watered by our gracious host who would arrive at 1800 following her duties as mayor of Whanganui City. Kevin in the meantime showed us around and made us feel most welcome. What a setting,words really cannot describe this haven – everywhere you looked there was some quirky item or some stained glass window or maybe a hat stand or an old telephone. And you have guessed it, the meals were just as amazing as the setting. Lamb shanks that fell from the bone one night, and perfectly cooked steaks the second night. Some people come to the Flying Fox and bring their own food so are completely independent but we chose to be catered for. A free day to wonder down to the river for a swim, to walk along the banks, to sit in a chair and read or to do just nothing with no bikes in sight!

However all good things must come to an end and so on to :-

Day 5 Flying Fox, Koriniti to Castle Cliff Whanganui (the Sea) (Grade 1/2, 58km)

The only fly in the ointment today was ‘Gentle Annie”, a nasty hill. Darren warned us it was a long and steady climb but maybe because this was the last hill on the last day we all took it in our stride. Having admired the view from the top we flew down the other side to Upokongaro on State highway 4 and to the first cafe we had seen since Ohakune 5 days before. We all gathered for a well deserved coffee. The route was flat from then on but was also on the main highway.

There was plenty of bike room on the shoulder except for two kms before Upokongaro. We rode into Whanganui on a cycle trail which we met just before we came into the city. That took us along the river and over the Dublin Street bridge. However, you have to look hard for the cycle markers along the way as we lost our way once we were on the other side of the city heading towards the Sea. The track had been blocked off for road works and so we rode out to Castle Cliff on the main road and against a strong headwind through industrial area. We could have been even more lost despite asking some people along the way but for our wonderful support person who passed us, tooted and then stopped and directed us into the right road to ride to the sea. And ride to the Sea we did!!!!

We did it!
We did it!

 

 

Trans Siberian Train: Moscow to Beijing on the Trans-Mongolian Route via Siberia & Mongolia

 

A seven day railway journey – three different trains – with stops in Siberia & Mongolia

A long train journey through several countries has always been on my bucket list so upon retirement myself and my travel companion decided it was time to knock it off the list. We planned to begin our adventure in Moscow, following a holiday in Europe, and take the Trans-Mongolian Train (the most popular of the three routes crossing Siberia) from Moscow to Beijing. Planning was key to this journey and after months of research and discussion we opted to book through a travel agent and the one that seemed to suit us best and was very flexible was an Australian company called “FlowerTravel”. The reason we chose ‘Flower Travel’ was it allowed us to pick and choose our own itinerary – where to stop off and for how long. However as we flew from Spain to Russia we began to wonder – Will there be anyone there to meet us at the airport at 3am? Will we be taken to and from our trains and hotels as promised in our itinerary ? Will our tour guides be knowledgable and helpful? Will the tours be worth while?

Only a few travel agents in NZ & Australia are well equipped to prepare an itinerary for travel on the Trans Siberian/Mongolian/Manchurian Railway. The agencies that do, work closely with travel agents in each country the train goes through – for example in Russia it is ‘The Russian Experience’ agency that look after you on behalf of FlowerTravel. This is mainly because of the red tape around visa requirements plus you also need guides who live locally and have very good local knowledge. You can, of course, make all the bookings yourself but you need time and patience and a book called Trans-Siberian Handbook by Bryn Thomas (this was our bible!). However, we did get all the visas ourselves and that is not without stress as often the dates for each country are very close together. One can only get a visa 90 days ahead for each country and that specific visa for that country only lasts 30 days. That means if you are going to Europe or traveling for few months before you take the train (as we did) you need to be very vigilant about dates in each country. And of course you need the Mongolian visa to follow the Russian visa then followed by the Chinese visa (that is of course if you are traveling west to east!). They also all need to be on the same passport! A travel agent will obtain the visas for you but they charge an extra NZ$75 per visa. The visas themselves are not cheap either – between $80 – $150 each

There are several questions you must answer before you make a final decision:  A) Shall I travel East to West or West to East?  B) Where will I start and finish – St Petersburg, Moscow, Vladivostok or Beijing or fly to somewhere in-between??  C) Which train will I take – Trans-Siberian ends or begins in Vladivostok, Trans-Mongolian (goes through Mongolia) begins or ends in Beijing as does the Trans Manchurian but this travels through Manchuria. We opted for the Trans-Mongolian starting in Moscow as we really wanted to visit Mongolia and needed to fly home from Beijing.  D) What time of year will I travel? – Summer is very hot, winter is very cold but you will see plenty of beautiful snowy landscapes. We travelled late September through to early October 2014 and the deciduous trees were stunning from Moscow to Irkutsk. Late autumn and winter have limited accommodation in some places.  E) Where will I stop off and how long for? The two most common stops are Irkutsk and Ulaanbaatar but there are many choices – these are the stops we chose but there are many many others to choose from. It really depends on your time available.

When we arrived in Moscow at 3am, we were met at the airport by a driver who took us to our hotel. Our hotel was three star, it was comfortable, clean and a few hundred meters from the metro. We had made some strategic decisions before we went ahead with our bookings:  1) We would go with three star hotels as they all seemed to have pretty good reviews on trip advisor and 2) we would book out the four bunks in each compartment on each train for both space and privacy! We were so glad we did this, it added some $$ to the overall costs but was really worth it for us. We became friendly with a group of seven young people from the “Vodka Train” travel agency which is a ‘no frills’ agency, they had different people in their cabin each night with some changes in the middle of the night! However, they were young and did not seem to be bothered by the disturbances.

Thursday 25th September

A guide from ‘Real Russia’ called Leana, came and picked us up from our motel for our three hour walk around the city. She was 60+ and spoke English very well. She took us down to the metro and showed us how to buy metro tickets, how to use the underground and how to identify different metro stations. She suggested we buy 11 tickets between us to cover our planned trips over next two days. The metro is a very inexpensive way to travel and is very well used all day. Some stations had extremely steep escalators that took several minutes to reach the bottom/top. The metro stations themselves are really worth spending several hours wandering around – the same ticket will cover you to visit as many as you wish as long as you do not exit outside. Each metro station has a different theme – one is all marble with marble columns all along the station, another has many frescoes, another stain-glass windows and one station called Ploschard Revolyutsii Metro, has over 60 bronze statues which are definitely worth visiting. As people get off the train they pass close to the bronze statue and stroke a part of it such as achild’s hand, a woman’s knee or the nose of a dog. It is very obvious where people stroke the statue as the area they stroke has a bright luster that the rest of the statue does not have. Russians believe that stroking these statues will bring them good luck. We were very surprised that many young people gave up their seats on the metro train for us – more readily than in NZ I am afraid.

Photos from the various metros – you can see where people rub the bronze sculptures!

Leana’s tour took us to Red Square where we learned that the word Bolshoi is not something romantic but just means ‘big’. ‘Red’ Square was so named in the 14th century and has nothing to do with communism! We visited Lenin’s tomb in Red Square, St Basil Basilica, State History museum and the large department store that faces onto Red Square called GUM, that has every worthwhile designer label shop in it. Leana pointed to a fresco of Jesus just over the main entrance of the GUM store and commented on the irony of the large consumer department store and a fresco of christianity directly opposite Lenin’s tomb!!

Leana also recommended a cheap place to eat in GUM for lunch – No 57, they do a set lunch which is good value. She also took us to shops to buy wine and goods for the train trip and she led the way past the statue of Chekov near the old Moscow theatre. On route we passed a very big three story apartment block that was moved 40 meters in the middle of the night, to make room for a road expansion,while the residents slept and they knew nothing about the move!!

Friday 26th September

Today we headed back by the metro to Red Square and on to the Kremlin. We spent several hours inside the Kremlin walls visiting all the churches, cathedrals and gardens. It was expected that within the Kremlin one stays on the designated footpaths, if you did not a guard would call you to task! The beauty of the golden domes of the cathedrals and the amazing paintings and historical artefacts inside them was stunning. The pink and white Grand Kremlin Palace was built between 1837-49 and is an imposing building. The Kremlin wall encloses four cathedrals, five palaces and the Kremlin towers. The whole complex is the official residence of the President which is why it can be closed at any given time by the government without warning. You need to spend several hours here to do the complex justice. The Assumption Cathedral(1475-79) was where many Russian Tsars were crowned. The Archangel Michael’s cathedral (1505-08) has 46 different tombstones belonging to Russian Leaders, Tsars & families. The idea of a necropolis or burial area within a church started in 1340 when Ivan 1 Danilovich Kalita built a small stone church on this site and was buried there. Verkhospassky cathedral next to the Terem Palace is made up of several family chapels and has 11exquisitely elegant domes.The beautiful nine domed Cathedral of the Annunciation, built in 14th Century was the family chapel of the Moscow Grand Princes. Also worth looking at is the enormous Tzar’s bel – the biggest bell crafted in the world.

After we had spent many hours inside the Kremlin we wandered from Red square past the Bolshoi building and back up to where there is a statue of the Russian writer Chekov close to the oldest theatre in Moscow – a lovely part of Moscow to walk around.

Saturday 27th September (my friend Marcia’s birthday)

We awake with anticipation – today was the start of the Trans-Mongolian train trip. A man arrived to collect us from the hotel at the given hour and took us to the train station. He parked, took our bags and wheeled them to where the train was waiting. He did not speak a word to us but got us safely there and waited with us until the carriage attendant (provodnitsas) allowed us to get on the train. She was a stern looking woman called Svetlana but she seemed to do all that was needed in our carriage. Each carriage had approximately10 cabins, a toilet each end (remember to bring your own toilet rolls) and a samovar which was fired by coal delivered into a hole under the samovar several times during the journey. The samovar keeps the water boiling 24/7 for tea, noodles, soup, porridge or hot chocolate. We had been shopping the day before in Moscow and stocked up on water, tea, cheese, crackers, fruit, porridge, noodles, soup, vegemite, crackers, salami etc. as we were warned about the food in the dining car. We also had a plastic bowl, an insulated mug, knife fork & spoon and bottle for water. You can top up with drinks, water, dried fish and bread from the local Russian /Siberian villagers selling their wares on the platforms when the train stops. It is worth remembering that you must also have local currency to make a purchase from the local women.

There is not much space for luggage so pack lightly. We had more room than most because we had reserved four bunks for the two. At first we found it difficult to work out how long the train would stop at a specific station. There was a list in each carriage but this was hard to read as each station seemed to have several different ways of spelling the name. After a while we realised that when the carriage attendant donned her coat and hat and looked official – that meant we were here for a longer stay probably between 30-40 minutes. If you get off the train always take your money, passport and visa with you and always have photocopies of same in a different place! One couple we met got a nasty scare when they went away from the station to a shop over the road. When they came back to the train station, they missed the turn to our train and got into a panic believing that the train had gone and they had left all documents on the train. They were relieved to find they had turned left instead of right when they crossed the bridge and found their train!! They never went anywhere without their money and documents for the rest of the trip! There are several plugs in each carriage to charge your iPads or phones but you do have to leave them in the corridor so you need to keep a close eye on them.

Each train is quite different when you break your journey as we did at Irkutsk & Ulaanbaatar (UB). Our second train from  Irkutsk  to  Ulaanbaatar was nicer and less crowded than the one from  Moscow to Irkutsk and had flush toilets. Our cabin was two berth and the carriage attendants were mostly Buryats and were very friendly. On the third and last train from Ulaanbaatar to Beijing we had a small two bunk cabin with a shared ensuite which was very comfortable and the dining car on this train run by Chinese was the best of the three. The type of train you get is the luck of the draw depending on the day and time you leave Moscow. You can of course choose to go in luxury but this will cost you three times more than we paid. The cost of our trip was $5000+ which included – seven nights on the train, upgrades to 3 star hotels which included breakfast, train compartments for two plus accommodation for three nights in Moscow, Irkutsk and Ulaanbaatar, being met from and delivered back to hotels and trains and a three hour tour in each city we stayed at. The tours are private tours and are really worthwhile as you learn your way around each city and gain some inside information.

Once we were unpacked and settled into our cabin we headed to the dining car sure we could buy some ‘bubbly’ and caviar to celebrate my friend’s birthday – (at least that is what the book said). This, however, was a vain hope, what with the language barrier and lack of space behind the bar the only thing that was cold was beer! They showed us a ‘warm’ bottle of Prosecco which we felt should be OK as most are dry but alas it was sweet and warm… and they had no caviar!!! A Russian train without caviar!

We were disappointed but they did have Russian vodka so my friend Marcia ended up having that with some strange food from the menu – not at all tasty. The menu had some very strange translations such as – ‘Julienne with the language’ which was a dish beef tongue, champignons, onion, cheese and sour cream!! We did not really mind about the poor food as we had been pre warned so our expectations were actually not very high going into the dining car. Back in our cabin we had some wine, cheese and crackers (purchased in Moscow) and settle down to our first nights sleep on the train and it was dark outside.

Beautiful yellow, orange and red deciduous trees lined both sides of the train after leaving Moscow, and this continued to be a constant picture from the train between stations until we arrived in Siberia. We tried to stay in touch with which station we were going through but often the names on the station and on the list in the carriage were not the same as our Trans-Siberian bible by Bryn Thomas. We spend the days, reading, looking out the windows, taking photos, talking and playing cards with our mates from the ‘Vodka Train” and eating. There were some loud and drunk Russians on the train so were very happy to be able to lock our door and put in our ear plugs. We both slept very well with the chugging, rolling and motion of the train woken occasionally when the train stopped at different stations to allow passengers to get on or off.

Sunday 28th September

Breakfast was porridge made with hot water from the samovar and chopped fruit, milk was a luxury we decided to do without. The beauty of the deciduous trees continued and we began to suss out the stops and times so we could get off the train and have some exercise! All trains run on Moscow time so we had to calculate local time – we went through five time zones on the whole seven days on the train, so were were always unsure of the exact time at any given location. We had a long stop in Prem (1436 kms from Moscow) this day, so I got out and walked to the front of the train to get a photo of the train we were travelling in and to take some photos of the station. Each station has it own unique building and many of them are painted bright colours. The trains in Russian run smoothly and efficiently and ON TIME! As I was strolling back to our carriage a woman of 60+ accosted me and tried to pressure me into buying her smoked fish – unfortunately for her I had no money on me so she went away miffed!

Noodles were on the menu for us each lunch time and then we seemed to snack our way through the day. One of the dining car attendants came around with food trollies and we decided we would try one of Russian pancake-like things called Pirozhki – they had absolutely no taste! Just as we were about to get ready for bed one of the ‘vodka train’ people came and told us that the next stop was a long stop so we ventured out and bought some bread from the local women on the platform. The locals know exactly which train stops and for how long and bring all their wares to sell. Wandering by the different stalls (some on wheels, some are shopping baskets and bags and some are just dried fish skewered) and examining the goods in the baskets to see what they are selling is part of the fun of these stops.

Today we rode past the Ural mountains and passed through Oblasts and Steppes. Oblast means region and there are 46 Oblasts in Russia. Steppes are large flat areas of land that are usually dry and cold. The Oblasts are mostly made up of Taiga forests, which are forests of evergreen trees in the colder subarctic regions of the world. Russia, has the largest Taiga forests in the world and it stretches 5,800 kilometres from the Pacific ocean to the Ural Mountains. We could see the Taiga forests behind the deciduous trees along the way. The Ural mountains are very rich in deposits such as ore, copper, gold, cobalt etc. We stopped for a while at Yekaterinburg (1816 kms from Moscow) to change engines to take us on a winding track out of the Ural Mountains and into Asia!

Monday 29th September

We woke to a sunrise in Siberia and the ground was covered with frost but we could still see the deciduous trees along the train track. As the day went on the trees got sparser and land became barren. We bought some bottled water in a station called Nazyvayevskaya (2565 Kms from Moscow) which is very much an agricultural area. Our next stop – a big industrial city called Omsk (2712 kms from Moscow) with a population of 1.2 million, it is the second largest city in Siberia. After Omsk we travelled many kilometres along the Baraba Steppe where we saw shallow lakes (with birdlife) and sedge grass (similar to rushes). There were groups of cattle grazing but it was hard to fathom how edible the sedge grass is for cows.

The shapes, state and materials of the houses changed between Moscow and Siberia. Within the first few hundred kms from Moscow there were houses known as Dacha houses, a word which originated in the 17th Century and which meant a plot of land given to loyal subjects by the Tzars. They were popular as summer houses for the wealthy Russians from the beginning of the 18th century and were used by nobility for balls, gatherings and parties. Both Pushkin & Chekhov wrote about Dachas in their works and most wealthy Russians believed they were a necessary possession! The further away from Moscow we went, the poorer the houses became. Arriving in Siberia the houses were very ordinary but still very colourful – bright yellow, blue, red and green! However, most homes in Siberia utilise all their gardens to grow vegetables, even some steep plots of ground have tiered garden plots so they can use them to grow vegetables. Outside most houses there were huge stacks of wood for the long cold winter ahead.

We had a long stop at Barabinsk (3040 kms from Moscow) where local women sold smoked fish on the platform and men sold ‘Dr Zhivago’ hats! The sun was setting as we got back into the train making the railways station look very picturesque. We then crossed the great Orb river at nightfall. We finished the day playing cards with the ‘vodka Train’ crown, had warm wine and vodka in our cabin and then had a less than appetising meal in the restaurant car.

Tuesday 30th September

When we woke we were somewhat confused by the time zones – we had been through four already which meant we were Moscow time +4!! We went through some quaint villages where houses were tidy, painted brightly and had well developed vegetable gardens.

The further into Siberia we travelled the poorer the houses and the more run down, though most had TV ariels and some had satellite dishes. The landscape began to change from deciduous trees and Taiga forests to barren lands with ghost like trees – birch & larch that had dropped all leaves and appeared as a long ghostly white statement on the landscape. We stopped at Krasnoyarsk (4098 kms from Moscow) on the Yenisey River at 10:45 am but the time on the station clock was 8:45am. Just 50 kms before Krasnoyarsk was the half way point between Moscow & Beijing and is marked with a white obelisk but we did not see it!

Massive bridge over Yenisey River that divides East & West Siberia
Massive bridge over Yenisey River that divides East & West Siberia

A few kilometres later we travelled across a huge bridge, which divides East & West Siberia, over the Yenisey river which rises in Mongolia and flows into the Arctic sea! The bridge we went across was built in 1999 and is 1km in length. It is built on several massive granite piers to withstand the force of the huge icebergs that barrel down the river. We packed our gear for an early morning start on arrival in Irkutsk – the train attendants may not wake you if you sleep in so you need to have a backup alarm.

Wednesday 1st October

We arrived in Irkutsk at 0840 and we were met by Lena (we wondered if all the Russian guides were called Lena?) from ‘the Russian Experience’. She took us to a waiting taxi and driver who drove 70 kms to our hotel in Listvyanka called ‘Hotel y O3epa’. I could not find this hotel listed on internet so must be owned by the agency. We had breakfast at the hotel cafe – fried eggs with lots of salt, pancakes with sour cream, cheese, jam, bread, orange juice and tea. After breakfast we walked up to the Lake Baikal museum which was small, all information was in Russian but because we had our guide we learned a lot of information about Baikal Lake, it is the largest freshwater lake in the world and the oldest ( over 20 million years old) and longest (600+ kms ). The submarine that went down 1.3kms into the lake discovered some weird white blind fish! There is a very small tank in the museum with a few Nerpa or Lake Baikal seals – which are unique to lake Baikal. They feed all summer and become very fat so they can survive the freezing winter. The seals can weigh up to 4Kg when born and have beautiful white fur but shed that after two months. Nerpa is an earless seal and the only true freshwater seal in the world. The adult seal can dive down 400 meters and can hold its breath for 70 minutes!

Along the shores of Lake Baikal there were shelters where people ate and drank. We met a lovely young Buryat girl who approached us to try out her English hoping we were American but had no idea where New Zealand was and what language was spoken there. Her mother took lots of photos of her talking with us and when we asked her if she was Buryat, she laughed pulling her eyes into almond shapes with her fingers. As we walked down the waterfront we saw another group of Buryats singing, eating, drinking vodka and playing the accordion. They invited us to join them so we talked with them for a while, exchanging views on Canon cameras and also took some photos. The lake is sacred to the Buryat people and so they must pick up pebbles and throw them into the lake – we did see several throwing stones into the lake and meditating. The Buryat are a Mongolian people with a population of over 550,000, many live in the Buryat republic located north of the Russian-Mongolian border near Lake Baikal, some of their land lies alongside the East Coastline  of Lake Baikal. They are the largest indigenous group in Siberia, were nomadic but now work in forestry in the taiga forests or farm goats, cattle, camels,and sheep. They practice both Shamanism and Buddhism and are very friendly gentle people.

The local delicacy from Lake Baikal is Omul, a variety of white salmon and is endemic to Lake Baikal. We did order some ‘Omul’ and another local fish ‘Sig’ in a local restaurant called Tipocunina Bek for dinner. However, we did not really understand the menu but saw Omul and share so we ordered a dish of Omul to share between the two of us, and wondered why the waitress looked at us strangely when we ordered that and some other dishes….. we understood her strange look when this enormous plate of Omul came to our table – it was meant to be shared but with MANY friends, we could not finish it and offered it to a group at the next table who were only too willing to take it!

Thursday 2nd October

A trip to Port Baikal by ferry and a guided walk with lunch was part of the package for today. We were picked up by Sasha, a local man who was in his 60’s. He had been a teacher but was now retired and enjoyed taking people on day tramps all around Lake Baikal. He drove us to the ferry and we took the old ferry across to Port Baikal which was the main stop for the Trans-Siberian railway before WW1. Since then the route of the train has been changed several times and now goes over the hills from Irkutsk to Mongolia . While building the Track for the trans-Siberian in early late 1800’s to /1900’s there was a train ferry service joining Port Baikal to other side of the lake. Trains were carried on a special ice breaker-ferry “Baikal” which had three parallel train tracks on its deck and could carry up to 9 carriages on each track. Another, smaller icebreaker-ferry, the “Angara”, was also built which carried passengers and goods, but not trains. In the cold winter of 1903/04 when the icebreakers were not strong enough to break the ice, a railway line was laid on the ice, and railway wagons were pulled by draft animals!!

In 1940 the decision was made not to continue construction of the link but instead to take the track from Irkutsk over the mountains to Mongolia. In 1950 a hydro electric power station on Angara river was built and when it was flooded the level of the lake rose dramatically flooding the railway line. It is now just maintained as a tourist attraction, a scenic train trip called the Circum Baikal railway – 86 kms long and 39 tunnels. Coming into what was once a thriving port was now like a ghost port with a ships’ graveyard. Today there is one shop, some old rundown houses and a lovely little railway that still chugs tourists along side the lake and walkers can walk along the tracks and through tunnels. We walked five kilometers out, where we walked through one of the many tunnels and then back to where we had left Sasha to cook lunch, we had BBQ sausage, tomato and gherkin with dark rye bread. Sasha was very open about how he felt about his homeland today and in the past. He considered that the perestroika movement did a lot of harm to locals, he was teacher but his salary started going down and down and for one whole year he got nothing. He was very sad that other ‘old’ Russian States no longer like Russia. He used to holiday in Kazakstan but no cannot go there now because there is so much anti Russian feeling.

Friday 3rd October

Back in Lystvyanka we went walking past the museum and up to a lookout with great views of the lake and of the deciduous trees. We walked all through the local markets and bought some Siberian stone called Charoite, a beautiful purple stone found only on the shores of the river Chara north-east of Irkutsk. We then walked along to get a better view of the large rock in the middle of the Angara river as it flows from Lake Baikal. There are several local tales about how it got there! One such tale is that Baikal (lake) go so angry because his daughter Angara (river) ran away with her love Yenisey (river) without his permission, he grabbed a huge rock from the local mountain and threw it after her and she was never able to come home. Locals call it the “Shaman-rock” and historically local people believed in the miraculous power of Shaman rock. It was regarded as a place for praying, a place where rituals were held or oaths were taken. Sometime criminals were brought there and left on the rock for the night in the cold or ice conditions. If they were alive the next morning, not dying from either fear or cold – they were free!

Saturday 4th October

Our taxi and driver collected us from Listvyanka at 11am and took us to the Angara Hotel in Irkutsk for the night. It was very central hotel, comfortable and clean, close to shops and restaurants. We set out on a walking tour, first stop the Irkutsk Roman Catholic Church of Virgin Mary Assumption built as a wooden church in 1884 by the Polish people from the labour camps in Siberia. It was burned down and rebuilt in stone. It is a lovely building and is now used as a concert hall. Across the road is the church of the saviour which is a working church with the eternal flame outside it , a memorial to “soldiers fallen in the battlefields of the Great Patriotic war” and a huge statue of a man and woman called the Peter and Fevronya Monument – considered patrons of family happiness and matrimonial love. The Siberians came and touched this statue just as the Russians did the bronze statues on the metro in Moscow. There is a lovely walkway all along the Angara river but our next stop was the Orthodox Epiphany Cathedral 1789, is also a working church and a real architectural gem of Irkutsk and is colourful and ornate. It is a most unusual church with full length colourful paintings of saints all over the church’s facade and brightly painted like Russian popular prints. It has lovely window frames, corbel arches and fancy cornices. The first wooden Epiphany Cathedral was built by citizens of Irkutsk stockaded town in 1693 and was destroyed by fire in 1716, this was replaced by the stone church. In1990’s the Epiphany Cathedral was returned to the Russian Orthodox Church.

Having read about the the wooden architecture of Irkutsk called “lace house” built in the late 19th century I really wanted to spend some time wandering around photographing them. The facades of these houses were decorated with carvings and thread work with special emphasis on enhancing the windows with rich carvings and scrolls. The windows are described as being similar to the windows of a palace in a Russian fairy-tale. The ornaments are not just decorative, but are also symbolic. The symbols depic different hopes, and dreams of the people of that time. For example – people believed that evil spirits could enter the dwelling through doors and windows frames. Because of this belief the decorations used in those parts of the house were for protection. The sun was a popular symbol because it symbolises life, happiness, and the beginning of all good things. I wandered the streets on my own for several hours on the way to the Decembrists museum and I felt completely safe. There were beautiful old lace houses in every street, some restored and some needing some loving care. I passed old wooden houses with their colourful and decorative shutters and ornate window heads. Finally I arrived at the Decembrists museum which was also wooden with decorated windows. The Decembrists were members of a secret revolutionary society which led to the uprising of December 1825 against Tzar Nicholas 1 which they lost and as a result they were exiled to Siberia from Russia. They were all very well educated men, many were high ranking generals. In order to strike the Decembrists totally out of their lives, the Church and State passed a law whereby the Decembrist’s wives were considered widows and allowed to remarry within their husbands’ lifetime without an official divorce. However, most of the wives turned and went with their husbands. When they departed for Siberia, they left behind their privileges as nobles and were reduced to the status of exiled prisoners’ wives, with restricted rights of travel, correspondence and property ownership. They were not allowed to take their children with them, and were not always allowed to return to the European part of Russia even after their husbands’ death. Irkutsk benefited greatly in the long run from these exiles as they brought music, art, cultural activities, opera,education and now Irkutsk is considered one of the best eduction centres in Siberia.

Sunday 5th October

The same driver transported us from our hotel to Irkutsk railway station for the next stage of our journey. This was our second train and very different from the first. All cabins were two berth and only one other of the ten cabins was occupied, by a young NZ couple returning home from time spent in Europe. Our carriage assistant was a Buryat women who seemed a little unwell as she did a lot of coughing and sleeping . We had a hot water flask on our cabin table and there were flushing toilets! We hugged Lake Baikal for a couple of hundred kms, the landscape was changing – less trees, more barren lands, more cattle farming although we could see no grass for cows to eat just brown stubble. The land seemed barren and sparse and the houses seemed to be more run down. There were visible amounts of rubbish especially as we went through Buryat territory. Most of the carriage attendants on this train were Buryats, they did enjoy their work and laughed and talked through the night!

At about 11 pm the train stopped at the Russian/Siberian border. We were visited by about 12 people in all, in groups of two/three, each group asked different questions, some searched our bags, some examined our passports and some our visas. They all seemed to be in different uniform – customs & passport control I imagine but we did not have a clue which was which. One lot asked us to step outside while our cabin was searched and another demanded that we lift up our bunks so they could examine the luggage underneath. A sniffer dog was led into the cabin, had a sniff and went out again. Finally after about an hour, the train moved on but only for a short distance as about half an hour later we stopped for Mongolian border. This time our passports were taken away by one group and another group collected our completed customs forms (one could not be sure that we had completed them properly as it was very hard to to read the questions correctly). Another sturdy looking person shouted in our door “anything to declare” – we answered ‘no’ and she went on her way shouting into the next cabins. Passports were back in our hands 20 mins later and we were in Mongolia. We immediately settle down to sleep as we were arriving in Ulaanbaatar at 6:30am Mongolia time in the morning.

Monday 6th October

We arrived into Ulaanbaatar on time as usual, Russian trains are always on time despite the hundreds and hundreds that run on each line across Russia. These trains are not just for tourists as locals use them all the time so if you are hopping on and off you should be able to purchase a ticket a few days before. However, they usually run to capacity – especially from Moscow to Siberia. Once again we were met by a Mongolian man who introduced himself as NK. He seemed a pleasant young chap, he and the driver were from Shuren travel, the agency that Flower travel use in Mongolia. As I was not feeling 100% we opted for breakfast in a hotel in Ulaanbaatar and then out to our ger via the statue of Genghis Khan. Our ger was in Elesti ger lodge about 95kms outside Ulaanbaatar so after breakfast we headed out there.

In front of the massive statue of Gengis Kahn
In front of the massive statue of Gengis Kahn

We were the first tourists of the day to arrive at this monumental statue of Genghis Khan. It was in the middle of nowhere with a huge gated entrance and a long curved drive up to the statue. You cannot drive right up to the information centre but encouraged to climb the many steps while you strain your neck to view the gigantic stainless steel statue.

View from the horse's head
View from the horse’s head

There is access to the information centre for wheelchairs. This roomy information centre has a shop, lots of information on the walls and the largest Mongolian boot in the world! We went to find the lift which was in the horse’s tail and took a small rickety lift up to the belly of the horse and walked through the belly to the head were we had 360 degree views that were truly stunning. What an amazing massive structure with a price-tag of four million US dollars!

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We then drove another 20+ kms to to our ger camp. It was very remote and we drove across sand, dirt roads and streams to get there. The driver was a great character, he entertained us the whole way with Mongolian songs and he had a really lovely voice. When we arrived at the camp NK took us to our ger which looked very cosy but the wood stove was not alight and it was pretty cold out in the desert. An old man, who turned out to be the camp’s handyman, was called from another ger to get the fire going. We discovered he was the jack of all trades around the camp as he milked the cows, stoked the fires, cleaned up the dung from outside the ger and mustered the horses- he also wore genuine Mongolian boots! The ger became warm very quickly once the fire was going and our ‘Jack’ came back into our ger at 1130pm and 5am to stoke the fire! You cannot help but wake when he come into the ger as the bright red flames lick the chimney as soon as he throws the wood and ‘whatever’ on the fire. There was of course no running water and the loo was several hundred meters away, there was a pretend ‘sink’ with a little tin box (with a tap on it) screwed to the wall that you could fill it up, turn on the tap to allow it to run into the sink down through a hole and down into a bucked underneath! We could not quite make out what it was for…washing teeth maybe? The only thing I missed was a window to look out, it was too cold to leave the door open until the sun was out for few hours and the day had heated up. The view outside was incredible – vast sweeping plains or steppes, lots of horses, cattle and goats but nothing else in sight!

The dining room was in another ger just like ours but furnished differently and attached to yet another ger that was the kitchen. There was also a small bar that sold beer vodka and wine! We strolled around the plains in the afternoon and then went to the dining room for dinner 7pm. We were the only guests there for the first night and many of the gers had already been packed up for winter (we were on the cusp – early October). The camp did, in fact, have running water for most of the season but they shut it down at the end of September because the tanks would freeze and burst.

Some people get confused with the use of the words ‘ger’ and ‘yurt’ – ger is the Mongolian name for ‘home’ and yurt comes from Turkish word for dwelling place and is Russian. Doors of the ger are traditionally painted orange and decorated with symbolic symbols as are the roof wheels. The wooden lattice structure is covered and then insulated with layers of felt from wool of sheep, goats or Yak, then covered by canvas or cotton. The entrance must always face south towards the sun. The north of ger is a special place for sacred objects or special guests. The west side is the male side, where the men sit and where their saddles, tools and hunting kit is stored. The east is the female side where women sit and cooking utensils are kept. One should leave the ger by backing out the front door. The ger can be collapsed in matter of hours to move to new location. The earliest record of a ger recorded was by Greek historian in 484-424 BC

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Its a cold morning!

 

After a wonderful breakfast of sticky rice with raisins, milky tea, dumplings of sorts in the ger dining room, we heard voices outside and NK who also stayed in the camp said he thought it may be the tourists come back from their home-stay. We went outside and saw horses riding into the camp and heard english speaking voices and went over to investigate. Three American girls had ridden back from a ger home-stay and we were keen to hear about their experience. They were glad they did it but they had to share the ger with the family – two parents and two children so there were 7 people sleeping in the ger altogether. The family were welcoming and friendly but the loo was just any hole in the ground you choose to use and as the vast plains stretch for miles and there are no trees – privacy is not available. The woman of the ger offered the girls a large full length coat to use when she needed the loo!

We also watched a horseman round up his horses and ride in typical Mongolian style over the steppe. He then got off his horse, lit his cigarette and put his mobile phone to his ear!!

We decided to go back to Ulaanbaatar in the afternoon for two nights instead of one so we could do some washing and have a warm shower etc… On the way back the driver spotted a herd of yaks in the distance and drove off over fields to get there. I had never seen a yak up close – they are really like large hairy cows! We were serenaded again by the driver all the way back to Ulaanbaatar. Back in Ulaanbaatar, and on the way to the hotel, we visited the main Buddhist Temple in Ulaanbaatar. Buddhism is very strong in Mongolia as is Shamanism. As we drove through the countryside we saw lots of Buddhists sticks on the hillsides. Buddhism began to enter into Mongolia from Tibet in the second half of the 16th century. Mongolian Buddhism is different from Tibetan Buddhism as it identifies with the Mongolian traditional lifestyle. Before 1930, 40% of male population was lamas (monks). During the communist purges 1930-1940 Russian and Mongolian soldiers destroyed about 700 monasteries and temples and Mongolians were not allowed to practice their religion. After the Democratic movement in 1990’s religious freedom was given back to the Mongolian people.

Our driver then took us to our hotel called Bayangol Hotel which again was central, very clean and very comfortable with a pub and restaurant on the ground floor. There were several other restaurants on the ground floor of the hotel and we got excited to see one named ‘The Wine Bar’ and decided we would eat there and have a nice wine! Well we did eat there and the food was pretty mediocre but there was NO wine.

Wednesday 8th October

Weddings and national costumes in Ulaanbaatar  square in front of Parliament House

After a really good breakfast we walked to the main square to see Parliament House and to look for the Mongolian Arts Centre. As we wandered through the square we saw many wedding groups being photographed in front of parliament building (we saw the same in Irkutsk in front of all    the lovely old churches). All the bridal parties had very European-style dresses but most of the older men and women in the party were dressed in their traditional Mongolian costumes. In the centre of the square one could hire electric or battery powered children’s cars so all the kids in the bridal party were driving in and out through the group and chasing each other, the little boys dressed in suits and bow ties and the little girls in frilly dresses.

We then went looking for the Mongolian National Art Gallery which was suppose to be just off the square. We asked several people but not many spoke English and of course we did not know one word of Mongolian. We walked around and around until eventually we found the gallery in the Mongolian Culture Centre with the help of one very friendly woman. Most people we asked tried to be helpful but one or two were very rude and really did not want to help us. However, it was all worthwhile as some of the art was stunning. The art which the gallery has been collecting since 1921 depicts the social, historical and cultural evolution of Mongolia and some of the paintings truly show life as it was for the nomadic tribes. I cannot say I really liked Ulaanbaatar as a city, I felt it did not have a soul, did not really know what it wanted to be and was becoming too big too fast.

Thursday 9th October

The taxi arrived at the hotel to take us to our train at 7am and the hotel prepared a packed lunch for us. It was our third train and its number was 24. Our taxi driver did not take us right to the train but he was very clear in his directions so we found our carriage easily but could not get on board as we were too early. When we eventually got on we discovered we were in the first carriage which was very tiny with two bunks over each other on one side and an armchair with a door to our shared ensuite on the other side. All the compartments on this carriage were the same and most people in them were Europeans on their way to China from Mongolia. As we left Ulaanbaatar there were many ger in the urban area alongside the track – The gers were inside a small fenced section, all with doors facing south, bikes or cars parked outside and many had animals in the same enclose area as the ger.

Once we got past the sprawling city of UB the countryside was similar to the last day on the train before UB. As the train wound it way through Mongolia to China the land became spare and barren but supposedly mineral rich. We passed though part of the Southern Gobi desert which seemed to be more barren land than sand. It was half way through the day when we began to see Bactrian camels which are large even-toed camels native to the steppes of Central Asia and have two humps.

As we settled down to sleep we knew we would be awake again at midnight for the changing of the Bogies. We enter China 842 kms before Beijing at Erlian and this is where we again went through passport control and customs as well as having the bogies changed. We discussed whether we should stay on the train or get off to watch the changing of the bogies. But the weather outside made our decision easier, it was cold outside so we felt we would be better off in the train and as we did have access to a window onto the next carriage we could watch the whole operation from the warmth of the train.

The whole process can take between four – six hours. The officials came on board and took our passports and customs forms and then the train was shunted into a very large shed with several track lines and two sets of parallel track under the trains. The Chinese railway system operates on standard gauge, same as Europe and USA which is inches narrower than the Russian & Mongolian gauges and this is the reason for the ‘changing of the bogies’. Each carriage was lifted up by four giant Hydraulic lifts – two, one either side of the front and back of each carriage. The lifts move in under the train and lift the carriage off it bogies, they are then rolled out and the Chinese bogies are rolled in and the carriage is lowered down onto the new bogies.

Before we retired to bed we heard other passengers talk about arriving in Beijing in the morning. We believed we were getting in mid afternoon so we had to pack up and set alarms as the last day was said to have lovely views from the train.

Friday 10th October

We awoke to thick mist which unfortunately stayed with us right through to Beijing. The train passes by the great wall on a few occasions but alas because of the thick smog/fog, disappointingly, we saw nothing of the great wall and arrived in Beijing at 11:45am, on time once again. The smog/fog lasted for two days, while we went to the Summer Palace, Forbidden City, Temple of Heaven and Tiananmen Square. We still managed to enjoy them but the photography was not great! We did have a wonderful guide which made all the difference, the guide was booked through our hotel. On the third day – when we had booked a 5 hour trek on the Great Wall the sun came out, the sky was blue and it turned out to be one of the great highlights of our trip.

Our hotel in Beijing was the best hotel we had stayed – it was one we had booked ourselves – called The Hotel Red Wall Garden and the food in China was superb.

What an amazing experience the whole trip was! I loved it and I still love train travel even after 7 days on a train – cannot wait to plan my next train trip!

 

New Zealand Bike ride: Alps to Ocean – from Mount Cook to Oamaru

INAUGURAL ALPS 2 OCEAN (A2O) BIKE RIDE – 312 KM FROM MT COOK VILLAGE TO OAMARU 

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Our adventure started in Oamaru where we had arranged to pick up our bikes, van and trailer from Geoff Omnet at Smash Palace. An unusual name for a place that rents out bikes! It turned out that we were his first group through for the Alps 2 Ocean. Eight of us with an average age of 65 had started planning this trip in August 2011. We wanted a relatively easy bike ride but with exciting scenery and not too crowded. We had completed the Otago Rail Trail three years prior. There was little information about the route except a website that claimed that it was 80% completed and hoped to be fully finished by March 2012 – just when we chose to go.

The Bikies!
The Bikies!

All seemed to fit well and I found Geoff on the Alps 2 Ocean website and wrote to him. Nothing was any trouble to him – yes he had a van that would take eight people, yes he had a trailer that could take eight bikes and eight people’s luggage and yes they could be available from March 9 – 19th. And the price was very reasonable. However, Geoff was not there when we arrived and the chap behind the counter was very helpful but when asked about frame sizes for certain heights he said – I am into motor bikes and asked if I wanted a measuring tape!

Saturday 10th March 2012

We all climbed aboard the Alps 2 Ocean van with trailer – none of us very confident about reversing a trailer! However, the plan was that each person would take a turn at being the driver and support person each day so we all needed to be able to drive the vehicle!

We stopped in Duntroon at the Flying Pig Café and were agreeably surprised by the quality of coffee food and service. We also stopped at several Information places on route to try to get more information and maps about the route. Everyone knew about the new trail but there was little available on paper and people did not know the detail of the route. We still had no definitive map. We each had acquired various maps and tried to put them all together to plan the route. We drove to Mt cook village and stayed at Mt Cook Backpackers Lodge at cost of $125 per room. Pretty pricey for the limited comforts available and certainly expensive for a “backpackers”, but then view of a clouded Mt Cook was worth it.

Sunday 11th March 2012:-  Mount Cook to Braemar Station 42 Kms 

First day of cycle and it was raining – it had rained all night long. Mt Cook was not visible and our gel saddles on our bikes were soaking.    We donned our rain gear, and rang the Mt Cook Ski Plane company, the company we had booked to helicopter us across the Tasman River and also take our bikes in  a crate. Trish at Mt Cook ski Planes said the weather in the valley was not much better but some in the party were itching to get started so we all got on our bike and rode 4.2Kms to the airport in the rain. We discovered later that we were not supposed to ride down the road through Mt Cook NP and that the plan was to put in an off road trail, but nobody stopped us and so we arrived at airport happy but wet. When I first got in touch I was quoted $125 each per person but on the day because there were seven of us (one less as driver did not go across) the cost was $90 each. It was a very smooth operation thanks to the efforts of Grant the pilot. He took five people first having loaded all our bikes into a large cage and set off for the 11/2 minute ride across the river! Then came back and took the other two plus the crate of bikes. All took less than 10 minute.

Once our bikes were unloaded and helicopter departed, there was silence, the weather lifted, the sun came out and a rainbow covered the river and the tussock. This was what we had imagined! The scenery changed as we rode from Tasman point to Mt Cook Station – 13 kms, rabbits hopped around, mountains were bathed in cloud, we caught glimpses of Lake Pukaki, we forded some streams – some deeper (up to mid calf/knees) and freezing cold but nothing could dampen our spirits – this was magic. The next part of the track from the car park at the end of Hayman road to Braemar station (24Kms) was very loose, deep and rough gravel and not easy to ride. One had to concentrate on staying on the bike rather than enjoying the stunning scenery.

The rain stopped and the sun came out
The rain stopped and the sun came out

We stopped in a local cowshed for lunch as the rain began again – eating lunch amongst the cow pats but we stayed dry. We were excited to finally arrive at Braemar Station but with an added insult – a steep gravel climb to the accommodation. But that was all forgotten when we arrived- accommodation very spacious and comfortable and the view from the Shearer’s Quarters where we stayed was awesome. We had panoramic views of lake Pukaki and the Alps. We had asked our hosts to provide dinner as we were all biking and what a feast they produced for $25 per head. The dinner consisted of local salmon, green and mixed salad, new potatoes, rhubarb crumble, cream and ice-cream. Braemar Station is a working station with several hundred cattle, several thousand sheep and deer both wild and farmed so we had the sights and sound of farm life. That night we were surrounded by hundreds of cattle as they had been rounded up for TB testing the following morning at 0630. There was the odd cry from one or two in the night but nothing that would disturb ones sleep.

Monday 12th March 2012.    Braemar Station to Twizel  45 Kms

Up early on the second day – woken by the cry of the cattle being driven into the sheds for testing. Everyone was ready for off when the cattle were released from the shed – there was not enough room for both bikes and cattle, the bike gave way to the herd of cattle!  

Back to the gravel road to head for Twizel, the riding was a little easier as there is more traffic on this part of the road which has helped to compound the gravel and it became more impacted the more stations we passed. The road skirted Lake Pukaki most of the way. We knew that there was a new ‘off road’ trail on part of this section but again unsure of exactly where it started. There were several photo stops along this road – we were warned by our host at Braemar Station to keep looking back and it paid off, suddenly there was Mt Cook in all her glory rising above the clouds. She looked both spectacular and intimidating at the same time. We also passed Aussie Rock – a rock on top of a hill that did look remarkably like the map of Australia.

Mount Cook in all her glory!
Mount Cook in all her glory!

The gravel ended at the Tekapo B power station and we rode along the tar-seal until we spied a good lunch spot. A hill on the top of Hayman Road which had a beautiful view of Mount Cook and Lake Pukaki. About a kilometer along from there (about 6 kms along the tar seal) just before we met SH8 there was a small sign off to right indicating the bike trail. One really had to look out for this sign as it was small and lacked impact. The next section was all along the southern shores of Lake Pukaki for 9kms to the Pukaki information centre. From there you must cross SH8 and this is were you need to be alert to pick up the next section of the trail to Twizel as not well signposted. As a group we were spread out, some stopping for photo shots at different times and some riding at different paces which on this day was a little unfortunate as two member of the troupe were so engrossed in the scenery they missed one of the small bike trail signs and managed to ride about 16++ kms more that necessary and along a very rough trail. A detailed map would have prevented this and better trail signage. We have fed this back to the organisers so hopefully this will improve as more areas are developed. The whole day was beautiful marred only by our two friend cycling more kms than needed but we did all enjoy a few dozen bluff oysters with local wine! We stayed in the Colonial Motel, very clean comfortable and reasonably priced and close to all amenities.

Tuesday March 13th 2012:-    Twizel to Lake Ohau Lodge 39 kms – undulating with short steep sections but mostly downhill 

That was the plan before we went to DOC information center in Twizel. They suggested that rather than going on the road we should take a trail out and back along the Twizel river – 16 kms altogether (they mentioned it was a little rough) and then they suggested to go out Glen Lyon road to the canals and ride along to the end and have lunch overlooking Lake Ohau. There was general agreement amongst us that this sounded more exciting than riding the SH to Lake Ohau Lodge. One member opted to ride the tar seal road (SH 8 and then Lake Ohau road) all the way but the rest headed down to the Twizel river. It was very beautiful but also very rough with many single wheel ruts that required intense concentration to ensure we stayed upright! We rode most of the way until it got just too rough and then we retraced our tracks alongside the river and through high tussock grass. It really was more a mountain bike track that a genteel track!

Arriving back in Twizel we stopped for coffee and then headed down Glen Lyon road towards the blue/gray distant hills. We rode past several salmon farms in the Pukaki canal and we were only passed by two cars during the whole 20 km ride. We arrived at the end of the tar-seal and sat at the top of a hill overlooking Lake Ohau for lunch – wow what a lunchtime view, the scenery was once again awesome. In fact I struggle to find a different adjective to describe such beauty each hour of each day. One member of the group remarked that we would be hard pressed to find the like anywhere else in the world and we all nodded in agreement.

After lunch we loaded all our bikes onto the truck and drove to Lake Ohau Lodge where we had booked dinner, bed and breakfast for $109 per head. Our road rider was there to greet us and enjoyed her ride but would have to retrace her steps for about 20kms tomorrow. What a beautiful spot Lake Ohau Lodge is, with views of Mount Cook and Lake Ohau. Everyone was friendly and interested in our progress and the service was very efficient. So far in this bike ride we have been the inauguraAlps 2 Ocean bike group at each destination and also for the Mount Cook Ski Planes so we were quizzed by the locals at each place we stayed. The owners of Lake Ohau lodge were heavily involved in planning at the north end of the trail but it did seem as we rode on down the track that the north and south of the trail were not communicating very well and many local farmers were less than happy with the plan for the of road trail so there were still some hurdles to overcome to get this trail completed. I do hope they all get it together in the near future as this is one spectacular bike ride.Our dinner at Lake Ohau lodge was amazing considering they had about two or three coach loads of people staying as well as us but we felt special and enjoyed a gourmet dinner with warm and efficient service. Our dinner at Lake Ohau lodge was amazing considering they had about two or three coach loads of people staying as well but we felt special and enjoyed a gourmet dinner with warm and efficient service.

Wednesday march 14th 2012.   Lake Ohau Lodge to Omarama 42kms – mostly downhill with some short steep sections. 

We all set off on our bikes except our driver of course, after a large breakfast. The staff kindly made room for us to prepare our lunches in the dining room following breakfast and without a fuss. They may also supply packed lunches in the future – or may do now, we did not ask them. We planned a picnic stop on the main SH8 between Twizel and Omarama as we were on tar-seal roads for the whole ride, Lake Ohau Road did not really have anywhere far enough along to stop so we choose the first picnic spot after turning into SH8. The traffic was light and the drivers were extremely courteous of bike riders. The ride from Lake Ohau had tussock and hills on both sides once we left the lake behind – a very different type of beauty from the previous days. Even the large row of pylons looked ethereal in the morning light! The hills and tussocks reminded one of paintings by Otago artists. The blond, fawn and browns of the tussock and the dark black grey of the mountains blended together like a natural weave.

Beautiful colours of the Otago Hills
Beautiful colours of the Otago Hills

The trail was mostly downhill and so we arrived at the picnic spot early and decided we might abandon the lunch plan in favour of lunch in Omarama instead.

We arrive at The TOP Ten Holiday park in Omarama to a warm welcome for the inaugural Alps 2 Ocean group with some bottles of wine from the chiller. Accommodation was superb with separate studio units and cooking facilities for $104 per unit for two people. One of our group had passed a “take a glider flight” along the road into Omarama and decided he would take a ride and follow in the footsteps of the ‘great’ Richie McCaw who hailed from Kurow just a few kms away, who is a keen glider and glides from this very place. The little aerodrome had been very busy all day but managed to fit our brave soul in and boy did he love the ride. His wife on the ground was not so excited until he glided to a halt on terra firma. We used the facilities at Top Ten Holiday Park to have a BBQ and made short work of the gift of wine! Much appreciated.

Thursday March 15th 2012:-    Omarama to Otematata – Our shortest day, only 25km. Undulation with one long steady clime followed by a fantastic 5km downhill straight into Otematata! 

A few km outside Omarama we stopped for half an hour to watch some local farmers train their dogs for the sheep trials the following week – those dogs are just so clever and well trained. We rode on passed Lake Benmore and Sailor’s cutting and saw a lone man in his tiny boat fishing. Then we headed 4.8 km over the ‘saddle’ and suddenly we were flying down the other side thinking of the coffee waiting for us in Otematata. We had booked a local house through Bookabatch and paid a deposit but had not got directions for the house from the local agent until the night before. It seems that there was a change of house because some workers on contract to the Benmore Dam had not yet vacated the one book for us because work at the dam had gone on longer than expected. Otematata is a small quiet village with most of its activity generated by the workers at the dam and their need for accommodation and food. Even the local pub catered for them with signs about contractor accommodation and food displayed outside. We wandered around the village and spotted one such sign that advertized ” Mexican night every Thursday night in March”. This was Thursday night and the month of March so off we went. Excellent value for money and free pool for those who wished to play. The place was filled with dam contractors who were still in their work clothes and enjoying the Mexican food and beer to wash it down. Off back to our accommodation  which had once been a house for nuns according to the local agent. It was very comfortable but tired and not too clean – needs lots of TLC. Also heard from our bike man, Geoff Omnet, in Oamaru, asking how we were going.

Friday, March 16th 2012.  Otematata to Glenmac Farm stay beyond Kurow 59 km. Undulating except for some short steep sections and a steep climb on Grants road leading to the farm stay. 

Today we headed off to the nasty sound of graunching coming from Heather’s  bike. Sounded very unhealthy but luckily as there was always one driver there  was also one spare bike, and luckily it was a woman driver today. We rang back  to the driver (in fact there were two people not riding today as one had strained  his Achilles tendon and was resting it) and they caught up with us at the base of  Benmore dam and swapped bikes. This was lucky as the climb up to the top of  Benmore dam was fierce – 1:1 gears for last 1/3 of the climb, however, do  remember that we are only recreational riders!!

We discovered that the Benmore dam was one of the largest earth dams in the Southern Hemisphere! Once over the dam it was a beautiful ride all along the Te Akatarawa road by lake Aviemore joining SH83 at Aviemore where we stopped for lunch at a spot overlooking the dam and gathered huge mushrooms for dinner. We then headed along SH83 leaving Lake Waitaki on the left and into Kurow for coffee at ‘The Valley cafe and bakery’.

What a stunning ride along a very quiet road. Lots of caravans along the lake shore with plenty of toilets at each site. Perhaps the road would not be so quiet during height of summer when people were going to and from their caravans but we were lucky to have it mostly to ourselves. Kurow is Speight’s country with the local Kurow hotel painted in its colours and farm boots sitting empty outside the door. Close to the hotel is a wine shop that displays and sells all local wines. The Ostler’s Pinot Gris is worth a try! Time to leave Kurow for the last part of today’s trip to our accommodation for the night – a further 10km along SH83 and then 4 km down local road to Glenmac farm. Some of us gave up at the last nasty looking hill about 2 km from our accommodation but others in the party rode on. Our accommodation was clean comfortable and very homely. We paid $70 per head for dinner, bed& breakfast per night and we stayed two nights building in a rest day. Kaye and Keith welcomed us into their home and also declared we were their inaugural Alps 2 Ocean group. There were plenty of activities here – farm walks, river walks and some fossil and elephant rocks close by.

Sunday, March 18th 2012:-     Final ride – Glenmac Farm to Oamaru – 60-65 km 

There was division in the camp about which way to go on this last ride. Because some of the group had driven to Elephant Rock and on to Ngapara they discovered some very long steep hills and there was a male vs female split. Four females in the group opted for the easy main SH83 option, the two men for the challenge of the hills. Another couple needed to return to Oamaru early so drove the van back to The Avenue motel, 473 Thames Highway, where we were stayingfor our last night and had stayed for the night prior to our trip. A little way outside Oamaru but comfortable and clean and the owners were very hospitable.

We all stopped at Duntroon at the Flying Pig cafe for last coffee together before the parting of the ways. The Flying Pig cafe is a delight as are the owners, clean, comfortable with an old world atmosphere and amazing loos! We all ordered sandwiches from them for our lunch which they made while we were having coffee. It was good coffee and speedy service. Duntroon, itself is a tiny quaint village with a lot of history and worthy of some time being spent there. From there the women set off down the SH – it was a very easy ride with nowhere to stop for lunch. We arrive at the major SH very quickly and then set about finding a road down to the Ocean to complete the ride. This is not an easy task. We finally got to the ocean or at least close by the ocean via an industrial plant and had to be satisfied with views not toe in ocean!

The boys on the other hand arrived at the motel about two hours later pretty exhausted after several long tedious hills but very satisfied to have completed the whole ride. Their ride was much more scenic than ours but we also felt deep satisfaction at having completed the whole ride via slightly different route

Monday, 19th March 2012

Took bikes , van and trailer back to Smash palace and Geoff Omnet. We were very pleased with everything especially the gel saddles. We suggested he up skill one of his workers to understand bikes, the bike were more or less brand new when we got them and all but one worked for us. As the trail develops he may have an odd contact along the way to fix any bike problems. He is also looking at an easier way of attaching bikes to the trailer without losing the ability to carry luggage for the riders. He did us a fantastic deal for all bikes van and trailer and I would not hesitate to use him again.

What a wonderful trail but is as yet still unfinished, however this did not dampen our enjoyment of it – the website says 80% finished  but that was not true then but maybe now. We all agreed it was one of our best activity holidays ever and would rate it above the Otago Rail Trail because of scenery and lack of crowds.

 

WHAT AN AMAZING EXPERIENCE!