"These guys are legends."
It's just an overheard remark, but it tells me I'm in the right place at the right time, and above all with the right people.
The place: Taupo, New Zealand; the time: the day of the Contact Taupo Cycle Challenge (more of that later); the people: I'm here to meet the Kennett Brothers. Or at least, as it's turned out, two of them.
The brothers - Paul, Simon and Jonathan - have been at the centre of New Zealand mountain biking for over 25 years. Their guidebook, Classic New Zealand Mountain Bike Rides, first appeared in 1991 and the 8th edition was published just before my visit. Their role is much wider, though, from organising races to trail development. In the first week of my visit, I haven't been to a bike shop that doesn't stock their ride guides, or spoken to a rider who doesn't recognise the name.
Before I even left the UK, as I researched New Zealand mountain biking, the Kennett name kept cropping up. Exchanging emails with Jonathan Kennett, I discovered they were due to be in Taupo on Challenge day (Saturday), riding in the morning, selling books in the afternoon. Better still, they'd planned an exploratory ride on Sunday. A plan was hatched.
But the best laid-plans and all that... First, Saturday morning delivers brilliant sunshine but also gale-force winds. For riders in the road Challenge it just means the first half is very hard work, but in the mountain bike event, the Contact Huka, falling trees force the ride to be diverted and shortened at very short notice - almost causing me to miss photographing it. After an hour of scrambling for shots, I unwind with a short ride on the trails of Wairakei Forest.
Second glitch: when I find the bookstall, I discover Paul Kennett has the flu and isn't here. For me it's a disappointment; for Jonathan it's robbed him of his relay partner, leaving him to ride the 80km Contact Huka solo. Simon, meanwhile, has ridden the road Challenge, 160km, on a Dahon folder in a very respectable 5:37:54.
So it's understandable if they're a little tired; anyway, dealing with a steady stream of customers leaves little space for in-depth conversation. Never mind, I think, we'll talk tonight.
Taupo on Cycle Challenge weekend is rather like Wimbledon during THAT fortnight. There's nowhere near enough conventional visitor accommodation for 10,000 cyclists, plus families, supporters, Press and more. To make room, many residents decamp and make their homes available; unlike Wimbledon, however, they often don't charge for the privilege. I've been invited to share the house the Kennetts are using, which seems like a perfect interview opportunity.
However I've overlooked one thing; New Zealand is having a General Election. By the end of the evening I've learned a lot about Mixed Member Proportional Representation and Maori Electorates... but I'm no further forward in my quest to get under the skin of mountain biking in New Zealand.
Fortunately, Simon Kennett offers to join me for the two-hour drive to Pureora Forest in the morning. So, I venture, how did you three get started in mountain biking?
The answer takes us quite a few miles. There was no sudden, road-to-Damascus moment; instead I get a picture of three boys for whom bikes were always a big part of life, whether riding to school or simply exploring their surroundings - which changed regularly as the family moved several times. On-road or off-, pushing steel ten-speeds to their limits and sometimes beyond: these were the 1970's, when off-road riding meant cyclo-cross or ‘rough stuff’. Odd goings-on in California were barely even rumours.
1981 was probably when the first 'proper' mountain bike was seen in New Zealand, when Joe Breeze (and Breezer Series II) paid a visit. It was also the year Paul, oldest of the brothers, took his university entrance exams. Simon repeatedly refers to 'my older brother Paul' or 'my brother Paul'. It's unnecessary - I know perfectly well who Paul is - but endearing. Clearly the relationship is important. It seems to have been perfectly natural for the brothers to work together, and in their forties they're still a close-knit team, though each has their own solo projects too.
Paul bought his first proper mountain bike - a Shogun - in 1984; Simon and Jonathan the following year. 1985 also saw New Zealand's first-ever mountain bike race, a Repack-influenced downhill on the Banks Peninsula near Christchurch, organised by Keith McLeod. Sometimes dubbed NZ's ‘original mountain biker’, McLeod came home in 1983 after several years in California.
However, 1986 was the hinge year, and the Kennetts were at the heart of things. Paul conceived ‘The New Zealand Off Road Bicycle Race’ and - to hear Simon tell it - organised it single-handed. The tough 50km race in the Akatarawa Ranges north of Wellington attracted 48 entries. Simon doesn't mention that he was narrowly beaten into second place, or that two years later he became the first to crack three hours (in the intervening year, the winner was Paul himself). The race - now known as the Karapoti Classic - has been held every year since, making it the longest-standing MTB event in the Southern hemisphere.
Adding hugely to the significance of the original race was a conference, held the day before, where riders shared information about places to ride and ideas for future events. In these pre-Internet times, knowledge about good riding locations was hard to come by; lists of locations and brief route descriptions were frantically scribbled by hand. The seed of the Kennett Brothers guidebook enterprise was planted that day, too.
I want to ask about the publishing business, but another question looms larger. New Zealand has a lot of scenery and not many people: does that make it an ideal setting for mountain biking?
As Simon doesn't answer immediately, I glance across and see a rueful smile.
"That's a big question. There's lots of land but it isn't all available or suitable."
We boil it down to three key factors: terrain, vegetation, and access. New Zealand is renowned for diverse and often spectacular landscapes, but 'spectacular' - especially in South Island - frequently translates into 'too steep'. Uncrossable rivers and man-eating bogs add to the challenges. And on gentler hills and lower slopes, there's the bush. Simon grins again: "As you're about to discover."
We are indeed getting close to our rendezvous, so I focus quickly on the third factor: access. There's no automatic right of access for bikes (or even on foot) to most of New Zealand's countryside, as there is in Scotland, Sweden or Finland. Nor is there the extensive Rights of Way system that we have in England and Wales. Simon has spent considerable time in England and knows that, for all its shortcomings, the bridleway network is a major benefit to mountain bikers.
"We made a big effort a few years back to come up with some proposals for extending access. We did try not to over-reach: nothing as radical as the Scottish Access Code, for example." A shake of the head. "Maybe we mishandled it. A lot of landowners thought that's exactly what we were proposing - or they chose to portray it that way. And they got organised very quickly. Landowners have a lot of clout in New Zealand. And now with the National Party in again..."
He signs, I commiserate, and there the conversation ends: we're approaching Ongarue and the start of our Pureora explorations. It's almost time to ride...
TRAILS YET TO COME
Ongarue isn't exactly a ghost town, but its population has more than halved since its heyday. Paint is peeling off the chapel, our rendezvous point. Our guide for the day is Hoz Barclay. (Hoz is shot for Horace, but his name's Jason. Clear?)
We load bikes and pile into Hoz's dusty ute to drive round to the start of the ride. Hoz's current job is not exactly a trail-builder: a better title would be ‘trail-finder’. He's working on the Pureora Timber Trail, part of Nga Haerenga, the New Zealand Cycle Trail project (see box). When finished - due some time in 2012 - it will be a relatively easy ride of 77km, expected to take most people two days. There's already a campsite at the obvious mid-point, Piropiro Flats, with a lodge planned nearby.
During the drive to Piropiro Flats, on empty highways and then a long stretch of dirt road, I glean a little more information. The trail we'll be on today largely follows old tramways from the logging era. Sounds like it should be easy, but something tells me that's not the whole story.
It's gentle enough at first, along wide benched trails, though the surface is unfinished and soft in places. Then, half an hour in, the trail ends abruptly on the brink of a deep wooded gorge. One day this will be spanned by a 140-metre suspension bridge - the longest on any bike trail in New Zealand.
Today, we shoulder bikes for a slithering descent and the crossing of the Maramataha River. At its deepest, the water licks at the hem of my shorts; tricky enough, but Hoz has a tale to tell.
"I tried it a couple of months ago. It was maybe six inches deeper but that made all the difference. I lost it. Bike on top of me, dragging me along..."
He's quiet a moment, eyes distant. "Big adrenalin surge. I just threw the bike towards the bank, then kind of crawled into the shallows. Totally soaked. And the weather was a lot colder than today. Only thing I could do was climb out and then ride to get warm. Didn't get much route-marking done that day."
Even on a good day, the climb out is steep and slippery. Bike on back, floundering over muddy roots, I'm barely hanging onto the coat-tails of the others. "Is this what you call 'old-school'?" I gasp as we finally reach rideable trails again.
"I guess so," says Jonathan - but it's pretty clear that this is kindergarten stuff. Real old-school mountain biking was (and is) on another level entirely. Jonathan's book RIDE - the story of cycling in New Zealand - features a great photo of Simon literally throwing his bike over a gorse thicket prior to crawling through after it. The first line of the caption reads: ‘Early exploration trips often followed tracks that gradually petered out.’
Today - thanks in no small degree to the Kennetts themselves - this is no longer the norm for the Kiwi mountain biker. However, they, and Hoz, clearly still relish this kind of thing. For Hoz, it's a major part of his working life.
The Pureora route mostly follows old tramways and logging tracks, but there were several quite separate systems: we've already encountered one major gap at the Maramataha gorge. Also, the mill at Ongarue closed in 1966 and tracks were lifted soon after. NZ bush can regenerate pretty effectively in forty-odd years. Even the main tramway had all but disappeared under vegetation when Hoz started his explorations.
Clearly, this has been more than just a job. In fact, when pressed a little, Hoz reveals that the whole Pureora route was essentially his idea, based on a 'concept plan' he presented to the Department of Conservation in 2005, and only subsequently folded into the New Zealand Cycle Trail framework. And though the broad brush-strokes of the route were already clear, there's been plenty of work to do in teasing out the detail. "Sure, the main tramway's shown on the maps," he says, "But it's not that precise. You couldn't go straight to it. And some of the branch lines take a lot of finding."
Piecing it all together means a lot of exploration, on bike and on foot, plotting it by GPS; countless dead-ends and false trails and many nights bivvied out in the forest. "I can be sleeping in the leaves one night and giving a PowerPoint to a bunch of suits a couple of days later," he says with a grin. There's that side to it, too, the battles for funding, the negotiations with contractors. Early in the ride he'd showed us where a careless bulldozer driver had sheared through the roots of a mata tree: "He only needed to go half a metre to the right," he said, mostly in sorrow but with a real undertone of anger. "He will be told."
That kind of attention to detail shows why planning this kind of route takes so long. And now, as we contour round the hillside away from the Maramataha valley, he stops me for a moment to ask, "Could you tell there'd been a tramway here?"
I haven't exactly been looking. I've been pleasurably occupied picking a line over knotty roots in the dappled, flickering forest light. This is, of course, perfect camouflage, and maybe that's his point. But looking ahead, what I see is a loamy sketch of a path, weaving gently between the trees, then looping more widely around a green pool. The honest answer to his question is, simply, no. He nods. "It takes a while to get your eye in."
Soon after that we roll out to the main line of the tramway system. Finally a clear track, though at this point it's still green. We pause for lunch in a sunny clearing, sprawled in lush grass, before following the main line out to Ongarue. I'm kidding myself it'll be easy from here on, but remain several sections where no work has been done, beyond Hoz's marking the line with tapes. Other stretches have been cleared of bush but nothing has been done about drainage or surfacing; the ground is mostly firm but gets very soft in the frequent cuttings, where we teeter along muddy ridges between black pools of uncertain depth.
At the Waione stream, the 90m bridge is complete but there are metre-high drop-offs at each end. Hoz impishly sets the bridge swaying as I ride across. Then there's the bit the Kennetts have been excited about: the Ongarue Spiral, where the line gyres right around and under itself. It's been cleared, but the tunnel is still ankle-deep in gloopy mud - 'interesting' in semi-darkness. The gradient is all in our favour now, but there's a final bog-and-blackberry bash before we emerge to a gravel road and pedal the last few kilometres into Ongarue in golden evening light.
The Kennetts are anxious to get away, with the 5-6 hour drive to Wellington preying on their minds, so as soon as bikes are stowed and the worst of the mud cleaned off, they're away. Knowing that I'll be heading for Queenstown in a few days, Jonathan's last words are "Enjoy Disneyland!"
Driving Hoz back to his vehicle at Piropiro, I hear about his family connections to the logging industry. Robert Thompson (maternal grandfather) ran the timber-yard and joinery end of the logging operation. Robert regularly visited the bush camps and mill sites, including those along the Ongarue tramway, and often took his children (including Hoz's mother) along for the ride.
Hoz himself grew up on a farm in the King Country, and was riding bikes almost as soon as he could walk. Like the Kennetts and many others, he was practising what we call mountain biking before mountain bikes became readily available. "In 1984," he recalls, "I bolted some moto-cross bars onto a 10-speed touring bike; about then I started making regular trips into the bush."
Evidently the bush-whacking, exploratory side of mountain biking still delights him. I pose a question that isn't really a question: "If you weren't getting paid to explore these tracks, you'd do it anyway, wouldn't you?" A massive grin is all the answer I need. But he enjoys bike parks and trail centres too, and waxes lyrical about a long trip around North American destinations a few years back. He's a keen road biker too. But then I've been thinking for a while that 'keen' could be his middle name.
We could keep talking bikes long into the night, but I've still got a two-hour drive to Rotorua. The empty night-time roads of the King Country give me ample time to reflect on the day. The abundance of scratches on my legs will fade, but I'll keep the memories. Above all it's been a day spent with three guys who are as passionate about bikes as anyone I've ever met.
It doesn’t get much better for an old school mountain biker than riding bush trails with a guide like Hoz, but what to do about the rest? There are so many trails one should not leave NZ without riding, in fact it may be against the law to even think about it.
I ride everything I can get to (see below) and it doesn’t seem like any time before I'm peering out of a plane window, trying to spot one of my favourites, Makara Peak, among Wellington's array of green ridges, before we climb through the clouds.
Mountain biking in New Zealand... it's an awful long way for most of us to go. Is it worth it - and if so, why? To be honest, a bike's a bike, and a berm's a berm. It's not the detail of the trails themselves that sticks in memory, nor even the scenery, undeniably awesome though it may be. Instead I remember the tree-ferns arching overhead, the musical calls of the ubiquitous tui, the sign at the summit of Makara Peak that tells you it's 18,700 km to Coed-y-Brenin.
Above all, what stands out for me is the people I met and the scene that they're part of. Everywhere I went, I met people who were passionate about riding bikes, but equally committed to sharing their passion. On my final evening in Queenstown, walking down the hill for extra photographs, I encountered a group from the QMBC. What struck me was how some riders hurtled down a section, giving it air, throwing their whips, then paused at a rest spot and waited for those who were rolling cautiously down at half-speed or slower. Leapers and creepers, having fun and encouraging each other.
And again and again I found that love of riding inseparable from a wider love for the places where the riding happens, like Hoz in Pureora Forest, grieving over damage to a single tree. Or Jonathan Kennett, "putting something back" in the most literal fashion possible. Together with his partner Bronwen Wall, he bought 50 hectares of former farmland at Golden Bay, at the top of South Island, specifically to create a carbon sink. Of course there's now a mountain bike trail there too...
THE TRAILS THAT BE
Queenstown Bike Park, Skippers Canyon, More Lake, Lake Dispute, Makara Peak, Whakarewarewa Forest, Woodhill and the Swirly Whirly Green Goat Track
Jonathan Kennett reckons that New Zealand has more than 50 mountain bike parks, encompassing well over a thousand trails. (To match this, per capita, the UK would need around 800 bike parks and 16000 trails). My first stop was Queenstown Bike Park.
Queenstown is adrenalin central. It says so on the packaging. It draws thrill seekers from around the globe – although local cynics call it 'Disneyland' and grumble that it offers no more real adventure than a fairground ride. Is bike-park downhilling an adventure? Well, gondola uplift, and a mix of easy trails and some with sufficient opportunities for disaster, is certainly enough of an adventure for a lot of people. The park sees hundreds of riders every day in summer zipping down the trails.
A few kilometres away, Skippers Canyon may see just a few hundred riders in a season. One reason is that Skippers Road is officially the most dangerous in New Zealand and therefore off-limits to hired cars. On a bike, though technically trivial, it's a long descent with loose surfaces, and massive drops on the right. Overshooting a bend could be fatal.
Across the canyon is the Pack Track, an old miners’ track. It’s more technical – but not desperate – and above all just a darn gorgeous descent. You want flow? Here it is. I rode it with a guide, which guaranteed the transport back up, then hooked up with other riders to try the trails around Moke Lake and Lake Dispute. Though not hard-core or deeply remote trails, they are fairly representative of New Zealand riding. Delightful easy singletrack, pleasantly technical at stream crossings, followed by a steep, loose, drover's track for the descent to Lake Dispute. There's another loose plummet just before the road, and I come round a bend to find a friend on the deck and clearly in pain. The eventual diagnosis is cracked ribs. That seems like real adventure to me. All too real, in fact.
Makara Peak, on the outskirts of Wellington, is one of New Zealand's leading Bike Parks, though I can't help feeling that the British term 'trail centre' suits it better. The trailhead is low-key, yet this unassuming spot is the gateway to over 30km of purpose-built singletrack, all created by volunteers. The Kennett Brothers were heavily involved in the early stages and Simon still plays a leading role on the conservation side of the Supporters' work.
On my first visit, I start the descent via Ridgeline, the most famous trail in the Park and one of the first. The Kennett guidebook (7th edition) suggests it's Grade 4, which should makes it easier than Skippers Pack Track, but I'm disconcerted to find it feels a lot harder. Second time around, I start the descent by the newest trail in the Park, North Face, which has enabled a complete descent of the peak on mid-grade singletrack. The descent continues by JFK, Smokin', then SWIGG (the Swirly Whirly Green Goat Track) and finally Starfish back to the trailhead.
Almost all the bike parks are the work of local clubs, like the Makara Peak Supporters or the Rotorua Mountain Bike Club, which is responsible for Whakarewarewa Forest. One exception is Woodhill, the main centre in the Auckland region, and the first place in NZ where my tyres hit dirt; it’s operated by a private company, though volunteers still contribute to trail-building.
Woodhill shoehorns over 130km of trails into a few hectares. The trail map seems like a feat of advanced topology, possibly in four dimensions. It feels a bit like that on the trails too, whether it's the aptly-named Tortellini or the simply extraordinary Big Mumma. You probably can't get lost for long at Woodhill, but you can certainly get delightfully disorientated.
What immediately strikes me, compared to UK trail centres, is that it's very democratic. Easy trails are as prolific, and as carefully built, as harder ones and Woodhill positively bristles with optional extras (usually wooden structures, clearly and individually graded) so mixed-ability groups and families can ride the same trails.
Sidebar: Cycle Challenge
The Contact Taupo Cycle Challenge is New Zealand's largest cycling event and probably the world's largest cycling relay, involving over 9000 riders in total. The headline event is beautifully simple in concept: ride a lap of Lake Taupo - approximately 160km. In 2011 there were 1274 finishers in the Male 45-54 category alone.
The Contact Huka mountain bike events (80km, solo and two-person relay) are a relatively recent addition, attracting 'only' about 650 riders in 2011.
Sidebar: Triple trouble
The Kennett Brothers logo shows three figures on a triplet bike. This is no mere graphic conceit; they really do have one, and they really do ride it from time to time.
“So who gets to go on the front?” I ask Jonathan.
“Ah! Tricky decision. We are supposed to take turns…”
“There must be some scary moments…”
He smiles. “There was the time Paul and Simon thought it would be good idea to do a downhill race blindfolded – literally. It was a big downhill, 700 vertical metres down Mount Climie on a screaming fast dirt road. On race day, they turned up with the triple (which very few people knew about at that stage) and I jumped on the front, without a blindfold, of course. Well, the Hope Disc brake over heated and faded out, but the two cantilever brakes were still ok-ish. However, the rims got so hot that they burnt holes in the tubes. So we had to replace them, then on the very steepest section near the bottom we punctured again and crashed. Simon, terrified by this point, pulled his blindfold off. Paul remained catatonically calm.
“Simon had me screaming once near the end of a long mountain bike race called the Rainbow Rage. We were too fit, and managed to break the two biggest freewheel cogs, mangle the front derailleur, then break one of the chains, and at the finish line we found a crack in the frame… finished 7th overall.
“Needless to say,” Jonathan sums up, “It is an instrument of enduring psychological torture. We don't like to race it more than once a year.”