Mountain Biking Gold WORDS & PHOTOGRAPHY BY WWW.CRAIGMADSEN.COM
Reefton is a small township nestled into the edge of the Victoria forest park on the West Coast of New Zealand. During a recent photographic assignment I discovered that there’s gold in them there hills, but you won’t need a shovel or a 20 tonne digger to find it, just a mountain bike and a good sense of adventure.
Crossing the Waitahu River, my single most scary moment during the trip. My Surly Pugsley tyres were as wide as the swing bridge’s footing. I have Dave Dawes my super guide and DOC ranger to thank for this shot. His words of encouragement were, “Oh yeah Craig it’s easy mate, my daughter rides across it all the time” Thanks Dave! But hey, it was all worth it for the shot!
ike many small New Zealand towns, Reefton is a place that may not be your first choice as a holiday destination. Many of you may not even know how to get there. We all tend to just drive through small rural towns on the way to some place else. You may stop off for petrol at the little station with two pumps or you may drop into the tearooms for a slice and a cuppa. But generally we don’t take the time to stop and have a good look around; pity. After a three and half-hour drive from the Picton ferry I arrived in Reefton on Sunday afternoon. As I hadn’t been there before I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. As I turned off the main trunk line and into Broadway, the main street of Reefton, it was apparent that this wee place had a lot of character. It didn’t take much imagination to step back a hundred years, to picture dirt roads with horses and carts. Most of the buildings and shop fronts are from the gold rush era with a pioneer and veranda look, and in late afternoon with a bit of fog for atmosphere, you really feel like you have stepped back in time. After parking the car I took a wander up the main street to get my bearings. As I made my way up the road a local greeted me, “good afternoon” I replied and
smiled. What a friendly chap I thought. Then it happened again, I passed another local, “hello” she said. Then another and another, some were just smiles and the old eyebrow lift, while some were going as far to ask me how I was, “hi, how are you?” Wow, had I stepped back in time; everyone was so polite and friendly, what the hell was going on? As you can imagine this was not normal behaviour on Wellington’s Lambton Quay. I stepped into the local Four Square and it happened again, “hello” said the lady from behind the counter, I hadn’t stepped up to buy anything, I had only just got in the door. Reefton really was a time portal, I had stepped back to the good old days in New Zealand, when fish ‘n chips came wrapped in newsprint, you never needed to lock the house, and a 30 pound mountain bike was a lightweight race machine. I was staying at the recently renovated Lantern Court Motel, a stunning oldfashioned two-story building, which added real charm to the main street of town. After getting settled in, I headed out to have a meal at one of the local pubs. The meal can only be described as epic, delicious, but epic. After joking with one of the staff on the size of the meal, I was quickly informed that I was lucky not to have ordered a trucker’s roast – one can only imagine. That week I was to eat in most of the restaurants / pubs around town each offering incredible value for money and each as good as the last. As I sat back in my chair I began to reflect on my first day in Reefton and how I would go about describing or summing up my experiences in this little town. My thoughts were quickly interrupted as the bar maid came to clear my table and after enquiring on how I had enjoyed my meal she continued “would you like some pudding?” Suddenly it hit me. I must have looked like a deer in head lights to the young lady; I quickly declined while scrambling to get back to my train of thought. That’s it I thought: Reefton was just like going to Nana or your Gran’s for dinner. I hadn’t been asked if I wanted pudding for 20-25 years, dessert yes, but pudding? Who says pudding anymore? Wow, this was awesome; Reefton was just like my Nana’s! It was always warm and friendly and there was always way too much food, and dinner was never dinner without pudding. Her place like Reefton was a bit old, and filled with lots of cool old stuff, nothing electronic
in this house, but everything had a purpose and was always built to last. The couch, the carpet, even the curtains were different shade of brown. Going to Nana’s was fun, different but a good different, a nice change of pace. That’s what Reefton is: a nice change of pace. Only I was to discover that Reefton, unlike my Nana, had been busy in the back yard, and for the past hundred years it had established a network of some of the most incredible backcountry trails. My week of photography would turn out to be a week of discovery. The Reefton and Buller region has an abundance of little known backcountry trails. The trail network is a result of the gold rush era that struck the region from the 1880s through to the 1940s. Formerly known as Quartzopolis, gold was first discovered near the town in 1866. Although the major discovery wasn’t until 1870, which shortly after saw the town’s population explode. With mining came technology and innovation and in 1888 Reefton became the first place in New Zealand and the Southern Hemisphere to have a public supply of electricity. As the mining grew so too did the trails, which lead deeper, and deeper into the now Victoria Forest Park. What has been left is a superb network of trails to suit most rider abilities. As these trails were used to haul large amounts of machinery and supplies to the miners and their townships the trail gradient is one of relative ease. This has produced an almost perfect environment for the development of mountain biking in the area. Big River is a testimony to man’s relentless search for gold. Located 25km south of Reefton at an altitude of 670m, Big River makes for a great day or overnight trip. We headed in from Reefton along the Old Dray Road, it’s a steady climb through some spectacular backcountry bush; you really feel like you are in the middle of nowhere, and thinking about it, you kind of are. It’s nothing like the riding in the city mountain parks which many of us are used to, the dense forest, the trails, they feel old, and they are old! And this adds to the whole experience of the ride. Big River can be reached via the Old Pack Track from Waiuta or by a challenging 4wd track from Reefton along the Old Dray Road. Once at the top there is an abundance of trails and old mining relics to explore. There is a DOC Hut at Big River and like all of Reefton’s trails, maps 33
from Left to right: The famous Reefton Bearded Miners; The newly constructed DOC boardwalk at the top of Big River; Checking out the multiple side trails at the top of Big River; Kirwan Hills, a must do side trail before you head down Kirwanâ€™s.
Spectacular views from outside the Kirwan's DOC hut.
can be obtained from the information centre in the middle of town. Murray Creek track like a number of the rides in the area is just a stone’s throw from town. This ride takes you up a steady climb to Energetic Junction and onwards to Cement Town. Like many of the Reefton tracks this can be done as an up and back 1-2 hour ride or it can also link through to the Waitahu River track, making it more of a day trip. The old dense forestry throughout the Murray Creek track is truly spectacular, and has to be seen to be believed. I was pressed for time so we opted for the up and back ride; the climb was great even with a full camera bag, but the descent was something else. As the track is slightly wider than singletrack but not enough for a 4wd, it makes for a fast and truly breathtaking descent. If you make it to the bottom without a smile from ear to ear you are clearly doing something wrong! A must-do for any excursion to Reefton is Kirwan’s Track; arguably one of the best rides in the country and at 1000m delivers some of the best views. Kirwan’s can be achieved a number of ways, these include a 4-5 hour up and back mission, helicopter in and ride down or you could ride in, camp at the DOC hut at the top then descend the next day. Either way this trail will leave you raving about the ride for months to come. The old beech forests and epic views are just a small part of the overall Kirwan’s experience. I was lucky enough to get choppered in; the view from the top is breathtaking as is the descent. The trail itself is a rough backcountry singletrack, and in places really fast, so a full suspension is a good idea, though not completely necessary. There are a couple of bike carrying sections, though this adds to the overall adventure of the ride. To be honest, at times they came as a bit of a blessing as my arms felt like they were going to drop off. It took us most of the day to come down, mainly this was due to a short side trip to the top of Kirwan’s hill, (recommended) and the fact I was stopping every five metres to take another photo. Lucky for me, I had some very patient mountain biking models. Normally thought I would estimate the descent to take about 2-3 hours. Helicopter hire and track information is available at the information centre. Although many of the trails were dug by the old gold diggers of the past, the FIRST TWO IMAGES From TOP: Great trails and bush throughout the Kirwan’s Track experience; Dense forest through Murray Creek track.
hard working folks at DOC have been pushing forward with plans of new links and mountain bike track development. The Buller District Council, DOC and enthusiastic locals have grand plans to evolve Reefton as the hub (excuse the pun) of mountain biking for the West Coast. From what I have seen and ridden they are well on the way to achieving that goal. There is an abundance of world-class hidden trails to be discovered in Reefton, the three I have briefly mentioned are but the tip of the iceberg. Reefton itself is also a hidden gem, boasting fantastic cafes, affordable meals and accommodation. From motels to campsites, Reefton can cater for any road-tripper’s budget. If you are planning to camp (motorhome or tent) check out Slab Hut Creek just out of town, this can only be described as a stunning oasis. DOC has been working tirelessly to achieve one of the most picturesque campsites in the country. But Reefton can cater to the whole family, not just the mountain biker. With an Olympic-sized heated indoor pool, gym, museum and art galleries, Reefton has many activities outside the trail. To my surprise Reefton also boasts one of the best skate parks in the country, this will certainly keep the kids big and small ones quiet for a while. Lastly, you can’t make a trip to Reefton without dropping in to see “The Bearded Miners” this is Reefton’s No.1 tourist attraction with bus loads of tourists filing in every day during summer to experience first hand how the miners lived. Gavin and the crew of miners are all retired, they give there time voluntarily, for the good of the town and to keep the old mining spirit alive. Located right in the middle of town, this is definitely worth a visit, the boys might even fire up the billy and make you a nice cuppa. You may even get a malt bikkie if you mind your manners. It’s amazing what you find when you scratch the surface. In just five days in this small character township I discovered super-friendly locals, a good place to rest my head, fine food, great cafes and had the most fun I have had in the saddle in a long time. So New Zealand, I have two words for you: ROAD TRIP! The South Island has a new mountain biking gold mine and in the years to come this little gold mine may become the Rotovegas of the South Island….time will tell.
Published on Dec 5, 2011