A Classic mountain bike ‘weekender’
words by Damian Stones | Images by Grant Stirling
We all dream about our next weekend away. Ideas are thrown around during the weekly group ride or post ride brew. For me, ideas stem from another rider saying, ‘have you ridden such and such trail, or been into ‘x’ hut?’ From here the seeds are sown for your classic mountain bike weekender.
Back in the day you’d pull out a topo map and spread it out over the kitchen table, cuppa in hand. Now you’re more likely to pull out a tablet and bring up your favourite topo or trail app and start the planning process. A few months back I did just this. Kirwans Track had been on my radar for some time and seemed to tick the boxes for an overnighter.
I think the key to success for these types of weekends is to do it with a bunch of mates with similar ability, experience and motivation, and it didn’t take long before I’d roped in keen mates Mike Anderson from Avanti Plus, and photographer Grant Stirling. Located in the Buller District, Kirwans Track is easily doable over two days from Nelson or Christchurch, and fitted perfectly with our timeframe.
Like many weekenders, this one started with a short road trip from Nelson to Reefton, broken up by stopping at Murchison and sharing stories over coffees. As we got close to our destination our crew was itching to get cracking. Surrounded by paddocks and scrub country, we had a fairly innocuous start to our ride in Cronadun, 10 kilometres north of Reefton, but the view into the hills gave us a taste of what was to come.
As usual on the West Coast, we had a pretty rapid departure as the sandflies were on the hunt! The first part of the trail is open river flats through what was once a substantial mining town called Capleston. Back in 1877 it was home to 1000 people and seven hotels. Kirwans track was built as a miner’s pack track leading to Kirwan’s Hut and, beyond it, Kirwan’s Hill. All are aptly named after William Kirwan, a gold prospector who discovered a large area of gold-rich quartz high on the hill back in 1896.
We had our first true West Coast experience early on this trip. Our group fragmented as Mike was frothing and took off after the first swing bridge. In pursuit of Mike, I came across four cows and calves coming down the trail. When one cow started stomping the ground, I retreated behind a sturdy tree, and the cows pinned it past me only to meet Grant further down. When I met Grant a bit later, he was feeling rattled as one of the calves had taken off over the side of the 4WD track. We both looked over the side of what was essentially a precipice, wondering where it had gone. At this point we were joined by a couple of old West Coasters with classic timber framed packs, fossicking for gold in the old mining areas. While Grant and I were trying to work out what to do, the old fellahs charged off after the cows and we gingerly followed, retreating smartly when faced with a cliff.
The gold-diggers who created this trail built it at a good grade for climbing at the time, though it’s now become more challenging and exposed in sections, so is more suited to intermediate to advanced riders.
The first obvious mining feature we encountered was a small tunnel about 10 metres long connecting to an elevated swing bridge over Topffer Creek. This short tunnel was built to divert water through a cliff for other gold mines. Today’s trail takes advantage of this tunnel and leads onto a modern swing bridge. It’s incredible to think about the work that went into just a small area of this track; the early miners would have dug into the side of this gorge to make this crossing possible.
We grabbed some water at Topffer Creek before starting the true climb. To avoid a steep climb the miners built a traverse track so they and their horses could transport materials. Our enthusiasm fluctuated as we alternated between walking and riding, doing much the same pace either way. We encountered a few unrideable sections as we moved in and out of gullies, though depending on your fitness and skill level, some of this could be ridden. As we followed the switchbacks the forest gradually changed. This section is magical, with tightly packed mountain beech, vivid green moss, and hanging lichen. As we climbed up the trail we paused and checked out some cool trail features to ride on the way back down.
When we reached the last section and popped out into the alpine tussocks around the hut at 1200m, we were blown away by the view down the Grey Valley and on towards Paparoa National Park, where the Paparoa Track and Pike 29 Memorial Tracks are currently under construction. For me the arrival at a hut is always a highlight of the day, whether the trip is short or long. We were keen to get settled and take in the sunset, which was mint. Mike surprised us by pulling a bottle of red wine out of his pack which he gleefully cracked open, settling in for the night.
We all turned in early that night, and didn’t lurch out of our sleeping bags too early as the weather had clagged in. The mist made for a moody atmosphere as we rode the first section down through the mountain beech forest, some overnight rain making the off-camber roots exciting. Letting some air out of our tyres helped.
Kirwans on Day Two turned into a different beast on the descent, providing a few ‘moments’ on sections of narrow, tyre-width trail. Riding down, I had a second take on just how awesome it looked, almost like a Japanese-style garden with bright green moss forming on either side of the trail.
The further we descended, the drier and driftier it became. Froth levels were at an all-time high. As we became more confident on the trail, everyone relaxed, perhaps a little too much. As I stopped to look back up, I saw Mike flying headfirst off the track. Luckily, a fallen log stopped him falling further, though having his bike on top of him didn’t help his climb back up.
After sessioning a bunch of corners and generally mucking around on the descent, I suggested we take lunch in the super-scenic Topffer river valley. It seemed a great place to soak in the scenery one last time. Once the stove got fired up it was hard to leave.
While Kirwans isn’t built for purpose, this is one aspect that makes it more unique, appealing, and unpredictable, providing multiple line choices and opportunities for constant improvisation. I would have to say this is one of New Zealand’s classic weekenders.