Words & Images Jake Hood

Our day started early. We packed up all our stuff, and left behind the items We didn’t need to take up royal. then we set off. the morning started With a tiny bit of technical sWitchback trail, then an off-the-bike hike down a cliff to the riverbed below. the dirt Was a lot drier than the day before, Which Was a good thing because it seemed like the day was going to be technical.

We hit the riverbed, crossed a small stream, and reached the start of the Mt Royal walking track. To begin with, it was a bike-on-your-back approach -we were literally climbing up a cliff face with our bikes. The rock we walked on was covered with moss, and we had to think about where we were walking and where our next step would land us. Once we got past that point, it was just a pretty steep, relentless push for about an hour before it mellowed out. It was one of those hills that is steeper towards the bottom and mellows the further you go up. The soil changed as well. It was pretty clay-like at the bottom, very slippery in the wet. The further up we got, the less present the clay was in the soil, giving it a more predictable nature. The foliage and cornflakes (some might say ‘loam’) that covered the trail seemed to get thicker as we gained more altitude. You could tell this trail wasn’t used that often; it wasn’t a worn-in, obvious track like many of the others in the area. There were a few times we lost the track on the way up. The trees were spaced pretty far apart, leaving heaps of space to hold it wide open on the way down. The trail wiggled its way up the mountain, covered in a spiderweb of root gardens. Some of them had huge roots that created large steps to get over, potentially causing a wheel stopper or going over the bars. I later found out this was the case.

Near the top, we stopped for a spot of lunch. I think we’d have been pushing up for about three hours or so by that point. It was pretty hard going. We stopped at a beautiful little opening in the trees that gave us a great view of the Richmond range. Mt Fishtail lay just before us. What a mountain that was. Lunch chat consisted of more talking shit about Bradshaw almost bailing and how good the DB Draught was going to be at the pub that evening. You could see the top of Royal from the spot. We had to descend along a ridge for a little bit before the final push up into the rocky alpine. It was going to be about an hour to the top.

It wasn’t long, though, before the chat ended up beIng about cold frothy beers and food at the pub later on. how good were those beers going to be?

No one wanted to descend the ridge first; it was pretty damn steep -and none of us knew how slippery it was going to be. The track sort of just disappeared, and it was a bit of a pick-your-way-down, trying to find places where you could get some good braking in. Turns out that going first was probably the best option, though. The locked rear wheel scraped off all the good foliage to brake on, and left behind slick black sludge. If you locked the front brake on this, you would know about it – but it was fun to pick our way down.

As we pushed up the last stretch, the trees started to thin out and the trail was more defined from here through the rock and scrub -nature hadn’t taken back the track like lower down. It was a bike-on-the-back hike up through the loose big rocks and some nice big bits of slab which made up the trail. My legs were starting to feel numb and heavy on the very last bit of the push; that pre-bonk feeling. Thank God the top was close. As we rounded the final bit of the mountain to the summit, the wind started to howl. It was strong, and our bikes acted like sails in it. The last stretch was a small walk along the flat to the top. Woohoo! We had made it to the summit of Mt Royal.

It was a clear day, and you could see for miles. There was a blue haze over all the hills. To the west, Mt Fishtail basked in the sun above the rest of the Richmond Range. To the east, you could see Blenheim, the Cook Strait, and the very faint outline of the Wellington coastline. The 360-degree views were stunning and the endorphins were kicking in – that high you get from reaching a summit. High-fives and hugs were thrown about, with smiles all around. These are the moments we do this for. Well, that and the fact we had a flipping awesome descent back down to the hut ahead of us. The howling wind was pretty chilly, so we chucked on some layers and found shelter just off the top, behind some rocks, to enjoy the view for a bit before we headed back down. You have to savor these things.

The trail eventually led to the point where we had to get off and hike back up to the lunch spot. From there, it was all downhill back to the river. What a time to be alive.

It wasn’t long, though, before the chat ended up being about cold frothy beers and food at the pub later on. How good were those beers going to be? This thought quickly prompted us to get back on our bikes and start heading down. Off the top, you have to ride along the flat, leaning your bike into the side wind until you start tipping into the trail. Paul, Scotty, and Cappleman were keen beans and started attacking the rocky shale alpine. Big long rock slabs covered in wheel-sized cracks, with drops off them into foot-sized loose rocks that moved below your wheels, made up the track. There were a couple of switch-back turns which made it even more fun. The sound of the terrain moving below your wheels while your bike danced through the chunder was delightful. Bradshaw was making light work of it on his hardtail, with a massive smile on his face. As the vegetation started to appear, the surface became more gravel-like, and the trail became more defined. Scotty, Paul, and Cappleman were off on a mission. The trail flowed along the ridgeline, turning left and right through the scrub. It had small undulations that you could use to pump or pop off. The surface was soft and gravel-like with some rocks and cornflakes mixed in. My bike felt amazing -the suspension was just fluttering along through this stuff, tires were hooking up a treat as I weighted the bike into the turns. You could feel the side knobs carving into the loose ground.

As the Beech forest thickened, the trail started to steepen. We stopped at this steep roll feature that we had looked at on the way up. It looked like a goer, and the way around looked pretty ugly. It was just a matter of if we would be able to stop after. How much speed would you pick up off of it? Would you be able to slow down before the turn into the next shoot? Paul tipped in first and greased it, making it look easier than it should have been. From there, we all hit it. It was a fun feature. In the dry, you could have hussed off it.

The trail eventually led to the point where we had to get off and hike back up to the lunch spot. From there, it was all downhill back to the river. What a time to be alive. The trail followed the ridge along for quite a while; not super steep, just enough of a gradient to keep the speed up without pedaling. The faint trail flows through Beech forest and is covered in deep, mossy foliage. The occasional fallen tree covered the track, but some logs had been placed in front of them, turning them into a feature to huck off. We whistled our way along the ridge, freeride flicks happening everywhere, foliage and sticks flying from the tires into the air. The bikes danced over the slippery roots and rocks that lay beneath. The trail would go from flat out to a few slower speed turns and back to flat out. There were whoops and hollers coming from everyone.

One ridge led to another, and things started to steepen up. Just off the ridge was where the trail took us. It was steep, covered in deep leaves. The trees were sparse, and turns in the trail were long and sweeping. This was my favorite bit of the trail. The dirt was super slick under the leaves, and you could drift around the turns with your foot off; opposite locking on the way in and letting the back wheel slide out on the way out. Just left, right, left, right. It was amazing. So much fun. I just could not wipe the smile off my face.

A second wind must have hit us because we started hitting it hard. the pace increase was insane. The pub wAsn’t far awAy; it was in sight, like a glowing beacon of happiness.

After that bit of speedway fun, the trail popped back out on the ridgeline. You then work your way through a long section of janky rocks, which meant travelling at a slower speed than what we had ridden so far. Thinking about lines was key: be precise. Momentum did help, but going at it full attack wasn’t going to end well. Personally, I love this stuff. It’s a challenge to ride. It takes skills, balance, and confidence to get you through.

After that bit of tech, you come off the ridge and back onto the face of the hill. It was a bit of a choose-your-own adventure at times since the track just disappeared at points. We were just pointing our bikes down the hill and following our noses till we found the trail again. Fallen sticks cracked and snapped under our wheels – it was a lot of fun. The further down the trail we got, the more technical it got, and the speed started to reduce. The huge wheel-trapping roots started to come out. You had to be on your game; think about your line, commit, and hold momentum through these. One of these wheel-trapping root sections caught me and sent me out the front door. Luckily, I was okay and landed in the soft foliage.

The steepest part was the last – and potentially the sketchiest – bit of trail. It got really steep, with huge steps into compressions. The dirt was clay, so grip was at an all-time minimum. We rode some of this, but the compressions were hard on the body, and you really had to find a flat platform to come to a stop to control your speed. The green, mossy clay dirt was doing its best to help the tire slip and slide. The bottom was so close, and you could see the riverbed…. and also the cliff you would ride off if it all went wrong. Sensibly, at this point, we decided to get off and hike down the last part. It just wasn’t worth the risk. I even managed to slip just pushing down, which resulted in my falling on my bike and bending the derailleur hanger. Shit. It wasn’t good. It looked fairly bent, but I would have to assess it back at the hut.

We scrambled down the last bit of cliff/trail to the riverbed. Fuck yeah. Royal was done. What a trail that was. Different from everything else I have ridden so far in the Richmond Range. It just had so much variety. It was wide and fast with some tech features mixed in, and less scary to ride than Fishtail or Riley. God, it’s amazing what you can do on modern mountain bikes these days. Bradshaw was the man of the match on his hardtail. What a guy.

We stopped for a quick look at the vieWpoint overlooking picton before We rode down the road into town, grabbing the bag of clean clothes We had stashed two days earlier out of the bushes. We had done it.

The day wasn’t over, though. We had to get back up to the hut, pack up and load up the bikes, then get out to the Canvastown pub. There were still a few hours of hard work ahead. We crossed back over the small river and scrambled our way back up the basically-a-cliff-face to camp.

“I’m glad you bullied me into coming up. That was fricking epic,” Bradshaw jokingly said. It really was. Back at the hut, we loaded up the bikes. Well, Scotty, Paul, Cappleman, and I did. Bradshaw instead decided that he was going to completely unpack everything and repack it all again, which might not sound funny but, when he’s doing it in his underwear (for some reason), flailing around like a wobbler in the long grass, which was very bee and wasp-populated, it made for some very entertaining watching. Especially every time he got stung. We were in stitches. “What are you doing?!” we yelled at him. After about 15 minutes, we got bored and headed off onto the trail out, as we didn’t want to get stung. It must have been another 15 or 20 minutes before Bradshaw joined us. Wobbler of the Week, right there.

Seven kilometres of trail lay ahead of us, back to Butcher Flat campground, then a 15km ride to the pub at Canvastown. By this point, we were all pretty tired and over it. The inevitable come down from the high was happening, and the next part was going to be a bit of a chore. It’s funny how many emotions you go through on these big days. As we headed back out on the trail, I could feel that my legs were pretty weak. The hiking up had taken it out of them. I had to walk the steep pinches in the trail as the bent hanger had taken away the ability to use the top gear. Amazingly, the rest of the gears were fine. I was going to have enough to get me back to Picton. The SRAM AXS is pretty damn great. I just got my head down and pushed through. It wasn’t a super fun trail to ride out, more of a means of getting somewhere but, after about an hour, we arrived at the road back to Canvastown. The pumps got wiped out. Tires inflated to near maximum PSI for extra rolling speed. Time to grind this road out.

Something must have come over Paul and Cappleman because they decided to set off at a blistering pace, leaving the rest of us behind. I had my headphones in, listening to a podcast, and sort of just hit the road at my own pace, spinning up the climbs and pushing a bigger gear on the flats. Scott and Bradshaw were a little ways behind on the road. I think their legs were dead. I just got my head down, zoned into the podcast, and spun away. I made sure to enjoy the place I was in. This valley reminded me of my home back in Scotland; very green, lots of farmland, and pine tree forests. Having ridden the road the day before, there were certain landmarks I recognised, giving me an idea of how far to go. Boy, I was excited for a beer at the pub after this big day. As I passed Bradshaw’s grandparent’s hut, I knew it wasn’t far – just 2km or so. By this point, Scotty and Bradshaw had caught me up, and we got in a chain gang. A second wind must have hit us because we started hitting it hard. The pace increase was insane. The pub wasn’t far away; it was in sight, like a glowing beacon of happiness.

The bikes got parked up. Paul and Cappleman had found a good seat and were already on the beers. DB Draught was the only real choice. Now, I’m a bit of a beer snob, but there is something great about a cold DB Draught after a big day. I think it’s just made even better by the fact you’re drinking it in this old, rural pub. The pub had recently been taken over by new owners, and the place was pumping with regulars. It had a very homely feeling. Somewhere you could just settle in for a big shift, and that’s exactly what Paul was doing. The man was putting them away like they were water. By the time I’d finished one, he would have done two. It was a bloody great drop though; refreshing, crisp, just perfect. We settled in and reminisced about the day. It had been so great -awesome crew, amazing trail, and just the perfect amount of struggling. How good.

After a few more pints and an amazing dinner at the pub, the beer buzz of bad decisions kicked in, resulting in us getting a box to drink back at the hut that night. As it was starting to get dark, we hit the road back to the digs in good spirits. Back there, the box opened, and we continued into the night, with Bradshaw providing the entertainment again by unpacking and repacking everything as we watched him struggle. “What are you doing?!” we yelled, again.

The next morning, we were woken early to the sound of Bradshaw leaving. He was off early to ride to Nelson before a storm rolled in. The rest of us slept in a bit longer due to slight headaches from the beers. Today was going to be the easiest of the lot – we just had to get back to Picton before 6pm for the ferry back to Wellington. It was another overcast day with breaks of sun; not too hot, not too cold. Great weather to work our way back around Queen Charlotte Drive. My legs were feeling good this day for some reason; strong, powerful. I wished they had been like that over the last two days. It would have made life a lot easier. We stopped off in Havelock for breakfast and picked up some stuff for lunch. The pace was kept steady. We had all day to get to Picton. No big rush. It let us just enjoy the day and the ride. Really soak up the beauty of the place. We stopped at Ngakuta Bay for a swim in the sea, and lunch. The sun was out. The sea was the perfect temperature. Just tremendous.

The final 11km were stunning. One last climb before descending into Picton. I had Hybrid Minds playing in my earphones as we knocked off the last bit. The perfect soundtrack to the last bit of this adventure, speed tucking our way down the wavy road to Picton. The lush green canopy of trees and the views of the bays, mixed with the euphoria of completing this mission, made for a magical moment. What a time.

We stopped for a quick look at the viewpoint overlooking Picton before we rode down the road into town, grabbing the bag of clean clothes we had stashed two days earlier out of the bushes. We had done it. The Royale with Cheese ticked off. Another mission done, and it was yet another great one.

We had a couple of hours to kill before the ferry, so we got some second lunch, went for a swim in the sea again, then downed a few pints in one of the waterfront bars. We chatted about the mission we had just done; it wasn’t as hard as Ferry to Fishy, but it was a further distance. Breaking it into three days definitely made it a more pleasant experience. The ride around Queen Charlotte Drive was far nicer than the main highway to Fishtail. This time it seemed like the perfect amount of Type 2 fun (although you could argue that the more Type 2, the bigger the reward at the end). Royal was an absolute treat to ride, and getting to tick off some of the Wakamarina was a huge bonus. You couldn’t have asked for a better crew as well; just the best. We left the Capital on a Saturday morning, rode kilometres into the backcountry, rode a big mountain, rode back – and we were going to be back in the Capital by Monday evening. How good! Weekend adventures done right.

We boarded the ferry back to Wellington, found some good seats, and settled in. We hadn’t even made it out of the Sounds before we started talking about what was next. What’s going to be the next one we tick off? We have a few ideas in mind…. Watch this space.

This article is taken from:NZ Mountain Biker, Issue #112

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