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AUSTRALIA / ENGLISH CHANGE REGION
Tuesday, November 17, 2015
By Paul Smith
Fatboy Rock is found on the north side of Mount Pisa in Central Otago. It is a majestic slab of schist, overlooking the Cardrona valley, Mount Aspiring and Wanaka. I assumed this to be the case, as I’d never been there in person. In order to remedy the gap between my assumption and Fatboy Rock in reality, I devised a plan to travel to Fatboy Rock on Fatboy bikes. The only reason for the destination was coincidental naming of rock and bike. Plus, it was a great opportunity to hook up with a couple of friends I don’t see too often, offer them their first taste of fatbiking and also whet my wheels on my first attempt at fatbiking in the snow. Previously successful adventures have been born of far less convincing reasoning.
Local intel told us we wouldn’t make it to Fatboy Rock on bikes, fat or not. In fact, locals found it amusing we were even going to try. We’d unfortunately timed our trip after a big storm that had left a dumping of early season snow in its wake. There was talk of waist-deep drifts of fresh snow up on Mount Pisa. On the positive side, the forecast was for clear calm conditions and overnight temperatures on the cold side of minus 10 degrees Celsius. Our hope was that reports of snow were exaggerated, that the purveyors of local intel weren’t familiar with the ability of fat bikes, and that those crisp overnight temperatures might just create a rideable frozen crust.
Logistics meant I started with an early morning flight from Wellington to Dunedin, where I collected a rental vehicle. After coffee in Tim’s kitchen and far too long shopping for supplies, we made a five hour drive to Arrowtown to collect Anton and pack more gear into the rental. Just in case our intel was accurate, we crammed skis and snow shoes into the medium-sized SUV along with three fat bikes. Another couple of hours driving got us over the Crown Range to the base of Mount Pisa. We lost the sun long before we got that far. By the time we arrived at the final turn-off it was 8pm and very dark.
The off-road journey to Fatboy Rock starts with a brutal ascent up a dirt road to Snow Farm: a combination of cross-country ski trails and vehicle proving tracks nestled within high country conservation land. They use this road for the annual ‘Race to the Sky’, thrashing 800 horse-power super-light hill-climb cars for 15 kilometres, gaining over 1000 metres in altitude. It is fair to say that we didn’t much fancy the long, cold, ride in the dark.
Snow Farm was sensory overload. The early-winter snow signalled the start of the proving ground season, so ploughs, trucks and snowmobiles were out in force with lights blazing, preparing for cars to arrive for cold-weather testing. But as soon as we rode away from the lodge, all activity, light and noise vanished. We dropped over a hill onto a network of cross-country ski trails that would take us towards Fatboy Rock, our path lit by head torches and moonlight. Our immediate target for the night was Meadow Hut, a few hours along the trails. From there it would be a full day on- and off-trail to Fatboy Rock.
We never made Fatboy Rock. We rode no more than 500 metres before the bikes got well and truly embedded in fresh snow. The description of waist-deep drifts was being generous, not exaggerated. Travel by bicycle was impossible, even with 4.6-inch tires. But we made a valiant effort before returning our bikes to the truck. The laughter of overconfident ambition kept us warm as we switched transport to skis and snowshoes.
We made it to our overnight destination, but we went no further. It just didn’t seem worth it without the bikes. Fatboy Rock lost its eponymous destination importance, became just another rock. The following morning we packed ourselves back out to the truck, and started to formulate plan B: Not Fatboy Rock.
The real point of this trip, if there really was a point, was to explore winter terrain in the Southern Alps around Queenstown on fatbikes. For a few weeks prior, Tim, Anton and I had studied countless maps and narrowed ride options down to about a dozen within a half-day drive of Arrowtown. Now, for plan B (Not Fatboy Rock) we had three days, a rental SUV, three fatbikes and a desire to explore.
Night one demonstrated the limit of fatbikeable winter terrain. Day two saw us back on bikes in the snow – just not quite as much snow. Starting at the Coronet Peak ski field, the Rude Rock trail usually sees a constant stream of mountain bikers, enjoying its perfectly formed downhill flow, shuttling laps using the ski-field access road. But in winter, when covered by a thick layer of ice and snow, it lies fallow and unused. That is, unless three riders show up with fat bikes, a shuttle vehicle and a childish desire to giggle their way down an icy trail. Half a dozen laps and a few crashes later, in fading early-evening light we called an end to day two.
Mining in this part of the world usually means gold. Queenstown became part of the Otago gold rush in 1862 when fist-sized nuggets were found in the Shotover River. But the mining hut we targeted was part of a later operation to extract Scheelite. Tungsten is the metallic element of Scheelite, used to harden steel. It was of strategic importance during the first and second World Wars due to its use in armaments, and mining the hills above Glenorchy for this obscure ore took off. The cute three-bunk Heather Jock hut was built in the 1930s for the Scheelite miners.
The old mine access track followed an easy gradient up the valley at first, linking an ore-smashing battery to the foot of Mount Alaska. A tussock-clad track then switchbacked steeply up to the mine workings and Heather Jock Hut. At its base was a remarkable relic of a hut, walls and roof constructed from flattened steel drums, their corroded patina glowing gloriously in the afternoon sun. The hut had held strong in almost a century of ferocious winds.
Below the snow line, the fatbikes tried their best to cross the marshy tussock on the switchbacked track, but our legs complained at the intense gradient and heavy terrain. There was pushing. As we climbed higher, snow and ice on the shaded south-facing slope made riding easier – big volume tyres floated on an icy crust, only occasionally breaking through to halt forward progress. We were following footprints in the snow towards the hut. There were three of us heading for a three-bunk hut. We hoped all three bunks were empty.
As it turned out, our only company at Heather Jock Hut was a mouse: annoyingly noisy, but thankfully not taking up one of the bunks. The hut logbook informed us that the owner of the footsteps had stayed the previous night and moved on. We enjoyed one of those fantastic hut nights: toasty in sleeping bags, watching the day fade behind the mountains in a burst of yellow, red and purple, content that plan B (Not Fatboy Rock) had turned out just fine.
On the day three we returned to the miner’s track, following a loop trail high on the side of Mount Alaska, past more mining relics. Our fat bikes traversed snow-covered tussock and scree slopes to a mine entrance, a flying fox once used to move ore high across a gorge, and a workshop complete with rusted-out bulldozer. Amazingly, these mines were worked right into the 1960’s, sending rock to the ore-battery on sleds pulled by horses, to be shipped by paddle-steamer along Lake Wakatipu to Queenstown.
Below the snowline, the slippery trail that took us the steep way down to the gorge challenged the technical ability of riders and fat-tires alike. Then, the last 10 kilometres disappeared in a downhill blur as we raced back along the old access track. We discovered another situation where fatbikes were a big bag of fun, that fatbikes can fly (sometimes intentionally), that massive tyres grip and grip some more, and that worn mechanical disc brakes don’t stop a loaded bike from high speed on a wet descent.
On the trip back to Dunedin, Tim and I detoured to Wanaka to return the borrowed bikes and the key to a hut on Mount Pisa that we never got close to using. Staff at Alpine Guides, the hut managers and providers of our Fatboy Rock intel, nodded politely when we explained that the bikes didn’t make it much beyond Snow Farm. The staff at the Specialized store were excited to hear of our adventures on Mount Pisa, riding icy Queenstown mountain bike trails, and exploring old mine workings above Glenorchy. Those responses summed up plan A (Fatboy Rock), plan B (Not Fatboy Rock) perfectly.
I’ve no doubt that Fatboy Rock is just a rock on a hillside. It isn’t majestic, it is most likely underwhelming. But as a loose reason for an adventure, it is about as good as it gets.
FATBOY The Fatboy provides the perfect blend of efficiency and durability.
AIRNET The Airnet helmet is the ideal blend of functionality and performance for riders seeking both adventure and style.
RECON MIXED The Recon Mixed Terrain shoe is the perfect blend of durable, comfortable, and adventurous.