Akatarawa Ranges Close InBy Andrew Waddel
No one plans to get lost, but sometimes it happens. Everyone, including me - and perhaps especially me - should be better prepared for the possibility of losing their bearings and having to find their way out. It’s a hard lesson to learn, and all too often a lesson that’s only learnt after an ‘enlightening’ few hours on the trail, some cuts, a bruised ego and finally emerging with a smile of relief.
I love riding. I love the simple exploration of an area, often repeating a trail and finding new routes, seeking out hips and corners, pushing for fresh speed and the limits of traction. This exploration is always better with another, a shared MTB experience with a push of combined endurance and individual energy to make it there, and back again. Challenge is, what do you do if the diaries don’t align and there is an empty window for a ride? Logic says one should ride with another, have someone there for a backup to help with a smashed chain or broken derailleur, hell just for someone to talk to while changing a tube. But we can’t always have this. So I go anyway, pack my kit and ride solo. It has its rewards, but it also has its challenges and along with it, some risks.
Setting off around New Year for an outing into Wellington's rugged Akatarawa Ranges, I had what I needed for a long ride. In terms of terrain, the Akatarawa Forest consists mainly of rugged hill country reaching an altitude of around 400-500m, though there are a couple of peaks that reach over 700m. In between, the hills are many with deep and steep-sided valleys covered in dense bush, and it is into these hills and valleys that I steered my trusty stead; a Giant Trance that was well-tuned and ready to roll. The backpack was light, loaded with a jacket, a Nokia phone, a Red Bull, two muesli bars, a banana and bike tools to cover most repairs on the trial. I had my things, but I was not prepared for what the trail and nature had to throw at me. And throw it did.
A little over an hour into the ride, I was atop of one of the Akatarawa Ranges, closest to the Kapiti Coast, when it started raining. The rain was not an issue at the time - I was warm and energized with full focus on finding a trail down that would offer me twists and turns, with pace, fun and excitement. I wanted to go down fast, so that’s what I did. Picking what looked like an obvious fire road, it soon became a single track and soon after that, became light scrub. For a full hour up-hill it was only 5 minutes to the bottom of a valley, and as I was to discover later, a valley further east than I had planned for. I was in the thick of the Akatarawa Ranges. Following my nose and instinct (which is always bound to get you into more trouble) I followed whatever trail I could find, and headed along the valley. Passing a wrecked old All Terrain Vehicle, I eventually found a sign that read Devil's Staircase. I knew it was going to be some time before I rode/walked out. What made this all the more challenging was that I had no map with me, and no idea where I was. I was on a trail for sure, but where did it head, and how long was it? Secondly I was wet, soaked to the bone. But I had to keep going, stay positive and this would also help me to stay warm.
I could have stayed out if I needed to, a night in the bush would have been cold, but manageable. What would have flipped the risk scale would have been an injury to self on the trail, or damage to bike that I could not repair. That would have drained the last of my energy, and I would have had to set up camp with no shelter, hoping to be found hours or days later.
Six hours later - and to this day I have no idea how many kms I did - I rode out on the other side of the Akatarawa Ranges into the Karapoti Road car park. I had accidently ridden part of the Karapoti Classic, and whilst appreciating the challenge of the great race, I had definitely not taken in the stunning scenery along the way. Since crossing into the Akatarawa Forest, I had not seen anyone - the rain had kept everyone away. At least another 10km from Upper Hutt, I rode along the road, happy that I had seen the ride through and was almost at civilization. I stopped at the first farmhouse I saw, where they kindly let me use their phone and offered a very welcome hot chocolate. On making contact with my family, it turned out they were just discussing whether to raise the alarm, and were more than ready to dispatch someone to pick me up, a good hour’s drive away.
So what did I learn? Be prepared, take a map if you don’t know the trail and check the weather forecast.