'The Lost World'

Working in the film industry is completely time consuming and usually leaves little time for cycling. Luckily it can also be unpredictable. In December of 1998 I unexpectedly found myself having a mountain biking holiday in Southland...

The trail begins in October at an unlikely spot–I was having dinner at the Pitt Street Brasserie in Auckland, when I heard for the first time that Steven Spielberg was coming to New Zealand to film the opening scenes of the sequel to the film Jurassic Park – entitled The Lost World. Little did I realise that a couple of weeks later I would be employed as the New Zealand Art Director and flying down to Te Anau to meet the Production Designer, Rick Carter. After a whirl wind tour of Fiordland I was back in Auckland beginning to prepare for the invasion of 100 odd Americans and a few of the usual dinosaurs. In 3 days we had helicoptered all over the Southern Lakes district, and recced all the shooting locations for the scheduled scenes. I saw some pretty damn fine single track from the air, mostly in Fiordland National Park, verbotten territory for mountain bikes–not that I was thinking of riding it anyway, no, No, NO.

On the 25th November I was back down in Te Anau for good, starting the final preparations for the shooting, scheduled to begin in mid December. Over the next 7 days we gradually geared up, Art Department crew were arriving from all over New Zealand, and equipment and props were trucked into Te Anau and assembled in our shed. During this period I crossed the Southern Alps many times getting to Deep Cove on Doubtful Sound–to be the centre of our operations. The Wilmot Pass is accessed from West Arm (site of the power station) on Lake Manapouri, and was only discovered in 1897, it is the second lowest pass over the Great Divide – fact junkies. It’s also a fine climb and a fast descent – 42 km return, accessible by the regular tourist ferry service from Manapouri.
Anyway we were getting on well with pre-production, local helpers were starting, we were transporting vehicles over to Deep Cove, and the first lot of seppos were leaving for New Zealand the next day, when suddenly, on Tuesday 3 December:

7:30 pm –a phone call from the States “It’s all off! Spielberg’s not coming”.
7:33 pm –incredulous discussion.
7:43 pm –depression.
7:52 pm –started drinking.
8:15 pm –felling better.
10:01 pm –couldn’t care less.

4:30 am –beer, champagne, vodka, ice cream and cigars all finished, went to bed.
4:33 am –the room was definitely spinning
10:22 am –felt well enough to get up.
10:26 am –vomited in Lake Te Anau
10:27 am –back in bed.
4:29 pm –got up unassisted, had had a nice rest!

So later that evening down at the local Italian Restaurant (long waits a speciality) the Location Manager, Murray said “do you really want to do some mountain biking?’, to which I said “Well, there’s lots of mountains around here, lets do it!” Murray is not a bad bloke for an Ozzie, my age (forty something not too much), triathelete, route finder for this years Eco Challenge in Queensland, fit as a shit-house rat etc, etc. Next step was to make our plans–here we were in Te Anau, unemployed, with accommodation and vehicles–the chance of a lifetime for a JAFA. I had cleverly trucked my old Avanti Competitor down to Te Anau, disguised as a piece of incredibly important film equipment. Murray had cleverly left his bike under his house in Cairns! First step find a bike. The owner of the the local gym offered a snazzy hybrid bike with slicks–no thanks. Off to the bike hire place. Here the lady sold us with the words “some guy rode ten miles on this baby once”. With a track record like this how could Murray refuse the aging steel Giant. The tires turned out to hold air rather well and the gears performed faultlessly–apart from the ‘comfy’ seat and about 10 lbs excess baggage it was perfect. A couple of bottle cages gaffer taped on, and a particularly dorky helmet and we were ready to go.

First ride–the Trailer.
We drove out to the Mavora Lakes turn-off, and left our Forerunner looking lonely at the intersection. Lovely spring weather, sunny with a wee nip about. The smooth gravel road undulates gently through shady beech forest, and soon we were at the South Mavora Lake. The road turned into 4WD territory and we quickly over took a Range Rover having a race with a Hilux ute. Mountain bikes 1, cars 0. It was great to feel the soft dark mud flicking up–sure beat filming a bunch of poxy old dinos! Disaster; the road turned into the lake beach–small soft round slippery pebbles. It was just ridable, but much easier to walk. We were soon overtaken by the stink pots. Just for the record the Toyota was now leading. Mountain bikes 1, cars 1. At the end of the beautiful North Lake the track became nice gravelly double track, rocky in parts–as it was the South Island. The cars had trouble with a ford and we reclaimed the lead (2:1). We sped down the hills and shot (well poetically) up them, playing ‘guess the best rut’ to cross the numerous side streams. In all we crossed 22 streams each way, all but a couple ridable. After an easy ride of about 25 km up the Maroroa River Valley we reached the Boundary Hut, The Toyota got in just before us, the Rover just after (53:13). The hut is as far as you can legally ride. Eventually the walking (what's that?) track reaches the Greenstone River, and on to the Hollyford.
We enjoyed a leisurely lunch on the bank of the river, enjoying the huge vista of the snowy Livingstone Mountains to the west and the rocky Thomson Mountains to the east. It certainly made a change from muddy old Riverhead Forest. Then back to the car, getting faster and faster as we got nearer, and ending with the obligatory donuts. A great appetiser. I reflected that the rocky nature of the South requires shocks for comfort if not speed–something that apparently Murray’s bum agreed with.

Second ride–the Interval.
The next day Murray said he was busy (tired?) so I decided to do some secret training. I drove out past the Mavora lakes along the Mt Nicholas Road to a hut beside Black Spur Creek–great names in the South, very Zane Grey. Throwing a leg over I rode along the smoothly gravelled Von Road (named after N. von Tunzelmann) in the direction of Auckland (that is to say north). I must say that although this was a completely on-road ride, the smooth river pebbles they chuck on the path closely resemble marbles to one used to crushed basalt, and I was enjoying a small amount of blood trickling down my knee by the bottom of a lovely 3 km descent down to the Von River. I scuttled along pushing my big chain ring against a strong hot wind, talking and singing to myself, and occasionally talking and singing to cows. At the picturesque Old Nicholas Station I paused to get out of the wind, oil my chain and eat half a packet of Shrewsburys. Continuing across Station Burn, a real wide ford–why did I bother oiling my chain? After a short rise the road suddenly drops away and the beautiful blue view of Lake Whakatipu opened up ahead. I whizzed down to the shore at Mt Nicholas Station shouting at the top of my head–God knows why–possibly I was completely mad! Mt Nicholas was bizarrely deserted, lots of animals and the odd piece of agricultural stuff but no people. All the farmers must have been inside having their Sunday roast. No matter, I had the other half a packet of Shrewsburys and enjoyed the view of the Dart and Rees River valleys and associated mountains at the head of Lake Whakatipu. In the distance was Queenstown, but nothing would have made me swap my flat coke and paddock for a mochaccino at Moa. Gathering big black clouds sent me back on me bike for the climb back to the car. At the head of the valley I stampeded a flock of sheep and was soon driving ahead of me what seemed like every sheep south of Nelson; eventually one hooked the rest and they left the track. The wind had strengthened, but unbelievably– it was still behind me! In what seemed like no time I was back at the hut, hot, very sweaty, sunburnt and happy. Getting on for 5 hours on a public road and I only saw one other vehicle, an old Holden Belmont parked up near a trout pool.

Third ride–the Main Feature.
This was the ride we had apparently planned while slightly lifted by the influence of alcohol. Early on a Saturday morning we loaded our bikes into a fizz boat at Pearl Harbour, at Manapouri. It was a beautiful clear blue, already hot day, the lake was like a mill pond. Our enthusiastic and helpful skipper, Reg Calder of Adventure Charters, Manapouri (well deserved plug) sped us to the South Arm of Lake Manapouri–about half an hour at 150 hp! Soon we approached the beach, furiously rubbing sand fly repellent on everything exposed, and smearing sun screen over the top. Reg wistfully said “I should come with you” but he had cleverly left his bike under his house at Manapouri. Laden with water, maps and Shrewsburys we assembled our machines and cheerfully waved the sad Reg a farewell. We turned inland and left the lake and civilisation behind, heading south up a sandy road beside the Grebe River, the jagged Hunter Mountains to our left.

Soon we came to a large concrete bridge across the Grebe with a DoC sign introducing the Percy Pass. This a sight for sore eyes–the car symbol crossed out and beside it the little MTB rider going downhill! Up we rode through more beech forest–honestly a few pinus radiata would make a nice change. The dirt road pleasantly follows the Percy Stream, then suddenly turns UP the Percy Saddle, and UP and UP it goes in a rough white rocky switch back into the snowy peaks and the blue sky. It’s like an unsealed Alpe d’Huez, with no guard rails. We panted up the climb, eventually the steepness and looseness of the surface defeating us. After this we pushed our bikes, and finally with screaming calves left our bikes near the top of the road and pushed on carrying only water bottles. The road finally peters out and a track continues up a scree slope to the saddle. On the other side is the road zig-zagging down to the power station at West Arm. This route was built to service the power lines from Manapouri Power Station, heading south to Tiwai Point. After some stretching and some lying down (rather more of the latter) we reclaimed our bikes and descended the way we had come–at first very gingerly, There’s something about narrow paths, loose rocks, 100 m drop offs and no one within yonks to make me rather careful. As we came down the Pass the road improved and my speed increased, I could see Murray on the switch back below going pretty fast–the weight was finally paying off. We regrouped along the valley with burning ears and eyes streaming tears from the cold air. It was the traditional 90 minutes up, 15 minutes down!

We sat on the Grebe Bridge and had lunch, the sun sparkling on the river. Then we remounted and continued gently climbing up the Grebe Valley, at first through beech forest beside the river. Gradually the road became rockier and climbed up, becoming steeper, and eventually leaving the river. A zig-zag developed and we left the forest behind, it got hotter and I left Murray behind. “Climb at your own pace” I helpfully shouted as he got off to rest his legs for a bit. Eventually we arrived at a lookout, and sat in the shade for a rest, by now ignoring a fine view back down the valley to Lake Manapouri and down to the Shallow Lakes far below us. After a flattish section the road narrows and then really goes up in earnest. I never went above third gear for about an hour, as I once again climbed more switch-backs up towards the Borland Saddle. Finally I reached the pass, and sat down to wait for Murray. Soon he came puffing up–it was really very hot. The week before it had been snowing here. The view from the saddle is magnificent, down the Grebe to the West, down the Borland Valley to the East, and Mt Burns towering to the South. Just as we prepared to leave a Swedish tourist arrived on a trail bike. He was navigating from a small-scale map of New Zealand, and thought he was on his way to Milford Sound–close but no cigar! His bike wouldn’t start so we gave him a push, and off he went, rather grandly but in completely the wrong direction.

All that remained, as the sun was getting lower, was to descend down to Borland Lodge. What a descent, smooth and twisty, the road follows the South Branch of the Borland Burn. Whooping with delight to be freewheeling we whizzed down to the road gate at the Lodge – 17 km all downhill, in under 25 minutes. When we got to the Lodge our co-worker Amanda was waiting for us, well actually asleep in the back of the Forerunner–she’d had a hard day poor lamb. Murray and I had only ridden 70 odd km, AND climbed about 1,700 vertical metres. We talked our way out past the police road-block (it was the Borland Ball that night) and Amanda drove us back to Te Anau by way of Monowai (where curiously all the streets are named ‘Turbine’, Turbine Way, Turbine Crescent, Turbine Blvd etc.)–a good day, we’d covered a lot of big country.

The nice people at the Quality Hotel were now wanting their room back so I packed up, said my farewells (no more venison and Speights pies–a Te Anau delicacy– for morning smoko) and drove to the big smoke–Queenstown, that is. Once in Queenstown I looked up some old friends, and having gained a place to kip, returned my shiny new rental car. Not one scratch in three weeks–a personal best. The last time I had stayed in Queenstown was in 1987, while working on the Lucasfilm Willow, so I saw a few changes. In them ol’ days mountain bikes hadn’t even got to New Zealand!
As I only had a couple of days I thought I would go to some places I hadn’t been before. The first day I whipped out along the Glenorchy Road, and turned up towards Moke Lake. Bit of a grunt, this, for a sealed climb. It was a beautiful day so I continued down Moke Creek Valley and on through Ben Lomond Station. No one was about except for a few quadzillion sheep. Then the trail went past the ex town of Seffertown, and continued down the Moonlight Creek Valley. Onto Moonlight Track and down the Shotover River Valley, I found this a bit technical to ride more than about 50%. Getting back to civilisation I had a beer and a pie at the Arthurs Point Pub and was soon home via Queenstown.

My appetite having been wetted I ventured further afield the next day. A glorious summer day (yes, really hot) saw me on the road to Arrowtown. Finding Chinatown I crossed the Arrow for the first time and headed up the Arrow River Valley towards Macetown. Once again I didn’t see anybody all day–certainly not one of the full suspended bikes that frequent the Mall. After a while I got blase about crossing the river, eventually clocking up 52 crossings–only successfully riding 4 or 5, but had fun trying. It was just as well it was good drying weather! On reaching the old gold mining ghost town I had lunch (yes, Shrewsburys) and explored Macetown a bit. Going home I discovered it was down hill, AND I had a tail wind–yeehah. Also no longer having to look at the map at every bend in the river, I got back to Arrowtown in less than half the time it took to get upstream. I had another lunch in Arrowtown and talked with a Swiss cyclist who was touring New Zealand. He seemed to like climbing and said that the Swiss Alps were boring, not like the really interesting New Zealand mountains. After dissecting Rominger, Zuelle, Richard and Dufaux we parted our ways. I took the back (Malaghan Road) way to Arthurs Point, and had another beer. Thirsty work–biking.

The next day I packed up my bike so that the Ansett baggage handlers wouldn’t break it, and flew home to be reunited with my family–and Colnago C-40 road bike. That was that–my unexpected but well deserved South Island mountain biking holiday (all in all 345 km). Little did I expect to be back in Bluff four weeks later for a fishy commercial–but that’s another story.

Back to the top