It’s a cool morning, the weather is prefrontal. While really wishing to stay overnight on the trail, I elect to complete the trail in a day as the rest of the week’s forecast is for heavy persistent rain. I am dropped at the start of the ride by Andrew of St James Journeys; his Land Rover Defender seems like the perfect vehicle in this tough environment. I wave goodbye to him, and in a few short moments I enter the wilderness pedalling along a 4WD track towards a pass on the St James Range.
Beside me winds a clear babbling brook. My eyes follow its curves upstream towards its source near the skyline. Off to the side, behind a patch of beech forest, I spot a grand waterfall that cascades off a rocky terrace that is fed from the idyllic sounding tarn called the ‘Princess Bath’. It seems odd to have such a regal name for a backcountry lake. I don’t think there have been many princesses lazing about in those freezing waters.
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The track finds its way around the edge of the hillside, each curve revealing a little more of the landscape. Adventure lies ahead as I ride deeper into the backcountry. Just as the trail starts to climb towards the summit of Maling Pass I see a weathered-looking fence with tightly woven netting. During our drive to the carpark, I remember Andrew mentioning a historic rabbit-proof fence. This must be it as there are no other structures around. Rabbits were introduced as a game animal into this locality in the 1860s and rampantly turned into a pest species.
Cats, stoats and weasels were subsequently introduced to try to control the rabbits – all of which became pests themselves. Finally, this rabbit-proof fence was constructed in 1889 and spanned 125 kilometres from the main divide to the Pacific Ocean; this too failed. As I continue to rise above the failings of yesteryear on my way to the pass, the song I Know An Old Lady Who Swallowed A Fly is humming in my mind.
The last few hundred metres rounding the hill is like an orchestral crescendo with a rising pitch, accompanied with the cinematography of a scene straight out of the Sound of Music film. Here it’s the Southern, not the Swiss, Alps coming alive. Slow is the reveal of the unfolding grandeur as I reach the summit … dramatic scenery lives here at Maling Pass. I stop. I am short of breath from the climb coupled with the cool mountain air at 1308 metres.
The view west to the Spenser Mountains with their snowy basins must have been just as epic and the climb even more energy-sapping for early explorers Heaphy and Maling as they passed this way long ago. It’s a top spot. This really has a wow-factor with alpine crags, green forested valleys and the blue waters of the Waiau River sparkling far below. I might have said it out loud to no one – wow! I might have said it backwards – wow! I don’t linger long though as my body starts to chill and it is only the opening scene for the next stage of the trail ahead.
Freewheeling, I smoke down to the bottom of the valley where the trail becomes single track and warm air blows through meadows of daisies. They reach out, clipping my pedals as I glide past. This is where the trail starts to follow the river downstream, sourced from the hanging valleys that frame both sides of my shoulders. Soon I reach a trail junction; the sign says it’s a short detour to Lake Guyon Hut, so I go. Over a low brow, I ride down to a narrow lake. It’s in open country with a scattering of native forest along its shoreline. I ride beside the waters before reaching a cute backcountry hut.
It’s a classic 1960s-style Forest Service S81 four-bunk hut (as opposed to the six-bunk SF70) complete with a fireplace, mattresses and heaps of charm. Over a matter of 15 years, New Zealand government foresters built more than 600 of these little quarters for deer cullers. Most, like this one at Lake Guyon, still remain and are now managed by the Department of Conservation, dotted throughout New Zealand’s remoter locations. They are a simple, non-flashy, home away from home. This is a unique hut network like no other, and one which is firmly entrenched in Kiwi culture. I take a look inside. Yes, it’s standard layout all right, and it instantly brings back my own backcountry memories of such huts and adventures in other remote corners. I take a couple of photos and a waypoint to add it later as a ‘stop’ in the app.
Back on the main trail, I continue downstream to a place where the river squeezes through a tight gut in the bedrock. Here I cross a suspension bridge to the opposite bank and climb a small hill before whizzing back to the valley floor. The trail here is fast, and a driving wind blows me south to Pool Hut where I stop for a snack. ‘Pool’ may imply that is it is next to a river pool; however, this hut is high up on a grassy river terrace and far from the Waiau River. The hut is known locally as ‘Poolies Hut’ after its original owner Brian Pool, who along with several other locals, transported the hut to the site using an old St James Station army quad truck. Today this four-bunk hut, along with the cycle trail, is managed by the Department of Conservation.
Down off the river terrace I ride and over the McArthur Bridge where the Waiau River is now deep and swift. The trail continues downstream and as I climb up onto a river terrace I get a glimpse of the rapids below and then bid farewell to its flow as I turn eastward. After later crossing another suspension bridge, this time over the Edwards River, I reach the cute and cosy historic Scotties Hut. Formerly a musterers’ hut, I soon discover it has been modernised with internal plywood wall linings, giving it a fresh look and welcoming appeal. I meet a couple of other visitors who are spending the night here; older Kiwi folk who are undertaking the alternative clockwise loop of the St James.
They have a bit of gear too, with a rod and rifle; it soon becomes apparent from our conversation they are keen to make the most of the rivers and natural bounty of the area. Their bicycles are parked up outside and their rugged personalities fit into this place as if they themselves have been shaped by the surrounding landscape. Being two-thirds of the way in, if it wasn’t for the poor weather forecast, I would stay as the hut seems complete with a river to wash in and good company. Instead, I shelter briefly in the hut from the gusty winds while having a late lunch before I say my goodbyes and head off.
Cycling again, the wind is now my friend and the jacket is my kite. After a river ford I take out my map and I see that a kilometre up a side stream there’s a little red cross where ‘x’ marks the spot. I decide to explore the creek for geothermal water paying close attention for any sign of a path where others may have dropped down the steep bank. Soon the river terrace closes in and I see a small rock pool beside the creek. I test the water – it is hot and appealing. I strip off and enter the shallow pool which is sufficient to fully immerse and leave as little skin as possible for the hovering sandflies. At peace in the high country, I soak and enjoy the pulsing plumes of heat at my side that come from a submerged rocky ledge. This is a treat and true back-country escape. My skin starts to wrinkle and my muscles relax.
Back on my bike, wrinkly and rested, I start the last section of trail. It is a gentle climb up the Edwards with the next river crossing shallow as I near the head of its catchment. Once I reach the low Peters Pass the track surface improves, becoming smooth and well formed. The easy trail takes me quickly down to the historic St James Homestead where I finish my ride and complete the partial loop. As I reach the carpark I pass some rustic buildings and the remains of the homestead. The St James Station dates back to 1862 and was one of the largest sheep and cattle stations in the country. Today farming here has come to an end. Just over a decade ago the 78,000 hectare station was purchased by the government and secured in public hands for perpetuity.
I secure my bike on the rack in the carpark and enjoy a break to consider the trip. The ride is a long one if done in a day. If weather permitted I would have liked to have taken things slower, to savour the surroundings, and overnighted in old Scotties Hut. I found the trail surface variable as were the huts. I particularly liked the Forest Service hut at Lake Guyon for its lakeside setting, but old Scotties is equally fantastic if you like rivers. My day on the St James was a unique riding experience. It’s old-school single-track, and like the backcountry huts I passed and the blokes I met, it’s a bit rough and rugged but also genuine and true. There’s no fanciness on the St James but it will deliver a real backcountry ride if you so fancy.