Old World Ways
I scan the desolate landscape, spot the marker, then take the slither of singletrack cutting across the low lying scrub. This leads me into a narrow but smoothly carved drainage gully that snakes through the rock like an oversized marble run.
It spews me out onto a wide sandstone slab where the trail again funnels into a tight narrow path. Dropping steeply, this part of the descent commands deft brake control, flicking left then right through prickly bush before bottoming out at a tiny trickling stream. Given a second chance I might successfully negotiate the ditch on my bike, but on this occasion I clamber out on foot.
Rising up the bank, I emerge into a landscape that mixes verdant vegetation with discarded industry. Brick chimney stacks stand alone on the site of abandoned buildings, grass having recovered what once used to be floor. Heavy duty cables lie rusting in the mud and steel fragments of machinery, entwined with vines, litter small scrap piles.
Off to one side, a low mossy tunnel cuts the path of a former ropeway through the corner of a hill. Up along another track I can make out mine entrances in the cliff face. I pause for a moment to take in these intriguing surroundings. The scene evokes jungle clad Khmer temples, Mayan Pyramids or the set of an Indiana Jones film. Here, 600m above the Tasman coast of South Island New Zealand, lies an old abandoned world slowly losing itself to nature.
HOW DENNISTON AROSE
It was back in 1859 that prospector John Rochfort first touted that there was coal up here on this bare plateau, 18km northeast of Westport. Two confirmation surveys later, a mine was set up with a state of the art incline that carried wagons of coal down to a rail link at a pace that soon made the area New Zealand’s most productive coalfield.
The steep, treacherous incline was also initially the only mode of transport up to the plateau. To avoid commuting it daily, workers based themselves around the mines, forming the townships of Denniston, Burnetts Face, Coalbrookdale and Ironbridge. Hospitals, schools, hotels and recreational facilities sprang up with the settlements and by 1911 the plateau peaked with a population of around 1500.
Then the economic cycle turned. With the Great Depression of the 1930s the area fell into decline. The most easily reached coal had already been taken, government policy changed and safer access options encouraged many of an already dwindling workforce to relocate to sea level where the climate was better. By 1956 Coalbrookdale and Burnetts Face were deserted. The main town of Denniston was down to a population of 310.
Under state owned industry, coal extraction continued at Denniston until it was deemed uneconomic in the mid-1990s. Although there are still operations at the Cascade open cast mine some kilometres beyond the original sites, just seven scattered homes still stand in use on the plateau – only a few of those full-time.
THE POST INDUSTRIAL BIKE PARK
The upshot of this brief history of mines is that now, up here amongst the clouds, above the crashing surf, the pesky sandflies and the rain-forested slopes of the West Coast, there sits a remote but easily accessed, almost abandoned alpine area, criss-crossed with a network of gravel roads, rough trails, drill tracks and miner’s walking routes. Not only do these redundant paths conveniently make for excellent mountain biking trails but the dramatic post-industrial landscape and harsh-climate ecosystem adds a fascinating backdrop to set them against.
“This is such a unique environment,” a holidaying Wellington-based biker had enthused to me when I set out to ride in the area. “I don’t come from around here but I know I’ve got to make the most of the good weather to have a look about.”
According to Tim Simka, you don’t even need that. A member of the Buller Cycling Club and an engineering geologist by profession, he’s one of the driving forces behind establishing official trails here.
“Because of the sandstone bedrock, the tracks at Denniston are all-weather trails,” he tells me. “We’ve put in some drainage and taken tracks around the particularly boggy patches, but because it’s basically slick rock riding, you can ride up at Denniston in most conditions.”
And that’s a big bonus to riders on the wet West Coast.
“We had the Hokitika club come up this way one weekend and it really poured,” Simka says by way of example. “I told them it wasn’t good weather up on the plateau –no views or anything— but they were still keen. So we all went up in the rain. Some of the tracks were just flowing with water like a river but we were still able to ride them. Back in Hokitika, their trails were so boggy they hadn’t been able to ride for two weeks.”
During my first visit to Denniston a swirling mist had descended on the plateau to give it an otherworldly quality. Thankfully on this second occasion, two days later, I’m blessed with great weather. From the old Coalbrookdale settlement where I’d paused to breath in the ambience, I pedal along a flat, streamside section of singletrack with the afternoon sunshine on my back.
Along here old relics litter the land. Steel drums rust orange on the verge, clumps of concrete and discarded iron bands sit here, there and everywhere. In a way it seems preposterous. How can an industry create such a mess and then get away with so carelessly abandoning it, like a hoon’s dropped litter?
At the same time I revel in this juxtaposition of nature and the man-made. It’s all very atmospheric and reminds us of who is more powerful in the long-run.
And although industry (discarded or not) may blight far too much of the world, it has also opened up vast tracts of it – here in New Zealand especially. From the gum fields of the north to the hydroelectric schemes of Fiordland, it is through the exploitation of the earth’s resources that so much remote backcountry has been made accessible at all. I mean: just how many tracks, trails, roads into and across Aotearoa’s wildest areas simply wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for the greenstone carvers, the hunters, the gold diggers, the sheep farmers, the loggers or the ski industry?
These musings are all good and well as I pedal down the trail, but I learn what it really means to be biking in a once heavily-industrialised area when I puncture on a section of singletrack. Stopping to change the tube, I inspect the tyre and withdraw a long iron spike poking through the rubber.
THE PIONEER DAYS
Although the official tracks at Denniston have emerged in the last couple of years, riders have been biking on the plateau since MTBs first arrived in New Zealand.
“I started riding up there in 1986 after I first moved to Westport,” says Paul Comeskey who, like Simka, works both on the trails and for the government owned company Solid Energy. “Being in the mining industry, I was pretty interested in just looking around the place anyway but a few people were getting into riding at that time and it was just one of the places we tried out.”
“Looking back, the riding up there was pretty hard,” he continues. “The bikes just didn’t have the same technology they have today and the rocks and bumps made it pretty demanding. There was a bit of a lull when interest fell off –we stopped to have kids or whatever— but now with all the improvements in bikes, Denniston is a really good fun place to ride.”
Although others no doubt rode on plateau in between, it was around 2005 that Denniston re-emerged as a mountain bike destination for Comeskey and his work chums. He was part of a Solid Energy team entered for the Adventure Racing World Championships and because part of the event took place on the Denniston plateau –conveniently situated halfway between the Stockton mine where they work and their Westport homes— they’d been using it for training too.
“In 2006 when we finished the adventure racing, we had a bit more time and started talking about something more official up there,” he says. “When we approached the Department of Conservation they were only too happy to see us walk through the door.”
“It’s all worked out very well from our perspective,” says DOC Community Relations Programme Manager John Green, picking up the story in his Westport Office. “We’re all geared up here to cater for trampers but mountain biking is very new to the department. It’s grown so quickly, we’ve really had to bring ourselves up to speed.”
“The cycling community had been going up to Denniston and seeing what the potential was,” he continues, “There were already lots of roads and tracks in place but it made sense to have designated routes from A to B so a visitor new to the area knows where to go. Although they didn’t have to build too much new track from scratch, a lot of work has gone into the signage up there. It has to be adequate enough for when the cloud moves in and visibility is down to a few metres.”
Back on track after repairing my puncture, I come out on a gravel road near Burnetts Face. Having completed the Miners Track, I briefly investigate the steep, rocky final kilometre of the Drill Track before one of the marker posts for the Ropers Hotel route persuades me to carry my bike up some banking onto an almost hidden, little path. Along here, tucked away in a clearing in the bushes, I find the remnant chimneys of an old house, almost completely covered in mosses and other vegetation.
It’s hard to picture among the weeds and overgrown grass but, not so long ago, people used to live here. They’d cook here, eat here, sleep here. They probably used to call these very coordinates home.
Perhaps even more than the bumps, the adrenalin, the thrills, and the spills, exploration is what I love most about off-road biking. Despite a planned rendezvous with my girlfriend, Kate, waiting back down near the road to take some photos, there’s an urge of curiosity that tempts me further along the trail just to see what’s around that next corner.
I clamber up the ridgeline and remount the bike, planning to ride around just one more turn. I then target the next, and then the one after that, until I figure I might as well keep going until I rejoin the road a little further along. Sure, I’ll have a slightly peeved girlfriend to placate, but the sunlight is gorgeous, the vast sense of openness inviting and I want to know what it sounds like to stand alone on an abandoned plateau at dusk.
Over the top of the climb I freewheel to a halt and listen. The evening’s dead still, there are not many trees up here, but I nonetheless make out a little distant birdsong. Somewhere a long way off, a combustion engine faintly hums: a car down on the coast, a plane high above? Loudest of all, though are my inner and outer workings: my heart still pumping hard from the climb; my lungs engaging in long deep breaths; minute movements of my feet grinding on the gravel.
SPECTACLE IN THE SKY
Along with its delightful subtleties, Denniston is also outrageously spectacular. If I had bigger balls, a camera crew and a nu-punk music collection, I’d come up the plateau to shoot a freeride film. At the top of the old incline there are more drop-offs than an international airport. On a clear day, the coastal backdrop here is to die for.
That said, Denniston is geared to the trails rider. The old bridle track switchbacking down to the coast makes for a wicked downhill but it’s not officially permitted. Researching Denniston on an internet forum, I also came across folk who’ve descended the path of the old incline. With a near 45 degree gradient plummeting for a kilometre straight down the fall line, it’s not recommended. “I have the scars to prove it,” wrote one poster.
The closest to an official downhill route is the Mount Rochfort Track which offers a 500m vertical descent but only in exchange for an hour and half’s climb to the top of it. The Whareatea loop is “a great uphill with a roller coaster downhill” according to Simka but he readily admits most of the trails have more of a cross-country bent because it’s the type of riding that he, Comeskey and the few other trail workers are into.
“We’d like to have a jump park in the quarry or sort out a proper downhill track,” he says. “But to do that, we really need those sorts of riders to get involved with the trail building.”
On the DOC produced Denniston mountain bike tracks leaflet, there are seven fully signposted easy and intermediate routes between 3km and 11km to choose from, plus a number of other options that are not fully marked.
Asked what their favourite of these are, Simka mentions the Miners Track, Drill Track and Whareatea Circuit, while Comeskey says them all. They both also note that there are a lot more good unofficial tracks on the plateau and that perhaps more of these will get the full DOC endorsement treatment soon. Currently working out the options, family routes and more signage of historical, geological and ecological features may also be in the pipeline. “It’s such an interesting environment,” points out Comeskey. “Recreational riders really like to take their time looking around.”
But Denniston is just one of several exciting projects for West Coast mountain biking. Excitedly, Simka talks about a whole twenty year plan the Buller cycling community has drawn up. More tracks at Denniston might be supplemented by Solid Energy’s land rehabilitation work up the coast at Stockton. On an even grander scale, volunteers have recently been working on returning the long Lyell Ghost Road to a bikeable state after 100 years of disuse. And then there have been noises that the great Heaphy Track might finally be opened to mountain bikers this winter. “Combine all these with the Mackley Track and you have over 250km of great adventure riding in the area,” he says.
And it’s not only the mountain bikers who are excited about future plans on the West Coast. When I visit DOC, Green can’t help digressing from mountain biking onto a project that they and local development agencies hope will push Denniston and thus the general Westport area more firmly onto the tourist trail.
Using consultants who have worked on projects as grand as Te Papa, the World Expo and the Jewish Museum in Vienna, the Denniston Trust plans to develop a “quality attraction” that uses old infrastructure, trams and underground hi-tech audio-visuals to retell the story of mining at Denniston. “This is a really good opportunity for the area,” he says before reassuring that this development should have no negative effect on the mountain bike trails.
Meanwhile, back on my ride, my plans are a little less long-sited. I’m thinking of a final track to ride, a good nosh-up and then a solid night’s sleep back down on the coast. Since I’m going to be descending off the plateau, I plump on a route in the right direction. It’s named the Pig Track –so-called I decide because the full circuit (of which I only plan to ride half) incorporates a long section of road climb back up to the top.
My speculations change a couple of times as I embark on what starts as a rough 4WD track. Maybe it’s a pig because it teases you with its undulations or wrecks equipments with its relentless jolts, bumps and occasional bog patches. (I’m told tyre sidewalls wear out faster up here). One moment I’m riding along admiring how the track’s thin, acidic soil has eroded away to leave a pure bedrock surface; the next I plunge to a halt in hub-deep, gooey, golden mud.
For the most part, though, the route descends from one rock slab to another. At times I feel like a trials rider as drop follows drop after drop.
The sun is setting as I take the final leg of the track to join the sealed Denniston access road. After an afternoon exploring this old world, the near ghost town, the wild plateau and its excellent rough rocky trails, the smooth sinuous descent to the coast seems the perfect way to return to civilisation.
Christchurch (NZ), 2009
Photo: Kate Carney