Wally and Noreen were from the other
side of the Rainbow. Childhood sweethearts separated by
marriage to other people and reunited to spend their later
years together, they'd found their pot of gold and very
happy they were too.
Wally first introduced himself to
us when we first arrived in Hanmer Springs, a pretty alpine
style thermal springs resort two hours drive North from
Christchurch. "You cycling our beautiful country? Good on
you, where you off to next?" He was excited to hear we were
hoping to take the Rainbow Road, a 112km wilderness trail
from Hanmer to St Arnaud. It became clear that St Arnaud
was a place of great significance to this eccentric old
gentleman. For us, it looked like a fascinating shortcut,
a wild and beautiful route through mountainous back-country
and, best of all, avoiding a much longer way around with
the holiday traffic, unbearable at this time of year. Even
before we'd met Wally, we'd set our hearts on travelling
this legendary trail where 'vast screes spill from ridge
crest to valley floor in a lonely landscape.' Wally used
to take his boys shooting up the Rainbow and knew the country
well, "It's a tough trail and wild tussocky country, a hard
ride in an old van," he warned us, "If you try it, you'll
know soon enough whether you want to carry on or whether
it's too much for you."
We'd done our homework on the route,
and sought local information on its condition and viability.
All in all it sounded quiet, beautiful, wild, challenging,
possible but closed. The day we arrived in Hanmer a landslip
blocked part of the road closing it temporarily. The word
was that clearance was underway and bikes would be able
to get through within a few days so we took to the thermal
pools to wait it out.
Three days later we lost patience,
and packed up our bags to find out for ourselves what lay
the other side of the Rainbow.On our way out of town a familiar
brown Cortina estate overtook us, swerving in front and
mounting the pavement. A sprightly old Wally jumped out
grinning wildly, his spectacles reflecting the midday sun.
He was pleased to see us again and keen to introduce Noreen,
shuffling her out of the old car with pride.
Childhood sweethearts Wally and
"Heading on the Rainbow then? I
said to Noreen you weren't the type to be put off easily.
But if you change your mind there's a sealed road that'll
take you all the way to coast at Kaikoura. Good as gold.
You'd love it there." We blocked the road and chatted for
a while captivated by these sweethearts who had taken more
than forty years to get it together. As we made to set off,
Wally thrust a piece of paper in our hands with his address
and phone number on it, "Perhaps we can correspond. And
if you make it, say hello to St Arnaud for us. It's a very
special place. " And then in a parting whisper, "We had
our first intimate acquaintance there, you know, all those
years ago. The parents were there to chaperone but turned
a blind eye lucky for us." He grinned, waving us off and
beeping his horn as we cycled towards the start of the Rainbow.
It began with a tough 6km 600m climb
up the winding and gravelly Jack's Pass. The sun was oppressive
and a hot North Westerly wind was gusting in our face. As
the gradient increased our wheels began to lose traction,
spinning helplessly on the loose gravel, tyres spitting
shingle, caught between the upward thrust of our wasting
muscles and the downward pull of leaden buggies. Progress
was painfully slow but metre by metre, pushing, pulling
and pedalling, sweating, swearing and screaming, we made
our way up.
"Rainbow, what Rainbow?"
This road could drive a girl crazy
After a while we abandoned cycling,
left one bike in a ditch and together pushed the other up
the hill. After two hours we were 200m and 3km up when a
passing truck stopped us and asked where we were going.
"i wouldn't go that way," he said. "I've just come from
working on the Rainbow Road. It's piled with boulders. You'll
never make it with those." He gestured towards the buggies
and then looked more closely. "You haven't got kids in there?"
He looked startled. "Nah. You can't do that. A Chinese woman
tried it with a kid a while back. Kid was crook by the end,
lungs full of dust." He sped off, his tyres kicking back
an avenue of grime and dust, making us choke. "How many
Chinese women have you ever seen on a bicycle?" said Stuart
scathingly. But the seeds of doubt had been sown presenting
us with a real dilemma. Should we follow our Rainbow over
Jacks Pass, conquering Island Saddle's 1347m pass on the
way to St Arnaud. Or should we turn back for an extra seven
hilly days riding, risking life and limb on the holiday
highways, never to find out what lies at the end of the
Rainbow. We called a family meeting but two of us were fast
asleep in buggies. We sat on the gravel exhausted and unsure
of which way to turn.