It's a temperamental January afternoon in Blenheim, with the weather not quite sure whether it's going to cloud over or stay sunny, and I'm keen for an opportunity to get out of the house on an adventure, no matter how small. I need to wait for my wife to finish talking to her mother on the phone before we can set off, and I need to bear in mind the capabilities of my six year old daughter. Allowing for time and ability, I have a cunning plan to explore the Black Birch Track.
Several times driving up the Awatere Valley, we've passed what looks like a DOC sign on a farm gate, and I've read about a mountain bike and tramping track, but I've never been able to find out a great deal more about the location, as DOC's website seems to be remarkably sparse on information. I think I know where to go, but I need to suitably convince the family. A block of Whittaker's chocolate in my camera pack, and my daughter's bike in the car, with the promise of chocolate indulgence at the end of some exertion is enough to convince her. My wife is a bit more dubious, but there's nothing like a Sunday drive.
We set off over the back road through Taylor Pass through to the Awatere Valley, the drive itself a bit of a mini-adventure on the unsealed road that winds its way up to the pass then drops away steeply on the Awatere side. We're soon on the sealed Awatere Valley Road, and after almost endless vistas of vineyards broken by the occasional pine shelter belt, we arrive at the paddock I remember, sure enough with a DOC sign on the gate. At just over 30km from home, it's a similar distance from Blenheim to Picton.
We get my daughter's bike out of the back and lift it over a style into a flat farm paddock. The sign says it's 2km to the start of the DOC land, through farmland. My daughter finds the track mostly easy going as we cross the paddock of short, dry grass, except for a few areas with larger stones on the track, and soon leaves us behind then waits for us to catch up. At the end of paddock we have to pass through a gate and the farm track turns north. From a high terrace above the Black Birch Stream, a rugged vista opens up before us. To our left across the stream, we can see the lush green of vineyards on river terraces, while in front of us the rugged bush-clad contours of the Blairich Range rise up. To our left, the Black Birch Range rises above the vineyards. There's a steep descent to the stream, and my daughter is nervous about falling off, but wants to give it a go on her bike. Eventually, she musters enough courage to give it a go, and rides her brakes to the bottom in a cloud of dust. From there, the farm track is pretty easy going, although we have to pass through a herd of cattle who are rather vocal, but fortunately also rather timid. A lone sheep in the middle of the herd seems to be either lost or having an identity crisis.
Having made our way through the bovine population, we reach a large concrete structure with some pipes, and a sign with a severe warning against polluting the stream water in any way as it is used as a domestic supply for the Awatere Valley. I find this somewhat incongruous as we watch cattle at the water's edge upstream of the sign, and we have had to dodge cow pats, like giant sloppy land-mines as we follow the track. To avoid human contamination of the waterway, a nice public convenience of the long-drop variety is provided, with a large cow pat right outside the door.
We make our way through a gate with a DOC sign on it, and loud vocalisations of cows begin to fade behind us as the track soon narrows to the point it's mostly only wide enough to walk single file. Kanuka trees begin to grow increasingly close, and we notice an abundance of ferns. Officially it's a mountain bike track as well as a walking track, but as I walk I think it must be necessary to possess a certain degree of insanity to want to cycle this track, as there are places where a few centimetres to the left leads to a drop of probably about five metres to the chattering stream below in its shadowy fern lined gorge. On foot, it feels perfectly safe, but bumping around on a bike over this uneven ground with little margin for error does seem a bit risky. Obviously my daughter feels no such fear, as it takes a great deal of persuasion to finally convince her to leave her bike under a kanuka tree and continue on foot.
Although the path is narrow in places, it is not difficult, with only a few places where the gradient becomes steeper for a short distance. There's a mix of dry grass and bracken in the more open areas, while under the tall stands of kanuka in damper places a mass of other ferns. Sadly, I see dense mats of Hieracium in many places where the noxious weed has made itself very much at home. We see a few piwakawaka flitting around and a lone kāhu circling overhead. A few times we have to gingerly step over muddy patches in the track even during this dry period of the year.
The afternoon is getting on, and as we walk, there are gradually more and more kanuka trees around us till finally we come to a sort of crossroads in thick kanuka forest where a DOC sign indicates a mountainbike track that climbs up to Blairich Ridge, or a tramping route that continues to Black Birch Bivvy. At an estimated three and a half hours to Black Birch Bivvy, we think it's time to call it an afternoon, and sit down on a fallen kanuka branch and bring out the promised chocolate and some water.
We retrace our steps uneventfully, this time looking to the south, and the dry hills of the Awatere, certain that in future we'll be back.
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