Christopher Reily drags himself out into the brisk kiwi morning, puts a pan of water in the fire and gets himself ready for the day. It’s 1862 and he’s a little late to the Otago gold rush, but he sees what others don’t and is confident he can find his share of the spoils. “Today’s the day” he proclaims aloud in a self-motivating yell, “today is the day all this bloody effort pays off”
The past few days of breaking trail into his new found stashes in the Dunstan area have taken their toll, but Reily wouldn’t have it any other way. His body hurts but every time he strikes gold that pain is washed away in the sluicing. There’s no better feeling than seeing results from a good day’s graft.
Reily was a visionary, a creative who was both tough and practical. Through stubbornness and experience, he found gold in the dirt of Central Otago at a time when the boom was thought to be over. He saw something different in Dunstan and he set the tone that started an influx of activity into the area of others looking to get rich off the harsh Otago terrain. He is a prime example of what can happen when determination and imagination combine with human endeavour.
The fabled route that now resembles the Dunstan Trail, was once an inhospitable and treacherous shortcut to the goldfields. People were met with treeless, brutal mountains and a scorching hot climate, but undeterred they forged on in the search of Reily’s riches.
160 years later and the rugged rock of the area is still as harsh and wild as ever, but now there’s a different kind of intrepid explorer trying to find their own riches, this time, however, the gold IS the dirt.
What those early prospectors did was lay the foundations of how we now interact with the mountains. The shanty towns that sprung up have stuck around, the work shifted from gold to fruit and farming and the mountains developed into a playground for those on two wheels looking to create their own slice of trail riding Valhalla.
The skill of a miner was in their ability to read the land and find minerals in the earth through perseverance and resilience, the modern-day biker has adapted the same passion and sprinkled it with a little adrenaline in order to seek out the best trails in the same desolate landscape. The exploratory, goal-driven mindset is the same, just the reward is slightly different.
Otago mountain biker Pete Miller and his mates are a modern-day tribute to those old timers. Whilst the extreme hardships aren’t on the same level, the willingness to push themselves to the max for the sake of some hero dirt harks back to the attitudes of Chis Reily and the trails that he put in all those years ago.
Pete knows the area like the back of his hand after years of searching. It would be all to easy to go ride some perfectly sculpted berms and jumps, and so with a group of mates they have been exploring the Central Otago backcountry for years, getting their hands in the dirt and bikes on tussock, rock slab and anything else they can find in search of the regions best terrain. And they’ve found it, away from the crowds these dedicated riders have taken on the Otago area as their own playground.
Just like a prospector surveying the land in front of them for dig sites, Pete looks at a chunk of inhospitable terrain and creatively figures out how to ride it. Sometimes it’s through experience gained over the years, or maybe it’s a gut feeling and the ‘knack’ of knowing where to go, either way it’s not done the easy way. One trait that will always continue, and Pete will be the first to agree,is that there’s no better feeling than cracking a beer at the end of the day and having a yarn after sweating it out on the trail, and I’m sure Reily would have been right there with him.
Central Otago has a unique geology that my inner child is convinced fell straight from Mars, and a climate that goes from scorched desert to tropical lushness. Its rolling flat top mountains are mostly made up of loose schist covered in tussock and fragrant thyme that, conveniently, hides the smell of sweating bikers. Look close enough and a whole world of winding trails snake their way into the depth of the mountains where these hardy bikers are riding technical trails to the subtle tones of the setting sun over the Pisa range.
According to Pete, the central goldfields make for amazingly unique riding due to the steep rock slabs and super technical sections that require maximum commitment to find and ride. He goes on to say that “it’s building trails with his mates in places that a lot of people wouldn’t fathom a bike can be ridden that motivates us. Trying to find these creative sections amongst the challenging terrain is pure adrenaline fueled fun and is our way to doff the cap to the history of the region”.
Bikes are more than metal and rubber, they are tools that connect us to the earth and allow exploration and fun to combine through expression. They bring people together, encourage escapism and will take you to places otherwise unreachable.
To quote a storyteller from back in the day, “Nothing is impossible when it’s a matter of finding gold” and that determined attitude still lives on today through those who play in the mountains.
There was a term used for miners who were struck by gold fever and couldn’t tear themselves away from prospecting in the mountains. Known as Hatters, they would spend a lifetime on the dirt road, drifting along in search of gold. In someway I feel that a lot of those who move to the mountains become Hatters, always looking for that next trail or place to explore, unwilling to leave the all-consuming beauty of the mountains.
They were colourful characters whose efforts live on through their creative naming of areas such as the ‘Knobbies’ and ‘Raggedy Mountains’, not to mention Roaring Meg, so named after a fiery grogshop owner you didn’t want to get on the wrong side of. The mtb community honours this humorous legacy to this day with the equally imaginative names given to bike trails in the area….’ Angry possum’ and ‘Rockapotomus’ are a favourite of Pete’s.
So here’s to the pioneering adventurers like ol’ Chris Riley. These tough buggers not only laid the physical foundations for us to enjoy the mountains but also the mindset to push ourselves past what’s comfortable and seek out new challenges in the great outdoors in pursuit of progression..
The miners have gone, but their spirit lives on through two-wheeled explorers such as Pete and his mates
Insta – Leon.butler1