A 1319km bikepacking race from Cape Farewell to Slope Point through places bikes just shouldn’t go. Why does that appeal so much? I’ve no idea but it does, so when I heard that the race was being put together I got excited. A few months later it was all go. On 14 February 37 of us were lined up at Cape Farewell to tackle the largely unknown. Large tracts of back country would be covered and then there was the 30-50km of hike-a-bike. No one had done this before. Questions were swirling around; Was it possible? How long would it take? How much food do we need to carry?
Day one and the last 150km looked like the easy days, on paper at least, so the pace was quick out of the blocks. I had a plan to ride through the first night, catching an hour’s nap somewhere, then having a decent sleep the following night. Plans don’t always, well, go to plan. Later that afternoon I stopped for a powerade and ice cream in Tapawera. As it turns out this was a bad choice. It just sat in my guts for hours and I felt terrible, with no energy and a racing pulse. There was nothing else to do but lie down and rest, and it was only hour 10. Even after a rest I was walking hills that should have been easy to ride. Luckily after a few hours I came right and managed to get back into the rhythm. But there was no way I was pulling an all-nighter so I camped at 1am. This set the pattern for the four nights sleep that I had; stop, set the alarm for 3 1/2 hours later, set up camp, sleep, pack up and be on the bike 4 hours after stopping. Sleep wasn’t an issue coming but funny thing was I always woke up before my alarm went so was generally getting 2 3/4 hours a night, and it felt like plenty.
Day 2 saw the start of the hike-a-bike sections. Firstly, there was the food drop to pick up at Boyle Village. This was like Christmas, with creamed rice and peaches to eat while packing all the food on the bike. The next available resupply was in Methven, some 250km away, but I had the feeling I was carrying way too much.
Once the hiking started things slowed down. The Hope-Kiwi track was incredibly frustrating with all the on off action to get over windfall and through gullies. And even after crossing the saddle the downhill didn’t give any respite, with as much climbing as descending. Things only became rideable once we hit the Hurunui river flats.
The next hike-a-bike was a biggie over the Dampier range. 800mt of climbing, a few km of sidling though chest high tussock followed by an 800mt decent, and only a faint ground trail to follow. We were advised not to do this in the dark given the difficulties with navigation. But who listens to advice, arriving at the bottom of the climb at 8.30pm I decided to crack on with it. It was way too early to stop. I thought there were four others in front of me and a whole bunch behind. This was an opportunity to stay in touch with the leaders and get a break on the chasers.
Just as I was starting the climb another rider, Hedley Wilton, showed up and decided to come with me. Safety in numbers after all. Hedley wasn’t planning on getting all the way over that night but I was focused on getting to Anderson’s Hut on the other side. I figured six hours should do it. I had no plan to carry the bike except put it across my shoulder, but with the mountain of food I had on board this was near impossible. I struggled up the hill pushing and pulling my bike, fighting it through the tussocks and rolling it where I could. It was brutally hard work that didn’t let up. Hedley on the other hand had a simple harness system and carried his bike the whole way. I definitely had harness envy. Some of the down was really fun riding though and I made sure I got the full benefit of that.
So at 2.30am we stumbled to the bottom of the hill and into Anderson’s hut only to find Ollie Whalley and Steve Halligan sleeping outside in the rain. Now the hut’s not flash, the door doesn’t shut, there’s only two bunks, knock them or hit them all the dead spiders fall down. But it’s dry, the mattresses are relatively clean and it’s all I need.
I’m not sure if we woke up Ollie and Steve but they got up to start there day while we went to bed knowing they had a four hour lead on us.
Next day started cold and wet. Rain and a southerly made us glad we’d come over the tops at night, it would have been just miserable up there that morning. Instead we were sheltered in the valley from the worst of the weather. But I can’t complain about the weather, two hours later it stopped raining and although it stayed cold for the day it was dry. This was the only cold day we had during the whole race. The scenery made up for this while riding though Mt White Station. It was massive, 50km from Anderson’s Hut to the Highway, massive gravel escarpments, river flats and towering peaks made a vista worth the struggle to see.
Turns out Hedley and I were similarly paced and we rode together for the next day and a half. He was a quicker riderbut I stopped less and slept a whole lot less that he wanted. So we went over Cass Saddle together. I found this section the toughest hike-a-bike. The saddle is relatively low but the track through the bush is steep with big steps in places. It was just plain hard work. This was rewarded with some sweet single track on the other side, before hitting the river flats and grovelling down a bouldery four-wheel drive track all the way to Lake Colleridge.
Turns out my pre-race timings were well out. I was planning a resupply at Methven but given we rolled through at midnight that wasn’t an option. Lucky that I had over catered and had enough food to get me through the next big hike-a-bike over the Two Thumb Range to Tekapo. So we passed through Methven and started my least favourite section, the Canterbury plains. Although flat and easy they are boring and it’s hard to stay focused. Camp that night wasn’t ideal, but we managed to find a quiet stop for a four hour break.
A few hours into the next day Hedley was feeling pretty average and dropped off. I was thinking I’d see him later in the day but it wasn’t to be. Little did I know he was feeling pretty cooked and had a decent rest at Royal Hut in the Two Thumb. So I carried on alone up the Rangatata valley, into Mesopotamia Station and over the Two Thumb.
Alone except for my increasingly sore bits, namely my chaffing which was getting worst by the hour. This led my body to become more disattached from my mind. It’s a strange feeling when you start thinking of body parts as other entities…but I digress.
Two Thumb Range was a highlight. There was absolutely amazing riding and equally brutal rough hike-a-bikes. At this stage I’m thankful for my rohloff hub and wonder how many derailleurs will get smashed being dragged through here. What’s a bike even doing here anyway? The place is so remote and isolated that it feels like you could be the only person left out there, except I knew I wasn’t. At the start of the big hike-a-bike I could see another rider shouldering their bike high up the tussock face. I arrived at that point an hour later, it took another six hours to catch him.
Reaching Stag Pass was just amazing. At 1900mt it’s the high point of the route, scree and tussock land falls away on all sides. Mt Cook is right there, this massive bulk sitting above lake Tekapo and high above the surrounding peaks. Now the course notes promised a sweet downhill. Well the course notes lie, after sidling over a screefield the downhill ridge is gained, and it starts out very sweet indeed…but alas it doesn’t last. Soon enough the tussock arrives and the flow goes. I can’t see the trail so don’t know what’s underneath and it becomes very stop start. Eventually it drops into the river and it’s back to grovelling down bouldery riverbed and through matagauri thickets for what seemed like forever. Luckily this came to an end just before dark and some sweet single track followed to lead us into Tekapo.
Just before Tekapo I caught up with the rider I’d seen on the hill. Turns out it was Martin, the superfast Cech, with a broken bike and shoe. His tyre was held together with duct tape and the sole of his shoe had broken. Not to mention he’d run out of food four hours earlier because Methven was shut. Needless to say, Martin was stopping in Tekapo for the night. I still had plenty of food and decided I could get to Otematata before resupplying.
The pre-race thinking was I could do a final push from Tekapo to the finish, after all it was only 530km away and I’d done that distance in one hit before. But it was too early to stop so I carried on and finally camped at Lake Pukaki at 3.00am. By this stage I knew it was only Ollie Whalley in front of me and Maprogess showed me that he was camped at Pukaki as well. As I climbed into my tent I heard his bike roll past on the gravel. What I didn’t know is that I’d woken him up when I arrived. Thinking I’d ridden on through and was making the final run to the finish, he got up and started chasing me. It wasn’t until he was two hours down the road that he realised I’d stopped.
I cut my sleep short that night, down to 2 1/2 hours, but it was still 7am before I finished my chores and rolled out of camp. There was 490km to go, Ollie had a four hour lead, I wasn’t that optimistic that I’d peg any of that back. I was very aware that Steve Halligan had pulled an all-nighter and had left Tekapo about the same time I got going, so the pressure was on.
This day started really well, it was a beautiful morning and the scenery was amazing while passing around Lake Benmore to arrive in Otetamata at about lunchtime. This was the first shop I’d been in since Tapawera so it felt like such a treat, pies, hotdogs, fried chicken, coke, bananas and ice cream…it was so good and I rolled out of town feeling pretty satisfied.
But the next section nearly cooked me. It was only 60km across the Hawkdon Range, but there was 2600mt of climbing in that, it was hot and it was steep. One section was 26km from a stream up the ridge to the high point, and it wasn’t all rideable. Brutal doesn’t even begin to describe it. So what I thought would be a seven hour stretch turned into 10 hours of hard work. But the sunset was amazing and experienced from up high with me arriving at the highpoint just on dark. It was through here that I saw one of my stranger sights. Walking up a hill at 2kph, leaning into the bike, I saw two skinks on the rocks and they were getting it on, all tied up in knots. It was a while before they realised I was there and untangled themselves and disappeared into the scree. From the high point the first 800mt’s of the decent into the Ida Valley wasn’t quite the whoopee I was hoping for, deep loose babyheadrocks over a hard packed base, survival riding at its best.
After crossing the Ida Valley the route headed into Lord of the Rings country around Poolburn reservoir and Lake Onslow. It was a shame to be doing this at night but in some ways it was a pleasure to see it in a different light, and the dawn light was incredible.
Through this section the mind and body started doing some strangle things. My chaffing was getting chronic and although sitting on the seat wasn’t such an issue once I’d settled, getting on and off it hurt like hell. But the mind disassociated itself and I heard myself having a conversation that went something like this; Left ass, “I’m sore, I need to get off this seat”
Right ass, “Me too, can we stop”
Mind, “No we can’t, there’s still 250km to go, then we can stop”
Right ass, “that’s not fair”
Left ass, “well we’ve come this far, may as well put up with it a bit more”
Right ankle, “I’m sore now as well, I’d like to stop”
Mind, “Oh quite your snivelling you lot and just get on with doing it”
On reflection this isn’t quite right but at the time it didn’t seem that strange at all, just the usual sort of conversation really. Funny thing was that I was actually feeling pretty awake through here and really enjoying the riding. But I do love this part of the country.
But it wasn’t to last. Things started unravelling a bit just after Lake Onslow. Climbing away from the lake with the rising sun behind me I was stopped by a mob of sheep being moved so I took the opportunity to get off the road and do some chores, eat, lube, etc. Surprisingly there was cell coverage so I checked Maprogress. I wasn’t surprised to see ollie had put a good lead on me and short of some disaster I wasn’t going to get it back. Equally surprising to see was that looking back up the course there was no one within 10 hours. The pressure was off. That’s not necessarily a good thing. I lost focus and urgency about this time and didn’t get it back for another 100km.
The farmer finally came along and was a bit grumpy I’d held his sheep up. I was a bit grumpy that he was grumping at me, especially with being up for 27 hours at this point, so we grumped at each other. Once the grumpy introductions were done we had a good old chat about everything from sheep to fishing to hydro storage batteries (the future of Lake Onslow). Then we finally parted like long lost mates.
So from Lake Onslow it looks like a massive decent into Southland. Looks can be deceptive, this ‘decent’ is 45km and has 850mt of lumpy climbing in it. Needless to say I was pretty happy to hit the rail trail for the final 30km into Lawrence and a much needed milkshake.
Mentally for me Lawrence marked the start of the end. There was only 150km to Slope Point, and although there was another 2100mt of climbing none of it seemed that brutal. And Clinton was only 60km away so there was another ice-cream opportunity.
Turns out I’d been lulled into a false sense of security. 150 lumpy km on top the 340km I’d done since sleeping wasn’t a walk in the park. Through the first 40km I spent a fair bit of time on the phone to Karen (my wife) while the headwind slowly built. We resolved the problems of the world before I finally got back into focus and decided to get off my ass…as best I could anyway.
Toileting duties and cold drinks took longer than they should have in Clinton but I finally got away at 8.00pm (riding time…37hr and counting). 90km to Slope point, 4 ½ hours on a good day? Not such a good day today. On leaving Clinton the wind picked up some more and I was down to 8-10kph for the next two hours. Surely it wasn’t going to take 10 hours…
Finally the wind dropped, the hills got smaller and the k’s started disappearing a bit quicker…but the sleep monster was coming on quick. The first thing to go is always your vision and it finally happened around midnight on a fast gravel decent. I’d already been seeing double but riding fast downhill without being able to focus on anything just seemed like a recipe for disaster, even if the finish was only 40-50 km away. Luckily I had enough presence on mind to realise this and pulled off the road, put my down jacket on, set my alarm of 25 minutes then curled up on the ground. I was out like a light and didn’t wake up until my alarm rudely cut though my foggy brain. Time to get going again.
And that was that really, cutting out the last of the course was spent reflecting on what had passed in the last five odd days. It was mentally draining, physically brutal, amazingly rewarding and incredibly satisfying.
So at 2.58am I roll down the final hill and through the paddock to the lone beacon at Slope Point. I’m not surprised but the place is deserted except of a stiff south-westerlyblowing in from the southern ocean. I manage a smile for the selfie then head for some shelter and sleep.
After 45hrs of riding I wasn’t to keen on the 15km ride back to Curio Bay, but I was keen on a shower and some real food in the morning so there wasn’t much option. This 15km turned into a festival of mind tricks.
But more on the aftermath next time.