Words & Images: Tom Powell

Fear is an unpredictable thing, an emotion that comes from a very primal urge, it can be created by something very real, and just as easily manufactured in our minds, as something that doesn’t even exist.

Usually, a more powerful type of fear, one of the unknown, something that is built up in our imaginations that is probably far worse than whatever we might actually be afraid of.

I’d been planning on riding a route through a fairly unknown and remote part of New Zealand called the Nevis Range. Located in the South Otago region just a few hundred kilometers from the most Southerly point of the South Island and mainly frequented by the 4X4 community, merino farmers and now bike packers. The area was originally used as a trail route by Māori, and later in the 1800’s discovered by European settlers during the Gold Rush. There is now only one working station, so the area feels very isolated.

I’d been bikepacking in New Zealand for several years, and never really felt any worry. It’s one of the safest countries in the world to bike pack in. I was also not in-experienced, having ridden many routes and spent an extensive amount of time outdoors in various forms of exploration. But in the days leading up to my departure I found myself making excuses, that I needed a warmer sleeping bag, or I should hold out for a fine weather window.

When we experience fear and the part of the brain known as the amygdala is triggered, our brains make quick decisions about what to do in order to protect us. The brain’s goal is to make the decision that will keep us safe, a reaction that is often more of an unconscious reflex than a conscious reaction.

But my reaction wasn’t something that was based on my current circumstances. This wasn’t the usual fight or flight response but felt more like one of freezing. I’d planned this ride for so long, that this procrastination had played havoc with my mind. I’ve always said the hardest part of any bike trip is usually just leaving, but this time that barrier had really been allowed to grow. The thought of freezing at night, or getting lost, or running out of food had me overpack. I’d borrowed a 4-season bag that filled my seat post bag, had a bike computer and a beacon. All of this preparation and I still felt that nagging apprehension in the back of my mind when I finally left my parked-up camper van in the small town of Clyde where I’d be starting my route.

The first day was still at around 200m elevation, with easy cycle trails following the Clutha River. Lulled into a sense of ease, with a constant line of e-bike tourists passing my fully loaded rig I found a campground in Bannockburn Serviced by a real salt of the earth kiwi darling, living out her retirement in a sleepy trailer park. While paying for my site I told her I was worried about the cold, while looking at the climb I had in front of me the next morning. She laughed at me and said, “you need to toughen up mate”. This is the motivation I wish I’d had in the days leading up to this. Her Kiwi attitude of just get on and do it was all I needed to calm my nerves.

The seasons were changing, it was the end of summer and there was already a chill in the air in the mornings. After a frosty sunrise start, it wasn’t long before the biggest climb of the trip would be upon me, climbing 1,100 meters in just 10km. The steep gravel farm road gained elevation quickly offering views of the Otago region as I slogged my over-packed bicycle, one switch back at a time, up this high public road. The landscape was dry and arid, and the lack of trees allowed all of the midday sun to beat down on me on this never-ending grind. It was a hard day, but all that apprehension evaporated and the familiar burn in my legs and chest had me feeling back at home on my saddle.

As my heart rate returned to a regular pace any feelings of fear I once had now transformed into pure anticipation. I could begin to absorb the solitude of this place. The very things that once fed into my fear, were now filling me with those feelings of freedom I only ever feel while traveling by bicycle; the simplicity of being alone and carrying everything I needed. I rode the final 20km, winding up through the craggy landscape to The Old Woman hut, and watched as the sun lowered.

I woke to a smoldering fireplace and enjoyed a silent coffee with my thoughts as the sun started to bring the warmth back to the surface of the corrugated steel cabin. Now feeling completely at home in my isolation, I rolled away hearing every stone hitting my rim, every clunk inside my bag and still not a human sound in earshot.

Dropping into the Nevis Valley was the point of no return, and that long descent and open road were the only way through. The valley went from wide plains to a rocky ravine next to the river before ending at Garston Hut, an old ski touring hut covered in graffiti offering old mattresses and breathtaking views of Garston town and the Valley below.

It was a day’s ride to get to the next segment of the trail only really interrupted by an apple tree bursting with fruit. The long straight farmlands made their way into Mossburn and became mountainous again. The long road through Mt. Nick merino station, past Mavora Lakes and alongside the Eyre Range. A day’s riding with nobody apart from the odd farmer in their ute and someone riding the county on a unicycle who seemed way too fixated on the corrugation and lack of a second wheel to stop.

As the sun got low, I made camp in the valley a few kilometers away from the ferry the next morning. As the light disappeared behind the peaks, I heard the distant roar of a Stag on heat. New Zealand doesn’t have any native predators so the food chain there feels very safe. I had however, never considered if a sexually frustrated stag would be a threat. As I managed to drift to some sort of resting state, with the roaring getting closer and closer throughout the night, I eventually woke to a rustling on the side of my tent that turned out to be nothing more than a hungry hedgehog.

With very little sleep I packed up for the final time before making the short ride down the Station port. The clouds that had been chasing me were firmly setting themselves up for an energetic release and I was glad to be watching them roll over the ranges. All memories of any apprehension I initially had seemed so far behind me, that on reflection only really made a trip more exciting. Feel the Fear and do it anyway. Surely that’s why we all bike pack, to experience the unknown and unexpected and to feel the exhilaration that comes from overcoming this. In the words of the great Alan Watts, “When you can really allow yourself to be afraid, and you don’t resist the experience of fear, you are truly beginning to master fear.” There was nothing about this ride that I needed to feel fearful for, but the experience had certainly made this trip so much more rewarding, and my ability to deal with this powerful emotion is as much a part of this trip as anything else.