Feature: 48 Hours of Escapism
Forty-eight hours. A weekend. Two whole days. However you choose to look at it, there are many ways to pass that stretch of time: you could watch 125 episodes of Friends; Google Maps reckons you could ride from Bluff to Nelson. If you lived in my household, you’d hear that 48 hours is plenty of time to finally remove the agapanthus out of the garden – something I’ve been meaning to do for months....
Forty-eight hours is also the perfect amount of time in which to escape.
– An act of breaking free from confinement or control.
– A form of temporary distraction from reality or routine.
It’s not that I wanted to fully escape any of life’s unpleasantries – I was really just searching for a change of pace, a gentle slow from the hustle and bustle of the 9 to 5. I often find myself quickly coming up with reasons why I can’t go, be it work, family, friends or those bloody agapanthus. But now, the urge for the backcountry had overcome the pro- procrastination to stay; the fresh mountain air, the excitement of the unknown and the joy of pioneering somewhere not normally travelled by bike. It was time to explore. As with any excursion there were a multitude of choices to make regarding the who, what, where and when:
This choice was easy: my buddy Sam Davidson (one half of Goat Cycles). Sam’s a whizz behind a wrench, which is always handy out in the wilderness, plus his route planning and trip knowledge is second-to-none. Most importantly, Sam knows how to have a good time.
Living in Christchurch means I am spoilt for choice, with vast amounts of DOC land and an abundance of gravel roads. A hut was a definite necessity (leaving the tent at home makes more room for beer) and being within reasonable proximity to the city would maximise adventure time. Maps were scanned and, for the sake of something slightly spicier than the stock standard gravel road, an 18km bash up a high country river was decided as the route of choice to reach the hut.
As always at this time of year, the weeks have started to fly by. For us lucky ones in the South Island, Level 4 seems like a distant memory. The flipside of this, for us Southerners, is work – talk to anyone and they’ll tell you, it’s relentless! For Sam, in the bike shop, they were already booked out two weeks in advance. And for me, in construction, well let’s just say if I knew Maui personally, I’d be getting him to slow down the sun to give me more hours in the day.
With this in mind, landing on a date was never going to be easy and Murphy’s Law dictated that the one weekend that worked for both of us had a less than ideal forecast. Despite this, plans were cemented, forecasts were checked (and double checked), and bags were fitted and packed.
It was at this point I came to the abrupt realisation that so far in life, my foray into bikepacking had been more ‘gentle- manly’. The inclusion of a sleeping bag, cooker and dehy- drated meals quickly became a game of Jenga. Unfortunately, some of the hazy’s lost the battle and were sadly left behind in the fridge. Saturday morning dawned with a quick rendezvous at Sam’s shop to top up any forgotten supplies, then we loaded the Ute and headed for the hills.
If you’ve ever headed west from Christchurch on a cycling mission, you’ll be privy to the fact it’s almost impossible to leave the area without stopping for a classic Sheffield Pie. Back on the road with bellies full and stoke levels high, Canterbury had turned on an absolute blinder. We wound our way through the gravel backroads rapidly approaching the end of the line. Eventually, we reached the car park and, after a quick yarn with some trampers heading the same way as us, we disembarked, eagerly making our way upstream.
The first few kilometres of riverbed navigation were a breeze; a freshly bulldozed stop bank was impossible not to follow but, as we entered the heavily braided riverbed, it became clear navigation on this trip was going to become more crucial than I had imagined.
Having explored the valley before, by 4WD, I was overly confident the track was just around the corner:
“Ahh yeah, it’s just past that rock...”
“That Matagouri bush looks familiar...”
“Surely it’s just over that rise...”
I should have paid more attention to the fact that the trampers, who had once been passing us every time we stopped to snap a pic, had now completely disappeared from sight.
Eventually, the track I was so set on finding, appeared – it took a few more Matagouri bushes than I’d originally thought and added a couple of extra kilometres up a side stream that we didn’t need to venture into. As it turns out, you should just head straight and stop listening to the guy who’s uber confident with directions. A tip that was remembered for our downstream journey.
Back on track, the tramper leapfrogging resumed – and we even caught a few stray comments: “That looks miserable on gravel bikes!“ We smiled. We were ticking the right boxes and I took pride in the look of confusion I saw on their faces: “What the hell are you doing this on those for?” they asked. “Because it’s fun!” I hollered back as we stumbled our way through another thigh-deep river crossing, bike across my shoulders, drop bars smacking into the back of my head.
The further we travelled upstream, the narrower the valley became. The once numerous braids converged together, and the volume of water narrowed and deepened. It became clear to us just how much water had flown down here during the previous months’ record floods. 4WD tracks stopped and started, and rock cairns became a distant memory. Numerous river crossings became a necessary evil, and Sam demonstrated the tip of the trip as he rolled his shorts up then folded his bibs over the bottom of them, preventing them from falling down mid-crossing. Maybe the beer he was forced to consume, after it had burst in his seat bag, hadn’t gone straight to his head.
The sun began to slowly cook us as it reached its peak in the sky; sunscreen was rationed around and numerous comments were made about it being a “day for it”. It seemed as though we’d pushed the thought of the next day’s forecast deep into our subconscious.
We clambered our way out of the bouldery riverbed and finally stepped foot on the singletrack. Beech cornflakes littered the path, a Craigieburn Forest Park staple. Enthusiasm was at a high; this was what we’d come for. The moss-lined singletrack was quickly attacked by our 40c tires. Photos were snapped and corners schralped as we rolled into the hut, where hut duties were undertaken, firewood split and stacked, beers cooled in the stream and shoes hastily stashed around the fire. As we took our time to enjoy a beer, I pondered to myself and thought: this is what I love now.
In years gone by, I’d have laughed at someone undertaking a journey like ours while I loaded my trail bike onto the back of the shuttle wagon, ready to attack another descent. But now it’s the adventure that intrigues me – the unknowns and the can-it-be-dones? Travelling from point to point under my own steam is the thrill I seek. It dawned on me, am I just getting old? The beers are getting hazier, and my coffee no longer contains milk; Type 2 fun is my buzz.
We started to revel in the possibility of having the hut to ourselves – a miracle for its popular location. Dinner failed to touch the sides, but dehydrated apple pie topped up our missing calories, complemented with a hip flask of whisky in front of the fire... this is living, Barry!
The elephant in the room was discussed then: the weather. Heading into this trip, we were well aware we wouldn’t come out dry and, after experiencing a few testicle-tickling crossings already, the call was made to set a brutal 5am alarm. This would give us the best chance to assess the precipitation at dawn and pull up sticks early if needed.
I forewarned Sam of the fact I’ve been known – on occasion – to snore. Actually, for anyone reading this, take it as a warning in advance; being the first to sleep is definitely an advantage.
I questioned my friendship with Sam as he revealed he has the classic ringing phone for his alarm tone – how can I possibly be friends with such a psychopath?! There was a steady pitter patter of rain landing on the clearlite, but we were awake and decided we might as well get it done.
Porridge and caffeine were consumed, the previous night’s beer cans crushed, bags strapped to our rigs, a quick Houdini change by me as I navigated a DOC toilet, forgetting I was wearing bibs, and the show was finally on the road.
The single track was moist under foot and the previous day’s baking sun was a distant memory – along with any corner traction. The trails were prime, so much so we pushed back up a bunch of sections like a bunch of frothy groms – partially because it was so good, partially because the trees seem to be sheltering us from the downpour that had sur- rounded us.
We succumbed to the fact we should be wise and make tracks back to the truck; the rain had set in and our beer and food supply would be slim should we end up stuck in the hut another night. Downstream navigation seemed like a breeze; we’d paid careful attention to the areas we knew we should avoid and the crossings that were no good. Luckily enough, the rivers had only somewhat increased in size, but the lack of clarity caught my hooves out more than once. The river crossings had a burning chill to them that morning; our extremities froze. The knee-deep swamp battle was a blessing in disguise, as the stagnant water brought warmth to my toes. On our upstream trip, I made a mental note – while crawling through some Matagouri – that the opposite side looked to contain bonus singletrack.
I was right. I could almost smell the unburnt diesel as I bashed up the bank; the singletrack I had spied was more of a ‘twin track‘. We’d stumbled across 4WD heaven, with mud bogs and ruts aplenty. With our version of ‘four low’ engaged, we hit it with pace. There were a couple of close calls but we managed to keep our intakes out of the water – although, if anyone has a solid supply of hub bearings, feel free to reach out...
The rest of our downstream escapade was relatively straightforward; yesterday’s reluctance to get the feet wet was swapped out for a sense of haste and a direct approach. The KMs seemed to be eaten away and, amazingly, the sky seemed to be clearing. Maybe I could have treated the hut to a few more hours of snoring after all.
I learnt a bit about rivers on this trip. My major concern on the way out was having to cross the confluence of two rivers but, in reality, this was the easiest crossing of the day, aided by the fact we’d ventured out of a narrow valley back into braided river country. My worries about high water volume was dispersed and a slight thigh tickle was as bad as it got.
From here on out, we rectified my sub-par navigation skills from the day earlier and, to no surprise, knocked some substantial time and distance off the return trip. The sight of the Ute was met with high fives and fresh tins out of the chilly bin – this wasn’t our first rodeo.
If the stench of normality is starting to bog you down, get the maps out, scan for a route, organise the troops and make it happen. It’s awfully cliché, but in these current times it pays to make the most of the opportunities we’ve got while they are available to us. Apologies to those in the north who are chomping at the bit to explore. Fingers crossed by the time this magazine is in your hands, you’re free to escape.
• Special thanks to Sam Davidson and Ilabb.
Words: Jordan Phipps / Photography: Cameron Mackenzie