I’ve always been a solo kind of guy. At school I was known as a loner and, now I’m a little older, I seem to have settled into this trait. Don’t get me wrong, I like the company of people and I crave social interactions. In fact, some of the best bike trips I’ve had have been shared experiences but, more often than not, these have occurred after originally starting out solo and having fate lead me towards other bicycle centric folk. I am equally as happy in my own company, and I can easily spend a week or two alone and not think anything of the zero human contact or lack of talking that comes with that. Having the headspace and quiet to absorb one’s own thoughts is something I crave just as much as any social interaction.
I’ve ridden more routes solo than I have with other people, not so much by choice, but just because I’ve always found it difficult to find anyone who wants to take off on a bike for an unplanned amount of time, at the drop of a hat. The nature of working as a photographer means I can often pick and choose when to work and when to travel, which makes it hard to align with anyone in full-time employment. People have their own lives going on after all, and bikepacking isn’t everyone’s favorite way to spend their well-earned annual leave. Solo bike travel seemed like the only way I was ever going to live the bike adventures of my dreams; it was never going to happen if I waited for friends or riding partners to appear with the same windows of free time I’d managed to manifest.
While putting together ideas for some summer backpacking adventures, I received a message from Sam, a fellow Englishman, traveling around the world on his bike with his girlfriend, Bec. “We’re coming to NZ in November, maybe we’ll see you around bro.” Sam and Bec were both great photographers and storytellers; Sam was a chef and a bike mechanic, with impeccable taste for premium bikepacking gear and the finest pour over coffees. Bec was a beautiful pot of random facts that never stopped giving, who would always be my wingman at any cafe treat opportunity. Bec was a kiwi but had met Sam on a trip in Vietnam and, after buying a bike, had joined him and never looked back. After a coffee one spring afternoon in Auckland’s Grey Lynn, we immediately realised it would be a fun trip, quickly feeling comfortable together thanks to British sarcasm and the oversharing that comes from spending your life on a bike.
I rarely go searching for riding partners, however these two seemed like they traveled in a similar way to me, enjoying a stealthy camp along the way. Plus, they were photographers too, which meant a good tolerance for faffing. Sam was a bike mechanic and trained chef; this trip was partly a platform to create ‘The Bikepacking Cookbook’ which he was hoping to test out on people such as myself along the way. He promised fresh Thai red curry and 2-minute laksa. Who could turn that down after a day's riding?
We planned to meet at the top of the South Island and start with a ride through the Marlborough Sounds region, which promised single track and road, following river inlets and sea creeks through native bush and coastline. None of us had ever spent any time in this part of New Zealand, so we were amped to finally be riding there. What started out as nicely groomed coastal path, quickly became quite technical, rooted single track, interspersed by waterfalls on every creek corner. We were all a bit rusty after the Christmas break, which had been full of sitting around and eating, but this was testing us all pretty quickly. The pace was slow, riding carefully over the roots and hike-a-biking through most of the creeks. By the time we made it to Penzance Bay, it was time for a swim…. amongst armies of jellyfish and stingrays. As Englishmen, touching anything in the water is quite alien to us. Sam and I let out childlike squeals on any live contact that lay beneath the surface. We were quickly given an education, however, as we watched two local girls Manu on every jellyfish they could spot, squeezing their slimey bodies through their fingers and taunting us with their jelly covered hands. Two British lads humiliated by 8-year-olds.
As we left the cove, not quite believing what we’d just witnessed, we made our way through the undercover roads, in and out of small townships, enjoying the pavement that allowed us to stay on our bikes for more than a hundred metres at a time. It was on this late afternoon jaunt I gained my first enlightenment, or lesson, from traveling as a team. With the onset of a tropical downpour, Sam and I sheltered miserably from the heavy rain, shaking our heads at Bec, who was genuinely embracing the feeling of the drops on her face, soaking any exposed skin and not batting an eyelid. “It’s OK - we’re waterproof!” she shouted, as I realised I’d conditioned myself to believe rain was always an un-enjoyable nuisance. A simple shift in perspective was all that was needed to turn a bad situation into good - which is great when you’re riding all day.
Working on his bikepacking cookbook, and being a trained chef, meant Sam was willing and eager to show off his skills, which was a culinary dream as far as I was concerned. My only task was to carry and eat (albeit things I’d usually avoid like jars of capers and fresh vegetables) which really made the damp beach a delight. As I watched Sam and Bec work like a finely tuned kitchen, I sat back and kept the sandflies at bay while making camp metres from the tideline; our two tents side by side, not even a metre apart. We were really getting to know each other. As, we all lay there in our sleeping bags, Sam and I bonding over UK Hip-hop and bike photographers, Bec, sad at being left out, interrupted: “I wish I could have conversations about something cool, I only know about stars and dinosaurs!” Maybe I wasn’t the third wheel after all.
After the obligatory morning coffee routine (which consisted of three pour overs) we started the ascent to Nydia Track. With our tents fully dried, but still feeling every bit as heavy, we were quickly passed by the crew from Get Lost bike shop, on their full-suspension, unloaded rigs. It wasn’t long before the anticipated hike-a-bike started. The trail starts as a nicely groomed single track, that allows you to flow up and down through beautiful native bush, but it quickly hits deeper forest and with that, larger trees with big exposed roots. It was hard to believe the team from Get Lost managed to ride it, as we dismounted every ten metres to push over the tree ruts. After about 30 minutes of this struggle, Sam and I would have foolishly pushed on for what would have been a day in and a day out, with very little riding and very lots of pushing. Our bullish desire to keep going, with the lure of wanting to be on our bikes, was reasoned by Bec’s incredibly logical reasoning: “Are we actually going to have fun?” The call was made and a reroute, through a power line access track, was negotiated instead; still as much hike-a-biking but at least it was in the right direction.
We’d all agreed that it’d be a great idea to get some solid riding in after the Sounds. It had been a fun jaunt, but time in the saddle having a good old spin felt like it was sitting around 20/80. With our previous intention to ride Molesworth hampered by a broken bridge, and our combined eagerness to see The Old Ghost road - an 85km single track adventure through remote valleys, mountain tops and river gorges - we headed west. After what was a solid hour playing bicycle Tetris - loading all three bikes onto the bed in my van - scraping titanium and popping spokes became an all-too-common sound, as every bit of gear was carefully supported or cushioned against another bike part. We slotted into the front seat, three wide which made it so tight that every time I changed gear I lightly stroked the co-pilots’ knees. It was intimate to say the least.
I’d made the decision here to split from the team meals. Although Sam’s cooking was delicious, I’d decided I’d rather spend my extra weight allowance on a hip flask for the evening whisky swill. I’d opt for the freeze-dried, one-pot over the freshly prepared meals, with their cans of coconut cream and jars of sundries. It was a decision I quickly regretted on the first night at Lyle Campground, while I watch Sam and Bec effortlessly prepare a red curry with freshly chopped capsicum and kumara and rice steamed to fluffy perfection. I watched, drooling, as we sheltered from the sandflies. Every spot always felt like the worst, when it came to sandflies, but these Lyle sandflies had an aggressive focus unlike any others I’d encountered. My tent had become so infiltrated, that the noise of them hitting the inside of the fly, sounded like heavy rain pattering on the exterior of my tent in the morning.
The first day of the Old Ghost Road is all climbing, starting out on a beautiful fern-lined, old miner’s route on compact single track that passes waterfalls and old mining relics. It’s by no means steep but goes on all day and by the time we’d made it through the tree line, and into the misty inversion, it was getting late, and we all started to feel the hanger. “Hills aren’t hard, they’re just long!” I heard Sam shout at Bec, as she licked peanut butter off his fingers before offering me the same. The last thirty minutes towards the hut were quiet and we all travelled at our own pace, each arriving solo at the single spot allocated for camping at Ghost Lake. At 1200 metres the exposed ridgeline felt like a worthy climb - if only to be away from the swarms of sandflies that wouldn’t ever be present at this elevation. But it wasn’t long before I felt that familiar stinging around the ankles and wrists - the Lyle sandflies, committed to tasting my blood after the previous night’s torment of being stuck between my fly sheets, had smuggled themselves up to this windy ridgeline in my packed down tent, for one final ambush.
Once again, I set up my lonely single tent, next door to the cozy, two-person shelter inhabited by my riding partners. As we sipped on tea in our tents, and watched the clouds plume through the valley below, I was once again envious of the warmth from another body and the freshly cooked meal, as I sat alone, wrapped in my merino layers and waiting for my freeze dried delicacy to simmer.
The ride down from Ghost Lake and Skyline was one of the most photogenic I’ve seen; single trail switchbacks winding through untouched valleys and forest. The descent seemed to last hours: once you’ve left the ridgeline, you roll through tree-lined trails, lovingly groomed single track and flowing routes – all of which kept me thinking about photos, and how good it felt to be descending for such a long and uninterrupted amount of time. Any thoughts of riding partners, or stopping for anything, was lost to the sheer enjoyment of pure downhill riding. My only indication that the elevation must be getting low, was when I took a cluster of sandflies to the back of the throat. First rule of riding on the West Coast: keep your lips closed.
After hours of endless downhill, and a final night at Specimen Hut, the reality of our looming parting was setting in. I’d miss experiencing every moment of my day with this team, where there was never a dull moment and always someone to laugh at; the constant distance updates and the delicious food I would never make as a solo cyclist. I wasn’t in a hurry to replace my family experience with Bec and Sam but left them feeling very envious of the finely tuned cycling machine that they were. As a photographer, it was great having riding partners too. No longer did I have to set up a tripod, and painfully ride into frame for each shot. I had real moments, with genuine emotion that could never be reenacted.
Whoever it was that said ‘two’s company but three’s a crowd’ probably wasn’t a bikepacker. These two had been riding together for so long that company was always welcomed, and I think there were probably times when we’d each felt like the third wheel, in one way or another. But now the time had come for us to part ways. Sam and Bec were continuing down the West coast and on through a well-crafted route around the South Island, to finish their book, and I had summer adventures of my own that were calling. As hard as it was to say farewell, it felt like time to let Bec have her boyfriend back. After years of believing solo bicycle travel was the only way for me, Sam and Bec had welcomed me into their world, from the first coffee in the morning to our evening group meditations and so much more. Maybe, just maybe, I had come to love what our family dynamic had created. And, as I left them settling into camp on our last day together, I could only hope I would get to be their third wheel again someday.
Words & Images: Tom Powell