I’ve got an addiction. Wait, hear me out! It’s not a bad one. Although, I suppose that depends on how you look at it. I’m addicted to searching, mapping and scouting out what our land really has to offer. I suppose this is why we, especially me, ride bikes: to get into the areas, regions and pockets we wouldn’t normally go, with the ability to cover ground quickly in the backcountry. A bike really is the ideal tool for exploring.
The problem with my addiction, is that it doesn’t induce a high straight away and, like many addictions, it costs. A lot. The time spent dreaming of places to explore, and sitting in front of maps and devices makes up only half the cost. On top of that, there’s the handbrake that is modern life; sometimes I feel like I’m living a version of lockdown. There’s always stuff to do, and the endless to-do lists bloody irate me after a while, even though I’m the organised type and like things neat. Sometimes you need to flip the list and close the laptop lid. The other cost of my addiction is generated by the physical act of actually getting to these further-afield places. A huge amount of effort goes into thinking about what to pack and take - and that’s before you even turn a pedal. When I set off on the bike, it’s often only then that I find out how hard the route that I’ve plotted actually is - but that’s all part of the process. The exploration, meeting locals and seeing new sights is what I’m drawn to, no to mention the memories of the experience.
I will do anything to get that high. And, it’s kept me coming back for more and more.
The days were allocated, our flights were booked and the (rough) plan was in place. The Kopuwai area had been chosen because last year, when I visited and rode Around the Mountains, I was blown away by the stunning landscapes. At the end of the trip, I took a slight short detour up Nevis Rd, and that was enough to have me feeding my addiction again.
Most addicts seek out other addicts to share their affliction with. This is no different. I’d been in contact with Joe Cox, the other rider on this trip, for a while via digital platforms and, on a recent project, we met in person. He’s a top bloke, great rider and keen adventurer. After we met, I was keen to do more trips with him.
But, before I (we) could get high, I had to sign off our sister publication, NZ Mountain Biker. Again, there’s that handbrake, always wanting to hold me back! It was late Thursday evening when I sent the magazine to the printers and, the next morning, I was boarding a flight to the South Island. Heck, even the flight down was enough to make me feel like I was escaping things. The tall peaks were lightly dusted with snow amid the vividly blue lakes and barren valleys with ribbons of river running through them. I could just drop a pin on any one of these places and spend days exploring a sliver of the land. There’s plenty here to sustain my addiction.
We spent an afternoon getting our things in order before a leisurely start the next day, with a cooked breakfast before we set off in moody weather. The Around the Mountains trail linked us to the start of Nevis Road where the Coffee Bomb, an airstream café, was called upon for a final machine-made black coffee and cheese roll before we escaped into the wilderness. The Nevis Road runs straight up the mountainside, so it’s fair to say this is where we left the leisure side of the trip. I mean, it still featured a good approach and stops to take in our surrounds, but the ride itself was far from leisurely. After what seemed like an endless climb into the heavens, we finally plateaued. The endorphins were running high as we descended into the desolate valley, nudged along by a solid tailwind. Ford crossings followed as we quickly became more isolated between the large, uncovered mountains. The river flowed swiftly beside us before crisscrossing the road. We often had to get our shoes wet on these crossings, but it didn’t bother us much, and the sun’s heat soon dried them out.
The next few hours rolled on by rather blissfully. Rays of sun on our backs kept us warm, and the wind behind us kept us moving swiftly past the vast mountainous landscapes. In fact, the views were exquisite. The addict in me was getting an early dose of the high. But, I wasn’t satisfied. This desire to get deeper, further and explore more is hard to keep under control; it’s almost like we want to be broken. This is where lessons are learnt and the ‘real’ experience happens. It didn’t take long for that broken feeling to come around, though....
We rolled into Lower Nevis, where an old love waved out from the only house for miles. We circled back and had a yarn with her over the fence. She asked where we’d come from and where we were heading – this is a common theme when you roll up somewhere on a bike fully laden with gear. I love this about bikepacking; it opens up conversations with people you wouldn’t normally engage with. But the yarn with old love soon had me feeling anxious: she explained that the route to our hut for the evening would be long, steep and arduous, and that we’d be fighting to get there before dark. As we were discussing this, her husband bowled up on his quad bike and agreed with her statements. We yarned a bit more, and she offered us a bed but said they had guests coming over (crazy - all the way out here?!) so we set off again.
We hustled for a while, without much discussion between us. We detoured one too many times before the tall shadows of dusk set in; the light bouncing off the mountains was incredible, but we were too tired to care. The day’s effort and the constant route-finding was getting to us. The topo map showed the hut buried amidst tight lines and although it wasn’t far away, it was bloody steep. We’d found the high and now the inevitable low was kicking in. We had sleeping bags and merino but no shelter, so the thought of sleeping out wasn’t super inviting. Not to mention, the temperature was plummeting and the light was quickly fading. We weren’t going to make the hut in the light, and we were still probably an hour or two from it. Our options were: push on to the hut; sleep out under the stars; or return to a station we just passed. I suggested we return to the station and ask to sleep in the wool shed – or anywhere! – and, if they turned us down, we’d think about the next option. Luck was on our side and old mate from Nevis Station said we could doss down in the shearer’s quarters. The small hut had bunk beds, a mattress and even a pillow, plus we could use the kitchen in the back of the wool shed. The sense of elation was high - only an hour beforehand we’d been thinking we’d have to sleep out in the cold!
We yarned to the farmer about our route for the next day and he told us that, although the route we’d plotted was possible, we’d need to leave before daybreak as it would take the entire day. As he spoke, I looked up; the stars were so vivid – there’s no light pollution ‘round here. The farmer also told us that if we left early we’d have less wind to contend with and – bonus – the day looked set to be beaut. With that in mind, we ate dinner, sipped on whiskey and slipped into our sleeping bags.
The next day, we rose early and stepped out of our hut and into the darkness, a thick layer of inversion and ice on our bikes. Thick porridge and several strong coffees had us fired up for the day’s proceedings. We packed our things into our bags and strapped them to our bikes as the farmer rolled over in his ‘farm hack’ vehicle and wished us all the best, before heading into the hills for a hunt.
It wasn’t long before we were climbing again. The steep grade had us hunched over the front wheel just to keep the bike down. Whilst this was a tough start, it did allow us to get high above the inversion and, with the day just beginning to break, the golden rays above the thick cloud were almost spiritual in appearance. The next few hours were filled with rutted farm tracks, an epic sunrise with clouds lingering in the valley, and a bloody steep ascent up a mountain. The beauty of what we were actually doing and seeing was sometimes muted by the pain but, again, the addict in me/us needs to get that high at whatever the cost. The day’s encounter had us traversing moonscape-like terrain - this was, after all, the highest landmass between Aotearoa and Antarctica. I was thankful we were experiencing it on a calm day, as it would be a nasty place to be on a rough day.
We made a stop and had a feed and more coffee - the sustenance was very much needed. Taking in the surrounds, I could finally appreciate it; a thick cloud layer sat atop the valleys and mountains, but up here we were in bright sunshine. A technical (mountain biking-esque) descent followed as we dropped below the cloud line into the murky bleakness. This kind of summed up our emotions as well, and we stopped talking to one another - this is often a mark of the day taking a real toll.
Relentless terrain dropped us off the mountain range and into dense beech forest. This was yet another world - and we were in another world too. Lumps in the forest kept us pushing on the pedals as we dragged our tired bodies over them. But, within a blink, we were on flat gravel roads again, with farmlands and a river running beside us. The pace and mood lifted, and it didn’t relent until we reached sealed roads and the outskirts of civilization. I was more than cooked by this point and we were both in dire need of something more than just a measly Clif bar. On approach to Waikaia, I started dreaming of getting to a dairy for a coke and chocolate but, when we reached Waikaia I spotted something much better: a sign for the pub. I immediately got excited! As we rolled into the small town, the pub was (thankfully!) the only place open. We ordered a bottle of Speights each and a bowl of fries while the patrons stared at us. At this point, it was weird being in civilisation again, and we struggled to talk with anyone outside our ‘bubble’; this is the heavy toll a day’s mountain passing takes. The pub staff offered us a room if we needed it – heck, we must have looked bloody wiped! We both contemplated it heavily as we sipped away on our beer and scoffed the chips - our planned night’s stay was still 50km away and it was near on 6pm. After much deliberation, we rolled out of the Waikaia Hotel and time trailed to the Lumsden Hotel. Urgency was needed, as the kitchen was closing at 8pm.
The beer and feed fuelled us for the first part, but it wasn’t long before fatigue started setting in. We swapped turns on the front and, once again, not much was said between us. The sun was setting on the mountain ranges we’d just traversed and I went into a deep state of almost-happiness inside the pain. Like meditation, I was just focused on one simple task which was riding my bike from one destination to another. The southern roads were sealed, long, flat and straight-lined, with countless farms; the pace was unrelenting, we drove each other into the ground. I was mashing the pedals, turning squares and riding waves of energy (and probably consciousness). Joe asked me for the time and to call the pub, so I pulled up, but he said do it whilst we kept moving! I said I could, but I really wanted to stop for a rest…. Joe wasn’t having any of it. The pub said they’d keep the kitchen open, and a quick check of the maps put Lumsden only 2km away. Darkness was just setting in as we reached the dim streetlights of the town. We walked into the front of the Lumsden Hotel and almost collapsed. Joe walked to the corner of the empty pub while I attempted to order, hardly able to talk. Our beer and food was served, but it was hard to stomach. We’d pushed ourselves to beyond what we thought we were capable of, and it was rewarding. Again, addicted to the pain and game of attrition.
The next day, we rolled back to our start and finish point, covering a lot of ground but taking time to stop at several coffee houses on the trail. We had now linked back up with the Around the Mountains trail. The residual from the previous day’s efforts was still in my body, however, the satisfaction of knowing the route can be done far outweighed any fatigue. The addict in us got the all-time high we were longing for. But, it wasn’t long before we were searching for it again.
Words: Liam Friary
Illustrations: Gary Sullivan