I awoke to the crescendo of my travel alarm a little after 5.30am. This was the fourth day of the 2014 Kiwi Brevet. I was in Springs Junction, where State Highway 65 running south from Murchison meets the east-west route of State Highway 7. The town consisted of half-a-dozen houses, a truck-stop service station, a greasy-spoon cafe and a motel. It wasn’t pretty. It was, however, the most important point of my Brevet. For the previous two days my head and body had been holding a heated debate: do I continue on the Brevet, or switch to the shorter Brevette? Springs Junction was the ultimatum. If I turned left along SH7 to Hanmer, I joined the 700 kilometre Brevette course. If I turned right to Reefton I added 400 kilometres on the Brevet. After first-day euphoria and nerves, the second day was a realisation of back-to-back 12 hour rides and 30 degree temperatures. By the third day, however, my body became resigned to the task ahead. I enjoyed the day in its entirety. Feeling fantastic on the final, unexpected, time-trial to Springs Junction (to beat closing time of the only food-outlet in town) sealed the deal. I was turning right.
I stumbled around the motel in half-light, trying not to bump into Dean or to wake my other overnight companions. Dean and I were making an early start to reach Reefton for breakfast. John and Scott were planning a leisurely morning ride over to Hanmer to follow the Brevette course. I’d been prepared enough to organise my possessions the previous night.
Of course, attempts to quietly stumble around the motel room were doomed to failure and by the time Dean and I loaded our bikes John and Scott were awake and mocking our early start. I’d ridden with John for the last two days, since we bunked together at Pelorus Bridge on night one. We’d seen Scott on and off for those days too and all bunked together at St Arnaud on the second night—we travelled at a different pace, but usually met up at food stops. It was a shame to leave them, but also exciting to be starting a new chapter of my adventure.
I arrived in Reefton alone, 35 kilometres and one reasonable hill later. I’d left Dean behind on the climb out of Springs Junction and not seen him again, an inevitable result of the odd pace forced by my fixed wheel bike. I was wearing my rain jacket. After three days of sun and soaring temperatures, dips in rivers and constant search for shade, the light rain that fell on the descent through the Inangahua valley was welcome. I was also secretly pleased that I got to wear my jacket and wasn’t just carrying it as ballast. The rain had killed the wind of the previous day. I enjoyed a calm ride through the long and beautiful valley, admiring the bush-clad hills and hanging mist, revelling in the dawn start and quiet highway.
My Brevet could be described as a series of loosely connected moments and experiences generated from a week in the saddle. At least, that’s how it is held in my memory. It turned out this day was a concise summary of the entire adventure, containing an example of nearly all relevant moments and experiences: companionship and solitude; pre-dawn starts, sunsets and long days; searing heat, rain and wind; the generosity of people; food (lots of it); beech forest trails, long gravel roads and empty highways; sheer joy and sense of freedom; untouched native bush, rural industrial landscapes, and local wildlife. The only thing missing was extreme mental low and physical exhaustion. That would follow tomorrow.
I left Reefton alone and well fed from a fine bakery, with food restocked from the local store, heading towards Big River. The site of the Big River mine is reached by an old dray track, pushed through steep country in the 1880’s. For the first day riding alone after three days of company, the Victoria Forest Park offered a remote and atmospheric setting to amplify the experience. I could almost hear the hooves clattering and biting on the damp rock surface, and picture the dray bumping passengers up to the goldfields. The track wound its way upwards at a gentle gradient—despite the rocky surface I could turn the easier of my two gears over at a comfortable pace. I was alone with my thoughts, soaking in the atmosphere of the damp forest, peering into entrances of old mine workings.
My solitude was broken by the sight of another rider up ahead. As I got closer I recognised the silhouette. It was apparent from the initial gathering of 100 or so riders in Seymour Square, Blenheim that most had bought into frame-fit bikepacking bags. Bikes were adorned with oversized seat packs, bags fitted into the mainframe triangle, and rolls hanging from bars. I was no different. The bike up ahead, however, was more old-school. It had large dry bags fitted onto front and rear racks. I’d caught up with an old friend, Dave Ryan, at the start in Seymour Square, who was one of the few running just this setup. I was catching up with Dave again on the way to Big River.
Big River goldfield was operated between 1882 and 1942. At its peak between 1907 and 1924, over 100 people lived there—almost 700 metres up in the beech forests, 30 kilometres from Reefton. I’m in awe of the tenacity of people to live in such inhospitable, remote, but beautiful places to chase gold. It is a life I can only imagine: a tough, isolated, semi-nomadic life of setting up home, only to move on the moment the gold runs out.
After an hour of climbing through beech forest, the site of Big River appeared in a dramatic clearing. A sign warning of river contamination was the pre-curser to half a dozen old sodium cyanide tanks—the chemical of choice for extracting gold from finely ground rock. It was sobering to think that a century on that industrial mining activity could still impact the local environment. On a hill to the south was a restored poppet head and, atop a cliff, in prime position overlooking the meandering river and decaying remnants of a once-thriving industrial site, was a rather plush-looking Department of Conservation (DoC) hut. Below the hut a standard issue DoC Toyota Hilux was centre of activity. Rangers were unloading tools and materials to continue track building and restoration work in the area. As I chatted to them, Dave rolled up. As the ‘lucky first’ ones passing through, we were offered coffee. I never turn down the offer of coffee, and we were in no particular hurry. While sipping, we got to survey the area from the elevated hut and learnt that the main shaft at Big River is 600 metres deep, with workings running horizontally from it every 80 or so metres. The scale of the operation at its height must have been something to behold, a pocket of raw industrialisation in a bowl of Beech forest.
On the track to Waiuta, Dave and I found ourselves riding, pushing and hauling our bikes through soaking wet moss-covered single track, over convoluted systems of slippery roots, and along stream beds.
From Big River, an old pack track leads over marshland and through beech forest to the site of the old gold town at Waiuta. The track work was immediately apparent, astounding in its scale, and gratefully received by two loaded Brevet riders. What would have been a slog across a barren marshy plateau was a roller coaster ride along a half kilometre of undulating, twisting boardwalk. Not only did we drink their coffee, Dave and I reaped the rewards of the rangers’ hard work. Before the Brevet, I last rode with Dave high up on Mount McKerrow in the Orongorongas, overlooking Wellington Harbour. That tramping track took us deep into native beech forest, far away from the world. I say ‘rode’ with Dave—in reality we hauled, scrambled, pushed and occasionally rode over McKerrow. It was that sort of day, that sort of ungroomed native bush ride. On the track to Waiuta, Dave and I found ourselves riding, pushing and hauling our bikes through soaking wet moss-covered single track, over convoluted systems of slippery roots and along stream beds. The riding was spectacular—technical, sinuous single track with plenty of challenge for a full mountain bike, let alone a fixed wheel tourer loaded with bags. We had a ball. The ranger told us it was 11 kilometres to Waiuta—the trail climbed, then descended, then climbed, and the last seven kilometres was downhill. What he didn’t tell us was that the trail was so wet, technical, and root-strewn that it was downhill in name only. We made slow progress, with Dave on his mountain bike leaving me behind, only to be caught and passed while fixing a puncture.
As I approached Dave he asked, “Who are you riding with?” “Huh? It’s just me.” “Oh, I thought I heard you talking to someone?” “Oh, it was just me. I do that.” I hadn’t realised, but I’d been chatting to myself all along the trail. I know some riders used music to fill the solitary hours. Some rode most of the brevet in the company of others. I just like my own company. I can fill hours with conversation, though it tends to be a little one-sided.
The last mine in Waiuta closed in 1951. The once self-sufficient town is now a handful of disused buildings spread around a large plateau. Information boards show plans of the town as it was, the layout of which can still be clearly seen, with the remaining buildings and landforms of spoil heaps and sports fields providing the visual cues. We didn’t linger for long. It had taken over four hours to get through from Reefton. I’d covered 65 kilometres for the day and I was already into the afternoon. I needed to keep moving to stay on track to complete the brevet under the eight-day time limit.
On the Kiwi Brevet I rode for seven days, almost 100 hours and 1150 kilometres. You might think the entire experience merges into one long ride, but that isn’t so. As I recall events my mind breaks down the trip into manageable pieces, just as my mind and body broke down the ride while it was happening. The sleeps at the end of each of the seven days are obvious breaks. But the days were also broken down into breaks—and with that much pedalling, breaks invariably mean food. Food and shelter became a common topic of conversation between brevet riders, and for the internal conversation that rattled inside my head, “Where is the next store?” “When does it close?” “Do I need to restock my bags?” “Where will I stay tonight?” “Do I need to buy food for the night or can I eat there?” “Where will I find breakfast?” At times it felt like the riding was incidental—a means to transport a tired and hungry body between refuelling stops. This day, the longest day of my brevet, was no different. It was a day of thirteen hours riding and three hours eating.
I left Waiuta with the sole goal of reaching the store at Ikamatua to take a break and eat, then to ride a further two hours to Blackball for dinner. There was nothing between Blackball and Jacksons, 90 kilometres further on. I’d either be staying along the roadside that night, or arriving at the campsite far too late to expect food. I would be relying on the food I carried (either in my stomach or bags) until Arthurs Pass the following morning—120 kilometres and a large hill away. So Blackball needed to be an extended dinner stop. I arrived at (Formerly) The Blackball Hilton to be told that bar snacks were available and if I waited for 15 minutes the full kitchen would open. One look at the dinner menu lit up my eyes and set my stomach rumbling. I killed time waiting impatiently for my venison, mashed potato and roasted seasonal veges with a pint of craft beer. After a 6am start and many hours turning the pedals, I’d managed to arrive at the finest pub on the West Coast 12 hours later, just as the kitchen was firing up. I couldn’t have planned it any better.
I rolled out of Blackball at around 6.30pm. I left Dave finishing up his venison and IPA (a popular menu choice for Brevet riders that evening), waved off by a bunch of local ‘blue-spot junkies’ following our spot-tracker progress on an iPad. My evening plan was to continue riding while I felt good and see how far I got. I might continue up Arthurs Pass to hole up at Arthurs Pass village, more likely I’d reach the campsite at Jacksons before the climbing started, most likely I’d find a good spot to bivvy somewhere around the back of Lake Brunner. I had enough food to get me through to the cafe at Arthurs Pass Village the following morning, lights to ride beyond dusk, and I’d ride until my legs or head gave out. In the back of my mind I had a target of 8.30pm, which seemed like a good time to stop for the night.
In true Kiwi Brevet style, the route didn’t follow the obvious and most direct highway around the lake. Why would it, when there was a perfectly good gravel road that took twice as long to get to the same place? The bonus was traffic-free solitude, beautiful native bush, and a road that twisted, climbed and descended, rather than followed a dead straight, flat and boring course. I’d choose the long gravel way around every time.
After three days of company and spending most of this day riding on and off with Dave, I found solitude around the back of Lake Brunner. I was riding with a gentle tailwind—the sun behind me slowly receding below the horizon, casting lengthening shadows on the road in front. I’d found a calm space, riding in a bubble, protected from life and lost in my own thoughts about nothing in particular. I’d ridden past many perfect bivvy spots and right through my 8.30pm cutoff to be rewarded by a stunning sunset. As the sun finally dipped below the horizon my shadow was cast onto the road tens of metres in front. The sun lit the bush-clad hills to a bright vivid orange. It was a surreal, high-contrast scene straight out of an Instagram filter. I rode on into dusk.
I was snapped out of my serenity by a Weka. I’d seen one truck in the last couple of hours and my eyes had got used to the creeping darkness, so my lights remained off. I was descending around the back of Lady Lake, on a narrow and heavily cambered gravel road flanked by thick bush. From the corner of my eye I saw a flash of movement in the verge. In the blink of an eye a Weka appeared and ran directly towards me. Why did the Weka cross the road? It was almost a bad joke. Spinning my fixed wheel on gravel at 40 km/h, there was nothing I could do—no avoiding action I could take. The Weka squealed across my front wheel by the narrowest of margins. I think I collected a couple of tail feathers.
In darkness I rejoined the sealed road heading towards State Highway 73, that runs from Greymouth to Christchurch over Arthurs Pass. With darkness came bugs, countless bugs, all attracted to my front light. I gave up picking them out of my teeth and resigned myself to the constant aerial bombardment of tiny schrapnel. There was no traffic, it was pitch black with no sign of life along the road. I reached the bridge, handful of street lights and the few buildings that called themselves Jacksons soon after 10pm. I held a brief internal meeting about stopping or pressing on up Arthurs Pass, but the thought of bivvying up in the cold night in the small hours of the morning after a long, steep climb didn’t really appeal. I’d travelled almost 200 kilometres—it was 16 hours since I’d rolled out of Springs Junction with Dean. This was a good time to stop.
I had a restless, sleepness night at Jacksons. My sleeping bag was nothing more than a down travel liner; fine for a night under a roof, or inside a close-fitting bivvy bag. But I’d been ‘lucky‘ on arrival at Jacksons and scored a tent, erected inside a custom-built barn. The idea was to protect tourists and their RV’s from the West Coast rain, but my barn had a dusty-old two-man tent inside. It was all a little strange, tucked away in the darkness on a quiet corner of the campsite, illuminated only by a bike light, and seen through my haze of dust, sweat and weariness of a long day on the bike. The large airspace inside the tent was impossible to warm-up, and I spent the night in all of my clothes, which didn’t amount to much, curled up inside my thin sleeping bag on top of a giant air mattress, trying to conserve the warmth of my tired and depleted body. I didn’t need an alarm to wake me the following morning—the light of dawn and the thought of the warm shower block was motivation enough to raise me from my half-sleep.
There had been talk of rain coming, but the day promised better. The morning was once again warm enough for just a short-sleeve shirt and shorts, and bright enough to warrant sunglasses. My immediate goal was Arthur’s Pass village, 30-something kilometres away, where I’d find breakfast.
I was expecting a slog up the false flat of the valley, but I cruised along on a windless morning, lost in thought and warmed by the sunshine. Otira Gorge and Arthur’s Pass were dispatched painlessly. It was steep for sure—far too steep to ride—so I settled into a steady plod upwards, accompanied by the sweet mechanical smell of overheated engines and burning brakes of passing traffic. At the top I stopped briefly at the lookout and wondered why there was such an impressive viaduct here, when the rest of New Zealand made do with one-lane bridges and inexpensive roading solutions. I’d recall that thought many times later in the day, as I cursed those inexpensive roading solutions. I descended to Arthur’s Pass village full of energy and life. I’d made it here with no dramas and knocked off the major hill of the day. After the epic of yesterday I had a good reason to fill up on multiple breakfasts. I pictured the road ahead as mostly downhill to Sheffield, where I’d arrive at the ‘Famous Sheffield Pie Shop’ around mid-afternoon, load up on meat- and fruit-filled pastries and press on over the Wharfedale Track to spend a night in the hut. It was to be a beautiful day of riding. Or so I thought. Five days in, I should have known better.
Rolling out of Arthur’s Pass village, with a belly full of sausage, bacon, egg, hash browns and milkshake, alert from two coffees, all started well. State Highway 73 was a fun ride—a twisting ribbon of seal cutting through alpine beech forest high above the Bealy River. Traffic was minimal—mostly tourists—and even the truckies were courteous. The road opened out at the long bridge across the Waimakariri River. This relatively short but impressive body of water collects the high-altitude Bealy, Poulter, Esk and Broken Rivers and runs out into the Pacific Ocean just north of Christchurch. Even this close to its headwaters it is braided, weaving its way through an amazingly broad river valley. Crossing the long single-lane bridge, the views open up along three massive valleys, flanked by 2000+ metre peaks—screes drop from bare tops through scrub to the river below. The only signs of man are three lines: the road weaving up, over and around the lumps and bumps alongside the river; the Christchurch-Greymouth railway taking a straighter course along the opposite bank; and a line of power poles, making angular direction changes to take the shortest possible route over the terrain. But the scenery is so big, so overpowering, these signs of man become lost—hidden within the power and scale of nature. Foreboding clouds filled the skies, adding to the drama of the scene. Looking west up the Waimakariri I saw the tell-tale haze of rain. I allowed myself a moment to be thankful I’d missed the downpour and pressed on around the corner to Cass and Craigieburn.
I hadn’t missed the downpour. Ahead were the twin lakes of Grasmere and Pearson. At least I think Pearson was there—the lake and hills were cloaked in the monotone grey of a rainstorm. With a storm comes wind—a stiff headwind that hit me as I passed Grasmere. The next 20 kilometres were a tough ride. The headwind didn’t relent, the rain and temperature fell, and the road undulated between climbs, false flats and descents that would have been fun were it not for the rain and wind. Suddenly, Arthurs Pass and the Canterbury high country felt very bleak. I felt very small. I left the rain and wind behind, temporarily, on the long climb up Broken Hill. I rode a little and pushed a little, overheated in my waterproof jacket and finally enjoyed sunshine as I rolled over the top. As I stopped for a bite, laying my damp jacket and gloves over my bike-cum-washing-line, I was joined by a German cycle tourist complete with matching front and rear luggage that was perfectly capable of swallowing the kitchen sink. The stark contrast with my minimalist setup left me trying to fathom how I’d make my journey with that much weight. He had ridden from Springfield that morning and was heading to camp at Lake Pearson to catch his fish supper. It sounded like a fine plan—I hoped he’d be lucky with the weather. While he lamented the slog he’d had up Porters Pass, I secretly smiled at the thought of a downhill run from here and those pies with my name on them at Sheffield. Spurred on at the thought, I set off to Craigieburn.
In my imagination I pictured a road descending gently through high-alpine scenery—a rider spinning along easily, soaking up the beauty of nature, making swift progress along smooth seal. At Porters Pass, the imagined descent steepened, adding speed and adrenaline into the mix as I braked hard around hairpins and accelerated effortlessly between them. The final run to Sheffield across lowland plains would disappear in a haze of euphoria, I would be basking in the glory of the ride—drawn forwards by the smell of steak and cheese. Reality was nothing like that—the next four hours were to be the absolute low point of my week.
The highway through Craigieburn cuts apologetically across a bleak and beautiful landscape carved many thousands of year ago by ice and water. The terrain is massive, the road is flanked by scree-covered peaks and views along high alpine valleys open up as I travel. These mountains do funny things to weather. There was rain all around—squalls and showers to keep me in the uncomfortable zone between damp and wet. I rode into a constant headwind. No matter how the road twisted and turned, the headwind followed—varying from a niggling breeze to a full-blown progress-stopper. The highway isn’t a gentle descent alongside a river meandering to the sea—it crosses many rivers and undulates its way to Porters Pass, the real high point of my day (in altitude, not emotion).
At each crossing I would spin my fixed wheel and drag my brakes down to the bridge, cursing the loss of hard-earned altitude, only to grind or push my bike up the other side. It was frustratingly slow and exhausting, each effort for a net gain of zero altitude and no more than a kilometre of progress.
The viaduct I crossed heading to Arthurs Pass is a feat of concrete engineering, cutting straight across and over a large river valley. It is a road feature common throughout the European Alps, but rather unique in these Southern Alps. The road to Porters Pass was more like the New Zealand I knew. Whenever the road had to cross a side river, it descended into the river valley, crossed via the shortest possible bridge (usually one-lane wide), and climbed back up to its previous altitude. The descent and climb could be anything from 10 to 60 vertical metres. On the ride from Flock Hill to Porters Pass, I lost count of these river crossings, and I came to loathe them. Invariably, the road builders had cut the straightest, steepest line to and from the river with the minimum of twists and turns and maximum gradient. At each crossing I would spin my fixed wheel and drag my brakes down to the bridge, cursing the loss of hard-earned altitude, only to grind or push my bike up the other side. It was frustratingly slow and exhausting, each effort for a net gain of zero altitude and no more than a kilometre of progress. I’d stopped watching the clock. It was unlikely that I’d make the Wharfedale hut at a reasonable time. I might need a ‘Plan B’. If I got to the pie shop I might be able to restock and make my way along the Wharfedale Track to the hut late in the evening.
Porters Pass was signalled by the appearance of Lake Lyndon through the mist and drizzle, with the road making a decisive turn to the east. I was exhausted after my big day to Jacksons followed by a sleepless night and this tough ride through the mountains. The weather closed right in and the temperature dropped dramatically—I was riding through the cloud into, of course, a headwind. With cold legs and no energy, I couldn’t ride the seemingly gentle ascent to the summit. I rode and wobbled a little, dismounted and pushed, stopped and hung my head over the handlebars and screamed obscenities at the road. I was having a torrid time. As I approached the pass the wind strengthened and my snails pace reduced further. At times I wondered if I’d ever reach the top. When a road sign indicating a steep descent appeared from the mist, I celebrated—whooping and hollering like a madman. Finally, it really was all downhill from here.
The descent to the Canterbury Plains was fast, wet, and freezing cold. My riding gear consisted of shorts, a lightweight merino t-shirt, a lightweight waterproof jacket, roadie mitts and a cap under my helmet. By the bottom of the pass, I had lost all feeling in my hands and feet and my legs had developed a tingling wind-battered numbness. It was a far cry from the soaring temperatures of the last few days, and a real shock to my system. The next 20 kilometres to Springfield disappeared rather quickly. The highway became a dead straight run down a gentle false flat, with a tailwind. The mist had become persistent rain. There was no feeling returning to my hands, but I managed to keep my speed over 30 km/h with very little effort. Mentally, I’d raised myself from the low point of Porters Pass, but my head was filled with a dull fog. As I saw the bright lights of Springfield ahead, I entertained thoughts that I might still be good to make Wharfedale Hut. First, though, I needed pie.
The next section should have been a simple eight or nine kilometre ride to the Famous Sheffield Pie Shop. But, recall, this is the Kiwi Brevet. The course turned off the highway at Springfield to pick up a quiet gravel road, adding several kilometres and nearly an hour to my ride. It was wet, the gravel was deep, the road was corrugated and I was cold and exhausted. I reached Sheffield to find I’d missed the pie shop by half an hour. It was 4.30pm. What sort of pie shop closes at 4pm? I sat disconsolately on the picnic table outside the shop, eating a One Square Meal bar, trying to make sense of my thoughts. My head wasn’t in a good place. The last shop was in Arthurs Pass, I’d eaten much of my food, and there was nowhere else in Sheffield to restock. I knew I had at least four tough hours ahead to get through the Wharfedale Track, and the next store wasn’t until Hurunui, over 100 kilometres of bush trail and gravel road from the hut. There was no way I had enough energy to make that—either within my body or squirrelled away in my bags.
My only option was to backtrack to Springfield and stay the night. I made a very slow, soul-destroying ride into the headwind along a dead straight highway in murky dampness to Springfield, and hoped there was a horse to eat and a luxuriously warm place to stay.
Springfield was a metropolis compared to Sheffield. Along it’s two streets, it had a cafe, service station with attached store, a pub, two motels and a backpacker hostel. It was the kind of disproportionate residents-to-amenities ratio only found in highway towns proudly displaying ‘last fuel for 200 kilometres’ signs. My immediate needs were hot food and coffee, and someone to point me to the best room in town.
“We’re just closing—we’ve got cabinet food you can take away though.”
It wasn’t a good start at the cafe. However, coffee and a chicken filo pie-of-sorts were supplied, plus directions to the plushest motel in town, and news that the pub would be serving for at least a couple of hours. A minor food-panic was averted.
The motel was indeed plush. I felt rather bad turning up wet, dirty and smelly. I tried to straighten myself up a little for fear of being turned away. It was a poor effort.
“Where have you come from?” I was asked incredulously by the owner, complete with babe-in-arms. “Jacksons, it’s been a long day.” “Right. You’ll need a room then.” “Yes. Please.”
The ‘room’ was larger than many Aro Street houses, significantly drier and much better insulated. One bedroom with luxurious king bed, a bathroom with heat lamp for drying my sodden clothes, a full kitchen, and a lounge with TV and heat pump. The kitchen made my next decision for me. Food would be home cooked tonight, or at least home unwrapped and heated. After a quick trip to the service station store with two stuffed carrier bags dangling precariously from my bars, I laid out dinner (with dessert), second dinner (with second dessert), and first breakfast. Two hours later I was clean, my clothes were drying in the bathroom-cum-laundry, the bin was full of empty food packets, I’d talked to my family, and I was watching a bad Zac Efron movie, and actually enjoying it. I really must have been exhausted and delirious.
The day that contained the lowest and second lowest points of my Brevet ended in optimism: I was fed and warm, and about to have the best nights sleep of the week; The rain had stopped and the forecast for tomorrow was good; I had the excitement of Wharfedale beech forest riding ahead; I was turning north again to start the long home stretch; The Famous Sheffied Pie Shop opened at 6.30am for second breakfast.
Pie for breakfast—tomorrow will be a good day.