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Off the Beaten Track

01 February 1997

by Dave Mitchell

Maps, I love 'em. More than that, I get quite excited by them. I collect them like some people collect phone cards or personalised number plates. The metric 50,000:1 series is my favourite and I've managed to acquire the full set. I've done heaps of mountain biking up and down the South Island and a few years ago became fascinated with the prospect of joining the dots to ride it all in one go. After all - I did have all the maps.

On Xmas Eve the lads (that's Joe Arts, Guy Wynn-Williams and myself - soon to be known far and wide as the "orange roughies" on account of our matching orange Ground Effect tops) headed north for French Pass. The cunning plan was to ride the length of the South Island off road. We would stay close to the eastern side of the Southern Alps, scoring as much single track and 4WD, and as little tarseal and carrying, as possible. An epic of biblical proportions was brewing.

At French Pass we hooked up with our support crew - Derek and Moira, the youngest and best travelled 60 year olds in the country. They have taken their faithful 1968 VW Kombi to every nook, cranny and back water imaginable. For the next month we would be constant companions. Each day they would load the Kombi with our tents and food, and cart it all to a pre-arranged campsite that evening. They were an integral part of the adventure and made considerable sacrifices to help make it happen - but were rewarded with several hundred excuses to stop for a cup of tea (Derek is a man who can't drive past a stream without wondering what sort of tea its water would make).

It's a short boat trip from French Pass to D'Urville Island and the start of our mission. Next stop Port Craig. Preparation is the cornerstone of a good expedition (ask Amunsden) - we spent 3 months nutting out details of the route and made scores of phone calls to the 40 high country farmers whose land we would traverse. Their support was great, especially with the recent furore surrounding the Health and Safety in Employment Act.

Our route took us from D'Urville Island through the Marlborough Sounds, Rainbow Valley, Lewis Pass, Craigieburn, Rakaia/Rangitata, Mackenzie Country, Lindis Pass, Skippers, Mavora Lakes, to Port Craig (near Tuatapere - sausage capital of NZ). We were surprised by the ease with which we forded some of the bigger rivers - defeated only by the mighty Waimakariri - resulting in an 80km detour to find a bridge and an unscheduled night in a shelter. We ventured into some remote places and crossed some spectacular alpine passes - on one occasion navigating through a white out by map, compass and altimeter for 3 hours in a biting Southerly. Nasty. The longest carry section was for 8 hours going over Shotover Saddle from the Matukituki. We spent 2 days camped at the head of the Matukituki waiting for the weather to clear. Boredom was relieved with the activities of various trampers, climbers and tourists - the most bizarre being two travellers who arrived in their car thinking they were heading for Haast Pass.

We ate huge amounts of go fast food. Joe's appetite is Gargantuan - the only bloke I know who makes his salad up in a plastic bucket. Moira soon got a handle on provisioning for us and would delight in emptying the local Four Square store of its entire stock of bananas and avocados. Being largely fuelled by dried fruit had unfortunate side effects - resulting in the three of us impersonating a mobile herd of ruminants doing our best to destroy the ozone layer.

Of course amongst all this planning we had to order the good weather and keep our bikes, bodies and minds in one piece. The gods were on our side - we had near perfect conditions with only four days' rain the whole trip. We suffered zillions of punctures (the record was 5 wheels out of 6 at one time requiring 13 patches - cursed Spaniard Grass) but suffered no major mechanicals. The bodies remained intact although Guy went for the big smash around Mavora Lakes which slowed him down for a few days.

29 days after leaving D'Urville Island, we arrived at the old school house at Port Craig. Hugs and handshakes all round then we celebrated with avocado and tomato sandwiches for breakfast. For the train spotters out there we stashed 1768km under our Mambas and climbed 33,665m (almost 4 times the height of Mt Everest). 12% of the distance was heavenly single track; less than 5 % was spent on tarseal and carrying - the balance was 4WD and the occasional shingle road.

Surprisingly, Christchurch seems so much smaller after a month away but my appetite remains as keen as ever. Avocados. I love 'em. More than that...