March 2019, and I was closing in on my 60th birthday. Yes, I have many friends and I was looking forward to celebrating with them. Turning 60 however also held fears for me. It signified entry into an age of sensibility, responsibility, and maturity. Three things I have struggled with my entire life, as my friends could attest to, and I was not about to change now. I needed something to do to prove to myself I was not getting old.
Back to the birthday, one guest I was hoping to have at my birthday party was my brother Murray. In his younger days Murray was a top multi sporter. I watched him from a distance as he competed in events across the globe. While I was never jealous, I was envious of his endeavours. Well possibly not all of them. Lost toe nails and random chafing he could keep. The thought of running up and over mountains or rafting rivers at night sounded really exciting. A bit like Raiders of the Lost Ark on steroids. Maybe I wouldn’t have thought that if I was out there in the cold with him rather than parked up on a comfortable couch enjoying time with my loving family. The bottom line though was I’d always fancied the idea of doing something with my brother. It’s just that until now, life and higher priorities have got in the way.
About a week before my birthday Murray suffered a serious medical event, and while I'm pleased to say he has made a full recovery, it incapacitated him for many months. To aid with recovery (mainly to minimise the boredom) we would talk most days. We talked about all sorts of things with the conversation more than not defaulting back to adventures, events, and doing something together. It wasn't long before a plan was hatched. In part, the adventure would satisfy my need to prove 60 is not old. In part it was to enable Murray and I to finally do something together, and it gave Murray a goal to aim at during his recovery.
So, we had hatched a plan alright, and that plan was simple, to 'Double Happy' the Alps to Ocean Cycle Trail, un-aided. Not sure where the term 'Double Happy' comes from, but to us it means to ride a cycle trail from one end to the other, and back non-stop and unaided. Murray had done a ‘DH’ on the Central Otago Rail Trail many years ago and always fancied the idea of doing it on the Alps to Ocean. So, I guess he came up with the ‘cake’ and I added the icing. That was to ride it on a single speed. Why? Just in case anyone decided it was not difficult enough.
The (self-inflicted) rules:
Depart from and return to Oamaru (no shuttle or other assistance to the start of the trail at Mt Cook).
No helicopter or other assistance to cross the Tasman River.
Single speed mountain bike.
Minimal stops for food, drink, sleep, photos, etc.
How hard could it be?
Initially we aimed for December 2019 which gave us about 8 months to prepare. Both of us were fairly fit so the date was realistic and would fall within my 60th year, perfect. I did have one small problem. I didn't own a single speed. No panic, Murray did. A bike he had owned since the mid-nineties and had converted to single speed many years ago. “An oldie, but a goodie” he described it as. Arrangements were made to freight it north from Christchurch to Auckland. My road bike was parked up, and training began in earnest. Making time for training for me was ok but for Murray things were different. He has a young family which took priority. He was also finding it very tough getting over the health issues so a decision was made to push the ride back to January, then February 2020. Still having a few health problems but keen to complete the ride before the summer weather disappeared, we aimed for April 2020. I booked flights and the logistics/schedule/ride plan were all researched and settled on. It was game on. Right up until late March, then Covid arrived and we went into level 4 lockdown. Bugger.
I was gutted but maintained my training, indoors on a spin bike. As soon as we were allowed out, I was back out on the trails and roads. I spent time riding hilly gravel roads, and even a couple of long rides on other key cycle trails. 150km on the Hauraki Rail Trail which was a breeze (it’s flat), followed by an attempt to do 'Double Happy' (return trip 214km) the Waikato River Trail. In my defence, I have no defence! It was a stinking hot day, I hadn't drunk enough, the trail was way harder than I expected (hills) and I over cooked myself. At 125km my legs were jelly and I had had enough. I put the white flag up and called my wife Pam to scoop me up. Another… bugger.
Finding myself fit yet frustrated, I continued to train but I needed a solid goal and date to make this happen, or I needed to move onto other things. So, with Covid constraints eventually becoming more manageable I set a new date, March 2021. This would coincide with my 62nd birthday, and also with a guided tour on A2O by a group of our family friends. Perfect. However, this was going to be difficult for Murray to commit to as his children were getting older, and more involved in their own activities. Time was becoming more precious for him and family must come first. I understood this, but short of Covid rearing its ugly head again or some other unforeseen issue cropping up, it was going to happen.
I should say at this point that my wife Pam is an amazing person. In spite of her concern (alleviated somewhat by an up-to-date life insurance premium, LOL), she understood and supported me in this ‘adventure’. I should point out, looking back, this is possibly not an isolated incident. I love Pam.
Through research and planning it became obvious that the ride needed to be somewhat strategic. This was to be an unsupported trip so timing was quite important to enable access to food, water and power for refuelling the body, recharging light batteries etc. We calculated how long it would take to get from point A to point B etc and it was clear at several points there was a risk of running on empty. The A2O Trail is fantastic with multiple refreshments stops along the way. It also has plenty of accommodation options. These however are not available in the middle of the night meaning food and water would need to be carried through certain sections, making the bikes that much heavier. One location that was of particular concern was around Lake Pukaki and in particular heading up toward Rotten Tommy. This is where the helicopters land when they shuttle the bikes over the Tasman River from Mt Cook Airport for those doing the trail. I made contact with Braemar Station via email. The station is owned and run by Hamish and Julia McKenzie, and for many years they have provided accommodation and meals for Alps to Ocean groups. I asked if it would be possible to pop in for brunch on my way past, and explained what I was doing. Julia responded by saying they would be happy to help support me on my mission. They were such fantastic hosts. Julia not only fed me on my way in to Rotten Tommy, they also allowed me to leave light batteries and power banks there to recharge, and Julia provided me with food for my trip back south. This included a piece of Braemar Cake. OMG that was so good - both me, and my imaginary friend (more about him later) loved it.
As far as gear went, there were some items I needed. Without going into too much detail, saddle sores had become a problem. Research, saddle changes, and changes in the way I was managing them never seemed to get me the results I needed. Then I discovered Ground Effect Limousines merino lycra shorts. While I still had to carefully manage the existing issue, the shorts made a huge difference and provided significantly more comfort. Without them, I wasn’t going anywhere.
Lights were another problem. I had one but it was only marginally OK for being seen on the roads, not for seeing where you are going. I found Gloworm Lights and my problem was solved. I selected a light which not only gave me ample light for what I was doing, but was also capable of being charged while in use. So, as long as I had my power-bank I could get many hours from my light. The guys at Gloworm also provided me with a second battery ensuring I had ample back up to get through the nights. Great.
A locator device was also required. This was non-negotiable according to my wife, our two children and their respective partners. Not to mention our grand-daughter. I made contact with TrackMe. They are heavily involved in outdoor activities and David was very helpful ensuring I had the right device. One that allowed people to track my progress, and provide me with the ability to communicate with them. It turned out to be very important and provided peace of mind for myself and those tracking me.
February 2021 and training had been going well. I had rattled off a number of long rides, each time adding more of the gear I’d need on my adventure. I had managed to Double Happy the Twin Coast Cycle Trail in Northland (180km), and rattle off a 230km ride on the Hauraki Rail Trail. By now I had also purchased a rear carrier. Some modifications helped to make it stable on the bike and not fail due to weight. Perfect. Talking of failure, it was about now I discovered that loading from the single speed conversion had caused significant wear to the slots where the rear axle sits. They had worn badly causing the wheel to sit at an angle and the tyre to rub on the frame. This required some immediate ‘surgery’. A local alloy engineering company sorted that out perfectly.
March 2021, and I was a week out from leaving and yet another problem. A plastic spacer between my carrier and seat post had moved slightly during a training ride and unbeknown to me had, over time, rubbed a hole in the inner leg of my lycra shorts. I was gutted. An email that Saturday to Ground Effect explaining the situation and how time critical it was resulted in a phone call from them first thing Monday and fabric on a courier to me the same day. Amazing. I had also made contact with a local seamstress who sorted the sewing straight away. Phew. The bike also had a last minute going over by ‘Dr Pete’ my bike mechanic. A new chain and a few tweaks later – I was ready. Now, if only the weather would play ball.
March 12th 2021 Pam and I flew to Dunedin to meet Gay and husband Steve (very good friends of ours) who had driven up from Invercargill. Gay was to join Pam for the trip, while Steve would return to Invercargill for work (he’d recently taken on a new job and as a result had no leave). The four of us had dinner and a quiet night in Dunedin before Steve headed south, and the rest of us headed north to Oamaru.
For some time, I had been watching weather reports and without fail they all said the same thing. Beautiful sunny weather in the Mt Cook area Saturday and Sunday, and again on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday the following week. However, the Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday morning it was rubbish. I had planned a 5am departure but that was likely to put me right in the middle of the worst weather while I was at Mt Cook. To make matters worse, we were by now seeing fabulous photos of Mt Cook from our friends on the A2O guided tour. These friends were also warning us of the ‘impending weather doom’, adding weight to the weather forecasts. In order to beat the front coming in, I decided to leave at 2am. Had my time estimations been accurate and the wind gods looked on me favourably I might have made it in time.
Departing at 2am, I was full of nervous apprehension. I have competed in a number of cycling and off-road running events, but this was about as nervous as I had been. Second guessing my ability, the thought of being a fraud maybe, or not having the determination to finish. Maybe the fact that it was a huge distance that was making me nervous? I had never tackled anything remotely as big as this, let alone solo. This was certainly a challenge. “Could I actually do it?“ kept going around in my head. Leaving Oamaru there was an airy calm. With no moon out the night was black. But the quiet and calm as I rode the initial easy, downhill trails was reassuring. Maybe it won’t be that bad?
Riding at night there is the inevitable disruption from random visitors, rabbits, possums, etc. While most of these were in front of me, and startled by the headlight, seeing them did remind me of stories about the infamous Canterbury panther. A large cat rumoured to live in this part of the South Island. About an hour into my ride, I heard one of the ‘etcs’ previously mentioned but not seen. I could sense something behind me and could hear footsteps on the gravel trail just to the left of my back wheel. Being so dark I could not see what it was. I also did not want to stop just in case it wasn’t as afraid of me as I was of it! I continued riding as it closed in on me, and just as it came up on my left side, it shot off into the scrub. I could see the foliage move as I quickly glanced around. I still have no idea what it was but it certainly gave me motivation to keep the pedals turning, at least until daylight. Not long before Duntroon the wind got up a bit, nothing major, but boy was it warm. It felt like someone had a hair dryer pointed at me. As a result, the thermal and jacket had to come off. This made for really pleasant riding. I passed through Duntroon just before daylight and a while later was treated to an amazing sight as the dawn sky lit up red just out of Kurow. Riding through Kurow everything was shut, but reaching the edge of the settlement, an oasis - a coffee oasis to be exact. I had a craving for it, and there it was, a coffee van parked in a private residence and Linda was open for business. Awesome. After a short conversation I headed off, leaving Linda shaking her head saying ‘no way’, and probably thinking I was just a silly old fool.
From Kurow up around Lake Aviemore and on to Benmore, while pretty, it was fairly uneventful. I reached the Benmore Dam and stopped for a break. From here, the track had previously followed the road over to Omarama, but not now. The new piece of track around the edge of Lake Benmore and Sailors Cutting was simply magnificent. It is worth riding the entire trail just for the 16km around Sailors Cutting. The weather was warm and sunny, the water was crystal clear, and the views went for miles. Something I was not fully prepared for were the hills. There were only three or four of them but had my heart pumping to get up and over. Hopefully the last of the surprises.
Shortly after leaving Sailors Cutting, I arrived in Omarama. A message from Pam told me that the Wrinkly Ram was the place to stop for lunch so I did. One steak pie (OMG that was good!), one bottle of water, one bottle of Powerade, one ginger beer, one large cup of coffee (yes with sugar), and an extra-large banana thickshake later, I think I just about nailed my thirst.
Given I had left three hours earlier than planned, I should have been in Lake Ohau by about 1:30pm. My estimated times were well out and I was going to take even longer because the wind from hell was about to arrive. The road sections of the trail to Lake Ohau were exposed and constantly into this wind. At one stage I was off the bike and pushing up a gentle incline. It’s OK I thought as I’ll soon be back on a trail and sheltered from the wind. Yes, I was, but the 2 or 3km section to the hill climb was a rutted piece of farm track that required concentration and care to avoid pedals making contact with the ruts. The climb to the Tarnbrae high point was a good workout, with amazing views and the downhill into Lake Ohau Lodge was rough in places but a pretty cool ride all the same. On arrival there at about 6pm I was greeted by Pam and Gay, and also our friends on the guided tour. It was awesome to see everyone, have a bite to eat, and stretch my legs. I also had a good talk with the guides about the weather. Not good, so a decision was made to stay there until 10:30pm. This would allow the worst of the weather to pass from Mt Cook before I got there.
Leaving Lake Ohau Lodge I had no idea what I was in for. There was a bit of wind on the section to Twizel and round Pukaki, but once I’d turned onto the road up to Mt Cook it seemed the closer I got, the harder the wind gods worked to stop me entering their special place. It was pitch black and there was too much cloud cover to see any stars above and forward of me. To the left and right of me, and behind me the skies were just fine, but, in front, that was a different story. It was dark and ugly. It was a real grind pedalling into the wind. Twice I was literally blown across and off the road. Each time I managed to stop the bike just before sailing off into the darkness beyond the gravel edge (at the time it looked like the abyss but later daylight would show it to be a fairly benign rough grass bank). Standing in the middle off the road after the second time the wind picked me up, I could not hold the bike up. So there I was pushing the bike for about 100m with the left handle bar almost on the ground. This was more hard work than fun. The wind never let up and by the time I arrived at the start point of the track (a few short kilometres past Mt Cook Village), rain started to add to my problems. I grabbed a quick photo of the bike at the ‘start’ sign to prove I’d been there then it was off again, back the way I’d come! I stopped a little further down the road once dawn had broken to grab a photo of where I had been and where I was going. I had intended to stop at the village for breakfast, but as I was there right on dawn nothing was open, at least not that I could see, so breakfast would have to wait.
On the bright side, while the wind hadn’t let up, the rain had. The wind was still as strong as ever, but behind me – yippee! On the sections where I had been struggling to get to Mt Cook, I was now cruising at 40kph+. This continued for much of the journey back to Pukaki by which time the sun was out and the skies had cleared. It was going to be a beautiful day.
Riding up the Hayman Rd toward Braemar Station and Rotten Tommy the views were spectacular. Mt Cook eventually shook off her cloak of thick cloud, and the lake was almost sparkling as the sunlight reflected off the surface. It looked so inviting and there were plenty of opportunities to stop for photos. A complete contrast to what I had, or hadn’t seen the night before.
Julia was right, the road up to the homestead was a steep climb so I took her advice and left the bike by a barn at the entrance, called her, and bummed a ride up to the homestead in the buggy. Wow, the views they have from there are awesome. With freshly charged batteries and, and with a belly full of bacon and eggs, I headed up the road to Rotten Tommy. After about 3km I realised in my haste to get battery chargers etc unloaded, and making the call to leave my main gear bag at Braemar Station, (knowing I’d be back there 2-3 hours later), I had accidentally left my tracker device attached to that bag – bugger. I was not about to turn around now so I texted Pam and waited. A short time later I got her reply, which surprisingly enough was not rude. The ride into Rotten Tommy was good, mostly gravel road, at least until Jollie River Carpark. This is when I made another mistake. Jollie River carpark is several kilometres before Rotten Tommy. It is a place where a number of the tours start, but NOT the true starting point. That would be Rotten Tommy. Anyway, riding through I hadn’t really taken much notice as I expected it to be bigger, so when I arrived at Rotten Tommy I was confused. I see a sign that has Tasman District on it, and distance markers to 3 places. One of which was Jollie River. It said 11km. It also said Twizel 69km and Oamaru 300km. If only I’d read more than the first line. I was gutted because I thought I still had 11km to go to Jollie River, then several more to Rotten Tommy. I was not happy. I think there are still some of my toys scattered there that had been thrown from the cot. So, I stupidly rode on. I was by now ‘riding’ on a factious track, bolder hopping and forwarding small offshoots from the Tasman River. I was actually surprised at how well I was riding over the boulders the size of a human head. I am fairly sure that was the adrenalin and anger that was still running though my veins rather than a display of riding ability. Eventually however, I completely ran out of ‘track’. I was prevented from progressing by the braided upper reaches of the Tasman River and where the river and the mountains converged. Clearly something was not right - there was no track. That’s when I discovered my biggest mistake. Conceding defeat and assuming I hadn’t made it to the starting point because the track had been washed out, I wanted to at least get photo evidence showing I’d made it this far. Oops, my phone battery was all but dead. Standing in the middle of nowhere (well that’s how it seemed at the time) I gave myself a good telling off (only not as polite) before taking a moment to think about everything and heading back. Could it be I had mis-read the sign? Surely not!
Having made it back to the sign, I could clearly see where a fictitious someone had removed the imaginary direction arrowhead I’d seen, and added Twizel and Oamaru to the sign while I was rock hopping and dragging my bike about 2km further up the river than I needed to. Or, I had simply screwed up and mis-read a simple sign? I should point out that nowhere is anything labelled Rotten Tommy, so given my state of mind at the time, an easy mistake, or not. Hmmm. To prove I’d got this far I pointed my dead phone at the bike leaning against the sign and hit where I thought the photo button was in the hope it might work. Who knows.
On arrival back at Braemar Station, having no phone battery, I was forced to ride/push the bike up the hill to the homestead. A suitable punishment I would suggest. Julia mentioned that I was a little longer than she had expected. Yes, it was embarrassing to explain why, but after a laugh and a good conversation about the local history I was fed, recharged, and on my way, again. The steak dinner had me flying along. It was a quick, but dark ride back to Twizel where I had hoped to get water and maybe even a snack. No luck, so on I rode. Riding to Lake Ohau I had become aware of a couple of things. Firstly, the stars. They were awesome. In fact, one of my highlights were the toilet stops. Standing off the track, with all lights off, my eyes would adjust, exposing so much more of the night sky. It was something special to look at and enjoy.
However, by now they seemed to wobble back and forward like a string of fairy lights after being hit by a stick. Nothing else did it, just the stars. Weird. By now I was also becoming progressively hungrier, and had started nibbling at the wrap and cake Julia had given me. I had pre-planned when and where I would eat out of concern about running out completely. Nibbling away I became more acutely aware that I couldn’t eat the whole wrap or drink the water as I had to share it, with my imaginary friend. Every time I drank or ate, it was the first thing on my mind. It was airy as I felt he was right there with me every time the food came out. As it turned out, he was ‘future me’. I was saving the food for another point on the track, so just my mind playing tricks. Shame he wasn’t much into conversation.
The best mind tricks though were the sleep monsters. By now they were out in force. If I could draw, I’d be able to sketch them. The images were so vivid. Showing up as individuals much of the time but also groups of creatures huddled together like a Where’s Wally poster. The smaller ones were like meerkats in shape but not quite, and the biggest were about the size of a large dog. None were threatening, and I was aware of what they were. I just couldn’t believe how detailed they were. So funny.
What wasn’t so funny by now was my lack of water. Riding the section parallel to Lake Ohau I thought it would be easy to fill up from the lake. In a pitch black night with a bush bash to get to it, no thanks. Eventually I did get water from the lake, via a short lake access road not far from Lake Ohau Lodge. I arrived at Lake Ohau Lodge pretty worn out. I had hoped to push on to Omarama, but the thought of tackling the 10km climb (actually 12km) in the dark, hungry and with no rest was a bit daunting. Not surprised to see the lodge was all closed up at 3am, I found a nice cosy spot under a tree in the carpark away from the lodge and set up a bivvy. I climbed into that at 3:15am, set the alarm for one hour later and… out. I woke up an hour later feeling great. Quickly packing up, and wishing the lodge was open for breakfast at 4.15am, LOL. I headed off at 4:30am. The climb up to the Tarnbrae highpoint was pretty good. I had imagined a really tough grind, but that was not the case. Still dark at the top, and no view to enjoy I continued down to Omarama arriving there in time for a steak pie for breakfast. I also loaded up with drink and bacon and egg pie to take away.
After refuelling it wasn’t long before I was back on Sailors Cutting. It was still hilly, but worth the suffering just for the views. A must-see part of the countryside. On the last climb at the south end of this section, my chain was very clogged up and decided to part company with the rear sprocket. It’s a sign I thought, so I took the opportunity to eat, clean the chain, and take a photo or two. As I rounded the last turn before descending to the Benmore Dam lookout, I saw the most beautiful sight. An ice-cream truck. No, not a mirage, this was the real thing. I stopped and had possibly the best mango smoothie, ever.
From Benmore it’s a road ride around the back of Lake Aviemore to the Aviemore Dam where I crossed and continued to head towards Oamaru. Aviemore is also where an old friend I hadn’t missed, came back and this time to stay. The wind had returned, but this time it was coming from the opposite direction so I had a headwind all the way back to Oamaru. Perfect, not.
By the time I arrived back in Kurow, Linda had shut up shop for the day so I headed into the main street and the local dairy. I topped up again. Coffee, fluids, and a Fruju. Oh, ah, yum. It was only a short hop to Duntroon before my final destination, Oamaru and a dinner date with Pam, Gay and our tour group friends. They were all keen to see me finish, but not half as keen as I was. I was loving the support but also really fancied the idea of cold beer and hot pizza.
Just after Duntroon my body was saying ‘ok we got this so I’m going to park up now and let you coast in to the finish’. It was an effort to keep the legs turning over and didn’t help that in all my research for the trip, I had spent little time on this section, and its hills. Around one corner I’d get slapped in the face by the head wind. Around the next and it was a hill. Reaching the top of one hill, the road would turn and immediately take me back down in what felt like the wrong direction. I could hear myself saying how much I had hated every other ride I’d done on this section with Alan (my mate who was on the guided tour). How much I hated the fact that this section had unnecessary additional milage just so I could look at more rock formations. The only thing was, neither Alan, nor I had ever been on this track before, except when I had ridden it in the dark some 60+hrs earlier, from the opposite direction. Why it seemed so familiar I have no idea.
Adding to my woes, my chain was clogging up (again, and badly), and with the evening air chill setting in, I was starting to get cold. But, in my infinite wisdom I decided to ride on - I could smell the pizza. The hills and dirty chain became a real problem and I had to walk some steeper sections as the chain was constantly jumping and I was concerned something would break leaving me a long walk to the finish. Yes, I should have stopped and cleaned it but I wasn’t stopping now for anything.
With 20km to go, I messaged Pam, and again as I hit the edge of Oamaru. “I’m nearly there, we have done it. Can’t wait to see you”. It was still a slog through the last 10km but as I hit the final 4km of easy trail into town I knew I had done it. The legs sparked up, my butt stopped complaining, I said goodbye to my imaginary friend, and just enjoyed the moment. I had proven something to myself. I wasn’t a fraud, I am capable of putting my body through some serious endurance, I am not old, I’m not afraid of sleep monsters, and I still have my sense of humour, just! And for my final mistake, I hit the go button on the go pro camera to record the final 2-300m into the finish so I could catch Pam and my friends on camera. Too tired, I hadn’t hit it hard enough. Oops! Thank goodness for friends with cameras. I finally got a hug from Pam and the obligatory photos at the finish sign.
Looking back, all I can say is 'That was one hell of a ride' just don’t ask me to do it again….yet!
And just one final footnote. Before I ever agree to doing something with my brother again, I want a signed contract.
Route: Oamaru, Duntroon, Kurow, Lake Aviemore, Benmore Dam, Sailors Cutting, Omarama, Tarnbrae High Point, Lake Ohau Lodge, Twizel, Pukaki, Mt Cook, Pukaki, Braemar Station, Rotten Tommy, Braemar Station, Pukaki, Twizel, Lake Ohau Lodge, Tarnbrae High Point, Omarama, Sailors Cutting, Benmore Dam, Lake Aviemore, Kurow, Duntroon, Oamaru.
Total distance: 725km (725km on Wahoo bike computer, 733km on Strava)
Elevation gain: 5528m
Total time: 65hrs incl time for food, drink sleep, photos, changing clothes etc. etc.
Their products and services were excellent, but what really stood out was their willingness to go out of their way to help me with no expectation in return. Truly good Kiwi People. Thank you for helping me successfully complete my adventure.
And a special thanks to my daughter Casey and son in-law Bruce for the ‘trophy’ waiting for me on my return to Auckland.
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