09 March 2021
In an impressive display of masochism, thirty four battle weary bikepackers completed the inaugural Tour Te Waipounamu - 1319 self-supported backcountry kilometres down the spine of Aotearoa's South Island. Ground Effect Revolutionary Ollie Whalley was first to arrive at Slope Point in just under five and a half days. Ground Effect Graphic Designer Liam pedalled in just a few days later. Here's Ollie's story...
After months of physical and mental preparation, I was itching to get started on TTW. The idea of a cruisy commute over to the start from Nelson seemed like a pretty good one. The alternative 5 hour round trip in the car with the whanau wasn’t an exciting proposition for 5 year old Max and Heidi, and I could happily do without the teary send-off.
It was a nice overcast day. Taking a mixture of the Great Taste Trail, Takaka Hill Road and East Takaka Road I had a very pleasant ride, stopping to resupply in a bustling Takaka.
Despite the tempting sign, I didn’t stop for the 'Love Vibrations' festival in Collingwood, but thought it might have been a good opportunity - given the need to be well stocked with positive vibrations for the upcoming ride.
Arriving just before the briefing let me avoid a day spent sifting around getting anxious about inconsequential gear choices. And I still had plenty of time to walk along Wharariki Beach and catch the sunset - its raw wild beauty a fitting start to an epic journey from North to South.
Organiser Brian Alder covered the minutiae of the course in his excellent briefing and underlined how fortunate we were to traverse private land along the route, and the need to respect this - including considered pooping etiquette.
The only slight mishap of the day was when the friendly campground horse sniffed out and gobbled my next morning's breakfast banana, leaving a sludgy mess around my tent site. A fellow camper kindly put my other food inside the tent before the horse discovered the delights of dehydrated porridge.
Sleep came quickly after the exertion of the day’s commute - the longest day on a bike for me since 2016. Some considerably longer days lay ahead though.
Lining up at Cape Farewell were handful of keen adventurers heading off into the unknown. The anticipation was palpable. When the start flag went down bright and early, a fast but sensible paceline formed along the rolling roads to Collingwood. Still no takers for Love Vibrations, with the festival still sound asleep.
The feared beach section to Milnthorpe was a hard-packed doddle. On the road through to Takaka the peloton started to string out as the no drafting rule was observed. Reaching the bottom of the Rameka Pack Track was a relief, the cool forest cover and fun techy trail keeping my heart rate high and brain occupied. I rode a bit more of this than was sensible, managing to come off and break my dynamo light. Nothing some carefully placed zip ties couldn’t fix. I got off lighter than Martin who broke in half the sole of his shoe. Clearly too much power.
After a GPS malfunction at the start, Pat caught us at the top of Takaka Hill. Martin, Pat and I coasted down to the shuttle that was required to ferry us through the seemingly permanent roadworks. I love a free shuttle but this was definitely in the wrong direction - heading downhill through the fun windy bits.
The cloud burned off and with Martin trying to rustle up some new shoes in Motueka, Pat and I were left to a leisurely pedal up the picturesque Motueka Valley. It was stinking hot by the time we reached the Baton Saddle. Cold drinks balanced out the hot pies I woofed down in Tapawera. Two for now and two in my jersey 'pie warmer' pocket for later.
A highway and backroad blat took us to our next challenge, the Rainy River Road which ground upwards to some lovely beech forest. Martin’s bad luck struck again when an innocuous rock slashed his sidewall. I left him to fix it and cruised up the hill expecting to see him again shortly. The always pleasant Porika followed, descending steeply to the sandfly infested hell of Lake Rotoroa, followed by a grind up, then float down the Braeburn.
With the sun setting and a lovely tailwind, I rolled into Murchison in the lead and deep within the fun zone. Stores were closed so I downed a now cold pie, cranked some dubstep on me headphones and headed up the Matakitaki Valley.
I started to run out of steam at the base of the Maruia Saddle, but persevered and made it to a nice camping spot just ahead of the Dredgeville section. I bivyed under a tree and got some much-needed zees, woken only by Steve’s buzzing freewheel then Martin’s booming voice 30 min or so later.
I woke again (before my alarm sounded) after 2 solid hours kip, zinging and ready to go. I went with it, packed and steeled myself for the boggy section to come. Still very dark and through the long grass, navigation was tricky. The route was punctuated by axle deep bogs, in one of which a curious eel breached the surface drawn out by my helmet light. I marched through that one quick smart. Possums were out in force. The critter encounters tailed off as I reached the highway and Springs Junction, passing Steve camped at Marble Hill.
Pushing through the cold early morning hours was tough, but I used the chilly descent to stay awake. The sun rose just as I reached Boyle River and collected my resupply box. Pat was in a sorry state having knocked off an epic first day, while Martin had pressed on. Steve rolled up 30 min later and we set off for the next challenge together.
Steve had ridden the Hope-Kiwi through to Lake Sumner a couple of times before. My expectations of rooty singletrack with lots of 'on and off' the bike were met. I started off trying to charge this section. A reset of my approach was required after frustratingly loosing a pack of Full O' Fruit biscuits from my jersey pocket multiple times, and crashing into a tree while attempting to ride a gnarly bit.
I waited for Steve at the first hut, and was happy to have his company through the tricky stuff. It was great to catch up having last shared company in the 2016 Tour Aotearoa. He’d gone on to do amazing things with his riding while my life had become more family orientated. It was cool to reconnect whilst riding and carrying our bikes through the rooty forest.
Lots of slogging over the river flats, interspersed by some more beech forest and occasional snack stops. Rounding Lake Sumner the route became a hike and we tackled the carry to Lake Mason in the heat of the day. I struggled to eat at this point, so it was nice to stop for a breather beside the picturesque Lake Mason.
It turned out that this was only a warmup for the next challenge, a full on carry up and over the Dampier Range. Starting out as a super steep paddock where carry was the only option, it levelled slightly as we gained elevation. This let us push onwards to a seemingly endless series of false summits. We stopped about half way up to scoff dinner. Both of us reflected how insane this route was, at that stage being only 2 hours into what would be a 7 hour carry. This reflection proved helpful as it reframed the entire ride from the default approach of hunting kilometres and high average speeds, to one of survival and actually making it to the finish. This became my new mantra for TTW.
This was a good mindset to be in as the route threw obstacle after obstacle at us. Waist high grass forced a carry, and we were almost relieved when this gave way to leg spiking Spaniards before finding a narrow horse track to follow. Finally reaching the saddle, hopes of a ridable descent were dashed as yet more tall tussock, bogs and downhill slog followed. As we got lower down it did become ridable but the darkness meant we couldn’t really shred. There was a whoop of relief from both of us as we reached Anderson’s Hut. Brian had warned us about the rodent infestation, so we opted to bivy under a tree.
We ended up with an abysmal average speed of 5 kph for the day. I was happy to have made it through this gnarly section without falling off the mountain, getting lost or collapsing from exhaustion. Sharing the ordeal with Steve was awesome and full respect to those in the race who did it alone. Unbeknownst to us this was only a taster of the challenges to come.
Rain came at night. I thought I must be dreaming, so rolled over and hoped it was imaginary, only for another shower to pass and wake me properly. Damn. Hastily relocating further under a beech tree I fell asleep again, only to be woken by the arrival of Tony and Hedley who had tackled the Dampier Range at night. Crazy!
4 am was a pretty reasonable time, so we thanked these guys for the wake up call. Steve and I packed and headed out through Mount White Station. The terrain was generally downhill, with the odd river crossing followed by a grind back onto the river terrace. The farm roads were in great condition and as the light filtered through the grey morning we were able to properly appreciate the moody scenery.
Once down by the river we were treated to a delightful tailwind, rainbows and thanks to our rainwear, a pleasant riding temperature. A bit of highway work took us to Cass where we diverted up the infamous river bed. The route through to Hamilton Hut had been one of my favourite backcountry rides when I lived in Canterbury some years ago. I relished riding the route from a distant memory, remembering which bits were ridable and those that were better suited to a tactical walk.
Crossing the river many times, we finally made it into the forest and climbed to Cass Saddle Hut, then onwards above the bushline to the saddle proper. The rain was bone chilling. I looked back to locate Steve but he was not to be seen. I pushed on being conscious of the need to keep moving in the cold. This was the last time I saw Steve, and I missed his company.
Starting out with a series of steep rooty chutes, the track eventually levelled off and became an impossibly smooth and buff singletrack which lived up to my fond memories. How such singletrack perfection exists in such a remote beech forest defies belief.
Lunch at Hamilton Hut allowed me to dry out my bivy sack, then it was back on my bike for the endless crossings of the Harper River out to Lake Coleridge. Following the 4wd track that switched from bank to bank, my poor feet were subjected to an extended period of wetness that was starting to take its toll with signs of trench foot. Fortunately, the following hours past Lake Coleridge were relatively dry giving them a chance to air out. I stopped at an old fibreglass toilet near the Mt Olympus Ski Field road. It took all my willpower not to stop and nap in its warm, quiet and sheltered confines.
Rounding a corner soon after I saw signs of a grader working, surely an ominous sign for the ultra-racer of thick, deep gravel to come. Sure enough a man was grading the road, but kindly left a smooth patch of existing road on the shoulder. Others behind me might not be so fortunate.
This was the first time I saw more tangible sign of Martin - his tracks visible in the freshly graded gravel. Untill now the hard charging Czech had been a fairly abstract concept, but the prospect of catching him (and having someone else to chat with) proved pretty motivating.
It wasn’t until crossing the Rakaia Bridge that I saw him. It took all my self-control not to sprint and catch him up on the climb past the Mount Hutt turnoff.
When I did eventually catch him he was in pretty low sprits, plagued by bike issues not to mention some frustration at the amount of bike carry required. Clearly buoyed by the company we steamed downhill to Methven, inhaling double burgers at the Blue Pub and raiding the Four Square for the next day's sustenance.
By this stage my GPS had finally given up. It turned out the charge cable had fatigued from one too many bumps. I was forced to use my cell phone to get course directions. A little annoying but it proved to be a great way to shift focus again from hours ridden and kilometres covered on the screen, to looking up and taking in the natural splendour, at least when it was light.
We pushed on along mind numbingly straight roads with no traffic into the night, finally stopping at the Peel Forest Hall, dossing under the playground there.
Another good sleep but again I awoke after 3 hours just zinging and ready to ride. My circadian rhythms had definitely got the memo that this was a race. I poked Martin and got a groan in return, so set about packing up. We’d worked out that we needed to leave by 4 am if we were to make Tekapo in time to restock at the Four Square. When I gave Martin a second nudge around this time and got no response I knew I had to push on alone.
After a few solid hours of pedalling towards the source of the Rangitata, the sun's rays crested from behind me and I was treated to a beautiful mountain vista. I stared at the scene wondering where we would cross this imposing obstacle today. The answer soon became clear as we diverted off the road and took a farm track towards Bullock Bow Saddle. It ascended steeply with a couple of lumps, before cresting the saddle for a rip snorting descent to Royal Hut in time for lunch by the creek.
Losing my GPS had messed with my perception of time and distance. What I thought would be a relatively easy section following a poled route to Stag Saddle proved to be one of the toughest sections of the TTW.
It was a 100% carry, sometimes with hands on rocks to provide stability and prevent slipping back into the gully below. The poles were pretty hard to find but using the topo map on my phone I worked it out and summited Stag Saddle to take in the breath-taking views down to Lake Tekapo. I was lucky it was a bluebird day with no wind, and despite the physical challenge of hauling body and bike through here I was definitely in the fun zone, stoked to be on this intrepid adventure.
Hopes that the carry was over were premature as I was forced to sidle around a peak before taking the smooth singletrack all the way down, down, down to a hut.
A last rude climb up to Roundhill Road then the fun Richmond Trail led me into Tekapo proper, in time for a hot meal at the Four Square deli, as well as half a tub of ice-cream for dessert.
The mellow Tekpao canal road that followed was Brian's course-design masterstoke. The arduous carry of the proceeding day was quickly forgotten with a gentle tailwind and smooth surface with no cars, that propelled me to Lake Pukaki in a haze of mid-adventure endorphin. I was a tired but contented adventurer as I rolled my bivy out under a tree at Lake Pukaki, with views over the moonlit lake and a starry night above.
In what was fast becoming a helpful habit, I was woken about 30 min prior to my alarm, this time by a hard charging Tony who had pushed late into the night. When he rolled past me about 3:30 am I assumed he was launching his push for the finish, having started his last push to the line way back in Methven.
Prior to the race my strategy had been to forgo sleep on the final day, thinking that I could deprive myself of this luxury given that the race would be over at Slope Point and I could sleep forever after that. While this was an easy call when well rested at home, I saw no reason not to stick to it now, especially given my positive experiences from the previous day. It would be uncharted territory for me in terms of riding time and distance, but nothing that Coke and caffeine pills couldn’t help me though.
By the time I was packed up and rolling, Tony must have had fifteen minutes on me. I was comfortable that I could close that gap over the long stretch to the finish. Setting a steady tempo was hard on the Tekapo River Road section - definitely more river than road - and a pretty rude awakening for the butt this late into the ride and so early in the day. At some point I saw lights ahead that I assumed were Tony’s but they disappeared despite me chasing harder. Was Tony going stealth? Stopping for a snack before sunrise I figured he’d increased his time on me. On checking the MAProgress tracker it seemed my fears were unfounded. He was back at Lake Pukaki resting only 5 minutes from where he had woken me up. Doh!
Relieved, I set into a more sustainable rhythm and headed through Black Forest and around Lake Benmore, taking in some eery misty views while the sun eked its way up. Having riden this previously as part of the Great Southern Brevet I was prepared for its lumpiness, but even so, on reaching the dam it was a relief to be on sealed road to Otematata.
Ahead was a brief return to hike-a-bike - a nice chance to stretch the legs in the early morning sun. The countryside was proper Central Otago with dusty dry hills and sheep free to wander. At one point I had a flock of about 100 leading me down the valley and felt a bit bad giving them unnecessary exercise. By the time I reached Chimney Creek, and another steep hike-a-bike onto the Hawkdun Range, it was really starting to heat up. Fortunately the altitude and breeze from riding along the tops kept things manageable. Thankfully this was all ridable, with the moonscape of barren rocks providing a good technical challenge.
I noticed that my rear tyre had a slow leak, the first real mechanical issue of the ride. Topping it up with goo yielded no improvement so I put in a tube for the rocky descent to Oturehua.
The gnarly descent to the valley seemed to last for hours, with a gentle roll to Oturehua in time to stock up on pies, sour snakes and Coke for the long night ahead. Surprisingly my precariously stored cargo of caffeinated beverage was only ejected once before it was guzzled in a attempt to keep the sleep monsters at bay.
Despite the nice roads and cool rock features of the Poolburn Reservoir, the headwind killed my buzz 'till an amazing sunset turned my mood around. Wisps of golden clouds illuminated the tussock and I knew I was somewhere special.
Reports were that I was singing to myself when Simon and Mandy offered me a raspberry bun which I declined, not from lack of desire of raspberry goodness, but rather from observance of the TTW’s strict 'self support' rules.
As darkness set in, I spiralled into new depths of fatigue and exhaustion which I’m glad to say aren’t a regular occurrence. I didn’t suffer any hallucinations per se, but I did have this unshakable sense of déjà vu, as if every road and junction had been traversed before. I also struggled with my perception of grade, with what felt like effortless pedalling despite the fact that the road appeared to point upwards. The ongoing verbalised internal monologue was also a lasting memory of these dark times.
For a break in routine, I took a selfie video to document my mental decay for posterity. Before I plan any such future endeavours I’ll watch it to remind myself what it was like and make an informed decision.
One thing I really started to struggle with was my navigation. Without the benefit of a GPS with an oriented map, I had to perform some mental gymnastics with my phone in order to make the correct left or right turn at junctions. This proved to be troubling for my sleep deprived brain. At one point I missed a crucial turn and descended a couple of hundred metres. Whilst trying to work out the best way to backtrack my helmet light went flat. My cell phone light was called in as backup. I came close to curling up in my bivy sack and having a cry, but as the road got steeper I could run my dynamo light to lift my spirits again.
I didn’t really struggle with falling asleep untill just before sunrise when my blinks started to become seconds long. This is vaguely ok when you're spinning uphill but thoroughly terrifying when careering downhill. It was fortunate that I made it onto the Clutha Cycle Trail where the consequences of an off track excursion were less severe.
I made it to the Lawrence Night 'n' Day just after opening. Requests for some hot chips were met with the response that it was too early to turn on the deep fryer. I settled for some microwaved bacon and egg muffins as I plotted the ride to the finish.
Breakneck Road rose like a soaring hawk out of Lawrence, and the swooping ridgetop afforded amazing views over the Southland hills. It was an awesome road to 'wake-up' on. Removing my warm clothing allowed a refreshing stay-awake breeze.
Soon I was introduced to Southland’s infamous winds. First, of the enjoyable tailwind variety, then of the spirit crushing headwind variety. Fortunately a pitstop at Clinton provided welcome respite and milkshake.
The remaining 100km to Slope Point really dragged. Not from the quality of gravel roads, or from a lack of enthusiasm to finish, but from the warped perception of time and distance that comes from sleep deprivation and a dodgy back-up navigation system. I was stoked when filmmaker Rob caught up to document the finish and I could chat to someone.
The last slog to Slope Point says everything about the epic TTW course. I had expected a casual roll down to a beach but instead it was a 15km grind into a headwind, followed by a steep 150m climb to the high point. Finally cresting the peak and rolling to the finish line monument was exhilarating. I could finally stop pedalling for the 'day', some 38 hours and 474km after setting off from Pukaki.
I knew the TTW was going to be tough, but just how tough was hard to comprehend from the comfort of home. The entire experience, from riding and racing with a bunch of awesome cyclists, to the crazy terrain we covered and epic scenery we breathed was amazing. We were very fortunate to be able to fulfil the vision of organiser Brian, and the support of private landowners along the route. I sincerely hope that they continue to support it so that others can complete this amazing journey from the north to the south of Te Waipounamu.
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