Deane and his faithful accomplice Muel tackle a gruelling three-day loop on uncertain trails and in uncertain weather - traversing the South Island's main divide from West to East, and back again.
There’s something special about planning a route, not knowing if it’s been ridden before. It’s that fundamental urge to search and explore new landscapes. It drives me. I normally like to meticulously plan the details, distances, logistics and supplies. This trip didn’t have the luxury of checklists or a WhatsApp planning group. Muel and I literally first mentioned the idea of riding over New Zealand’s Main Divide two times and linking two alpine passes into a three-day loop just five days previously.
Our optimism came from finding a Facebook page for horse trekkers and following a thread about a keen bunch who’d opened up the old trail used originally by Maori traders with a four-ton excavator and an ex-army unimog 4WD truck to allow access for horses. The posts talked of the trail being 1.8 metres wide. This intel was like sugar for a baby to me, and the dream of discovering a built technical trail was all we needed to give it a go.
So, a few days out, we agreed to attempt the route. I set about furiously making the arrangements required. The route has a good amount of Department of Conservation (DOC) bush huts, so lightweight travel was possible but heavier gear would be necessary for this early winter sojourn into a damp river valley system. All the huts were basic shelters with foam mattresses on bunks with a bench and water supply.
The nervous energy ramped up with a broken spoke that needed attending to, which turned into a frustrating effort to reconstruct my freewheel (more on this later). However, I made the rendezvous and our team of two arrived at the road end at first light to rig the bikes.
I stuffed as much snack food as I could into every nook and cranny for the contingency that we didn’t make it round in three days. The forecast was to dump rain into the hills late on the third day. The rivers rise quickly during rain events on the west side of the divide. I was still thinking, is this a good idea? How’s this going to go if we need to be rescued? My head was swimming with all the things that could go wrong, but I tried to stay focused on the last-minute prep.
We set off at 8 am, rode for 15 minutes on an old road, and arrived at our first river crossing. Thinking this could be the biggest crossing, we took our shoes off and braved the icy water barefoot. After putting our shoes back on we walked a minute to realise that the river had another channel. We then broke out the neoprene socks and spent the next three days in them as we navigated multiple river crossings.
That first day was a mix of following old vehicle tracks and river crossings. It wasn’t until late afternoon that we arrived at the Doubtful Pass. We were hurrying, hoping to arrive at the first hut before dark, even if we originally intended to go to the second. Gravity assisted us in making good time and we arrived at the turn off to Doubtless Hut, morale boosted sufficiently to make the decision to ride on to the second option - Doubtful Hut - knowing we would be under torchlight for the last half hour or so.
Anyone who has undertaken backcountry trips knows the sense of elation at reaching your destination after a long day. When the little three-bunker appeared in our beam of light, that feeling was very apparent. A 10-hour day spent mostly feeling pessimistic about achieving this goal exacerbated the emotional relief. Never have I been so happy to arrive at a 4×3 metre tin shed.
That evening we mused over the route to come, the average speed we had managed, and discussed the back-up plan if we decided we’d bitten off more than we could chew. The night was cold and damp. I awoke to the top half of my sleeping bag damp on the outside and the inside of the hut frozen. Given our efforts yesterday and the knowledge today would be more rideable, a more casual start ensued. The frost was heavy. I didn’t realise how heavy until I threw my leg over my bike and grabbed the brake levers. The hydraulic fluid was frozen! Fifteen minutes of clumsiness ensued without brakes while trying to pump life into them.
Progress down the valley improved until we were riding 100% for the first time. The sun lifted above the jagged ridgelines of the Doubtful Range jutting out from the Main Divide we’d crossed at sunset yesterday. I shedded layers for the three kilometres of tarseal on State Highway 6. We were essentially half way as we turned back west to head up Hope Valley. Leaving the highway, which could have been an exit contingency, we committed to the uncertainty of Hope Pass.
Knowing the lower valley was all rideable meant we would make good progress to our chosen overnight destination of the Top Hope hut, but other than a photo of two horse riders at Hope Pass I knew nothing of the route from there.
The spacious Top Hope hut sat in a golden meadow of alpine tussock, when we arrived at sunset after 7.5 hours travel, the interior of the hut still held the sun’s warmth. The hut had a wood stove and the wood shed contained some dry wood. It was going to be a warm, comfortable night compared with the damp shoe box of Doubtful Hut.
After a huge feed cooked over the heat of the log fire we set about taking my cassette off, stripping down the freewheel, cleaning the components, and carefully putting it back together. It seemed to work. I would find out for sure on what looked on the map to be an epic the following day. Needing to cover a similar distance as we did on the first day, we agreed on a pre-dawn start to ensure we reached the road end before dark.
The tussock flats of the Upper Hope Valley quickly became bathed in a pre-sunrise glow after leaving the hut at 7 am. We rode easily for the first few kilometres, then river crossings turned into river travel, which happened to be the best route up this closed-in valley with dense sub alpine foliage.
As we rode towards an approaching cloud bank, we feared the forecasted heavy rain was arriving, but we had to push on. Arriving at Hope Pass, the wind was whipping the clouds through the peaks and we cooled off quickly. We hid squatting in some bushes, eating salty nuts and beef jerky. The route from here was highly unlikely to be rideable for the first few kilometres, and the descent to the river was precarious at best over slippery boulders, all while carrying the bike.
The main riverbed was easier and we both got into the rhythm of carrying and blundering down the stream bed. We knew we needed about three hours of light from the last hut, so we were ecstatic to reach that landmark after 4.5 hours from the pass, a good hour quicker than the DOC recommended walking time. Once again I was chilled to the bone when we stopped, even in the hut. This was exhaustion taking its toll, and from experience I knew I would need to manage my efforts to keep a little fuel in the tank to make it home.
The last 10 kilometres turned out okay, having picked up the old road that I’d spied from satellite images. It ended up being a 10.5 hour day, making a 105 kilometre loop over 28 hours.
I finished, having found a new confidence in our ability to plot a route at short notice and pull it off. I felt privileged and honoured to have such an amazing environment close by and to be able to recreate in it.
Was this a good bike ride? No, not really. Even with the pain of the effort behind me, the garks in my shoulder from resting my bike healed, the mud and blood and numbness of wet cold feet for hours forgotten, and the stress of wondering if we’d make the hut before dark gone, it was something other than a bike ride. How can it even be called a bike ride when we carried or pushed our bikes for maybe more than 60% of the total distance? Hike-a-bike, you either hate it or you tolerate it. It can be tolerable when there’s the target of a flowy long downhill or an unridden scree line. In this instance we turned a 4-5 day tramp into a three-day cycle adventure, our bikes sufficiently speeding up the middle section to allow us the dreamy golden tussock sections of the Hope.
Was it a good adventure? Yes. In hindsight it was an incredible adventure. The views were picturesque, the forest and bush stunning, the rushing streams of crystal clear water amazing. The camaraderie of arriving at a small hut after a massive day with the support and company of one of my closest friends was priceless.
To sum it up, “We were hopeful heading into the doubtful and doubtful heading into the Hope."