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Cati's Tour Te Waipounamu

15 February 2022

Words and Photos: Cati Pearson

I remember reading Dulkara Martig's posts from the first Tout Te Waipounamu (TTW) - storing hot chips in her feedbag and summiting side missions, like the original course wasn’t hard enough. My friend Emily suggested we could do this event as a group. I opened the website and thought "that’s huge". Stuff that, let’s try something like the Timber Trail instead. TTW momentarily forgotten.

Then mid Papa Ghosty Loop with Emma Bateup it raised its head again. Emma had received a message from Brian Alder (race organiser) saying we had TTW spots if we wanted them. Emma, being Emma, was like "yeah let’s go, it will be fun". And me being the blind follower to Emma’s plans thought - "if it's like the Papa then how hard can it be"? Anyway hard isn’t an excuse to not do something.

So I signed up, and was disappointed when I missed the first email confirming my entry. Then terrified when I got a second note and realised I was in after all. Things kicked off with a hiss and a roar. I read every blog inside and out in preparation. I found a 4-month bike packing race training guide and even organised Tracey to get me back to the gym. But in typical Cati fashion I got bored and things slipped. 7hr training rides became 3hrs. Overnighters became sleep overs in the comfort of my own bed in my own house. Planned events like the Geyserland Gravel Grind fell by the wayside. I prepped poorly - with only two practice rides on a fully laden bike.

When I arrived in Nelson on the Friday I was still terrified for what’s to come. I had tonnes of lovely messages wishing me good luck, which left me feeling teary - what have I let myself in for.

The bike arrived and probably for the first time in a century of flying with bikes it was fine. What a relief. I built her up and wandered into town for essentials - gas, cheese and crackers. Turns out I had forgotten how hot Nelson gets and by the time I got home I was a sweaty sore mess. The rest of the day was spent in bed eating and reading course notes over and over again. Surely cramming now will help!

On Saturday I woke with a numb left hand (a common occurrence for me since hurting my elbow a few years ago), not a good sign considering I was to be holding my bars for the next 10 days.

A bunch of us shuttled to Cape Farewell organised by the amazing Emma Hadley. It was a good time to meet people; those I had talked to online beforehand, those I had stalked and those whose blogs I consumed in preparation for this. We met Bateup at briefing after she had ridden over from Motueka. We were handed our spot trackers - things were starting to get serious. Surprisingly enough I slept like a log the night before, making the most of having a bed.

Emma and myself and the obligatory pre-event selfie 
Day 1

On Sunday we corralled at Cape Farewell all jittery but ready to go. I don’t actually remember anyone saying "Go" but next minute the crowd raced off. I jumped on the back of the first group but by the time we made it 400m down the road to the first hill I was out the back. The next group that came across was more my pace (and without me knowing, would contain my riding buddies for the next week). We drafted to Collingwood and had a cruisey roll across the beach to Takaka.

The peloton heads into Collingwood

As I got to the Rameka, our first climb (883m) I realised I may have gone too hard too fast, which left me walking sections of a very rideable track. This made me very nervous and was a bad sign for things to come. I stopped at the top for a lunch break, chatting with Cosmo and Adrian who were having a leisurely start to their day. I tried to eat my leftover pesto pasta but my stomach was in knots. I managed a few mouthfuls and a bunch of Tailwind instant energy before pushing on.

I rode solo all day, happy to just be on the road and at my pace. I made my way up Baton Valley Saddle slowly. Seeing a lady on a horse up ahead I pulled over to the righthand side of the road to give her space. She promptly yelled at me for being dangerous and riding on the wrong side of a busy road. After a 15 minute grilling I was allowed passed and limped my way into Tapawera for my next stop.

I joined Cosmo and Adrian at the pub for an early dinner, ordering pizza and coke. Sadly, I was still unable to tolerate food. Having one slice of pizza before wanting to vomit. I couldn’t even stand the thought of packing it and taking the rest with me. So I downed my coke, refilled a bottle of Tailwind and hit out for Nelson Lakes.

Everyone appeared to stop at the top of the pylon track where a medical emergency was awaiting help. I was no help so I rode down the hill by myself, boosting into the farm below for my first chat with trail fairies in the pitch black. I rode on until about 10:30 that night. Tired from a big day I found an anglers access track and set up my bivvy for some sleep - but got none as all I could hear for hours on end were all the other riders going past me. Stressed, after a couple of hours of rest I decided to start again…

  • Distance 223.3 km
  • Vertical 2678m
  • Max vert 883m
  • Moving time 13:29 hrs 
  • Elapsed time 15:20 hrs
  • Cries 0
Day 2

It transpires I actually did get some kip - remarkable as I woke to a flat sleeping mat and a rocky bed. I got straight on the bike, stressed that everyone had passed me overnight. Climbing into the Porika Track I saw everyone else camping! I pushed up the steep track to the top for a slippery descent to Lake Rotoroa as the rain started.

Passing the lake I stopped for a selfie and some lollies (still not able to tolerate solid food) and headed over to the Braeburn Track. Next minute I hear a large cracking noise and a large deer barrelled across the road in front of me.

I met my first riding buddy Mike who I followed to Murchison for another meal I couldn’t eat. So after a quick coffee and a few hot chips I made my way up to Maruia Saddle where I met Karl, who would be by my side for pretty much the rest of the ride. We cat and moused with Eillen and Andy through the bogs of Dredgeville (Springs Junction) and crested Lewis Pass (which I was way too excited to get to the top of, considering so much worse was yet to come) before dripping in on Boyle Village. The four of us would end up spending a lot of time together over the next few days. At Boyle it was time to restock from our drop boxes. My mouth watered at the sight of Pringles and extra bottles of Coke. I had enough to let me bin the Bumper Bars, "what had been watching me" for two days and making me feel ill. I also binned my stupid mat, no point it taking up valuable food space if it wasn’t going to last the night.

We crossed a lot of rivers on the TTW

Refuelled, we headed off in search of the Hope Kiwi Track. The landscape was already looking more Canterbury than Nelson. The start of the Hope Kiwi Track was... interesting... fitting the bikes through a hole in the fence and then navigating a very narrow three wire swing bridge with a fully loaded bike. It was slow going with lots of walking. We arrived at Half Way Hope about 10 pm for half a dehydrated meal for dinner. We then carried on, hoping to make Hope Kiwi Lodge. I’m actually glad it was dark as I don’t think I would have otherwise crossed the second shittier swing bridge. This one required weaving bikes on and off under wires. A fallen tree blocking the track also slowed us down. We finally arrived at the hut around midnight to find three others there including Mike. Bed time, finally!

  • Distance 201 km
  • Vertical 3096m
  • Max vert 932m
  • Moving time 15:10 hrs
  • Elapsed time 21 hrs
  • Cries 0

Day 3

Being too tired to actually set the alarm the day before I only woke up as the others were packing up. I was half an hour behind schedule, nearly missing Karl heading off, but I packed in 5 min in time to hit the track with the gang. We made our way along the valley through some much more rideable beech forest with much nicer swing bridges.

Popping out at the Hurunui River, we did a giant dog leg up and down river, crossing a ford and avoiding some big bulls loitering by the track. Andy & Eileen caught us in time for the first of the hike-a-bike sections up to Lake Mason. We became a little lost in this section and as we traversed our way back to the gpx route Andy found a poor ewe stuck in a creek. He heaved her water logged ass out and she stumbled along hopefully to be reunited with her gang.

As we pedalled our way to the base of the Dampier Range I started to get very tight left Achilles. Turns out I like to ride with my seat super high. Thank goodness A&E had encountered this before and had a trick to ease the pain. I dropped my seat shifted my cleats backwards. on the upside it took my mind off the hardest climb of the race that lay ahead.

The Dampier Range - bring it on

We changed into walking shorts and had a full feed before starting our 5 hour climb up the unmarked and untracked route over Dampier to Anderson’s Hut using only the gpx file to navigate. At places the giant tussocks came up to Eileen's and my faces as we battled to find any direction up the hill with loaded bikes on our backs.

Down to Anderson's Hut

The excitement of reaching the top evaporated with the realisation that we had to walk half way down as well! The final section (where we finally met a track) was sick, steep gravel/beech with tight Nelson-style turns. I was in my element. Sadly, it was short lived.

Anderson’s was pretty run down and my fear of spiders wouldn’t let me sleep inside. So I dragged a mattress into the bushes to bivvy on. It wasn’t until later that I realised my campsite was also a pig grave yard and what I thought was sticks were actually bones and a couple of big black ears. While the walking destroyed my Achilles it was nice to give my bum bruising and my achy hands a bit of a rest.

  • Distance 56 km
  • Vertical 1840m
  • Max vert 1463m
  • Moving time 9 hrs
  • Elapsed time 15 hrs
  • Cries 0
Day 4

We headed out of Mt White Station as the sun rose - following the fresh gravel road for hours, with beautiful views everywhere. But I was tired and struggled to keep my eyes open. I had to eventually stop for a cold roadside coffee. It didn’t help much.

Finally in Craigieburn I thought it was time for some single track fun but my Achilles continued to give me pain, and my bum was bruised and chaffed. Lollies and more coffee was consumed by the river for lunch. Nothing else seemed appetising. With temperatures soaring I felt sick. I hadn’t been able to tolerate much solid food for days, only one and a half dehydrated meals in four days. I battled on until an unexpected bright pink strawberry liquorice coloured vomit appeared on my shoes.

I pushed on through the Dracophyllum Track dazed and lagging. letting Karl move onto Hogs Back without me. I stripped off all my clothes and lay down to sleep in the shade. After 30 minutes, a shit tonne of water and a dip in the river I felt ok to move again, slowly walking the Hogs Back. Again the descent was fun and gave me a bit of a boost.

As I dropped into Castle Hill Village two trail fairies cheered me on and I used up 0.5 of an allocated cry. They told me I had it easy from there so I boosted onto the highway. They lied... the headwind around Lake Lyndon and Lake Coleridge nearly killed me. Eventually I turned up the valley I was blessed with a tailwind that soared me in the direction of Methven. About 20 km out of town I found Karl on the side of the road. He had stopped to call ahead for a cabin which I jumped in on and secured one as well.

The day took another turn 10 minutes later when the heavens opened and the southerly arrived. The headwind into Methven was unbearable. We were freezing but couldn’t stop. When I finally got to the cabin my hands were frozen in a grip so I couldn’t undress or get my bag off. To make matters worse it was 8:40 pm, we were staying 2 km out of town, it was pouring with rain, and there was no uber eats delivery. Wtf were we going to do for food? I went cabin knocking and was able to convince a lady to drive us to the pub. The pub had shut its kitchen by the time we arrived. After some begging by Eileen, Andy, Keith and Georgie (who had beaten us there for proper pub food) they agreed to produce some deep fried goodness. Time to hang out all clothing to dry and sleep with the heater on full blast in preparation for the next day's backcountry mission.

  • Distance 167.5 km
  • Vertical 2807 m
  • Max vert 1053 m
  • Moving time 12:34 hrs
  • Elapsed time 15:13 hrs
  • Cries 0.5
Day 5

We planned to start early, not waiting for the shops in Methven to open, grabbing stuff from the Peel Forest Cafe. There was fresh snow on the hills as we rode across the boring plains. We dreamed of cafe food. Real coffee, bacon and eggs or creamy pasta if they had it. Our hearts were broken on arrival to find the cafe closed for the day due to a power outage. We conducted an emergency stocktake of our food supplies - deciding whether we needed to backtrack to find some shops or keep pushing forward. A bag of lollies, two dehydrated meals, a quarter of a bag of Tailwind and a bag of 'hot' chips from the previous night’s dinner. I had JUST enough to get through the two days to our next refuelling stop in Tekapo.

We continued along long gravel tracks towards Mesopotamia Station. I learned that I’m not talented enough to ride while asleep. My eyes kept shutting unintentionally and I would wake up when my bike slid out in the gravel. I had also lost my sunblock somewhere in Craigieburn so my skin was on fire with no shelter. I decided to take off my shirt and ride in my crop top and rain coat to try provide some shade.

Andy & Eileen caught us walking again in the paddocks at the beginning of the climb - the Dampier Dream Team was back for the next hike-a-bike section. We also met Clair and the trail fairies who fed us chocolate before sending us on our way.

At the base of Bullock Bow Saddle we changed into walking shorts. I discovered that my chaffing had broken and was bleeding - something I would have to deal with later.

We climbed and climbed up the 4WD track that eventually turned to a gravel track. A few tahr grazed on the hill. The views were magnificent and the descent past the tarns to Royal Hut was one of my highlights. The downhill popped out at a sign - 2.5 km to the hut. My ass was too raw to pedal so I continued walking, hoping to secure a bunk for the night.

We had been informed that Royal Hut is super busy with Te Araroa walkers and we would be unlikely to score a bed. We raced quickly ahead of A&E and the Hello Mince Pie boys to secure spots only to find the place empty. Lucky us, I nearly cried. The boys carried on. They had also planned to restock at the closed Peel Cafe and didn’t have enough food to linger overnight.

Eventually the hut was full with seven TTW riders. Exhausted from another big day I fell asleep while resting on top of my sleeping bag. Better get a good night's sleep for tomorrow - the biggest climb.

  • Distance 135 km
  • Vertical 2428 m
  • Max vert 1695 m
  • Moving time 12 hrs
  • Elapsed time 16.5 hrs
  • Cries 0.5

Day 6

I sat down in the dark and wet dew to tape hyperfix to the wounds on my ass to hopefully act as a second skin and reduce further chaffing. I kicked off slowly up the hill before the others - knowing I’m the slowest walker in the group. I fell a few times on the rocks, knocking my aerobars and breaking my head lamp. The others caught me at dawn and it was a nicer climb than expected to Stag Saddle, the highest point on Te Araroa.

Dawn raid on Stag Saddle

We breakfasted looking out across Lake Tekapo to Aoraki Mt Cook before starting the best downhill of the event. 8 km of pure fun to Rex Simpson Hut. I would definitely return and HAB this section again hands down. As Andy said “most people think TTW is freakin' brutal but really it’s freakin' awesome”.

Our joy was kind of cut short when we arrived at the bottom of the Round Hill Ski Field climb which jutted up out of nothing straight to the sky. We had expected the section just before this to be horrible (a matagouri bush bash that was voted the worst part of TTW#1) but I had my eyes set on Tekapo so breezed through it.

Joy on the Richmond Trail

Thank goodness the Richmond Trail from here to town was fun flowy easy track. We happily refuelled with milk shakes and big breakfasts at in Tekapo. The Alps 2 Ocean out of town was super flat and fast and I was starting to think the hardest part was over. Dang, was I wrong. From Lake Pukaki to Haldon Arms we were beaten senseless for hours on baby head gravel. We arrived at the campsite around 7:30 pm, too early to stop. But with a 30 km no camping zone afterwards we carried on with an anticipated late night before bed.

Alps 2 Ocean goodness

As we hit Black Forest I started to get what I thought was cramp in my left quad. I knocked back a crampfix and stopped to stretch but it didn’t settle. We pushed on for another 10 or so km before I popped a salt tab and tried to massage it out. It started to feel worse and was aggravated by my aching Achilles. I rode on with my foot unclipped and heel on the pedal. Black Forest Station got progressively steeper and steeper and everything in me hurt. Too many false peaks beat me emotionally. What had started as the best day on the TTW quickly crashed to the worst.

We finally made it to the last peak. The descent provided no relief - death gripping the entire way due to losing my light that morning. We popped out at the Lake Benmore Dam. Someone was yelling my name. Cousins Kelsey and Mark where there, at 12:38 am on what could have been the hardest day. I burst into tears. All I needed was a hug and they just happened to be there at that very moment. I struggled to get words out. After being on the go for 20 hrs I couldn’t really afford the energy to stop but they gave me the boost I needed to roll on down to a grass field in Otematata to sleep for a few hours before the next stage.

  • Distance 166 km
  • Vertical 2232m
  • Max vert 1931m
  • Moving time 14 hrs
  • Elapsed time 20 hrs
  • Cries 1.5
Post cry cuddles with cousin Kelsey
Day 7

We allowed ourselves a small sleep in, getting upright just before 6 am. A quick wipe down in the public toilets, retaping of bum wounds and water bottle fill, it was time for another walk - straight into Otematata Station. Over the initial hill we were greeted with a fun descent and gentle roll along the river before our next big hike-a-bike. We rinsed shirts and helmets in the stream to pre-cool us for the day's toil ahead and we slowly started up the zig zag into the Hawkduns. God it was hot. This moon-like landscape was vast with nothing in sight.

This was another TTW special - not a straight up the hill and down the other side. But uphill, traverse with more uphill, descent with more uphill and downhill with a hidden uphill! We stopped at Ida Railway Hut which we had been excited to see all trip. This old building has been dragged up the hill by bulldozer to its current location. A long stop for dehy meals and leg elevation, it was hard to kick off again. Especially as the next section was called walking spur.

I nearly cried. I was hot, frustrated with a tight Achilles and a giant knot in my leg that was getting worse. The strapping tape placed on my bum had moved with all the sweat and was no longer covering my sore bits. To make matters worse my lip balm was blistering my lips rather than soothing them in the 30+ degrees. At the edge of the Oteake Conservation Area we looked over the Maniototo Plains and the Central Otago Rail Trail below. The downhill was chunky, not as fast as the previous descents, but bloody good fun. Relieved with a 14 km road sprint to Otuehura, it was time for food.

Our form so far with cafes and restaurants wasn’t so good so we were excited to see the general store and pub were both open. We woofed milkshakes and topped up on snacks for the next day, then crossed the road to the pub to find "nope, the kitchen was closed". Aghh. Andy rang ahead to the Pooburn Adventure Hub where a crazy man at the end of the phone was keen to have us and could provide us with “a healthy meal 'cos we are athletes and they are athletes, and we don’t want to eat that shit the pubs have, not healthy at all". So off we trotted for another 20 odd km.

Arriving at the Poolburn Adventure Hub we were greeted with a "closed 'cos the guy is not vaccinated" sign. But crazy man was good for his word and had remotely cooked us mince and spuds for dinner, and opened some rooms for us. Finally my first and only shower of the trip. I jumped in fully clothed to clean my one set of kit then got into bed with the clothes wrapped in a towel next to me hoping they would dry overnight. Crazy man was definitely off the scale but his bed and linen choice was 10/10.

  • Distance 112 km
  • Vertical 2384m
  • Max vert 1634m
  • Moving time 11 hrs
  • Elapsed time 15 hrs
  • Cries 1.5
Day 8

We slowly grovelled along the gravel up out of Poolburn towards Lake Onslow. This slow climb wasn’t hard but the knot/pain in my quad progressively got worse to the point that I was gritting my teeth with any movement. If I had been at home I would have thrown my toys and cried multiple times. My Achilles continued to make it hard - often still pedalling unclipped with my heel on the pedal. After about 30 km I clicked that this could be my ITB. I stretched it at our next snack spot... it hurt but I could pedal again. I cried tears of joy. I was even happy to  have lunch in a shit covered sheep shed.

By the time we got to the base of the Lammerlaw, our last hill, I had my beats on, pumped to tackle the last hurdle. In typical TTW fashion it was a long false peak climb, with an uphill traversing section and an 'uphill descent' that involved dodging giant 4WD holes. The drizzle doused us the whole time.

We lost Andy & Eileen on the descent as her knee started causing her pain. But as Karl and I took a breather in the middle of on the Clutha Gold Trail they caught his. We coasted into Lawrence together to finally score our long awaited pub dinner. Waiting outside the pub a car pulled up with a woman waving her arms. Aunty Zelda and Uncle Rodd had been following my dot, hoping to find me for a cuddle, which was greatly appreciated.

By now my body is pretty buggered. My bum bruised and the chaffing held together with tape. My hands were numb, my Achilles too tight to walk. But my quads felt great. I slowly slugged up Breakneck Road with a belly full of some of the best pizza ever (I highly rate the Lawrence pub for food!). That , along with some lovely signs encouraging TTW riders helped bolster my spirits.

However we all faded after Clydevale and eventually had to sleep on the side of the road. Once again I was out cold before the others had even laid down their mats. I woke briefly to the sound of Dan and Aliesha (who were passing us) stopping to eat apples from the tree we were sleeping under. Who knows if they realised that we were there or not!

  • Distance 171 km
  • Vertical 2695m
  • Max vert 1207m
  • Moving time 14.5 hrs
  • Elapsed time 18 hrs
  • Cries 1.5
Day 9

We woke up slightly excited for our last day - donuts, Red Bulls and Coke pick me ups were consumed and ear buds in place to boost morale. In Clinton the strapping tape on my ass was replaced with an entire tub of numbing cream. That day felt physically pretty hard. Not a big day, not many hills, but being so close to the finish just seemed like a chore. We even stopped at the Niagara Falls cafe for coffee and cake, even though we were only 23 km out.

From Niagara the excitement built again. We could see the sea, then we could see Slope Point in the distance, then we made it to the turn. Finally we hooked onto the last road for high fives from Mike who finished a few days before us. The reunited Dampier Dream Team powered up the last 150m climb and horns were thrown as we coasted into the carpark. Rolling to the lighthouse we were greeted by a crowd - riders who had finished before us, and my Uncle David. As promised David was armed with chips, chocolate and Speights. There were no tears but I think I was yet to register that I had actually finished it.

  • Distance 110 km
  • Vertical 1364m
  • Max vert 359m
  • Moving time 7 hrs
  • Elapsed time 8.5 hrs
  • Cries 0
Enjoying a Speights with Uncle David at Slope Point

Tour Te Waipounamu is by far the hardest event I have ever done. Every day (even multiple times a day) I doubted my ability to continue, to push further, to keep pedalling. There were many jokes early on about how hopefully my bike would break so I could pull out. However, my stubbornness would have never allowed that. I don’t think I will ever be mentally or physically strong enough to complete the TTW comfortably but that’s the whole point of the TTW. Knowing I had people at home watching my dot helped push me on.

Of course having Karl with me from Day 2, and Andy & Eileen as well really helped - sheltering from the torrential rain together, dreaming of food, laughing at the continuous climbs. This group not only encouraged me to continue on those hardest days but also inspired me with stories of other amazing bikepacking adventures available. I’m overwhelmed to have been welcomed into the bikepacking community with such zest.

Brian has done an amazing job to provide not only a challenge (and a half) but also access to areas that most people will never have a chance to see. The hard graft of dragging your ass and bike up summits and saddles day after day was rewarded with some of the best views NZ has to offer. There was a large amount of type 3 fun but it never overshadowed the type 1 fun - descending from said summits to the valleys below. This adventure has made me realise just how tough I am, but also highlighted my weaknesses. It definitely has not put me off ultra distance cycling, and am excited for more bikepacking advenutres.

Obviously thank you to everyone involved; Brian and those who helped with the course, the trail fairies, my family, the Dampier Dream Team, all the other riders for their support - and Uncle David for picking up the mess that was Cati at the finish, and looking after me for a week. I couldn’t have done it without my sponsors: Devinici NZ/ADU for my amazing bike, Ground Effect clothing, Tailwind Nutrition and Planet Bike NZ.

“The dirty secret about the TTW is everyone tells you it’s freakin' brutal, but it’s FREAKIN' AWESOME! “ - Andy Hovey