Bicycling (South Africa)
MAKE YOUR MISTAKES EARLY; APPLY THE LESSONS LATER.
I have a habit of getting lobster-level sunburnt in the first week of each summer. The consequential pain and the parental admonitions regarding the threat of skin cancer are an annual reminder of the importance of looking after myself.
Unconsciously, I believe, we must have applied the same general theory to riding the Tour Aotearoa. That is, to completely forget ourselves, and make as many novice errors in the first couple of days as possible; the ramifications of which would remind us of some of the most important lessons of bikepacking.
The tactical choices for the first day of the Tour Aotearoa are important. Almost 90km of the first 100km is on New Zealand’s longest beach; and the far north being as sparsely populated as it is, accommodation options once off the beach are few and far between. Our batch, the third to start, kicked off at 12 midday, which meant either taking the sensible option of a short and easy 120km to Ahipara, or continuing into the late evening to the hamlet of Broadwood.
Unfortunately, with almost two years of planning and excitement coming to the boil, the Hugheses were anything but sensible in the heat of competition. Choosing to tear down the first 70km of the beach, completely blow up, and limp the last 20km to Ahipara for an icecream and a Coke, in our already slightly haggard state we neglected to consider the where and how of dinner or breakfast. Realising this halfway to Broadwood meant conserving the last couple of Snickers bars for dinner and breakfast, rather than as fuel to get us to our overnight stay.
We were neither of us a pretty picture arriving at Broadwood: tired, hungry, and hopeful that there was at least some food available. Fortunately, we were given a salve of leftover macaroni cheese and some toast to apply to our bruised egos.
Ride In The Now, Plan Five Steps Ahead
Once you’ve entered such a race, it makes sense to start with a daily stop plan. This plan will be dictated firstly by how far you think you can and may want to ride
consistently each day, and secondly by ‘real-world’ considerations such as annual leave and flight times.
Your plan should factor in cumulative ascent, road surfaces, accommodation options and availability, grocery stores and their opening times, and days of the week (food is surprisingly difficult to get hold of on Sundays and public holidays).
In addition to the normal considerations, the Tour Aotearoa brought with it some novel elements. It was mandatory for competitors to catch three ferries, a bus, and a jet boat on their ride south. Given that these services ran during certain times of the day only, that sometimes they ran infrequently, and that sometimes they were fully booked, it was necessary to plan much of the ride schedule around these trips.
For example, the bus ride from Maungatoroto to Helensville ran only twice a day, at 11:30am and 6pm. It was nigh on 400km to Maungatoroto; so we had to choose between either pushing hard for the 6pm ferry on day 2, or taking it relatively easy and catching the 11:30am bus the next day. The Whanganui jet boat ran four times a day between 7am and 6pm, but the trail into the landing was notoriously difficult, and far from a cell phone signal. Planning which jet boat to catch, and how you would handle your approach through the hills of the Whanganui Reserve, was vital – and tricky.
The Best-Laid Plans Go Oft Awry
Plans are great. They’re necessary, reassuring, and a good place to start. But
the most important plan is the one you create when your original plan goes awry. Over a period of three weeks and at least a couple of thousand kilometres, it’s a sure-fire bet that something will go wrong; and when things do go wrong, and the ‘self’ in ‘self-supported’ becomes self-evident… that’s where the campfire stories come from.
Despite the Super-Ballie’s best efforts at preparing a terrain-based schedule, we were surprised by how tough the riding was on the North Island. That classic New Zealand image of rolling, tufted green hills, like a blanket spread over a bed of balloons, is wonderful to look at, particularly in the cool of the dawn light. But it’s slow going. Flat roads seem few, and while the hills aren’t long, they are frequent and steep. The 38-50 quickly became our most frequently pushed gear.
On day 2, the rolling hills and oppressive humidity of the ride through Waipoua Forest to Dargaville caught us out in its severity. The 100km took us nearly seven hours to get through, which meant that we missed the 6pm bus ride and had to call a short day in Dargaville.
On day 5 we were forced into another relatively short day, once again by the surprisingly arduous conditions.
We had taken on the 55km Waikato River trail during the course of that day. This stunning stretch of singletrack, winding its way through the fern forests of the Waikato Valley, was originally built for hikers, but was later opened to mountain bikers. The trail carves its way steeply down 37 switchbacks to the Waikato River, before winding up the valley through many more switchbacks to the hamlet of Mangakino.
We arrived at the Four Square grocery store in Mangakino late in the afternoon – after a rough, six-hour slog up the valley – to find a wretched-looking group of our fellow competitors, splurging on two-litre water bottles like it was Day Zero in Cape Town.
Feeling like they looked, we decided to call it a day there rather than push on into the night up the long climb to the centre of the North Island, with no prospect of food or water anywhere between the Four Square and Ongarue, 130km of hard riding later.
So by the close of day 5 we were more than a day behind schedule, and
YOUR PLAN SHOULD FACTOR IN CUMULATIVE ASCENT, ROAD SURFACES, ACCOMMODATION OPTIONS AND AVAILABILITY, GROCERY STORES AND THEIR OPENING TIMES...
completely off our original stop plan. It was back to square one; we returned nightly to the official guide book in order to rework the plan for the next few days, and make sure that we could cover as much ground as possible while still having a roof to sleep under and somewhere to locate food.
Only You Need To Live With Your Decisions
Self-supported races, by their nature, are also self-regulated. There are rules to each race, but they are often limited to ‘follow the route and carry a tracker’. There are no consequences if you choose to deviate from the route. No-one will stop you from doing so; nor will they stop you from continuing to the end of the race. Your tracker will not be removed, and you will not be disqualified. Probably, no-one else will notice or care.
This is not the Cape Epic; the results exist only in your own mind. When the fun runs out and things get bleak, you are faced with this hard choice: to deviate from the rules or not. And the only commissaire is the one in your head, who reminds you that when you reach the finish line there will be certain choices you can live with, and others that will tarnish the respect you award your own achievement. At the end of day 6, we faced that choice.
That day, we’d made a concerted effort to make up part of the lost day-and-a-half, and had set off from Mangakino in the 4:30am pre-dawn darkness. We pushed decently hard up the long climb to the centre of the North Island, before tackling the 84km Timber Trail – a stunning tunnel of dense greenery, cutting a snaking path off the cloud forest of Mount Pureora as it works its way across some of New Zealand’s highest and longest suspension bridges, down to the historic tramway.
Here, the Super-Ballie’s bottom bracket decided to give up the proverbial ghost. Nursing it to the first town off the trail, Ongarue, we arranged for a replacement to be couriered in the next morning to the local all-in-one motorcycle and bicycle shop in Taumarunui, 25km down the road.
And it was here, listening to the rain hammering on the roof of the motel we’d booked into, sulking about our series of difficult and badluck-laden days, that we faced our first moral dilemma for the trip.
Cyclone Gita was set to hit the island the next evening, and the weather predictions were looking dire. As we still needed to fit the bottom bracket, we would not be able to make the slow, technical and potentially extremely muddy 100km ride to the jet-boat landing in Whanganui Reserve the next day before the last boat departed at 6pm.
And we would have to risk the weather warning and ride into the signal-less Reserve to camp for the night, in order to catch the 7am jet boat the following day – neither an enticing nor a particularly safe prospect.
The thought was all the less attractive, given that there was a perfectly good tar road circumnavigating the reserve that would pop us back onto the course, with the potential for a roof over our head and without having lost another half day on top the day we’d lost already.
A warning: should you choose the difficult option, as we did, you may regret it in the short term… as we did. The long and lonely walk up and down the unridable Kaiwhakauka and Mangapura tracks in the drumming rain the following evening – and the morning after – had us seriously questioning our decision (and bikepacking races in general).
However, it’s worth remembering the old cliché that discomfort is brief, but regret can last a lifetime. I was proud of our decision to take the bad with the good and risk the Reserve.
There Is Pleasure in Perseverance
Over 3 000km, good luck will follow bad, sun will follow rain, headwinds will become tailwinds and long climbs will become long downhills. Many is the time I’ve had to remind myself that every hill has a summit, and ‘this pass too shall pass’.
THINKING ABOUT THE FINISH LINE 1 400KM BEFORE IT ARRIVES IS A PSYCHOLOGICAL NO-NO. I’M NOT EVEN CERTAIN OUR BRAINS ARE WIRED TO DEAL WITH NUMBERS GREATER THAN TWO DIGITS.
Exiting a wet and wild Whanganui Reserve by jet boat (how many times will you be able to say that, in one lifetime?) we were greeted by 200km of sunshine and tailwinds. We coasted our way from Pipriki through Hunterville to Rangiwahia – a town so small, even the one horse is missing – for a night spent in remarkably clean and warm public toilets.
Buoyed by our return to form, we posted another sizable 220km day to Masterton; and then a fast 150km to Wellington, over the stunning Rimutaka Rail Trail climb, to reach the Inter Islander Ferry in time for our booked 3pm crossing.
As the North Island segment drew to a close the terrain had become smoother tar and gravel roads, with the odd trail here and there. On these roads, our decision to run light set-ups with carbon forks paid off in spades. The humidity had all but disappeared; and the hills – while definitely still present – were now longer, shallower and slightly further apart.
This area of the country was more populated, which meant less food carried on the bike and more opportunity to frequent the abundant local cafés for a pie and upsized coffee. With the rain abating there was a feeling that the toughest challenges had passed.
The Fat Lady Sings
We’d been reliably informed, on more than one occasion, that the South Island is a formality. If you make the crossing from the North Island, they said, then you’ll make it to the finish.
Of course, entertaining such thoughts is folly. Thinking about the finish line 1 400km before it arrives is a psychological no-no. I’m not even certain our brains are wired to deal with numbers greater than two digits.
So if you want to stay sane, plan five steps ahead – but ride in the now. Focus on conquering each hill as it comes. Live from one coffee stop to the next, until coffee turns into champagne.
And starting our crossing of the South Island, there was still much riding to be done; but in truth, it did get easier. Perhaps our bodies were now hardwired into the eat/sleep/ride routine. Perhaps it was the terrain.
The South Island is a land of two halves: the West Coast and the East Coast, divided down the middle by the jagged Southern Alps. The harsh topography of the South has prevented the extensive development of road and other infrastructure too far from the coastline.
There are few dirt roads, and the towns you do find are separated by sizable distances. This is particularly so on the south-west coast, where the mountains push to within 15 kilometres of the ocean in places, leaving only a small band of passable terrain. With the route sticking to the west coast, there was therefore a marked decrease in gravel grinding in favour of tar and trails.
Much of the riding in the top half of the island was spent going up or down valley roads, and the climbing was dominated by the crossing of saddles between these valleys. Bar a stunning early-morning ride along the Queen Charlotte Sound, an epically steep descent off Maungatapa Saddle and a tough-and-technical 55km spent on the much-vaunted Big River Loop, the 600km from Picton to Greymouth was the least notable of the trip.
Descending out of the hills on the West Coast Wilderness Trail, the route approaches Hokitika. From Hokitika you have 800km left, and three quarters of this is spent on State Highway 6. But this is not per se a negative: the highway isn’t a highway for many, other than tourists, the tar is a welcome chance to rest, and the road is truly spectacular.
Hugging close to the coast, it passes under the shadow of the Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers before peeling eastwards up the high-sided Haast Valley – up and over the mighty Haast Pass, where the forests give way to grassy, temperate steppe, divided by the emerald Lakes Hawea, Wanaka and Wakatipu.
At last it reaches the base of New Zealand’s longest climb; the 40km Crown Range, the jewel in the crown of a fantastic (if wet) ride.
Possibly we had been gently lulled by the tar roads into thinking we could live past the here and now, and plan for a 16-day finish time. It took a broken derailleur, a night in a sheep-shearing shed, and a dastardly final 70km into a tear-inducing headwind to remind us that only fools celebrate before the line.
If The Tour Aotearea Is Not On Your Bucket List, It Should Be
I have been incredibly privileged to compete in five bikepacking races in various corners of the world.
Every time I sit down to tell the story of these rides, I try to remind myself that embracing the adventure of pushing your limits through such rides is also to endure long periods of cold, hunger, and fatigue, separated by brief bouts of euphoria. It’s too easy for the haze of distance and the shine of achievement to colour one’s memories with a rose tint.
Be that as it may; if you’re looking for a challenge of a different kind, and get the briefest whiff of a chance to participate in the Tour Aotearoa – you should.
New Zealand is a land of almost constantly breathtaking vistas. The people are welcoming, the trails are manicured to perfection, the coffee is great, and opportunities for adventure abound. What are you waiting for?