NZ’s Longest Bike Packing Trip Becomes a Survival Exercise
Guest blog by Alan Palmer - Pushbikes Ambassador
Tour Aotearoa is one of the world’s great bike-packing trips. Stretching 3,000km from Cape Reinga to Bluff it follows a combination of cycle trails, tracks, paths and lanes connected by the most enjoyable country roads available. This year over 1000 riders took part in 14 groups starting from 17 February through to 8 March. As a consequence, the last groups of riders were riding into wintry conditions in the deep South. This time of year in the North Island is warm enough for camping but once temperatures drop below 10 deg C in the South Island you need to be a hardy soul to camp out.
I decided to join my son in Greymouth on 19 March 2020 as he completed the final 6 days of this event ending in Bluff. Between us, we had sleeping bags, a bivvy bag and a tent for emergency shelter. We intended to find accommodation wherever possible.
My bike of choice was a Giant TCX with 40mm tyres and bike packing gear – all up weight 21kg including food and water. Clothing was limited to 1 set of riding gear, extra merino layers for bad weather, waterproof storm layers and a dry set of merino layers for sleeping.
Day 1 - we biked 12 hours from Greymouth to Harihari through the West Coast Wilderness Trail in OK weather. So far so good. The Travel Lodge Hotel had everything we needed for the night.
Day 2 – we biked a further 10 hours from Harihari to Paringa. Again we had OK weather but it was getting cooler. Palm Grove Motels were well placed as a staging point to get over the Haast Pass the following day. We knew bad weather was coming around midday and so we set the alarm at 4 am to get a head start in the morning before the bad weather arrived.
Day 3 – Conditions deteriorated as we rode and the weather bomb struck just before we left the Haast township. We were heading for Makarora through the notorious Haast Pass. Strong gusty head and side winds plus rain and temperatures down to 0 deg C made the going hard when riding on narrow sections of this busy highway. This was no place to stop as body temperatures plummeted quickly due to the wind chill and wet clothing only accelerated the problem. Arriving in Makarora ‘Wonderland’ to a hot shower, food and accommodation felt like arriving in paradise after being out in a storm for most of the day. This was another 10 hour day.
Day 4 – After a ‘big breakfast’ at the Café, we set off for Arrowtown through Wanaka and over the Crown Range. Skies were clear and temperatures reached 22 deg C. The scenery was spectacular and the riverside cycle trails were fast and fun. Although the Crown Range is one of NZ’s highest and steepest roads we found it to be a gradual climb with the last short section being the steepest. The traffic was annoying as overseas travellers prepared to evacuate NZ following news of the COVID-19 lockdown in 2 days time. It had been a long day (12hrs) but the hot spa and cold beer in Arrowtown seemed to make it all fade away into a distant memory.
Day 5 – After a 35km meander through the QT cycle trails, we caught the Earnslaw Ferry across Lake Wakatipu to Walter Peak Station. We set off from the station at 1 pm into deteriorating weather. In the space of a few minutes temperatures dropped from 12 deg C to 2 deg C and later dropped to -3 deg C when rain and hail started falling. We were soon wet through and struggling to maintain body temperature in spite of layers of merino and waterproof outer layers. Although we had adequate gear to spend a night in the open we were determined to push on and get to Mossburn by nightfall. This was only made possible by keeping a steady pace and the regular micro stops for food and water at the purpose-built (lifesaving) shelters along the way. Towards the end of a day, a young guy in a 4WD vehicle approached and checked we were OK. He had been tracking the online progress of our GPS tracker and wanted to make sure we were OK – he drove 45km to find us and then drove home again. We thought he was a ‘trail angel’ – one of those special people who look out for TA riders. At 9 pm we arrived at the Railway Hotel in Mossburn. We were the last guests before the COVID-19 lockdown. The owner’s wife had prepared delicious meals and breakfast for an early start in the morning. This kindness was a great boost to our morale as we wondered if we might even be able to get back to our family in Christchurch.
Day 6 – We made another 4 am start to make sure we could get to Bluff and back to the airport by early afternoon – one of the last flights to leave Invercargill before the lockdown. Although the riding was mostly on tar seal and slightly downhill, the cold temperatures, winds and rain made the going tough especially when all of the Cafes were shut along the way and there were few places to shelter. The arrival in Bluff was special for Nick after 21 days biking the length of the country.
Looking back after a few days rest here are some ‘no surprises’ reflections on our experience on days 3,5 & 6
- Be prepared for alpine weather between Queenstown and Mossburn at any time of the year.
- Be prepared to layer up early and have waterproof top layers – a backup plastic poncho or similar is essential for extreme weather if your top layer is not totally waterproof.
- Plan and act within the limitations of your capability. Get advice from DOC or other riders if necessary.
- Make sure your bike is up for it. A mechanical breakdown in bad weather could rapidly turn a marginal situation into a life-threatening one. Get the bike checked by your local bike shop at least 2 weeks before the ride.
- Be prepared to spend a night out in extreme weather. If you have a mechanical problem or puncture, you may have no choice but to set up camp – choosing a sheltered spot out of the direct wind will be essential.
- Carry sufficient high energy snack food and water for the time you will be away from normal supplies. Stop every hour or even 30 minutes to eat and drink and check on each other.
- Keep an eye on your fellow riders as hypothermia can strike very quickly and then you may no option but to set up camp in extreme conditions.
- Expect vehicles anywhere. Make sure your lights are fully charged and wear highly visible clothing. I work on the assumption that no one on the road wants to hurt me but they may hit me if they can’t see me. We saw a number of riders dressed in black clothing in atrocious weather – they were virtually invisible against the background.
- Bikepacking like any form of travel throws up unexpected challenges. A recent winner of the Silk Road Mountain Bike Race said “The winner is not the person who goes the fastest but the person who is most able to deal with the endless challenges that occur” We had more than our share on this trip!