The adventure began at Christchurch airport where brothers Jamie Gardner and Jason Gardner drove up from Dunedin to meet the other brother (from the same mother), Peter Gardner who had flown down from Wellington - the trifecta forming a literal bikepacking brotherhood. With grand plans of bikepacking their way from the Paparoa bike trail to Motueka, the brothers were fired up and ready to hit the road, but the first challenge of the trip presented itself almost immediately.
We’ll let Peter take the reins from here…
“How are we going to fit another person and another bike in Jamie’s already-overwhelmed hatchback?”
The oil-burning Corolla was packed to the hilt and looked like it would not be able to leave first gear if any more weight was added to it. We met up with more members of our party who were thankfully able to help with transportation. To keep things really simple I am just going to call them ”The Runners”, a group that consisted of Nolan, Nick, and Steve who were up from Dunedin while Brendan, Bryant and Jono popped across the straight from Wellington. We all stayed at an Airbnb together in Blackball and ”The Runners” ran the Paparoa track on the same day that we biked it.
After what was meant to be a three hour drive, we eventually arrived at our tidy Airbnb 20km east of Blackball. Two of us then had to do the mighty shuttle to drop a car at the Punakaiki end of the Paparoa track ready for the next day. We were all anticipant for tomorrow.
“We’ll see you when you catch up to us or we’ll wait for you at Moonlight Hut for lunch” Nolan chirped confidently to us bikers as “The Runners” left at the crack of dawn to tackle the Paparoa track . It seemed reasonable, I mean, bikes are always faster than runners.. right?
After completing the bike-prep that should have been done the previous day and showing Jason how to change gears on the bike, Jamie, Jason and I finally set off around 7:30am. I should mention, of course, that by this stage Jamie had already ridden 25km to meet us at the track start to avoid complicated shuttles to get nine people & three bikes to the Paparoa track start with only one Corolla at our disposal.
The first few k’s of the Paparoa track was like a dream. “Wow, we’re finally here. All this preparation, all this money, all this effort, all this time…finally”. We stopped to take photos, videos and more photos and then three kilometres into the track we were starting to climb. 800 vertical meters. Jason’s bold ‘no-training tactic’ was beginning to show as he began to push his bike up vast sections of the uphill climb which was clearly graded specifically so bikers could ride the whole way.
We finally reached Ces Clark Hut and saw in the logbook that “The Runners” were already two hours ahead even though they only left half an hour before us, and were three hours ahead of us by the time we left that hut. Yeah, we probably aren’t going to catch them for lunch. Over the stunning view from this hut we ate a disproportionate amount of our daily rations, something we would regret later that day.
The next few hours went smoothly as the climb eased after reaching the bush line, giving us beautiful crisp clear views up towards the Paparoa main divide. This was a national park that none of us had previously spent time in so it was a virgin view to us all.
I thought the trip was going too smoothly so far so I decided to ‘adjust’ the air-pressure in my tyres. “Crap, too much air out. Jamie can you give me the pump?”. Little did we know that this saga would continue for the next two hours as we realised Jamie’s pump was faulty and I now had about 10 PSI in my front tyre. With some careful riding and some generous help from other bikers we eventually resolved this dilemma. We were impressed to meet other cyclists who were doing the Paparoa and the 70km road shuttle all on bike in one day, in the same time it took us to do 10km of the Paparoa.
Moonlight Tops Hut was our lunch destination where we ate our Back Country freeze-dri while admiring stunning views. Wekas tried to run off with our lunch multiple times. We saddled up and continued along the track which followed a fascinating lime/sandstone escarpment. We continued until reaching a lookout that looked over the Pike River Mine where the infamous Pike29 disaster took place. Our hearts sank and mood deepened as we realised we had seen this sight before many times on the news. 29 miners still buried beneath our feet. We will remember them.
The last half of the Paparoa track was the most rewarding with 900m elevation to be lost. We had a blast. The track builders have done an astounding job at keeping the track well-graded and flowy for riders. We were about half-way down our decent when Jason took the second crash of the day (earlier Jamie fell into a ditch). Nothing serious thanks to his Batman-like rolling skills.
After a dream-like decent from the tops we faced our last battle of the day: the last 100m pinch climb. With what wouldn’t normally be very much to think about, this climb quickly started to become a serious battle for some as extreme chaffing, fatigue and hunger began to set in. But just as things were getting dire, we reached the top. We were then met with our last descent of the day down to the carpark through flowy gravel single-track.
This day was our first, last, and only rest day during the bikepacking adventure. We spent time hanging out with “The Runners” and walked the Cave Creek Memorial track . This was another disaster that struck this area in 1995 where tragically one DOC worker and 13 youth were killed (and another 4 with serious injuries) after a viewing platform collapsed into a ravine.
Jamie, Jason and I made an early start to drive to the start of the Old Ghost Road (Lyell) which would take us into some of the remotest and scenic mountain biking in all New Zealand. We loaded up our bikes for the first time with all of our overnight gear, probably something we should have done months earlier as we battled for nearly two hours figuring out how much gear and food we would need to take and how to attach it to our bikes.
We eventually set off after the essential track start photography. All fresh, ready to go, and completely naive of the physical, emotional and mental challenge that awaited us. The rest of the day was a very slow but cruisy climb 1200m up into the hills of Lyell range of Kahurangi National Park. We stopped frequently to take in the stunning views and ate a late-lunch of Back Country Cuisine at Lyell Hut. We were all slowing by the end of the day with a special mention of Jason’s “I can’t feel my butt” problems. He managed to jerry-rig a fleece onto his saddle for extra padding, because two layers of padded cycling shorts wasn’t enough already. Meanwhile, Jamie was consuming anti-chaff cream at an alarming rate.
Our “campsite” for the night was a freshly-built mountain shelter near Mt Montgomery. A hard, long-night’s sleep awaited us as two sleeping bags had to keep the three of us warm while sleeping on solid timber with no bedroll/mattress as Jamie has a tendency to leave ‘non-essential’ items behind to save on weight. We were thankful to have the shelter and each other for warmth.
We rose early from a somewhat less than average sleep and were super excited to enter another day. The new day broke forth giving crisp sunrise views of the adjoining ranges. Stunning ridgeline travel and well-fenced cliff edges brought us quickly to Ghost Lake Hut by mid morning. The weather started to close in and we were keen to push on and get back in the valley for lunch. About ten minutes into our 1000m descent, Jamie ripped one skid too many on his brand new Schwalbe tyre. A very humble piece of granite managed to slice a gash in the tyre, remarkably all caught on video by Jason. Now we know why that tyre was on sale for $50 - mental note, never again buy cheap tyres. After a technically challenging and wet descent, we stopped for lunch at Stern Valley Hut. The afternoon’s travel further to Mokihinui Forks Hut was pleasant except for a brief darkening of mood as we climbed 200m out of the “Boneyard”. We were tired, it started to rain, and Jamie was ambitious to ride every bike except his which meant Jason and I slogged the hill mostly by walking. After a long day on the saddle, caked in mud, we were extra happy to be in Mokihinui Hut for the night. This bach styled DOC hut was very cosy. We were all very impressed by the amount of heat the fireplace put out as we sweated our way to midnight.
The last half day on the Old Ghost Road was uneventful as we cruised down the Mokihinui valley to Seddonville. A technically moderate ride, however I was growing a fairly painful migraine by late morning. It could have been many things, but I suspect being on a fully rigid bike was taking its toll on my body, as I felt every single bump on the trail transfer to my brain.
A strange and triumphant feeling met us at the end of the trail. Success. Yet ominous. We aren’t done yet. In fact, this day is just starting for us but this was Jason’s finish point. He did extremely well to do the Paparoa and Old Ghost Road without any training, or without even riding a bike once since last summer. We had one last lunch together at Seddonville pub. Beers and burgers were thoroughly enjoyed, along with banter with the local whitebaiters.
Jamie and I still had 75km of road riding with a 400m vert climb to get up past Karamea to the Heaphy track before dark. Freshly fuelled with greasy takeaways we made excellent progress on the road. It was perfect weather and the road meandered through native bush for the first half before opening up into coastal pasture land. Nice travel. Riding in the opposite direction we met another bikepacker, Michael (aka Mad Mike) who had been living on his bike for the past five years. A real battler. He insisted on travelling everywhere with 30kg of souvenirs that he had picked up around the world. I instantly recognised him as someone I had talked to on my way home from work on the Hutt River Trail over a year ago.
The last 20km of this day was in the dark and was very hard. We both had chaffing and were tired and hungry, yet we couldn’t help but still be captivated by the beauty of the coastline. It’s amazing what you can accomplish when you just keep putting one leg in front of the other. We slept that night in a shelter at the Heaphy Track start. This time we both had sleeping bags.
I’m not sure what woke me: the party of eight girls who wanted to use the shelter at 6am to eat breakfast, or the sandflies which were systematically eating my face. Jamie and I bikepacked the Heaphy over the next day and a half. The track was initially very coastal and it felt very tropical riding through Nikau forest. But coastal tracks also mean sandy tracks. A lot of sand. Yes. A lot of bloody sand everywhere. Ten minutes after cleaning our drive-chains our gears were already grinding and making horrific sounds. Jamie also thought it would be a good idea to ride along the hard sand of the beach. It was a good idea, until the hard sand became soft sand. We ended up pushing our bikes for 500m to get back on the track.
After Heaphy Hut the track climbed steeply for 800m which was one of our hardest climbs of the whole trip. A prior 100km day, rationed nutrition and poor consecutive sleep was starting to catch up to us. “I’m wasted”, complained Jamie, while I drifted in and out of semi-consciousness as we slogged the hill.
This day was a very sociable day. We (mostly Jamie) were stopping to talk to other travellers along the Heaphy. We even saw a couple Takahe. Stopping at Gouland Downs Hut for the night we enjoyed exploring the nearby limestone caves before settling down for a much needed twelve hour sleep.
We had two days left to get to Nelson and we were still in the heart of the Western Kahurangi’s. Ambition and motivation saw us finish the Heaphy track by late morning to give us time on the road. We found the last 20km of the Heaphy very fun. Very bumpy, but fun. We just had to dodge the inbound pedestrians as we lost 800m of altitude along the shared pathway.
Golden bay. We did it. We are doing it. Imagine gliding down country backroads with a tail wind on your back, bright sun on your face and lush spring paddocks everywhere you looked. The helmets were off, t shirts were off. We were fizzing. Golden Bay! The mountains were soon to become a memory. The cycle through Golden Bay was truly epic and was one of my trip highlights. We stopped at the Mussel Inn near Onekaka for some supposedly vegetarian nachos and homebrew. Never have I enjoyed food so much in my life. We then battled a brief but powerful thunderstorm en-route to Takaka and camped at Paine’s Ford. This was our first night sleeping under the fly that we had been carrying for the past week.
A day of mixed feelings and our last day on the bikes. Happy but sad. Tired but motivated. The trip was coming to an end, but we still had one mighty opposition - the infamous Takaka hill. We started early, mainly to avoid the locals seeing us freedom camping and Jamie’s curiosity meant we started the day unnecessarily back tracking to the main road through long, wet grass. We ascended the Takaka Hill via the Rameka Trail (instead of SH 60) and this would be our final hill of the whole trip so of course it sure as hell tested us. Once it left gravel road it became a steep technical goat track, clearly enjoyed by most mountain bikers going in the opposite direction. But it was fun and took us past Harwoods Hole which was amazing. We then battled sub-tropical heat and humidity along a never-ending gravel road before re-joining SH60.
Now came the fun. Back down the eastern side of Takaka hill. For the next half hour we coasted at break-neck speeds down to Riwaka. We were intending on riding all the way to Nelson, however a friend surprised us by kindly leaving our car in Motueka. We both gladly welcomed the surprise as we were borderline heat-stroked and dehydrated by this point, not to mention the crank on my bike was falling apart. Time for ice cream and a swim at Kaiteriteri.
That night we camped near Blenheim with the mosquitoes, before parting tracks on Sunday the 31st, me on the ferry to Wellington and Jamie driving back to Dunedin.
Jamie, Jason and I would like to thank our generous sponsors Backcountry Cuisine, Farrah’s Wraps and Cookietime. It was a really great help and convenience having the kind donations from these companies to help fuel our brotherly backpacking journey.
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