There is a lot more background to the “Fluid Trails” short film than simply a few friends out for a grand adventure. Here, Deane Parker delves into the natural history of the northwestern part of New Zealand’s South Island for some perspective on what makes this ride so incredible.
The day the North West Nelson Forest Park turned into Kahurangi National Park in 1996 was a pretty dark day for the growing mountain biking community of New Zealand.
The Heaphy Track had been thrust into the public’s attention by this governmental act of higher conservation protection by including the banning of non-motorized vehicles as part of national park legislation. The rebel biking community (well, that’s how we were perceived) found a voice, but 23 years ago, hikers (known here as “trampers”) had a bigger voice. As a result, one of the most popular point-to-point, multiday mountain bike rides through an amazing alpine to temperate coastal rainforest, was taken off the menu.
Even after the gazetting of the national park, the mountain biking community never gave up. The rise in popularity of off-road cycling led to more talk of lobbying the Department of Conservation (DoC) to amend the park management plan to include bikes as a permitted activity on the Heaphy Track and a handful of other trails that had fallen under the same ban.
In 2011—after years of following the bureaucratic process—the Heaphy reopened to mountain bikers on a seasonal basis with other conditions. Once the Heaphy reopened, the trail that had become basically unused by hikers in the colder months became heavily frequented in unprecedented numbers. As use of the track and its huts surged, so did income from hut bookings. This made track maintenance and upgrades possible, including new, more sustainable huts.
With the success of the Heaphy, it was no surprise that other routes in Kahurangi and other areas in the Buller and West Coast districts saw similar development. A few locals investigated a route—dubbed the Old Ghost Road (OGR)—that was outside of the national park but still featured unique flora, fauna and outstanding landscapes. The route plan involved starting at what was once a bustling gold mining community—until the gold ran out 150 years ago. The proposed finish for the OGR was on a dilapidated track through the confines of the Mokihinui gorge.
After several years of fundraising and construction, the OGR was complete: an 85 km ribbon of technical singletrack with a network of backcountry huts through awe-inspiring alpine traverses, flowy forest, and an exposed trail blasted out of the sheer walls of a river canyon replete with Indiana Jones-style swing bridges around granite bluffs.
The OGR is a marvel of modern trail design and construction; the graft required to hand-build the most technical section along a rugged and narrow ridge down from Ghost Lake hut was nothing short of a monumental effort from a large group of volunteers. Another section of note is the Boneyard, a debris slip caused by the devastating 1929 Murchison quake that has left this area looking akin to a lunar landscape. The maintenance required to keep this section in check (a gradual climb switchbacking through constantly-moving, bus-sized boulders) must be massive.
Having ridden both trails, I had been dreaming up a route linking these iconic mountain bike through-routes by paddling packrafts on the rivers flowing in the same direction as I was planning to do the loop. Thus, Fluid Dreams was born.
A LIFETIME IN PREPARATION
I have been adventuring in this corner of the South Island for most of my life, whether tramping, heli-kayaking or rafting, or on the bike. One person that influenced me and my times in the area is Nathan Fa’avae, an old high school mate who took our after-school adventuring to another level, eventually becoming a seven-time Adventure Racing World Champion.
Nathan and I did some amazing missions when we were in our early 20s. One tramp that springs to mind was eight days of mostly off-track bush bashing. We began at the starting point of the OGR a couple of decades before the trail was conceived. We climbed over Lyell Saddle, walked down the south branch of the Mokihinui, and then turned up the north branch. I had heard rumors of whitewater up there and at the time I was growing my first rafting business out of Murchison. After only a few kilometers, the river exited from a granite canyon and spilled through giant boulders. For the next ten kilometers I was gob smacked at the quality and quantity of rapids. I made a pact to come back by helicopter with boats to run it. I returned and managed the first raft descent of the north branch, with Nathan joining in a kayak. Ultimate Descents in Murchison still raft the Mokihinui a few times a year.
I asked Nathan what he remembers about these early years of adventuring together:
“Deane and I started mountain biking 30 years ago. It was a pioneering sport back then; a time when you could ride on hiking trails and people would stop you to ask about this bicycle with fat tires and so many gears. The birth of mountain biking was an exciting period, as it was continually innovating, and it encouraged adventure and exploration. Together with our mates, we rode our bikes with fervent commitment, hour upon hour, day after day. The two-wheeled machines represented freedom and belonging, and we were part of a first-mover group. We proudly identified as mountain bikers, sometimes with a mildly disturbing level of obsession—especially with a new bike.
That same adventurous spirit compelled Deane and I into a lifetime of adventures in kayaks, on foot, and on bikes. The National Parks of New Zealand became our second home, always wanting to discover what was over the ridgeline or in the next valley. We enjoyed the simple life of long, physical days in the mountains, cooking on fires, drinking from streams, and sleeping on the ground. We’d often spend hours during a ‘mission’ planning the next one. Now both adults, we place great importance on providing our children with outdoor adventure opportunities and we continue to challenge and test ourselves.”
A NATION OF BIRDS
For those unfamiliar with New Zealand, we are a nation of birds. Before colonization this collection of temperate islands was home to an amazing array of unique, and often flightless, birds. The arrival of the white man brought all sorts of predators: cats, stoats, ferrets, possums, deer, pigs, and goats. These predators decimated the bird population and destroyed their habitat. During my lifetime we have realized the damage that’s been done and taken drastic action to save the remaining species.
Pest control has become very contentious due to the use of aerial poisons, but other methods have also been used. “Friends of the Flora” is a group whose volunteers maintain extensive trap lines along river borders in part of the national park to protect the habitat of my favorite native bird, the whio, or blue duck.
The whio is a cool bird because it only lives in mountain rivers—essentially in whitewater. It’s impressive to see them ferry, glide, surf, and catch eddies in sometimes tumultuous whitewater. It is always disconcerting when you’re travelling down a river and the whio take flight, an ominous sign of difficult whitewater ahead.
The other native bird featured in this film is the takahe, a critically endangered, near-flightless bird with amazing blue plumage and a red beak. At the takahe’s lowest count, there were only 67 individuals left. With an intensive breeding program, the DoC has grown that number to 370 and this female was part of a group of 15 released back into the wild in the Heaphy Track area.
On this trip I was impressed with the amount of birds and the variety of species. It definitely feels like the birds are returning, thanks to the massive efforts of so many. However, the conservation efforts to maintain these numbers will be a constantly evolving battle. If the efforts are diminished, the birds will start to disappear again.
UNDERSTANDING THE POTENTIAL CONSEQUENCES
We arrived at the end of the Heaphy track in what ended up being the wettest patch of the whole 11 days. Overnight I awoke to hear the rain pelting down on the roof.
The wise words of Hugh Carnard bounced around inside my head, remnants from my consultations with one of the most knowledgeable river people in the country during my accelerated packrafting learning curve.
Hugh’s intel about the Aorere River was this:
‘I got the story from Graham Egarr, who was the only one that survived. Three kayakers who were very bold ran the Aorere in a big flood. Two came out of their boats in the big corner above the bridge. All limestone with very bad undercuts. Two went under and stayed under. Graham said he literally "rock-climbed" up the wall underwater until he got to the air. The two who drowned had spent 6 months touring NZ running all the rivers in flood. I've run the Aorere from 20 to over 1000 cubic meters per second. It has real dangers at high flow that aren't apparent to an intermediate. I've seen 20-second mystery moves in creek boats on flat water in there and you can run up to a bluff and there's NO water coming off it. You get sucked straight under with no warning, and when you roll, you're still underwater, scraping along under a limestone ledge about three meters down. At the end of that ledge is a pile of trees’.
With this in mind I didn’t sleep well, and when I made my way down to check the river at 06:30 I was not surprised to see the it dirty and rising.
FOR THOSE WHO ASPIRE TO TAKE ON THE ROUTE
While few, if any, will repeat our route via bikeraft, this circuit is becoming increasingly popular with bikepackers. Connecting the Old Ghost Road and the Heaphy Track into a loop makes for an incredible 5- to 7-day ride of 550–600 kilometers with between 160 and 200 km of singletrack. The ride conveniently passes through four quaint towns for resupply.
Karamea, a sleepy little farming town with an almost-tropical climate, is the end of the road north. It is infamous for its Class 5 Karamea Gorge and, further upstream, Roaring Lion, which is a kilometer-long cataract often considered the most difficult stretch of rafting in the country.
After the Heaphy Track comes Takaka, another farming community with some of the best backcountry trails in the top of the South Island nestled into the surrounding marble hills.
Next is Tapawera, with its rolling hills famous for organic hops and apple orchards.
The last rural hub, depending on where you start the loop, is Murchison. Murch, as it’s locally called, sits on the Four Rivers Plain where four tributaries join the Kawatiri (or Buller) River for its journey to the Tasman Sea through the upper and lower gorges. Murchison is famed for its abundance of beginner to intermediate whitewater, and kayakers flock from all over the South Island during summer to take advantage of the relatively warm and deep waters of the third-most voluminous river system in New Zealand.
RIDING AND PADDLING
Our three-member team took completely different bike configurations. We joked about how Rose was the smallest rider but rode the biggest wheels (29 x 2.6”) and I was the biggest rider on the littlest wheels (26 x 4.0”).
In the middle was Muel, who rode his trusty Salsa Redpoint (150 mm rear travel, 27.5 x 2.3”). Muel rides his all-mountain rig across all genres of biking, including the entire length of NZ in the 3,000 km Tour Aotearoa brevet event.
Rose rode a Salsa Deadwood (91 mm rear travel) which was probably the most suitable rig. Being a small-sized frame, she needed a rear rack to carry some of her gear.
My rig was a rigid carbon fat bike, the Salsa Mukluk. It was an interesting choice but in the end, load capacity was the decider. I knew I was going to be loaded up the most with camera and packrafting gear. I tested the Mukluk on all terrain with all load types and by the time we set off I was confident in the choice.
We all carried our Alpacka Packrafts on Salsa Anything Cradles, which is the best handlebar harness system that I’ve used—not only for packrafts but for carrying a handlebar load on technical terrain in general.
Another piece of essential equipment on this trip was an InReach Explorer satellite communicator. This allowed me to stay in communication outside of mobile coverage (which was very limited the entire journey). Beyond its simple safety benefits, the device also helped us coordinate our drone videography.
I hope that you enjoy our Fluid Trails film, and that it inspires in you a new adventure of any sort, big or small.
ABOUT THE GUEST BLOGGER: DEANE PARKER
Based on the arable Canterbury plains of New Zealand, Deane Parker is a farmer with a passion for backcountry travel. Having ridden mountain bikes since high school in the hills of the top of the South Island, the rivers became another medium of adventure through a decade-long professional river guiding career pioneering and exploring rivers. More recently, packrafting came along and bikerafting quickly manifested itself into Deane’s niche. An amateur adventurer and brand ambassador, Deane hopes to inspire adventure-seekers of all ages, levels, and ability.
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