New Zealand seems to enjoy more allure than most other countries these days, particularly for outdoors-enthusiasts of all types. A decade ago, the country transformed its marketing and the bulk of its economy to be based on ecotourism. And that shift has been hugely successful, including in the cycling world – almost every cyclist I know whom has done much riding abroad has visited New Zealand. Mountain bike films consistently feature New Zealand’s steep, massive, and vividly green terrain. And the ever-growing network of official cyclotouring routes, the construction of more and bigger bike parks, and new long-distance singletrack trails is only increasing the island’s appeal for cyclists.
Since Kaitlyn and I ended up in Australia, it only made sense to get a couple inexpensive plane tickets to hop over to New Zealand, Redpoints and bikepacking gear in tow, to see what all the New Zealand fuss was about. And coincidentally, our friends Eszter Horanyi and Scott Morris were also headed to the South Island, so we concocted a plan to meet up for some bike adventuring. The idea was to pedal from one trail mecca to the next, spending a few days exploring each area before continuing on. Our tentative route would take us from Blenhiem north to Nelson, west to the Old Ghost Road trail, then south on dirt roads and some pavement through the Southern Alps to Wanaka and Queenstown. But none of us were quite paying enough attention to realize how ambitious (i.e., how many kilometers) this route was, and combined with incessant rain, a pair of massive earthquakes, and a serious knee injury, nothing really went according to plan. But despite all these challenges, we still experienced some stellar riding, and much of it was on day rides along the way.
The trails to reach Nelson were treacherous with slippery roots amid intermittent heavy rain through tree/fern forests. This was our introduction to New Zealand, and we were all relieved to be on full suspension rigs with generously knobby tires. In Nelson, it rained more, frustratingly keeping us off most of the area’s iconic steep trails. And then during our second night in Nelson, I awoke in the tent to the sensation that I was on a boat that was rocking from side to side.
“Kurt, stop it!” Kaitlyn whined in her sleep, apparently thinking I was trying to wake her up by shaking her back and forth.
I stuck my head out the tent door, groggily realizing that what was under me really was trembling. And it kept shaking. Kaitlyn woke up, startled. The shaking worsened. I
wondered aloud about the dam just up valley of where we were camped. And the silent shaking just continued. It took at least a minute for the earthquake to subside, but intense aftershocks regularly rocked the area. In the morning, we learned that a pair of earthquakes of magnitude 7.8 and 7.9 struck near Blenhiem, where we had been just a few days before, and devastated the area.
The quakes also threw a kink in our plans. The roads we had planned on taking to the south were covered in landslides, and bus service to Nelson was halted. So, we decided to head west toward the coast, stopping in a town mid-way for a couple days so Scott could get some computer work done. We ended up in a tiny one-store town at the edge of a national park. There weren’t any other mountain bikers to be seen, but we found a few new trails, most of which were soggy or downright flooded from the recent rains. But we did stumble across one of the most memorable tracks we rode – a fresh hand-built trail that felt like it had been there for decades. It was narrow, faint, plunged steeply downward at times, and occasionally meandered more calmly on high ridgetops. We grinned wildly as we negotiated the as-far-behind-your-seat-as-you-can-get
sections. We sure wouldn’t have been up there if we were riding loaded for the entire trip, and we never would have known what we were missing.
A few days later, we all excitedly stood at the start of The Old Ghost Road trail. Everyone with whom we had talked said it was a must-do, and with a $7.5-million-dollar budget to create ~70 miles of singletrack through some very rugged mountains and rainforest, it sure seemed like something not to be missed. The trail roughly follows the alignment of a once-envisioned but never constructed road linking old mining communities, climbing out of the rainforest and up onto alpine ridges before clinging to the side of a magnificent gorge back out of the mountains. The trail was truly incredible between the scenery and the feats of construction. We hooted and hollered our way along until the second morning when Kaitlyn fell awkwardly off the high side of the trail on a steep climb. She twisted her knee, and immediately it was swollen to the size of weka, the comical flightless birds that a resemble tyrannosaurus rex a bit smaller than a chicken. Kaitlyn gritted her teeth and hammered out the last 30 miles of trail, but it was clear that
our riding plans beyond that were in question.
A series of buses delivered the four of us to the opposite end of the island and the bustling tourist city of Queenstown. We hung out with Eszter’s brother, who was living out of a van and working in the city for the moment, at his secret campsite. Kaitlyn found a medical clinic, immediately getting an appointment with a knee specialist. His prognosis was that the injury wasn’t too serious – our fears of a torn ligament were appeased. While Kaitlyn anxiously rested, Scott and I challenged ourselves to the bike park at the edge of town, throwing our bikes over jumps and skittering through high-banked switchbacks. The next day, a friend from Colorado, also temporarily living in Queenstown, took me down something called Salmon Run, a the steepest, rootiest track I can imagine being rideable. He made it look easy, and I survived, rolling back into town with my adrenaline stores completely depleted.
A follow-up examination on Kaitlyn’s knee by a physical therapist revealed a torn meniscus, ironically the same injury that I had when bikepacking with Scott and Eszter the prior summer! The PT ordered Kaitlyn to rest, and coincidentally, one of her brother’s good friends was living just over the mountains in the town of Wanaka. So we hopped north to camp in the yard of their communal house for a few days, earning our keep by pulling weeds (and I perfected my switchback skills with a wheelbarrow) while Scott and Eszter headed off to do some hut-to-hut hiking.
It felt immensely relieving to be in Wanaka, a relatively calm town between soaring mountain ranges on the driest part of the island. After a few more days of recovery, Kaitlyn was able to ease back into riding on the local trails, her knee feeling better pedaling than walking. With less than a week left before we had to fly home, she got the go-ahead from the physical therapist to do some longer days on a loaded bike if it felt good. Eszter and Scott were still immersed in the hiking world, their bikes locked to a tree somewhere in the forest outside Queenstown. So Kaitlyn and I rode out of the Queenstown once again and spent the rest of our time on the island traversing the sprawling Mount Pisa and the meadows of the Grandview Range. It felt like we had both ranges to ourselves, and for the first time in the trip, we were actually able to do what we set out to do – have a relaxing few days of riding in the sun without any unforeseen challenges.
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After growing up in Minnesota, I’ve been lured away by the rugged charm of the mountainous west. I relish every opportunity I find to spend a day (or days) on the bike, linking together unknown trails and forgotten routes through deserted country, enjoying the simplicity and unpredictability. When driven to race, I am growing ever fonder of pushing the limits of endurance and sanity. www.krefs.blogspot.com