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To wrap up a few years of living in New Zealand, photographer Tom Powell headed out for one final bikepacking trip through a remote region of the South Island. In this story, he recounts the role fear played in shaping his experiences before his ride and while he was on the trail, for better or for worse. Read it here, paired with a fantastic set of images…
Words and photos by Tom Powell (@tacos_and_tailwinds)
Fear is an unpredictable thing. It’s an emotion that comes from a deeply primal urge. It can be created by something very real, and just as easily manufactured in our minds by something that doesn’t exist at all. Usually, the fear of the unknown that we build up in our imaginations is far worse than whatever the thing we’re afraid of actually is.
I’d been planning on riding a route through New Zealand’s Nevis Range in the South Otago region, just a few hundred kilometers from the most southerly point of the South Island, which is mostly frequented by the 4×4 community, merino farmers, and bikepackers. I’d been living in New Zealand for the past few years, but this would be one of my last trips before heading overseas for work opportunities. This route would give me a final taste of the South Island—a beautiful long goodbye. I’d planned a route that would take me through the Nevis valley and connect me to The Around the Mountains Trail. It would take me through a second set of mountains known as the Eyre Range, then spit me out at Lake Wakatipu, where I could catch a boat back to Queenstown.
Nevis is the home to the highest public road in the country, which sits at an elevation of 1,300 meters and features sections that one must ride self-supported with no cell phone coverage or passing cars for help. In the many years I’d been coming to the area, I’d yet to ride it. In the Kennet Brothers’ bikepacking book, descriptions suggest that hyperthermia is a very real consideration out in this unhospitable nook of the South Island. To quote them, “This exposed landscape is merciless in bad weather.” What’s more, it’s described as the closest piece of land exposed to Antarctica, and weather patterns can change at the drop of a hat, even in summer. What was there to worry about?
Despite having bikepacked all around the country over several years, I’d never had many worries while out riding. It feels like one of the safest countries in the world to bikepack in. There are very few cars around on back roads. You’re never more than a day or two from civilization. And most importantly, there are no animals that will bite, sting, or eat you with any serious implications. I was also fairly experienced, having ridden many routes and spent extensive time outdoors. But, in the days leading up to my departure, I found myself making excuses, such as that I needed a warmer sleeping bag or should hold out for a better weather window.
Because I’d been planning this ride for so long, this procrastination had played havoc with my mind. I’ve always said the hardest part of any bike trip is just leaving, but that barrier had been allowed too much space to grow this time. The thought of freezing at night, getting lost, or running out of food had me overpack with multiple merino layers that I’d be more likely to pack for an alpine adventure in the winter months. I’d borrowed a four-season bag that filled my seat post bag and had a bike computer and a locator beacon. All of this preparation, and I still felt that nagging apprehension in the back of my mind when I finally parked my camper van in the historic stone-clad town of Clyde, where I’d be starting my route.
The first day was at around 200 meters elevation, with easy cycle trails following the Clutha River. There was a sense of urgent mayhem mirroring the traffic on the main road on the adjacent side of Clutha Lake. The trail had a constant line of e-bikers zipping past me on my fully loaded setups. It was a midsummer tourist draw card on luxury gravel. There was more danger of colliding with a selfie stick than taking a tumble in the dirt. I made it through the crowds and found a campground in Bannockburn for the night. I was welcomed by the host, a hardy woman with a deep, gravelled voice and matching laugh lines. She stood and waited as I searched my bags for payment, her arms crossed, shaking her head and laughing. When I told her I wasn’t sure if I’d be warm enough through the night, she quickly responded with a stern, “You need to toughen up, love.” Talk about motivation.
The seasons were changing. It was the end of summer, and there was already a chill in the morning air. After a frosty sunrise start, it wasn’t long before the biggest climb of the trip would be upon me, climbing 1,100 meters in just 10 kilometres. The steep gravel farm road soon gained elevation, offering views of the Otago region as I slogged my over-packed bicycle, one switchback at a time, up this high-test public road in the country. The landscape was arid, and the lack of trees allowed the full intensity of the midday sun to beat down on me on this seemingly never-ending grind. It was a hard day, but all that uncertainty had evaporated, and the familiar burn in my legs and chest made me feel back at home on my saddle. The campground host’s motivation from the night before rang in my ears.
As my heart rate returned to a regular pace, those feelings of fear I once had were transformed into pure anticipation. I could begin to absorb the silence and solitude of this place. The things that once fed into my fear were now filling me with the feeling of freedom I only ever experience while traveling by bicycle—the simplicity of being alone and carrying everything I needed. I rode the final 20 kilometres to a hut I’d seen marked on the map, winding up through the craggy landscape to The Old Woman hut at 1,420 metres, where I listened to the blustery grass and watched the shadows of the schist tors lengthen as the sun lowered over the Remarkables and Hector Mountains to the west and the Old Woman Range to the east.
I awoke to a smoldering fireplace and enjoyed a silent coffee with my thoughts as the sun started to bring the warmth back to the surface of the corrugated steel cabin. Beginning to feel completely at home in my isolation, I rolled away, hearing every stone hitting my rim, every clunk inside my bag, still not a human sound in earshot.
Dropping into the Nevis Valley felt like going past a point of no return. The long descent ahead and the open road were the only way through. I rode on with my head down against the wind, with nothing to do but pedal. The only stops were dismounting for cattle gates that seemed to appear at the very moment I regained my cadence from the last stop. The valley transformed before me from wide-open plains into a craggy ravine hugging the river. The trail eventually brought me to Garston Hut, an old ski touring cabin cloaked in graffiti offering musty mattresses with breathtaking views of the town of Garston and the valley below.
Just as I lamented my lack of a cold drink to enjoy with my dinner at the end of a perfect day, two gentlemen in their early 70s rolled up to the hut in similar bikepacking fashion. They were in great spirits and offered me a beer they had stashed earlier in the shelter. Talk about perfect timing! They had had the forethought of arranging for some off-road motorists to deliver their bags to the hut so they could ride unloaded. They both had backgrounds in mountaineering and were no strangers to extreme conditions. Their jolly banter displayed their ease with each other, seeming to have complete confidence in their friendship and abilities in this environment.
It was a day’s ride to get to the next segment of the trail, the only significant interruption being an apple tree on the side of the trail that was bursting with fruit. The long, straight farmlands made their way into Mossburn and became mountainous again. The long road wound its way through Mt. Nic Station, past Mavora Lakes, and alongside the Eyre Range. A day’s riding with nobody apart from the odd farmer and a stream of Tour Aotearoa riders coming in the opposite direction. The Around the Mountains Trail takes you through some stunning parts of the country, and with the end of the ride nearing, there was very little left to worry about, even with my food supplies down to a couple of bars and a dehydrated meal.
As the sun lowered in the sky, I decided to make camp in the valley a few kilometers away from next morning’s ferry across the lake. It would be my last night on the trail, and it felt like the adventure’s end. What’s more, this would be my last night of bikepacking on the South Island before heading north for a new life in Canada. As I settled into my tent, tucked away from the line of sight from the road, I’d almost made myself comfortable and was dozing off to the sound of the river rolling rocks downstream when I heard a slow bellowing groan cutting through the silent night sky.
The noise came from what felt like miles away, close to the top of the mountain, which gave me some comfort. Just as I’d calmed down, I heard a second from the opposite side of the valley. It continued, and before long, there were six or seven wild beasts groaning in the distance in this deep guttural standoff. I realized it was what I’d heard referred to as a “stag roar,” and I also realized I know very little about stags or what a “roar” is. I’d never asked the question, “Are stags dangerous?” Fear slowly crept back and made its presence known. The bellows lasted for what felt like all night, and in my head were getting closer and closer.
I woke to a rustling on the side of my tent that turned out to be nothing more than a sniffing hedgehog, and with very little sleep, I packed up for the final time. The clouds that had been chasing me were firmly set overhead, and I was glad to be watching them roll over the ranges as I rode the last few kilometers to the boat launch. All memories of any apprehension I had initially felt seemed so far behind me, and on reflection, they served to made the trip more exciting.
Feel the fear and do it anyway. Surely, that’s why we all bikepack: to experience the unknown and unexpected and to feel the exhilaration that comes from overcoming it. There was nothing about this ride that I needed to feel fearful for, but the challenges and fears I had experienced had made this trip so much more rewarding. My ability to deal with this powerful emotion is as much a part of this trip as anything else.
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