The Kiwi Brevet is a self supported 1100km cycle event around the top of the South Island in New Zealand, mostly on gravel roads. In February this year Seb and I headed over the give it go. After a few months of 15hr work days, I am finally able to sit here on this rainy arvo and do some writing. I wish I could have written about everything that happened but spending an average of 12 hours a day for 6 days on a bike means that there are far too many experiences to share!
Day 1 – Blenheim to Pool Hut (?) on St James Cycle Trail
205km, 2950m elevation
Standing at the Seymore Square fountain in Blenheim in light drizzle I was so nervous I was actually shaking a little bit. After our briefing in the cinema, it was now 9:50am and I was full of espresso and madly trying to get my GPS to turn on. It dawned on me that I was about to head out for a little 1,200 km spin around the New Zealand South Island with a little GPS arrow as my tour guide. Shit!
There were a few group photos and I said my goodbyes to Seb and Ed and then it was 10am and this peloton of eager-beavers were screaming out of town in a blur of every colour of rain jacket you could imagine. I found myself comfortably about 10th wheel, keen to sit in for as long as the tar lasted at least. We covered about 35km in the first hour and it felt like warp speed. As soon as we hit the gravel I silently waved goodbye to Sebba who I could see was off the front of the pack, that was the last time I saw him for nearly six days! I dropped back and found myself alone and all of a sudden instantly happy. My own head space, my own speed. And that was where I stayed for the whole of the brevet.
The first 150km of day one passed quickly, the kilometers ticking over effortlessly as I settled into my own rhythm. Passing and chatting to a few people here and there and being passed by a few people too. Mainly I rode alone and began my bikepacking ritual of talking and randomly singing out loud to myself. Gradually the route took us up the valley, riding parallel to the Wairau River for most of the day. As we turned away from the river and over our first big pass, we headed towards the St James Cycle Trail.
Now the big views started. Surrounded by snow capped mountains with the setting sun breaking through gaps in the peaks and illuminating the valley in beautiful oranges and pinks.
As all plans never go to plan (my plan being that I wouldn’t ride slow off-road sections at night due to my bad light setup), of course I found myself bumping and bashing along the St James Cycle Trail at night, my dynamo flickering like a disco, accentuated by the rigid fork vibrations and the connector plug popping out with every big bump. I urged myself to remain happy and slowy push through, I was determined to make it to a hut although I hadn’t decided which hut it would be. At about 210km one popped up out of the dark and into my light beam, possibly Pool Hut but I can’t be sure. I poked my head in the front door but there was some snoring and all beds appeared full. So I set up the tent outside and drifted easily to sleep after an almost indigestible can of chicken meat and a packet of cold fried rice. Very happy to have day one under my belt and eager to tackle a new day of riding tomorrow.
Day 2 – Pool Hut (?) on St James Cycle Trail to a hedgerow near Springfield
200km, 3100m elevation
It was a glorious morning when I got out of the tent, happy to find the hut-riders had left and I was free to nude up and change clothes outside 😉 I rode alone until I came across Chris Bennett who had stopped for a caffeine pill. According to him that is a big thing so he must have been feeling pretty flat. He had also struggled on the St James track in the dark, having only a dynamo light after his head lamp malfunctioned. We rode the whole morning together into Hanmer Springs, chatting about bikes, jobs, Tour Divide and everything in between.
At Hanmer Springs we shared a table for breakfast, our first real meal since breakfast the day before. I devoured coffee, juice and amazing pancakes with banana and bacon but was astounded by Chris’ ability to eat a serve of scrambled eggs, followed by a serve of pancakes, followed by another serve of eggs! It dawned on me that I really needed to learn how to eat big and still be able to ride out of town, a skill Chris noted was essential for Tour Divide riders! We parted ways as Chris went to buy a new headlamp and I continued out into the heat.
The day warmed up to be a scorcher and the bitumen was hot and I was saying out loud I wanted to get off this bitch-umen. Where were the trees? In Culverden I downed an ice cold coke and got a toasted sandwhich to go. This is where I started my brevet-long crisscrossing with the IRide guys, Jesse and Kirk. I was a slower rider but pretty spot on with my nav, they were faster but less than spot on with their nav! I passed them just before heading into MacDonald Downs, a large cattle grazing property which the brevet goes through. It was hot, windy, treeless and generally smelt like cows. Slowly and steadily I wound my way up and down through the dry desert-like property, running out of water fast. The guys passed me as I was lying under the only tree we saw for hours eating my amazing toasted sanga, but I soon passed them again as they began ducking into every farm house on route looking for water. Begrudgingly I filled up from a semi-flowing stream with rocks which were covered in cow shit and cows standing on the other side of the stream. I decided that I was happier with giardia over death by dehydration, but put about 10 puritabs in my water bladder and began the slow 30min ride until I could drink it.
The afternoon turned to evening as the guys and I started out on the much talked about Wharfdale section: a walking track in Oxford Forest which can also apparently (??) be a mountain bike track too. I had heard it was hard and there would be some walking and pushing, but I was totally not prepared for what lay ahead in the dark. Hours upon hours of pushing, lifting, shouting, cramping, crashing, more pushing, pulling and whimpering. Somewhere along the way Bruno Geldermans appeared and we trudged along together. The only saving grace for me was that Bruno declared I was not in any state for him to leave me alone out there by myself. At one point I stopped in the middle of the track and decided I was camping right then and there. Bruno headed off and it took me less than 5 minutes standing there in the dark to rush off again to find him! We escaped the forest at about 11pm. I camped in a hedgerow at the bottom of the hill to escape from the strong winds, he decided to head closer to town to get water. I washed myself down in a muddy river crossing on the main road by a farm house and filled up my water from the steam with the sound and smell of cows nearby (eeewww again). Completely exhausted and now cramping from head to toe, I hardly slept a wink. Probably the toughest day on the brevet for me. If I was sensible I should have camped at Wharfdale hut and done the track fresh and early in the morning, but as always, plans never go to plan.
Day 3 – A hedgerow near Springfield to near Moana
210km, 2650m elevation
Day three was groggy start, I packed up early and headed into Springfield to find some much needed food as my last proper meal was breakfast the previous day. Luckily I stumbled across the Yellow Shack cafe, where I ate my body weight in delicious homemade goodies including egg and bacon pie, Camembert quiche, a muffin and a much needed coffee. Bumped into the Iride guys at the servo, they had spent the night at school ground around the corner. We headed off to tackle the bitumen section over Porters Pass and on towards Arthur’s Pass. Everything about day three was slow. I knew I was wrecked from the day before so I decided to take it very easy and set no goal destination for the day. The wind was howling and the rain was setting in as I approached the township of Arthur’s Pass. I had all my rain gear on and it was bucketing down. Torrential rain. I ummed and ahhhhed and eventually decided I didn’t want to be caught wet and freezing in the dark on some epic New Zealand mountain pass. It was only 4pm in the arvo but I stopped in at the YHA to get a room. A keen cycling enthusiast and brevet fan, the guy at the front desk kicked himself for not realising the Kiwi Brevet had started. We chatted and I did some more umming and ahhing, expressing my concerns about the cold and rain. In the end he convinced me I’d be up and over the pass in about half and hour, so he kindly declined my request for a room and told me to get back out there. “Think of how much stopping at 4pm will kill your daily average” he protested.
It was torrential rain, but he was correct. In no time I was indeed up and over the pass, slip sliding down the other side in a river which was running down the road. Over 4 hours passed and I merrily rode along in the easing rain, so glad I had kept going.
As it got dark I looked at the cue sheet and decided Moana was only a short way off course and I could get a room there to dry out for the night. When I t-boned Arnold Valley Road I turned left off course, thinking I only had a few kms to Moana. By now it was dark, I was soaked to the core, freezing and it was torrential rain again. More than 6km down the road I got out the map and realised I had misread the cue sheet, the turn off to Moana was many many kms before Arnold Valley Way. Very sad, I bailed and headed back towards the route. At the intersection again, I noticed a house with a light on. I knocked on the door to ask how far Moana actually was. A lovely old Samoan lady opened the door and she looked a bit shocked to see this bedraggled looking crazy wet Australian standing there. To be honest I don’t know why she didn’t slam it shut again in my face! After agreeing that Moana was too far she kindly offered me her veranda for shelter. Her husband headed off to the midnight shift across the road at the abattoir, and after a handful of rain-sodden cold potato wedges, I drifted off to sleep to the sound of cows being beheaded. I wondered where Seb was and hoped he was dry. I wondered where the Iride guys where, they couldn’t be too far from this horrid weather. Some days bikepacking is not glamorous, and this was definitely one of those days.