Words: Jordan Phipps
Images: Odin Woods

The idea of strapping crap to your bike and heading into the wilderness definitely isn’t a new one, but I’ve been feeling the urge to break out. Time to make the effort to get back outside, chuck down the tools and avoid the Christmas rush. Find fun in the misadventure and – for the first time, for me – take the bikepacking offroad.

The perfect opportunity to dip a toe into this niche practically landed in my lap. A long-planned weekend at the Wairoa Gorge was rapidly approaching, which would see me and my buddy, Odin, traversing the South Island. The journey from Christchurch to Nelson dances along the fringes of some unreal backcountry areas, giving us a plethora of rivers and valleys to explore. What better way to start a weekend of gravity-assisted riding than with a bikepacking adventure.

Driving to Nelson isn’t overly long or strenuous, but when schedules are tight and optimising time away from home is key, an after-work departure is best. Some folks may just opt for a hotel or even whack up the rooftop tent to break up the drive when tired, but when activities take priority, a backcountry hut makes perfect sense…

Stuffing a dry bag full of snacks, camping gear and the occasional hazy (of course), you’ve now got the perfect recipe to start any adventure. I’ve learned over the years, there are three things you usually like to line up to help aid a positive experience while out in the backcountry. None of them are exactly critical but a lack of all three definitely makes life slightly harder, colder and, ahh, less positive:

Good weather.

Ample daylight.

Cold beer.

A plan formed and before long we began the battle out of civilisation. Bumper-to-bumper rush hour traffic filled the roads, with the silly season undoubtedly upon us. Shop fronts were adorned with Christmas livery, and footpaths struggled to contain the masses. My mind begins to wander: have I got my partner the right thing for Christmas? Shit, did I remember to book the campsite for New Year’s Eve? Am I going to be able to pull off a flawless pav on Christmas Day? In my present reality, the only pressing questions were when the traffic was finally going to move and which flavour dehydrated meal I should have for dinner that night.

The slow crawl across the city only intensified the urge to get the hell outta there and be completely immersed in the wilderness. Eventually, the houses thinned out and the tar seal quickly turned to gravel. The inconvenience of the city and that pesky traffic became nothing but a smoke-fuelled memory.

The Landcruiser was loaded to the gunnels: two different disciplines and a weekend’s worth of supplies had stretched our Tetris packing skills. This was demonstrated almost as soon as we hit the first 4WD track – everything that could possibly fall off the shelves and create chaos through the interior, did. As bags collected our heads, we were forced to stop and rearrange, taking the time to observe the dank playground that sat in the valley below.

Alas, the peaceful serenity was momentarily broken by the sound of the windscreen wipers reaching Mach 10 on the Landcruiser. Cool, it was raining…

I downshifted the truck and let the old girl roll down the hill, headlights on as we watched the sun dip below the snow-capped peaks. The weather was packing in and the daylight running away, but hey – at least we’d made it outta the city. Plus, we still had beer.

Under the last ounce of light, we parked the old girl up, had a quick shuffle of gear, then strapped our dry bags down to their racks. With our head torches illuminating the way, our road had become a singletrack adventure. New to me for this excursion, was the Aeroe spider rack system. The simplicity of having a drybag strapped to the back of my bike while still maintaining use of a dropper post was a win indeed. With no movement or the admin of having to stop mid-ride and tighten anything up, this product got a thumbs up from me.

I’d never actually ventured into this part of the country before, but Odin assured me I was in for a treat. A narrow goat trail through tussock flat lands carried us away from the carpark and upstream towards the mountains. Navigating seemed a breeze… for the time being.

It’s strange, but for some reason I tend to always be overly confident in my navigational skills. There’s not really any skill set or valid reason to justify why, I’ve just always been the one to charge ahead and find the way. But, as it transpired, navigating from one small orange DOC marker to the next in the dark is a skill I’ve yet to learn. Toppo maps came out and assurances were made that as long as we were heading upstream, eventually we’d reach the hut. Right? Oh yeah, and technically ‘upstream’ also means ‘downstream’, ‘back across stream’ and ‘across that other stream’, too.

We were, by then, doused in darkness and navigating river crossings, however, the dedication to sustaining dry feet was strong. Our shoes stayed firmly strapped to our handlebars, and socks tucked in our pockets – a decision I questioned as my bare feet felt helplessly for the path ahead, fumbling over rocks and navigating the murky waters one dainty step at a time. It was about then that I reminded myself; ‘it’s not the destination, it’s the journey’. Or was it #notallwhowanderarelost? Either way, the realisation that only a few hours previously I was slinging tools at work and watching the hours slowly tick by, yet now here I was immersed in the wilderness, wading upstream, bike in tow, pushed me further into the unknown.

I don’t know about you, but to me, that’s pure bliss.

Our chosen abode for the night happened to be placed on the Te Araroa trail. We started to broach the subject that there was every chance the hut would be chocka block full of other intrepid travellers, and the question arose of whether we would be pitching our tent in the rain? What was proper hut protocol when arriving late at night? Ah well, I decided that was future Jordan’s problem, and kept the pedals turning.

This was night riding like I’d never experienced it before. To be fair, it was more a combination of multi-sport, orienteering and cycling all thrown into a mixing pot of Type 2 adventure. Mental notes were made on which sections to avoid on our return ride through, and which rock cairns were actually helping us. Somehow, it seemed that each time we’d battle our way through an off-piste excursion, we were only ever metres away from the trail.

Finding ourselves on opposite sides of the river, we reconvened to once again check our course. After a couple of hours of fumbling athletically through the dark, we had success – the hut was in reach and the legs could sense it, so we cranked up through the dank beach forest and summited the last climb. I soon found myself yahooing, taking in the cornflake descent, corners getting slapped, and any feeling of tiredness seemingly having left my brain.

Sliding to a stop, we couldn’t believe our luck – checking, then double checking, then triple checking that we did indeed have an empty hut at our disposal. Yes, an empty hut! We couldn’t believe it; our intrepid trail of cornflakes had led us right to the front door and not a soul was in sight. Our bikes were safely tucked away and, with two simple clicks, my dry bag was released from its cradle. Ahh, that first crispy beer was cracked.

Hut life is an easy life – not to mention, a much-needed change of pace from the standard 9 – 5 back home. It’s the simple things for me: the rhythmic crackle of a fire and the anticipation of a dehydrated meal. We were more than content. This was a heck of a way to spend a Thursday night. With the fire cranking and beverages poured, the quality of our chat started to fade and it wasn’t long before the night slipped away.

The beauty of arriving at 11:30pm the previous night was that neither of us actually knew what to expect of our surroundings when we woke the following morning. Our subpar porridge was inhaled while glassing the numerous slips and clearings, adamant to scan some creatures. This trip, as all of them seem to be these days, was a squeeze in our schedule. It was the sort of trip that, at the time, could have felt rushed and a tad flustered, but that’s when it’s key to remember something like this is always worth doing.

After a morning scanning and exploring the terrain, our bags were back on as quickly as they were unpacked, ready for the downstream trip – which we expected to be an absolute treat. I was quickly humbled by how off track my self-proclaimed mastery navigation skills were the previous night, as the amount of river crossings were halved. The sheer vastness of the valley was hard to absorb.

On any adventure, every positive is balanced with a – sometimes – a small negative. The small negative on this trip was the kind that liked to fly around our faces and bite any exposed skin. Sandflies weren’t going to put a damper on this trip, but boy did they give it a nudge. Luckily for the sandfly population, the majestic sight of the Landcruiser was on the horizon. We’d managed to make it back to the truck in half the time and almost half the distance we’d covered the previous night, but both exploits were just as fun.

Sometimes life needs a bit of spice. Not necessarily the whole Cajun vibe, but maybe more of a paprika hit. It doesn’t take much to mix it up and get out of your environment and into another. Squeeze it in the schedule and get it done. You might be surprised how enjoyable a moonlight ride upstream in the rain actually is.

This article is taken from:NZ Mountain Biker, Issue #109

Considering SubscribingPurchase Issue #109