First published in Singletrack Magazine Issue 107. Click below for subscription options:
Rickie Cotter takes on the mountain bike adventure of a lifetime – riding 3,000km down the spine of New Zealand’s two islands.
Words and pictures by Rickie Cotter, illustrations by Beate Kubitz.
The sky is full of stars, more than I ever knew and they radiate like light bulbs on the blackest canvas. No light pollution affects these skies – they are as endless as eternity. I can feel the mountains around me, their silhouettes outlined by a full moon.
My night-time superpowers come into action; my senses are firing. I hear every sound from the animals I do not know, the earth I cannot see and the river that gently cascades over the rocks and down the valley – I can feel it all around.
I take deep cavernous breaths. I fill my lungs to the brim with the sweet smell of eucalyptus trees. I’ve become in tune with nature and can now tell when midday arrives, for that is when the sweet smell crescendos.
The Tour Aotearoa is a 3,000km mountain bike adventure the length of New Zealand. Billed as a tour, not a race, the inevitable debate soon begins. My opinion is that an event like this will be many things to many people, but in the end the goal is the same: ride the length of a country, experience the landscape and seek adventure. My aim is to go as hard and efficiently as I can. I’m against myself. I respect everyone whether they race or not; we all deserve the freedom to chose our own destiny and experience the journey as we see fit.
And so I began my journey with gusto…
An echelon of bikepackers working in unison to conquer 90 Mile Beach must have been quite a sight. From the saddle it hurt and I hovered dangerously close to the red zone, but to be dropped from the bunch would mean being lost in a painful no man’s land fighting a vicious wind. Clearly Mother Nature would be our biggest opponent. Dismounting ungracefully to stumble up the final section of beach reminded me that I must look after these legs.
Thankfully the burning sun eased off and as night approached, so did the possums and I lost count of the near misses pulling some almighty skids.
At 11pm I was on the dockside singing the Welsh national anthem at the top of my voice – I had just drunk a bottle of kiwi juice and found out the ferry captain was Welsh, so it was a fitting introduction. I must have made quite an impression because on the second ferry I was greeted with “Ah you must be Rickie!”. Hmm. “We’ll be watching. Go for it girl!” I felt heartened and motivated.
I bivvied on a dormant volcano overlooking the city of Auckland. I nestled into the long grass, clammy and still in my Lycra, sun cream and sand crunching in my hair, my nails already black with dirt, my legs tired but restless, my mind already planning the next day.
Darkness with strangers
Standing by a lake in complete darkness with another rider – Tom – we were approached by a 4×4. Expecting to be told off, we had quite the opposite reaction and were invited for a cup of tea in the lake master’s caravan.
I could not resist the temptation of the lake. The moonlight caressing the calm surface of the water only occasionally disturbed by a trout. I picked a shallow pool with an easy entry/exit, took off everything but my shorts and slowly, tentatively, stepped in. Little fish tickled my feet. I felt brave and dived right in. I must have scared some ducks as I could hear panicked flapping, but couldn’t see who I’d disturbed. Fish plopped in and out around me. All my pain washed away downstream.
The Timber Trail starts after a 1,000m climb and it is 90km of singletrack through jungle-type terrain. I’d underestimated the length of this section so I was glad I’d brought my water filter as I only came across one creek. Not slipping on the mud bank of the creek was another challenge. I crossed many high bridges and had to stop to look over the edge, the earth swinging way below.
Darkness began to draw in and I was so very tired. Hedgehogs littered the singletrack, spiky balls of doom. I didn’t dare ride over one, but my light was fading with my energy. Too tired to put up my tent I just lay inside it, the dew already wet on the grass. It must be late or maybe early. I’ve never been so glad to see the Golden Arches at 4am. I ordered two breakfasts – the first time I’ve ever seen a square egg, but I was past caring. Somebody had painted the sky pink, through fuzzy eyes I could still appreciate its beauty.
Jet (boat) setting
Travelling down the Whanganui River was exciting and magical. To think that the Maori people journeyed up this river to bury their dead in caves, fissures in the rock face a reminder of the days long before jetboats when they had to pole themselves upstream. Now I’m here with my bike strapped to a jetboat having the time of my life.
The North Island was passing me by in a blur. Getting a sniff of the South Island I was really focused on getting to Wellington, which was 300km away. All day I pushed hard, only stopping to get food I could eat while riding. I wanted the 6:45pm ferry. I rode along eating a tin of beans. Occasionally there was an escapee which landed on my shoe – no time to wipe him off though.
Approaching the final run into Wellington, the wind was nasty; the weather showing its ugly side. I looked out to the raging ocean to see the ferry leaving, angry with myself. Catching the 2:30am ferry I was shown yet more Kiwi generosity by a fellow rider (Matt P) who shared his cabin with me, which meant a well overdue shower and a bed for a few hours.
The sea was rough and I was rudely woken, smacking my head on the side of the boat then nearly falling out of the top bunk as I rolled towards the edge.
As the jaws of the ferry opened, I was greeted by a beautiful predawn. The nip in the air woke me up and the spectacle that is the Marlborough Sounds lay before me. Bring on the mighty South Island.
I crawled over the Maungatapu Saddle. Sometimes it was too steep to ride, so I just sweated my way up there. The jagged slate-style rocks could slice my tyres at any moment so I had to descend cautiously. I was joined by a random stranger who had been ‘dot watching’ my Spot Tracker who asked if he could ride with me to Richmond. He was on a road bike and was surprised I could do 25kph at this stage in the event on a fully loaded mountain bike – to be honest so was I.
That night I made it to Lake Rotoroa. I wish I could have seen it; I had to settle for just knowing it was special. I’d climbed the last 10km with Tony and we had a bit of a shock when we bumped into Tom in the darkness on the shore of the lake. He was a bit wild-eyed as he had just climbed over the alternate route, which was rough as hell. He’d been surprised by two hippies in the process of destroying their hire car over a pass that was not drivable. They must have been equally shocked as he was making a cup of tea in the darkness on a mountain top.
Big River riding
The infamous Big River loomed. I’d heard so much about how hard this section was that I’d started to get anxious. Arriving in the town of Reefton I felt really sick from the sun but, after a brief word with myself, I stopped feeling sorry, got my race head on, and started to attack the hell out of the Big River. I climbed with fury. The loose stones made my upper body work hard and my sore bum had to be kept off the saddle. A couple of hours flew by and I could feel dusk approaching; this was no place to be in the dark. The Big River crossing was not that big as the last few weeks had been dry, but I could see the potential for flash flooding.
After climbing up the steep-sided riverbed, the trail became narrow, rooty and treacherous. I stayed on the gas as I feared a night stuck on this trail, especially as there was the occasional landslide to negotiate. Still in dense jungle I could see the light fading. Then, to my relief, I came across the old abandoned gold mine village. ‘Thank f*** for that.’ I’d got through unscathed. I was spent.
World asleep. Rider awake. Sometimes
The alarm drills through my head at 3am; the world is still asleep. Even the loud chorus of the cicada is yet to begin. My mind quickly switches onto The Routine: sleeping bag away, helmet on so I can use my head light, shorts up, damp socks on, tent down, first breakfast, lights on, route check, and off I go.
Every time all my kit goes in the same place – same goes for inside the tent. In the darkness I can fumble around and I instinctively know the compact layout. My knife always clipped to my bra, ready.
The Wilderness Trail lived up to its title, I barely saw another soul. The theatre of mountains is reflected in the glasslike lake, doubling their beauty, and a sweet, winding gravel track is my road to freedom. I arrived at Cowboy Paradise and just had to saunter through the saloon doors. To my surprise, inside the saloon was a floor to ceiling, wall-to-wall glass window. Both my hands splayed wide open against the glass; I couldn’t grasp what I was seeing. The view down the valley untouched. A thundering river surrounded by jungle-clad mountains and in this moment it felt like it was all mine.
Leaving Lake Hawea and approaching Wanaka I was graced with the best sunrise of the whole trip. I’d been wanting a good breakfast since 3am and had been distracted by hunger. Playing a slalom game with rabbits had kept me on my toes because the trail meandered above a river and any mistakes would have got me very wet. Even in the dark I could tell that I would struggle to swim out if I’d fallen.
“GOOOOO AOTEAROA, YEEHAH!” I thought I was losing it, but it was a cool lady on a fat bike at 6am coming out to give me a shout out. I raised my arms as if winning a stage of the Tour. “YEEEAAAHHA!” my reply. I momentarily looked uncool as I nearly lost the front on a bump, but managed a quick swerve recovery.
When I arrived in Wanaka I ordered an obscene amount of breakfast. I had no less than five espressos in a row, lined up like tequila. Two of yesterday’s sandwiches ironically for later, three Danish pastries and a very large pretzel. I didn’t even leave the friendly bird a crumb and by this point I’d gone feral – I let all the crumbs land on my lap, my elbows on the table and my head slumped over my paper bag of pastries. I wasn’t quite dribbling but I was close. Within ten minutes of breakfast I felt like a new woman, which was lucky because it was time to face the Cardrona Pass.
A steamboat from Queenstown
By this point Matt P. and I were riding together. We had to catch a steamboat from Queenstown and I was under pressure for time. My watch had broken before the start of the event; I felt liberated from it, but now time was important. I got into a time-trial position, went on one, rode until I felt sick and then just carried on. I almost hit a number of Chinese tourists on the cycle path as ‘on your right/left’ was too complicated an instruction. I burst into the ticket office and got a small telling off for riding into reception (via the steps, ahem). I loved the fact that there were carbon downhill bikes filling the bike racks – unlocked!
As I boarded the ship we were told bikes were not allowed on the 4pm ferry. There are times when I take advantage and use the girly charm offensive; this was one of them.
“You’ll be shot by the farmers if you don’t get to Mavora Lakes and it’s 50km away.”
“Tonight I will ride 100km; I promise I won’t camp wild.”
After much charming and reassuring the captain, he let me and two others get on. I lay in the ship’s museum and looked out of a porthole at the jagged peaks surrounding Queenstown. Matt’s ankles had gone purple but he still had a perfect cycling style. He climbed away from me out of the port; I saluted him.
Not ready to stop
Night approached with an almighty tailwind and I was surrounded by a giant landscape. I felt so at ease, no longer intimidated by the enormity of my surroundings. It was heaven and it felt so natural. I was acutely aware that the end was approaching so I held onto that blissful feeling, enjoying the solitude. I was thriving and I’d never felt so alive.
Traditionally I always end up in at least one obscure bivvy spot and my final night was no exception. The howling wind meant I had to look for some sort of cover. My standards of what’s acceptable were non-existent and I genuinely didn’t care when I only found a cattle shed full of dried out pats and lots of insemination tools. Tomorrow would be my final day of this adventure. I found it hard to sleep as I wasn’t ready to stop.
The wind was deafening on the way to Bluff, which was lucky because I was letting out a lot of ‘F£&/@#!’s. When you have a frame bag on your bike you become like a giant sail. That last 20km was cruel, but as I approached the final 10km I was just riding along smiling. I had pictured this moment, this feeling in my head and now the dream was playing out for real.
Expecting a traditional bikepacking finish of no one there, I was shocked to find a few of the guys, drinking beer, basking in the glory of the ride. There was an almighty roar and much ‘waahaaying’. I was so happy to share this moment with them. We were united by the journey, closer than most of my friends because we’d gone through this together, we’d travelled the same road and faced the same hardships, a bond that no one else will know.
Did you enjoy this long read? Then why not check out the magazine. Plenty of words and stunning pictures, beautifully crafted together just for you at a subscription price starting at as little as £1.49 a month. Click the big yellow button below to find out more: