Godzone following around Southern Lakes

Adele, in a moment of madness, had managed to get herself into a team of four doing the Godzone adventure race around Wanaka at the start of March. I was very happy to go and spend ten or so days around the Southern lakes running errands, cooking meals, & providing support when needed – not to mention fitting in a fair bit of riding and visiting family. With the 550 km course requiring teams to hike, mountain-bike, kayak, canoe, cross a glacier, swim and complete an orienteering course (with no specified rest periods) there was an awful lot of preparation to be done and gear to be packed in various boxes and packs.

My first ride of the week took me up to Sticky Forest – a maze of singletrack close to Wanaka. It was OK, but I bored of trying to find good trails to ride using a five year old map (this somehow is the latest version) that is quite inaccurate. When I stumbled across a guy from Washington (state) similarly confused by the map, it didn’t take much to convince him to go & ride the wonderful Dean’s Bank trail. A pleasant morning out around the edges of Lake Wanaka.

Somehow after running a few errands for Adele, I still had masses of energy to burn so headed out for an evening ride on the Millennium Trail clockwise around the lake to Glendhu Bay. A wonderfully formed shared trail around the edge of the lake, it was pretty much deserted at that time of the day. There are quite a few steep bits of the trail – but these were good to get a bit of elevation above the lake to look out over it to the mountains. Another beautiful ride on a very still evening.

Not much was required of us during the day, Friday, so it was time for James & I check out another cycle trail to another lake. This time we were off to Lake Hawea – although we first had to skirt Lake Wanaka on the Outlet Trail before crossing the Hawea River and following the true-left bank to the lake. Being beside another river, there’s not a lot of climbing for the length of the trail – that is, until you get to the dam near the lake and there’s a fair hill to get up to overlook the lake. Which is of course another great view.

The Hawea River has specially constructed whitewater features in it for kayakers – we spotted a couple of surfers giving it a go.

Back in town by early afternoon there was plenty of time for a trip to the store to prepare for the final supper for the team – not to mention all the many snacks for an afternoon on the balcony overlooking the lake & watching the cricket. The team had finished all their packing and dropped their bike boxes and transition zone boxes off at Race HQ and came around for their last cooked meal until the race finished – a big barbecue. With the weather forecast for the coming week looking rather dire in the mountains, chatter around the dinner table was sparse as the team nervously contemplated the many possibilities of the huge week ahead.

It was early to bed for them as they had to meet for the race in the wee hours of the morning before being taken on buses to a community hall at Hawea, where they would receive maps and compulsory check-points’ positions for the first part of the race. Until then, the race course had remained Wanaka’s best kept secret and the source of much speculation. For those of us that didn’t get up at three o’clock, the day dawned just as miserably – it didn’t look like it was going to be a fun day in the mountains.

The excellent tracking component of the Godzone website went live when the race started at eight o’clock and the route for the whole week was also up – we could begin to appreciate a little, just what a mammoth challenge this race would be. Even the first hike up to the Brewster Glacier sounded awful in the rain; the weather was so bad that the walk across the glacier was cancelled for all teams. I headed for Queenstown to stay with cousins for a few days – I was thankful for the comfort and dryness of a car to get there.

The day was nicer in Queenstown & I enjoyed catching up with David & Mary after many years, and also watching a rather memorable NZ vs Aus cricket match.

Our obsession with following the race increased steadily throughout the week as the we watched the tracking dots move around the course (each team carried a GPS transponder that usually sent out their position every fifteen minutes, which was then posted on the website) and followed the news feed on the website. The top teams were alarmingly fast, while those further back in the field – well, we could only imagine the ordeal of coping with the course & weather and lack of sleep & proper food and will them on. The weather Sunday & Monday was much improved in Queenstown, so it was ideal for me to go for a much easier bike ride.

I realised I could use The Queenstown Trail (yet another part of the NZ Cycle Trail that I’ve now ridden recently) to get to Arrowtown and then ride to the historic gold-mining settlement of Macetown up in the hills. I quickly discovered The Queenstown Trail is an absolutely brilliant facility in the area – just in case it needed more attractions. Following the Kawarau, Shotover and then Arrow rivers on the wide easy trail, I was comfortably in Arrowtown in an hour and a half.

Just after I started to Macetown, the sun came out and the day began to warm up. Which was just as well as it seems as that trail spends most of its time underwater! I forded the Arrow River fifty times that day – mostly it was hub deep and I was pleased to have big wheels and be able to ride all but two of the crossings. But that didn’t stop my feet being dunked on most of those crossings. Quickly I passed the tourists, and even some locals, panning for gold and there were few other people to see for the rest of the day. After staying at the bottom of the river valley for a little while, the trail climbed up in the hills to get above a dam and waterfall before rejoining the river as it came around a ninety degree bend in the valley.

At Macetown, I found very little to look at – but one could appreciate just how remote the area was and wonder what it was like to live such an isolated life in the late nineteenth century in pursuit of gold. I turned and headed back down the valley and through the river as the day still warmed – I passed many more people riding up to Macetown now that it was just after noon.

Arrowtown was hopping when I rode back through, so quickly passed through before heading out to the original & iconic bungy-jumping bridge over the Kawarau for the extra time and miles on the bike.

Monday was forecast to get wet in the afternoon, so it was another morning departure on The Queenstown Trail – this time through Queenstown itself and then further around Lake Wakatipu before finding the singletrack up towards picturesque Moke Lake. Unfortunately, the singletrack doesn’t go all the way & I joined the gravel road and a very strong headwind. In the cloud, the lake wasn’t as pretty as normal – but with the hills around, still picturesque.

Leaving Moke Lake, there was a climb through farm land and then a steep drop to Lake Dispute (one wonders what the dispute was) and then some wonderful singletrack (Phoenix Trail) back to the main road.

Wednesday, I was even more glued to the team’s progress on the race as more and more teams were retiring or continuing unranked after receiving assistance (three teams managed to hike up the wrong valley for hours without realising it, two of those eventually being helicoptered out). After over thirty-four hours hiking and only sleeping a few hours on the second night (no sleep on the first night!), a nice canoe followed by a horrid hypothermic swim, they were on a mountain-bike stage from west of Wanaka, up onto the Garvies and Pisa ranges before passing right past David & Mary’s house.

While I waited, I went for a short walk to the grocery store – The Remarkables were looking just that.

Progress must have been horribly slow, as I waited to be able to ride the last part of the leg with the team my predictions of when I should set off kept being pushed out as they just never got any sort of prolonged speed up. Preparing myself for a night ride, I eventually went to bed and woke every hour or so to check progress. They’d obviously decided to sleep before they got close the to the trail I’d ridden on Sunday; but only an hour or so of sleep was taken before they were on the move again – I was up at five to eat and get ready for a bit of night-riding.

Meeting the team in the dark near the airport, they seemed remarkably chipper. Apparently that was all a front as they battled desperately to stay awake on the bike and keep what they were seeing grounded in reality. They were happy to get all the race gossip I could pass on – as the field had really spread over the almost-two days they were on this MTB leg (!), they had little idea of how everyone else was getting on. Eventually, the day dawned as we went around the lake – the pace was understandably slow and there were frequent stops for snacks.

Finally, after forty-three hours the bikes could be packed in their boxes for a while and the team got ready for the kayak to Kingston at the southern tip of the lake. Missing the 2 a.m. deadline by about six and a half hours, the team was now on the short course (this cut out the last hike, the orienteering course and modified the second bike leg significantly) along with many other teams. Actually, the course and the weather were so demanding that two teams that made the cut-off by a matter of minutes elected to do the short course so that they would finish without assistance.

Slowly packing up the bikes and getting ready for the first kayaking stage.

And off again – this a relatively short leg, only six and a quarter hours…

I set off back home to pack up and return to Wanaka so as to meet the team later the following day as they were due to ride through the night back to Wanaka and get back in the kayaks for final stage on Lake Wanaka. As I did so, the morning cloud burnt off and I was treated to some wonderful views over Wakatipu.

With an enforced six-hour stand down at Kingston (the re-routed bike ride through the Nevis was on a lot of public roads, so the organisers didn’t want ultra-tired competitors weaving in front of traffic), the team got plenty of sleep (probably as much as they’d had over the previous four nights!) before heading out on the bikes late evening Wednesday. Keeping an eye on the dots, I set off mid-afternoon on yet another new-since-I’ve-been-away cycle trail, the Upper Clutha River Trail, to meet the team as they battled a nasty nor-wester from Cromwell to Wanaka.

Hanging around a bit at the start of the Newcastle Trail (down the other side of the river back to Albert Town) that the teams were taking towards the last transition at Dublin Bay, I snacked and checked the teams’ progress along the left side of the Clutha. Realising I was far enough ahead of the team, I headed along a rather boring sealed road towards them with a nice tailwind – travel in the opposite direction can’t have been nice, as I was about to find out.

I think they were pleased to see me as the battled against the wind – at least I hope so, after yet another over-a-day long leg. Even I might be sick of riding a bike after sixty-two hours over three days. Finally, it was off the road onto the Newcastle Trail – but I don’t remember much of it, as I tried to chat away without getting in the way. News begin to filter through that the final leg was beginning to be shortened as high winds had tipped some of the kayakers out of their boats on the far side of the lake. I left the team to ride Dean’s Bank & on through to the lake as I nipped back to town to down dinner, as I’d no idea how long before they’d be at the finish (due to ever-shortening kayak leg).

With a careful eye on the tracking, it became clear that the kayak was being shortened extensively. In the end, only a handful of teams did the full leg, with most after them only having to go to one of the six checkpoints, significantly shortening the watery ordeal. At as soon as the team were in the water, it became clear from their tracker that they had been instructed to miss all checkpoints and just paddle for home around the point into town. So I hussled down to the finish line to meet the weary souls.

And here they are, crossing the finish line – what an effort & achievement. Five days, fourteen hours and thirty seven minutes of a difficult course and rather horrid weather.

The team finished twenty-seventh in the end, a slight improvement on their position for most of the race. To illustrate just how tough it was, of the fifty-two teams on the leaderboard – only thirty-two completed without assistance. Of those, only fourteen did the full course! Well done Rachel, Jeremy, Garry & Adele. With celebratory beer, pies, hot chocolate & scones (some supporters are so much better than I am) I ferried the team back to the team house where Claire (Jeremy’s wife) had a big roast in the oven (like I said, some supporters are awesome).

Having to get out of the house where were staying Friday morning, it was a quick clean before we headed back to Queenstown for a couple of days of rest and relaxation and food. What a fantastic week following such a mad event; I briefly caught adventure race fever, but simply following it was exhausting enough for me.

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