new zealand mtb south mountain bike-2
new zealand mtb south mountain bike-2

When a message from photographer Camilla Stoddart arrived in my inbox asking if I would be interested in a two week ‘Road Trip’ around New Zealand's South Island…I was all ears. The plan? Link a sampler pack of the island's finest surf and singletrack. Before long I found myself wedged in a turbulent tube jet–lagging my ass across the Pacific...

From Dirt Issue 136 - June 2013

Words by Mike Hopkins. Photos by Camilla Stoddart.

When a message from photographer Camilla Stoddart arrived in my inbox asking if I would be interested in a two week ‘Road Trip’ around New Zealand's South Island…I was all ears. The plan? Link a sampler pack of the island's finest surf and singletrack. Before long I found myself wedged in a turbulent tube jet–lagging my ass across the Pacific.

Flying half way around the world gives one ample time to ponder the tight quartered travels that is life on the road. I found that success in this department boils down to one necessity…character. The cast, the venue, the transport, it has to have an undertone of awesome. It's the make or break, it's the wine to the cheese, it's the beer to the pizza...you get the point. The framework of the trip hinges on it. Luckily on this venture we were in overwhelming supply of this keystone trait.

The Venue: The southern island of fabled ‘Middle Earth’ was our oyster. A caldron of geologic soup. New Zealand can only be explained as a rare breed of amazing. My first impression...the economic recession had a deeper impact than previously expected. The hard times even hit the likes of Peter Pan who was clearly forced to part with a small slice of ‘Never Never Land’, which was promptly tossed into the south Pacific sporting a new nametag. Conveying the visual mastery of this country through text is no task I wish to tackle. As in doing it justice would surely result in a novel. But I will attempt a small offering of literary enlightenment. Take a continent. A full fledged, thriving continent. Cut out all the mediocrity, and your left with a condensed landmass of tectonic and vegetative extremes. Surf dimpled coastlines hosting horseshoe beaches, towering cliffs grow bearded faces of Jurassic green, fjords don waterfall laden locks, and dry lowlands house lonely cathedrals of the stone marking glacial graveyards. Mountains of scree, ridgelines of tussocks, forest of beech...this my friends was our ‘character’ rich venue...

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[part title="An Adventure Through New Zealand's South - Page 2..."]

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new zealand mtb south mountain bike-4

Transport: Before hitting the paved maze, a mode of transport is needed. Given the natural beauty of this country we saw it fitting to show our respect with the proper choice of wheels. An exterior of vibrant red, complimented by it's southern hemisphere of white, bungeed window shades, interior wood panelling, two burners, one sink, a top waiting to be popped, all complete with the vintage smell of Woodstock embedded in the seats. A true product of the pilgrimage. Splashed with the iconically groovy badge of approval, ‘ladybug’, and ‘hippy–stick’ our pair of 1970 VW Vanagons. Characters indeed.

Seven bikes, four people, surfboards, wet suits, helmets, questionable smelling pads, sleeping bags, clothes, and one small logistical nightmare packed into two vans. Foot to the floor, windows down, freedom flowing through our hair at a struggling 70 km/h. Ink from our ball–point route finder laid claim to inches on the map. Marking brief circled indents at Lake Pukaki and Teakapou as we momentarily take refuge from the onslaught of summer. Making for the mountains we cranked the tunes. Chugging over Arthur’s Pass as the mounting traffic paid the price of our 82 horses pushing us upward. But hey, it didn't matter. We were living the dream, and Canterbury bound.

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new zealand mtb south mountain bike-10

In 1961 the Craigieburn Ski Club mustered the grand scheme of carving their way to the whiter pastures. Built on hopes of deep powder and lord knows of how much dynamite, we took advantage of the off–season and put their hard work to use. For six kilometres we familiarized ourselves with the saturated state that goes hand in hand with an uphill grind and mid–morning sun. Motivation was administered at every break in the trees with a periodic glimpse of what lay in wait. Over our final climbing strokes the unobstructed view begins to entertain. Fans of scree cascading from peaks and protruding ridges, their debris sparing only small elevated parcels of green. Forests of native beech blanket the valley bottom, whilst a border of alpine tussocks amplifies their foliage. We toss around satisfied smiles clearly convinced our reward would outshine the effort. For the next two hours we weave through rooted loam and venture across crumbling mountain faces on a carpet of singletrack treasure. This trail takes you back in time. There's no logging scars, no roads, just raw landscape. It felt more probable that we run into a prospector than another rider. That evening as we made our way east I couldn't kick the notion that this trail is the reason mountain bikes were made.

[part title="An Adventure Through New Zealand's South - Page 3..."]

new zealand mtb south mountain bike
new zealand mtb south mountain bike

Drinking two litres of oil in almost as many hours, our convoy meanders north. Salt dusts the VW logos as the beaches of Kaikora draw closer. It may be a tailwind, but the sea breeze seems to have our two transporters excited. As their headlights see ocean, they cruise a little more casually. With a halting step of vintage tread, we pull onto the beach. In that moment, there was no denying the history between these two. Grill to the wind, sand in the floor–mats, the lean of surfboards, Lady bug and Hippie–stick were revisiting days of old at ‘Meat works’ beach. The slow rise of the moon ignites fireside stories as the waves play the endless tune of the ocean. It's as close to a perfect moment as I have come, but that of course didn't last long. My cup of gritty coffee catches the golden light creeping over the horizon. I stand grinning heartedly with good friends, watching dolphins make the most of the morning surf. Until today I was convinced moments like this only happened in the movies.

We cruise past roadside surf shacks and Paua (shell jewellery) stands. Their small paint chipped fishing boats sit capsized on the shore while mended nets hammock from their interiors. The East Coast. This place oozes character. Kelly somehow pulls destinations from childhood memories with GPS accuracy. Actually better than GPS, he chauffeurs you right there. Camp, surf, fish, ride, he has all the answers. Our vans follow the cognitive flow of big kid reliving his yester years and we are all for it. If this place is in fact Never Never Land, then there is little question that Kelly is a ‘Lost Boy’. He ushers us undeterred through farm, cattle, and jungle, to abandoned downhill tracks. Leads the charge around the coastal contours to Robin Hood Bay. Sets the pace on a bobsled of a downhill track in Whites Bay and spearheads the hunt for buried treasure amidst sea carved caves of the coast.

Putting familiar territory in the rear–view, we motor deep into the Marlborough Sounds entering the realm of the fabled Nydia track. The Opouri Saddle provides a window into the tropical world we are about to descend. Gravity carries us past thick trucks of moss, beneath full canopies, and over algae crusted rock and root. Dipping between shoreline and jungle thoughts of civilization drift away. The constant battle of vibrant blues and rich greens fight for attention, further embedding the sense of wilderness. For fifteen kilometres, line choice becomes a game as we negotiate narrow trail and muddled washouts. Quickly learning the trick to this track is strategy, not speed. Hours pass before the jungle hands us over to the welcoming arms of ‘On The Nydia Track Lodge’. Greeted with carrot cake, cold beers, and smiling faces, Duncan and his family show us the definition of hospitality. Savoury food, warm atmosphere, and a real bed. After nine days sleeping in a van there are few things you will appreciate more than the warmth of a shower and a comfy four–poster. This place is a true gem amidst the isolation, which inherently made it quite difficult to leave. Norma, the lady of the lodge, even packed us bagged lunches. Twelve kilometres, two passes, and one dirt road dust shuttle later, we arrive back at the vans. As bikes were slung and bags tossed, I noticed a collective sensation in the air. A sensation that only comes with a new experience, and not just any experience, a pretty damn cool one.

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new zealand mtb south mountain bike-6

Inland shelves open to a place suspended in time. The gateway to the Abel Tasman. Jurassic forests overlook townships still swinging in the seventies. As we trundle through villages the vans play their own tune. Visibly strumming heartstrings, as they transport by–standers back to the ‘Summer of Love’. Out of one window an ocean of blue, the other, a sea of smiling faces. If there was ever a way to travel this surely is it. With the untouched beauty of coastline on the doorstep, golden sand in our toes and a ‘Fat Tui’ burger in hand, you might say we are all ‘feeling the love’.

Hugging the curvature of the West Coast, we part seaside cliffs and sweep under overhangs. The road is a border between two medians. On one side, the turbulent expanse of the Ocean dominates the horizon. The other, a woven wall of tropical thicket that I am convinced holds the prehistoric cast of Jurassic Park. Our attention drifts from the solid to the liquid. From bikes to board. The swell appears to be up. Through excited radio banter, we settle at Greymouth. Casey and I flounder in a rip tide as Kelly goes hunting for tubes. With a few bottom turns in the bag, we packed supplies for our final journey. The Croesus Track.

There are toys for little kids and there are big kid toys…then there are things that entertain us all. Helicopters definitely fall under the latter. Vans parked next to the beach, sun high, waves rolling…and in it came. Touching down on the sand, we hustled over with bikes and riding packs. I'm not going to lie, we felt like a set of rock stars. From the ocean to trails in the sky. That evening we rode tussock laden ridge trail toward the backcountry Cec Clarke hut. Billowing clouds from the valley peel over the track clashing with the golden light of sunset. Following our headlamps to our shelter we retire to bags of pasta and bars of chocolate.

Beating the sun out of bed, we begin our trek to Barrytown. The first hours of light are spent moving up. Splitting the time between riding and having our bikes ride us. Steep rock scrambling pitches, linked with narrow technical trail puts us on the summit of Mt. Ryall by mid–morning. It's not an easy start to the day. Sweating, looking out on the blue plateau below, we drop blindly into the forest. Now before I go any further I should probably explain that there are two trail options. One is quite buff and pleasant. The other, is a gauntlet of twisted root, hidden rock, hairpin turns, and phantom drops. Really, all it's missing is a few booby–traps and if rain were involved there is no doubt we would still be up there. But with that said, if you love to suffer, it is beyond fun. It's pure adventure riding. There was no shortage of ninja manoeuvres from the team, some of which bent the laws of physics. When the woodwork finally spat us out we were waterless, cut, sore and insanely pumped.

There we were, exhausted, gliding down pavement towards the beach after one of the longer days I've had on a bike. Still looking like kids who just skipped the last day of school before summer break. We had seen a new land, ridden new trails, shared old stories, but most of all, lived new experiences. And that my friends is the true nature of a road trip.

Thanks to Tourism New Zealand, The North Face and Classic Campers for making this trip possible.