Photo: The highest mountains in New Zealand - Mt Tasman and Mt Cook, from the shore of Lake Matheson.
'With burning knees and thighs and in a state of sheer exhaustion I became impatient for it to end. Close to the bottom, in exasperation, I got lost twice navigating through the dark dense forest as night approached.'
Mount Fox (1345m)
9 May, 2019
I broke up the 11 hour drive from Nelson to Queenstown with a stop at Fox Glacier. I’d only been as far south as Arthur’s Pass on the west coast so I was excited to explore new ground, especially as this coastline has been voted ‘one of the top 10 coastal drives in the world’ by Lonely Planet.
I had a little laugh to myself when I drove past a sign for Old Ghost Road, as I was so close to doing this two-day epic mountain bike ride, but never found the time.
At the hostel in Fox Glacier I did some research on the Mount Fox Route, which I planned to do the following day. I came across a blog with photos from a winter multi-day expedition to and beyond Mt Fox. The photos looked epic and I knew then I had to explore further than the official route, so set my alarm early once again.
The hike up to the trig point was the most challenging of any official route I’d done, and the first time I’d scrambled in woodland and had to climb tree roots. The views from the top of Fox Glacier and the Southern Alps, including Mount Cook and Mount Tasman - the highest mountains in NZ - were indeed incredible but my first thoughts were about going further along the peaks in front of me.
I scoped a seemingly uncomplicated line and set off, but it soon became apparent my target was out of range. The ground was filled with ankle twisting sniper holes and large boulders so progress was painfully slow. Perhaps this was just meant to be a winter route. After nearly two hours since the trig point I couldn’t have reached a mile before I had to turn back.
The descent took twice as long as the way up, and with burning knees and thighs, and in a state of sheer exhaustion, I became impatient for it to end. Close to the bottom, in exasperation, I got lost twice navigating through the dark dense forest as night approached.
'When I got there I realised it was nothing more than a ghost town. I was fucked. Why was this place even on the map? It didn’t look like anyone had lived here for some time; all I could see were derelict buildings. Haast was the next town along but it was 160km away and the fuel gauge was close to bottoming. With a sinking heart I realised I wasn’t going to make it.'
Photos: Another view of Mt Tasman and Mt Cook from Lake Matheson, and again from Mt Fox the following day.
Finally back in the car I looked at Google maps for a named place off the highway (convinced that if a place has a name in large writing then it must surely provide fuel) as I was low on petrol and didn’t want to turn back on myself first. It was already late and I had a long drive to Wanaka.
I guessed I had about an hour’s worth of driving with the fuel I had, but there was somewhere within that distance so I drove on.
When I got there I realised it was nothing more than a ghost town. I was fucked. Why was this place even on the map? It didn’t look like anyone had lived here for some time; all I could see were derelict buildings. Haast was the next town along but it was 160km away and the fuel gauge was close to bottoming. With a sinking heart I realised I wasn’t going to make it.
'The mountain tops had snow on them now and there was a chill in the air. Winter was coming and I felt drained; I’d become ill if I kept living at this speed. Maybe I was ready to go home. '
Photos: Looking out to the west coast from Mt Fox, and views of Fox Glacier and the Southern Alps facing the opposite direction.
As I drove at 50km/h (on a 100km/h road) with the radio off to be as fuel-efficient as possible I considered my options: pull over at the next available spot as soon as I felt the car start to judder, then either ride my bike to Haast and fill a jerry can, hitchhike there, or call the AA.
To make matters worse I was now on a mountain pass with no reception. I for sure was not going to make it and driving slowly seemed to do nothing more than prolong the ordeal. I’d managed to make it this far into the trip without ever running out of fuel and now it was happening 10 days before going home. I couldn’t believe it.
Then I saw a sign for Haast, but after my initial excitement I realised it was for entering the region of Haast rather than the town itself. With no reception (there went the AA plan) I had no idea how much further the town was.
After an incredibly tense 30 minutes, driving at crawling speed, I rose over the crest of a hill and in disbelieve saw a sign for fuel. By now the fuel light had been on for some time and I anticipated the engine cutting out at any moment. I rolled up to the gas pump in joy and for the first time didn’t care how much it cost.
Photos: I planned to stick close to the ridge and aimed for the furthest point long it, which has snow on it. I figured from here I would have exceptional views of the Southern Alps, especially Mt Cook which was hidden by the rise above. The second photo was taken at the point I had to admit defeat and turn back. The bottom photo shows Mt Tasman.
End of the line
It felt strange passing familiar ground as I drove past Lake Hawea back into Albert Town on the outskirts of Wanaka. The mountain tops had snow on them now and there was a chill in the air. Winter was coming and I felt drained; I’d become ill if I kept living at this speed. Maybe I was ready to go home.
As I drove towards Queenstown, with an interested car buyer to see on the way, it dawned on me that this last week was just going to be about getting ready to leave. The priority was selling my car and as many other things as possible. I also had to figure out how to get what I wanted (including two bikes) back home since I could only check in one bag.
The holiday was very much over. It wasn’t until I sold my car that I could get on my bike for a few last sessions and hang out with the boys in New Zealand for the last time.
'I looked up at the universe beaming down at me above the crystal clear sky and felt insignificant. It was mesmerising and captivated me for a few minutes. This was the last time I would see such an incredible star-filled sky for some time.'
One more rodeo
I met Ed for my last ride in New Zealand. We warmed up with a few Huck Yeh bike park laps before I convinced him to ascend above the gondola up to the saddle of Ben Lomond, and then ride the huge descent back down via Upper and Lower Link, some technical single track in the woods back, and the lower bike park. Having ridden it before I was excited to repeat it.
Unfamiliar with gaining elevation without a gondola Ed was clearly struggling with the climb so I sacked off reaching the saddle and Upper Link, and dropped into Lower Link after an off-piste explore of the ridge looking down to the lake, town and to The Remarkables looking directly at us.
Things got hectic through the woods as the steep technical tracks were wet so we both had a fair few close calls, much to the other persons amusement. It was a fitting end to six months of the best and most sustained riding of my life.
Photo: Lake Hawea
In the evening I rode out of town to hang with the boys in their camper van one last time. I left late in a mix of emotions as I rode towards town under a clear sky. There was nobody around, no lights, just myself on the road.
I came to a stop and felt absorbed by the emptiness and space around me. The noise of the air rushing past me while spinning my legs frantically to warm up replaced with near silence - all I could hear was the faint sound of animals in the darkness around me.
I looked up at the universe beaming down at me above the crystal clear sky and felt insignificant. It was mesmerising and captivated me for a few minutes. This was the last time I would see such an incredible star-filled sky for some time.
'I had mixed feelings about returning home. I wondered where ‘home’ even was, since I didn’t really have anything to go back to. I had no job, only a temporary place to stay, and no idea what I was going to do next.'
Photos: Another go up Isthmus Peak for old times sake.
15 May, 2019
I had mixed feelings about returning home. I wondered where ‘home’ even was, since I didn’t really have anything to go back to. I had no job, only a temporary place to stay, and no idea what I was going to do next.
On the plane flying out of Queenstown I felt numb re-playing scenes from the previous six months. I worried about how I’d adapt to ‘real life’ again, but I was also over the stresses of constant planning and a lack of income.
Sitting back, I begun to reflect on the experience, what I learned from it and how it changed me.
Photos: My last ride in the country down the side of Ben Lomond.
Dave picked me up from the airport six months after he’d dropped me off. It was the middle of May and a rainy day. I asked how things had been and what had happened since I’d been gone, while rain patted the windscreen as I looked out to a boring view wondering what the hell I had done leaving such a beautiful country.
Now home, I walked up the stairs, retrieved a few boxes of stuff, and sat on the single bed in the tiny spare room (aptly referred to as the ‘Harry Potter room’ between myself and Dave) deep inside my head trying to fathom the situation.
I realised hadn’t messaged Maddie since landing several hours ago. I wasn’t sure if I even wanted to see her; I didn’t really want to see anyone. Eventually I replied and she came over.
Our reconciliation after all those months wasn’t how I’d imagined; instead it was cold, awkward and frustrating. I unsuccessfully blamed the jet lag on my lack of messaging, which she was explicitly angry about. I later learned that more potently, below that, she would forever resent me for abandoning her.
Video: One of a few awesome trips from the summer I was back - this one a week riding spots in Wales with Gaz.
With no travel plans - an Alps mountain bike roadtrip and a visit to France to boulder and see my dad both cancelled - I felt trapped.
It took me a long time to unpack the Nomad, the bike I’d spent most days on over the previous half a year. I didn’t see the point. It wasn’t going to be the same. Instead I pedalled around the roads of the Peak District simply to escape the stale air and smirk over how tiny the hills and flat landscape looked.
Over time I became less despondent. I went on a few spontaneous trips that summer and formed strong newfound friendships, scored website and photography work, rekindled my love of local mountain biking, and focused on progressing my climbing.
Home started to feel more like home, but I’d never stop thinking about the possible future I’d left behind in New Zealand.
Coming soon: Part 10 - reflections