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Going Gravel - How an adventure becomes a journey


The Inland Kaikouras, a range of high mountains and valleys one step deeper than the Seaward Kaikouras, and the back drop to the coast town and famous whale watching capital of New Zealand Kaikoura. Liam and I had talked about remote trips on gravel bikes and I reckoned a winter trip over the seaward range into the Clarence River valley would give us a taste of adventure to remember. This would be my first gravel bike backcountry adventure and damn near my first ride on my first personal gravel bike, a sweet British racing green Santa Cruz Stigmata: finished in black and blue Hope components.

So, this guy Liam, I had talked to him on the phone over the years as the director of two staple magazines, NZ mountain biker and New Zealand Cycle journal, but I hadn't actually met the guy. 
To head into challenging remote backcountry with an unknown character was taking a chance, Liam sounded like he understood type B fun and mentioned doing a few Iron Man’s so I thought it should be all good.

Yip, it was winter and we unloaded our bikes from the Land Cruiser after fording some rivers and negotiating completely washed out sections of the 4x4 track leading to the base of our first big climb.

From here at basically sea level it’s up up up to Blind Saddle at 1100m elevation, a long steep climb and the first taste of our frozen passage through these mountains as we crunched our way on foot to gain the last meters to crest the pass, it's here we had our first view into the Inland Kaikouras, an epic scene of brown and rocky landscape, snow capped peaks, the Clarence river lay far out below in our westward view, this is one of two ways into New Zealand’s remotest station. And it’s Muzzle station that takes this far out prize, a farm where literally the family just jump in the fixed wing plane to head to the supermarket, and a farm that when the son is heading out to join a hunting mate for the night dad fly’s him by helicopter to the hut to meet his Fordy for a night out, the helicopter is of course generally used for cattle or sheep mustering. IG @muzzlestation

An absolutely magnificent descent followed through the landscape into the Seymour river, a side tributary to the Clarence, and here things got pretty slow going, the vehicle track that leads down the river bed was so damaged that over 60 percent of it was completely gone leaving only the round river boulders and a fine silt that stuck to out tyres like nothing I’d ever seen, crossing only 2 meters of this stuff could pull the but to a stop, and all we could do was carry our bikes to the nearest water to free things up.

As we came out of the final narrows of the Seymour we were at the confluence with the Clarence River, here we got our first view of this large and somewhat full looking river, it looked a little concerning as that was what we hoped to ford the following morning.

It was cold and just on dusk, as we pushed off the river boulders and pedalled the last meters to the Seymour hut, sitting on its grass terrace was a welcome site as darkness fell after a longer than expected day, it was already really cold and soon we had the fire roaring, but our feet would not defrost after hours in the Seymour river, so a ridiculous scene of men standing on top of a roaring fire pursued, dancing around to stop our feet and socks burning.

Waking to a freezing hut, a quick breakfast, the use of the “Long Drop” outhouse and we were out the door onto our bikes, this pre dawn departure meant for fast travel on frozen ground as yesterday's super sticky silty soil was frozen hard, we felt pretty happy with ourselves at this point even if our feet were already solid cold and our fingers ached, but all this was while riding through an incredible scene of natural beauty! 

Arriving at the Clarence river and at the spot the station owner said was our best bet, we were feeling pretty nervous, we were standing on a frozen white river bank looking across a 100 meters or dark silty green moving water, it really did not look possible. Liam voiced his concern. I couldn’t deny it didn't look great, but I said, “ we can't turn back without giving it a nudge” so I stripped off some extra lower layers and tentatively stepped into what looked bottomless, the first meters of opaque water, you couldn't see anything that indicated the depth and my teeth were already chattering, man it was cold I said, "its freezing", I slowly waded further and further out getting over half way accross and I did not come much above mid thigh, so I returned feeling happy but rather nervous that it looked like it was worth a try.

We packed the cameras and phones etc into a dry bag and I carried them on my back, we hoisted the bikes onto our shoulders with the gear still attached and set out into the great grey green body of water, all went pretty well for about two thirds of the way and then it started getting deeper and with a strong current and cold water this was not ideal. The real danger of the crossing lay in the fact it was so cold and this meant that as we crossed and spent more time in the water looking for a shallower spot the more we started to lose feeling in our legs and feet, at one point I stumbled falling into the water my bike still on my shoulders, the pull was strong and it was a real focused effort to try and stand up. I just couldn’t feel my feet to know what they were doing or where they were, the gravity of the situation was immediately clear, VERY CLEAR and a very fast decision had to be made, so even though the last third was getting deeper I decided that was the best option, the fastest line out of there even if it meant a swim, so I committed to the line choice and went for it, about the last 10 meters the river came up around my armpits and on I went, finally planting my bike on the vertical bank. Liam came across after me and hit an even deeper spot, floating the last metres. I was now so cold, especially after doing the pre-scouting crossing and now I was struggling to talk smoothly as my teeth chattered and muscles felt rigid. I managed to make a video and take a couple of shots with shaking hands. That was edgy, "let's start moving", I said, "I’m frozen!"

We had made it over the great Clarence river in sub zero conditions in the middle of winter which now meant we could follow this 4x4 track all the way down the valley and out to the coast.

An hour after the crossing I was still shivering, Liam looked comparatively comfortable as I was definitely the leaner of the two. We were nearing the Muzzle station homestead when a fixed wing flew down the valley and landed, our track passed right by the grass airstrip paddock, so I pedalled over to say hi, still without the smoothest words I said “G’day, how's it going?” they knew who we were from our call the week before. After a little chat, Fiona said “ You guys look frozen, come up to the house for a cuppa”.

Three instant coffees later and some good talk of how life of Muzzle rolls, these two were very interesting, living in such a remote part of NZ, Fiona’s mother grew up in the original homestead, a long low building made of mud bricks and still standing but severely damaged after the huge magnitude 7.8 Kaikoura earthquake in 2016, the evidence of this record uplift and shake was everywhere you looked! 

We headed off on farm tracks with much of it still frozen in the shadows, this kept the going good and we knocked out the km’s towards Ravine hut, an old musterers hut where Fiona said their mate Fordy was camped with a group of hunters, they were going to cook up some fresh meat. What can you say to this backcountry hospitality, even if we were both pretty much full time plant based eaters.

Up and down through this arid land generally following the now sapphire looking waters of the main river, we crunched through ice frozen puddles, regularly got wet feet crossing icy side creeks, lest I forget to mention that this ice cold trip was under the most clear skies, beautiful and crisp clear weather with the sun shining, casting its long and week rays where the mountains aload space, absolutely stunning conditions and well worth the minus 7 lows and 2 degrees C average of the days.
Now, Ravine hut was a night to remember, very full with hunting men on their annual Muzzle station trip, yes, they were a particular slice of society but the warmth, banter and constant jokes were beautiful, an open fire and even a bath heated in the original kiwi style of old, with a cast concrete fire box and big copper cauldron set into it, basically you bucket out your boiling water until the bath is spot on. None of this was remotely on our radar of expectation, I was blown away, what an awesome day of human warmth and generosity!

Fordy was the youngest but commanded a healthy respect as the leader around camp and out in the hills. A fantastic meal cooked over the open fire was served late to many a man under the influence. Yep what a night...I woke to a pretty chilly hut as the fire had long died out, I sat up, banged my head hard on the rafter, climbed down and set the fire again. Today was a long day with some 64 km’s on the ever improving dirt track and some 100 odd km’s back along the state highway to my wagon. That's such a cool thing about these bikes, at the end of the day they are two wheel and some cranks that gets you through a lot of rough stuff, even though its with a lot less comfort than i'm used to on my full-suspension bike, but then one can smash out a 100km of sealed road with absolute ease, so, yeah, I reckon these gravel bikes are rad and have their place in remote adventure, and, don't forget that mine fully loaded with gear is just over the basic weight of my unloaded fully...crazy, but so rad! IG @fordyhunts.kaikoura.nz

Three days felt like something else, an adventure that had delivered a journey, the play between light and dark, suffering and surprise of support, just the right balance to leave us with a feeling that can not be put into words! We were happy that's for sure, and felt we'd gained a very rich experience from pushing a bit further and atouch out of our comfort zone!

Thanks Liam, you were a solid and dependable person to be in the mountains with, cheers to many more adventures with you! And, generally I just encourage people to get out there in nature, go camping or just spend some time in these wild places, there is so much to be gained in yourself and from the natural environment that you just can't get anywhere else!

Happy adventuring and merry Christmas

Jamie Nicoll