Sunday, March 11, 2018


I sit in the room of a spartan back packers lodge in Te Anau, waiting for the glacial internet to load. I haven’t missed this. Technology. I have endured days of deprivation in the wilderness but at no point did I wish for Facebook or email. The mood of team Hardtale is a mix of despondence and relief. We crossed the finish line of Godzone Chapter 7 late last night, relatively uninjured apart from a few scrapes and blisters. Amid stories of dislocated elbows, badly infected feet and delirium we were fortunate. It tasted bitter due to the fact that we finished unranked on a shortened course.
Unranked is a weird place. It means you get to continue in the event although you no longer satisfy the definition of a ranked team. You have lost a team member or failed to find a check point (CP) on course. For other offences you are given a time penalty or disqualified depending on the infringement. But let’s start at the beginning.

The crew: Me, Matt Bacon, Steven Todkill, Aurelian Pennman

Team Hardtale has a long history in adventure racing however I only met the guys – Matt, Steve and Aurelian – a few days before the event. Their regular female racer was unavailable so they required a replacement on short notice. We had struggled into Queenstown trying to thwart airline baggage allowances with the voluminous amounts of mandatory gear required for this race.

So much gear!

With the usual preliminaries done, maps marked out, it was no time at all before race day. Running down the main street of the quiet lakeside town of Te Anau, teams started inflating pack rafts in a park, throwing kit into dry bags and preparing for the paddle across the lake to the river Wairau River. I finally found comfort in a pack raft using a Sea to Summit Hydraulic bag stuff with gear. The water was moving pleasantly fast which was a welcome change from the usual shallow water boat-drag of Australian pack raft sections.

The boat-drag came next as we had to portage two rafts and 80 kilos of gear up a cliff. It was a mad scramble of teams but there were also many instances of teams helping each other, particularly those of the same nation. Everyone wants to beat the Kiwis on their home ground. Carrying rafts is awkward at best and then you have life jackets, paddles and dry bags that cut into your hands when you carry them for any distance. It was interesting looking at the different styles people adopted – over the shoulder or on the head. I clipped a dry bag to my life jacket to save my arms and only managed to crush my windpipe.

Clambering through the forest in this part of New Zealand is like walking on a giant, bouncy sponge. Most of what you think is solid turns on not to be. It’s kind on the feet until you punch through a decomposed layer up to your knee. We couldn’t trust anything we grabbed hold of not to be rotten and just fall away in our hands. This was inconvenient on the next trek when we scaled a mossy cliff after taking a questionable route up a river. I was going through the explanation to travel insurance in my head. How I fell from a vertical face with crumbling moss and the reason I was there is that a man with a map had told me I needed to go that way. I’m undecided if this sport makes you push your limits or merely suspend good judgement.

Once above the tree line it all felt worth the struggle. A setting sun while trekking across the mountain ridge was like a scene straight from Lord of the Rings, which was filmed mostly in this area. What appears to be snow on the peaks is actually white lichen, but this doesn’t lessen the spectacular effect. It had been a solid effort getting to the saddle but in the darkness we saw lights of teams some 500 metres above us who had taken the advice to follow the ridges to the extreme.

My nemesis in any adventure race is heights.  So imagine my delight when we had to abseil 150 metres. Reaching the top in the dark I was relieved that, yet again, I wouldn’t be able to see how far away the ground was. Just get over the edge, keep your feet on the rock and lower slowly. Oh Christ – where did the rock go? Oh, there’s no more rock, just 140 metres of dangling in the air. Kill me now. I was shaking, shallow breathing and heavy on the braking device which was just prolonging the experience. My team mates dropped like stones and I could see everything as it was thoughtfully lit up by floodlights.

Planning what food to take on a two day trek is difficult. I didn’t want to take anything too heavy as I I’d be carrying it over mountains. A good mix of sweet and savoury is my goal but this time I ended up with too many muesli bars I had no appetite for. Walking afforded the opportunity to eat with both hands and the thing I never got sick of was weetbix, powdered milk, Infinit Raw protein powder and a splash of trail mix.  I feel I could do a whole race on that combination.

Shortly after the abseil, our lead navigator, Steve, started vomiting. He’d be working hard getting us off the mountain, forgotten to eat, then tried to catch up putting more food in than his stomach could process. We had a 30 minute power nap under a dry log then continued slowly to let him recover.  I towed him for a while but it was difficult in the terrain and I nearly got pulled backward several times while climbing up rooty slopes.

After a fun raft down some small rapids to the next TA we mounted the bikes for a relatively short ride. It was then I was introduced to the delights of Gorse – an pest shrub with sharp, spiny foliage. Having to punch a trail through this was like diving into a knife drawer. But we were in the early stages, still highly motivated so what was a few festering wounds?

Racing is such a selfish thing to do. All of our team had families waiting at home so we tried to minimise the time away. Many of these races say they go for 6 days but we’re often finished in half that and then forced to wait around idly for our departures. We had booked to fly out on Day 10 of the race meaning we would need to be finished by Day 8 to have any hope of getting our gear, cleaning and packing to make our flights home. Self-imposed cut-offs had been set which meant if we hadn’t reached certain points we could need to short-course ourselves to get back to Te Anau. At the start of the next pack raft we were on schedule so things were looking good.

Trekking with the extra weight of the packrafts, PFDs, paddles and wetsuits was an unfamiliar burden. Heavy pack training would have been more appropriate than run training. We hadn’t slept for two nights and were zig-zagging across the road so we grabbed an hour laying in a roadside ditch. A film crew spotted us, jumped out and started filming inches from our faces which didn’t help with the shut-eye.

Paddling across Lake Hauroko was the calm before the storm of the Wairaurahiri River. Rafting in Australia is like being pin-balled between rocks and having to walk your boat through shallow water. I didn’t see any rocks here. Just water. A LOT of water, moving very fast. Being in a raft with Matt, a veteran racer of 16 years experience, I felt fairly comfortable. That was until he confessed halfway down that he’d never been in water this big before. Wait – what? It was relentless with very few flat sections between the furious rapids. I could actually see the gradient of the river like it was down hill mountain biking. After 2 hours of hard paddling to stay upright my back locked up, but was forced to keep going so we didn’t die. We saw several teams fall and need to be rescued by their team mates.

Oddly, this was our favourite section (once it was over) and we finished exhausted but exhilarated and full of adrenalin. Arriving in Waitutu Lodge we changed to dry clothes and got into the trek. I’d opted for thermal tights with waterproof pants over the top as it had started to rain. After ten minutes of walking I realised the thermals were rubbing in a place that I would definitely need on the 160 km bike ride. Taking my mandatory knife I cut the crotch out of my pants and ‘free-balled’ in comfort.

Photo credit: Godzone Adventure. You can even tell we're going down hill. 

By this time I suspected Fiordland was another name for swamp as we plodded to CP 17 through thick mud, moving at one kilometre per hour. It was dark, raining and the rush of the rapids was long gone. Given the rate of travel with no hope that the remaining 30 kilometres was any better some calculations were mad. We estimated the next four checkpoints would take another day at least. Three of us didn’t have enough food but we could ration and go without. The flights were the main concern.
The boys were tired and I was soaked so laying in the mud for 5 hours to sleep was a recipe for hypothermia. Instead of pushing on to the hut six kilometres to the West, the team decided to turn back to the lodge to sleep. For $35 a bed and a hot shower were the best money I spent all trip. But having the male volunteer tell me to take my overpants off before entering the lodge brought the recollections of my revealing under pants. I hope my race bib covered all the important bits.

Feeling somewhat refreshed the next morning the 40 kilometre trek along the South Coast track was laborious with heavy packs. It was a boring viaduct with no view of the actual coast but at least it was easy walking. It seemed an age since my feet were dry but they were still in good shape. I lathered them in Ride Mechanic Moonshine at every opportunity. A hot tip from an event medic – put hand sanitiser on them when airing them to dry them out and kill any bugs. Teams regularly developed severe blisters and trench foot in this race, sometimes requiring evacuation. The first 5 hours of this hike I kept thinking there was no way I could take the discomfort of my pack straps biting into my shoulder for a minute longer. The second 5 hours I spent wondering why my pack didn’t hurt any more. Did my pain receptors just finally admit defeat or had I done permanent nerve damage?

A bridge over troubled waters: on the way back after admitting defeat on the South Coast track.

Transition Area 3 was an oasis in the desert. There was a coffee van sent by the gods with free beverages for racers. The Godzone team also supplied dehydrated meals of which I sampled quite a few. Despite expecting to be on our bikes and away, we were told we were now unranked due to missing the last four checkpoints. According to the rules, which we clearly hadn’t read, unranked teams would be sent on the short course. The guys were devastated and protested but to no avail. We now had 24 hours to kill at the TA as a penalty and to let the faster teams on the full course pass us. After a 10 hour sleep we woke to a stunning day so I rode into to nearest town with a Kiwi team for lunch at the pub. After a 40 km round trip we were off on bikes a few hours later on the short course loop.

I may have proposed marriage to this woman.

Our navigation and pace was good on the tricky bike leg. We came across many teams asleep in the forest but we pushed on and got through with only a short nap in a sheep paddock. Woken by falling rain the next 80 kms of road were miserable. However the excitement of the women in TA 7 was some recompense as we were the first team there with the leaders still on the long course trek. There was better news – we was no ‘dark zone’ for the paddle tonight so we’d be permitted to paddle on the lake at night instead of camping within sight of the finish line.

The 20 kilometre trek entered the Kepler track from Manapouri but then we climbed through the bush on narrow track lined with stoat traps up to the top of the Hartz Mountains. We trekked through ferns, under and over fallen trees and occasionally fell through rotting logs. For ten hours all I saw were moss and ferns. Enough already. Just give me a view to make this all worthwhile. I imagine being the navigator is a bit more engaging. You’re always thinking and working out distances and directions. For someone who barely looks at a map, ten hours of following footsteps is an exercise in monotony which has no definitive end. When you’re told you have five kilometres to go this is meaningless unless you know if you’re covering 5 kilometres each hour or crawling along at one. Once we’re off track I lose all direction and sense of distance. I know it’s a logical science so I’m determined to learn more if only to keep the boredom at bay. So if you see me wearing a compass at the next race, try not to laugh.

Paddling to the finish was a little embarrassing. The winning team had been through only an hour before so there was a crowd there cheering. We were second over the line but essentially a DNF. I wish they’d let us paddle to the side and sneak out the back. In retrospect, I’d have liked to try for the further checkpoints and if we had run out of time later on, simply have ridden back to Te Anau from the next TA. At least we would have tried to complete the course. Godzone is not your regular AR. Plan to be out there for the full 10 days and be pleasantly surprised if you make it home in less. Pay attention to the mandatory kit as you will use all of it. Make sure your tent sleeps four comfortably as you will definitely be in it. This is not a race for beginners. You must be well-skilled in navigation and white-water and generally being a hard arse.

Nathan Fav'ea's team finish on a glorious day in Te Anau. Definition of a hard arse.

My favourite bits of kit:
Sea to Summit paddling gloves & Back country Thai Chicken Curry @ Wild Earth Australia
Black Diamond Icon Headlamp
Salomon Sense 5 (Soft ground) shoes

Thanks to the Hardtale team for looking after me and to my supporters:

Ride Mechanic
Flight Centre Sports & Events
Infinit Nutrition
Wild Earth Australia
NS Dynamics
CEP Socks