Cycling, walking and kayaking across the South Island in four days is huge effort for huge rewards, writes Stephanie Holmes
With only 2km left to go of the 30km hike, the sudden burst of tears takes me by surprise. Only a moment ago, I was silently congratulating myself on how well I've done, how I just have to push a little further to reach the finish line. Now I'm sobbing.
I'd cried earlier, too, but that was entirely warranted – I'd just slipped from an algae-covered rock into the fast-flowing waters of the Deception River, my hip and thigh landing hard on a boulder. The cold water did nothing to numb the pain, and the shock and frustration manifested in hot, embarrassed tears.
There's no physical pain involved in this particular rush of emotion - it's more a combination of sheer physical exhaustion, relief, pride and the impossible beauty of Southern Alps and Mingha River valley surrounding me. The end of a challenging day, close to the end of a challenging year.
I fight the temptation to sit down on the spot while my sobs slowly subside. It's 7pm and the sun has dropped behind the mountains, taking the temperature down with it. The rest of my group is waiting for me at the end of the walk so I have no choice but to keep plodding on. Just 2km more until I reach the end. I can't believe I've made it this far.
This time last year, about 80 per cent of Adventure South's customer base was international travellers. Then Covid hit, borders closed and, even after national lockdowns lifted, the company was faced with an uncertain future.
"I thought very early on in lockdown that the only way we will continue to thrive in this pandemic world is by trading our way out of it," says Adventure South GM Philip Wyndham. "We had to think creatively and come up with trips our loyal Kiwi travellers would find very hard to refuse."
Wyndham had always loved the idea of creating an itinerary that took guests between the South Island's east and west coasts across the Southern Alps. He wanted to develop a route that would become a once-in-a-lifetime experience to rival international coast-to-coast adventures found in countries such as England, Japan, Canada and Costa Rica. It would also give a broader opportunity for guests to experience a trip similar to New Zealand's own Coast to Coast adventure race.
Targeted at experienced hikers and cyclists, Adventure South's new itinerary is broken into four stages over four days: a 65km cycle from Camerons Beach on the West Coast to Ōtira; a 30km hike through the Deception and Mingha River Valleys over the formidable Goat Pass; 40km of rafting down the Waimakariri River, and a final 70km cycle through Canterbury countryside to reach the New Brighton Pier.
The inaugural journey has attracted a group of nine men and women from around the country and, somewhat rashly, I decide to go along for the ride. The average age of the other guests is around 59 and although they are all older than me, it soon becomes apparent their fitness is far superior.
The mood is light as guides Peter and Steve drive us from central Christchurch to our starting point on the West Coast – we're all thankful for the freedoms of level 1, the ability to travel domestically and the natural wonders that await us.
The drive takes us along State Highway 73, through Arthurs Pass National Park and the Ōtira Gorge, the scenery getting more dramatic at every turn. After a quick lunch stop in the quaint former gold rush town of Kumara, we pull up at Camerons for the chance to step on the black sand and breathe in the salt air of the Tasman Sea. An obligatory group photo, and then we're saddling up and on our way. We start out on a section of the wonderful West Coast Wilderness Trail taking us through tunnels of dense beech forest and breath-taking swing bridges, before joining quiet back-country roads.
With the support van up ahead and guide Steve at the back of the pack, we feel well taken care of – there are many opportunities to stop for a quick rest, a snack, words of encouragement, or even a break to ride in the van when the pedalling gets too much.
We cross the Taramakau River on Stanley Gooseman Bridge, and merge back on to SH73 where for the first time we're lapped by cars - for most of the ride, we've barely seen another soul on the road. Golden-hour light gives lone trees and rusty corrugated-iron barns a magical glow, and as we reach Morrison's Footbridge over the Ōtira River, Peter is waiting with the van and high fives for completing our first day of the journey.
Our guides are highly experienced, both having worked around the world, leading groups on various adventure itineraries. Steve usually spends a season every year working in Norway; Peter in central Australia, Ethiopia and other off-the-beaten-track destinations. This year, like so for many of us, their travels have been curtailed and when not guiding for Adventure South, they have been doing contract work clearing wilding pines in the surrounding high country. In their late 30s/early 40s, both could easily pass for at least a decade younger and I wonder if a life spent mostly outdoors doing physically challenging work is the secret of youth.
Their experience and gentle good humour mean we all feel like old friends as we drive from the end of our cycle to our motel at Lake Brunner. But the mood gets more intense as Peter begins to explain just what the next day's 30km hike will entail. It's going to be a massive physical and mental challenge – not only will we be on our feet for up to 14 hours, we will also be faced with multiple river crossings across the fast-flowing, sometimes unpredictable Deception and Mingha rivers. Peter gives us all fair warning – this will not be easy and once we get into the valley, there is no simple way out.
We set off from where our previous day's cycle ended – Morrison's Footbridge, just across from SH73. We begin at 6.45am, the early start essential to give us enough time to complete this marathon mission during daylight hours. The weather is calm but rain and winds are forecast throughout the day, especially at the top of Goat Pass.
We walk along the banks and bed of the braided river, weaving our way across rocks and boulders of varying sizes, the uneven ground meaning progress is painfully slow. Crossing the river takes careful navigation – at times the rushing water reaches the tops of our thighs and we cling tight to each other, shuffling carefully in groups.
We spend the next 12 hours weaving from the left to the right side of the river, scrambling over boulders, hauling our tired bodies up steep banks and down precipitous drop-offs, with occasional rest stops where we can fuel up on energy-laden snacks or put on/take off layers as the weather dictates. The terrain is unforgiving and great care must be taken to avoid sprained ankles or falls down steep banks. I'm amazed every time I see a trail runner zip past us, in training for February's Coast to Coast adventure race.
We reach our highest point at around 2pm – Goat Pass Hut, 1072m above sea level. The modest DoC hut is a welcome sight after a relentless morning. The predicted rain and wind has hit, right on cue. As the elements rage outside we huddle around the table, clouds of steam rising from our wet clothes and over-heated heads while we add extra layers and shovel in hot tea and sandwiches.
There is beauty all around us as we walk, from crystal-clear rivers, to boulders covered in brick-red algae; lush green rainforest, multi-storey waterfalls, bright white mountain lilies, and whio, New Zealand's endangered blue duck. But the journey is so taxing it's hard to focus on anything other than the ground, watching carefully to make sure each footstep is safe. Every now and then I must remind myself to stop, look up and around me at the ancient mountains and valley, carved over millennia into this epic adventure route.
There are multiple points where I feel I just can't continue, but despite my brain telling me to quit, my feet somehow keep propelling me – ever so slowly – onward. Eventually, 12 hours 15 minutes after we set off, I make it to the finish line with tears rolling down my cheeks - cheeks that are stretched into the biggest, proudest grin.
Days three and four are a walk in the park compared to our hike – a gentle 40km float down the vivid turquoise waters of the Waimakariri River and a 70km cycle from Darfield to New Brighton. We're all feeling slightly battered and sore, but our spirits are high. The group is strongly bonded from the intense effort we all put in to complete Goat Pass and conversation often turns to highlights – and lowlights – from the walk. These final days give us chance to reflect on how far we've come, not only in terms of kilometres, but also the physical and mental limits we have overcome. On the Waimakariri we can quite literally go with the flow, letting the river take us gently downstream.
The Canterbury roads are straight and trend gently downhill on our final day's cycle. Some of the group take the opportunity for one last challenge, pushing themselves to ride as fast and as hard as they can. I go as quickly as my exhausted body will allow, content to take in the scenery. We make it to New Brighton with plenty of time for a late-afternoon soak at the impressive He Puna Taimoana hot pools, a wonderful opportunity to ease tired muscles before we depart.
In the days that follow, my body protests with every tiny movement. My legs are tight and I have numerous angry bruises on my shins and thighs but somehow, I feel unexpectedly energised. Strong. Powerful. Resilient.
As 2020 comes to a close, there is still so much uncertainty in the world. But now, when times get tough, I will remind myself of that moment near the end of the track, when I cried fat tears of relief and overwhelming pride. The challenge was unprecedented but I made it to the other side.
Top tips for a Coast to Coast Adventure
Make sure your gear is up to the challenge
This is a physically demanding trip in an unpredictable alpine environment. Ensure your boots are well broken in and your thermals really are thermal. When you think you've packed enough layers, throw in a couple more.
Nutrition is key
Most meals and snacks are included but it's your responsibility to make sure you're eating/drinking enough to give your body the nutrition it needs.
Train. And then train some more
Hill-walking, long bike rides, plus balance and strength training will all be beneficial. Remember you could be cycling for up to five hours, and walking for up to 14. Try to walk across uneven terrain to properly prepare.
Listen to your guides
They're the experts and your safety – and the safety of your fellow adventurers – is in their hands. If they tell you to do something, it's vitally important to listen to them.
Even when you think you can't go any further, you can
Your brain will tell you that you can't make it. Stop for a moment, look at the beauty surrounding you, have a drink or a snack, then carry on. You're so much stronger than you know.
CHECKLIST: COAST TO COAST
DETAILSA four-night Coast to Coast trip with Adventure South is priced from $1895pp, including accommodation, meals, guides, support vehicle and DoC concession fees. Flights and bike hire are not included. adventuresouth.co.nz
This story was first published in the New Zealand Herald Travel on 15 December, 2020