The biggest enemy for the kind of long=haul, self-propelled adventure I have embarked on is injuries, when the only essential tool you have, the body, fails. For any reason, that idea never crossed my mind, until today.
Today is day 4 of thru-hiking after cycling over 4000km and living in my tiny tent for 6 weeks. Today, as I was putting my backpack on and stepping onto a new trail, a sharp pain burst out of nowhere in my left side hip. I have a pages-long history of small injuries linked with this kind of intensity, could it be thru-hiking or heavy multi-sport training, but this was completely new, something I had never experienced before. I tried to suck it up and kept going uphill for 3km until I couldn’t do a step further and collapsed in the middle of the trail in pain, with despair trying to crawl into my mind. There was no point, I just couldn’t do it and I had to face that reality now without thinking about everything it could involve later. The insane amount of mosquitoes that instantly buzzed around my legs and head forced me to make a quick decision. Good luck in this misfortune was that I was not embedded in the wilderness but only 3km from a trailhead busy with people. I stumble downhill cringing and heavily leaning on my one hiking pole. I stopped every 200m to breathe in a grunt but finally made it back to the road and thankfully found friendly helpful people who gave me a ride back to civilization.
I am still unsure of what happened, if it is serious or just a body warning that requires a few rest days but so far this event taught me two things.
First, even if I would like to believe so, I am not indestructible and overuse, overtraining and fatigue injuries do not only happen to others. Despite the fact that I am well=trained and that I need less recovery time than most people, there is still a limit, a line that cannot be crossed. My body is the only piece of gear I cannot easily replace and I should therefore take a greater care of it if I want it to take me all the way to Ushuaia.
Second, this is just a bump in the road and not, as my thoughts tried to make me believe so, the potential end of it. It might be a turn I did not expect but that is the very beauty of the journey and why I embarked on it. Right now I have no idea of what is gonna happen, I might be back on trails in three days or pulled over for two weeks but restlessly going over all the options will only drive me insane. This was the only planned section of my itinerary, the exception to my golden rule : “why would I make a plan knowing that nothing is gonna go accordingly?” This episode just confirms it. All I have to do is letting it go, or going with it. Things happen and they are just things happening. We chose the way we experience them. I won’t let this one ruin my good vibe !
At the end I am so grateful this happened in this place, at this moment. Jasper is not the worst place to get stuck and it was super easy to get the help I needed. Also it was a perfect way to make me step back from my “pushing south” mindset and rethink the journey as a whole.
For many weeks, people kept asking me which way I would go into BC after riding across Yukon. I would answer : “via that smaller road, highway 37 I think.” And them to reply : “Ho, the Stewart-Cassiar highway, you are a brave man! There is massive elevation gain and bears everywhere! It sounded like I was about to ride the Himalayas with angry grizzlies ready to eat me behind every corner. A very exciting and appealing program indeed but one should not listen too much to people stories, even more when they experience the scenery without stepping out of their RVs. As a friend of mine used to say, the scariest bear is the one that is in your head. I took the bet to go check it out myself.
I will relieve the suspense right away, I did not see any grizzly. Not even half of one. But I did see countless bears. Everyday I would ride along at least three blackbears. They never bothered me, at all. They were either scared to death and flew into the bush or intrigued and lift their heads from their munching to observe that weird looking animal with a helmet before going back to their food without paying more attention to me. For more than half of them, I realized that : “Ho, there is a bea right beside me in the ditch” only when I had already passed them. Regardless how many I saw and how they reacted to my presence, it is still such a pleasure and a privilege to be able to encounter wildlife roaming in its natural habitat. Too bad someone put a road there. Ho wait, I am riding it. Bloody paradoxes…
Coming from the Alaska highway, the first thing that struck me was the narrower, windier and more charming aspects of the road. It was not cut through the landscape but going along with it, which involved some rollercoaster-like sections and a bunch of nice steep and strenuous hills. But I am still waiting for the tremendous passes climbs. The narrower and windier aspects of the road also meant no shoulder, forcing me to ride in the lane. I loved it because I would not get all the odd gravel and debris but also and mostly because it would force the cars to slow down and take on the other side of the road, leaving a lot of room in between us. There was less traffic anyway and it was forced to be slower because of the terrain.
The scenery changed almost drastically as I was now riding through dense lush bush. I was astonished by how bright and green it was, full of life. No doubt this was a wildlife heaven. To have so much vegetation, you would need a large amount of water, which also meant a large amount of mosquitoes. The water was ever present, coming from the Earth and the Sky. I found numerous creeks and countless lakes from all sizes, shapes or colors. Some were dark blue, others emeraude green or crystalline turquoise. It even felt like I was already in Central America when I laid on Boya Park’s white sand beach with my legs dipping in the transparent blue water empowered by the clear blue sky and the glorious sun.
It did not last the entire trip. On the second day, qs I was about to leave Dease Lake after a late lunch, lightning and thunder started their dance in the horizon. But I did not smell the unique scent of the rain coming and a local firefighter confirmed that it would likely be a drystorm. I went on and got lucky except for a 10min little shower. I was not as fortunate the next day. I saw the darkness raging towards me , the atmosphere turning to humid and electric. With no shelter for the dozens of kilometers I had no other option than keeping on pedalling. For five hours I rode through a massive hail and thunderstorm with torrential rain but at least it was not too cold. The highlight of this idyllic cycling afternoon was when I bushwhacked in the mud, carrying my bike over slippery boulders, trying to find refuge under a bridge to finally realize it was a metallic grid platform it was pouring through.
I was cycling long days and was a little ahead of schedule which allowed me to do a side trip to scenic Stewart. Less traffic, smaller road, fun climbs, long descents, bluebird, big mountains, steep gorges, massive glaciers, roaring river and wild cascades, everything you could ask for the most enjoyable bike ride ever.
Getting closer to the bigger highway I was slowly getting bored of the pavement monotony and the heavier traffic. But I found a few gravel forest service roads to cut across the mountains and get back to the wilderness. It was gorgeous and super fun, the perfect way to end this marvelous section of the trip on a good note before grinding the last hundreds of kilometers to the next resupplying place, Prince George, and transitioning to my hiking gears in Jasper. It is gonna feel weird to part with my bike for an approximate five weeks but I am very keen on leaving the roads to step into the backcountry.
Dawson City was the perfect place to take care of both the bike and the body after the Dempster experience. I spent all my money on food, especially on icecream. After two days resting, I went for an unloaded dayride on the so-called Top Of the World Highway and started my journey South again on the fourth morning.
It felt awesome in many ways. The legs were fresh, the chain was not grinding sand, the weather was perfect, the terrain was easy, I had a tailwind and I was now flying on the pavement. The scenery was not as stunning as the last days on the Dempster but still offered some epic views.
After only a few hours, I saw a big cloud rising from the horizon and knew what it was ; a forest fire. I was not expecting to get any as so far North and early in the season but so it started. What I did not know was that it was the start of multiple days of smoky conditions. I first went through a very, very dense area with an apocalypse-like atmosphere. It was pitch dark and you could not see 20 m away. I was worrying about my lungs but it was too late, I was in it and just had to get out of it. I put on the breathing face-mask I had brought for the dust on the gravel road thinking it would do the trick for the smoke. I rode this dark scene looking like a dark lord.
When it started to lift up a little bit, I found a charming roadside lodge, an old log cabin I could not resist entering. Here started the trip’s biggest battle against myself: it is not because there is a restaurant or bakery or any kind of food that YOU HAVE TO get something, because you already carry food. I lost the battle that time, and I’m still losing it almost everyday, especially when I found a 1kg freshly baked cinnamon bun.
I decided to do side-trips and explore as much of Yukon as I could on my scheduled way to Jasper and the Great Divide Trail. Half-way up the one-way road to Keno, a tiny historical community with an identically named peak granted with 360 view, I had to turn around because the smoke was getting too thick again. But I found a nice little spot with a clear creek not far from the road to camp. Not all my bush-camps were that bucolic!
The trip ended up being divided into three sections. The first took me from Dawson City to Whitehorse with the aborted side-trip to Keno in 5 days. The second turned into a relaxed 4 days resupplying in Whitehorse plus riding, camping and hiking in the Carcross area with freshly made friends. It was truly amazing to be able to put the trip aside and spend some quality time with nice people. Our plans kept changing because of the thick smoke but we finally ended up hiking and scrambling one of the local peaks. It was such a great experience, untouched landscape with no-one else around. The legs appreciated the change of discipline and were fresher than ever when I started the third and last section from Carcross to Watson Lake in 2.5 days. This section on the Alaska Highway made me meet more cyclists in one day than over the two prior weeks.
The road was mostly flat, I mean no major elevation, and cut as long straight lines which allowed me to often get down on the aero-bars. Days were hot and nights fairly chilly so I decided to start late (9.30 to 10am) when it was not freezing, stop for a long lunch break in the roosting afternoon (2 to 4pm) and ride into the evening breeze (8.30 to 9pm) because there was so much daylight anyway. It was cool to observe the darkness slightly conquering time on the light as I was riding South. I left Dawson with 24h daylight and got to Watson Lake with a few hours of dusk-like twilight.
Being back on the pavement not only impacted my average speed but also my nose. Because of the hot weather, the typical smell of the warm asphalt bathing all day in the sun was ever present. Depending on the breeze, it was dominant or a subtle background flavour mixed with the creeks, the flowers and the forest breath. The cars, RVs and trucks passing by would add a more or less pronounced exhaust smell to this fine blend. Most of the drivers were nice and left some room when passing me but I always needed to be ready to be hit by the odd loose gravel sprinkled on the Northern roads, especially over the multiple construction sections. For dozens of kilometers I would have fine sand crushing in my teeth, making my mouth even drier than the smoke already made it. From time to time it would get so drained out that I would not have any saliva left and be unable to swallow. But maybe it was because I could not close my mouth, amazed by the surrounding wildlife, scenery, lakes, mountains, flowers and trees exploding all around me. My skin was fondled by the wind, which made me forget the sticky mix of sweat, dust, repellent and sunscreen layered on it. When stopping for lunch or in the evening, I loved to listen in the silence to the breeze in the trees, the many birdsongs and the insects humming. Such peaceful music after hours of wind harping on my ears because of the speed and all the super loud engines.
All this might not sound like a dreamable and idyllic journey but all my senses were stimulated and excited by the discoveries. It made me feel more alive than ever. I did not just see Yukon, I truly experienced it in all ways, and it was wonderful.
Encircled by the lush trees
The blue lakes, the high peaks
Drawn by the horizon
Answering the call of Freedom
Responding to the road’s invitation
Lungs filled with pure air
Skin cuddled by the wind
Pulled by the serene sky
Listening to the appeal of destiny
Responding to the road’s invitation
I am joy
It flows in my veins
Shines in my cells
Every single one of ‘em
I’m one with the trees
The blue lakes, the high peaks
I’m one with the pure air
The wind, the serene sky
I’m one with the horizon
In brotherhood with the open road
I am joy
It flows in my veins
Shines in my cells
Every single one of ‘em
One with the Natural World
This is the ultimate bliss
Welcome in Peace
Cycling from the North
All the way to the South
Here is the tale
Of the Arctic Vagabond
Beware weary traveller
Fool enough to venture
Over passes, plains and plateaus
Tundras, forests and meadows
The land of the North is hostile
It isn't for the fainthearted
Only few here can survive
The wildest of the wild
The roaming animals, the stark land
All Natural Forces
Here are unleashed
Embracing their supreme rage
Many try to scare me
What about the wolf, the grizzly
The Northern weather, the elements
You'll have to fight for your life
I gaze out at the scenery
And can only see beauty
Where others see opponents
I find reinforcements
A friend hugging me
Water to be drunk
Sprinkling the horizon with fairy poetry
An invitation to dream by the fire
The most dramatic show
Weather isn't enemy or nemesis
It's the director, the artist
Who sings and dances with the Earth
In an enchanted symbiosis
This is the land
Of the unleashed Forces of Nature
Embracing their supreme liberty
Why do we forget so quickly
That we are part of it?
Who's fool enough
To fight against his home?
A newbie on the Dempster, or can one transfer backpacking skills into bikepacking.
Let's first set up the pitch.
The Dempster highway is a 900km gravel road that stretches from Dawson City (YK) to the Arctic Ocean's shore in Tuktoyaktuk (NWT). It is the Canadian equivalent of the Alaskan Dalton Highway which runs from Fairbanks to Prudhoe Bay.
I'm a 27 y.o. outdoorsy guy with a good physical condition (marathon 3¼ hours, half ironman 5 hours) who, other than swimming, cycling and running, loves to embark on crazy adventures, mostly on foot. After one month of hiking the Continental Divide Trail in New-Mexico, I realized how much I missed a bike on those endless gravel roads.
The idea of crossing the American Continents, from North to South, hiking and cycling, was born. The only thing was that I had never bikepacked before, neither rode anything else than my carbon road bike. I assumed that I was fit enough to cycle consistent distances daily and that I could easily transfer my backpacking experience into bikepacking. Live in the wilderness according to the elements, find and treat water, plan resupply, search for camp spots, packing light with only what you really need, have a rodent minimalist lifestyle are the same things in either scenario, as is the daily routine : walk/pedal, enjoy the scenery, eat, sleep, repeat. The Dempster was the perfect way to start my Arctic to Antarctic journey and a straight forward baptism by fire. How did it go?
I flew to Inuvik, the small town 150km south of Tuktoyaktuk, during the second week of June. I was gladly surprised on how warm and sunny it was. But it did not last. After a few days resting from the long journey and the jet lag, I hitched a ride to "Tuk", where I was welcomed by an overcast sky and glacial wind. After a greasy lunch and dipping my back wheel into the ocean, it was already 2pm but I was not stressed timewise thanks to the midnight sun and its 24/7 daylight. The game was on.
Many people warned me about the loose and unstable gravel making the ride back to Inuvik fairly sketchy. And it was. I took the time to make it safe and enjoyable, going up and down those rolling hills gazing at the endless tundra turning into boreal forest. I swore to myself to keep it easy on the first day(s) but the lack of camping spots and the permanent daylight fooled me. Before I had realised, I was 145km in and it was 1am. It was time for a first chilly night. I woke up a few hours later with the rain and urged my way back to Inuvik where I was kindly offered a bed to shelter from the nasty weather and to rest.
The next two days brought me to the first mountain range. First along long straight lines cut through the bush, then over a more hilly terrain. The weather kept teasing me, throwing in freezing headwinds, big dark clouds and beautiful clearings. The road got slightly better but still had a lot of loose spots. I was happy to have my 47” tires and an ultralight setup. On the way I discovered the two small communities of Tsiigehtchic and Fort McPherson where I was invited to share the free "Dad’s Day" lunch with locals. One thing is for sure: the bikepacker hunger is the same as the backpacker's! Fort Mac was the last resupply place, except the meal at Eagle Plains restaurant. Here again, no big difference with my backpacking strategy, same food and number of planned days +1. After the Peel river crossing, the road steeply climbed up to a plateau with a pristine view on the Richardson range. I truly felt blessed to be right there, right then. I just could not stop worrying about those stormy clouds rolling over the peaks. I understood that I quickly had to leave this super exposed place and miraculously found shelter right when the sky started falling on me with lightning and thunder. Locals had mentioned this summer village where a big music festival happens once a year in August. I sheltered in one of the stage's corners and woke up humid and shivering. The thunderstorm lasted all night with insane winds and had transitioned to a snowstorm. I quickly found burning wood and an unlocked cabin, lit a fire and spent another cozy rest day reading a book. The extra day of food came handy.
The next morning brought a bluebird and I was super excited to finally enter those mountains. The climb was strenuous but the view could not stop getting more awesome. I was totally overwhelmed by such beauty and the luck I had to be there. The day flew by with endless epicness as I went over two passes, across the Yukon border and the Arctic Circle, as well as a last climb out the Eagle River up to Eagle Plains. The last ascent made the big fat meal in the warm restaurant taste ten times better and the first shower in 6 days feel even better.
The rain came back during the night but turned to be just a drizzle when I woke up. I then made a big mistake by heading off. This was a totally ok weather to hike but bad conditions to cycle on a gravel road. I was quickly covered with cement-like mud and soaked to the bones but was going at a decent speed and had a lot of fun. It lasted one hour. Then I started to shiver and was not able to warm up. The rain had intensified and the road turned into an absolute mess. I revived some good hiking memory and took refuge in a roadside toilet. For 5h I tried to hitch a ride back to Eagle Plains because "there is no shame in turning back". But it didn't work and despite the changed clothes I was still unable to recover feeling in my feet. It eventually stopped pouring down and parts of the road looked like drying up. I decided to take my chances and keep going. Second worst idea, ever. I struggled over crazily muddy sections and had trouble finding a decent water source. I just found a nasty murky pond infested with thousands of mosquitoes that at least allowed me to clean my bike from some of the clogged muck in the chain and derailleur. It was the roughest ride of my life, no doubt. I finally made it up a ridge where the road improved but the wind was blowing me off it, and almost off my bike. I was exhausted and pushed to the next rest area where I found another toilet, big enough that I could lay down in it. My survival reflexes made the rest with warm dry layers, a hot tea and a warm meal. I had my space blanket ready but finally did not use it as I got up early and went straight on pedalling. From here everything started to change, first with a long downhill, followed up by straight flat lines that I could grind out in an aero position.
The landscape totally changed and the road was now winding along a large river surrounded by big cliffs and rolly mountains. It felt like I was entering Patagonia already. I stopped for a second brekkie, a nap, lunch, another nap and in the early afternoon the weather started to clear up, along with my foggy mindset. I climbed up another small pass and continued riding across this gigantic scenery. The forest was replaced by the tundra. I called it a day and gazed at the panorama while recharging my inner batteries with the beautiful sunshine.
I woke up in a dream and rode through this pristine landscape with only my sore legs reminding me it was real. The early sun with few clouds brightened the scenery with that unique intensity that only lasts a moment. Without realizing it, I went over the last pass and started the long 80km journey downhill to the pavement. I slowed down and took the day to fully enjoy the view. My experience told me that my stomach could wait another day before shovelling food into my mouth but that my soul could never get enough of those scenes. Bikepacking, like backpacking, tends to make me focus too much on the objective and the “back to civilization” feast. Learning to drop off and let it go is not an easy job but I succeeded this time and even left the bike to scramble up a small peak to get more of those panoramas. My legs were surprisingly happy to switch discipline.
The majesticness vanished with the last kilometers of gravel that suddenly changed into pavement. Leaving the Dempster got me fairly emotional as it was such a magical and unique experience in all respects. One chapter closes to let another begin. Again, I knew that I’d better take a little extra time to rest and process this experience rather than rushing into the journey's next leg.
With hindsight, I think my bet was totally legit. For me, bikepacking worked exactly like backpacking and the only problem I faced was the difference of exposure to the elements. You get colder more quickly and playing with layers was even more crucial.
I hope this can help others stepping into the amazing world of bikepacking. Now I just have to add packrafting to my belt and be totally polyvalent!
The tech + : 47” tires
The gear - : the 15°C sleeping bag
The orga tip : Dempster mail allows you to ship anything you want from either Dawson or Inuvik visitor centre to Eagle Plains.
We were arrived in Welly at 10pm with no plans. Thankfully our mate was able to host us for a night even if she already was sleeping in her flat's lounge. It is a nice and weird feeling to be back here! We spend a day doing groceries, paperwork and some planning because we don't know nothing about the North Island and have two weeks ahead of us. After enjoying some city life - understand restaurants and fancy craftbeer bars - we stayed at the creepiest backpacker hostel on Earth. The morning after we headed to the trainstation because we figured it was the cheapest, easiest and more enjoyable way to get out of Wellington to get to a nice hitch-hiking spot.
A couple of hours, three rides, some free sight-seeing and honey ice-cream offered by a Maori later, we were dropped at the foothills of Mt Taranaki. Way too easy! After a short and cold camping night in the bush, we hitched early in the morning to the visitor center and the trailheads. We started walking to the first hut at 7.45am and reached it at 9, just on time for breakfast and a little nap on the sunnydeck with the scenic view. Imagine a perfectly conic volcano surrounded only by flat lands with the Tasman Sea on one side and the Tongariro on the other... The weather was awesome and we decided to climb the Taranaki that day. After a 4h steady climb in the rocks, we reached the summit. Ho my g**, holly crap, f**** hell it was just AWESOMELY AMAZING! Definitely one of those undescreptible views, summit above two seas, one made of cloud, the other of water.
We didn't really want to go down but couldn't stay neither. We will be back! The descent was a good run and we quickly got back to the hut that was now totally overbooked and noisy with kids and a large group of Russians. We spent the next day chilling there, enjoying the scnery and the deck.
After a good night of sleep, we hiked back to the visitor center. As soon as we got to the carpark, we saw a car leaving, showed the thumbs up and off we went for another crazy 9 cars ride towards the Tongariro! We got to National Park - yes, that is a tiny town name - at 6pm, booked a campsite where we were the only brave ones actually camping. Winter was slowly coming on us and the night temps were definitely below freezing. But we realized that we picked the very only campsite with a free spapool. Perfect to recover from a long hitching day and be ready to explore the Tongariro National Park.
Once again the NZ weather played with us. We have been stucked in Wanaka and Hawea for a week, waiting for the rain to stop (THANK YOU so much to John&Flav and John&Tina for hosting us over these days).
Finally the sun was back and off we went up Breast Hill, above Lake Hawea. We had a nice short first day climbing the steep slope to the ridge with olala views over the Southern Alps and both lakes (Wanaka and Hawea) on our back. The second day was an other easy day along the ridge with plenty of time to sit on the summit and enjoy the view. Not too bad for a last glimpse on Wanaka!
The third day, the serious stuff started with a steep descent into the Timaru canyon. Some people told us it was easier not to follow the trail but just stick in the riverbed. So we did. Bad idea. The water was really cold at this time of the year and the sun couldn't reach the bottom of the valley. We were freezing in the shade with quasi non-stop icy cold water up to the shins, often the knees and sometimes the waist. Awesome. After two hours of struggling in the river and on slippery rocks, we finally got back on the trail where we had lunch in the sun. It gave us the energy to walk the next 4H that lead us to the hut just before dusk.
Day four was another long day, with a pass-climb in the morning. Thankully the trail was mostly 4wd and easy to follow. The kilometers flew by in this awesome high Canterbury country. We were really wishing to be out on that day but the trail ended in the middle of nowhere, on a gravel road going along the Ahuriri river. We reached the intersection late in the afternoon without really hoping to get a ride.
But here started our next crazy journey. Roughly 15 sec after we got there, a car came by, stopped and took us to Omarama (half an hour drive). We couldn't believe it! After a quick snack (chips and M&Ms) we decided to keep hitchhiking because we wanted to get asap to Wellington to say farewell to a friend leaving NZ. We actually didn't really want to stay stuck in Omarama and to have to pay for an hostel. Ten minutes later, Rudolph stopped and took us in his brand new camper. He explained to us that he lived in Alexandra but had to drive to Christchurch to get his camper fixed. Looked like it was our lucky day. We stopped in Geraldine for the night. The camping was flooded so we couldn't sleep in our tent. No worries, Rudolph offered us to stay in the queen-size ultra comfy and fancy bed coming down from the roof while he would sleep in the bunks at the back. We spent an awesome evening talking and drinking beers with our new Kiwi-Frisian friend.
The day after he dropped us off outside of Christchurch, towards Picton. Waouw! But we had only a few minutes to realize what happend in the last 24h before a Maori bus driver told us to jump in so he could drop us somewhere better to hitch. He then gave us a free ticket and told us to wait for another bus that would bring us even further on the highway, totally out of the city! Half an hour later, we were 30km away from Chch and back in the hitch-hiking game. Again, we didn't have to wait too much for a car to pick us up for another long drive up to Murchinson and the road cross towards Picton. A couple of minutes after we were dropped off an other folk stopped and told us he was going to the ferry. Sounds good for us.
We got to Picton at 6.30pm, ran into the ferry terminal without thinking and asked when the next ferry was leaving : 15 mins, hurry up! We swiped the bankcard, dropped our bags, ran on the platform and sat on a coach. In less than 30h we transitionned from the mountains on the Otago-Canterbury border to Wellington.
This long travel has been full of intense living experiences, joyful and painful. I left home with 3 grand-parents alive and will head back without a generation. After my Bonne-Maman in April 2016 and my Mami in July 2016, my Papi has now gone to join his beloved wife after 8 months bereavement and 60-years of marriage.
This time I couldn't handle the loss without the physical presence of my family. Our travel has then been put on hold as I quickly returned home for a couple of days.
I have now all the time to think about the amazing human-being he was and as a small tribute to his legendary moustache, I solemnly aver to proudly keep mine.
What comes to your mind when you think about typical NZ tramping? True remoteness, bush bashing, river crossing, epic weather and pristine scenery are some of the images coming back to me. Finding those unique and almost secret itineraries is not easy. For a long time, I looked for the South Island most epic hikes. After a failed attempt on the five passes - which ended up spending 20 hours in a long drop and a miraculous rescue by a jetboat - and an amazing venture to Lake Adelaide, I figured out I would tick the box of an authentic coastal experience. Scanning through the Moir’s guide, the journey to Jackson’s bay sounded pretty appealing. The seed was sowed and stayed somewhere in the back of my mind for months until the opportunity arose.
My visa was nearing expiry so my partner and I decided to travel across the country with nothing but our legs and thumbs. It was sort of a two-month pilgrimage to say goodbye to this place that felt like home. We started with a hike on Stewart Island and ended up some days later in Te Anau. This was the occasion I was waiting for. I had done all the research already, and a quick visit to the library allowed me to print the maps, the tide chart and the forecast. My major concern was the weather but the early Fall was offering us a perfect 7+ days window. No time to wait.
We got to the Hollyford trailhead around lunch time but couldn’t eat because of the thirsty sandflies. So it started. The trail gently took us into the wild through the gorgeous bush along a perfectly maintained path with close to no elevation. From time to time it crossed a river and these openings offered epic views on Fiordland’s sheer black walls and white summits. Can you think of a better trail to start a long journey on, when your pack is stuffed with 12 days worth of food ? Once we got to the confluence of the Pyke and the Hollyford, things started to change. The almost paved trail disappeared along with the flatness of the terrain. Here began the so-called Demon Trail. A narrow path with straight drops winding through the thick bush and steep ups and downs covered by slippery mud and rocks. A lot of fun! The handful of walkwire bridges and the improving views, like hidden beaches bathing in morning sun on the shore of Lake McKerrow, helped transform this delightful hike into real bliss. The nice weather made this rough terrain easier. I can definitely imagine how diabolical it could be in more typical Fiordland weather.
All of a sudden, the landscape flattened out and the bush changed with numerous flaxes, the transition between Fiordland and Westland. At that time we were travelling through an impenetrable fog that cleared up to a mystical atmosphere: a silent and flat dark blue lake, evaporating bush, fairytale haze stabbed by morning sunbeams and blue sky patches. Then we noticed a muffled sound in the background of the birds ever-present melody. It intensified with each step until we realized that it was the Tasman Sea roaring on the wild West coast. It appeared to our minds before we could get a glimpse of it. We entered a swampy area that led us to the shore and Martins Bay hut, the end point of the Hollyford trail.
The real journey began! From here, there was no more trail but the rough coast to be followed. The birds vanished and were replaced by a seals colony and several dolphins cruising a few meters offshore. The sun was harsh and we couldn’t believe how lucky we were with the weather. But the Westcoast also offered thousands of starving sandflies happy to have those two stupid humans delivered to them. They weren’t fair-play, biting us even when walking, rushing into our eyes, mouth and ears. Lovely ass. This first coastal stretch gave us an overview of what to expect next : rock hopping, boulders stepping, sandy beach walking, bluff scrambling. Big Bay’s hut was a charming old-fashioned fisherman's place, the perfect spot to hide from an unexpected twenty-hour-long heavy rain. Everything was rushing in my head, what the rivers would look like, what if we pushed through and then got stuck with more rain later? We had planned two extra days of food for this kind of scenario, so all we could do was to accept it, cook some food and think what we could cook next. The major issue was that we were already running out of tea.
The rain stopped as it started, abruptly. The most amazing weather you could imagine of followed and we rushed out to make the most of it. The biggest unknown factor remained the river crossings. Even though I had studied it thousands of times, I kept going back to the tide chart, calculating our speed and estimating when we would hit the major crossings. The recent rain added some uncertainty but the first stream lifted the curtain, it was not too bad. After re-re-checking we both knew what to do in any scenario, we linked arms and entered the water. It quickly raised up to our knees, hips and stomachs, but (being 30cm smaller) my partner was chest deep into the water and totally lost control, which almost made us both lose balance. I strongly anchored myself on my legs and pole, holding her with my other arm and slowly dragged us out. That deepest spot was actually really short and we were quickly back to hip- and to knee-deep water.
The first serious crossing behind us, we kept following the coast, mostly rock hopping, but the high tide forced us to backup inland and struggle with thick bush bashing. We finally made it to Awarua point. It took us way longer than expected. However, this did not refrain us from spending some time contemplating this unspoiled nature epicness, surrounded by the sea, the westland bush, the rocks and boulders, the sandy beaches, the Olivine mountains dominated by the Red Hill on our left, the Fiordland summits overshadowed by Mt Tutoko and Milford mouth in the background. Pristine scenery was all around us all along the coast. At every step we wanted to stop and gaze, but the sandfly plague prevented us from stopping more than five seconds. The terrain changed from one bay to another and so did our speed. From slow slippery rock hopping or boulder stepping to fast hard sand walking with a whole range of other terrain in the middle, such as bush bashing or shingle sinking. It was hard to estimate how much distance we would be able to cover in a certain amount of time as we did not know what was behind the next corner. All we could do was to keep going and fully appreciate this stunning wilderness, remoteness and loneliness.
Loneliness? Not really. Looking for the best place to cross another of the numerous rivers, we found backpacks and no one around. I went upstream, calling for those pack owners. Eventually four DOC rangers popped out the bush. Heli-dropped earlier for a conservation mission, they gave us the latest forecast which confirmed that we should hurry up North but that we should just have the time to be out before the next storm would hit.
Even if expected, the most fulfilling encounter was when, after a particularly rough bluff, we ran into the Long’s family paradise. Out of nowhere we were suddenly walking on an airstrip cut through the flaxes, Tasman sea crashing on the rocks on one side, steep rainforest covered hill on the other. By the end of the strip there were two small buildings, a tiny DOC hut and the “NZ remotest” family's house. We did not want to impose our presence so we first went into the lovely hut for some snacks and fully appreciated the absence of sandflies. Ten minutes after we arrived, a helicopter landed and dropped three hunters with equipment for ten. That was the moment Catherine Long came out and invited everyone for a cuppa and a piece of cake. We spent two hours chatting with those awesome open-hearted people about all kinds of subjects, including the backstage of the TV program “Where the wild men live”, possum trapping, and the choice of living out of society. The three Jafa’s were pretty astonished by what we were doing and offered us a cold beer - the best Speight I ever had - with some chocolate before Robert and Catherine gave us a boat ride across the Gorge river without which we should have had to swim.
Some of the best memories of this tramp are the stunning sunrises and sunsets, on our own, on the sandy beaches by the sea. Even if we had to hide in our tent from the moment we stopped to the very last moment we left, those were absolute ecstasy for the soul. We used to pack before dawn to avoid the worst memory, the sandflies. Another sour moment happened on our last day when, first thing in the morning, we got lost in dense bush trying to find some sort of a trail over a bluff for almost two hours. This episode tired us for the rugged last coastal section made out of boulders, gravel and floating trees. When we finally got to the Hope river confluence we were cooked and tried not to think that we still had 20km to get out, while admiring the roughness of the sea.
After a last glimpse into the Tasman blue, we went inland and walked up the river bed, with thigh-deep water until we spotted the beginning of the 4WD track we were supposed to follow. It was already 3PM and we should have stopped here but we really wanted to get out before the rain hit again. This urge was motivated by the last crossing ahead of us, at the very end of our journey, the biggest of all, the Cascade river. We figured that if we pushed we should get there before dark. And so we did. Walking on a proper trail was an amazing relief and the kilometers were flying by. Going through forest, meadows and wide river beds, we met some hunters who were surprised to see anything else than deers and pigs. Thankfully they did not shoot at us, even if they joked about it. We then entered an endless openland, the huge Cascade valley, while the sun was gently going down, lightning fire in the clouds. We crossed extensive farmland before facing our last obstacle, the Cascade. It was quiet and wide but we were mentally prepared for it. We quickly found the best spot to cross, and easily entered the water as we were already wet anyway. Knee-deep at first, it changed to hip-deep for a distance and then chest-deep... for me (I’m 6’3’’). My partner had already lost her footing and I was holding her, trying to keep my balance. As I was only holding on the tip of my boots, we almost reached "the swimming point" but finally managed to get back on our feet. We did the last kilometer to the road dripping with water and arrived just after 8PM. That is where we met Marshall, the cattle caretaker of this huge beef farm. He made the end of this incredible adventure even more unforgettable when he offered us to get dry inside with a cuppa and spaghetti on toast before driving us 20 km further on the dirt road so we could easily hitchhike up to Haast on the next morning. We pitched one last time the wet tent, totally exhausted but so proud, and fell asleep, dreaming of the shower and dry bed waiting for us in Wanaka.
Tramping, cycling, running, skiing, travelling, I keep exploring this amazing planet we live on. The following texts give an insight of my various wanderings. From poetry to trip reports or thoughts on particular subjects, this pages try to reflect how I travel through this modern world.