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Monday, 17 March 2014

GODZone Kaikoura

I jerked awake after another short strange dream. Swaying side to side in delirium, carbon walking poles flexed to the limit as we ascended an unending ridge through the night. Senses muted by darkness, it was a constant battle against sleep, fought off by surges of guarana and caffeine. But on the summit of the range came a rich orange dawn. Awake, and another endless day.

The Glynn Wye Range

Forty one teams gathered at the start line in Kaikoura for an afternoon start with perfect weather. We were about to embark on Chapter 3 of the GODZone Adventure Race, held every year in a mysterious location in the South Island. This year's challenge would involve 520km of non-stop racing; trekking, mountain biking, rafting and kayaking, sleep being optional, against some of the best adventure racing teams in New Zealand and overseas. Our team came together 8 months before the start, with Emily Wilson from Wanaka, Tim Farrant and Elisha Nuttall from Christchurch and I joining together to enter the event. Feeling that the sport is dominated by much older participants, we named ourselves Team Next Generation, and set out to prove that young athletes can be competitive in NZ expedition racing. 

Alastair, Tim, Emily, Elisha
Tension, nervous energy and excitement churned as Elisha and I sprinted across the shore to launch the AR Duo kayaks into dumping surf. An efficient start saw us paddling through the chop along with Seagate and the other top teams, eventually settling into 6th position over the 6km sea kayak. Meanwhile Tim & Emily rock hopped around the Kaikoura peninsula on the 9km coasteering section, avoiding seals and swimming for checkpoints. These first two short legs were great for spectators but we knew this was just the prologue. Onto mountain bikes with a cheeseburger in hand, the race had now begun. 

Elisha kayaking through beautiful Kaikoura ocean

This is GODZone
Kaikoura township disappeared behind as we rode north up the winding Puhi Puhi valley in wet mist. We arrived at some stockyards to a scene of chaos. A navigational decision point, five or so teams darted around the paddocks in all directions, hurriedly trying to search out the best route. At least three obvious routes were possible, a gamble at which was fastest. We chose one and committed.

Down into the stony river valley, riding became impossible, although the line was more direct. Perhaps we underestimated the steepness and height of the hills, as we proceeded to heave fully laden mountain bikes on shoulders for countless hours to the top of the range. Dusk had long since passed into our first night when the 4WD descent track was finally located, and a long muddy ride down to the transition area at midnight.

Dispirited by this exhausting first leg and time lost, we charged into the first trek eager for the much awaited climb of Tapuae-o-Uenuku. At 53km and 4000 metres vertical gain, this was a mammoth stage. A traverse of both the Seaward and Inland Kaikoura Ranges, with an ascent of the highest peak outside the Southern Alps. Our team loves the high mountains and big climbs, so we were confident we could make up time on other teams. The region had been hit with snow in the week leading up - aesthetic, but potentially quite dangerous given our lack of alpine equipment.

Summit slopes of Tapuae-o-Uenuku

The crest of the Seaward Kaikouras, George Saddle was surmounted in the dead of the night after a long stream boulder hop. We were joined at the saddle by team Girls on Top, and following closely behind our rivals from the University of Auckland. We hurtled down soft scree into the adjoining valley, battling early sleep demons until the stream boulders blurred into a sea of grey. A compulsory checkpoint at Jan Hut was too tempting; we gave in to the comfort of the hut and clocked one hour of sleep in order to be fresh for the impending climb of Tappy, the 2800m giant.

George Saddle, Seaward Kaikoura Ranges

Rafting crew helped us cross the wide and swift Clarence River by boat, and begin the great climb. A bush ridge to farmland, tussock ridges to scree basins, rock ridges to snow basins, and steep snow slopes to the high saddle. The exposure and sheer magnitude of the mountain was huge. 

Emily taking in the feeling of height and exposure while climbing the lower summit slopes of Tapuae

Elisha grimacing on the ascent after gaining almost 4000 metres in one day

Tapuae-o-Uenuku, initially swathed in mist gradually gave us a clear view as reward for the relentless effort. Towering rock spires of the summit overlooked snowy peaks of the Seaward Ranges across the valley. The remoteness felt Himalayan. 5pm at the saddle gave us just enough daylight to descend the deep snow of the upper Hodder basins, following trails of blood from an injured party. The dangers of racing through alpine terrain were spelt out in red and white.

Team on the saddle below Tapuae-o-Uenuku

Tim kept us to an urgent pace down the constant crossings of the murky Hodder River on dusk. We soon realised why. A compulsory checkpoint was located 1km up a side-stream of the Hodder; this side stream was immediately cast as ‘impenetrable’. Thick, prickly matagouri scrub barred the way, and a 10 metre waterfall blatantly said ‘No’. For hours our team and many teams around us tried in vain to forge a way through, but the steepness of the terrain and impassable vegetation made this seemingly impossible.

CP 9

It was an incredibly demoralising point in the race, having pushed so hard up to this point to find all roads blocked. At a last push we decided to attempt a climb up and over into the stream from a parallel side-stream. Finally, success. We were now achingly close to the CP. However, in the night it was still extremely difficult to find. Forced to camp for three hours until dawn, we found the control immediately and set off quickly eager to make up time, bound for the Awatere valley.

Climbing out of the Hodder catchment bound for the Awatere

At the transition area, we were greeted by hot crispy slabs of lasagne and vegetable soup – amazing. The morning was warming into a blazing day as we saddled mountain bikes for a 160 kilometre journey through the Molesworth Station to Hanmer Springs and beyond. Only quick toilet and water bottle stops broke the long spells of relatively flat, easy riding on smooth gravel road with grand scenery all around.

Tapuae-o-Uenuku from the Molesworth Valley (Photo: Ian Edmond)

Molesworth country

At Hanmer, we packed in a ten-minute meaty feed of fried chicken and chips, stuffing our faces as crowds of onlookers stopped and watched in bemusement. ‘Adventure race’, we said. ‘Five days non-stop, no time to waste…’ Including the chicken stop, we were only two minutes slower than eventual winners Seagate over the stage. Things were looking up.

A long hot day down the Molesworth

The third night dropped as we exchanged bikes for trekking shoes and poles to begin a mighty traverse of the Glynn Wye Range. The initial hilly farmland section involved tricky access onto the main ridge, with several of our rivals including Team Bivouac falling victim to major navigational blunders. Once Tim had secured the route, we entered stealth mode, turning off headlamps so other teams could not follow us. Devious, but decisive. On this long ridge ascent, the accumulated sleep deprivation began to take its toll. A compulsory dark zone and 8 hour sleep was to come in the next rafting stage, so we decided to push through the night. Caffeine pills provided our only defence from ‘sleep monsters’ as we climbed up 1400 metres along the range, reaching the summit of Scaw Fell on dawn.

Dawn on Scaw Fell
Here a pivotal route choice decision saw our team traverse a bushy ridgeline connecting to the next range of open tops, rather than drop down into the untracked river valley. This proved to be the optimal route, although the split kayak paddles we cunningly carried for the Hurunui River now became extremely cumbersome during several hours of bush-bashing. We were thankful to finally drop off the dry tops in the scorching weather, and recuperate in the Jollie Brook stream from near dehydration. 

Glynn Wye Range
A late afternoon arrival at the rafting transition gave us a precious three hours to descend the upper section of the Hurunui, the exciting Maori Gulley. Grade 3 rapids and drops endeavoured to flip our inflatable two-person rafts and soak us in the chilling water; Elisha steered expertly, I hung on tight and somehow we stayed upright.

Emily and Tim ploughing through the rapids before Maori Gulley
A gloomy night set in and the dark zone period forced us off the river to camp the night. A first hot meal in several days lifted our spirits as we lay down for a blissful rest. So much sleep was unusual for an adventure race, but highly appreciated by our aching bodies. The Hurunui was one of the most pleasant days of the race, at last a chance to rest the legs from the continuous onslaught of trekking and mountain biking. This 101km river raft stands as the longest water stage of all GODZone chapters, finished by our team in 15 hours of paddling.

Elisha steering the raft down the Hurunui River
In transition we met our close rivals GO Team 3.0 heading out onto the next MTB through Gore Bay, with Proactive Physio hot on our heels. The next four stages were short and fast, but relied heavily on accurate navigation to stay in the game. Tim, a rogaine specialist, was in his element on the Cheviot Hills trek and we moved through the checkpoints smoothly despite the very steep and sometimes loose terrain. 

Twilight from the Cheviot Hills

The final sleepless night along the featureless coastline challenged us intensely to stay awake and moving at all costs in our bid to chase down the GO Team. A critical route choice past the raging Waiau River in the depths of the night allowed our rivals to slip away, although we were pleased our crossing point allowed us to stay dry. Along the coastline, we took turns ‘sleep towing’ – sleeping while walking – until at last the heads were too heavy and we indulged in a two minute powernap, with kelp for a cushion.

Two minute powernap at 5am
The team riding into the final day (Photo: Liz Wilson)
View from the last MTB stage down the Kaikoura Coastline

The legs were emptied on the final 38km MTB stage, named ceremoniously by Nathan Fa’avae as the ‘Poo stage’ due to the muddiness of the never ending farmland hills. The Kaikoura Ranges towered above, still caked in snow as we paddled towards the peninsula, 26km of sea kayaking to go.

Schools of dolphins followed us through the pristine waters, diving and jumping alongside. The curse of sleep deprivation revisited several times; the front paddlers would often hear a clunk on the cockpit and need no explanation. Point Kean cornered, the beautiful sight of Kaikoura Township came into view. Primary school children ran cheering along the beach to see us finish the third chapter of GODZone in 5 days and 34 minutes, securing 8th position in the field of 41 teams.

Team Next Generation at the finish line
Although we made several mistakes and experienced some big blows, overall the team was ecstatic with the top 10 placing, proving that even the youngest team in the race can still be competitive in a sport dominated by older ‘experienced’ athletes.

First thanks to the organisers of GODZone, Adam and Warren for putting on such an epic week's adventure. Thanks to all our supporters, friends and family tracking our progress online during the week. Thanks to Tim for the supreme navigation, Emily for the constant motivation, and Elisha for the expert raftmanship and spare No-Doz tablets. We can't wait for GODZone Chapter 4, just where will they take us next time...

Cheers Kaikoura Primary School!

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