Autobiography  Adventurer at Heart

Athlete, personality and event organiser Nathan Fa’avae has led a life full of adventure

Adventurer at Heart, Nathan Fa’avae by Nathan Fa’avae, Potton and Burton, Nelson, 2015. Softcover, 280 pages, $40.

Adventure racing is backcountry travel at another level. Over three to five days, teams of four competitors travel hundreds of kilometres, virtually without rest, in a combination of outdoor pursuits that can span almost the whole gamut.

Take the first Southern Traverse race in 1991. Competitors began at Pohara Beach in Golden Bay, sea kayaked the Abel Tasman coastline, then mountain biked over Takaka Hill and up the Cobb Valley, ran over the Tablelands and Mt Arthur, into the Ellis Basin, where they biked to St Arnaud, ran over Robert Ridge, down to the Travers Valley and up to the St Arnaud Range to the Rainbow skifield. From there, they biked back to St Arnaud, rafted down the Buller River, ran over Mt Owen and finished at the Wangapeka road end. A team comprising Nathan Fa’avae, Kathy Lynch, Steve Gurney and Aaron Prince won the event in 72 hours.

Not surprisingly, New Zealanders have excelled at the sport, and Fa’avae is considered to have been among the world’s elite, if not the best ever. Born in Nelson to a Pakeha Mum and Samoan Dad, Nathan had a somewhat wayward youth, with smoking, drinking, drugs and stealing threatening to lead him astray. It may be an exaggeration to say the outdoors saved him, but it certainly made him.

He gave up the stimulants, and found far more stimulation pushing himself to the limits in the outdoors. By his mid-teens, he was into all sort of outdoor pursuits, including tramping and fly-fishing. Once, as an inexperienced lad, he almost drowned in the Karamea River while trying to cross the extremely difficult Garbaldi rapid by himself. In his first Coast-to-Coast event, aged 19, he came 11th in the solo two-day event, and was the fastest individual in the mountain run over Goat Pass. Unlike many other contestants, he hadn’t run any of the course before, and didn’t know about taking food. En route, veteran Doug Lomax gave him some barley sugars.

An early adopter of mountain bikes, Fa’avae excelled at cross-country riding, and hones his paddling skills through being employed as a rafting and sea kayak guide. For a while, he part-owned a sea kayaking business at Abel Tasman, but then sold it and became an Outward Bound instructor, with his wife Jodie. He was often in charge of the ‘catalyst’ students, many of whom were at-risk youth.

Fa’avae writes with candidness and often humour, and the book covers his life pretty evenly. In biographies, he writes, ‘the normal, ordinary things that happen in life were the bits I enjoyed most, and which I also want to share.’

Adventure racing requires not only an almost super-human level of fitness, but skills in wide range of disciplines, an ability to work in a team, and excellent navigation skills – which may be taxed to their limit while travelling in darkness. Competitors often push themselves beyond the point of exhaustion, causing hallucinations. Fa’avae once bemused his companions by pointing out a non-existent red lawn mower in the middle of the backcountry.

Teammates expect huge things of each other. On one occasion, Fa’avae described one team member who pushed himself to the point of vomiting. ‘I said to him, “Do you reckon you could keep walking while you’re throwing up – it would save us a bit more time.” Looking up with vomit dribbling down his chin, disbelief written on his face, he could see I was serious and got back on his feet.’

Why you might put yourself through that is a good question. Fame, glory and prize money might be strong incentives, but for Fa’avae other rewards are just as strong. ‘I remember high on the Mount Arthur ridge close to midnight there were expansive views over Tasman Bay and the city lights of Nelson and other towns shimmering softly. The moon was up, it was a clear, calm night, and we were wandering around in the hills. At that moment I discovered I didn’t want to be anywhere else, doing anything else. It was a perfect adventure and I felt perfectly alive.’

Adventure racing took Fa’avae all over the world, across deserts, up mountains, down canyons, and through rainforests, in all sorts of places including South America, Tibet, Nepal, the European Alps, Russia, Mexico, Africa and of course New Zealand. Adventurer at Heart is a fast-paced, often humorous read from one of the legends of adventure racing. I enjoyed it, even if I did feel damn lazy by the end of it.

Wilderlife