A New Zealand outdoors community without competitive organised events is now hard to imagine. Every weekend thousands of Kiwis flock to our great outdoors to participate in races or challenges of one sort or another. Events emerge and disappear chaotically, some flare up and go out, some stand the test of time. At their best, events introduce people to the outdoors, and enable them to develop skills and confidence. They encourage a shared sense of achievement and help form an outdoor identity.
Adventure navigation encompasses several types of events including adventure racing, rogaining and mountain marathons. Adventure navigation challenges participants, often in teams, to navigate around unmarked courses in wild terrain. Participants travel most commonly by foot, but mountain biking and kayaking can also add to the challenge.
Without a doubt, the longest-running adventure navigation event in New Zealand is TWALK, the Canterbury University Tramping Club’s 24-hour walk. It preceded New Zealand’s first orienteering clubs, which were the subsequent originators of mountain marathons and then rogaines, as their members looked for longer, more adventurous challenges.
Mountain marathons were overshadowed by multisport events in the 1980s due to efforts from the ebullient Robin Judkins. Judkins invented multisport in the 1980s and sparked a wave of outdoor enthusiasm, first through the Alpine Ironman and then the Coast-to-Coast. Multisport doesn’t require much navigation, but it develops great skills and fitness for athletes that cross over into adventure navigation.
These early rugged multisport races drew only small fields of competitors, mostly from strong outdoor backgrounds. Climbers like John Howard, Paul Scaife and Penny Webster. Skiers like Geoff Hunt. Kayakers
like Steve Gurney. Their outdoor skills were generally superior than today’s athletes, while the fitness was at least comparable. The world’s first adventure race – the Grand Traverse – was held by Frenchman Gerard Fusil in 1989. The course included the Landsborough, Matukituki, Lake Te Anau and Manapouri and probably still stands alone as the most ambitious New Zealand adventure race.
During the 1990s, adventure navigation events became accessible for the general public and the fields grew. The Cyclic Saga, held on Banks Peninsula, introduced solely mountain bike navigation events. New Zealand’s first expedition-length race, the Southern Traverse, attracted good fields and rogaines prospered with the founding of the popular Heights of Winter event.
Since the turn of the century, a trend towards easier races, with wider participation, has continued. Rogaines have blossomed around the country with three-hour evening events popular. The major growth in adventure racing has been in school events, notably the Hillary Challenge organised by Hillary Outdoors, and all-women races, notably Nathan Fa’avae’s Spring Challenge, which attracted 1350 entrants in 2016. The new Godzone Expedition race has also created shorter courses to increase participation.
What does the future hold for adventure navigation? The demise of multisport (one of the unwritten stories of the New Zealand outdoors) may be instructive. Trumped by rising costs, event organisers have been picked off one by one until the critical mass of multisport events needed to maintain participant interest, let alone related businesses such as kayak manufacturers, is threatened. Can adventure navigation avoid this fate? Orienteering has remained strong by maintaining its nationwide club network. The New Zealand Rogaine Association is centralised but productive in local areas. Adventure Racing delivers great, but
expensive, events in limited circumstances where commercial events can succeed. Could it be that the club model is the future for our competitive outdoor sports? How could this be encouraged?
It remains to be seen which innovations might spark public excitement in Adventure Navigation. Robin Judkins and his sidekick Steve Gurney captured so many imaginations during the 1990s. Do you remember Gurney’s pod? Adventure racing during that time also seemed so new and exciting. It’s hard to pick what might happen, but lightweight packrafts appeal as an affordable and more flexible way to explore our lakes and rivers and ‘brevet’ style events with low costs, building on the success of mountain bike events like the Tour of Aotearoa (www. touraotearoa.nz), seem like a plausible way
to bring some excitement back into the adventure navigation calendar.
The Canterbury University Tramping Club’s endurance event with a cult-like following, a 24-hour foot race for all who like fancy dress and suffering, celebrated 51 years with a sold-out event in May.
1970–Present Orienteering in NZ.
An organised international sport which originated in Scandinavia, where it is still strongest. Foot navigation races in a time-trial format, up to two hours long. Orienteering in New Zealand often takes place in sand-dune forests, such as Auckland’s Woodhill Forest and Manawatu’s Santoft Forest.
1980–1989 Alpine Ironman.
The first expression of Robin Judkin’s genius attracted top skiers and climbers keen for a new challenge. The 1985 event skied off Mt Aurum, ran down Skippers Creek and kayaked the Shotover River. The film clip, with a Chris Rea soundtrack can still be found on youtube: goo.gl/OLALct
1983–1988 Mountain marathons.
Starting as fundraisers for the New Zealand national orienteering squad, and inspired by their British equivalent, the Karrimor Mountain Marathon. The first of these twoday foot races traversed Tongariro National Park.
1983–Present Coast to Coast.
The legendary New Zealand multisport race has now run for over 30 years; it’s the race that made Robin Judkins and Steve Gurney famous, and taught New Zealanders how to run well on rough terrain and kayak fast down Grade 2 rivers.
1989 Grand Traverse.
Recognised as the world’s first adventure race. Gerard Fusil had never been to New Zealand before this event, but he called on some good local assistance, like Dave Bamford and Geoff Hunt, who both later became event organisers.
1991–2005 Southern Traverse.
New Zealand’s local expedition race, organised by Geoff Hunt and Pascal Lorre. Known for its wilderness travel. Highlights of the Southern Traverse included the year 2000 partnership with Discovery Channel and the 2005 World Championship event.
1995–2009 Cyclic Saga.
The first adventure navigation event to capitalise on the growing popularity of mountain biking.
1995–Present New Zealand Rogaine Championships.
This event, always raced over 24 hours, was first held on the Pisa Range. The New Zealand Rogaine Association, which formed subsequently, has also hosted World Championship events in 2000 and 2010, both in north Canterbury.
1998–Present Heights of Winter.
New Zealand’s most popular rogaine, regularly attracts fields of over 400 competitors. Always takes place in the middle of winter, on a full moon.
2001–2006 Arrow 24-hour Adventure Race Series.
Established as a stepping-stone event for the Southern Traverse. This series of races existed for a time on both sides of the Tasman.
2001–Present Hillary Challenge.
A competitive adventure challenge weekend for high school students organised by Hillary Outdoors, which extended in 2006 to the Get-2-Go event for younger students.
2007–Present Spring Challenge.
The pioneering women-only adventure race. A huge total of 1350 women took part in the 2016 event in Golden Bay.
2012–Present Godzone Adventure.
Now New Zealand’s premier adventure race and a great goal for aspiring outdoor athletes. The Godzone Pure is a shorter, easier version of the course, designed to attract wider participation.
(This article first appeared in the June 2017 edition of Backcountry magazine)