The sun rises and we move, the sun sets and we move, the sun rises again and we move, the sun sets once more – can we stop? Maybe. The decision is made – we unfurl packrafts on the ground, spread out our gear, and bivvy in minimalist style for a few hours. Oh, what sweet relief to be warm and dry and horizontal. Far too soon it’s over and we’re rushing to put back on our wet, grubby clothing, swallow some cold food, and convince ourselves that the aches and exhaustion we feel will soon eb once we’re on the move. We begin again, enveloped in the action that is our forever companion, the paramount constant, the rhythm to this new life – movement.
We sit “dark-zoned”* above the Pyke River and it’s not what any of us expected. After tip-toeing around “camp” in bare feet trying to organise myself and my things into some sort of order, I plop my Ziploc of remaining food down beside my teammates and take stock. I don’t like what I see and being hungry doesn’t help. We had only budgeted for around 50 hours of food. But given how things have gone so far, there’s no way we’ll be down the Pyke, through the Hidden Falls gorge, over Park Pass, out the Rockburn, and down the Dart River in that time. I consider with annoyance my poor habit of sometimes bringing too little food. When I look at my bag compared to the others, it is clear that I’ve done it again. I’ve even left the third wrap that had been made for me back when we met our support crew in the Cascade River because it seemed like too much! What a fool I’ve been.
It is truly hard to contemplate the scale of an event like GODZONE, especially when you haven’t done it before. When I think of how far we still must go to complete Stage 3 of a 10-stage race and consider my current hunger, it is easy to feel a bit of panic set in. Though challenges in the outdoors are familiar, it’s the unknown of GODZONE that gets me. What if GODZONE has its own set of rules and demands more from me than what I’ve experienced?
GODZONE is the pinnacle of adventure racing in New Zealand and the largest expedition race in the world. An annual, multi-day, non-stop race for teams of four including fast-tramping, mountain biking and paddling, the race celebrated its tenth year with its epic Chapter 10 traverse from West Coast to East Coast of the South Island in 2022. Starting in Jackson Bay, slogging through the Cascade River valley into Fiordland and out to Glenorchy, passing through the Eyre Mountains to the Nevis, Lake Onslow, over the Rock and Pillar Range, down the Taieri River to the sea then 16km up the sand to Brighton, the full course provided a 750km slab of the South Island to explore.
Paddling out from Lake Ellery to reach the Jackson River Road; Photo credit: GODZONE
When viewed through the lens of outdoor recreation in New Zealand, GODZONE has some parallels to what the average tramper does on a weekend. Both activities pull at motivations to improve physical wellbeing and both rely on access to the outdoors, subsequently revealing the joy that is found in the hills. Yet, GODZONE exists at the wavering edge of these motivations and values when you consider the question, “How much is too much?” We all have boundaries that we push to some degree in the outdoors, but GODZONE builds its foundation on pushing them.
Back on the Pyke River, I resist the “luxury” of a cold dehydrated meal and instead munch away on a bag of cashews and crunchy twists offered by my teammate Austin who asks, “Do you want to just keep those?” when I don’t hand the bag back within a polite timeframe. Luckily for me, he is sure he brought too many nuts. I answer a sheepish, “yes” and hold onto the bag.
In the gathering dark beside the river, our team talks of the challenges of the race so far and we do our best to keep a positive attitude for what’s ahead. I quickly learn it is all about adaptation and this is a long game. If we ration our food, share, and capitalise on rest to make good decisions tomorrow, things might just come out brighter. I lay on the hard ground in all my layers and worry for as long as I can before sleep takes me, and it doesn’t take long.
Any tramper will know, when you think of Fiordland you can’t help but think of rain. With this association many times proven, we were not surprised to find ourselves in steady rain as we sidled into the Hidden Falls gorge much later the next day. Pelting rain, a churning current, and huge boulders quickly dispelled any hope of good travel upon reaching the river by dusk. We crossed with difficulty and spent the next few hours in a miserable blur of climbing – up through forest built only on moss and decomposing logs, back down again to the river to check the travel there, then back up again when no promising route was found – all by head torch in the dark rain.
Until this point, I had a few fleeting reflections on the racer’s connection with nature. I appreciated the rugged Red Hills as we bounced along the tops from the Cascade into the Pyke, embraced waking forest birdsong before dawn, and noticed with joy the vibrant pink of the underside of kōtukutuku fuchsia leaves littered on rocks.
Red Hills; Photo credit: GODZONE
Despite the common criticism of adventure racing (or even trail running) that the movement is too fast to allow for really experiencing a place, I had managed to fill my mind’s eye with a treasure trove of nature scenes that I could string out and piece together into a web of understanding, albeit not fully in the moment of experience.
However, grovelling along in the dark forest of Hidden Falls I was about as disconnected from my surroundings as I could get as a method of mental self-preservation. This changed when our team captain called out, “Hey guys, come back . . . look at this!” We stumbled back to find a giant worm, at least 30cm long and 2cm wide, right there on the forest floor, clearly driven out of its burrow by the downpour. It was so interesting and strange that we all laughed and “found ourselves” again. I continued to think back to that moment as a marvel throughout the race and it always lifted my mood. Chancing upon it was such a magical mystery and the image is still burnt into my memory.
What I found with racing was that I simply had an altogether different type of connection with nature to what I normally seek and find with tramping. It’s not as if I didn’t connect, but rather that I connected at a pace where experiences didn’t fully register until later. While I wouldn’t say that I find it more enjoyable to connect this way, there is a richness and vividness to the experience that is something all its own.
Seven days is a long time to race and as we progressed further the experience morphed into something wholly new. Gone were the days of worrying about route finding to avoid bluffs and gorges in deep, dark Fiordland. We now grinded through exceptionally long mountain bike rides in everything from hot sun to freezing pre-dawn air at 1700m and everything in between.
Brighton Beach footprints; Photo credit: GODZONE
Outdoor recreationalists know the highs and lows that are experienced on trips, especially challenging ones. What I didn’t know until adventure racing was how quickly you can swing between the two. In many ways, adventure racing is just a whole lot of sped up tramping, paddling, and mountain biking and this applies to far more than simply doing the disciplines faster. I found that my highs and lows were more dramatic and quicker to zip in and out of. One moment I was, say, standing in a rut of frosty mud at 3:30am on the Old Woman Range having a quick panicked cry – I’d hit the side of the rut with my tyre one too many times and fallen in the muddy water attached to my bike – and the next minute I was laughing at my silliness after being given an Oddfellows mint! I found that extended sleep deprivation moulded me into a childish version of myself, for better and for worse.
There is a camaraderie to adventure racing that is very like that of tramping parties in the hills. There is companionship, commiseration, and help given freely. The odd moments and shared encounters of laughter are my favourite. While my teammates were strewn on the sides of the track having a two-minute sleep and I was taking in the glorious colour of sunrise on the Old Woman Range, I heard faint singing and mountain biking creaking behind us. After an entire night of riding only with my three teammates, it was strange to see a group riding up the hill seemingly in the middle of nowhere. The leader, who had been singing, said in a joking tone, “Fancy seeing you up here! What brings you?” It made us all laugh and helped me zoom out and remember what I was doing in the wider context.
Although many parallels can be drawn with other outdoor pursuits, what I found most strikingly unique to GODZONE was the effect that the people we encountered along the way had in lifting me up so high after being so low. From Glenorchy to Roxburgh, Paerau to the Taieri River as it passes under SH1 and everywhere in between and beyond, I was utterly surprised to find people on bridges and roadsides cheering us on, leaving us treats, and emotionally moving me every time. There is nothing quite like spotting tiny forms on a road bridge when you can hardly hold yourself upright and paddling closer to find they’re waving signs of welcome and shouting congratulations.
Through my experience, I’ve come to know that what makes adventure racing possible is actually comically simple: chafing cream and changing from one sport to another throughout the race. But what makes it worthwhile is a lot more nuanced, complex, and personal. For me it is the people who support and encourage us, the memories and bonds forged with teammates, and the forest, hills, and water of the great outdoors through which we continue to move.
Adrian Braaksma, Sky Lovill, Crystal Brindle, and Austin Garden; Photo credit: GODZONE
* Often a “dark-zone” is encountered on water. It means you’ve reached a leg in the race that, as per the regulations, can’t be completed in the dark (at least by the most sensible means of travel, which in this case is by packraft).