The Nelson Lakes National Park is an area I know well. Having grown up in Blenheim I recall many a weekend exploring the tracks and hills around Lake Rotoiti with Dad. The connection I have with this National Park is like no other that I have been to, and I suppose that in those precious years that form the essence of who we are, the Nelson Lakes played their part by providing me early challenges.
At the end of 2010, after finishing my brief two year stint of triathlon, I decided to swim the length of Lake Rotoiti. The decision was a very simple one. I had swum the width of Lake Rotoiti in March of that year, and in doing so had experienced one of the most terrifying experiences of my life – Upon sliding from a boat’s edge into blackened water on that cloudy day late in March the short swim gave me nothing but thoughts of the eels in the water, and the unknown depths of a cold lake where humans are meant to be only viewing from the water’s edge, or at the most fishing on the surface. I would return to face the dark murky waters, oversized eels, and widened expanse of the unknown. And I did.
The outing this time however had no such nasty trials to face. The yearly decision of ‘What to do for Christmas’ was a pretty cool one this time around, with the Tahuna Holiday Park the destination of choice for a week over the festive period. This would see me cycling to Nelson (via Motueka) with full touring gear being towed, with a restful week at the campground following the trip over. (‘Restful’ after 8am each morning anyway, with each morning starting with a 90 minute run or three hour bike ride).
The runs were followed by a core workout on the beach – multiple sandbags and a small tractor tyre, seeing one minute bursts of frantic lifting, pushing, pressing, dragging, and flipping. All of this was rather amusing to the holiday makers awake at 8am. (Not many). And I am certain that the only other person who did any exercise at the campground that week was my eldest son Alex – his longest run was an impressive 12kms of hills.
I’d come back from the training sessions, would make breakfast for the family, and we would then explore the sights and attractions around the Nelson region.
Along the way I’d meet a few charactors, as you tend to do when you travel anywhere, and this trip’s sample was par for the course. Entraint number one was the woman at KFC who (quite loudly) demanded that her table was wiped down immediately, as it was “Absolutely disgusting”. (It looked ok to me). Then moments later she walked to the front of the queue and literally screamed at the staff member, “And you did’nt even give use plates!!”. I was rather tempted at this point to ask her what part of "KFC" she did’nt understand, but my short lived noteritery among by fellow queuers may have been overshadowed by Herr Dinners wrath – and that may have just gotten me in the mood for a good argument. (For the record: I was in KFC to purchase two cups of tea and a bean salad).
Entraint number two was a rather bizaire moment at the top of the Golden Downs, which is halfway between Nelson and Lake Rotoiti. I had told myself that I’d have a toilet break at the top, and what must have been 30 minutes later I reached the summit. With not a soul in sight I went for said break, and sods law ensured that about a dozen cars passed from both sides within seconds. The area was then deserted again as fast as it had become busy, and I decided to have a cold drink of water. While enjoying my reward for reaching the summit I heard what sounded like a car rally approaching from the Nelson side of the hill. I awaited the convey, and wondered why it sounded so different to the previous vehicles that had approached.
There were just two vehicles, and when the front one of the two was level with me the breaks were slammed on. The car skidded for 20 to 30 feet on the gravel, and the second vehicle did exactly the same. Both vehicle engines were also switched off as soon at the cars came to a halt. All rather odd. Silence followed.
I started to feel a tad self conscious, and with both vehicles packed with occupants I considered whether it was best to jump onto the bike and start the descent straight away. But curiosity won out, and I waited to see what was happening. Within about five seconds the front vehicle had steam and smoke pouring out of the engine – this was probably equally as much of a relief to me as it was troubling for them. Both sets of drivers got out of the vehicles, and they stood in front of the front vehicle. The bonnet was yet to be opened, and the delay was most likely due to them not knowing what to do next, with opening the bonnet (and continuing to do nothing) a clear indication to everyone watching that show would be long and entertaining.
Common sense, at this point, would normally dictate that you objectively assess the situation and realise that: 1) You car is at 625 meters, and was probably not designed to be driven at pace up a steep extended hill when fully loaded. 2) You probably need a better car - regardless of the speed you’ll drive it. 3) Said car’s engine now needs a chance to cool down before anything is done, and this situation has become an impromptu lunch break.
The conversation between the respective drivers followed, and went something like this…
Driver 1) “I thenk it’s ova heeted”.
Driver 2) “Bluddy hill – How faast wir you going??”.
Driver 1) “Same as yous. Yous were right behind uus”.
Driver 2) “So whot doo ya reken??”.
[Silence] (And Driver 1 assesses the greater scene of small children playing on the grassy verge – freed for now from the vehicles they had been sitting in for hours)
Driver 1) “Git in the bloody caar you lot!!”.
Driver 2 at this point starts filling the steaming engine’s radiator with (one assumes) cold water, and I decided to depart before this situation went south. I was passed by the rear of the two vehicles 30 minutes later, but never saw the front vehicle again that day.
So a great fornight away. And right in the middle of the holiday I’d be back at Lake Rotoiti, with a night’s stay at the side of the lake as I cycled back from Nelson to Blenheim. This would be the big day then. My ‘Super Set’ for this trip. The last day of 2012. One last session in a year to remember. 2012 has been ace. April’s ride is the occasion that springs to mind for most everyone, but for me it was also the (enforced!!) break afterwards also, that gave our family the opportunity to spend so much time together. Then there was Australia – and for me unfinished business. I fully intend to cycle around Australia, and I’m acutely aware that I am the one who needs to make it happen. But on this day my thoughts would have the singular focus of running the around the lake and then cycling back to Blenheim immediately afterwards.
Shortly before 5am the day started. It had rained overnight - everything was wet, the morning still darkened, and I stood on the water’s edge eating a can of tuna.
I’m loving the running. And so it was that I set off from Kerr Bay at the northern end of Lake Rotoiti for the West Arm, with the run’s bush tracks starting soon after the western most point. The first few kms would provide gentle trails, and then a 2km gravel road – the entrée then.
Something I enjoy is hill repeats, and on this day I’d be in luck – at the western most point of the lake I got to within about 30 meters of the turnoff for the track that heads south along the edge of the lake…and turned back assuming I had missed the track. Getting back to the campground at the base of the climb I headed back up and enjoyed another climb. The sign at the left turn off the gravel road was a welcomed sight, and now the run would truly start. Any mistakes and I would be off the track, and could potentially break a limb. If this sounds a little dramatic, then consider that there are branches across the track, trees trucks to jump over, and multiple rocky streams to cross along both sides of the lake.
One objective of this run was to start with dry feet. I brought running shoes for this day, (a luxary never otherwise seen while cycle touring), and would hopefully ensure dry socks and shoes at the outset of the run. This plan worked perfectly, and my feet were dry – for about the first 20 minutes of the run. Later now, and I was halfway I was halfway down the western side of the lake, and my shoes had been wet through for the last 40 minutes. (And it had been half an hour since I had experienced feeling in my feet). This running trail was awesome however, and I enjoyed the occasional teasing views of the lake, with (each time) the reminder following to keep my eyes on the track.
The Cold Water hut, (which is aptly named as I’d discover a short time later), was passed at pace. I was flying by now, and at this point I’d like to give a big plug for the genius who invented the fuel belt. I did’nt have mine with me, and thus the run saw me carrying a small bottle in each hand, while also seeing me ‘carry’ a number of protein bars via duct tape around both wrists. It was quite some sight, but worked well. The fuelbelt was not forgotten, and I had simply enjoyed the running more than expected during the holiday, so runs like this added on for a few extra kms.
Lake Rotoiti has a track along both the western and eastern sides, with a swamp connecting the two huts at the bottom of the lake. If you wish, you can head about 45 minutes further south and cross a swing bridge. I didn’t wish.
After the Cold Water hut I stood at the water’s edge once again, and this time found myself looking at a river. (Note: ‘River’, not stream). The decision was quickly made that crossing here would be at the lower end of clever. Five minutes later I would be further south, but would essentially have the same view of a swollen river. No river crossing here, either. This realisation did not bother me. Coming to this realisation standing knee deep in icy water - yeah, that bothered me. I now had to make a choice. The adage goes that if what you are doing is not working, then do something different. Anything different. And this adage was particularly apt to this scenario. I looked up towards the thick bush, and knew it was time to get back onto the track, and heading slightly further south along the track would be the quickest option.
Up through the bush then. (I still have a small memento from this outing on my right shin – numb legs and sharp branches make for a nice combo). Back onto the track and I wondered how far I’d have to run before crossing the stream. Within several minutes the track went downhill and reached the river’s edge. This was my spot. Ten feet to some boulders in the river’s centre, and then a further 15 feet to the far side. Doable.
I walked into the water. It was slightly lower than my waist, and the power of the water was immediately evident. I had to plant each foot firmly, or the foot would shift with the water’s current and it wouldn’t support my weight. I reached the middle, and knew what was ahead.
Inching towards the far side of the river I was now in water up to above my stomach. Movements had to be small, and I was very careful to have very small footsteps to allow me to stay upright. ‘Footsteps’ is probably not the right word, as it was a pushing forwards of each foot in a sliding motion. After several feet even this form of movement was seeing me off balance. I knew that two choices existed: 1) Inch back to the western side of the river, where I had entered the water, and head further south. 2) Do what needed to be done.
I placed a bottle into each side of my tri shorts, steadied myself, and then simply lifted my feet.
The water was as cold as it was swift, and I had travelled about 20 feet before I started swimming towards the far edge. The water was actually deepest at the far edge, and I pulled myself out via grabbing hold of the reeds. This surprised me, as I managed the task using just one arm. Cold, wet, and tired – I was alive. Truly alive. Not a “I made it to the other side and survived” kind of alive, but a “That was kick arse and I need to do it more often” kind of alive. I live for moments like that.
With my core temperature dropping I knew I needed a warm top on and food into my system real fast. “Jacket jacket jacket”, I said out loud. Then “Food food food”. This may all sound a tad stupid, but the idea of these kinds of outings is to get home in one piece with a cool story to tell. Feeling sorry for yourself and shivering on the water’s edge in a confused state doesn’t make for a day out. (And worse yet it would sell papers – I had little intention of everyone thinking I was a dick for getting wet in a river and needing help getting home!!).
I got back into a good rhythm and spotted whatever dry areas of the swamp I could to get to the ever closer Lake Head hut. With about 50 meters to go to the hut I saw a really cool pond to run through. Being sopping wet it didn’t concern me to run through water that was slightly deeper than my ankles, and I leapt off the bank into the pond…and face planted into the freezing water. It was up to my waist, and the was so clear it gave the illusion of being shallow. About 20 ducks flew off in all directions, and the water had a murky algae growth along the base, which effectively created a ‘floor’ of slimly growth. Not pleasant. The one thought going through my head was of the eels that inhabit the lake - they’d love it here in this pond. I swam to the far side of the pond and reached the hut. With a smile from ear to ear I emptied the sand and stones from my shoes, and started off down the track along the final stretch of the run.
The run north, along the eastern side of the lake, was awesome. Undulating ground, rivers to cross, and boggy tracks to navigate along the entire length of the lake. Great stuff.
I reached the northern end of the lake, cooked up some lentils, packed up the gear, and set off. It was by now raining, and the clouds promised all those who chose to look that it would be like this all day. As I departed I put on the flashing lights for my helmet, bike, and trailer – and my final thought as I left the Nelson Lakes was that I had seen the last of the sun for my time in the South Island on this trip.
In the rain I headed east by bike. No conversation. No fanfare. Just mileage. Just how I like it. This day – this final day of 2012 – would have no BS. Only moving forwards.
The ride back to Blenheim was a good one, and the only point worth noting is having to stop five times on the way back to apply sunscreen. It’s amazing how much the weather changes in this corner of the world - the day in Blenheim was hot and sunny.
And it was done. As was 2012. It could have been warm and sunny for the run, but it wasn’t – you get on with it. I’d have a recovery run the next day. And then the day afterwards an 18km hill run around the Wither Hills. It would seem, my friends, that new journeys await. I am back in shape, life is good, and the road ahead is as long and wide as my imagination – even if it is sometimes known as the ‘Narrow Path’.
Look around your field of view my Brothers. Assess what you want, and fight for it. Fight for every inch. Not against others, but instead for yourself. Those small increments. Those tiny gains. Those smallest of inches. They all add up. And back down from no man. Lastly, and most importantly, do not try to live forever. If you do you’ll risk not living at all.
More later. 2013. “My year” - Make it yours too.