Tour Te Waipounamu by Dylan Lee

Photo Essay

Tour Te Waipounamu by Dylan Lee

Tour Te Waipounamu by Dylan Lee
March 06, 2024
I’m 650 km and three and a half days into the 2024 Tour Te Waipounamu, sitting on the side of Mt Hutt Station Road, desperate to get to Methven. It should only be another 15 minutes away, but none of my usual references work any more. I’ve found myself in a somewhat backwards world where there’s a slightly perverse twist to everything I thought I knew.



Dylan Lee


Dylan Lee

The Tour Te Waipounamu is a bikepacking race that takes in the full length of the south island of Aotearoa. Starting at Cape Farewell and finishing at Slope Point the route is 1,300 km with 21,500 m of elevation gain and is right at the mountain biking end of the spectrum. It’s made up of off trail navigation, horse packing routes, tramping and 4WD tracks, all connected by gravel and sealed roads only where necessary. In parts it is remote and extremely exposed - this year, in late New Zealand summer there was everything from high 30c temps and clear skies to snow and gale force winds.

Up to this point the rugged bits that everyone warned me about had been my only respite and it was the fast sealed roads (like this one) and long gravel drags (that I’d been grinding on all afternoon) that were doing my head in. It was all supposed to be the other way around… Anything I might have been worried about a week ago is completely fine. I’m not hungry, I’m not tired, I’ve got all the gear I need. But I really, really need this break, and it turns into a long one.

About five hours into day one a numbness that I’ve never felt before spread through my legs and bum. It lingered all afternoon and after clearing the first more serious climb of the route I took an early stop part way along the Porika Track hoping that some rest might resolve whatever was going on. I was asleep by 9:00 p.m. and back on the move by midnight, but unfortunately my brief sleep hadn’t helped at all.

As I approached Springs Junction 12 hours later on day two the numbness was fading, but things didn’t return to normal. Instead the feeling returned with a pain that made it feel like I was sitting on shards of glass. Reduced to the softest of soft pedalling my pace slowed even further and I searched widely for fleeting moments of comfort. All the way up Lewis Pass and down the other side I was standing until I simply couldn’t, coasting at every chance and sitting in all sorts of contorted positions to try and ease the pressure. By the time I got to the Boyle Lodge resupply, where the leaders had taken their first rest many hours ago, my own competitive ambitions were largely out the window. The route hadn’t even started in earnest and all I wanted was to sit on my bike without wincing.

On the technical Hope Kiwi track things started to improve a bit. I was in my happy place now surrounded by stunning tawhai (beech) forest and I was suddenly able to use some of the fitness that had been rendered useless so far with a bit of on/off action and some bike carrying. I rolled through to Hope Kiwi Lodge by sunset and tucked myself in for another early night, opting for a longer sleep this time in the hope that the pain was on its way out.

I was still moving timidly the next morning but there had been a major improvement. A milky low-lying fog blanketed the grassy flats through to Kiwi Saddle, making for a spectacular ‘you had to be there’ type scene, and some unexpectedly flowy sections of single track made up the rest of the way to the Hurunui River. Somewhere around this time Tom and Adam caught up to me, and we shared the usual introductions while they told me how pleased they were to be out of the forest - I couldn’t relate at all, but to each their own and it was admittedly slow going. 

A short while later the morning’s positive hue was harshly interrupted. The open sections of this part of the route are littered with cattle that you have to ride through without taking a significant detour. It’s an important thing to be familiar with, and not unusual in our part of the world. At one point, with a small gap back to Tom, I approached a young bull and judged him as calm enough to pass. However, right as our paths crossed he had a change of heart. His eyes locked in and he started to gain speed, running right at me. I was thrown into full-blown flight mode but there was nowhere to go - trapped by steep grassy terraces both in front of and to the other side of me. Not a moment too late Tom caught view of the scene and unleashed a primal, commanding holler that he repeated again, and again, and again. The bull paused and tensed, turning his head, then slowly but surely backed away. Left in a bit of a state I was glad to follow the wheels of Tom and Adam through to the first of two major river crossings before my pains crept back in and they slowly stretched out of sight.

Making my way up to and around the first half of Lake Mason I’d conduct my worst navigation of the whole trip. I couldn’t hold the trail for the life of me and combined with the returning pain I was in a very unproductive headspace. In hindsight I was still terribly shaken and it doesn’t seem so strange, but in the moment I couldn’t figure out why I was having so much trouble. I dunked my head in a stream near the lake edge and took the small luxury of a seated lunch to regroup before continuing on to Deep Creek and the base of the Dampier Range.

In the same kind of twisted fashion mentioned earlier my arrival was a massive relief. The extended hike-a-bike has quite the reputation - totally exposed to baking sun, so steep you can practically touch the ground in front of you with an outstretched arm while standing up straight, and half covered in deep tussocks that make carrying your bike the only option and hide ankle breaking holes in plain sight. But the unrideable trail was perfect for me and my ailments and I got to work, feeling like I could finally push myself a bit and make decent time. I’d resolved my navigation woes and had a clean run up to and across the saddle. Letting go on the descent and without stopping for a break at the bottom I made up the gap to Tom and Adam again. We left Anderson Hut loosely together and with the shared goal of clearing the no-camping stretch through Mt White station. It started off well but I was needing breaks more and more often toward the end. After leapfrogging back and forth most of the way we settled in to tackle the last 10 km or so as a group and set up camp together just beyond the private boundary.

I awoke right at sunrise for day four and left a few minutes behind the others. The consistent seated pedalling through Mt White had taken its toll and it was immediately obvious that I was in a pretty bad place again. I tried not to pay it too much notice and took my time for the rest of the morning. I had a blast through Craigieburn feeling like it was play time. However, throughout the rest of the day the pain would slowly get louder. Each time it peaked I would take it a little easier until it faded to a tolerable level, largely content with progress of any kind. But as the day stretched on, and as I got slower and slower, I started to fade further mentally.

Coming into the Tour I’d been heavily driven by the opportunity to race. I was very open about the fact that this was actually my first bike-packing event - a very, very rare approach. And though my feelings might have changed a bit since, the reality is that other events had not appealed to me because generally they are not raced, non-technical, or both; so I’d stuck to riding with friends and doing my own thing on routes of our own picking. That this was a very technical route and explicitly a race is what had captivated me from the start, and it was exactly why I was there. That I very obviously wasn’t racing was a serious blow and pushing through pain when it inevitably does arrive in a 1300 km odyssey is an awful lot easier when you at least feel like you’re going fast.

Between finding new motivations and not thinking about it much at all I’d been leaning on my fitness to carry me through whatever mental holes arose. But with the heat setting in, the pain was building and it was getting harder to just haul myself through physically. That day I got to the point where just going slower wasn’t helping any more. The sharp climb out of the Rakaia River was the final nail in the coffin and it all got a bit dark. Among other things my jaded mind had come up with a sad variation of that classic Lemond quote and it was playing over and over again in my head “It never gets easier, you just go slower*.” And so we return to the start of this story: Sat on the side of the road, so close but so far from a warm meal and resupply, with no easy option left. Stopping was helpful - in a temporary relief kind of way — but every time I stopped, the longer the day that I really just wanted to be over stretched on.

I did get to Methven eventually and surrendered to a pint of coke, a beer, and a motel room for the night. Determined to try anything that might help, I dabbled in some unsanctioned modifications and filled in the cut-out of my saddle with chopped up pieces of my sleeping mat and covered it with duct tape to try and take some pressure off of my screaming sit bones. Having been rather excited for a shower the appalling water pressure was a big let down, albeit quickly forgotten courtesy of some heavenly sheets. It was another longer sleep and this time my hopes of restoration were fulfilled.

Leaving near 4:00am I settled into some semblance of comfort. I was still far from normal, but it was the closest I’d felt for a long time. Attempting not to get too carried away I continued with a strict schedule of breaks including a lovely stop at the Green Man in peel forest  where I caught up with Martin and ordered some food off the special TTW Riders menu (yes, really!). It’s another good way to the Mesopotamia gates from there and although all seemed well the fear of another decline physically weighed heavily on me. Cresting the last climb before the long descent into the midst of Rangitata Valley and knowing the road was almost done for the day it all started to wash over me - I cried all the way down to the river with relief followed by joy and then anticipation of the day still remaining. The last few days had carried a massive burden that I’d avoided fully acknowledging lest the thought of stopping creep in and in that moment it felt like I was leaving it all behind.

I had a brief chat with Peter when I arrived at the gates and then continued on through the first paddocks. I entered the lower forest in a flow state that would last the rest of the day, finding that again in one of the most intimidating cruxes of the ride I was coming into my own and right where I wanted to be. I simply felt incredible, completely on top of the world. These are the places that define the Tour for me, rolling hills and high mountain passes that will give so much back to you and that so few will ever see. In riding much of the track up Bullock Bow saddle I caught back up to Martin and continued through several others who were walking. I made really good time to Royal Hut where I stopped to refill bottles. I was having one of the best riding days of my life - the landscape, the sensation, the accomplishment, it was everything that I had come for.

I continued on from the hut pacing myself to knock off the bulk of the descent from the 1900m high point of Stag Saddle in the final light of the day. With a few hundred metres of ascent remaining I started feeling a little bit flat and stopped for some food. Before I even opened my bags I was violently throwing up. The water I’d gathered just a while earlier had done a number on me and even with my stomach empty I dry wretched for a while longer. I’d just slumped from hero status to rock bottom in about 10 minutes flat. Dreary and slightly shaking I summoned the strength to keep moving and was quickly re-joined by Martin having last seen him several hours ago. We moved on together and navigated the poled route with the power of two minds but as we got further there was a minor problem - He wasn’t so keen to hit the descent in the dark, and I wasn’t so keen to leave such a long run to Tekapo for the morning while not yet knowing what condition I’d be in. Separating from each other at elevation, in the cold, with a setting sun, and some very exposed and serious terrain ahead makes you triple-think every aspect of your plan, but we both decided we were okay to do our own thing so when he stopped I carried on.

The forced stoppage and subsequent low energy had cost me the best part of 90 minutes and the sun was beating me to the bottom of the other side of the hill. By the time I’d crossed the saddle and navigated the boulder field traverse onto the descent proper it was fully dark and I slowly picked my way down to Camp Stream Hut. I should have stayed in the hut really but it was rather late, and more importantly the thought that I might have to interact with someone was well beyond me. I bivvied on the edge of the last small spur the trail sidles before dropping away into the stream. I woke up to rain and snoozed my alarm a couple of times until it had stopped, then unzipped my bivvy, sat up to take in the view I couldn’t see last night, and threw up again. I was half laughing at the ridiculousness of my situation, but I was also terribly in need of some energy and nothing would stay down.

Chris caught me right as I was leaving camp and I was glad to have some company for a while before she disappeared up the cruelly steep hike a bike out of the stream bed. Riding down the Richmond trail I knew that I was really struggling. The trail is spectacular, presenting a mind boggling view of Lake Tekapo while its mild downhill gradient drags on for longer than its elevation would ever suggest. Occasional spicier and steeper rutted drops keep it just engaging enough to force your presence. Despite it all, I wasn’t enjoying a thing. Frankly, I was pretty miserable and recognising the gap between what I could observe of my surroundings and my own feelings in that moment was rather confronting. I was in a really big hole. It was a stupidly deep dig to get to the town centre on what I knew was some pretty easy terrain. I’m claiming it as the hardest 3 hours I have ever done.

Arriving in Tekapo I honestly didn’t know if I was continuing. Again though, I tried not to think about it too much, taking in a massive shop at the 4 Square as if I was continuing straight through (great mind trick) and sitting down for a big meal at a cafe off the main road. Finally I was able to keep some food down and I took up another night in the comfort of a hotel room. It was effectively a zero day. The best I could do. Among all the discussion around pushing through barriers in ultra events, I think we can sometimes fail to mention the real, practical risks of carrying on into really serious terrain when you’re far from 100%. Can you make reasonable decisions and accurate observations? Can you deal with some level of further physical decline? It’s no joke, and once you’ve broken the mental barrier, that practical assessment remains. I was answering no on every conceivable level.

Time to digest and a long sleep had me feeling recharged by the morning and the next couple of days were a more typical Tour experience. The “river bed” like gravel to Haldon Arm campground is just as grim as reported. Changeable weather had it feeling like I was spending as much time changing layers as I was actually riding. And I can confirm that the back half of Black Forest Station to Benmore Dam hides some soul crushing elevation gain in what looks like a rather casual blip on the map. I spent the next night at the pub in Otematata, one of many spots where the staff had been watching my dot on the way in, and I spent some time reviewing what had been happening around me with my attention cautiously turning closer to the finish line. The progress of the next group of riders ahead of me who had ‘only’ made it from the pub to Oturehua that day induced all kinds of stress and I made it my mission to get there as early as possible in the morning. 

Shortly after sunrise I faced the zig zag road, another section that’s building some notoriety for good reason but was behind me soon enough. The Hawkduns was a mixed bag, and I counted my luck to have avoided any of the snow that smashed the riders passing through in the previous 48 hours - though I think I stared at my stem for 90% of it because I can’t recall much at all. What I can remember is the view from the top that is distinctly seared in my brain. From that point and following the land out from beneath your feet you can see so incredibly far into the distance that the sea merges from both sides and you can imagine the bottom edge of the island. Tracing your eyes from side to side it’s as if the curvature of the earth unfolds in front of you... Bucket list stuff in your own backyard.

With great relief I made it to Oterahua by early afternoon and drank a can of soft drink in pretty much every different colour you can buy before continuing on as far as I possibly could to Oliverburn Farm Hut for an evening nap. By now I had decided I was ready to finish. The plan was to nap for an hour at the hut and then carry on through the remainder of the Lammerlaws in the night, napping again for a bit longer at sunrise, and finishing at Slope Point before the start of Day 9. I went to sleep with a couple of alarms set and woke up to Carey opening the hut door to see who was inside. It was 8:00 a.m. and my hour nap had turned into 11 hours of oblivion. It was gut wrenching. It wasn’t even about the race clock anymore, my time was just up. I’d taken the hits, and the thrills and seen almost everything there was to see and it had all been enough. I didn’t want to have to wake up and keep riding all over again for even one more hour.

So I got rolling and I got in the zone and I basically didn’t stop, doing all that I could to ride until there’s no more island left. It felt a bit unrealistic all day. After riding in a mode of self preservation for far too long could I really just flick the switch and go deep on demand? And I had to compete with my body clock too - even if I managed to dig would I get there before the sleep demons returned? It was only once I got to Lawrence that I knew it was done and I could call it in. With 150 km to go I gave myself a reasonable target of 10 hours that would have me finishing at 4AM with some stoppage time. Just another weekend ride in my Tour Te Waipounamu training world, right? Never mind the prior 1,200 km. “I’ve done this on tired legs before'' I told myself, pretending it was all the same.

So it was. I kept that vision alive and reality kept matching it, pacing just right all the way to the end. There was some crazy wind for sure, forcing me to walk parts of the final 10 km for genuine fear of getting blown off the road, and the climbs did start to hurt a lot. But such is life after 1,300 km, 8 days, and some big hurdles on the move. And then it was done. I arrive at the Slope Point lighthouse, welcomed by Breah in a surprise party of one, at stupid o’clock, to end a beautiful and pleasingly stupid big race. Just like day four through the Two Thumb range, the last day was utterly spectacular and it’s quite challenging to say too much more. Those days now hold a special place in my heart and I will remember them for a very long time.

Ann Trason, the first woman to ever finish the Western States ultramarathon, once described running 100 miles as “living life in a day.” She went on to win that race an astonishing 13 times and set a slew of long standing course records at other events as well as time and distance world records. I wrote to DotWatcher before the start that I hoped the Tour Te Waipounamu might be my version of that – life in a week or so. I didn’t necessarily know what I even meant by that, but I wanted to find out. I wanted to see what those mountains would give back to me. I got to see it all, and it was an absolute pleasure. 

Thank you to everyone who made it possible and those who watched and supported along the way. My favourite part of these reports from other riders is the difference in experience that they reveal. It’s the previously unmentioned stretch that was someone's undoing or highest high. The best part of actually doing it is living that out in real time, facing demons in unexpected places when you have no choice but to continue and concede that you got yourself into this mess and you can get yourself out of it. If you really want to know, it is out there.