Bikepacking the Paparoa Range: A Love Letter of a Boy’s Journey Home
Moving Mountains, the latest film from Kona, follows riders Viet Tieu and Khulan Tumen as they traverse the Paparoa Track on the west coast of New Zealand’s South Island. Watch it here and read Viet’s “Love Letter of a Boy’s Journey Home,” which recounts the trip. Plus, find an incredible set of photos by Caleb Smith and more about the route…
A few months ago, Viet Tieu and Khulan Tumen made a multi-day trip out of New Zealand’s latest rugged backcountry trail, the 56.2-kilometer (32.5-mile) Paparoa Track. Aboard a pair of Kona Unit X rigs, the two zig-zagged their way along the rocky hills, taking in incredible views of alpine peaks, limestone karst landscapes, and thriving rainforests. Watch the film below, then scroll down to read Viet’s account of the trip alongside stunning photos from Caleb Smith. Also, find more information and a map of the track.
Words by Viet Tieu, photos by Caleb Smith
When you reached out to me it had been eight years since we last met. My heart started racing when the screen of my phone suddenly flashed and buzzed with “Kona Bicycles.” Memories came flooding back. My favorite was when we gathered in Bellingham, USA, where I got the chance to connect with the whole Kona family. I vividly remember when this older gentleman in a ripped-up hoody came to sit next to me at dinner. He was intrigued about who I was and asked me hundreds of questions about what it was like to grow up in New Zealand and how I was enjoying living/riding in the Canadian Rockies. After an hour or so he got up and left the table. I reached over to my dear friends, Wendy Hall and Cory Wallace, and whispered to them, “What does that Jake guy do?” They both looked at me smiling and replied, “He’s Jake the Snake.”
My mind was blown. Here I am, a clueless kiwi who just spent an hour talking with the owner/founder of Kona Bicycles. It gave me so much respect for Kona as a company. To Jake Heilbron, everyone who rides a bicycle is family, and forever will be. So, after all these years, to pick up the phone and be asked if I was interested in going on a bikepacking trip through the remote rugged mountain passes of the South Island of New Zealand with Kona Bikes—how could I say no? Especially when it comes to family!
The bicycle. A self-propelling form of transport. The longer I’m in the saddle the more I reflect on how far I’ve come. Recently moving back home to Aotearoa, New Zealand, after living in Canada for over 10 years, it was only fitting to go on an adventure and explore the homeland. Our team of four, which consisted of people from all over the country, had gathered in the small town of Blackball, population 276. Our objective was to bike up and over the 57-kilometre Paparoa Range. I must admit, it was unsettling but rewarding for me to be invited on this adventure and explore such a beautiful yet devastating area that played a big part in NZ’s dark history. Back in 2010, my first year living abroad in North America, I remember hearing about a massive explosion in a coal mine back home but had never grasped how big an impact it had on our culture and the people of Aotearoa at the time. On the 19th of November 2010, 29 men died in an underground explosion at the Pike River Mine that sits in the heart of the Paparoa National Park. To cycle through this mountain range whilst learning and connecting with the land sums up the beautiful relationship we have with bikepacking. For me, bikepacking is about escapism. Escapism doesn’t necessarily have to mean removing ourselves from reality but reconnecting with it. Connecting with the local people, culture, land, our bicycle, our companions, and ourselves. Each day had its challenges. But each day was a discovery. A chance to embrace the experiences with each other. A chance to grow. A chance to learn.
“For me, bikepacking is about escapism. Escapism doesn’t necessarily have to mean removing ourselves from reality but reconnecting with it. Connecting with the local people, culture, land, our bicycle, our companions, and ourselves.”
The team met at the “Formerly the Blackball Hilton” hotel in Blackball, where we were staying on the first night of the trip. The hotel is definitely not your typical famous Hilton experience, but it came with its own charm and quirks; something that you would only typically expect from a hotel/pub in the middle of who-knows-where in NZ. Rossco, Caleb, Khulan, and I took full advantage of this Hilton experience where we found ourselves taking over the entire lobby. Building our bikes, map reading, sorting out gear, camera equipment, food, and your typical last-minute adjusting bags and racks in the early hours of the morning.
We all slept for a few hours before making our way down for the famous Blackball Hilton Everything Breakfast—eggs, bacon, sausages, hashbrowns, and tomatoes—the full NZ Hilton experience. We soon found ourselves having to kick start the bike trip with a grind up a gravel road heading up toward the Paparoa Trailhead. The forecast for heavy rain and 90kmph winds, on top of fully bloated stomachs and Caleb’s missing bike shoes, set the tone for the trip; it was no doubt going to be nothing but an off-the-wall adventure.
After climbing for a few hours, passing a mixture of impressive podocarps soaring into the falling sky, we worked our way into the sub-alpine soaked to the bone at Ces Clark Hut. With gale-force winds and heavier rain dropping by the second, we collectively agreed it was best to warm up over the roaring fire and dry ourselves over some Monopoly and raro flavored whisky. The 16-person backcountry hut was cozy, which made for a well-earned sleep.
The following morning, after failing to reach our goal the day before, we knew we had to make up for some lost time. However, the beauty of bikepacking is why rush to go slow? The experience on this day will live with me forever. The sun was out in full swing as we navigated along the alpine ridge while weaving through the limestone karst landscapes and thriving rainforests. I remember thinking to myself, “Can this get any better?” and all of a sudden there she was, her majesty, Aoraki / Mt. Cook beaming through the clouds in all her glory. We made it to our lunch spot of Moonlight Hut soon after, where we stuffed our laughing smiles with camembert and crackers.
After lunch, as we kept pedaling, it became evident that the ecosystem in this remote part of the world was incredibly rich and full of diversity. I remember being able to taste the salty air of the Tasman Sea as we started to drop down to our final destination at Pororari Hut. The sunset that night was breathtaking as the alpine glow dipped behind the firing red horizon.
It was truly a blessing to wake up on the final day with our bags exploding to the brim filled with tears, laughter, a feeling of self-discovery, and the desire to learn and connect with the land that we were crossing. The ride out was nothing but a sense of fulfilment that was deeper than the roots of the passing rimu, mataī, tōtara, and nīkau palm trees. I would like to thank you, the family at Kona Bicycles and the Ngāti Waewae Hapū (sub-tribe) of Ngāi Tahu who are the kaitiaki of Paparoa National Park, guardians of the area’s native species and ecosystems, for allowing me to have this once-in-a-lifetime experience. Existence is good when you’re in the saddle riding with family, and time spent on a bicycle is simply nothing but poetry in motion.
The Paparoa Track
The 56.2-kilometre (32.5-mile) Paparoa Track is New Zealand’s latest mixed-use backcountry ride. It joins the already extremely popular Heaphy Track and Old Ghost Road as a prime bikepacking trip destination. Its point-to-point route is what bikepacking dreams are made of: the perfect gradients, infinite views, perfectly-located backcountry huts, and some of the most beautiful backcountry New Zealand has to offer. The track crosses the Paparoa Range, taking riders through alpine peaks, limestone karst landscapes, and thriving rainforests.
While it can be ridden in a day, the route is dotted with three backcountry Department of Conservation (DOC) huts to encourage people to take in an overnight or multi-day experience. Each hut provides track users with bunk beds and mattresses, running water, and gas cookers. Track users need to carry all their own food, sleeping bags, and clothing—especially wet weather gear. The Paparoa range is situated on New Zealand’s West Coast where it rains 195 days a year on average, with 3,000 mm (118 inches) of rainfall annually.
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