Life at 7km/hour: Family Bikepacking in New Zealand
Joachim Rosenlund, his wife Melanie, and their 11-month-old daughter Alva head out on a New Zealand adventure in search of their first quiet time as a new family. Read on for their story of balancing expectations with reality and discovering small surprises while pedaling with a little one…
Words and photos by Joachim Rosenlund (@odinavatar)
It sounded like a great idea – a family bikepacking adventure in New Zealand. Breathtaking nature, freedom, vast landscapes, sleeping under the stars, and cycling far away from regular roads, noise, pollution, and population. A dream come true! It’d be a chance to breathe in fresh air and spend time together as a new family of three. Soul food.
Both on social media and in the real world, there were lots of positive comments and people celebrating the idea, but quite a few of our (mostly non-cycling) friends warned us of the difficulties of traveling with little children in general. Most were gasping for air when we mentioned New Zealand, gravel cycling, a tent and an 11-month-old baby in the same sentence.
Eight hours and 14km into our first day of riding, I was starting to wonder if maybe the critics were right. Having moved out when I was 16 and generally having to rely on myself from a very young age, I’ve never been very good at taking advice. I always have to try things out for myself. That can be a good quality, though it sometimes borders on stupidity. So, whenever someone tells me something isn’t a good idea and I do it anyway, there’s a little voice hanging around in the back of my mind whispering, “I really hope this works out…” I like to call it being consciously naive.
We’d heard beautiful things about a stretch of gravel called The Rainbow Road. It’s a 134km gravel road into New Zealand’s outback on the South Island. It’d be perfect, we thought, as an introduction to our two-month gravel-with-baby-ride… on our first multi-day ride with the little one. At an easy, child-friendly pace, we figured it should be doable in five days, which was close to the maximum food carrying capacity for the grown-up members of the crew. Our daughter Alva was still being nursed, so her supply was always “on board.”
It was such a relief to be on the road. The tension leaving our souls was almost visible in the air. Alva is a great little human, but she doesn’t sleep well and crew members Melanie and Joachim had been on alternating night shifts for months. Sleep was to us what bananas were to the former republic of East Germany: scarce. Add to that a full time job, two new bike builds, and research into New Zealand’s gravel roads, all while a nine-month-old baby is taking your apartment apart. The months leading up to our departure for New Zealand were intense, to say the least.
The road took us through a small canyon and spat us out at a wide riverbed. It veered left and although it was a flat, it was heavy going. The bikes were loaded and I was carrying 12kg of human up front. She had been sharing in our joy during the descent, but 4km into the flat section, she seemed to have had enough. After about a half an hour of pedaling it was already time for our first stop.
Whilst Alva was playing happily in the grass next to the road, discovering little flowers and rocks and bugs, demanding our attention for every new little thing she found, we started to worry. Seven kilometers. A break every 7km? We decided to push the thought out of our minds and just go with Alva’s flow. After 30 minutes of play and a little snack, Alva was ready to move on. And so we did. But as darkness was starting to creep in we soon decided to set up camp.
We found a nice spot by the river, set up, cooked some food, and put Alva to bed. As we were sitting by the river drinking tea and being eaten alive by midges (the midges!), we did the math. Hmm, 134km divided by 14km/day is nearly 10 days. But our food supply was for just five. Not wanting to give up just yet, we ignored the facts and went to bed. Few things are better than sleeping in a tent, under a starry sky, breathing in the fresh mountain air. With every breath we could feel our lust for adventure growing and the trust expanding, filling every corner of our bodies. Inhale the good shit, exhale the bullshit!
Day two (20km) and three (25km) followed the same pattern. Distances increased, but not by much. We were still hopelessly behind what we’d set out to achieve. However, reaching beautiful Lake Tennyson, we threw all plans of riding the whole Rainbow Road out the window and decided to spend two full days just staying lakeside and soaking in our surrounding.
We had very little food left, but trusted in, well, I don’t know what, but in… something. Staying put at Lake Tennyson had been a great idea and it felt good to just sit relaxed by a mesmerizing lake, not worrying about how we would get anywhere in a certain amount of time. This is what we came for: to reconnect with nature and leave the stresses of everyday life behind. That, and to simply sit and stare at the surrounding mountains. The landscape of New Zealand’s outback is hard to describe, but it is one that made us feel at home. A warm feeling, almost like the feeling of meeting a long lost friend.
By day five we were down to just dry biscuits and water for the grown ups. Whilst we were discussing what to do, whatever it was we trusted in delivered: along came an off-road caravan driven by two Brits on a trip around the world. They had plenty of food, and not only did they cook for us that night, they also sold us more than enough of their food supply. We were saved. Trust is an important commodity on the road, increasingly so in the times we live in. Riding into the unknown is a good exercise in trust, and the practice of feeling optimistic about what comes around the next corner, no matter the circumstances, is a great way to grow. As they say, the comfort zone is a great place, but nothing grows there.
After a good night of sleep with full bellies, we packed up the next morning with a new sense of lust for adventure. Everything seemed possible again. During the night we schemed up a plan of how to get those kilometers under our belts. To anyone who has done anything similar, I presume this isn’t a brilliant secret, but we decided we’d try to use Alva’s daily naptime to sneak in extra kilometers. When the idea came to mind, it felt like we had just reinvented the wheel!
Upon the first signs of tiredness, I strapped her into the carrier on my back and off we went. With Alva sound asleep after two minutes, my wife Melanie and I looked each other in the eye, saw the sparkle, and went for it. Two hours and 30km later, Alva woke up. We stopped, had lunch, and rejoiced in our newfound method while Alva was playing. Two naps a day at 30 kilometers each, plus the two 45-minute stretches she was happy in her seat would mean somewhere between 40 to 80 kilometers a day! We had cracked the “Alva Code” and it felt great. “Thirty kilometers…” Melanie said out loud, and we both broke into a fit of laughter. Riding solo at home, I would have to ride 200 kilometers to get the same feeling of accomplishment!
We felt freedom, rode kilometers, and admired nature. The adventure was there. Still, it was slow compared to what I was used to when riding alone. But I must admit, there was something special about life in the slow lane. I’m far from the fastest of the fast and I’ve only finished mid-field in the few races I have taken part in, but I do like riding fast. Being new to the riding-with-baby thing, I have to admit it took getting used to. But there is something to be said for riding at an unhurried pace. Whether you are riding fast or slow, you ride through the same landscape, so you don’t necessarily see more, it’s just different.
Whenever we would stop, Alva would divert our attention towards the smaller things, towards what was going on on the ground; little stones, flowers, mushrooms, and bugs of all kinds. She would point and squeal for joy, drawing us into her way of seeing things, into her universe, and we would join in on her joy and marvel at the beauty of passing scarab beetles or the long antennas of a longhorn beetle, listen to the sound of a bumble bee, and test the texture of a puffball. The smallest of things became the grandest adventure! The pace of the small family of three felt good. Really good. A new form of freedom, completeness, and satisfaction in the familiar setting of a bikepacking trip.
Getting back to Hanmer Spring took us 1.5 days – we were flying! Jumping on a bus the next morning to spare ourselves the ride through traffic, we had plenty of time to explore the map of New Zealand. With our newfound speed, multiple new possibilities opened up! We were buzzing! The bus took us to Tekapo, a mesmerizing little village right on the shores of one of the bluest lakes I have ever set my eyes upon. The village has 369 residents, but sees nearly a whopping 1,000,000 tourists every year. The pressure is immense and the effects are not all positive. One thing stood out though; the supermarket! Having not seen much in the way of shops so far, this was heaven. We bought much more than we could carry, had a picnic right there on the tarmac, and with full bellies set off on the Alps2Ocean Trail.
With our new strategy, we had high hopes of easy riding. The wind had other plans, though. Full force right in our faces. No mercy. Personally, I think head wind is the most demoralizing thing there is when riding a bike. Give me heavy ascents, flat tires, mechanicals, rain, snow, whatever. But head wind? Having to run 32 x 42 on the flat and pedaling at full force is such a mental battle. The start of the day had been good. Alva was sleeping on my back, we were riding along, enjoying the spectacular views. The gravel road we were riding took a sharp right turn, and our speed went from 20km/h to somewhere around 4km/h. We did that for about an hour, then found shelter behind some trees.
After a little rest we set off again, rode another hour, than found shelter. The rest of the day followed the same pattern, and eight hours and 30km later we found ourselves at Lake Pukaki, thoroughly exhausted. Frustration was rearing its ugly head, but sitting on the beach of the magnificent turquoise colored Lake with grand Mt. Cook in view, we looked at each other with a big grin. There it was. We sank our eyes and souls into the landscape, and knew well how privileged we were to be here.
Even at 7km an hour, it was still a dream come true.
About Joachim Rosenlund
Joachim Rosenlund was born and raised in Oslo, Norway, where the forest trails were never far away. At an early age he spent hours exploring with his red BMX, and the thrill of riding unfamiliar paths never left him. With a strong wish to see the world by bicycle, he loves the new approach and possibilities bikepacking brings. It used to be light and fast with nothing but necessities, but when with his family it’s mostly heavy and slow. See more on Instagram @odinavatar.