The Grand Loop (Film)
The Grand Loop is a new short film that showcases some of the adventurous destinations on New Zealand’s South Island. Like most good ideas, Damian Stones and Erik Hall came up with the idea for their trip over a few beers, and they decided to ride the route on gravel bikes in the middle of winter. Watch the film here, and read on for a Q&A with Damian…
Just released, The Grand Loop follows riders Damian Stones and Erik Hall on a circumnavigation of Kahurangi National Park, located in the far northwest corner of New Zealand’s South Island. The park is the second largest in the country, and is known for its raw and untracked wilderness. Their route follows the Old Ghost Road and Heaphy Track, starting in the town of Richmond, heading clockwise around the park, skirting along the ocean, before finishing back where it started. Watch The Grand Loop below, and make sure to check out our Q&A with Damian afterwards.
Tell us a bit more about your involvement with mountain biking in New Zealand.
I’ve been involved in the mountain bike scene for a long time in New Zealand and started mountain biking as a teenager in the late ’80s. I had a brief stint doing cross country racing, but was pretty mediocre and kept breaking my bike. I ran a mountain bike nationals event, building one of New Zealand’s earliest 4-cross tracks. I also built one of the first public pump tracks in New Zealand, which led to me building more pump tracks and bike skills parks around the South Island. From my earliest days of riding, I’ve always looked for adventure, whether that be a short ride for a few hours or overnight to multi-day trips. Currently, I’m working as a mountain bike guide and instructor, which takes me to really rad trails throughout New Zealand.
What are some of your favourite areas to ride?
I’m lucky enough to live in Nelson, which is known for its steep and technical trails, and some amazing backcountry trails are on our doorstep. In the wider Nelson region, we have an array of bike parks and multi-day trails, including the Heaphy Track and Old Ghost Road. Probably my favourite trail to ride in the Nelson region is the Kill Devil trail in Golden Bay. This can be done as one big day or as an overnight trip to a rustic hut.
When were you first introduced to bikepacking?
My first introduction to backpacking was before bikepacking was a thing! I did some off road cycling “touring” in the Wairau Valley/Rainbow Road in the early ’90s. It was a classic off-road bike tour in its day, which would now be classed as a gravel bikepacking trip. When I really got into backpacking was when I started riding multi-day backcountry trails such as the Heaphy with my family and didn’t want to be human mule carrying a massive backpack.
Tell us a bit more about the Grand Loop route.
For me, the logical place to start for the Grand Loop is at my local bike shop, Avanti Plus in Richmond.
Day 1: 120km from Richmond to Murchison, a combination of off-road cycle trail and gravel roads, with some shorter road sections that involved avoiding large trucks where possible.
Day 2: 64 km Murchison to Ghost Lake Hut, started off on the road but moved onto the Old Ghost Road trail, finishing the day at a very snowy Ghost Lake Hut, including 30 kms of uphill climbing to reach an altitude of 1,200m.
Day 3: 55km Ghost Lake Hut to Seddonville, initially the decent from Ghost Lake Hut is pretty technical (which you can see in the film), and narrow with significant exposure, then the trail goes on to some more intermediate and really fun trails that are great even on a gravel bike. The last part of this trail is next to the stunning Mokihinui River.
Day 4: 86 km Seddonville to Heaphy Hut, a good section of this was smashing out the road with some significant elevation gain over the notorious Karamea Bluffs.
Day 5: 78km Heaphy Hut to Brown Hut, an incredibly diverse section of track ranging from subtropical nikau palms through to tussocky alpine country.
Day 6: 145km Brown Hut to Richmond, this was a long day on the road with a welcome 900m decent from the top of the Takaka Hill back down to sea level.
What were some of the major challenges you encountered on this trip?
Filming – this was something new to me, I have worked on smaller edits before, but nothing of this scale. Combined with time pressure and winter conditions, I was stoked to be able to capture what I was able to with the limits of my experience and equipment.
Weather – we chose to do this trip in the middle of winter, mainly to add more of challenge. We certainly got it, with rain and fresh snow and shorter day light hours.
Gravel bikes – My Stigmata outperformed my expectations, but at times it was… exciting.
It looked like you and Erik dealt with some pretty extreme weather changes. Any tips for dealing with these kinds of conditions in New Zealand?
I had a pretty simple set up when it came to bikepacking gear. Apart from my seat bag, everything was in dry bags. This was bullet proof in the conditions we encountered. I pretty much lived in my Ground Effect Splashdown rain pants and my Anticyclone jacket. It was also key not to wear too many layers so as not to overheat. I essentially wore about two layers of merino and a sleeveless jacket most of the time. Having a really good light is also pretty essential during the winter with shorter days. Our aim was to travel light and reasonably fast, so we were pretty mindful of not carrying too much. I had Absolute Wilderness freeze-dried food for all my meals, which worked really well.
If you were to ride the route again, is there any gear you would change?
I was pretty happy with all the gear I had. It was light, efficient, and uncomplicated. Route wise, if I were to do it again, I would be interested in riding some more off-road trails to reduce the amount of time riding on the road.
Lastly, any other adventures planned for 2019?
I always have ideas bubbling away, and I’m inspired by other outdoor adventurers across a range of disciplines. Nothing set in stone yet, but my next trip will likely involve my trail bike and another backcountry mission.