Francois Maritz

No bridges

Kaikoura to Greymouth—the hard way. That’s the guts of the South Island Four-Wheel-Drive Coast to Coast Teams Enduro, now in its sixth bone-jarring year. New Zealand Geographic sent two masters of the mudhole, wizards of the winch, lone rangers of low ratios along for the ride.

Written by       Photographed by Francois Maritz

With any kind of foresight, it should have been obvious that the idea of complete novices from Auckland gate-crashing the diesel-doused world of the Mainland 4WD enthusiast to corporately promote a “shiny” was asking for trouble. Either that or an act of great faith.

And there, in the Kaikoura carpark at dusk our fellow contestants all wearing Swannies and gumboots seem to be in on some private joke. Somehow the entrance, in convoy, of our brand-new Mazda Bounty utes in their stylish pristine white paint jobs to this pre-rally safety check has acted as a magnet. A source of animation.

Or possibly it was the polo team-shirts in matching pristine white that sparked the interest. Back in Auckland I’d been rather taken by the “Mazda and Proud of It” lettering embroidered on the left breast in iridescent ming blue. And, if I may say, these South Island 4WD aficionados, gathering as they were next to their battered mud-wagons, seemed likewise taken.

But contrary to expectation, it is our footwear which attracts the first clearly audible comment: “Boat shoes? These townies are onto it, eh? They’ll be needing those for the rivers, won’t they, boys? Nah, they won’t be getting that far. Dunno. Maybe if they go nice and slol-lee they just might …”

They circle closer and start fingering our vehicles. One bolder and larger than the rest makes direct contact. “You’ll be wanting to take your photos now, eh? Ya know, while they’re still nice and s-h-i-n-y.” There is a suspi­cious emphasis to the word shiny.

It’s only later that I discover that “shiny” as in driving a shiny is a code word for the city slicker’s cafe tractor that never leaves the tarmac. An object, in any circle, of derision and contempt, but in this circle particularly so.

Mazda team leader Greg Hunt whose idea joining this rally is mutters under his breath, “Christ, we’ll be getting this all weekend.”

The safety check itself is no source of respite . .. axes, shovels, ropes and gasp Nosnorkels! Within the brief ambit of this sharp nasal shriek with its rising intonation a great deal is being communi­cated. There is both question and incredulous exclamation overlaid with the surly satisfaction of the mechanic. The kind who gratuitously underlines the already obvious deep ignorance of the average customer 

“Nosnorkels? Ya reckon you don’t need snorkels?” Some other bulky fellow chimes in: “Nah, they won’t get that far anyways.” This is a somewhat unimaginative repeat of an earlier line of humour, but since I have an instinctive fear of anybody who chooses to say “anyways” I let it drop.

Back at the hotel, it’s the work of a minute to change into bush-shirt and boots. Not that wearing this from the outset would have thrown them off the scent anyways. There’s this absurd idea among holidaying city folks that gumboots and a Swanndri somehow count as protective rural coloration among a people for whom 30 years’ residency in the district still doesn’t qualify you as local.

Soon enough the Mazda team composed mainly of car-dealers is down in the bar chugging quart bottles of the local brew. This doesn’t help our cause much, either. One of our stratagems to win acceptance is to take every raffle that comes our way problem is, we win just about all of them. Our table spills over with fresh-cooked lobsters. Items we are supposed to access manually. Our hands are soon spotted with puncture wounds, which start to bleed, noticeably.

At about this time, one of the team makes the mistake of asking whether the cut lunch we’ve ordered from the bar for the day ahead will be made in the morning or left to go stale overnight. The barmaid blinks. “They’re already made, but since you’re worried, first thing tomorra . . . just for you .. . I’ll wipe ’em under me armpit.”

[Chapter Break]

Dawn finds us back in the carpark. Apropos of nothing, someone wants to know if we are packing a ladder. “Do we need one,” I inquire, sensing too late that I’ve walked into a trap. There’s a general twinkling of eyes, bobbing of heads and jutting forward of lower lips. I didn’t get it, but I laughed along anyways a sort of manly scoffing chortle. I still don’t get it.

I suspect the ladder is somehow related to a near-constant vein of inter-species paddock-related humour that started to emerge in the pub the night before. It’s not always easy to catch the exact point of the references. Taken one way they’re a sign of gathering acceptance. In another way they tend to ominously reinforce the Deliverance edge to the whole undertaking.

Mery Randall, the rally sheriff (who enforces the rules and dishes out fines Rotary-fashion for infractions), is giving us a final pep-talk. “Just remember, the environment figures very muchly these days, and if anyone cocks up, God will punish you and I will be his instrument. Now, without further ado . ..” I’d noticed day-glo water pistols stashed among the crowd, and at some signal maybe a half-dozen adults ambush Mery with a good drenching. This is a theme that will be repeated muchly over the coming days.

Easing out of Kaikoura south along the Ronald Jorgenson Memorial Drive (just kidding), with dolphins splashing out to sea on our left and a solid wall of mountains to our right, I try to figure out where the off-road track to Greymouth could possibly begin. It wasn’t to the left, and it sure wasn’t to the right, either. But then my eye catches a wispy scar of a track winding insanely around the edge of some far-off peak. It was obviously scraped out by some giant’s kid with a loose understanding of physics. Not there. Surely not there.

As we near this broken dragon’s tooth, I remember all the times when, from the security of a state highway, I’ve seen similar tracks and wondered who in God’s name ever went up them, and why let alone the vertiginous horror of building them in the first place. Equally, there is always a kind of fascination about these trails. The way they lead to unseen Tolkien At no stage during the event do I let on about this fairytale observation.

Anyways, communion with the surroundings is definitely not the point of the exercise. In the days ahead I try to take descriptive notes of the incredible country we pass through, but it’s physically impossible—the mountains were bouncy, the lakes were bouncy, everything was very bouncy. For that matter, I don’t have any idea of exactly where we went. Event organiser Frederick Cassins doesn’t supply a map of the route. This is to protect his investment in establishing the 4VVD Coast to Coast.

I can reveal, however that the first day had us tracing back and forth inland from Kaikoura until we reached Hanmer Springs. The second day involved a wide loop up towards Nelson through the Molesworth Station, and then south to Reefton. The third was a short hop south to Greymouth, with a bit of mud-hashing thrown in.

During the event, to find our way through a succession of riverbeds, bush trails, fire-breaks and farm tracks with a few linking pieces of tarmac we must rely on a great wad of infuriatingly coy clue-sheets of the “five-fence­posts-past-the-big-tree-there’s-something-big-and-red” variety, which have to be taken seriously or you end up lost. Interpreting these clues will come to be a source of considerable in-cab friction particularly when it’s my turn to navigate.

There are slight variations of route according to the type of vehicle, with the most demanding sections reserved for the Tough Guy class, this being entirely composed of hard-bitten battlewagons that first saw action at Iwo Jima. I pass up the opportunity to discuss the degree to which irony figured in the choice of “Tough Guy” as a name.

And so, south of Kaikoura, we leave the asphalt and twist our way up some tortured ravine, passing the first of many heartbreakingly beautiful home­steads all daffodils and dancing lambs, were it a different season. By the time we reach the tops, we are no longer driving trucks. Up in the clouds, with the countryside spread out far below, our farm track resembles a flight path. The flight path of a demented topdresser.

At various points the track abruptly right-angles up scree-littered slopes or, worse, plunges off down them. Apart from a sense of incipient death, this first leg of farm track is not hugely demanding, at least not in a technical sense. Low gear .. . and slol-lee does it.

[Chapter Break]

To wards mid morning we enter the Mud Kingdom a surreal sight that would have had Bilbo Baggins turning tail and abandoning the Quest. Here, smack in the middle of stunning wilderness, what appears to be a lost religious community is solemnly ringing a bog-hole. They’re studying the contents with mystical intensity as if it were the arrival crater of some alien spacecraft. In unquestioning Hale-Boppish fashion, we join the queue.

This is the first obstacle. Through the bog a course has been set in a figure eight. The idea is not to get stuck. To achieve this, you plant boot, hit the mud hard and hope like hell the machine pulls you through to the first little island of dry land. You manoeuvre back and forth on this little island, squaring the vehicle for the return run.

The more powerful vehicles explode through the mud like enraged bulls. When they hit the sudden purchase of solid ground they slingshot off in unpredictable directions. It’s only later that we realise there is an art to this. The old hands read mud like it was vintage wine.

Greg, our leader, is deeply nervous. This is the first real test for our three shinies. But with a roar and a fishtailing slither through the gloop the first two Mazdas get through with aplomb. Two of the Tough Guy vehicles have already bogged, so this is an especially satisfying victory. Then it is Greg’s turn. He gets to the island, but, horror of horrors and in front of the televi­sion camera as if he’s lost his mind, he heads off the island at low idle into an area of uncharted and bottomless mud that everybody else has carefully avoided. He does this because I am in the passenger’s seat, telling him to.

Unaccountably, I feel responsible, and volunteer to enter the foul-smelling slime in which the Bounty is firmly mired. By dint of scooping and digging with bare hands from the prone position we manage to free the vehicle. But meanwhile, another Mazda charges back into the fray, coming to the rescue of our vehicle, which by now is back on solid ground. Our rescuer gets stuck. I forget how it ended.

Greg followed my instructions in the first place because I had artfully conveyed the impression that I was a seasoned off-roader the better to secure a prime position in the pecking order of the team. I hadn’t felt it necessary to mention a concomitant history of boggings and wedgings which more recently included getting my Nissan Safari so outlandishly stuck in a city carpark that I had to call the AA to extract me. This is not absolutely true, in that I chose to park in wasteland next to an already full carpark. I failed to spot the deep concrete culvert that turned my wagon into a seesaw. As I watched the Honda Civics come and go, while I waited for the AA, I remem­bered a tip for housewives printed in the English magazine VIZ. “Ladies,” it advised, “why not avoid the expense of owning a 4WD by choosing to shop at supermarkets where the carparks are paved?” Very funny.

Somewhat later in the day, Greg allows me the wheel about the time we link up with some tarseal. But it’s not long before our clue sheet tells us to turn right into a river. Navigating a river by truck is a magic feeling. Our wagons become four-wheeled jet-boats, the only real difference being we aim for the shallow water.

For the rest of the afternoon we venture further along shingle riverbeds into track­less wilds. It’s the sort of terrain I associate with the smell of dubbin and the mouldy canvas of my uncle’s A-frame pack. I reflect on the days when riverbeds were pioneer highways. At one bend, we encounter a turn-of-the-century home­stead still waiting for a road that never came. I try to imagine what it would be like making this journey in a tooth-loosening horse and trap.

At the Hanmer debrief, Mery zeroes straight in on the mudhole. “Dja see the Mazda team? They were awesome, weren’t they? Bloody awesome! In line for the best entertainment award, whaddya say?” This is the only printable part of Merv’s dissertation, which he punctuates by popping his false teeth. I opt for an early night.

E’re on our way again well before dawn. A little out of Harmer, in pitch darkness, we ease off the road. We find ourselves immediately clawing vertically up a hillside of hold-your-breath steep­ness. As we grind upwards into un­fathomable blackness there’s a sense that if the headlights died, the path itself would also vanish under our wheels and we’d freefall into the void.

Here we realise we’ve forgotten to pack sandwiches. We’ve got a packet of Ryvita between us, and a scrap of some South Island thing called Belgian sausage.

Dawn finds us among tussocky high country on the road to Molesworth. The rivers here aren’t shingle highways. They’re a different kettle of trout. They’re fast-flowing, deep and strewn with large crankcase-cracking boulders. This is of relevance because, although the road itself is relatively civilised, no one is allowed to use a bridge to make the many crossings. At random bridges Mery lies in wait like a speed-camera, hoping to catch defaulters. We’ve learned to fear Merv.

Because the organisers have thoughtfully placed our team at the lead, it’s down to us to trail-blaze these crossings. This involves one of our team wading the more gnarly rivers on foot in the scrotum-shrinking chill to check for cheery little problems like deep scouring channels, log-jams, quicksand and other underwater hazards. Since the consequences of failure will be spectacularly humiliating both at the time and, worse, at the debriefing, each ford is a tense exercise. Quite how the Mazdas are able to make it as we crunch, bash and thump our way over these cross­ings is a mystery. They seem to be doing it by themselves.

Since Greg has today chosen to enter the Mazdas in the full-on Tough Guy class, this a useful apprenticeship for a day where water figures very muchly. The first two challenges involve ping-pong balls and buckets. First up is a bucket in an inner-tube moored an unlikely distance from shore in a high-country lake. To place our ping-pong ball in this bucket we reverse one vehicle roped to another on dry land out into the lake to the point where the water is lapping at the win­dows. At this moment the question of snorkels! returns with vengeance. Snorkels are just that an arrangement of piping that allows the engine to breathe under water.

No one thinks to mock the lack of them . . . probably because they are soundly distracted by the fact that Greg has forced us all to wear fancy-dress masks of some elabora­tion. One team member in Rasta dreads and tea-cosy cap lobs the ping-pong ball into the bucket, and we make it safely to shore. We are able to point out that the Mazda has a clever little intake system that minimises water ingress.

With the second ping-pong episode we are not so lucky. This river exercise involves roping all three Mazdas in tandem, travelling up­stream, doing a U-turn mid-rapid, then returning under the central span of a bridge to drop another accursed ping-pong ball into a bucket dangled by one of the several hundred specta­tors who line the bridge. Because we are now Tough Guys, we have the added handicap of doing this with one of the vehicles stalled a dead tow, it’s called. At this point I should state that I take no responsibility for the coming shemozzle. None. Somehow the lead Mazda makes the turn so sharply that the towed truck is yanked sideways off its shingle bank. The only thing stopping this truck from rolling over is the boulder it gets wedged on. The lead driver can’t understand the lack of forward progress and hits the throttle. This turns his truck into a paddle-steamer/gold dredge with four churning wheels. Still no forward movement. To the resultant intractable stew of boulders, ropes, wedged vehicles, blindly revving engine and silently jeering spectators is added dudg­eon and premature recrimination. Premature in that we were still stuck Personally, I was secretly pleased that my authorship of the earlier mudhole debacle was being thoroughly eclipsed. But this satisfaction, too, was prema­ture. Later, near Nelson, I was ready to strike again. This time, by leading the entire team on a harebrained no-exit traverse. Three-point turns on a slithery 30-degree hillside are no fun. Less so with every other competitor parading past us on the well-marked track I’d chosen to avoid. The air was thick with recriminations.

A little later, at a special Tough Guy course no doubt laid out by Merv it had to be Merv we have the chance to redeem ourselves. This involves an intricate course through a series of tiny but very deep waterholes. The tighter the course, the harder it is, and this course is so tight that a dog chasing its tail would run out of space, but we make it through. This was a pretty fine accom­plishment for a team of rank novices, even if we said so ourselves. No one else was going to.

[Chapter break]

Soon enough , The beech forests and bellbirds near Lake Rotoiti exert a soothing in-cab effect. Here we are following well-defined trails with time to delight in the extraordinary views. As we crest one hill the sparkling blue waters of the lake appear way below—beyond the canopy of treetops. Forget jet-boats: 4WDs are a poor-man’s helicopter! Nothing short of a helicopter could have transported us to so many stunning locations in such a short time.

Do helicopters have radiators? Our Mazdas, which have run like clockwork over some of the toughest 4WD country in New Zealand, now decide to develop cooling problems. It turns out that all these fiendish river crossings have jostled the radiators loose from their brackets. By the time we’ve fixed the problem, unprecedented in Mazdadom with Greg promising immediate product modification there’s very little light left in a dour West Coast sky. Every other competitor has long since vanished along the trail. Ahead of us lies a towering grey-green razor-backed range.

There are two ways of getting past this range. Most of the trucks have dodged the challenge by taking the road direct to Reefton, our stop for the night. This is the sane option. The other way the Tough Guy way is to hit the sucker head-on.

There’s a palpable shared wistfulness when we leave the signpost to Reefton behind and head toward the glowering hills. The road peters out. We track through some wasteland, finally arriving at the banks of a river that’s maybe 200 metres of solid green, flowing like the Manapouri tailrace. One of us tries to cross on foot and has to turn back.

We fuss and bicker over the clue-sheet. We figure we’ve got it wrong somehow. We’ve been driving for 14 hours on about three Ryvita each. We’re dog tired. In the circumstances, there’s a sinister Stanley Graham manhunt feel to the whole valley.

Up there in the gloom somewhere we catch the sound of an engine. It’s getting closer. Soon a wagon appears on the far bank. It launches into the current, growling and roaring, with a wave of green rolling up over the bonnet on to the windscreen. To hell with the jet-boat idea. This is an ocean­going tug bulldozing toward us.

“Thought we might come looking’ for ya.” I recognise a voice from the carpark at Kaikoura all those weeks ago. There was never a guardian angel so gnarled, or so welcome. This time he leaves the subject of snorkels alone. John Hall is slightly worried about the lighter Mazdas being swept away. It seems he’s also pretty impressed at our determination. Make that “slightly.”

We’re glad we sorted the rope business out under the bridge. This time there is no trick reason for roping the trucks together. The idea is that if one is swept away it will be held by the others. With John leading the way we engage crawler gear and drop into the river. There is no real way to describe the sensation of crashing and crunching over unseen boulders in semi-dark­ness with a river foaming literally at the windows. Nor to describe how the current eerily and silently scrums us sideways.

The full scope of our reactions is best revealed by the simple question that forced itself upon me. To wit, what manner of wiring is it that connects the bowel to the brain? When Greg and I compared notes, we realised that before and during this mega-crossing we both had urgent needs which completely disappeared upon the instant of landfall.

We take the razorback by headlight. Soon we are descending through a wreath of coal smoke into the Reefton township. The Workingmen’s Club has a reception organised for us, but by the time we get there only a few frag­ments of coleslaw, three dryish sausages and the odd corrugated beetroot wafer remain. The idea of adding these to the ingested Ryvita is not a happy prospect. Someone is raffling a pig in a wheelbarrow. We decide against a ticket.

We spot the women’s committee taking a well-earned rest to one side of the kitchen. Through the servery the kitchen resembles the snug at the Rovers’ Return, from a time when Ena ruled the roost. I hesitate to impose, but on the Coast a bloke lurking near a kitchen doesn’t have to explain he’s hungry. They scramble like fire fighters responding to a fourth alarm There’s a general dousing of fags. One snow-headed stalwart readies for action by hitching her watch halfway up her forearm, to the point where the links in the strap are in danger of flying apart.

In no time, a full-on feed appears. I comment on the teamwork. “Oh yes, you’ll find Reefton is like that. We all pull together here. Actually, I shifted here only a few years ago from the Waikato. You know, to get away from it all.”

After the demands of the previous day, Reefton-to-Greymouth is an anticlimax. Sure, we cross raging torrents and tackle impossible hillsides, but we’d already been there and done that. Actually, my new-found noncha­lance came from having hitched a ride with another team. Without any kind of responsibility I could sit back and enjoy the ride even the fairground-style mud luge that gouges its way in a tangle of hairpin trenches down a hillside of sodden bush. Zigzagging down these trenches is like fighting the Battle of the Somme in a downtown parking building. In Kobe. During the earthquake.

Some sections are so deeply quarried by rainfall and tilt the trucks so far into the bank that we seem to be driving on our door handles. Some are forced to winch their trucks down this hill a sure sign of true Tough Guy territory.

At the bottom, we refer to the clue-sheet, which now tells us to drive through the hillside. This is not a misprint. Our track turns into a ghost-train ride as we follow a stream through a succession of narrow moss-covered tunnels cut by gold-miners.

That night in the Greymouth boozer I rejoin my team. We’re feeling pleased. Sure, we’ve made spectacular asses of ourselves here and there, but we haven’t spat the dummy or had too many tantrums. Better still, the Bounty has won its spurs. The little truck that could, did .Best of all, we’ve almost become probationary members of the brother­hood. This is confirmed when a Tough Guy actually seeks my company at the bar and engages in serious 4WD smalltalk. “Ya know, these Mazdas?” Yep. “Diesel?” I wait for the mocking punchline. There isn’t one.

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