If people concentrated on the
really important things in life, there’d be a
shortage of fishing rods. And E-Bikes.
Words Richard Birkby Photos Neil Kerr
I’ve done it again. I never learn. This happens to me all too frequently and it’s all because I get over-enthusiastic and make assumptions.
Ahead of me is a classic section of high-country farm track, which, from this vantage point, looks like a wall. I’m at the bottom of the sort of climb that can beat you psychologically, before you even throw a leg over your bike. It’s steep, rocky and unrelenting—the kind of thing that makes you feel like walking, right from the start, just so you don’t have to suffer the ignominy of having to dismount, gasping, with that iron taste in your mouth only part-way up.
This happens to me because I have a habit of assuming that any track that follows a lake shore or river is going to be a benign cruise through a bucolic wilderness: an easy travellator into the backcountry, bush on one side, water the other, me whistling cheerily as I ride between the two. I almost always make the mistake of disregarding the contours on the map and dive right in. And here I am again, pack on my back, bike laden with gear, staring up a pretty gritty climb.
Some places are hard to get to. And some of those hard-to-get-to places are well worth getting to. Sometimes those places aren’t just hard to get to because they’re a long way away over big mountains, but because access is difficult. In general, that makes them even more desirable. In this case, the hard-to-get-to place is a high-country river known to hold big trout. It’s not accessible by vehicle and is a very long walk on foot. Sure, you can fly in, but because I like bikes too much, I’ve already committed that budget to shiny things. So we’re riding in.
I’m a big fan of a little adventure—the little part being just as important as the adventure part, Maybe even more-so. As a middle-aged desk jockey with middle-aged commitments and middling fitness, going on a big adventure isn’t easy; the logistics, the limited time available and of course the need to still be able to walk and function on Monday all complicate matters. I’ve added a little extra complication this time around, because I’m trying to combine my two expensive, time-consuming hobbies into the one little adventure. I’ve got a rod strapped to my backpack, and a reel and a limited selection of flies to throw into overhanging trees stashed inside.
The plan is to head up the valley, along the lake shore to the river mouth, spend the night in a cozy station hut, go fishing, catch a fish and ride back to the car again. All of this is better done with company, and that company for the weekend is my good friend Paul. As uncommitted a bikepacker as myself, he’s more at home tapping out mile after mile of Rotorua singletrack than he is with a sleeping bag strapped to his handlebars.
It’s a long way for an overnighter, especially when the route includes numerous “surprise!” hills like the one we’re facing now. But we’re going to keep this adventure little, and make grinding out this hill easy, because…
The Game. Has. Changed.
Knocking over an access track like this, laden with gear, would normally leave me broken on arrival. But today, I’m arriving as fresh as the proverbial daisy. No, I haven’t been ordering performance-enhancing anything from a Swiss doctor, but I have succumbed to some German electrical engineering.
E-bikes! I wish I’d done this earlier. With a battery and a motor I can now access places that were too grueling for me to ride to previously. I can load up my bike and pack without worrying too much about cutting the handle down on my toothbrush. In fact, on this trip, I’m carrying a 750ml glass bottle of Pinot Noir. Weight be damned.
The application of a little power makes short work of the hill ahead and gives us a view of the lake, the river and the head of the valley. But it doesn’t look good, and not at all how I’d planned it. A northwesterly storm is pushing its way toward us. Northwesterlies bring rain, and that won’t help the fishing. This river and its side creeks drain some big mountains and they rise quickly. We’ve a long way to go and many rivers to cross before we get to our accommodation.
This the first time I’ve taken this bike into a situation where battery life is critical, and one battery is all I have (I needed room for the wine, remember?). As such, I’m applying the power judiciously, aiming to ensure that I’m not grinding home in bottom gear. But the hill happily disappeared behind us and we’re left to enjoy the reward of power-assisted cycling with a long descent toward the first of those aforementioned river crossings.
Once again, the signs aren’t good. The creek is swift, high and brown already, and the first physical challenge of the trip presents itself. You probably shouldn’t wheel your brand new e-bike through a knee-deep torrent. And it’s harder to carry a laden e-bike above the level of the water, especially when you can’t see the riverbed and the current is tearing at your legs. We heave the bikes above the water and make an inelegant crossing before remounting to tackle another monster climb, which soon has me forgiving the bike’s mass. In terrain like this, the e-bike is earning its keep.
I’m keen to try for a fish, and at the base of the next descent we come across a picture perfect creek, flowing through a rocky gorge and overhung by native beech. The water is gin clear and although flowing rapidly, there’s plenty of pocket water that might hold a fish. I cast hopefully, yet without success, before my fly decides it would rather make a home in an overhanging branch than in a trout’s jaw or in my fly box. Reluctantly, I leave it there and we continue toward the hut.
The oncoming storm is approaching fast and we can see the wind pushing white horses across the lake’s surface. The mouth of our river is obscured by grey squalls and successful fishing is looking increasingly
less likely. I try again from a partially sheltered beach, half-heartedly this time, before the rising wind lets me know that my efforts are unlikely to be rewarded and we pack up and remount.
Our hut is rustic yet comfortable, fully equipped with firewood, gas hotplate, a sheltered verandah and remarkably comfortable beds. And it’s now that the benefit of a little motor assistance really pays dividends. No lightweight, freeze-dried food for us tonight: meatballs, pasta and a sauce rich in basil and tomato are whipped up and we break the seal on that bottle of wine. The wind is rising and the squalls reach us as darkness falls. It’s not looking good for a fish in the morning, so we indulge in the wine and a little chocolate over a game of cards, lit by the stubs of multiple candles (note to self: remember candles next time).
In the morning, the river is high and brown, the wind brisk. It’s not a day for fishing, so we repack and head back toward the trailhead. My battery life is looking surprisingly good; managing the power usage on the way in was well worthwhile and I revel in the luxury of putting the bike into “turbo” mode and turn what would’ve otherwise been soul-crushing climbs into something that’s not just fun, but even pleasurable. Back at the car, we crack a beer and congratulate ourselves on turning type 2 fun into something pretty close to type 1.
So has using an e-bike compromised the integrity of my little bike-packing mission? I’m sure there are purists out there who’d say “yes”, but for those of us who prioritise pleasure over pain and have limited time to squeeze in a little adventure, does it really detract from the aesthetic of the exercise?
For me the answer is a big “no”. Having a battery doesn’t take anything away from the adventure. It makes it simpler to have more adventures, more often, without them complicating or interfering with other aspects of my life that require my attention. It won’t replace my trail bike, but it will add depth to my riding life. I’ll be going more places, having more fun, more regularly. That can’t be bad, can it?