Sound to Sound 2023

Sound to Sound 2023

The "Sound to Sound" is an annual bikepacking event running the length of the South Island of New Zealand. It's not designed as a race but rather as a way to explore the South Island by bike while taking in some of the best off-road riding the country has to offer. A few of us took on the challenge in March 2023 and have done our best to summarise our experience below:

"We wake to the increasingly loud bird song, it’s 5am but we aren’t on the track yet. We’re at the Picton Holiday Park and it’s just Koen’s alarm that’s providing the gentle avian wake up call.

We’ve given ourselves an hour to get to the departing ferry but we’re off to a slow start due to the pints and hearty food from Seamus’s just 8 hours ago. Chris is the more experienced of our trio and is first out of bed. Koen follows a few minutes later and while trying to switch on the room light he accidentally illuminated Chris outside, hunched over, devouring a can of cold beans. I, Lewis, would later outdo this breakfast treat by eating a container of garlic mussels before 7am.

Anyway, a cup of cold coffee down in one, a small bit of admin and we were down to the ferry to get started. Loaded up, all aboard and we were out of Picton before sunrise which meant we were treated to good views across the calm waters for our glide to Ship Cove. Bikes came off. There was an audible grunt and ‘this is a heavy bike’ when Koen’s partially unloaded bike was passed down. We’d left the majority of our gear in Picton as we were planning on at least making it there before 8pm.

With everyone at Ship Cove, there was a short race briefing, a karakia, and then we were off.

The ride starts with a climb and I was a little nervous about this as I’d been nursing knee issues for the past few months and our last decent training ride saw me hobbling about the following day. I needn’t have worried, the exercises I’d been doing and altering my saddle position seemed to have helped so we cruised along to Furneaux for an astonishingly expensive coffee, snack and stretch. We’d agreed that we needed at least three things to do before we could justify a stop - I’m not sure this pact lasted the first day.

We continued on to Kenepuru Saddle and things were going pretty well. But here, we had to make a choice. Easy or hard, right or wrong (depending on how you look at it), road route or suffer route. Chris had very recently been off work due to knee issues and knew the road was for him, Koen and I just weren’t sure. A couple old boys pulled onto the Queen Charlotte Track and I did remind Koen that we registered as ‘Team Bad Idea’ so that was it. We separated from Chris, we’d see him later that day but it took us until the 5th night to catch back up for real.

Was doing the entirety of Queen Charlotte a bad idea? Nah, it was probably some of the best riding of the trip but dang, it was hard. Even with semi-unloaded bikes there were some climbs that just had to be walked. We stopped for lunch after one of the hikes. I was feeling a bit nauseous but managed to down a bunch of beige food and we kept on trucking under the high sun. The rest of the track was a bit of a blur but there was some good riding to be had knowing that although there were a few more pinch climbs we were on the downwards trend to Anakiwa. We stopped for a quick swim at Davies Bay campsite, while trying unsuccessfully to hide our naked bodies from some unsuspecting tourists and then a can of coke by Anakiwa boat ramp.

It was an uneventful ride around the link track to Picton where we loaded up our bikes, had an icecream and aero’d our way along SH1 to Blenheim. We stopped at McDonalds for a quick calorie injection and separately went into New World to stock up food for the following day. Koen returned with an insane collection of food which didn’t really constitute any sort of real meal. I think I did slightly better with my packet tuna and bread buns being lunch for tomorrow.

Chris had been in touch saying that he was just going over Taylor Pass and he was about to push on to the Awapiri Farmhouse. We looked at the route and said, “it’s only 60ks more.” It was here that we might have made a mistake. We kind of neglected the fact we’d already ridden 120km with 2.5km vert, we didn’t check the elevation profile for the next 60km and it was already 7pm.

Off we went, clicking along pretty well until we reached the gravel. Koen had cycled the Taylor Pass before and I’d driven it so we had an idea of what we were in for. It was slow and we were losing natural light. We crawled past some other cyclists camped on the side of the road. Over the top, nice fast descent down the other side. Turned on to the sealed road and we kind of expected to be on the home straight. I guess we were, it’s just that the home straight was 34km long with a steepening trend. We were determined to keep on pushing cause we wanted to ride with Chris the next day. We finally got to the farmhouse at 11:30pm, 180km and 3.5km vert in the books. Set up the tent, had a quick shower, had a second dinner and we were out.

6am rolled around and we were moving in slow motion, this would set the pace for the day. Our best efforts to pack up quickly and set off with Chris were dashed. We caffeinated and fed ourselves then saddled up around 7:30. I’d never been over the Molesworth but Koen had and he spoke of fond memories. Sadly, I haven’t taken away any of those. It was a grind. It felt like it was never ending, I think I’ve just blanked it out of my memories, all except Wards Pass. I wanted to walk from the very start but somehow kept turning the pedals all the way to the top. Quick rest, then flew down the otherside back into the blackhole of long straight corrugated roads. Jollies Pass Road brought a change of pace and the descent into Hanmer Springs reminded me why I packed another set of brake pads.

We both agreed we were going to call the day short as we biked into Hanmer, 137km, 2km vert. Grabbed a quick bite at the Four Square then booked into a motel in town as rain was due overnight / into the morning and we thought a hotel sleep would refresh us from the previous two days. We were pretty cooked at this point, walking felt very foreign but we bought some breakfast supplies and a souvlaki for dinner. Koen couldn’t finish his and had started see-sawing between hot and cold, this transformed into a night of fever dreams and he was corpse-like when our 6am alarm went off.

It was raining so we weren’t in a hurry to get out the door. I made us coffee again (this would become a trend) which had Koen feeling a bit less gray.  We got on the road around 8:30 and made it to Culverden. Two pies and a sweet treat at the bakery filled a void. Grabbed more supplies, stretched and then set course for Christchurch as Koen wanted to pick up some risers for his aero bars as he had become deeply uncomfortable despite his best efforts to make good of a bike he’d not ridden 100km on before this trip.

Not much happened over the next while. We just biked and biked, it was around Pyramid Valley that I was contemplating starting a commune out there. We kept on ticking the miles by and eventually got to Amberley for a compulsory stop at Amberley Pies. I’ve never been disappointed by one of their baked goods and this time was no different, we also had a real fruit icecream which was a treat after the kilos of beige food we’d consumed thus far. While we were eating, the heavens opened up and absolutely poured down for 10 minutes. After that we got back on the wheels and had a dry run into Christchurch. 190km, 1km vert.

We had a relatively early stop in Christchurch so Koen promised we would be on our bikes at 6am the next day. He was true to his word but his best intentions to make coffee the night before was dashed by his need to fit his rises. Luckily I came in with the assist. Quick ride to Rolleston to restock supplies and we were off, lunch at Rakaia Gorge was the plan. We got a little off route on the way there but made pretty good time with 100km under our belt by 12:30pm. We lost all that good time by spending the next 90 minutes swimming, lunching and basically mucking around, enjoying not riding our bikes. The climb out of there was very cruel but we had plans to make a day of it. On we pushed to Mount Somers for an icecream and soda break, Gerladine was in our sights but the road there was a cruel one. Gravel, zigzags, never quite feeling like you were making the most of heading ‘downhill’.

We got into Geraldine and I was quite excited to see the skatepark which I’d somehow never ridden despite putting two decades on a bmx. I lined up this bowl to bowl transfer and pumped around a few times barely getting both wheels off the ground as I exited the big bowl. Remember, I’m riding a ~30kg loaded dropbar bike cause I assume I’d forgotten as I asked Koen to film me on my super8 camera I’ve been lugging around on my back.

Like any extreme athlete, the camera brings out the best and the worst of me. I came in a little hotter than I had been, this meant I went a bit higher and was a bit off balance. It’s hard to explain what exactly happened but I basically ended up dropping a foot and swinging that leg out behind me doing a ‘nac-nac’ type of maneuver. This probably should have been a trip ending crash but by the grip of one teva sandal and decades of avoiding the worst, I managed to stay on the bike much to the disappointment of a couple locals walking past who shouted out, “Should we call an ambulance?!”

We could have ended the day there but we still had daylight so we bought some luxury items for dinner, strapped em on and headed for Pleasant Point campground. Got there, set up camp, made refried bean wraps, had a beer, had a few garlic mussels, shower then bed. 213km, 900m vert.

6am, pack up, oats, hot coffee and the remainder of my garlic mussels much to the disgust of Koen. I wasn’t going to dare carry them on the bike and I’m not throwing out perfectly good food so the cursed breakfast was my only option. Out we rode into the fog. It wasn’t until the climb between Raincliff and SH8 that we got above the cloud. It was a perfect morning but a cold front was due from the south overnight so we were in for a day of building northwest winds - the sooner we could reach Tekapo the better. First climb was all good, one little bit of walking for me as I couldn’t quite manage it on my 36-42 lowest gear. The descent to SH8 was great, fast and loose. I remember us making pretty good time from there up and over MacKenzie Pass which rewarded us with a decent long downhill albeit with a headwind.

Onto the sealed road it was a bit of a grind up to Dog Kennel Corner at which point you’re on the main highway and there was an unwelcome number of cars, even ones overtaking coming directly at you. Tekapo couldn’t come soon enough. Fish and chips for lunch and a bit of admin trying to find a place to stay that night. We didn’t have a destination in mind but we set off for Twizel with the aim of dinner there.

We were punished by the wind going around the canals and met up with Koen’s brother and his partner near the Tekapo B power station. Koen mentioned the idea of completing the ride in eight days. It’s now that I’ll mention we had been talking about a seven day finish running up to the event but our lack of training and day 2 performance had kind of put that out of reach but eight days was still possible, we’d just have to make a few sacrifices.

With wind in our sails we zoomed on to Twizel where we quickly formulated a plan while we ordered two takeaway pad thais. Chris, who we hadn’t seen in days, was planning to stay in Omarama that night. It was 7pm and we were 80km from Omarama but it looked attractive as a southerly was due to move in overnight. Time to sacrifice some sleep. Two hours later we were nearing Ohau lodge and started on the climb. Up over the top and then hitting the single track descent in the dark was a bit of a treat after all the road ks that day. My sunglasses departed my poor storage position at some point but that was a problem for another day. We were flying down the Quailburn descent and pulled into the accommodation just before midnight. Koen, shirtless, hunched over his pad thai at midnight was giving real gollum energy. I decided to save mine for breakfast. 235km, 2.1km vert.

6am alarms came around far too quickly but a cafe feed at 6:30 elevated the mood before the frigid southerly crushed it back down. It was a slog getting to the bottom of the Omarama Saddle, driving rain saw us all in rain pants, gloves and with rain jacket hoods tucked under our helmets. Once the rain started to clear we saw the white covering on the hills we were about to cross. The start of this climb was always going to be a hike-a-bike for me but at least we had bits of sun breaking through. Biked to the top from the switchback and was treated to some great views over a dusting of fresh snow. Flew down the hill to Top Hut for a quick snack out of the wind. We were pretty chilly so we got a move on knowing that we had 30+ stream crossings to get through.

It was slow going but pretty uneventful apart from Koen almost going facedown on one particular crossing. We eventually got to Oturehua and were too early for the pub so we settled for a pie, soda and a few bits to get us through the rest of the day. It had been a pipe dream to make it to Bannockburn but given Chris and Koen hadn’t biked the Dunstan Trail before, we decided doing it in the morning light would be far better. The railtrail was surprisingly punishing to Alexandra but we made it there, had a quick feed, bought some supplies and carried on to Clyde Holiday Park for the night. 150km, 1.3km vert.

I got up to go wee in the night and could barely move, I had flexed my ankle a bit far on the previous day’s hike-a-bike and it was letting me know. Popped some ibuprofen and went back to sleep. 6am alarm, body felt surprisingly ok. Packed up the tent, downed the coffee I’d made the night before. Caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror, my whole face had puffed up, decided to ignore that. Pie and snacks at the Four Square and we were off on the trail with Bannockburn coffee lined up as the next stop. We had a nice ride along the Dunstan Trail and met about 30 cyclists going the other way between Cornish Point and the Bannockburn Bridge.

Coffee and snacks at the cafe. I actually grew up in Cromwell and my sister had told one of the local reporters about the ride I was doing. She just so happened to be at the cafe and snapped a quick picture of me (in an awful state) for a profile piece in the local paper.

This whole ride I had been thinking about the Nevis climb. We used to head up there when it snowed and I remembered the road being quite long and rather steep in sections so I had thought there would surely be walking involved. We set off from the cafe and got into the climb - the first few sections were fine but I knew it was going to get steeper. As I recalled, the gradient increased but I managed to keep pedaling, just. I knew it evened out and there was even a bit of downhill before Duffers Saddle so I gritted my teeth and decided I was going to get to the top without stopping or walking, 1000m climb over 15km from the cafe to top. Koen was just behind me and was making better progress pushing his bike. He later said, “I could hear your knees.”

At the saddle we found a spot of cover for a short rest and some food. Flew down the other side and started on the long grind up the Nevis Valley. Got up and out, I’d been carrying a 440mL beer in my frame bag all day and decided now was the time to enjoy that before the excellent descent into Southland. We had lined up the campground in Lumsden but more importantly the pub which had hot food and cold beer. Heads down, we time trialed the 55km and pulled up to the pub into one of the more hectic situations of the trip. They were not well equipped to handle the number of patrons. There were some ill mannered people visiting that night but we were stoked to get a $7.5 handle of Speights and a delicious pizza. While the pizza was cooking we took relays back to camp to set up tents. Ate, drank, shot back to camp, shower and bed. 150km, 2.3km vert.

Alright, we’re finally in Southland. We didn’t really have a plan but it was about 110km to Te Anau so we thought we’d get there and come up with an idea. We ticked over the miles but the lethargy was apparent. Got to Te Anau, had some food, bought a few things and decided pushing all the way to Milford just wasn’t worth it. Firstly, Koen and Chris had never been there and it’s truly something you want to see - so doing it in the dark would be silly. Secondly, we still didn’t have a ride out of Milford Sound so arriving at midnight may not have been the right move. We set off knowing we’d stop at a campsite but unsure which one. We only had a few cars pass us as most people were coming out at this time of day. We clicked along at a decent pace but my knee was playing up so we got to Totara Flat and called it a day. Set up camp, had dinner and a beer. Koen got the water on the heat with the intention of making me coffee for the first time this trip. Just before it started boiling he rode off to fill up his drink bottles leaving me with the actual coffee making. Close but no cigar Koen. 170km, 1.1km vert with 60km & 1.1km vert left to Milford Sound.

We’d decided that setting off at 5am would mean we could make the 48km to Homer Tunnel before tour buses started rolling into Milford. 4:20 alarm, quick pack up and bite and we were off into the darkness. There was a bit of giddy excitement around that morning and we ticked over the distance pretty swiftly for the uphill trend, slow going up to Homer Tunnel but the light was increasing and the views made it all worthwhile. We zipped through the tunnel, happy that it was downhill and there were no cars in sight. We stopped to wrap up warm and appreciate the view at the end of the tunnel. I was planning on finishing off the last of my super8 film but the camera had other ideas. The motor would tickover the shutter for a bit but then splutter and seize. Turns out the batteries were just too cold to provide the necessary juice so I finished it off once we were actually in Milford Sound.

Now, listen here. The descent from Homer made all the struggles up to this point well worth it, the better part of 1,500km in the saddle, the hunger, the elements, the aches, all of it. The views are just something else, Koen and Chris enjoyed those. I however, had seen it before so I opted for the speedrun and man, I was glad I’d put my gloves and jacket on cause that’s one of the longest, fastest, best road descents I’ve done.

Pulled up to Milford Sound cafe at 9:30am on a real high, 8 days 2 hours after setting off from Ship Cove. Time for a pie and a beer. 10am is basically midday when you get up before 5am huh? It’s at this point I’ll put in the small brag that we were the first finishes from our wave BUUUT we have to admit that we never actually took our bikes to the ‘finishing pole’. We did walk around there but had switched off our tracker by this point. So maybe we never actually finished?"


Pictures by Koen Greven
Words by Lewis Ferris