In Search of Families In Search of Adventure
A Family on a Bike Tour: New Zealand, Samoa, USA and Canada 2004/2005

Into the Void

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From:       Stuart
Subject:   Into the Void
  Date:         15th January 2005
     Sylvia Flats, Lewis Pass, New Zealand


A week or so ago, while resting up in a cheap motel, we caught a (probably illegal) showing of the movie Touching the Void, an amazing story of life, near death and mis-adventure. There's a scene in the film where Joe Simpson describes how he found himself abandoned in a deep crevasse high in remote Andean mountains. He had a shattered leg, broken in an earlier fall, and been left for dead by his climbing partner. His situation was desparate; totally alone, without food, water or fuel and unable to climb up and out. As he put it, in situations like that you have to make decisions and keep making decisions to stand any chance of surviving. It doesn't matter whether they are the right decisions, the important thing is to make them. Faced with certain death if he stayed still, Joe defied all logic and decided to lower himself deeper into the crevasse to see if he could find a way out. He did.

Sitting half way up Jack's Pass on the Rainbow Road, exhausted from the exertions of pushing, pulling and trying to cycle our unsteady loads up the gravelly groove, I was reminded of Joe. While our circumstances were in no way comparable to his, we needed to decide whether to go up or down before darkness fell or we were blown off the road. We'd tried every conceivable way of progressing upwards, but even with the boys pushing our progress was no more than a dull and painful farce.

All hands to the deck in a moment of family teamwork

We called a family meeting and for fifteen minutes dithered over whether to follow our Rainbow or retreat and take the long but easy option along the highway, like most normal people. Like Joe, but with heavy hearts, we made our decision. "We need to go down, said Kirstie. The quorum gave its silent consent and five minutes later we were back where we started in Hanmer Springs.

Our alternative route took us up and over the Lewis Pass, through a Kiwi alpine wonderland sculpted first by ancient ice and now by tumbling waters. The road crosses the Alpine fault which runs through New Zealand making it prone to earthquakes; when they say this road rocks, they really mean it. Tracing the rock strewn braids of mountain rivers, slipping through moss laden forests of beech, this route scratches its way towards bare mountain tops. It should have been dream riding. But we were not in a dream but a nightmare. And the trouble was the road didn't rock, it rolled……. and rolled….. and rolled. Up and down, down and up. Again and again and again. To climb this pass you had to climb it three times over, nature providing resistance at every turn. As if the landscape were not enough, she added blistering sunshine (at last!) and the strongest headwinds known to Family on a Bike. They say wind is the enemy of the cyclist and there's no disputing it. We were blown to a standstill physically and mentally. The vagaries of our instrumentation mean that speeds of less than 3.8km/hr do not register. As the wind sculpted our hair, speed dropped and progress ceased to register. The depression that was moving in from the west spread rapidly and tempers became brittle.

As parents with toddlers, we're quite used to dealing with temper tantrums but these ones were really bad. Shouting and arguing without provocation followed by pathetic and irritable whining. It was all getting too much.

"I'm tired of cycling, I don't want to go any further. This road is stupid."
"Look, we need to keep going or we'll never get to camp."
"I don't want to. I want to stop."
"Don't be such a baby."
"But I'm hungry and thirsty and really tired."
"Look Stuart, just get back on your bike will you, we've got to press on."

While the kids were enjoying the freedom of extra break-times brought on by the tough conditions, lousy for cycling but perfect for flying a kite, the parents were losing it.

"What's your problem Dad, it's great here."

As the sun, wind and cycling sapped our strength we began to lose our cool with each other, with the kids, with everything. We were losing the mind game.

When Joe Simpson finally crawled out of his crevasse he had to hop and crawl for miles across glaciers and boulder strewn moraines to stand any chance of reaching help. His extraordinary mental toughness helped him overcome his pain and claw his way from the brink of death to safety. He used his stubborn streak to drive himself forward, setting himself little goals to focus his attention. He said the stubborn part of him had to achieve them, he simply had to get to that rock over there within 20 minutes so he'd drag himself there, almost fainting with each step, and then spot another one and start over. Days later, delirious and exhausted, he finally reached help.

We lacked Joe's stubbornness and strength of character but adopted his goal setting strategy and kilometre by kilometre overcame the wind and terrain to reach a rest spot at Sylvia Flats. And suddenly, without warning, the world seemed a better place. An Alpine Fault brings some benefits and we stumbled across one of them, some natural thermal pools built from mountain debris beside the Lewis River. We stripped down to our shorts and soothed our screaming minds and bodies in hot sulphurous waters. While tired backs scratched on gravel beds, little boys splashed in cooler river pools, and the day's pains were washed downstream in the cool mountain waters.

Natures remedy makes it all alright now... or does it?


For once the sulphurous smell was not me. It looked like this was the turning point we had been waiting for.



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