Rite of Passage-The Southern Traverse
by Martin Dugard
Geoff Hunt stood atop New Zealand's Mount Arthur, a bald hump of mile-high limestone. The sun was shining, but a bracing Tasman Sea wind chapped Hunt's lean, leathery face. Four-person Southern Traverse teams humped up and over the peak as the race director stood there. The squads hailed Hunt and stopped a moment to admire the stunning 360-degree view of the forest and clear rivers that wreath Mt. Arthur, stretching all the way to Cape Farewell.
Hunt complimented them on their perseverance, told them to watch their steps on the narrow path across an approaching rock saddle, called most athletes by their first name. Then his helicopter arrived to pick him up.
Unlike the more affluent adventure races like Eco-Challenge or Raid Gauloises, the Southern Traverse does not have a fleet of helicopters on call around the clock. Hunt runs the event on a shoestring budget, as a labor of love, hoping against hope for the day some big-dollar sponsor will step in with the kind of cash he needs to take his race to the next level of exposure. Until then, his helicopter usage is partially funded by the government of New Zealand. Hunt pays from his own pocket whatever the government will not pay.
The pilot parked on the very summit, helicopter profile backlit by the rising sun. He climbed out, zipped his fleece all the way to his throat, then dug his hands into his pockets and wandered over to Hunt. "How's it going?"
"Good. Ahhhh..." Hunt said with a pained expression, like he's about to borrow money. "Look, a question for you?"
"A team has radioed in that they have a sick member. Would it...would it cost me extra if you took me on a side trip down to that team?"
The pilot thought it over. "No, I guess not."
Hunt breathed a sigh of relief and turned to greet another team cresting the summit. They hadn't slept since paddling away from Pohara Beach 24 hours earlier. It was hard, though, to tell who was more exhausted - Hunt or the athletes. Even in the world of adventure racing, even amid stunning beauty and a display of human endurance, the complexities of putting on a six-day race are a heavy weight. "This is like a big family," Hunt said later, explaining why he's dedicated himself to putting on the event since 1991. "It's a lot of work, and a lot of sleepless nights, but I get a tremendous amount of enjoyment from putting on this race. It's not the world's most famous, but it's definitely one of the toughest."
Made for Adventure
Indeed, a world traveler would be hard-pressed to find a spot on the globe more suited to adventure racing's mountain/sea/river disciplines than New Zealand's Southern Island. As green as Ireland, with raging rivers that run crystal clear and forests as dense as any triple-canopy rain forest, there is perhaps no more beautiful place in the world.
With a small population and very little development, the Southern Island provides more than just a great place to race - the training is exceptional, too. With the exception of sheep farming, it might seem to the casual visitor that all the Kiwis do is train.
A run into the forests outside the coastal city of Nelson, for instance, finds men and women of all ages trail running, mountain biking and briskly trekking. It's no wonder that New Zealanders are known as the world's very best adventure racers.
The title is not subjective, but undisputed. A running joke is adventure racing's "Rent-a-Kiwi" program, where an American or European squad seeking to shore up their strength with a last-minute addition before an Eco or Raid pays a Kiwi's expenses to a race.
New Zealand was where Gerard Fusil held the first adventure race, the 1989 Raid Gauloises. A Kiwi team won. In 1991, Geoff Hunt, a ski instructor who helped Fusil set the Raid course, originated the Southern Traverse. Though the name implies a dash from one side of New Zealand to the other, the race is held in a different spot on the Southern Island each year. Whether down in the fjords of Dusky Sound, where Captain Cook's Resolution resupplied after months of battling the Southern Ocean, or north in the clear blue ocean waters of the Tasman region where Dutch explorer Abel Tasman became the first European to land on Maori New Zealand, Hunt has no problem finding places to race.
On With the Race
Finishing the Southern Traverse is something of a rite of passage among New Zealand's adventure community, and all those square shoulders and thick quads squeezing into ocean kayaks for the 10-hour opening paddle belonged to the world's best.
The sea was calm, the sun muted and golden in that early morning magical way. Hunt himself squeezed into a kayak and paddled offshore 50 yards to bark race instructions by bullhorn. And then they were off.
Over the next five to ten days, the 75 teams would see the best and most brutal scenery New Zealand has to offer. Beginning with the paddle from the serene waters of Pohara, then into the nasty chop of wind-whipped Cook Strait, teams began a grueling montage of outdoor sports - a 55K uphill mountain bike ride, a trek over Mt. Arthur, more mountain biking, a bit of whitewater rafting, more trekking, a little rappelling, a little more mountain biking and then the finish. The elevation would never be flat, and the temperature would always be either too hot or freezing cold.
It has become a cliche to say that adventure racing pushes men and women to their mental, physical and emotional limits, but that is exactly what Hunt has planned. The veteran of several Raids and Ecos designs the course with pain in mind. "Being an adventure racer, I know just how much teams can take - and design the course around the very edge of those limits," Hunt admitted.
Several American teams made the 747 flight into Auckland, followed by the puddle-jump into Nelson. Team Schwab and Presidio, from San Francisco and a team from San Diego led by veterans Dan O'Shea and Harald Zundel.
All are fit and experienced, with that perfect chemistry required of adventure racing - a little perseverance, a lot of endurance, a generous helping of love (sometimes through gritted teeth, just to keep the peace) for your fellow man. But, while these squads never lost their competitive fire, the Kiwis immediately outclassed them.
Late on the first day, New Zealand's Star and Garter (a team led by two-time Raid champ Steve Gurney) had already finished the paddle and mountain bike leg and begun trekking toward Mt. Arthur. Meanwhile, O'Shea's team is part of a long line of racers walking their bikes up a 10-mile climb through thick forest. "What can you do?" he asked. "Our woman is sick already, and we can't burn her out early by forcing her to ride. So we walk."
Further up the road, Schwab was out of race mode, stopping to change into warm clothes rather than change on the fly, a la adventure racing's "always move forward" dictate. "We're just working out the bugs," he said happily. "Things will pick up for us."
In the days that followed, all the American teams moved gamely forward. It was O'Shea's squad for whom Hunt has sought extra chopper time - flu-like symptoms had stopped them altogether. "What can I say?" O'Shea was frustrated, but still just happy to be racing. "Hey, this is part of how I make my living," noted the former Navy SEAL. "I can't complain too much about a job that asks me to travel around the world, then ride and run and paddle through awesome scenery like this. Some days it's hard, other days it's easy. You take what you get."
Far ahead - almost a day's travel - Star and Garter was mountain biking steadily onward. Their land navigation was flawless and their team chemistry characterized by laughing and joking. "Hello!" Gurney called out to a lone farmer watching the race pass through his mountainous spread. "Beautiful day."
As the race unfolded, athletes were treated as much to a travelogue as a test of endurance. With many adventure races, random moments of beauty can be followed by days of monotony and drab scenery. But New Zealand is so fantastic and so epic that the breathtaking views just get better and better.
Even as teams suffer and hurt, the awareness that they are racing through a very special place - and in a very special, almost secret, race - grows stronger and stronger. It doesn't stretch the imagination to say that those racing Southern Traverse enter into a brotherhood of lucky travelers. Adventure racing is the only way to see this hidden beauty.
Star and Garter won. O'Shea found a way to finish. So did Schwab.
Hunt took it all in, finally relaxing after days of sleeping an hour a night, cadging helicopter rides when he could but otherwise enduring long hours driving over bumpy fire roads to keep his finger on the pulse of his event. He's aware that others consider his race a purist event, largely unfilmed for television and run without frills as an "athlete's race."
Hunt is brusque at times, and almost poetic at others. But his truest definitions come as both a patriot and adventurer - he loves the outdoors and he loves his country so much he wants to share it with the world. "Make sure," he told a journalist, "you mention how lovely New Zealand is." And so I have.
As the 1999 Southern Traverse fades from memory, Hunt got his greatest wish - major sponsorship. A cash infusion from Discovery Channel will finally allow him to put on the sort of epic, sprawling Southern Traverse he has dreamed of for years.
The quiet little event is about to become world famous, and Hunt doesn't mind a bit. "Wait until people see the course," he exults. "If they think what they've seen so far has been tough..."