Soul Searching on the St. James Cycle Way

Having recently signed up to a three day mountain bike race, which was then immediately followed by several weeks of procrastination, it was time that my team mate Ben and I actually started doing some training. Our first foray into the world of fitness would be riding the St. James cycle way. A two day ride that can be ridden in a single day, replacing the ‘pleasant’ and ‘enjoyable’ qualities of the trail with less agreeable adjectives such as ‘long’ and ‘tiresome’. In addition to this frankly not ideal exchange, would be the discovery of my love of all things animal, and the discovery of Ben lacking a soul.

The St. James cycle way is a 90km loop north of Hanmer Springs, located in the Hurunui district of the South Island, New Zealand. Completion of the ride in a single day was considered an achievable goal as a) we weren’t bringing any overnight gear so we’d have to make it; and b) some mates of ours had ridden it in a day a few weeks earlier and they weren’t training for anything, so we’d definitely make it.

We headed up on Friday evening from Christchurch with the intention of camping at the start of the trail and setting off early Saturday morning, expecting to be back about eight hours later. This meant driving out of Hanmer Springs on Jacks Pass road at night to get to the camp spot, which in turn meant that my road kill tally was to increase exponentially. Before moving to New Zealand two years ago, my road kill count was a respectable and karma pleasing zero. Since arriving here, I’m up to three confirmed kills, which was all on the same drive, on the way back from Queenstown. First on the list was what I am convinced was a baby snow leopard. I have been reliably informed that no such species exists on either the North or South Island, however whatever I hit was small (like a baby), white (as snow) and leopard (like), so even the most sceptical have to accept that it must have been a baby snow leopard. Obviously, once I hit it I was in dismay at losing my perfect record and while explaining to my mates Ben and Tom in the car that I’m now no better than a seal clubber, a bird flew into the windscreen and bounced off in an explosion of feathers. This was then followed by another bird coming to a similar fate several hours later on the outskirts of Christchurch, much to Ben’s amusement.

But back to the evenings drive to the camp site and for some unknown reason the small mammals of the South Island, before they decide to cross an otherwise deserted road, like to wait several hours until a car comes and amble across at the last second. I can only assume that they like to use the car headlights as some sort of illumination to allow them to cross safely. I doubt they see the irony of the one thing that allows them enough visibility to cross the road is also the source of their demise – although I may have seen the fifth possum roll its eyes in knowing just before it ended up under the car wheel. Upon arriving at the camp site, I pitched my tent, dug a shallow grave for a symbolic burial of Mr. Tinkers (the koala bear car mascot – representing the enroute massacre of the last two hours), marked it with a make shift cross, lit a candle and took a moment of sober reflection. I then turned to Ben who just shrugged his shoulders and climbed into his tent.

We rose at 6am the next morning to slightly ominous weather in the direction we were about to ride:


And slightly ominous weather in the direction we would be finishing from:



Ben and I entered into some discussion which went along the lines of:

Me – ‘What do you think?’

Ben – ‘Reckon it’ll be alright’

Me – pointing in the direction that we would be riding ‘Looks a bit unsettled over there’

Ben – ‘Yep’

Me – pointing in the direction we’d be finishing from ‘Looks a bit unsettled over there too’

Ben – ‘Yep’

Followed by a brief pause as we both stared off at some unknown spot on the horizon somewhere. I looked back at Ben who just shrugged his shoulders.

Me – ‘I’ll pack my coat…’

And so we set off.

Technically the St. James cycle way is a crescent and is made into a loop by a 25km gravel road that runs through fairly barren and uninteresting terrain. After our earlier intellectually challenging exchange, we both opted to cycle in silence for a while and allow time for the early morning start to wear off. Arriving at the start of the trail, our mood perked up as it turned out our average speed had been about 17km/hr and if we could keep up this pace we’d be done in 4.5hrs. Back in time for lunch I thought. Which was a bit stupid really seeing as we’d not technically ridden any of the trail yet and had no idea what lay ahead. But still, you gotta do what you gotta do to keep morale up for the troops, no matter how naïve or misguided it is.

Now at the actual start of the trail we were warmed up, talking to each other again and raring to hit some killer trails… which, it appeared, would have to wait as the trail map indicated a 4×4 track for about the next remainder of the trail. We looked at each other, shrugged our shoulders and embarked on the first climb of the day over into the adjacent valley. Lake Tennyson was to our right, looking lovely as ever, as we continued our way upwards on a gradual ascent through more barren and rocky terrain. And yes, I am aware that I have already mentioned how uninteresting the terrain was; which may beg the question, it can’t be that uninteresting if you’ve mentioned it twice so far? Well, to that I would reply, just you wait until the next paragraph…

As we turned into the adjacent valley the landscape burst into colour and vegetation. It was incredible to witness the difference of this lush and diverse landscape, filled with forests and grass land when compared to the barren terrain I may have mentioned earlier. The valley was full of wildlife such as birds, sheep, more birds and rumours of wild horses, and so much greenery and rivers and more greenery and none of this barrenness of earlier in the day, that you may or may not have heard about.


Descending down into the valley and cycling along the valley floor, along more 4×4 track, the mountains on either side of us started to grow in size as we followed alongside the Waiau River. The 4×4 track was flat and well-formed enough to mislead us into how much progress we were actually making as we manoeuvred around large rocks and attempted not to lose control of the bikes on the gravel surface. Our average speed began to fade and with it the prospect of a lunch time finish. The gradual decline in speed and general mood spanned a good two hours as we trundled our way uneventfully along the valley floor. Eventually we made it to the end of the 4×4 track and once over a helpfully provided swing bridge that spanned the Waiau River, we embarked on a climb that took us up to an excellent vantage point looking back over the valley we’d just cycled through.

It was at this point that we came across one of the fabled wild horses. Now, I’ve never been much of an animal person and if you were to show me a picture of a hamster riding on the back on a kitten, riding on the back of a puppy, riding on the back of a baby snow leopard, at best it would invoke a Ben type shoulder shrug from me. Possibly accompanied by a ‘meh’ depending on how similar the baby snow leopard was to the small white leopard like thing I maimed with the car last year. It may have something to do with recently becoming a cat and dog owner, but I seemed to have softened up a bit and find myself getting all emotional and excited about anything on four legs or more. The best example being the wild horse we came across – based on my giddying reaction and high pitched squeal, you would have thought I’d seen a unicorn or one of those half man, horse winged things which you hear so much about (which also may have been on the list of things I killed on the drive in… although it was quite dark. May have been a griffin). I was running about trying to get photos of this wild, untamed beast and looked back to Ben who just took a single camera shot, shrugged his shoulders and continued on with the climb. Once I photographed every possible angle of this magnificent specimen of a horse, I mounted my own steed and we rode together through the plains of St. James valley for all of three and a half seconds before the horse half ran, half galloped, half flew away towards the horizon. I continued up the hill, wiping tears and sweat from my eyes.

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As well as being rewarded with a fantastic view of the valley and a soul touching moment with the mythical local wildlife, we also got to ride our first bit of actual bike trail.  The track became a lot technical as it reduced in width and increased in gradient. We shot off down the hill, negotiating tight corners and small drops for all of about 2 minutes, before the trail had the chance to reform as a 4×4 track again and continue on its merry way. It was a fun 2 minutes. Possibly not worth all the effort we’d gone through for the 2 minutes of trail, but seeing as we happened to be out this way anyway, it was a small perk.

We were nearing the end of the valley now and were around the point where you would normally stop for the night and continue on the following day. Which at that particular time in the ride, would have actually been quite nice as the legs were starting to lose form somewhat and a feeling of tiredness was starting to emerge. Checking the map, it appeared we had about 20km to go which was going to feel more like 50km as morale started to drop and mutiny within the troops was stirring.

I rode in silence and pondered what exactly ‘the troops’ was a metaphor for, while Ben chatted next to me, attempting to take my mind off the impending final 20km stretch of more 4×4 track. It was around this time I also began to realise the difference in riding psychology between me and Ben. Whereas I’m a lot more emotionally up and down, for instance getting overly excited by a horse or slumping from fatigue, as I now was. Ben is a lot more consistent and solid with his emotions – based on his reaction with the horse earlier in the day, I can only assume that he doesn’t have a soul, or a pet. In any case, putting being dead on the inside aside, his conversational skills, delivered in his distinctive monotone, uninterested mode of speech, was exactly what I needed to take my mind off my tiring legs. This allowed me to focus on whether Ben was born without a soul and then somehow lost it, or whether he never had a soul to begin with, as we pedalled up and over the final climb of the day.

At the final 7km point, where we turned off to follow the trail back to the car, I decided to give the troops a helping hand for the home stretch and take one of those energy gel things, that’s loaded with glucose and carbs and no doubt plenty of banned E-numbers. As it turned out, the final section was a well formed walking trail that continued on a lovely downward gradient all the way to the car. We zipped down the trail, swerving this way and that as the path snaked its way to the finish line, all the while venting our excitement in ‘WHOOPS!’ and ‘WOOHOOS!’ at the prospect of the day finally coming to an end. Finishing the trail back where we had started an expected eight hours later, I’ve never been so pumped and buzzing at the end of a ride. I let out a final whoop and turned to high five Ben who just responded with a monotone ‘that was good’ and cracked open a beer.

Disclaimer – Ben probably does have a soul