Issue Thirty Three


De-digitizing in Wanaka

WORDS & PHOTOS x Jay French

25 April 2018
Part One

Digital To Go Non-Digital

Double tap, scroll, double tap, scroll. Close. Open Facebook. Scroll, scroll, refresh, scroll. Close. Re-open Instagram. Scroll, scroll, refresh, double tap, scroll. On and on. Forever.

As a society, it’s not that we dislike social media, on the contrary. Social media has seen one of our generation’s most prolific shifts in where our attention goes. From influencing our decision making, to influencing our mood, it’s hard to imagine what our world was like without it. Sometimes however it can feel a little too much and are we’re losing our grasp on real relationships? We’ve all been to that dinner with friends, when at one stage you look around to see everyone else face down on their phone, not a word being said.

It can be pretty easy to point out all the negativity that is associated with social media, but we mustn’t forget there is a positive side to all this. Social media has made it so much easier to stay in touch and share information with friends and relatives living around the world. The spread of news is much quicker and more direct. Information and entertainment is far more readily available than ever before, and we get the chance to explore new places without leaving our devices. Yes, there are studies linking depression, bullying, and suicide to social media use. But, there are also stories of good. Long-lost friends and families meeting, animals getting new homes, important issues around the environment being brought to light. On the small scale, plans are made, jokes are shared, people catch up. I imagine everyone has a good, and a bad story involving social media.

This is one of the good ones.

Ironically a trip to get-way from the world of digital was brought about by a mixture of all things digital. A meeting set up over email, from a message over Instagram. A trip created remotely, using map images and locations sent digitally. Logistics planned via Facebook Messenger.

The idea for this particular adventure began whilst I was sitting with my friend Geoff, who, in the employ of Wanaka Tourism, knows everything there is to know about the area. Every new discovery, every secret, and all the best places to go. What we were looking for was something easily achievable, which made us feel like we were a million miles from civilization. We wanted to go ‘off grid’ but we wanted that kind of ‘off grid’ for people who work 9-5 jobs. Something we could achieve in a weekend, but made us feel like we’d gone where no-one else had been. These days it’s probably getting hard to find somewhere on this earth where man has yet to set foot either and knowing this, we decided on a softer ‘off grid’ option. No road access. No power. No mobile reception.

Whilst Geoff was on the hunt to find the place it was my job to pull together a crew. We needed a genuine group of friends who could handle sharing bunks with one another. A group who were okay with not showering for a few days, whilst still enjoying each other’s company. A group who could navigate a pre-dawn start without losing the plot, and lastly a group who could tackle any kind of riding that gets thrown at them.

First up we had Conor Macfarlane, back from a crazy summer full of events around the world. We’d be joined by Alanna Columb, NZ DH champ, who had only recently returned from her own personal retreat into the mountains of India. Rounding out the crew was Wanaka-bred explorer, no stranger to being on top of mountains strapped to skis or a bike, Elmo Cotter. Lastly, hometown hero and enduro racer, known not only for her skills on a bike but on the pipe-wrench as well Phoebe Coers. A radder group of riders would be hard to find.

The plan was set. Geoff has sorted our permission for use to the old Minaret Burn musterers’ hut, nestled away in West Wanaka Station.

Part Two

By Boat, Foot, And Bike

Wearily, and still yet to speak, we grabbed our bikes and quietly made our way to the Wanaka boat ramp. There were no wheelies, no chats, and no laughter. It was far too early for that. We wanted to spend as much time away from it all, as we could. I wanted to see the sunrise across the lake, and for that to happen it meant we were jumping aboard before 6 in the morning. As we coasted onto the jetty, Brent from Wanaka Water Taxis was there waiting for us with the boat warmed up and ready to go. We’d called in a favour to get him out of bed in the black of night, but it was well worth it as the sun crested the Pisa range behind Wanaka, which we would have missed had we stayed in bed a minute longer.

We cut our way across the inky waters of Lake Wanaka, the township shrinking behind us. The sunlight and the fresh breeze off the lake provided the ignition for the energy amongst the group. Once we got moving the laughter and chat from the night before returned, and the early start faded from memory.

It seemed like a short trip, but I’m assured we were on that boat for 40min. The excitement must have sped things along. Brent coasted the vessel up to the empty beach, and we got busy unloading our gear.

Our presence on this secluded little too little time to go unnoticed however. Not by people this time, but sandflies. The group began swatting at their exposed skin, which was a sign that it was time to leave. We made a bee-line for the indent in the bush, which would be our trail. Wanaka is known for its adventurous riding, and this trail was no different. I got 80 metres or so up the trail, and then it was pushing for me.

It wasn’t just me though. This trail went straight up. Everyone had a go at pedalling and a go at pushing. Through the ferns, we even found a section of mud, which was a change from the dry dusty trails everywhere else in the area. The crew pushed and pedalled their way up, through gates and around switchbacks until we found a fork in the track. Geoff was certain he knew the way. 80% sure. Unfortunately, that trail came to an abrupt end, and out came the technology again. We hadn’t quite gone right off the grid just yet.

We retraced our steps and got back on track. With the temperatures headed towards the 30s, we were already thinking about a trip back down to the lake. We finally reached a plateau and the views back down to the shore indicated just how far we’d climbed. We rode through a valley and rounded a bluff where we were treated to a view of Lake Wanaka we’d never seen before. Looking in the general direction of Wanaka, we looked down on Mou Wahu; the island on a lake, and across to Mt Burke, and the Stevenson Arm. Not another soul in sight.

We were indulged with a short but welcome section of downhill, before arriving at our quarters. The musterers’ hut stands in a clearing, looking across the lake towards Mt Burke. The views from the long drop are perhaps even more impressive. Sprawled out on the grass next our bikes, we recovered from the morning’s exertions. It was far too hot to bother going into the hut, at this stage all we could think about was how nice the lake would be for a swim.

Part Three

Cooling off

After nearly a whole morning of climbing uphill, we were actually considering riding all the way back down! As we sat about chatting and eating muesli bars we heard an unfamiliar sound. There was a Kea in the bushes. It’s unexpected that they’d be found so low, but here one was, hanging out at the Minaret Burn hut, not even bothered about the people, more interested in the shiny bike parts than anything else. He made a hell of a racket. After listening to as much squawking as he could handle, Elmo then denounced the Kea as his favourite bird, and we decided that the lake sounded better than ever.

Geoff knew a shortcut to the lake, a gnarly 4×4 track out the back of the ridge. It was going to be a rowdy descent, and he convinced us that the ride back up would be a piece of cake. About 15 minutes. That was a suggestion that we’d later dispute. Off we went however, shredding the wide-open farm track, overtaking each other, jumping the side hits, snaking new lines and skidding around the bends. It was ‘pick a line and hang on’ until about half way. We stopped, looking out to where the track was headed, we could see dark blue, and turquoise water, and white sand beaches. Were we still in Wanaka?

Straight into the cool waters, no messing about. No-one had anything with them. Except me with my cameras. No swimmers, no towels, let alone phones or computers. It was straight into the water, and air dry later. You could see nothing man-made anywhere you looked. We were the only people around for miles. We swam, we relaxed, we laughed and filled our bottles up in the clean running waters of the Rumbling Burn. This is what we’d come here for. We stayed on this beach for hours, lying on the hot stones and swimming in the lake, not leaving, partly because we had nowhere else to be, and partly because we were all dreading the climb back to the hut which was never going to take 15 minutes.

Apparently, Conor pedalled all the way to the top. I wouldn’t know though. I was too far back, pushing my bike.

Part Four


Now, like I said earlier we wanted a softer ‘off grid’ experience and none of us have any gear for sleeping, no food, no water, nothing. We were travelling light. That’s because Geoff had an ace up his sleeve. He’d arranged for his mate Mark, from Ridgeline Adventures to meet us that evening with all the gear. Mark operates tours in the area and knew of this cheeky 4×4 track that Geoff had just taken us down. He arrived in his trusty Land Rover, full of tents, tripods, cooking utensils, food, clothes and most importantly, beer.

We rehydrated, unpacked, ate some cheese and crackers, and I divulged in a little more technology, putting on a saved Spotify playlist as we hung out. It was time to make a plan for the evening. I had hoped for a banger sunset, where I could get some all-time images of the crew riding through golden rays, but rain clouds across the lake signalled to us, that it probably wasn’t going to go down like that. We would eat, and then explore and see what was hiding in the hills above the hut. Geoff cooked a mean spaghetti bolognese for everyone, and we replenished our reserves before going for our third ride of the day.

Things were looking interesting as we made our way up the slope. There were rain clouds, and rainbows, but all the hopes for an epic sunset were fading. We cycled around, finding some lines here and there, but I was beginning to think about putting the camera away. We were losing light fast and it looked like we were going to get pretty wet, any minute. No sooner had that thought crossed my mind I looked up to see Alanna and Elmo hurtling down the hillside with the most dramatic sky behind them. I’m still not sure what was going on, it was like the sun was backlighting the rain clouds, and making everything look rad.

Back to the hut we went, where Geoff had brought out beers and a little whiskey for us to enjoy whilst playing a few rounds of ‘Cards against humanity’. Everyone knows you can’t stay in a backcountry hut without a little whiskey and horribly questionable humour. My memory is a little dusty, but I’m pretty sure Alanna walked away with the win.

Part Five

Heading Home

Is there nothing more appealing than the smell of cooking bacon and fresh coffee first thing in the morning? Well, perhaps not if you’re a vegetarian. But, for the majority of us on this trip, we were all in. Elmo served me up a bacon sammie, and Geoff prepared another fresh pot of coffee. With the sun streaming in through the windows, we drank our coffee and finished our feed, and prepared for the ride ahead.

It was a superbly scenic 35km pedal back to the Wanaka township. Undulating trails follow alongside the lake, splashing through glacial rivers and winding through the hills. Once again, the temperatures were hot so we made a few stops to jump into the lake. The ride out wasn’t super challenging, it had a few steepish sections, but it was really about the views and the serenity. By about 15km and one lake jump into the pedal, the real driving force getting us home was this image of icy cold beers in the sun. As we’d come to expect, Geoff knew a place. The perfect post-ride watering hole. Not an obvious lakefront bar, but a local gem, hidden away in an industrial area out the back of town.

Rhyme and Reason Brewery is a no-nonsense bar, with a front that opens to the sunshine, parked in the front of a brewery, brewing up craft beers and ciders. Instead of providing a kitchen, if you want food, it gets ordered from your favourite local eatery and delivered to you. We got a round of everything under the sun, a giant stack of sushi delivered in and sat around a long wooden table, chatting about our trip and planning the next one.

Part Six


It was coming back into town that we arrived back in phone range. Our phones were all going off with the notorious Facebook ‘ding’ and a variety of text message chimes. It seemed so long ago that we were tucked away in the hut, up on the ridge. Where we sat around the old table in the hut, under the glow of the solar powered lanterns. Real laughs and conversation taking the place of WhatsApp and SnapChat. We truly felt as if we had made it somewhere far away. We had our short remission from social media, and we all survived.

Social media use is a balancing act. Realise when it’s too much before it gets negative, and remember when it’s helped you out and brought you something positive. If you’ve seen something on one of your many channels that you want to experience, then use social media to make it happen. Want to switch off for a while but find it’s basically become a reflex to swipe the unlock on your phone? Take a ride out of range, that way your hand is forced. We found a truly stunning spot out the back of Wanaka, with amazing views you couldn’t help but be in awe of. It was the perfect place to get away from it all. Funny thing is, there’s a high chance you discovered this story through social media. Can we ever really get away from it now?


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