A Foray in Fiordland: Nathan Fa'avae's Godzone Report
Nathan Fa’avae is one of the leading adventure racers in the world with multiple world championship victories, highlighting a successful career in the sport for almost two decades. He has had valuable input into the product development of Absolute Wilderness Freeze Dried meals with the aim of producing the ultimate energy and nutrition for extremely demanding sports. He and his expedition racing teams have tested our meals over six continents, in what we believe are the hardest conditions on the planet, He participated in the first four Godzone events (2012-2015) recording 4-wins. He didn’t enter Godzone in 2016 and 2017, but returned in 2018 to experience Fiordland. Here is his story.
By Nathan Fa’avae ; Team Avaya Captain
I didn’t think I’d ever write another Godzone race report. After the 2015 event I decided to step away from participating in Godozne, for a few reasons. One was that we’d been made to swim across Lake Wanaka, which I hated and swore never to race again! Another reason was that our team had won four consecutive chapters, and while I could be wrong, I couldn’t see our winning streak coming to an end in the foreseeable future, and I wondered if that was good for the sport or bad. I sensed it would better for the sport and the event not to have such a dominate team. The other reason, and really the main one, was that training for Godzone is over summer, which is the school holidays for my three children, and I wasn’t enjoying the compromise of training for an event when I was wanting to spend quality time with them doing adventures. So in 2015, it was thanks Godzone and Mā te wā.
But wait … perhaps the timing couldn’t have been better, it was school holidays, April 2017, we were sea kayaking around Great Barrier Island on a family adventure, Jodie my wife and I were sitting fireside looking out to sea after what had been an exciting day on the water. Are you sure you want to paddle out there in a cyclone they said. As we stared into the flames, she said to me she had something to say and that I’d most likely laugh, or be surprised.
I braced myself, admitting to an affair, bought something outrageous, had she used my V14?
I want to do Godzone she said. I laughed. I was surprised. You won’t have any idea as to the shock I got when she said that. Jodie had never done a multiday race before but had seen them close up countless times, she always said she was never keen. After I got back on my log, I put more wood on the fire and asked ‘why?’ I was really curious where this notion had fallen from. I listened.
I understood, I accepted and I wished her luck. Then the next news came. I want you to do it with me. No way, no, no, NO.
I’d raced the AR World Championships in Australia in 2016 and that marked a change for me, more golf, more family trips, more expeditions planned by myself, less suffering, more campfires.
Somewhere in there I agreed, reluctantly, and to be honest, right up until the race starting I was regretting signing up. I’d hoped I’d get into it once time moved on and the event grew closer but try as I might, I just couldn’t get excited or interested. It was an inconvenient distraction from what I really wanted to do with my time, but I knew I needed to support Jodie in her quest, plus I had struck a deal which I needed to honour. I said I’d go to Godzone if we could go skiing in Japan for 3-weeks, which we did, which was awesome, which was over.
In building a team, I’d asked Jodie what her goal was, to race or to participate. She wanted to participate, to finish the full course and enjoy it as much as possible. We agreed a team of good friends with sound experience would be best, and invited Mark Rayward and Dan Moore to join us. Both guys work for our event company as course designers and safety managers, so we quipped that we were a staff team, but really it was four friends going on a mission. Mark had done Godzone Kaikoura and Tasman, Dan had been on the podium a few times and won Tasman. For 2018 though he wasn’t keen to race, with a second child arrived and busy building his house, he was happy to take part in Godzone but in a social team, not a competitive race team, he wasn’t going to be able to train much at all. That suited me, I didn’t have the time or motivation myself.
Jodie however put in a lot of work. She’s been very committed to motherhood, raising our three children intensely for the past 15-years. She wanted to get fit and strong again, to do something more self focused. She knew she needed to work hard to be in a condition to handle the event. Fiordland was being talked up and we didn’t doubt that talk for a minute.
Despite some media touting us a team that could rattle the apple cart, that was never our thinking or desire. We were always realistic about what preparation we’d done and respected the other teams entered. I believed if we went well and finished the full course, we’d be top 10 and if we had a really good week, we could make it into the top 5. Top 3 was only going to be possible if stronger teams DNF’d, we never had the fire power to challenge the top teams, nor the ambition, I was in no mood for hard racing and that wasn’t going to align with Jodie’s goals anyway.
Mark has a long history of adventure racing having competed in a number of Southern Traverses, but he’d been busy planning the Absolute Wilderness race and a summer with his family, plus he’s almost 50, fit and strong, but not the racer he was a decade ago.
6-day races are vastly different from 4-day ones. As a team, we entered the event knowing the worst thing we could do was view it as a race. We needed to focus on moving through the course sensibly, pacing ourselves, not making mistakes, looking after each other and enjoying what we could. I wanted to start slow, very slow, for days. I said to the team pre event to expect a slow pace, and if they think it’s to slow, tell me on day 4 and we’ll do something about it then.
After 18-months break from expedition racing, I still wasn’t looking forward to the prospect of being out on course again. There is a glamorous side to adventure racing which is the appealing side, but there is a dark side, the suffering and discomfort, the hardships. These moments are etched in my mind, a survival instinct I suspect, a voice that says to me, this is going to hurt, one way or another.
But husband duties overrode my fear of suffering, or was it the fear of suffering for failure to do husband duty, either way, there was no turning back.
I’ll admit I felt surprisingly fit on the minuscule amount of training I did, perhaps it was freshness or just power of the mind telling myself I’d be fine, which is what I believed.
After years of racing I have developed efficiencies and systems so putting these systems into action didn't take much effort, so the pre race gear compiling, packing and sorting all went by easily and without trouble. We arrived in Te Anau with just one day to get ready for the race, might as well get straight into it. Gear check, race briefing, tick those boxes off.
I was surprised we got the maps when we did, the afternoon preluding the race start. I’d love to know the results from an anonymous survey asking teams who spent time looking at other maps, satellite imagery or used other sources to plan their routes. I would have loved to call Geoff Spearpoint for tips. We didn’t but retrospectively we could have saved some time on course if we had of. It is against the rules and does come down to the integrity of the teams, I hope teams respected this rule. We plotted our routes and sealed the maps.
Overall, the course looked interesting, some varying navigation options spaced throughout and exploring the south coast and lakes. It was quite close to my earlier predictions of the where the course may go, but as the event got closer, I guessed it maybe set further north. There wasn’t any surprises from what we’d be briefed building up the event so we were good to go. The 55km walk out on the South Coast Track looked painful, but I figured the scenery must be incredible along there. In my mind I saw that as a turning point in the race, I said to the team that we want to be reaching the South Coast Track in good shape, feeling fresh and healthy, foot care was going to be crucial. We had a dozen bottles of Betadine, Antiseptic Powder and tubs of Ready Set Go Antichafe. The course had Trench and Immersion Foot stamped all over it.
On the positive, I was looking forward to going to Lake Hauroko and biking Percy Pass, things I’d wanted to do for a while. I was quite happy being at Godzone with a different focus as well, a different goal and challenge.
Race day. I woke, grabbed a coffee and popped down to the start area for a quick live chat with Duncan Garner on the AM Show, then it was back to the house to fetch my gear and get on the start line for real. I was glad there was food and drink at the start area as my breakfast had been scant. Next thing we were jogging down to the playground to inflate the pack rafts.
We didn’t rush but didn’t muck about either, getting on the water somewhere between 10th and 20th I suppose. It didn’t matter, we were planning on taking it easy anyway and we felt there was a reasonable chance there would be a dark zone sometime that would regroup a bunch of teams.
We paddled the short distance across Lake Ta Anau and into the Waiau River towards Lake Manapouri. I’d suggested to the team for the first day at least, we wanted to be going steady and a good gauge is that we wanted to be working less than the teams around us. This was highlighted in the opening paddle sections as we just tapped along in the pack rafts quietly but the teams around us were clearly going hard with far more intensity and effort. We were on track.
Stage 1 was a mixture of hiking and pack rafting, with an abseil dropped in. We moved smoothly through the stage, determined to keep low heart rates and minimal impact on our bodies. There was clearly a race going on around us but we felt more like spectators than participants. As we climbed away from Lake Manapouri to the Garnock Burn, we were caught by three teams storming up the track, we moved aside to let them pass as they were traveling much faster than what we wanted to, but then once in the Burn, they took off up the valley and we deviated onto a shorter and faster route, that was a theme of the whole course for us. We very much felt like the tortoises. As we climbed through the saddle to the west of Mount Titiroa, Mark started to feel the effects of heat and exertion, so we quickly addressed that with electrolytes, hydration and support. It highlighted to me that even though we’d been taking it easy, we needed to back off even more, this was going to be a mammoth course.
We descended into the Borland Burn and wandered down the valley as darkness set in. Team PWC caught us, we’d passed them on the decent somewhere, and we chatted with them for a while. It was dark by the time we went off the edge of the abseil so there wasn’t much to see, or say. It was then a few hours on trail out to the Monowai River.
When we arrived at the collection point for the pack rafts at the Monowai, we were told the Waiau was dark zoned, so we could paddle the Monowai but then have to wait until morning to continue on the Waiau. It made little difference to me as I thought both rivers were dark zoned anyway! We decided to sleep before paddling the Monowai, it didn’t make sense to get wet and then camp, only to get wet again, may as well sleep dry and do the water stages non stop. In principle the idea was logical, but what we didn’t know is where we camped was right beside the Pursuit support crew camping area, who were arriving and setting up throughout the night, and we also underestimated how loud some of the Pure teams were, walking along the track to the Monowai, not mentioning any names [Jane Orbell, Team Victory Boxing].
After a fairly b-grade few hours sleep, we were all happy to get underway and paddling the Monowai, which at night was really exciting, then it was a few kilometres portaging to the Waiau. We had to wait a while before we could paddle so we relaxed chewing breakfast on the river bank while teams arrived, I guess there must have been 20-teams there for the restart.
It was actually quite funny seeing the day start with all the pack rafts bobbing down the river but it detracted from the experience for me and our team. By day two it’s always nice to be on your own, maybe see a team here or there, so to be back with so many teams after 24-hours of the start was a pity. We’d need to be patient for solitude.
The river was pleasant and we cruised along, mainly getting passed by teams. We did though manage to jump ahead of most of the teams that passed us by exiting in the Wairaki River and saving a few kilometres of travel.
Stage 1 was over, finally. It was now onto bikes for a quick ride to the Waiau Caves and then onto Motu Bush and Dean Forest, a sprinkle of mountain bike navigation to reach Lake Hauroko.
Everyone was feeling good and we were going smoothly, in about 5th place, or thereabouts.
Stage 3 … ha, stage 3. Possibly the longest single stage in the history of the sport. We were keen to get into this stage, it featured paddling on Lake Hauroko, Lake Poteriteri and Lake Hakapoua, we were going to really remote places. I was surprised though that Warren hadn’t placed a checkpoint on Mount Bates, but happy he didn’t.
Paddling across Lake Hauroko in the evening was lovely, made more so by the fact that we’d be dark zoned, we could expect a full nights sleep before paddling the Wairaurahiri River. We had a funny situation at Teal Bay Hut when the marshal told us we couldn’t paddle past the hut, offering no explanation as to why, we had to walk the final few kilometres if we wished to go any further. We asked about the teams in front, who we’d seen paddling along the lake shore further ahead, he told us they hadn’t, they had walked. I was starting to think I needed more sleep, hallucinations on day two? We did discover the truth later though, that the lead teams had in fact paddled on, just not all the way to the river outlet.
We had the option to camp and walk the hour to the river in the morning, or walk in the evening and camp. It was a nice evening so I was keen to hike, sleep after the walk not before it. We found a great campsite on the lake shore and heated up some Absolute Wilderness meals for dinner and pudding, a hot meal and a long sleep in an adventure race is such a luxury, it felt good. We were carrying a load of freeze dried meals, the most I’ve carried. With so much water around, it was logical to carry meals as our primary food source, energy dense, nutritious and ultra light.
Day 3 saw another race restart. It was ground hog day. I wasn’t enjoying it. It took away from the river for me, what should have been a wilderness river was once again littered with teams and pack rafts, I can’t complain, I was part of the problem, but I hoped that’d be the last of the restarts.
The good news for us was that every time we saw other teams we felt confident they were going harder than we were, so we felt our pacing was spot on.
Pack on and into the Waitutu Forest for a few days. We reached CP17 in Crombie Stream and then took our route to CP18 at Lake Poteriteri. The straightest line climbed to a large clearing about 300-metres above sea level. We didn’t like the look of it, thinking it could be knee deep bog, and it was also guarded by scrub belts. Dan and Mark both have extensive hunting backgrounds and know all to well what ugly fight country can be like, we did not want to get in a situation where our travel was down to a few hundred metres per hour. We decided to stay in the bush and take a more northern route. It felt good and we went slowly so there wasn’t likely much difference in choices. We had considered options of returning to the South Coast Track but opted to go the shortest distance, which I’m so glad we did, we would in time, have plenty of opportunity to enjoy the South Coast Track, best save that for later.
We had a solid system for navigation, I was lead navigator, Mark would back up during the day and Dan would back up at night, we’d all take turns at route finding, trying as much as possible to move on animals paths.
Paddling along Lake Poteriteri we saw a few teams coming towards us that had gone to the South Coast Track, PWC and Torpedo7. I suspect they would have burned a lot of energy on that route.
We arrived at the Slaughter Burn hut not long before dark, enjoying a good catch up with Marcel Hagener. He informed us we were in 5th and we already knew there were 3-4 teams right behind us. We didn’t care either way, I wondered if we were even a third of the way through the course. Our plan was to take a fairly direct route to CP19 but we wanted to get a few hours sleep somewhere on the way, ideally the few hours before sunrise.
We were having fun, a theme of our jokes was courtesy of Tom Sainsbury, comedian and snapchat dude, we spent sometime in the bush calling out for Mr Fitzherbert.
By this stage of the course we were in good shape, Dan was carrying a monster pack helping Jodie with her gear and supplies. Jodie was doing amazing, toughing it out through the thick forest and broken ground we were moving in, mud bogs, holes, vines, bush lawyer, fallen trees, it was hard work keeping any constant speed of travel. The navigation was fun and we were getting satisfaction from nailing the line we wanted to traverse. We did confess amongst ourselves how hard the terrain was in the south. We joked that 300-metres elevation in Fiordland is equivalent to 1000-metres where we come from. So many times we’d say, sweet, just need to descend a few hundred metres and we’ll reach the lake, only to be descending still after what felt like hours later.
As the sun rose close to CP19 we stumbled into Tiki Tour who were breaking camp, it’s funny how that happens. We opted not to paddle Lake Innes, it looked like fun but we figured it wasn’t worth it time wise. We reach CP20 and dropped to the lake. Reaching the lake was a celebration, we felt like we’d achieved something significant. We’d cleaned all the CP’s, had paced ourselves superbly and were in 4th place, we guessed. Though we knew that would change. We had no intention of exerting ourselves, we figured we were barely half way through the course.
Paddling down to the sea was uplifting, we were alone in a wild place, this is what it’s about. I was even glad I was there.
Right, now it was time for the mother of all walk outs. The South Coast Trail. We got CP21, Westies amazing hut, far out, what a place to stay in a storm. Then things took a turn for the worst. The reality of the event we were in raised it’s head. Dan mentioned his feet were quite sore, I took his admission as a signal that this wasn’t good. We stopped and I took a look, dam it. Trench Foot. He had the tell tale red spots showing the fungal infection setting in. We treated it immediately with a pad drenched in Betadine. I hoped we’d got to it fast enough. I’d seen this in many races and had it myself a few times, we had a situation that we needed to manage smartly. We’d been really proactive with our foot care so for Dan to get it was annoying. The good news for Dan was that he wouldn’t need to carry the monster pack for a while, the other three of us would need to share that load and allow him some recovery, it also meant a big sleep was on the cards for the night ahead. We had about 22km to reach the Wairaurahiri River and our gear drop, there was a hut we could camp at. I was feeling really good so I loaded Dan’s big blue pack to the limit and we got underway. It was by far the heaviest pack I’ve carried in an adventure race but I made a goal of getting it to the end of the day. The South Coast Track turned out to be a real disappointment. Views of the ocean were practically non existent, it was just a muddy, boring track in a tunnel of forest. After about 15km I couldn’t handle the pack any longer, Mark was feeling strong so we redistributed the weight around again and carried on. Jodie did a super effort carrying a big load and without her beloved trekking poles which she’d lent to Dan to ease his feet.
We set up tents behind the hut and snaffled mattresses from hut. We planned a 6-hour sleep but as I was getting into bed, a dry tent, mattress, sleeping bag, hot meal down the hatch, I said to the team, let’s take 7-hours, it doesn’t get better that this!
The next day we woke energised and ready for the 35km or more remaining to finish stage 3. We had plenty of food, felt rested and ready. Dan’s feet were better but still concerning. The better news was we only had one more trek after this and we figured it was likely quite an easy one, ignorance is bliss. We walked and talked, talked and walked, discussed in detail why dogs have tails, and eventually reached the end of the gigantic stage 3, thankfully the end bits did reward with sea views and some time on the beach, I even enjoyed a swim in the sea.
It was hard to believe we’d made it to stage 4, after so many days on course, it was invigorating to be back on bikes. We’d been warned that the navigation in Rowallen Forest was difficult in places, which was a fair comment, a few places in there had us puzzled for a few minutes. We popped out the other side with a flicker of day light left and passed PWC who were stopped roadside, they soon caught us and we rode near or with them for a while. A local farmer had set up a road side recharge, it was amazing, they had hot tea, sausages, fruit, cans of drink, easter eggs. We enjoyed 15-minutes with them before carrying on, how could we not. Soon after PWC stopped to sleep.
It was then I said to the team, if we want top 5 in this race we need to go now, we need to bolt. Everyone was keen and excited so we picked up the tempo and climbed well over Borland Pass and down the Grebe. Sleepmonster was creeping about so we stopped in an old building for a 90-minute sleep, and ate hot meals before we took on Percy Pass.
The energy in our camp had switched from touring to racing. We had a sense of urgency in the mix. We figured if anyone was going to catch us, which was always a possibility, they were going to have to work hard for it. Percy Pass was hard but awesome, what a bike route, wicked.
The descent was high speed and exhilarating, we were wide awake and we transitioned fast to kayaks, having a gliding paddle down west arm, and a surf up north arm, sensational.
The final hike, yehaa. We had a 15-minute nap in the hut before departing, lapping up the heat from the fire. As we departed I said to the team this looks like a really exciting little stage. We get to wander up this valley and climb to Lake Herries, paddle an alpine lake and descend to Lake Te Anau, it looked incredible, no real navigation, just enjoy it. Well, that was short lived. F@$K. What an epic the last trek was. It was pitch black at Lake Herries so we didn’t get the reward. It was classic to bump into Braden Currie and tax his hot water from the fire for more hot meals.
We wanted to have one more sleep to get us home and opted to sleep at the end of the canoe on Lake Herries, figuring if teams behind catch up they’ll wake us. After a crap sleep shivering for 90-minutes, we got up and started walking, surprisingly refreshed. We moved well and unexpectedly started to catch a team ahead, which turned out to be Torpedo7. Greig had an eye injury and their pace had slowed. It put us in a strange situation. I’d been happy to secure 5th place but I wasn’t interested in racing hard to the end contesting 4th. Our whole race and journey to that point had been more focused on our team spirit and progress through the course, and very little of it had been about the race, the competition, I didn’t want to finish the experience in a race mindset. We spoke about it as a team and we all agreed, we’d rather have space, and do the last paddle as a team at our own speed. We stopped to get water and let Torpedo7 go ahead. Then we carried on at our own pace.
We were therefore surprised again to arrive at the final TA and Torpedo7 were still there, they were serving a 1-hour penalty, somewhat unlucky, they had paddled on the South Coast which was forbidden. We only heard through another team that it was not allowed. Before we had much time to digest what was happening, the TA staff said to us that PWC were about to arrive. It felt like all of a sudden placing in the top 5 maybe not as secure as we thought, we’d best get going. We threw everything in the boats and departed. Having the motivation of being chased was what we needed for the last paddle, it kept us focused and while we enjoyed it, chatted and ate, we didn’t get complacent. It was a glorious day on the lake and fitting end to our Godzone. It enabled us time to reflect and process what we’d been through, an epic and intense shared experience.
Am I glad I did? yes, it’s an experience with many fond memories, thanks Jodie.
I want to thank GODZone for putting on the event, creating the opportunity for people to go out there and do what they did. New Zealand adventure racing is in really strong and GODZone is a major factor in that. Congratulations to all the teams that took it on, and especially to those that completed it, it’s a massive achievement. Well done to the top teams who made a race of it and pushed hard.
A massive thank you to Avaya, who have come on board taking over the sponsorship of Seagate. Team Avaya, for international races will be the traditional core team, Chris Forne, Stu Lynch, Jo Williams and Sophie Hart (& me). The team will be racing in China in June, and the World Champs in Reunion Island in November.
Thanks to our other sponsors and supporters.
RAB clothing, Gemini-lights, Pure, Pics Peanut Butter, Ready Set Go Antichafe, Honey World Lozenges, Klymit Packs, inov-8, Ems Power Cookies, and Absolute Wilderness Freeze Dried Meals
Alexandre Socci & Chris Helliwell, thanks to GODZONE