Mostly grass strips - I've landed on seal maybe a dozen times ever!

Night Ride Home

Last updated by Tussock Comments (5)

Categories: Trike Talk, Cross Country / XC

Picture this: it's 2 a.m., raining, and forty knot winds are trying to rip your trike from its tethers.  You're trying to de-rig the wing in this dark tempest, assisted by a tall, striking blonde woman you met a dozen hours ago, you're both nearly naked, and fifty yards away a couple of others are engaged in a similarly near-nude hectic battle with the elements... 

This story starts over a beer, because nothing worthwhile begins with a salad.  It was in a bar, a long time ago, when Steve and I decided that we should make an epic cross-country flight; one that would have maidens singing and old men raising their glasses. 

         "I just need a few days' pass from Joanna and the kids", Steve tells me.  "Can you get some time off?"  I assured him that I could.  "Sounds good", he says, pushing an empty glass my way.  "You're round."

We made extraordinarily detailed plans: we'll take camping gear, enough kit for passengers in case some landowners whose property we'd made into an impromptu airstrip or campground cared for some aerial recompense, and some maps. 


Day one, Saturday.  For a couple of guys who'd long talked about a multi-day triking adventure, we were remarkably unprepared.  After faffing around at the hangar for hours, shoving camping gear, clothing, spare helmets and headsets under seats and into borrowed saddlebags (cheers Doug), Steve and I discovered that we were equally gifted in organisation.

            "What about plates?"

            "Bugger.  I forgot."

            "Cutlery?  Wine glasses?  Corkscrew?"

            "Ah... bollocks, no."

            "Lighter?  Matches?  Flashlight?"

            "I've got a flashlight... Here, see!  No, wait - the batteries are flat."

By the time we'd cleared the supermarket and petrol station (and were now proud owners of a complete set of plastic cutlery and paper dinnerware) it was mid afternoon and plain we weren't going far that day.  Steve beats me into the air by half an hour as I finish packing and find fuel, with a loose arrangement that we'll meet at the Culverden strip.  Airborne, I think I can find the Culverden strip.  Jeez.  Perhaps I'd better consult the GPS.  Argh!  The air is quite rowdy, and the GPS batteries are flat.  Nothing for it but to change the batteries in mid-air.  I can do that, no worries.  Well, not too many worries.  Oops.  Where'd that battery go?  Ah well, I've got plenty of spares in my pocket.  Bollocks, this is harder than you'd think.  Might have to land somewhere and sort this out.  

Chance hangs on slender threads. We both landed in a paddock at Waikari after rejecting Sam Mahon's sheep-infested strip in favour of a paddock next to the main road.  Next to a couple of hitch-hikers, in fact.  Jill was enjoying a break from lecturing at Canterbury University; her brother, Neil, was looking after Big Sis. 

"Hi, I'm Bryan, better known as Tussock, and the shambles disentangling himself from his headset is Steve. Oops - sorry - I wondered where that battery went.  Where are you going, and why are you giggling?"

And so two became four. 


 We made Hanmer Springs that evening - hardly a milestone in aviation, but there's a comfy hay barn for four right on the airstrip, and hot pools and restaurants and beer a bit of a walk away.  Steve, keen to play the part of the seasoned aviator and master navigator, assured us of a short-cut into town that he found on his GPS; half a mile later we were wading through a "little" river that AirNav Pro had somehow neglected to inform us of. 

I discovered that Jill and I had a hatful of mutual acquaintances ("She's your ex-girlfriend?  Really?  I went through Med School with her in Dunedin, and flatted with her for a couple of years while I wrote my PhD..."), and that we had opposing views on running barefoot (in fairness, her qualifications as a High Performance Coach for Olympic-level athletes carried almost as much weight as my I-read-a-book-about-it-then-tried-it-twice experience, I have to admit.) Steve and Neil discovered a shared penchant for grubby jokes.  We swapped tall tales of past derring do over a curry and pint - Steve's martial arts prowess, honed over decades; Neil's foreign diplomatic skills, practiced in war-torn countries on behalf of the United Nations; Jill's extensive international sporting career in a multitude of disciplines; and my famous ability to recite Monty Python lines while belching.  We chased dinner and diatribe down with a soak in the thermal pools.

Now clearly, seeing your new mate's sister in a rented swimsuit somewhat too small for her calls for discretion, tact and good taste.  Steve and I, of course, had none.

            "Neil, mate!!!  Your sister's better than a 10!"

            "No wonder you're a zero. Jill got all the good looking genes."

            "Got any other sisters?"

            "Ever considered having a sex change?"

            "I'll pay."

Neil assured us that revenge is a dish best served cold.  In the pool, we talk a little about ourselves and make bad jokes.  Après soak, Neil and Steve looked all set to paint the unsuspecting town of Hanmer Springs some indiscrete shade of red, so Jill and I decide to leave them to it and we wander the long dry way back to warm sleeping bags in the luxury suite of the barn at the airfield.

Steve's 2 a.m. shout had us all awake, up and running.  WIND!!!  A front is coming through from the south, and we need to protect the trikes.  Hence, the near-naked scramble in the dark gale to get the wing down...  A brief blast as a front rolled through from the south, and then all was calm again. 


Day two, Sunday.  Dawn.  A cloudy, cool and calm, post-frontal day.  I'm awake - wide awake, and there's a tradition to uphold.  After the usual struggle to align the mast and wing, ZK-JPR (known to his mates as Jasper) is ready for flight.  Before the first rays of the rising sun kiss the Amuri Plains, the barn is quaking to the tune of a Rotax.  Heh!  After the customary beat-up, I land and taxi back to the barn to find Jill has already left for an absurdly early morning run with Neil, each awoken prematurely by Steve's sonorous snorings which were continuing to echo around the valley. 


Steve keeps up a constant chatter on the radio.

            "What do you reckon, big boy... ah, this rain must be wearing our props out... hey, Neil wants to know if Jill is warm enough... I think there's too much cloud to get through the pass..."

            "Jill wants to know if you ever shut up?"

            "Yeah but this rain's getting worse.  We'll have to land somewhere soon."  

I want him to shut up as well.  I'm aware that we're going to have to land or turn back, but there's a happy team in my trike and this reality business is an unwelcome intrusion.  Jill and I are singing Neil Young's 'Thrasher' over the intercom, accompanied by the crackling Rotax and whistling propeller.  We had left the Amuri basin shortly after takeoff under a solid overcast, nursing a forlorn hope that we'd find a way to get on top and fly over the high mountains in this area - I really wanted to see again the summits of Gloriana, Faerie Queen, Trovatore and Mt Technical; peaks I knew from climbing - but the prospects were slim.  Instead, when we turned into the Waiau Valley we were confronted with lower cloud and intermittent drizzle which turned to light rain as we flew north.

I wish we could fly - not in a trike, but really fly, like Peter Pan and Tinker Bell, for us to be able to extend out arms and soar through the falling rain, climbing and swooping and diving and rolling, and get above the rain and the murk and into the sunlight above.  I want to walk among the billows of the cloud-tops and rest on their vaporous domes.

But it's not to be.  A quick conference on the chat channel has us picking a paddock on the river terrace below; a low pass confirms the choice and we're soon setting down on the soft wet grass.  The tents go up, and given Steve's incredible nocturnal performance the night before (his snoring repertoire includes plausible imitations of chainsaws hard at work on tough trees, trains leaving stations during a blitz, and spectacular aircraft collisions with granite mountains), the tents are located some distance apart and I'm feeling sorry for Neil.  By midday the rain has set in and my tentmate and I are snuggled into sleeping bags co-reading 'Puckoon' and giggling like schoolkids.  For the rest of the day we trade stories, ideas and dreams, while the primus keeps up a steady supply of chicken soup which we drink from plastic cups bought from the Rangiora supermarket.  Nightfall settles on the Waiau Valley and I am supremely content.  By midnight there are stars punctuating the night.           


Day three, Monday, brings a crisp, clearing dawn and the promise of wonderful flying.  Ribbons of cloud are wrapped like skirts around the surrounding summits; the sky is a perfect vault of blue.  No one stirs until the sun warms the tents and soft billows of steam rise from the paddock.

Day three is also the day the day Steve's engine refuses to start.  After a battery-threateningly long R-r-r-r-r-r-r-r-r-r-r-r we try hand starting.  I manage maybe a dozen modest tugs on the starter cord before gasping and stepping aside.  Neil looks sideways at me, grabs the starter handle and gives perhaps thirty solid pulls without puffing.  I rub my left shoulder and mutter about it not being right since fending the lion off my cook in Botswana.

            "It might be damp from all that rain.  Let's give the plugs a wipe, dry off the ignition leads and check the carb bowls for water."

            "Perhaps we can get Steve to fall asleep facing backwards.  A couple of his snores should get us a hundred miles or so."

            "Or we could be repelled from here by one of your Python jokes."

It takes until late afternoon, and a battery swap, before getting started.


Jill and Neil have the front seats today.  We're underway at eight thousand feet on a bluebird afternoon.

            "Relax, take a deep breath, Jill; you're doing fine.  Hey, see that little tarn on the ridge to our right?  I camped next to that a month ago.  Wow!  Look at the light on Lake Christabel - isn't that something?  That's the Freyberg Range and Cannibal Gorge in front of us, isn't it beautiful?  And that's the Spencer Mountains to the right.  Let's fly over th..."




She’s doing a pretty good job of flying straight, making gentle corrections with an athlete's touch; and I’m giving no more than the occasional nudge on the training bars.



            “What’s the name of the peak just to our right?  The one with rocky spur running down towards us?”

            “That’s Mt Duessa.”

            “I’d like to climb it.  Can we climb it?  And sleep on the summit and watch the stars unwind through the night, and give cute new names to the constellations and eat chocolate covered raisins until dawn, then…"




We fly over the Main Divide, not shhhing at all but singing Pink Floyd.  Jagged rock summits flecked with snow rise above tussock basins beneath us.  Narrow valleys flanked with forests tapering down to deep gorges below slide under our wings.  I love this.  This is my home.

Murchison is a short grass strip dotted with cows.  It takes a couple of passes to clear enough space for a pair of trikes to land.

            “How’d you go, Neil old sport?”

            “Bloody amazing. Fantastic!”  Big grins.

            “More fun than burning your sister’s toys, eh?”

            “Too right, mate!  Brilliant!  And easy!  No wonder even you two can do it.  I'm shouting dinner tonight!”

“Aw mate; you have no idea what you've just committed yourself to.  Steve only eats as much as a small African nation.  You could shout us a feed at Beachwoods if you’re prepared to peddle a few of your body parts to some back-alley Angolan surgeons.  Tell you what, we'll restrict Steve to six deserts and keep the wines down to hundred dollar bottles…”

And no tents tonight - we’re in the height of back-country New Zealand salubriousness - cabins at the campground.  Yay! 


Day four... Tuesday, and I’m feeling a little guilty.  We’ve got two passengers who were going to go to Motueka, and after four days we’re STILL at least an hour’s flying away and now we're trapped in a solid blanket of fog.  We're going nowhere, slowly.  Neil isn't concerned.

         "Look, Motueka was never important - it was just an idea for somewhere for Jill and I to go to for a holiday.  Things are different now.  Different dynamics, new adventures.  Steve and I are a team now anyway, God help me.  This is brilliant fun, in spite of the terrible company."

         "Then do we keep aiming north for Motueka, or head for the West Coast and home over the Alps?  Better flying, amazing scenery, big mountains, somewhere different?  There's a definite risk of being trapped by weather, but it's not a bad place to be stuck…"

Jill and I go for a long run, up the Matakitaki Valley to the gorge.  We swim in the river as the sun dissolves the fog.  We lie on the granite boulders, basking in pools of sunlight.  Then we fly west.


There were kayakers all over the white-water of the Buller - O'Sullivans, Ariki Falls, Jetboat rapids and Earthquake Run had paddlers bouncing their kayaks in the froth.  Jill was inspired.

            "Picture yourself…"

            "…in a boat on a river…"

We chorus over the intercom:

            "…with tangerine trees and marmalade skies…"

So we Beatled our way down the forested flanks of the gorge, with me casting slightly anxious glances to the side, searching for non-existent places to put down should the engine quit.  Motorcycles are parked by the Iron Bridge, and others are riding towards us on the gorge road.  Neither Steve nor I can resist a flyby, so we drop down low over the road.  A forest of arms bending to an unseen breeze wave to us as the bikes slow.  We're cut from the same cloth, trikers and bikers. 

We follow the Grey River downstream, easy now with a narrow strip of paddocks between the forested valley walls.  Sewell Peak and Mt Davy announce that the coast is near, and the township of Greymouth soon appears.  For one of a handful of times in my flying life we land on a sealed runway.  There's the satisfying chirp of the mains on asphalt… hold off the nosewheel… bit more… and we're down, and taxiing to the buildings.  We watch Steve and Neil land, tether the wings, and dinner is fish and chips on the beach.


It's late in what is a perfect West Coast day, still and cloudless, and Jill wants to make the twenty-ish mile flight down to Hokitika in the last of the light.  Why not?  Steve and Neil choose to stay in Greymouth for the night, probably swayed by the temptations of the local all-you-can-eat buffet meal, and will join us for breakfast tomorrow.  We take off, Jill in the front, and she takes the controls as soon as we're airborne.

The short journey south is nothing short of magic.  Mt Cook and Mt Tasman stand tall and proud, dominating the view to the south, and the expanse of Alps between here and there is clear and magnificent.  We're flying right along the coast, the long strip of beach beneath us and the swells of the Tasman Sea breaking on the sandy shore.  With the hand throttle set I have no need to touch the training bars and I'm free to soak everything in, to wring the greatest joy from the sweep of scenery from the sea to the mountains, the expanse of ocean nudging forested plains and rolling hills that yield to the majestic glaciated stretch of the Alps beyond.  The sun is touching the horizon now, and the alpine snows have a full blush of evening alpenglow.  We're not Peter Pan and Tinker Bell but we're close enough, flying through this scene and I love this, intensely.

            "Wow, Jill… this is a highlight of my life.  Thank you."

            "Mine too.  This is incredible… unbelievable.  The best day of my life." 


Day five, Wednesday.  We watch Neil, in the front seat, following Steve's pointed arm from the back, taxiing their trike up to the Hokitika Airport terminal building - close behind an Air New Zealand twin turboprop.  Steve and Neil get out as the Dash 8 disgorges its passengers, and there's mutual bemusement.  Jill runs up to her brother and crushes him in a hug.  Steve looks around and bleats.  Bah-h-h-h.   

            "I was pretty nervous about its prop wash", Steve says, pointing to the Dash.  "We were well clear of it in the air, but it took ages backtracking and taxiing.  I didn't want to park anywhere near it in case it starts its engines again while we're on the ground.  Where are you parked?"

            Jill grins.  "We've got a hangar.  Tussock's got friends in high places.  The airport manager, Drew Howat, watched us land and he's done us proud.  Apparently there are only two commercial flights a day into here, and the rest of the time this building is locked.  Drew gave us the keys to the entire terminal building, and we had the place to ourselves last night.  We slept in his office upstairs.  We're welcome to stay here as long as we want, and we've got free use of a car.  C'mon, we'll get your trike into the hangar and go for some breakfast."

            I chime in.  "Drew is a trike pilot too but he's a decent bloke, not like us at all.  I've only met him a couple of times before, on previous trips here.  He's been good to us.  We've got fresh gas, too."

We could fly home today if we chose, but no one is keen.  Steve and Neil opt for an afternoon flight south along the coast to Franz Josef.  Jill and I take Drew's recommendation: we fly up the rugged Whitcombe Valley, around Mt Evans and the Bracken Snowfield.  I know the area from previous visits on foot, and it's every bit as dramatic, stunning and awesome from the air.  It's big country: precipitous rock faces, deeply crevassed snowfields clinging to anywhere flat enough for snow to stick, jagged skylines.  I feel tiny and insignificant.  The air is beautifully smooth on the western side of the Main Divide, but as we cross to the east above the Ramsay Glacier the turbulence becomes extreme - a couple of wire slaps and involuntary ninety degree turns has us in retreat.  We're hammered as we go back to the western side, but it turns perfectly smooth again as we follow the Alps south.  We hear Steve and Neil on the radio, and meet them and a B20 3-axis microlight above Harihari.

            "Looks like we've got ourselves a convoy."

We fly together back to Hokitika.

With the trikes tucked away in the hangar, we take the car to Hokitika Gorge.  Rainforest drapes grey granite boulders in a sheer ravine; the turquoise water flows like a benediction beneath.  We dive in to the river, our protests about the water temperature echoing from the canyon walls.  The attempt at thawing in the sun evolves into an extended sandfly squashing session.

This has to be our last night here; the weather cannot last.  No one wants to talk about tomorrow.  Steve and Neil have taken the two tents ("A tent each!  I can sleep in peace tonight!") and they've gone in Drew's car to the campsite at Lake Mahinapua.  Steve has family duties; they will fly straight back to Rangiora in the morning.  We will take our time.

Night falls.  I want to be alone for an hour, and go for a walk along the beach under a nearly full moon.  When I get back, Jill unlocks the doors of the Hokitika Airport Terminal for me.  She's wearing an airline captain's cap she found in the office and a shy grin.  She presses an eight-page letter into my hand.           


Day six, Thursday.

            "No, sorry Jill, it's too risky.  We've been over tiger country before on this trip, but I've always felt that if push came to shove and the engine quit, I'd get it down well enough for us to walk away.  Moonlight isn't enough."

We're parked on a patch of grass in the Rakaia valley.  The Tussock luck has held and the manager of the nearby sheep station, Darryl Thompson, has offered us a room in the shearers' quarters for the night.  I've taken him for a aerial tour of his domain.  Our crossing over the Alps was spectacular, and everything is perfect - why chance wrecking everything by flying through remote NZ in a two-stroke trike at night? 

Jill is pensive. 

     "So how do you balance risk and reward?  Do you stop when the probability of something going wrong reaches a threshold, or do you accept a higher risk when the rewards are greater?  In mountaineering, and in whitewater kayaking, don't you go for the finest line you can - the closer you cut the corner, the greater the reward?  How is it in flying?"

Now there's a question.  How do you slice the pie?

            "I don't know that I consider it in the same way.  In flying, you must know how to fly.  It's nearly entirely subjective because the only variable is the engine, unless you're committing to a window of weather.  There's nothing really to reach out and grab you."  

            "Yet in mountaineering, say, there are moments where the joy or wonder or satisfaction is so intense that you're willing to risk all your future happiness for the joy you feel in that brief span of time.  There are minutes or hours that you would sacrifice years for."

            "Yes, absolutely true.  It's the old saying about having more life in your years, not years in your life.  But two mountaineers might entertain a risk that a pilot wouldn't expect a passenger to take."

            "So you'd fly by moonlight if you were alone?"

            "Perhaps... yes."

            There's a pause.  The warmth of the sun is exquisite.  The river is reciting its gradient and the boulders of its bed.  The peaks are etched sharply against a cobalt sky. 

Jill breaks the silence. 

            "Do you know Joni Mitchell's song 'Night Ride Home'?"

I laugh.  I don't know the song, but the title gives away her thoughts.  She sings the first verse:

            "Once in a while

            in a big blue moon

            there comes a night like this

            like some surrealist

            invented this Fourth of July

            night ride home"

Wow.  Now I get it - this is Jill's Big Blue Moon; this is her moment.

            "Ok, let's get an early night tonight.  So long as there's no fog and the sky stays clear, we can wait until the moon is at its highest and its light is filling in the valleys and fly back up to the Alps.  We can do a loop around the Main Divide, and then come back to here for some more sleep."

We lie in the sun, reading 'Puckoon' and giggling, eating cheese and crackers.  Later, we walk up Double Hill to watch the sun set behind the Alps. 


Day seven, Friday, midnight.  It's cold!  We're wrapped in every item of clothing we can manage.  The moonlight floods the valley with a blue glow, and there's magic in the air tonight.  It feels as though the moonlight makes a faint distortion of distances when we leave the ground, but it may be nothing.  We follow the Rakaia, climbing steadily, and then fly over the Butler range to Erewhon Col.

The mountains have dark, sinister faces where shadows fall, and snow-speckled grey slopes where they're touched by moonglow.  From a distance the snowfields look like white blankets draped across the crags to soften their contours; up close the appearance is of billions of diamonds, their crystal faces catching and returning the moon to space.  We spin around Mt Whitcombe and Snow Dome, and can clearly see blocks of ice in Vane Stream that have tumbled down the slopes from the Essex Icefall.  Evans River flows in a catacomb between the truncated spurs that flank it.

The Sapphire and Radiant glaciers are just that, in dazzling contrast to the valleys they flow in to.  From a low pass over the Heim Ice Plateau I can make out the spot where fifteen years earlier Geoff, Doug and I had pitched our tent.

Clouds are boiling up on the western side of the Alps; pillows of grey vapours that catch our shadow and turn it into faint halos; Saturn's rings around an umbra of black.

Malcolm Peak is a spire in the night.  I recall that we found an aluminium film canister that had been blasted by lightning in a cairn on the summit; presumably left there by Ebenezer Teichelmann a century earlier.  We cross over the top of the Lyell and Frances Glaciers and into the sublime world of the Gardens.

The Lambert Glacier and the Garden of Eden and Garden of Allah are three expansive ice plateaux that cloak the peaks of the central Alps.  I want us to be Peter Pan and Tinker Bell again - beneath us they are timeless and still, studded by peaks that keep them apart, and seem close enough to almost touch. 

We circle around the Arethusa Icefall and swoop through Angel Col.  The little rock rounds at Adams Col and Icefall Lookout - places we camped when we came to slay the dragons - are dark smudges in the night.  We soar down the Devil's Backbone to The Great Unknown, and turn east over to the safety of the Rangitata Valley.  We're shivering when we land. 


Saturday evening.  We're standing in Steve's kitchen while he puts the finishing touches on a couple of pizzas.  Steve's daughter is bounding around with the exuberance of a puppy with a full bladder, clearly enjoying having her father home and guests to bounce off.  Joanna is pouring drinks while Neil regales her with epic tales of our journey without taking his eyes off the pizza.  Jill looks like a million dollars in a skirt and blouse, fingers around the stem of a wine glass as she follows Neil's chatter.  Steve gives me a big wink, and tells me a lie:

            "Jo says I don't snore."




  • Noel C

    Hi Tussock,
    Great story. You have a knack for the narrative. I am not sure what left the greater impression.....the Trike Flying ....or....Jill?

  • wefly

    Hey Tussock.. had many a flight to remember, but you win! Great read, love the twist of words, well done.

  • Illinois Triker

    Wow! What a great read and adventure. Thanks for sharing your prose.

  • white eagle

    Agree with everone bravo. Pink floyd, niel ,joni i love monty python adventure. Thanks

  • Tussock

    Thanks guys... it's an old story I'd tried to write up several times over the years; somehow this week it just wrote itself.