The Pioneer – an epic volunteer journey

It was while I was waiting for Sophia whose plane has been cancelled that I found the ad on a backpackers website. A 7-day mountain bike race from Christchurch to Queenstown needed volunteers to set up base camp and marshal along the route, whilst traveling with the race across the Southern Alps. Accommodation, 3 meals a day and fuel costs included. This sounded like a sweet deal. Could it really be that great? Spoiler alert: Yes. It really was.

We arrived in Hagley Park in Christchurch, where we got our packs with t-shirts and such and were briefed on our duties and what the week would involve. Several presentations by the CEO, event manager, base camp manager, course manager and volunteer manager later, we were pretty much excited and ready to go. Off to the first stop: Geraldine!
Our first job was to set up the tents, but as the tents hadn’t arrived yet, we had a barbecue. So far, pretty cruisy work! Then the tents were there, and the Tent City Manager showed us how to set them up. We were going to have to set up nearly 400 of these every day. FUN!? Well, it actually was. Tent City turned out to be most hated by everyone, but secretly loved by me (and I’m pretty sure more of us too). As the volunteers became tighter, it became a struggle you went through together as a team, setting up and taking down the bright orange domes under the hot New Zealand sun, whilst making sure the numbers were packed or set up in order, because each rider had a racing number that corresponded with their tent and their massive bag they all fully stuffed which we then had to drop with the correct number tent.

Other than Tent City, we also had some duties involving the Start and Finish Line (checking if the riders took their mandatory gear before heading off and supplying them with fruit and water as they cross the finish line), or sitting at the usb charging station to write down who brought their phone, watch, or other device to charge, but as we often had a bunch of volunteers there, we left to help with bags or tents because we couldn’t sit still anymore (or were asked to help out).

Just to provide some more background information: these base camps that were set up daily weren’t in existing camp grounds. As they needed to cater to so many people we stayed on sports fields, private properties, or even air strips… Mostly in prime locations, right at the lakeside, surrounded by mountains, or even on top of one. And next to the All Encompassing Tent City, there were people setting up a 60 meter awning every day under which we had our dinners, info desk, athlete massages, and daily awards and briefing. Not to forget about the drinking water, portable toilets and showers, first aid, command centre and catering! It was a massive infrastructure that had to be moved every day. As a first time event, I was pleasantly surprised by how well it was organised actually! Except for some stress and frustration because things didn’t get shifted and set up quick enough, which was also due to the athletes being a lot faster than expected… I think it all went smoothly. Easy talking when you’re not in charge or carry responsibility though. I’ve seen many of the managers near breakdown and was oh so happy it wasn’t me. I loved being a little worker bee without a care in the world! 🙂

Now, on to the athletes. One word to sum it up: RESPECT. It was truly incredible what I’ve seen people push themselves through. Determination in its purest form. It was impressive how fast the fastest riders completed the courses in, but I really want to give a shout out to those teams coming in amongst the last everyday, after sometimes having been on their bikes for 10 or even nearly 12 hours, and did this every day, for SEVEN days. And they did not give up.

DSC_2372This is one of those teams, Team 274. Yeah, they stopped to take photos, but I pity the fool who didn’t, because look at that Lake Pukaki looking pristine with that mighty Mount Cook in the background!

That takes me to the locations of the race. We first went to Geraldine, a small town where we stayed on the sports field. Nothing too impressive yet. The first Tent City was a bit of a conundrum, but we managed to have the tents ready and set up in neat rows just as the riders arrived. Next was Fairlie, which may have been a sports field too, not too sure. Maybe it was just grazing land, as I think this was the place where there was dried up poo everywhere. Either way we now had a beautiful view on the Southern Alps which with its gorgeous sunset was the perfect place for what became our daily routine of the after dinner and before early bed time drinks.

Next we were at our first lake: Lake Tekapo. The drive there was absolutely stunning but this time I had no time to stop and take pictures as I was driving the truck with the tents, and we were in quite the hurry to set them up… That day was a hard and hot day, and when we were finally done, it was time for a refreshing dip in the lake. Oh boy… that may have been one of the happiest moments in my already very fortunate life. It was cold, clear, in a stunning setting, and it was much needed to say the least. Alpine lake experience galore!

The next day I got myself out of tent truck driving duty (which wasn’t actually my duty to begin with), because we really wanted to drive to the next location ourselves and stop along the way as we had heard that the drive would be even more spectacular. We smashed packing up the tents in the morning in less than half the time it took us the days before and off we went. It was indeed a pretty freaking excellent drive.

At Lake Ohau we set up on an air strip, which made for a rather interestingly stretched base camp and sweet finish line as the riders raced through Tent City. Lake Ohau provided much needed refreshment once again, being even more cold than Tekapo.

The day after we were on marshalling duty. First we were dropped not far from the camp to make sure the riders would take the right turns and after that we drove further down to road to be dropped off by a 4WD on privately owned land at a gate. To make sure only riders went through, and no stock. My gate didn’t have any stock on either side, but hey, I was there to cheer on the riders, make sure they’re all doing good and occasionally share my water and sunscreen. In the paddock next to the track there were some bulls and a very pretty horse who seemed very happy to see some action. He happily ran along every time a peloton would pass and kicked his legs around out of excitement. I was mostly looking into the direction the riders would come in, but every time I turned around the views just took my breath away. I was one happy marshal.

Once everyone had passed, we were supposed to be picked up by the 4WD driver and taken back to our van to drive to the next base camp. However, good old Gerald the 4WD driver didn’t feel like going back just yet. That’s no fun! So we drove the entire rough terrain course the riders rode through the mountains that day, and picked up all the signage. Now, that was a drive!

Base camp at Lake Hawea was on a private property and was slightly sloped as it was going uphill. We had a great time seeing figures in the constantly changing clouds until it got dark and then had a nice slopy sleep. img_3154

The next day Sophia and I were marshal number 1 and 2, so we were literally right outside the base camp. This meant that a minute after the race had started we were done. Ha. Ok. So we went to Wanaka! Had a look around there, went for a drive around the lake, nearly got stuck in the sand, drove through some cows, drove onto someone’s private property and got sent off. And then we got bored, so we went to the last base camp location to help with the tents and bags.

The road up to The Snow Farm was a crazy one. A steep ascent on a gravel road that just seemed to keep going and going. Driving behind another vehicle our Sharky was in the dust cloud all the time and by the time we got up on the top, the dust had even come into the car. The Snow Farm usually isn’t open in summer, but it was a fantastically scenic location overlooking the Alps and made for a great race village. It was another hot day, but this time there was no lake around to cool off in. So once we were done we drove back to Wanaka with a van full of volunteers, took a dip in lake, nearly nodded off into a nap, and quickly went back before dinner and the daily awards. On top of the highest point we had our drinks and watched the sunset turn the surrounding mountains to many hues of blue and purple.

The final day. I woke up at 4am and watched the most incredible starry sky from my bed through the car window (as we never bothered installing curtains). As the day broke I could now see the mountains in light blue and pink early morning lights. As tired as I was I couldn’t stop looking, and then got up with enough time for 2 breakfasts before going to my final marshal location, which happened to be the one before last marshal on course.

Please ignore the dirty window 😀

My location was nearly in Queenstown, at the historic bridge over the Shotover River. Unfortunately, my exact position wasn’t one with a great view over the river. No, it was on the corner of a toilet block. It was a rather uncomfortable position, because, well first of all I was looking at people going in and coming out of the toilet all day, but also I couldn’t see the riders coming, and there was a picnic table in the perfect spot actually for me to sit at, but there was a big bush in the way that obscured my view on where the riders came from. So, I stood in the middle of the road from when the first team came through at 11am (I was already sent there at 9am but then I was relaxing in the sun on the bridge), until the last riders came past at 5:45pm. img_3164Luckily it wasn’t a boring day. A lot was going on on the radio that kept me entertained when I wasn’t chatting to people passing by. As this was a public walking and cycling trail, and right next to a historic bridge, there were all kinds of people around I needed to warn that there was a race going on. Tourists taking a look at the bridge, locals cycling the trail in both directions, even a wedding party came to take pictures there, whom I told that as long as one of them kept an eye out for the racers and would then get out of the way they were allowed to. Oh the authority a high visibility vest, branded cap and t-shirt and walkie talkie can give you! At the time the second team raced by just a minute behind the lead with only 4 more kilometres until the finish line, a family of tourists who couldn’t understand me were leisurely blockading the path. As I saw the second team (the overall winners of the stage race btw) speed around the opposite corner, stress levels spiked as I could see a very unfortunate collision coming up. So after politely asking I now I yelled at the family to get out of the way, which of course made them stop in their marks and frantically look around what was going on, and just in time they stepped aside. Phew.

As the day went on I got called “mam” (seriously?), and even “the worst marshal ever” (for putting my sandwich wrapper away in my bag which was on the picnic table behind the bush so I jumped out a little late to send them in the right direction). But then again I also scored a high five, a chocolate bar and even a phone number (hey, I had a lot of time in between to chat to people). The day dragged on and my mind could no longer properly process information. After 6 long days and a short sleep the night before, simple tasks became more difficult. A speech impairment had already arisen where I would change the first syllables of two words (or even change worlds completely such as “state agent” instead of “aid station”), but now details just didn’t stick anymore. I had heard chatter on the radio about someone with a flat tyre they were looking for, but when a guy passed by asking if I had a pump (which conveniently the toilet block happened to have) and pumping his half flat tyre, I didn’t even think it could be that guy. When they spoke about him again and that he should be in my area, I responded that I had seen someone who pumped his tyre. A little later the CEO of the event pops up behind me asking me questions about this guy (God knows why he came to look for him, I thought he was handing out medals to people who crossed the finish line). “Do you recall his number?” “Oh I think it was a 500 number.” “Hmm, not a 1000 number?” “No I’m pretty sure it was a 500”. “Do your remember what he looked like?” “Errr..” “Let me guess, average built, average height?” “Yeah… Pretty much.” I was useless. About 10 minutes later he was found, as he had crossed the finish line. It turned out it was that guy. Obvs.

When finally the last rider passed, I picked up the signage, went to the last marshal, we hugged out of happiness that it was finally over and we drove to the base camp where everyone was ready for the after party and dinner. First we needed a shower though, so we missed a standing ovation for the volunteers and part of the awards, but we still got to see the most important ones and eat yummy food and drink a lot of drinks. Very many drinks. Too many drinks. To the point that I don’t remember the last past of the night, woke up wondering how I found my way there, and why someone was sleeping under the table and whilst sniffing my fingers I asked what the hell I ate last night. Chips and curry apparently.

We stayed in Queenstown for a few days, went to a nice lake, finally went for a mountain bike ride ourselves and drove an exciting route through a gorge by car. Then we said goodbye to our new friends, and with little heart aches and feeling melancholic we went back on the road with our trusty Sharky. Who broke down 2 days later in the middle of nowhere, but that will be a story for the next post.


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  1. I my dear: I just read this to-day. I tried to read 2 times before, but I got the message this page was not available.
    What a beautiful report! I really had to laugh loudly, seeing the horse happily running, his legs dancing from one side to the other…..ow ow…..Than I saw on the pictures there was a fence between……I’m also eagely if you survived your personal crash….I’m proud of you (both). You should make a job of reporting and photgraphing!!!

    Love you. Mama.


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