An excerpt from, “Hellbiking,” Chapter 1 of The Bikeraft Guide, by Steve “Doom” Fassbinder & Lizzy Scully, with additional photos of bikerafting on the Whanganui River provided by Deane Parker from his 2020 adventure, “Forgotten Highways.”
The History of Bikerafting: Were the Kennett Brothers really "bikerafting" in 1988?
While the Alaskan Crazies (i.e. Roman Dial and his buddies, according to Sheri Tingey, owner of Alpacka Raft and the inventor of modern day packrafts) were exploring the northernmost regions of the USA, across the pond, three Kiwis explored 150,000 miles of topo maps for any and all four-wheel drive tracks and old mining roads they could find.
On their first “bikeraft” adventure of sorts, Paul, Simon and Jonathan Kennett carried huge packs and rode bikes lashed with tractor tire inner tubes in search of a pedal-and-paddle route from Ohakune to Marton on New Zealand’s North Island, via the Bridge to Nowhere and the Whanganui River.
From 1935-1936, New Zealand’s government built a road and bridge to and in the Mangapurua Valley to resettle returning World War I soldiers and families. They cut down the forests, turning them into farmland. Unfortunately, poor access, erosion and falling stock prices during the Depression years forced most of the settlers to abandon their farms by the early 1940s.
As well, according to Jonathan, due to slips (aka big landslides), the road closed, leaving a big concrete bridge to nowhere and a road that was only ever driven once in its entirety.
“Back in the early days of mountain biking there were no purpose-built tracks,” Jonathan Jonathan explains. So when Simon found the old, barely used ‘road’ to the Bridge to Nowhere, he thought, why not ride the 26 miles to the Whanganui River, then float 15 miles to the 4WD road at Pipiriki, where they could resupply, and then pedal onto Marton (73 miles, though they ended up hitching with a truck carrying dynamite that broke down after 10.5 miles)? They would finish their trip catching the train back to Marton.
Only recently designated a National Park in 1986, the “trail” hadn’t been cycled, says Jonathan, as it was “really rough.” Only “trampers” or Whanganui River boaters visited the Bridge.
"I've never seen anything like that contraption!"
According to Jonathan, they found out from a kayaker that it took about eight hours by boat to get from the bridge to the next road downriver. “So we got some truck tubes, one for each of us and one for the bikes, and we caught the midnight train up to the middle of the North Island and camped under a tree at the station.”
Day one, they rode from the train station to Johnson’s Camp, where there had been a settlement decades ago, and by 3p.m. on day two, they made it to the Bridge to Nowhere, where they pumped up the tubes, “which took ages with the bike pumps,” Jonathan says, laughing.
They tied the tubes together with some sticks and twine and made paddles by tying branches together. By 8a.m. on day three they set out on the river. They moved slowly, planning on a cruiser eight-hour float. “Our feet were in the water, and we drifted along when this park ranger circled us in a jet boat midafternoon,” Jonathan says. “He told us he had never seen anything like our contraption before!”
“After chatting awhile he said he was going to carry on, but asked us if we had enough food,” Jonathan adds. “Maybe it was pride or something, but we lied and said, ‘yes,’ and then asked how long it would take to get down the river to the road. ‘Oh, at the rate you’re going, probably three days.’ As soon as he left, we started paddling our guts out.”
"I just wanted to right down the center... my brother wanted to go to the side and portage."
The trio towed the boat when the river was shallow enough and they could walk along the shore, as dragging the “raft” was quicker than trying to paddle in the slow sections. And when the water moved faster, they’d jump back in the river.
Eventually the light faded, and they could no longer see and didn’t know where they were. “We didn’t have GPS devices in the 1980s!” But they could hear the few-and-far-between rapids. Near the end of the trip, they approached a deep gorge, with steep and high cliffs.
“We came across this one, last big rapid… it was really big by this time, and all we could see was the whitewater ahead and the glow worms on the cliffs,” Jonathan says. “They looked like stars, and we could tell how quickly we were moving by looking at them.”
The twins started arguing about which direction to go. Paul said nothing. He had fallen off one of the tubes earlier and was “a bit hypothermic.”
“I just wanted to go right down the center and ride the rapid out quickly, and my brother wanted to go to the side and portage the boat,” Jonathan says. “So he paddled in one direction and I paddled in another, and we ended up going along the side of the rapid instead. We came very close to flipping out.”
but they made it. just barely
After 14 hours on the river and a near disaster, they stopped, done for the day, with just a small sachet of dried soup to share among the three of them, after having just a package of pumpernickel bread throughout the day, and one muesli bar for breakfast the next morning. Simon had been on a health food kick and always traveled super light, says Jonathan…
On day four, they rode 60 kilometers, but unfortunately the nearest store was closed. But eventually they made it to a petrol station, where they refueled, and rode another 40 kilometers back to the train station in Wellington.
While on the trip, especially the river portion, Jonathan remembers thinking the trip was “not very cool at all.” But, he gives credit to his brother. “One critical thing with adventure is to come up with an inspiring idea that other people want to join you on. People come up with ideas all the time, but if you don’t attract other people, they’ll never go anywhere. We thought it was crazy, and he starved us to death with his diet, but in hindsight it was one of the best adventures we ever had.”
Was it bikeraftng? You be the judge. We felt it was worth adding to our history of bikerafting section, at the very least a precursor for what was to come.
Another history of bikerafting: an epilogue
The brothers did three other trips utilizing “rafts,” including one that “was by necessity not by planning” on the Clarence River on the South Island, where they built a raft out of a 44-gallon tin drum used for diesel. They rigged it with two ten-foot poles they made from the Mānuka tree. They inflated Thermarest mattresses in their panniers, and put those on the ends of the poles. They then put their bikes and gear on the poles, had one person cross the river with a rope, and the remaining seven people clung to the other side of the raft as he pulled them over. Jonathan has also done trips in his near 50-pound inflatable raft.