From the days before bikepacking was a thing.

From the days before bikepacking was a thing.

Left: Mark roadside in the Wairarapa, heading out to White Rock on a multi-day off-road mission. Early 90s.

Right: Mark in Lake Ferry. Mark and Jamie got a fisherman to ferry them over the mouth of Lake Ferry so they didn't have to ride right around. It was really soft sand but they found it was firm enough to pedal in the shallows.

Both photos: Jamie Nichol.

By Mark Watson.

Back in autumn of 1992, I found myself in Wellington, just returned from cycle touring to Cape Reinga and back on a well-loved Stumpjumper with second-hand panniers. It had been a carefree five-month journey with Hana Black. Between small-town campgrounds and toastie pies for dinner we’d just stretch our dole to last the week. The biggest treat of the week would be a milkshake or a pot of tea in a cafe on a rainy May day.

We explored New Zealand’s back roads, scouring small-town op shops for the coolest shirts we could find and meeting salt-of-the-earth Kiwis. We posted climbing gear around too; picking our way up Wharepapa pockets and luxuriating in the lakeside isolation of Whanganui Bay where we had the crags to ourselves.

A chance invitation that autumn set my life on a new track when some Wellington acquaintances invited me to come for ‘a ride’. A motley crew on an assortment of early mountain bikes, we pedalled up through Wellington’s ‘burbs and into the gorsey fire roads of Wrights Hill, down into the Karori Reservoir, up Hawkins Hill and down the blazing-fast ridge to Red Rocks. It was my first ever mountain bike ride and a revelation, despite a high-speed crash that left me tangled in my bike frame. Wellington was suddenly about much more to me than Baring Head, Head Like a Hole and tripping in the Botanic Gardens.

By the time I started cutting fabric and sewing packs at the Cactus HQ in Lambton Quay’s Hamilton Chambers that winter, Gwilym’s charisma and optimistic energy had drawn supporters. It was Cactus against the New Zealand giants of Macpac and Fairydown. There were little, if any, imported packs in the market back then.

It was a place of creative energy, ideas and fabrication and in an anarchistic, free form kind of way Cactus’ product line evolved, the first Vacuole (a cheeky copy of a UK product) led the way, then a rope bag. Rob Gray championed the postie bag project and Mark Schafer’s clever mind contributed innovations, while Darryl Best’s quirky linework set the branding tone.

At the same time, the cult of early 1990s Wellington mountain biking began to sweep the Cactus crew. Climbing was shelved and in every spare moment, we rode our bikes in Wellington’s hills, breaking rims, bones and losing skin like moulting lizards. The learning curve was brutal and the Kennett Brothers first edition of Classic New Zealand Mountain Bike Rides was the Bible. Although I'm not sure how the rides were classics because hardly anyone had done most of them back then.

For some of us at Cactus, combining the mountain bike with our roots in the self-reliance and exploration of tramping and climbing seemed like the ultimate sport. Custom panniers followed, including Mark Schafer’s avant-garde Rackless Panniers (the Cactus Racktus – a lightweight front pannier system that worked on a suspension fork) of which only a few pairs were ever made.

It wasn’t until after a game-changing ‘bike-packing’ blitzkrieg of top-of-the-south roads and trails with Jonty Richie, Simon Kennett and Tim Galloway that I decided to drop the panniers completely and take to more technical trails for multi-day tours. I made a reinforced canvas/cordura dry bag to mount on the top of my rack and carried everything else in the first version of the Zero daypack.

A couple of very memorable South Island single track trips followed, in the lightest of style. With the reliable late December weather of Marlborough we carried the barest of essentials, eschewing tents, proper sleeping bags and stoves and surviving on bananas, pies, Mother Earth cakes and mussels picked from the shore. Jamie Nichol was probably lucky to survive; having carried one such batch of mussels through the heat of a summer day on his sweaty back, eating them for lunch somewhere on the Nydia Walkway.

The term ‘bikepacking’ hadn’t been coined back then and there was no industry behind the notion of lightweight overnight bike travel. We called it lightweight touring, but we weren’t doing anything new; we were just joining legion others in the world who’ve also discovered the pleasure, simplicity and freedom of journeying by bicycle.

Mark Watson worked for Cactus 1992–2015 in various capacities including bench worker, sewing machinist, custom design and latterly graphic design. He's currently riding his mountain bike the length of the Americas: Read his blog here.