Heaven on two wheels
International mountainbiking gurus Sven and Anka Martin now call Hira home. Naomi Arnold reports.
Sven and Anka Martin didn't even need to see the wonders of downtown Nelson during a reconnaissance visit three years ago.
Looking for a new home, the Cape Town-born couple decided to move here based on just a few things - the mountainbiking, the beer at the Milton St Sprig and Fern, and a feed from the Fish and Chip Cafe next door.
"We knew the people were good, we knew the riding was good, and the combination of that was enough," Sven Martin says.
Now they live in Hira, in a snug A-frame house with 360-degree rural views. Anka Martin proudly points out the recently installed 3G cellphone tower on the hill across the valley. They're very grateful for it; it's one of the reasons the couple can run their international businesses from a remote house in one of the most isolated countries in the world.
"We knew that everyone wants to live in Nelson but you kind of have to bring your own work, unless you're getting into a job," Sven says. "As long as we have an airport and the internet we can basically live anywhere."
Not even experiencing the biggest storm in recorded history soon after they moved in November 2011, followed by more storms in 2012, has put them off.
They happily chose Nelson over New Zealand's other mountainbiking hot spots of Rotorua and Queenstown.
"Everyone knows about those, but when we came here looking for a place to live, what we fell in love with was the wildness and native forest of New Zealand," Sven says. "It's just more rugged and adventurous, really. The other places are like resorts, catering for bike park-type trails where people come and just leave."
Among many other things, the Martins are gurus in the mountainbiking world. Anka Martin, 36, is a professional mountainbiker and yogi, and Sven Martin, 40, is one of the world's best mountainbiking photographers, as well as a lover of extreme sports - he's been both a pro skateboarder and a World Cup pro mountainbiker.
Both have ridden and travelled all over the world. During the New Zealand winter, the couple travel Europe in their van, with Anka racing while her husband shoots the action for international clients, squeezing in editorial and travel features in between. Both write, and Anka works in marketing for her sponsors, which include SRAM and Juliana. She also runs skill workshops and designs gear and clothing, as well as being the driving force behind their top of the south guiding company Ridehousemartin. She's even designed a signature women's bike saddle with her favourite bird - a fantail.
They met as teenagers in a bar in Cape Town, when Anka was barely 16 and Sven was a long-haired skateboarder. He had taken photos since he was a kid, learning from his photographer father, who'd drive his 10-year-old son into the African bush to shoot wildlife, tracking the animals and setting him up with big telephoto lenses, teaching him an understanding of light and composition.
The couple moved to the United States in 1998, where Anka studied at the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandise in Los Angeles and Sven continued photographing and skateboarding professionally. He'd made the transition from big game to sports easily and photographed his favourites: skateboarding, surfing, and snowboarding.
But Anka became sick of her husband skateboarding all the time and decided she needed a hobby too. In 1999 she was working as a fashion merchandiser in Los Angeles. She bought a bike to cruise the boardwalks of their Huntington Beach home and eventually found some trails to ride. A year later, she entered her first races, though she didn't know the difference between downhill and cross country. She won both. From then on, she ditched fashion for chamois, and within two years was racing professionally at World Cup level.
"I started mountainbiking because Anka was disappearing with a bunch of guys every weekend and I needed to see what was going on," Sven says. He joined her, pleased to swap the concrete skate bowl for the wilderness, and started photographing that while racing on the side.
Anka remembers one world champs where he tried to do both: "The organiser, who's quite a hardass, refused to give Sven [the passes]," she says. "He said: ‘You can only have one pass, you choose! Photographer or racer! You cannot be both!' They had this massive argument."
Sven won, but eventually he realised he was better at photography than racing.
"And one actually paid a bit of money versus one that sucked the money dry."
He committed to being at every event without fail, built up a reputation for reliability and gathered some regular clients.
They lived in the US for 12 years, with Anka taking out South African national titles, Californian state championships, and representing her homeland at the world championships five times, making it to the top 10 in the downhill world.
But she grew tired of chasing points and wanted to ride as many different places as possible. After the madness of southern California, they moved to Oregon in 2005, where they enjoyed the smaller community but found themselves desperate to escape the snow every off-season.
They soon realised they needed to find a permanent base. They'd travelled to New Zealand in 2006 for the world champs in Rotorua, and knew they wanted to come back.
At the end of 2010 they did a big trip Down Under, spending two months in New Zealand and a month in Australia, trying to decide where they wanted to live. Anka refused to ride her bike where there were snakes, so it was decided.
"All Australia had going for it was good surf and good beaches. Too many snakes," Sven says. "For the size of the country there's not a lot of good mountainbiking and this is the opposite - undeveloped, quiet."
The Martins also asked all the Kiwis they knew from racing where they would live if work was no object, and the answers all came back - Nelson, and its wide variety of trails - rock and roots, pine, beech, man-made.
They were already friendly with the publisher of New Zealand's Spoke magazine, Caleb Smith, and he gave them a list of New Zealanders who would take them riding. Then they happened on Simon Bannister, whom Anka often credits with their move to Nelson.
It was summer, and the local mountainbiker and Nelson Mountainbike Club committee member professed himself too busy to take them out when Mr Smith texted him. "I was super busy at work and said ‘I can't.' Caleb said: ‘You need to do this'."
He met them on a Friday to take them out on two local tracks he'd built, Peaking Ridge and 629.
"I had no idea who they were - that they were royalty among mountainbikers," he recalls with a laugh. "When I took them out I made them clear trees and cut stuff and I was thinking: ‘They won't enjoy this'. But they did. Sven said: ‘I don't ever do this when I go out for a ride,' and I said: ‘Get used to it mate, you're in New Zealand now'."
They were in the Sprig that night when they told him the only thing they hadn't done was helibike in New Zealand. Mr Bannister pulled out his phone and texted a pilot mate, who said "Yep, we can take them out in the morning." They got to a top of a mountain and said: "Oh my God, we have to live here."
Six months later, he got an email asking if he could be a referee for their visa application.
"I said: ‘Really? Here?' Sven said: ‘Yes, out of all the countries in the world. We love being at the pub and we love the way people treat us.' Overseas they're superstars and here they're just mates."
"I love that you can take curry to the Free House and they give you cutlery and plates," Anka says.
"That, to us, is very exciting. We've not experienced that anywhere else. It is such a novelty. Honestly, I pinch myself every morning when I make coffee. I can't believe we're living here."
After two years of riding, trialling, and exploring, they started adventure bike guiding in the region's remote forests through their company Ridehousemartin, which takes small groups of clients on rides from Whites Bay to Golden Bay and well into the interior.
As well as a play on their surname, the company is named after the house martin, a migratory bird that travels south for the warmer weather, just as they've done. "New Zealand is perfect because of the opposite seasons," Sven says. "So while North America or Europe is getting snowed in, you've either got people coming here as tourists or we've got professionals coming here to train."
Sponsors also travel here to shoot film and photographs showing off their products.
Their business isn't quite the rail trail, wine, and grape tours of other Nelson cycle adventures. The Martins like to guide groups of up to six clients to places that they'd never find on their own - backcountry journeys with complicated logistics, four meals a day, water taxis, heli drops, eco B&Bs, and masseuses sent to the huts if required. They offer trips from half a day to seven days, including photography and coaching packages too.
Much of the interest for their guiding business has come through Instagram, where there is "subtle marketing" at work, Sven says.
"We're not using it to spam or for blatant marketing, but obviously what you see is sunny New Zealand riding pictures with helicopters or boats and big beaches and trees."
It's a powerful pull when you're one of the thousands of @svenmartinphoto or @ridehousemartin followers and you're stuck in the snowy northern hemisphere.
However digital media has made working in the print media much more difficult, Sven says. Companies simply pull images from Instagram and Facebook to use in their marketing or magazines for free.
"You have to offer both [writing and photography] these days, and as soon as you start you're doing twice the work but they're still only paying you for the original job. Everyone is getting squeezed in the print media and you've always got someone else who is willing to do it for a photo credit, for free."
It's increasingly tough, and he's found it crucial to develop good working relationships with people.
"Digital has helped open doors and I wouldn't say it's cheapened the craft, but people can abuse it. So you've got to evolve with technology and internet instead of fighting it.
"Companies will try and squeeze you where they can. Some kid will [work for free], but that kid won't be able to pay an air ticket or get his camera repaired or even get to an event. The whole industry is figuring it out."
Ultimately, they'd like to spend more time in New Zealand - but the trouble is, Anka just keeps improving her riding.
She is devoted to enduro, a multistage type of mountainbike racing that shuns any single definition but instead celebrates variety - as Sven says, it is "predominantly gravity-based". Definitions can change depending on which country you're in, but enduro is in now, and so is Anka, again.
A few years ago, she quit racing pure downhill in favour of new events and new places, but had so much fun doing that she started riding much better. She has found that enduro favours her long experience and mental strength.
Most recently, she won the epic multiday mountain bike stage race, Trans Provence, a point-to-point traverse from the Alps to the Cote D'Azur - six days of gorgeous scenery and hard slogs through mud, up steep climbs and down crazy tracks to the Mediterranean. Sven took first place in the masters in that race too.
"I love the fact that [racing] takes you to new places and you get to experience new countries and cultures and you get to do it with your friends," she says. "I never started racing because I wanted to win. I enjoy the competitiveness of it when I'm racing, but I'm not chasing points or titles."
But just as she kept wanting to stop, sponsors kept offering her more.
"Things are happening now that I was wanting to happen 10 years ago," she says. "It's quite a giggle 'cos I really want to stop doing that now, but it would be silly not to do it. I'm still enjoying it, and that's my motto."
They keep repeating: "Just one more year."
Meanwhile, they're part of Nelson's large mountainbiking fraternity; the Nelson Mountainbike Club is one of the biggest in the country.
"It's also one of the most active ones I've been involved with in regards to people volunteering their time and effort in trail maintenance, new trail development and events," Anka says. There are plenty of trails that they still want to conquer.
"That's exciting to me because there's always something that challenges you, or that you're a bit scared of, which you can go and work on," Anka says.
"Where we used to live in Oregon you could ride everything and your riding becomes a bit stagnant."
"If you want it more difficult, just go after it's been raining," Sven says.
Anka says she used to get homesick, but since they've been here they've found home.
"We had been looking for a long time," she says.
"It's a weird thing. South Africa, with all of its history, was not a country I ever felt proud of. And then living in the States we got there when it was the whole Bush era and that I didn't feel proud of either.
"So I've always been in this turmoil of when people ask me where I'm from [I] didn't want to say South Africa and didn't want to say the US.
"Since living in New Zealand it's the first time I've actually felt that sense of pride."