new zealand

The Invalid

I’m having touring withdrawal issues. For nearly nine months, I was outdoors almost every day, staying in a new place pretty much every night, seeing the world and covering hundreds of kilometres a week on the bike.  This was good. 20141130RTW_8 Roli For nearly three weeks now, I’ve been (with the exception of a couple of days’ travelling) indoors, sitting or lying in differing levels of discomfort, getting fat, and covering maybe a couple of hundred metres a day shuffling around the house (or hospital).

It’s a bit of a shock to the system.

Now that the relief of being alive after the accident has bled off, it’s being replaced with frustration.  Being stuck in the same place with no exercise and a non-functioning arm is not working very well for me.

I met an ancient Frenchman in New Zealand who’d been on the road for five years.  He said he was just going to ride across North America before returning home and ‘stopping’.  I remember wondering how he’d be able to adjust when his trip was over.  I wondered how I would. Now I’m finding out.  It’s hard. 20141129RTW Christian No regrets, thankfully, as I gave the trip my best shot.  Having got close to covering 10,000 miles, I know that I was physically able to complete the circumnavigation.  I thoroughly confounded the unkind expectations of a few friends who thought I wouldn’t get past France.  And there was nothing I could do about the way it ended.

But I need a plan to avoid stalling.  I need to feel like things are moving forward again.  And I really need something to distract me from the tedious, gibbering nonsense of the ongoing UK general election campaign.  And daytime TV.

I need targets. So, what’s next? Well, I need to get better.  I’ve got the operation to put my shoulder back together tomorrow (Thursday).  Assuming that goes OK, I’m hoping that I’ll be able to get back out on a bike within six weeks or so.  With a bit of luck, I may be able to get on a stationary trainer a couple of weeks before that.  There will be an awful lot of fitness to regain.

That gives me a few weeks to sort out Beast II.  I think it’ll be a little lighter and faster than the original Beast.  Maybe more of a Mini-Beast.  Or a Beastlet.  Mainly because I felt the Beast was probably a little overbuilt for the conditions I faced on the ride, and I can’t see myself hitting the rough dirt roads of the Andes or Alaska for a while.  I’ve found a few suitable candidates.  And most of them are actually British brands, as a little bonus.  Hopefully, I’ll have it on order fairly soon, to give me an incentive to recover quicker. 20150122RTW_23 Then I need something to do with the new bike.  My current thinking is to get myself fit enough for a sportive (semi-competitive day ride, usually between 75 and 110 miles) or a charity ride sometime in June.  And then aim to do a two or three week tour in the summer with the bags back on.  Maybe the length of the UK (Land’s End to John O’Groats – around 900 miles), or a similar distance in Europe.  It would be nice to pick something I can actually finish.  And I’ll need to work up gently to anything more energetic, I think.

So there we are; a loose plan to get back on wheels for the sake of my sanity.

Things are already looking up a bit.  After their triumph in the FA Trophy, which I reported on from Thailand, Bristol City won 6-0 last night to confirm their promotion to the second tier of English football.

So, good things are still happening.  I just need to make sure I focus on them, rather than the fact that I’m banged up at home for the next few weeks. It’ll be a good trick if I can pull it off.

Photo Credits:  Top photo – Roli Merz.  Second photo – Christian Zenker

Signs of the Times

It hasn’t been the world’s most interesting couple of days on the bike.  I had a nice rest day in Coffs Harbour, and have made it a few more kilometres up the coast to Yamba since.  It’s been pretty flat and pretty warm.  I’ve had one day when I felt fantastic, and one where I was not feeling up to much at all.  It still doesn’t feel a lot like Christmas.  So much, so standard.

It’s not the most devastatingly pretty countryside to ride through, either (at least around the main highway; the seaside towns are generally very nice), and I’ve had far too much time by myself to think.  Partly about all the rubbish end-of-year TV that I’ll miss out on, which will no doubt include more than a few ‘Top 20 Things That Nobody Cared About in 2014’-type shows.

The result of all this pondering is the following: the top several (not sure how many until I finish writing; it’s not that well planned) signs and signposts from the trip so far.  If that doesn’t knock your socks off as a surprise present for the festive season, I really don’t know what will.

Anyway, it was all inspired by this, which I found attached to a picnic table at a rest stop on the Pacific Highway yesterday:

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What do you do when you see a sign like this?  It has today’s (when I found it) date on it.  It’s held to the table with medical tape, which looks convincing.  Do you run away squealing?  Do you assume it’s just a weird joke, and sit down to have your lunch?  Do you cautiously examine the table from a safe distance to establish whether there’s really a snake there?  This is currently the run-away winner in the ‘Not Sure How to Respond’ category.  But it’s also the winner of the ‘Genuinely Useful’ category.  There really was a snake under the table.

Next, the ‘Correct English’ winner.  Somewhat surprisingly, I found this in the middle of nowhere, on Route 66 in Arizona:

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Which just goes to show how important commas can be, and is also much more elegant than a simple ‘Don’t Pee on the Floor’ sign would have been.

This is so much fun, isn’t it?  Bet there are people actually holding their breath to find out what’s next.  And I bet I could name all three of them…

As it turns out, next is the ‘Oddest Tourist Attraction’ category.

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Yep, that really is teachers and gunfighters and wax, all in the same building.  In Dodge City, naturally.  That came very close to winning the ‘Most Culturally Revealing’ category, too.  But that’s a little later.  First, the ‘Most Unnecessarily Over-Specific’ sign, from Haast in New Zealand:

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Not only a picture of the hazard, but a clear visual representation of exactly the face-plant you will perform; is that really useful?  And is there more than one place in the world you could actually use it?  It could only really be more specific if it included a second panel with a broken cyclist and an ambulance.

I enjoyed the mid-west of the USA (apart from the headwinds), and it’s had (hands down) the most generous people of the trip so far.  But there was an obsession that I never really got my head around, which means that this is the ‘Most Culturally Revealing’ winner:

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That’s right.  Golf carts.  There are millions of them in the mid-west.  I’ve seen them with custom paint (imagine a golf cart resprayed as the General Lee from the Dukes of Hazzard).  I’ve seen them used instead of mobility scooters by old people.  And I’ve seen herds of them being them driven in laps around campsites as after-dinner recreation.  The fact that they are so common that they’ve generated their own road signs (albeit giving the slightly erroneous impression that some of them might be used to actually carry golf clubs) is truly culturally revealing.

Nearly there now.  Just a couple of Kiwi pearls to go…

The penultimate award is for the ‘Most Persistent Activist Vandal’.  I saw this sign, (carefully and cleanly) amended to make a political point after crossing into Otago from the west coast:

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Every single subsequent iteration of the sign I saw in NZ had been amended in exactly the same way.  One strip of duct-tape carefully placed over one word on every sign for hundreds of kilometres.  You can’t argue with the effort, at least…

Finally, there’s the ‘Straight to the Touring Cyclist’s Heart’ award, which goes to this poster I found in a cafe window:

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It doesn’t really need any further comment.  Despite my previous words about the countryside and the slightly boring roads around here, at least I’m not sat in a box on a hamster wheel.

And that’s got to be something to be happy about.

Bye, bye, New Zealand. Hello, Australia!

It’s summer again.  After the cool, damp and beautiful interlude of New Zealand, I’ve landed in Sydney.  Back into high 20s – early 30s C (though at least I’ve missed the 40C temperatures of a couple of weeks ago).  Back into humidity.  And back into thunderstorm season.  It feels a bit like a flashback to the American mid-west.  Though it looks a little different.  And just like NZ, there are pies here.

The last few days to Christchurch were fairly uneventful.  I found probably the busiest and flattest road in the country, and ploughed along it for a couple of hundred kms.  Apart from a few raindrops and a few more brushes (not quite literally, thankfully) with NZ drivers, nothing too exciting occurred.

I did meet yet another cyclist who put my trip in perspective; a Frenchman in (I guess) his sixties, who’s been on the road for five years, across four continents.  Pretty remarkable.  More surprising, is that he’s planning to stop in a few months.  I guess that’ll be a difficult transition for him; I worry a bit about what I’m going to do when I finish, so it’s hard to imagine what it’d be like after five-plus years.

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Christchurch is still a city in transition, rebuilding itself after severe earthquake damage.  It feels a bit odd, as the city centre is essentially a massive building site, with the heavily damaged cathedral surrounded by empty lots, diggers and cranes.  A few hundred metres away, there’s a temporary shopping centre built out of shipping containers; an ingenious solution to the devastation caused to the city.

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And then another few hundred metres takes you to the older area of town, which looks almost quintessentially English.  There are a bunch of Victorian buildings, which seem to have escaped the earthquake damage almost completely (along with most of the suburbs).  There’s the River Avon running through parkland, and there are punts on the river, just as you see at Oxford or Cambridge.  The contrast with the central district is astonishing.  Hopefully, as time and rebuilding go on, the city will reintegrate itself, but I suspect it’ll be a few years still until it all fits together seamlessly again.

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On Sunday, I was outside Christchurch airport trying to pack the Beast into a slightly-too-small box, which was continually trying to blow away in the blustery wind.  Eventually, I managed to squeeze it in, and only had to pay 90% of the cost of my own ticket to get it on the plane.  I wouldn’t necessarily recommend flying with a bike as a stress-free experience.

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In the end, the Beast did get on the plane, and the plane performed as expected.  We arrived in Australia on Sunday evening, stepping out of the air-conditioned airport into the muggy summer night.  A day spent rebuilding the bike on Monday, as well as patching a damaged pannier (exploded mosquito repellent, plus Ortlieb pannier, equals chemically-melted plastic – ouch!).

And this morning (Tuesday), I’ll be on the road in country number nine.  Back on with the sunscreen and shorts for a while, though the rain jacket looks like it’ll still be useful, too, on occasions.  More from Oz soon, as I begin the long, long trundle to Darwin…

Lake Country

Four long-ish days to Christchurch, two fairly hilly, two fairly flat.  And a flight to Sydney on Sunday evening.  I did the sums.  It was only Monday morning.  After my escape from the rain on the west coast, I reckoned I deserved a day off at Wanaka.  It was a bit of a risk; if the weather wasn’t better this side of the mountains, I might end up needing a train or a bus to Christchurch.

I might still need a train or bus, as there are still a fair few miles to go from here in Geraldine.  But the weather’s been better.  Mostly.  I’ve ridden along canals in the sky.  And Wanaka’s really pretty in the sunshine.

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The shortest way to Christchurch was via the lakes, just the other side of Aoraki / Mount Cook from Fox Glacier, where I spent so much time last week.  First, there was the small matter of dragging the Beast and the bags up Lindis Pass, to my highest point in New Zealand at over 900m.  As you can see, the weather remained dire, but I bravely soldiered on.

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With Lindis pass behind me, the way to the lakes was open.  First Pukaki (very pretty, despite a name which must imply the opposite in pretty much any language), then Tekapo.  And just before Pukaki, I hit the first of the canals in the sky.

The canals run across many kilometres of the alpine foothills, generating hydro-power from the meltwater lakes, and providing a home for salmon farms.  I don’t know how many canals there are in the world at over 750m altitude, but I’m guessing not that many.  Between the lakes, the road along the canal provides a nice traffic-free route through the hills for pedestrians and cyclists.

I met an English couple on bikes, coming the other way as I skirted Pukaki.  I asked them how the trail was.  “Mainly tarmac, bit of gravel.  Flat as a pancake”, was the gist of the reply.  Apparently, they had both forgotten that they had just plunged down a 200 vertical metre, 10% gradient hill.  Much fruity language was deployed in their (now distant) direction, as I struggled up said hill, just a few minutes later.  Grrr…

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Still, once up on the trail, it was flat (or, at least, so gently uphill that you barely notice), and with a beautiful backdrop of snow-capped mountains.  And no traffic, which made for a drop in stress levels.  Until I arrived in Lake Tekapo village in the drizzle, only to discover that it was pretty much entirely booked out by hordes of Chinese tourists.

Having bravely borne a good, oh, 15 minutes of stress trying to find somewhere to rest my tired head, I finally collapsed into a super-grotty room.  And while wandering out to get some food a little later, I understood why the place is such a busy stop on the tourist trail.  It’s really stunning as the sun goes down.

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From Tekapo, it was an easy 90-ish km (55 miles) downhill to Geraldine.  On paper.  The kiwi weather, with its typical capriciousness, decided otherwise, as the wind flipped through a full 180 degrees in the time it took me to drink a coffee.  A decent tailwind, which had finally pushed me through the 40mph (64 kph) barrier just a few minutes earlier (I’ve been ludicrously close to the mark several times on the trip, but a tailwind was clearly the missing ingredient), suddenly became a fairly evil headwind, which made the last half of today’s ride a little tiresome.

Still, I’ve managed three consecutive days on the road without getting more than slightly wet.  That’s a first since I arrived on South Island.  I’ve also charged through the 9000km mark.  And there’s a chance that I might get the tailwind back for the long run to Christchurch tomorrow (Friday).

I’ll believe that when I see it…

Out of the Wilderness

The difference between constant rain and relatively normal weather in New Zealand is just a few miles and a few hundred metres of climbing.

Or, in a very close, but parallel universe, the difference between constant rain and normal weather is being an extremely lucky Swiss / German pair of cycle tourists.  Who’d only got wet twice along the whole west coast.  How they managed this is a bit of a mystery.  And even their luck wobbled a bit when they met me.

I met Roli and Christian in Fox Glacier, after another aborted attempt to make progress down the west coast.  This time, I got as far as getting a coffee before hitting the road.  Then the scene below unfolded:

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I went back to the hostel, defeated.  And just checking in were Roli and Christian.  They were soaked, too, but this was apparently such an unusual experience for them that they were raring to go the next morning.  Rain or no rain, wind or no wind.  They were making the 125km run to Haast, regardless.  Then they were going over the pass.  Then they were going to Wanaka, then Queenstown.  And nothing was going to stop them.  They are relentless.

And, as a result, it’s been just a little tiring riding with them.

20141128RTW_6You might notice that the picture above is taken in sunshine.  This was a remarkable change of fortune in the afternoon of the long ride to Haast.  The morning had been notable for a weather forecast which had suggested sunny spells, and weather which had delivered a monstrous deluge just as we were out of range of any shelter and entering the wilderness.  This picture marked the point where my luck with the weather began to change; clearly, speaking German is the key to making the sun come out in New Zealand.

The Wilderness.  There’s nothing between Fox Glacier and Wanaka.  In around 250km, there is one village (Haast), one ‘Tourist Centre’ / campsite / petrol station (Makarora), and that’s it.  Nothing else.  No mobile signal.  Virtually no shops.  Virtually no people.  Nothing.  Except some stunning scenery, and the pass away from the west coast, which was my best hope of staying dry for more than a couple of hours at a time.

As the Germanic weather charmers’ skills really kicked in, the ride to Haast became one of the more stunning days of my trip so far, with some lovely seascapes (albeit paid for by some tough climbing):

20141128RTW_10After a night in Haast village, it was off to the pass.  No messing, no flapping around for hours getting ready (my usual style).  Up, breakfast, pack, go.  No excuses.  I felt a bit like I’d just joined the army.  But it got me moving, instead of moping around watching rain.  And it was dry, anyway.

It started raining ten minutes up the road.  It rained for the whole ride up Haast pass.  It was miserable.  I might have jacked it in and gone back to Haast to cry if I’d been alone, but the relentlessness was obviously rubbing off.  Three extremely damp cyclists on three sodden bicycles finally crested the top yesterday (Saturday) lunchtime.

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And the rain stopped.  Immediately.  Almost magically.  Sunshine, a long downhill, and (unbelievably) a tailwind, drove us to Makarora and dried us off at the same time.  Absolutely astonishing.  More astonishing, is that it hasn’t rained again since.  Yet.  But we’re heading in different directions tomorrow, and I can’t be sure that the Teutonic rain whisperers will still be able to keep me dry.

Still, today’s run down to Wanaka took place in sunshine, pretty much all the way.  Not a hint of getting wet, and south island was finally showing itself off without low cloud, mist, or drizzle getting in the way.  What a result!

20141130RTW_11I can’t explain how good it is to think you’ve got a reasonable chance of a day’s ride without getting a soaking again.  The eastern side of the mountains is much drier, so it should stay that way.  You may be lucky enough not to get too many bad weather reports from me from here on.

And as we go our separate ways, I wish Roli and Christian all the best.  Not that they need it; they’ve already talked someone into driving their bags to Queenstown for them tomorrow.  So while I wobble off in the general direction of Christchurch with a full load, they’ll be scooting gleefully along on almost weightless bikes.

Their luck really is amazing.  I want some.  But my German is awful.  And I still can’t get out of bed in the morning with much enthusiasm.  Since these appear to be the main attractants of outrageous good fortune, I guess I’ll just be muddling along as usual for now…

The Occasional Alps

This might sound a little familiar.  Sitting in a hostel, gazing forlornly out of the window at astonishing quantities of driving rain.  And much twiddling of thumbs and pacing up and down until the skies (maybe) clear.

I’m sure someone else was doing that yesterday morning (Tuesday).  They may even have experienced a flicker of sympathy for any cyclists plugging away outside.  I, however, was busy multi-tasking.  I was out on the Beast, getting soaked to the skin and climbing hills.

The west coast of New Zealand is proving tricky on a bike.  Towns are spread unevenly and without much between, so you sometimes need to ride a short repositioning day before a longer run.  And the Southern Alps, which are a constant companion to the left of the road, have been getting bigger and bigger, which means the foothills are bigger too.  Oh, and I might have mentioned that the weather is a little bit fickle.  To say the least.

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Yes, the Southern Alps are always there, but you only get to see them occasionally.  Usually (at least with me seeming to attract moisture from the air wherever I go in NZ), they’re either hiding their heads in low cloud, or are completely obscured by heavy rain.  They’re always there, but you definitely wouldn’t always know.

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When you can see it, the scenery is spectacular.  As I’ve meandered south into glacier country, the sun has sometimes bothered to appear, and the snow-capped peaks, lakes and icy rivers are absolutely beautiful.  And the sun is strong when it comes out.  I’ve actually had to dig out the sunscreen a couple of times, which must be an improvement, mustn’t it?  Until you look at the forecast for the rest of the week…

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I got to Franz Josef Glacier on Monday.  This is both true and slightly misleading, as I only got to the town of Franz Josef Glacier.  Not quite to Franz Josef Glacier itself.  Hope that’s all clear enough?  And then I got soaked on the short, but hilly, run to Fox Glacier yesterday (again, that’s Fox Glacier, not Fox Glacier, but then I guess you’ve worked that out already).

This morning (Wednesday), and a now all-too-familiar scene repeated itself.  I was, once again, the one in the hostel, watching the hills disappear and reappear between sheets of torrential rain.  Given that the nearest hill is only half a kilometre away, it takes some fairly serious precipitation to make it vanish.  I was set to push on to Haast today, which is a long day’s ride, and then over the Alps tomorrow to, hopefully, better weather.  But the rain’s not ready to let me go just yet.

That may be just as well.  It would have been a shame to leave glacier country without seeing a glacier.  And as the rain became a little more showery around lunchtime, I commandeered a Swede’s car (OK, OK, he was going anyway, and offered me a lift), and we drove up to have a look.

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The glaciers here come fairly close to sea level, and are surrounded by temperate rainforest.  That’s RAINforest.  Appropriately enough.  Makes a pretty frame for the hills and glaciers, mind you.

So, in theory, I should hit the westernmost end of the Kiwi leg of my trip tomorrow, before cutting over the mountains (sounds easy, right?), and then swinging north toward Christchurch and my flight to Australia.  Don’t be too surprised if nothing of the sort happens, though.

I’m also pretty determined that my next post won’t have anything negative to say about the weather.  Don’t be too surprised if that’s not the case either…

Marooned: The Non-Cyclists of Greymouth

There are eight of us now.  Eight sad, trapped cyclists.

The middle-aged Dutch couple with the super-expensive adventure touring bikes.  The American lads with their soaked gear.  The Anglo-Malawi couple with their matching hire bikes, not yet ridden out of town.  The Aussie with the hybrid and the backpack.  And me.  The place looks like a cyclists’ refugee camp.

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It’s well over thirty hours now since the rain began in earnest, driving in hard from the sea.  It’s ebbed and flowed ever since.  And it’s still raining.  Sometimes a heavy drizzle, blowing damp into every crevice.  Sometimes a full-on monsoon downpour, hammering on the roof and even seeping through the hostel’s old windows.

For some of us (like me) it’s wiped out two days’ riding.  For others, it’s meant near-drowning before finding shelter here.  For all of us, it means we’re stuck in Greymouth for now.

Only the cunning old Frenchman escaped, sneaking out to the station at lunchtime to catch a train to better weather (he hopes) over the mountains to the east.  There are malicious rumours circulating that Christchurch is currently basking in 29C sunshine, but nobody wants to think about that.

No, the rest of us are doomed.  Doomed to gazing wistfully out of the window, sipping hot drinks and imagining slight brightenings in the gloomy sky.  Or to wandering aimlessly about town.  Or watching the washing spinning in the laundry.  Or reading flyers about what we could be doing if the sun was out.

The name of the hostel, in which we’re incarcerated, by the way?

Noah’s Ark.

How very, very appropriate…

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At least we’re not miners.  This area was built on mining, and the memorial on the sea-wall in town is a grim reminder of how many died in this area to bring coal and gold out of the ground.  We’re not dying here; just bored and frustrated.  And things should be better tomorrow (Sunday), with sunshine and showers promised.

I got this far from Westport in a day, which is better than nothing.  I ignored another woeful weather forecast on Thursday, and lumbered 100km down the beautiful coast highway.  I thought I’d only make it about 50km before the rain began, but the rain was late.  For once.  The road is still a bit lumpy, but it’s allowed to be; it’s a really lovely highway, with some impressive bays and areas of rainforest.  And I got to Greymouth dry, which in current circumstances is quite an achievement.  I even saw a couple of flashes of blue sky, as I remember.

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I met Andy on the way down from Westport.  Another English round-the-worlder (well, a Geordie, at least), heading in the opposite direction.  He’s well on his way home, in terms of miles, and we shared a little wisdom about our respective next destinations.  He’s another tourer with more than two years on the road, giving me perspective on the distance still to go, as well as some very helpful tips on carrying enough water in the outback.  That’s one thing I don’t think I’ll need to worry about in NZ…

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Assuming the rain doesn’t continue for the full forty days and nights (if it does, we’ll have to hope that Noah’s Ark actually floats), there should be a spectacular bomb-burst of brightly-coloured bikers out of town tomorrow.  All pushing the pedals with a little extra determination to make up for the frustrations of the last couple of days.  It should be quite a sight.

Assuming the rain doesn’t continue…

The Toughness Index; Crossing South Island

It’s raining horizontally in Westport this morning.  And while I appreciate the spectacle, I’m not going out on the bike today.  Under any circumstances.  In fact, I’m writing this from my bed, and have very little inclination to even move from here today.

It’s been a really good few days, though, and I’m due a rest.  And there’s a bit to catch up on.

Leaving Nelson a few days ago, I had an ambitious plan (given the ups, downs and twists of South Island roads and weather) to get to the west coast in two days.  The first would be a 130-odd km (80 miles ish) run to Murchison, during which I would tick off both the 8000km and 5000 mile markers for the trip.  And this would be followed by a (relatively) easy 100km / 60 mile ride down to Westport on the coast.  Simple.

As with all my plans, this proved a little optimistic.  Unlike most, this one fell apart within five minutes, as I hit the main drag out of Nelson and felt the full force of a brutal headwind.  It was immediately clear that there was no way I was going to make 130kms, hills or no hills.

I stopped at a shop to fortify myself with cola for a long, miserable day ahead.  And almost immediately, another loaded bike tourer appeared like magic (or, perhaps more accurately, like someone who’d been pushing it a bit against the wind to catch me up).

It was an Aussie called Ben, who was also heading toward Murchison, but who had sensibly split the ride into two more manageable days via St Arnaud.  An extra day, and a few more miles overall, but a complete no-brainer, given the wind.  Off we toddled, sharing the usual riding-in-company benefits of a bit of slipstreaming, and a bit of moaning about the weather and Kiwi driving standards.

20141116RTW_1It was a beautiful ride up into the mountains, but still a hard one at over 90kms and well over 1000 vertical metres of climbing.  And it turned out that (touring bike geeks that we are), we’d both hit on a very similar threshold for what constitutes a tough day on a heavily loaded touring bike.  I’m calling it the Toughness Index.  I’ll spare you the immense mathematical complexities involved, and just say that, when applied to all my days on the bike so far, I can now show semi-scientifically that touring New Zealand is tougher than crossing the Rockies (I already knew it felt that way, but it’s nice to be able to prove it).  Which also explains neatly why I’m not moving as fast as I was in North America.

The next morning, it was downhill all the way from St Arnaud to Murchison.  And just a few miles out of St Arnaud, I finally hit the 5000 mile mark, and had someone there to immortalise the moment in a photo (I’m not sure why I look so grumpy, by the way):

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The less astute reader may think that Ben looks a bit like a girl.  A more questioning mind may speculate as to who was taking the picture.  It’s possible that some of you may have worked out that we’d met another rider in St Arnaud, and had a small peloton for the day.

Oh, and if you really are stuck on who was taking the picture, it was Ben.  And he’s not a girl.  Obviously.

It’s always interesting to see how different people approach bike touring.  I’ve got the carefully-designed, super-overbuilt Beast to carry my heavy bags relatively slowly around the globe on a trip I prepared for months.  Ben is running a lighter, faster cyclo-cross bike, which probably helps on the hills.  Just as well, as he’s a bit of a climbing junkie, heading for the highest and steepest roads he can find in NZ.  On purpose.  And Sofia (on a gap year from Mexico) basically just bought a hybrid bike and some small panniers in Wellington, tied her backpack on with string, and got on the ferry to explore South Island.

20141117RTW_6Anyway, we had a decent run down to Murchison together, with a very low Toughness Index, and only some properly iffy drivers and a bit of drizzle to contend with.  And yesterday morning (Tuesday), Ben and Sofia headed south for more hills, while I finally had Westport and the coast in my sights.

I essentially followed the Buller River valley / gorge all the way to Westport.  For once, there was very little rain about (I only spent around half-an hour hiding under trees), and it was a really beautiful ride, watching the river get bigger and bigger as it headed towards the sea.

20141118RTW_7So, once this ridiculous rain subsides, I’ll be off down the west coast.  The Toughness Index should drop as I head down the coast, at least for a while.  I just hope that the rain (in the wettest part of NZ) and the wind will ease up for a few days, so I can appreciate it properly.  The weather forecast is dubious, but then it has been every day here so far.  Where is that NZ summer?

 

 

Bulls, Cows and Wind

Things took an unexpectedly bovine turn on the way to Wellington.

Having hit my antipodal point (so no more geographical gibbering in that particular vein), I got lucky with the weather.  A bit of drizzle, but a lovely cross-tailwind pushing me fairly effortlessly down the coastal highway toward the capital at over 100km a day.

As I think I might have mentioned before, highway riding can be a bit tedious (between the occasional, traffic-related moments of panic).  And as my mind wandered a little, I began to notice the slogans on signs.  You know the sort of thing.  Where a town or a company pays an ad agency to come up with a few snappy words to capture the essence of what the town or company is about.

These are usually either rubbish, or entirely incomprehensible.  Or both.  American towns seem to specialise in the ‘the best little town until the next little town’, or ‘the home of someone you’ve never heard of’ type of thing.  In the UK, it would be even more mundane; ‘Fourth in the County Best In Bloom Competition, 1983’.  Companies tend to go for the corporate nonsense approach; ‘Your Innovative Lavatorial Solutioneers’, and that sort of guff.

The Kiwis seem to have taken a conscious decision to undermine the whole idea of these slogans.  And good on them.

There are two approaches that I’ve noticed.  The first is the ‘entirely true and obvious’ slogan, which must make marketing companies cry.  My favourite of these is NZ Bridges, who have come up with the magnificent slogan ‘We Build Bridges’.  That’s a company which has clearly decided that the whole thing is far more trouble than it’s worth.

And then there’s the town of Bulls.  Nothing unusual about the place, apart from a name that’s clearly begging for merciless teasing.  But they decided to get there first, and to take on the slogan war with lashings of self-deprecation.  This is likely to remain my favourite town name sign for quite a while:

20141110RTWThat’s right.  Not one, but two cattle-related puns on one sign.  And the town slogan; ‘A Town Like No Udder’.  Absolute genius.

I was still chuckling to myself about Bulls when I ran into cows.  The highway went up onto a long, very narrow bridge over some marshy land, and the local authorities had, kindly and unusually, built a cycle track across the fields to bypass it.  There was a sign at the start of the track which said ‘Open’.  I told you I was getting a bit observant with signs that day.  Anyway, it wasn’t.  Open, that is.  It was firmly closed, as a forty-five minute stream of cows blithered their brainless way from one field to another.  That’s a lot of cows on a chilly day, I can tell you.  But I did manage to freeze a few in mid-gallop as they panicked about my red jacket and shades.  They seem to run just like very fat horses.  Maybe there’s another new sport in there…

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After so much close-quarters bovine stupidity, it was a relief to roll into Wellington on Tuesday evening, knowing that the North Island was now pretty much behind me, and looking forward to seeing the supposedly gorgeous South.  I was given a bed, a feed and a quick night-time tour by Jos, Rocky and family, who very kindly looked after me despite the girls being in the middle of exam season at school.  Thanks again, all!

Wellington certainly lived up to its reputation for wind.  It was still blowing a hoolie after ten at night; everywhere else in NZ, the wind seems to die down after dark.  And it was still blustery (though surprisingly sunny) when The Beast and I hopped on the ferry south yesterday lunchtime (Wednesday).

The sun lasted until the ferry’s final approach to Picton, when the heavens opened, and a good old Kiwi shower lashed down.  It didn’t really spoil the view:

IMG_0379I decided to take it easy today, just to get used to the roads in the South, and to work out what a reasonable daily mileage is.  The downside of the beautiful hills, bays and roads is that progress is not especially fast.  And there are rather a lot of cafes around too.  Repeated doses of cake, coffee and beautiful views are not the most efficient cycling combo.  But they are all very, very nice.

20141113RTW_2There are, of course, harder days ahead.  I’ll be pushing across the hills for a while until things settle down a bit on the west coast.  The South Island looks stunning already, so I just need to adjust my riding to suit, hope the showers ease up, and relax and enjoy the ride.  It promises to be a good one.

 

 

Labouring an Antipodal Point

You were warned that this was in the pipeline a few days ago.  A (fairly short, and relatively painless) geography lesson will follow in a bit.  Your options are: to get some coffee so you can pay attention; or to get someone else to read this post for you, and tell you the more interesting parts later.  If there are any, of course.

First, the straightforward stuff.  I arrived in the coastal town of Whanganui (or ‘Wanganui’ – I’m not sure what to make of somewhere with two spellings, both of which are used regularly) on Saturday afternoon, dropping off the freezing hills on a chilly, breezy, but entirely dry day.  The fact that I’m writing this in a garden, and without a down jacket in sight, is proof that the Kiwi spring weather is giving me a break, for a day or two, at least.

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After the tough roads and cold (and occasionally very wet) conditions of the higher mountains, Saturday was one of my favourite rides of the trip so far: not too hot, not too cold, not too hilly (though it was a tad steep in places), and mostly downwards (dropping from over 500m to sea-level).  I was following Highway 4, which I’d been warned was both busy and immensely ugly in comparison with the smaller, longer and twistier alternative.  I’m kind of glad that I didn’t take the option, as it must have been too stunning for words.  As it was, the ‘ugly’ road ran through tens of kilometres of beautiful, hilly terrain, reminiscent of never-ending alpine foothills.  And with maybe an average of one vehicle per kilometre to worry about.  Lovely.

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Having dropped all the way to the Whanganui / Wanganui river (first exciting fact; it’s apparently the only navigable river in New Zealand.  How much fun is this geography lark, eh?), The Beast and I stopped for coffee and, naturally, pies, before cruising gently along the riverbank into town.  It seems like a really nice little city (even with proper riverside bike paths!), although the middle is a bit hollowed out, in the same way that many US towns are.  Big-box stores and fast food on the outskirts are killing off the proper shops and businesses in the centre, which is a shame, as it’s a really pretty area here.

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Now, here comes the big geography stuff.  Tomorrow (Monday), as I ride out of town on Highway 3, I will ride across the second of my pair of antipodal points.  This is, perhaps, not the most riveting nugget of news you’ll receive today, but it is important to me.  Why?

Well, I’m riding my bike around the world.  The Guinness records people have defined what a round-the-world bike ride is.  Purely for the purposes of rewarding lunatics who are willing to hammer around the globe as quickly as possible in a haze of exhaustion (and exhaust fumes), of course.  Since it’s the only set of criteria I can find, I want to make sure that my ride fulfils their requirements, despite the fact that it’s laughably slow in comparison with the speed merchants.

The key points of the Guinness criteria are that: the rider and bike must cover at least an equator’s length (24900 miles / about 39800km), including flights etc.; the minimum distance ridden must be at least 18000 miles (about 29000km); and the route should be ridden through two antipodal points.

So what’s so special about antipodal points?  Get your geek hats on; I’m having another sip of cider, and gearing up my ‘keep it patronisingly simple’ writing style…

A pair of antipodal points are a pair of points on exactly the opposite side of the globe from each other.  There are a bunch of sites online where you can look up where different parts of the globe match up (as if you give a monkey’s).  What’s important is that there are very few places where there is land on both sides of the world, because the oceans are very, very big.  For example, the antipodes for the whole of Australia are in the Atlantic Ocean.  This makes finding ridable pairs of antipodals tricky.

Most ridable pairs have points in Asia (from Vietnam / Laos, up through China and Mongolia), which is all well and good.  But the opposite points for these are all in South America (from Peru across into Brazil).  Which is unfortunate, as you’ll recall that I’m not going to South America.  What’s left?  Nothing, except New Zealand, parts of which match up conveniently with Spain.  And you’ll also recall that I’ve already crossed Spain.

On Day 18 of this little adventure, I found myself (scorching, as I remember) in Talavera de la Reina, about 70 miles west-south-west of Madrid.  As I rode west from there, on the N-502, I crossed the A5 motorway.  And this junction, as it turns out, would be my first antipodal point.  Tomorrow (Monday, Day 120), all being well, I’ll leave Whanganui / Wanganui on Highway 3, and will shortly after be on precisely the opposite side of the world from that Spanish motorway junction.

You may be feeling slightly cheated by now, as you come to terms with the crushing realisation that this post is really not going to get any more interesting.  I can’t help that; it’s interesting to me.

And you never know when knowledge, however tedious, may come in handy.  Just remember to thank me the next time you’re impressing your friends with your new-found wisdom about exactly what is on the other side of the world…