north island

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…

‘Sno Joke

I’m not sure when I started talking to the bike.  I mean full-on conversations, rather than just the occasional ‘giddy-up’ on a particularly steep hill.

These are not out loud discussions, by the way.  I’m not entirely nuts.

This seems to happen to a lot of long-range tourers.  First you name the bike.  Then its little creaks and foibles give it a personality.  Then you start to think it’s your friend.  Mainly because it doesn’t interrupt or run away when you’re boring it.  Then you start to discuss things with it.  I hope that we don’t get as far as the obvious next step, which I’m fairly sure is illegal in most places.

Anyway, The Beast was pretty convinced that it would snow today.  It seems to have settled into the role of depicting the worst-case-scenario, and then gently suggesting that I might rather stay in bed rather than getting frozen / drowned / roasted / whatever else is bothering its paranoid little head.  So today it was snow.  I ignored its pathetic snivelling, because it’s nearly summer here, and snow would be ridiculous.

To be fair, The Beast did have a few legitimate reasons for concern.  After being stranded in Rotorua for an extra day, I’d set off for Lake Taupo in sunshine, only to spend the rest of the day dodging showers again.  Not too many of them, this time, though, and I made good time initially, despite several sausage roll stops and a long chat with Greg, who I met coming the other way.  Greg is two-and-a-half years into a long and winding round-the-world excursion, and it was nice to chew the fat for a while.  Little did I know that the minutes spent taking to him would cost me an hour hiding under a not especially waterproof tree a few miles out of Taupo, as the showers kicked back in with a vengeance in the afternoon.  Still, once I was dry in town, I had to admit that they made a spectacular sight, scudding across the lake.

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I’d earmarked yesterday (Wednesday) as a gentle one.  Just a little trundle down the length of the lake to Turangi, before hitting the big hills today.  And it was a pleasant lakeside ride.  I finally met a pair of cyclists with a trailer who I’d seen from a distance five days before.  They turned out to be a Spanish couple, and the trailer turned out to contain a suspiciously well-behaved toddler.  It certainly put my load into perspective: the guy was riding a bike carrying the same amount of stuff as mine, and towing another 30kgs of trailer and small daughter too – can’t imagine what the hills must be like for him.  Anyway, I made it to Turangi by three, and checked into a hostel.  An hour later, this happened:

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And it kept raining continuously until 0730 this morning, when The Beast and I were having our long discussion about snow.  Because as the clouds started to rise a little, there was, maybe, a little smudge of white on the hilltops around town.  I put it down to The Beast’s fevered imagination.  Though it was chilly enough to warrant leg-coverings and full-fingered gloves.  Never have I been happier to be carrying winter gear on this trip.

The climb up to the edge of Mounts Tongariro and Ngauruhoe (the second is by far the more impressive mountain – see below – but the area’s famous for Tongariro; probably just because you can pronounce it) was a toughy, and the reward for reaching the top was a (literally and scientifically) gale-force headwind.  Which was blasting a random selection of hail, sleet, rain or nothing at me, as well as reducing things to a crawl.  Thankfully, I could see most of the showers coming, and I managed to stay reasonably dry until two miles from the end, when I was snuck up on by a mean black cloud, loaded with horizontal rain.  Urgh!

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So, was The Beast right about the snow?  Not really; I was always below the snow-line.  Was The Beast right about staying in bed rather than riding today?  Well, that’s trickier.  It wasn’t much fun in places, and I’m not over-enjoying the bitter cold while I’m outdoors (especially after so long in the sun in the US).  But it’s all part of the fun.  And I’m sitting here now, warm and dry, and expecting to over-rule The Beast again tomorrow and get back out on the road again.

Unless it really is snowing, mind you…

 

Rain Stops Play (again)

It’s really all my own fault.

If I’d stuck to Plan A, I’d have arrived in New Zealand in fifteen months’ time, in the middle of summer.  As it is, I’m stuck with spring, which means the same as at home: entirely unpredictable weather which can change several times a day.  What a difference from the US, where the only real question was ‘will it be hot today, or very hot?’

It was bucketing down when I crawled out of my pit this morning, ready to get on the bike and head off to Lake Taupo.  And local opinion and the weather forecast agreed that it was going to stay wet all day.  I rate local advice.  I went back to bed.  I’m not in that much of a hurry, anyway.  Needless to say, it was dry by half-past eleven, and this afternoon was perfect cycling weather.  Doh!

Still, tomorrow looks nice (which presumably means hail and thunder by breakfast time), and at least I can fill you in on Rotorua in the meantime.

I used my planned rest day yesterday (obviously in dazzling sunshine) to visit Te Puia, which is only a couple of miles out of town.  Basically, you stroll out past the pristine racecourse, the famous chip shop, and a thousand motels, and into the charming green countryside.  And then you’re suddenly confronted by a huge park full of boiling mud and sulphurous moonscapes.

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The park has a lot of Maori cultural stuff going on, which is really interesting.  But for me, the highlight was the Pohutu geyser, which is absolutely spectacular.  The shot below has some tiny people on the left of the picture to show the size; steam is nearly as difficult to scale on photos as the Grand Canyon…

20141102RTW_29As earlier posts have probably indicated, I’m becoming increasingly frustrated with my uncanny ability to avoid seeing any interesting wildlife (alive, at least; the road-kill count is epic).  Fortunately, the domed structure behind the statue (below) had an enclosed, and extremely dark, habitat for a Kiwi inside.  Even without my wildlife-avoidance skills, I’d struggle to see one of these shy, nocturnal birds.  But with one trapped in a concrete dome, even I couldn’t miss.

20141102RTW_31The Kiwi was on a break.  I saw some feathers on a grainy CCTV feed from its burrow, and that was it.  And no, I don’t know why the statue is eating a stick, either.

Knowing my luck, the wildlife drought will end suddenly in Australia, where pretty much every creature is out to kill you.  In the meantime, I’m increasingly thinking of going to a decent zoo, and faking sightings of all the animals I should have seen.  As far as New Zealand’s concerned, this slightly aggressive-looking black swan (or possibly a black swan with a sore neck; how could I know?) is as good as it’s got so far.  And he shot off as soon as I saw him…

20141102RTW_38Assuming the weather forecast for Tuesday is a tad more accurate than today’s, I’m back on the road south.  Lake Taupo, then the big hills before Whanganui on the coast, which I need to reach to hit my mandatory pair of antipodal points.  I’ll leave the insanely boring explanation of what an antipodal point is, and why a pair is mandatory, for later.

I can tell the suspense is killing you, and I’m sorry.  But I might need the ammunition if the weather turns again.  Which, I’m afraid, it almost certainly will…

Land of Pies and Hobbits

After finally spotting a gap in the never-ending curtains of rain in Auckland, I escaped in a fast boat to avoid the next batch of showers. I’ve been taking my first tentative trundles into New Zealand since. And, apart from the dodgy weather (and let’s face it, as a Brit, I’m not exactly un-used to that), and now two iffy knees, it’s been a delight so far.

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I’m struggling a little to make sense of how long it takes to get anywhere over here. The roads are sometimes fairly straight and smooth, and sometimes wickedly twisty and steep. So what looks like an easy day’s ride on the map can end up being anywhere between about forty miles (and three hours) and seventy miles (and too tough for a day).

Still, the payback is phenomenal, with mountains dropping into the sea or disappearing into the clouds, and downhills on the bike which are more than worth the climb beforehand. And this is supposed to be the less attractive of the two main islands…

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I’m even pushing my boundaries to discover the local food. Never was a country more in love with pies. Even the most tired and run-down garage in the smallest village has a warming rack full of them. And a bewildering array. Pastry-topped pies filled with beef, or chicken, or veggies. Or a whole breakfast. Pies topped with mashed potato or sweet potato. Pumpkin pies (maybe Halloween specials). Sweet pies and savoury pies. Fresh pies, and pies that may well have been sitting there since God was a boy. And other pastry-and-meat-related delights like pasties and sausage rolls.

I really don’t mind pies.

But what I’ve missed is decent, old-school chip shops, and New Zealand has loads of them. And they sometimes still wrap their ‘chups’ in newspaper. Which is so quintessentially British that hardly anyone in the UK does it any more.

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Anyway, I digress slightly.

I’ve meandered a little way across North Island, reaching Rotorua this evening. This has meant crossing hobbit country, and, in fact, within just a few miles of ‘Hobbiton’ (film set / tourist attraction). Unfortunately, my luck with exotic wildlife remains unchanged; no bears spotted in the US, and no hobbits, orcs or wizards here. Yet. There’s still time, I suppose, but I don’t hold out much hope. They’re quite elusive, apparently.

Rotorua looks nice, and the legs feel like they deserve a day off on Sunday before pushing on southwards and slightly westwards. Hopefully, the weather will hold for a while, so I can appreciate NZ properly. Fantastic so far, and a long way still to go…

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