south island

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…

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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.