The flight South from Auckland to Queenstown isn’t that long, under two hours yet it will take me a couple of weeks to ride back in the opposite direction. I’m hearing oohs and ahh from my fellow passengers as they peer out at a spine of snow capped mountains. I see it differently. I see slow leg burning climbs with rapid blurry descents on my laden bike. I try to look away, bury myself in the airline magazine but find my eyes drawn out the window to another craggy ice cream topped mountain.
My partner in crime on this trip is Karen Edwards enthusiastic traveller, professional massuer and first time support driver. The fact that she is easily distracted makes her the most likely driver to hit me as I wobble my way along the New Zealand country roads. it is a risk I’ve resigned myself to. Sigh…
We fit in a few cycle free experiences before I throw my leg over the bike. First the jet boat which tears along the Shotover river at warp speed. So fast we are barely on the water. Just as I relax enough to reposition my hands the crazed driver spins the boat a full 360 degrees and I’m sure I’m going to be hurtled into another stratosphere. Looming cliff edges project close to the water and are like magnets to our over confident driver. He tries his best to dislodge his screaming, traumatised passengers. It’s a game to him and we are at his mercy. How do you look someone like that in the eye as you disembark, and why, oh why, am I thanking him ?
It’s back into Queenstown where I mistake bright sunshine for summer and take a dip in the body numbing Lake Wakatipu. I naively dive in only to shoot convulsing and gasping high above the surface. I’m the colour and rigidity of an ice block plopped into a mixed drink.
The following morning as the sun waits to lift above the nearby mountains I grind my way North towards Wanaka. It’s only 80 klms but I sweat and pant stopping regularly, already questioning why I’ve bitten off such a target. Every trip starts the same, with questions of my over ambitious decisions and daily targets. It’s easy to do from the comfort of a chair at home. Early on in the first morning I meet a couple from Wales who’ve been cycling around the Crown range for four weeks. Before I leave them I try to lift the rear half of his bike laden with camping gear and bulging panniers. I find myself looking down thinking the wheel has caught on something but no it truly is that heavy. That is not a holiday.
My bike in comparison is light with no camping gear and it gives me confidence and belief to push on. I arrive late in the afternoon, not dead but certainly spent into the small town. Wanaka is a magical town nestled against a shimmering lake, I have little time to admire it. Karen has me wandering the town and we eat a lovely Indian vegetarian meal. If the truth be told my body is screaming for fatty carbs to replace those I’ve burnt on the road.
I work my way West towards the coast and over Haast Pass. I peer at magnificent vistas of sparkling lakes and wide rocky river beds through squinting, sweaty eyes. The river beds are threatening in their potential width yet now in late Summer are narrow and gently flowing. I imagine them in winter after heavy rains quickly transforming into swollen, raging, thunderous monsters. Whole bleached pine trees lay stacked high up on the stony banks, a sign of the rivers potent strength. Just when I think I can’t take any more of this steady climb I reach the top of Haast Pass and savour the luxury of 40 klms of downhill all the way into Haast. I’ve done 148 klms for the day and I’m pooped.
Karen is there to meet me all excited. But it’s not excitement for my big day, she has spotted a large pod of dolphins down by the shore and wants me to go immediately. I don’t have the strength.We head out for more vegetarian, I try my hardest I really do, but it’s simply insufficient for my sapped body. After my first dinner I head next door to the pub where I finally feel human after a burger and a couple of large beers, agh. I might have failed the vegetarian test but I feel terrific after a massage, some stretches and a hot shower.
My body agrees to continue.My coffee the next morning is from the vegetarian cafe nearby and like the meal last night didn’t light my fire. In fact I think the main ingredient missing was probably the critical one, caffeine ! Grumpily I pushed on in steady rain towards Fran Joseph. The New Zealand South Island conjures one word as I peddle along with waves crashing hard against the shore, wild. It feels so untamed, so raw. The weather hits it hard, it makes the locals tough resilient people.
I meet a young couple travelling with their two year old son in a small trailer behind his father’s already heavily loaded bike. They have been tour riding for five months. “But he’s growing the whole time” I add still shaking my head in bewilderment.“Yes, but we don’t feed him much” he replies and all except the baby laugh. Soon after I meet a German guy, part time writer and rickshaw driver from Berlin ? Wandering about and hoping for inspiration. I am bemused and smirk to myself as I peddle on, what can you say ?
Personally I find little inspiration in the day as I slowly climb between Fox Glacier and Fran Joseph. It’s another 148 klms day. The following day I give my weary body and my black and bruised butt a rest from the bike to explore the glacier. At dawn it was an ‘Apocolypse Now’ war zone with helicopters ferrying wealthy tourists high up onto the glacier. The serenity of the National Park under constant attack from above. It’s a terrible distraction and a real shame.
We join a group of adventurers to clamber on and under the glacier. Feeling like Intrepid explorers we’ve been decked out in heavy coats and crampon boots with ice gripping serrated soles. Under the glacier the world turns a ghostly mystical blue. Theres a low, steady screech as the powerful ice tears at the earth as the glacier steadily moves towards the coast. A reminder of nature’s might.
On along the West coast in blustery damp conditions to Hokitika and then Greymouth. I meet a farmer out harvesting a weird, iridescent green moss which he dries then sells to the Japanese. It is used around the base of pot plants to hold in the moisture and gives the impression of a miniature lawn. A fiddly task but he seems happy enough and it’s paying the bills. Our afternoon in Greymouth is spent at the Monteith brewery. It’s been getting Kiwis drunk since 1868. An enthusiastic ex worker walks us through the factory a cacophony of jingling bottle washing machines . As interesting as the factory is it’s the tasting room where the banter builds and we practise pouring a draft beer from the tap. This also means we have to drink the contents to practice pouring again. I wouldn’t say I’m a natural and I won’t be changing jobs in a hurry. We laugh and carry on before stumbling out into the real world which has turned from day to night. I hoped a pizza would suck up the alcohol but it wasn’t even good for that and we soon call it a day.
I’m still against the coast rolling over headlands racing down one side before slowly climbing back up. I visit Punakaiki and the ‘pancake rocks’ where a series of rock formations have smooth rocks stacked neatly one above the other. Karen has gone on ahead to spend a few days in Nelson, a town she had visited before. There is a women’s hostel there doing all things yoga and zen like. Following a cyclist who arrives dog tired at day’s end wasn’t what Karen had in mind. The reality is I arrive late in the day covered in grime, exhausted and ravishing hungry. Hopefully we’ll catch up further along the road but for now I can ride without concern for others and it’s a freeing experience.
I find a quirky bed in Murchison at the rickety ‘Lazy Cow hostel’. It’s full of kayakers, theirs is a world I know little about. They are all University age drifting between New Zealand and Europe each Summer. None of them seem to have a dollar to their name but collectively can buy a jug of beer. They eke out a living river guiding and working wherever they can but really they’re here chasing an adrenaline filled day on a wild river. They have the same fresh, wild eyes you see in surfers back home, I’m guessing it’s a similar buzz. The strength of nature lurching their short missile shaped kayaks through frothing wild rapids. The kayaker trying to stay upright and read the best path through the churning, angry water. Instead of waiting for a swell to roll through they must await rainfall that turbo charges the nearby rivers. They slip into the murky river encased in thick wetsuits to nullify the cold and crash helmets to fend off any rocks lurking under the surface.
They party hard, not one of them has stirred when I rise and slip out on my bike towards Nelson the next morning. The scenery has slowly transformed from wilderness to fringe farming then orchards and wineries. By the time I reach Richmond there are houses in neat rows and street lights. I meet more long distance riders. A couple from the Czech Republic who have spent the last year cycling through Asia then across Australia and now New Zealand. He has a full size backpack on each side of his rear pannier. I wouldn’t be able to lift either but the two of them are grinding away wearing wide open smiles and enjoying every minute. I couldn’t have kept the bike upright.
Late afternoon I reach my goal, Nelson a really lovely little town with a young alternative vibe to it. Children wander the streets in small groups at dusk, completely carefree and not a parent to be seen. It’s as my childhood was yet in one generation I’ve seen things change dramatically in Australia. I move on but am brought to a holt just out of Nelson at a road sign directing me towards Sewerside Drive. Yes a lookout adjacent to the local sewer outlet. I wish I’d been at the local council meeting to vote on that one.
My destination today is Renwick it’s a central town to this young wine growing area. Chatting with the hostel owners, Paul and Pat only to find we have a common friend, Reay Presser. The owners had been Red Cross volunteers together with Reay in Rabaul after a volcano had erupted in 1994. The world is a small ball.
I go to bed listening to a raging wind and hope it blows itself out by morning. I have a ferry to catch in Picton. I’m blessed with a calm dawn and head off in near darkness and don’t stop till I reach the ferry terminal in Picton. Karen is waiting for me there having dropped off the hire car and we board the ferry to Wellington. It’s a beautiful cruise through Queen Charlotte Sound no surprise that it is world famous. It’s unusually calm as the ferry crosses to Wellington. It’s called the Windy City so I was expecting the worst.
Wellington is super impressive from the water with the commercial buildings hugging the waters edge and small wooden domestic bungalows stretching up the steep hills behind. We trudge up the hill with my bike and bags to the Worldwide hostel. It’s everything I expected, sad saggy beds and a rotting bathroom. Wellington has a healthy art scene and their annual fringe festival is quirky and vibrant. Eating at Hummingbird, a famous street cafe when a group of actors suddenly prepare a stage at the bus stop opposite and mime artists begin a show. Everyone around us drops or squats on the footpath to ensure all around can see. I glance around to see that sparkle in everyone’s eyes as they captured by the story, caught in that fairytale moment. It’s a great spontaneous night and we head back up the hill in high spirits.
Te Papa too is a fantastic museum of New Zealand culture and history, I feel embarrassed to see how proudly the Maoris and white settlers here have faced their chequered history. Australia is still blinkered and miles behind. More slapstick comedy down on the harbour. And with the help of an old Australian friend we watch even more comedy into the early evening. A real full day and then there is that hill to climb.
I’m up before the dawn to ride through the empty streets to Wellington Station where a bus will carry me and my bike towards the East coast. I find myself eating a mustard covered hotdog at 6.30am with party goers who haven’t been home but that’s all there is on offer. The bus driver gives the half full bus a long long list of things we can’t do on the bus then lurches off into the darkness. In Napier another driver takes over and there is a collective sigh as everyone relaxes. Not far down the road he pulls up at an eatery and we all rush to get some food into our bellies. Finally Gisborne at 5pm I’ve seized up and it takes a while before all limbs are operating efficiently, ride out of town and find a Bed and breakfast.
I ride the Gorge towards Opotiki. At the top is a small town called Matawai and I fuel up for the hills ahead. Finally it’s downhill following the Opata river and then the Waioeka river all the way to the sea. The steep surrounding hills have spat loose rock onto the narrow road and I ride at full alert nervous that I’ll crash but it’s beautiful rugged country. A big breakfast of home made baked beans and thick coffee I feel ready to take on the world.
I’m out of Opotiki early heading towards Te Kanu. In the middle of nowhere I meet four retired Dutch couples having morning coffee. We always have coffee at 10.30am they say in unison their four identical camper cans sitting in a row. They get out a chair and a cup of brew and ask me to join them. I imagine one of them getting confused as to which camper was theirs, the squeaks of laughter. I move on before I start giggling. Dinner in Te Kanu is ok but the ocean view is spectacular. Funnily enough the real action is in a pokies room at the rear with no windows and incessant noise from the machines oblivious to the mesmerising view out the front ?
Later that night a big bang and I wake to feel the room shaking. Over the next few minutes all returns to normal and then it’s quiet again. A rumble far below the earths surface. A smoking volcano, White Island sits within sight just off the coast.
A night at a B&B in Te Aroroa. I arrive to find the host is a very beautiful young woman who tells me to take a bath and she will wash my clothes. I lay in the bath letting the day’s grime and pain evaporate. The host tells me her husband won’t be back till late. He’s a professional shooter roaming the countryside hanging out of a helicopter shooting anything that moves. I sit real still and eat pheasant for dinner… I’m quietly visualising his return and me lookiong down the barrel of some high powered rifle. Gulp.
The riding is starting to get scary I’d been warned about the logging truck who drive these rough roads with little regard for motorists and absolutely no regard for cyclists. I close my eyes and brace myself every time I hear one pass.
Another quirky finish to my day at “The house of the rising sun backpackers.” A Japanese lady has been coming to run this house each year from near Tokyo. In early spring she plants vegetables and prepares for the summer travellers. You get a room and a vegetarian tempura dinner. It was delicious. To add another layer of intrigue she had invited her old workmates from her factory job in Japan to visit. So there we were four female middle aged Japanese factory workers and me sitting around the table looking at each other and them giggling like I’d just arrived from Mars.
I am meeting more and more cyclists. There are many from England wearing one set of clothes to ride, cook at the hostels in and probably sleep in. I can often smell them before I pass. I know weight is important but hell ! The hostels are getting quirkier, in Gisborne it’s the Flying Nun in an old convent. It’s a weird experience sleeping in these tiny rooms thinking about earlier occupants.
I’m out early the next morning. I have a bus to catch back to Auckland, I’ve run out of time. It’s sweltering in the bus there’s no air con. The Eastern bloc guy next to me hasn’t washed since he left home and his mother’s washing. His vinyl jacket exudes a certain stench each time the bus swerved around a bend and this is hilly country, my nose is twitching, my eyes are watering. Eventually I get a seat behind the driver who has the only window open and I sit there with my nose reaching for the wind like my dog at home.
I get out on the outskirts of Auckland not too far from the airport and peddle an hour to a hostel where the owner has offered to take me and my bike to my flight early tomorrow. I wander off from the hostel down to the local Indian the same place I stayed on my first night and sit out in the late summer air eating a delicious Indian curry and a couple of Kingfisher beers. What a fantastic three weeks I’ve had. I feel blessed to have such great riding opportunities only three hours from Melbourne.