Milestones

Our last cycle day in New Zealand would take us to Middlemarch on the Otago rail trail. Not only was it the desination for the end of our riding here we would also reach 25, 000km. Two days later I would celebrate my 39th birthday in Dunedin. However, despite these targets there was a much more significant milestone on my mind.

Those of you who’ve been following this blog will know my story and those probably closest to me or indeed with a good memory will recall that following the cancellation of a supported world cycle tour, my second trip with one of the other participants was then put on hold following a devastating call from my mother. That call, on March 7th 2012 brought news of the return of her breast cancer though this time it had spread and the initial diagnosis gave a two month to two year timescale. While further consultations were much more promising as you can imagine this led to significant changes to the trip.  With family time now even more critical we mix travel and with visits home. Yes, it costs more but the cost of not doing this is a much greater price to pay.

Right now we’re all almost two years on. I am still riding my bike with John, who is now much less of a stranger and my ma is attending regular checkups. While we have just heard that chemo tablets are the next treatment to try and painkillers are occasionally needed against increasing back pain my ma could still set out for a 20 mile walk no problem. Of course one can never forget those initial conversations but if such news is still not taken with some sense of optimism then it really does become the death sentence. We could have cancelled our trip; dealing with bad news could have led in itself to ill health, yet, I hope what all this shows is that will, determination and flexibility can lead to incredible outcomes.

While I talk at times with other tourers who have been able to travel continuously and wonder what my trip may have brought had I been able to ride that way my overwhelming feeling is that regardless of that first call my mother has in the most part been well and the terrible milestone we were led to expect had not materialised.

Long may that continue.

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Otago rail trail

Given as the Otago rail trail was listed as number three in the Lonely Planet “things to do in New Zealand”  I thought it was probably worth a go. While sometimes skeptical of such recommendations – particularly if cycling routes are listed simply because they are relatively easy rather than picturesque – we decided to give it a go. Covering150km or so this would account for our last three days riding here and even if the route was not quite as expected we would at least be free from traffic. To date many of my favourite rides had been on the gravel paths, much less frequented by cars, campers and trucks. With only cyclists, walkers and horse riders allowed on this route we would not even bump into the occasional 4 x 4. Bliss. As it was was we saw just a few others riders and for many stretches it was just us, our bikes and the fabulous scenery of central Otago.

Trains were taken off this gorge based rail line having previously been a main trade link between Dunedin, on the East coast, and Cromwell and  in 1993 the line was taken over by the Department of Conservation. While local towns saw economic decline for the ten years following closure in 1990 the DoC finally opened what would be the Otago rail trail between the villages of Clyde and Middlemarch.

Bridges were altered, gravel tracks were laid and a local group would take on responsibility for signage and information. These days some 20, 000 people ride the route each year and it’s estimated that around $7, 000, 000 are now brought into the region rejuvenating local towns and associated amenities as hotels expand, B and B’s develop and cafes and local stores are needed to service those passing through. Locals are also involved in tour booking, baggage transfers and bike hire for many rail trail users. For such isolated, small rural communities these developments have been critical for employment, entrepreneurship and community facilities. As someone who has always been interested in community regeration, as well as a keen cyclist, this really is a remarkable story.

We took the main highway from Cromwell to Clyde and following a cup of earl grey and a lemon slice it was time to hit the gravel, stopping briefly for a wee photo. The early part of the trip passed by vineyards and farmland, cutting through rocks and with the sun shining right on us at over thirty degrees. It had been a while since we had ridden in these temperatures and I struggled as we neared the end of the days ride, throwing water over my head and into my mouth to refresh before arriving into Omakau. While we took cabins each night as our stops were determined by the position of campgrounds – aka the budget options.

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Following a detour to Ophir to visit New Zealand’s oldest post office, we made our way a further 55km to finish in Ranfurly. The uphill section of the trail pretty much complete it would be even easier from here. Despite being gravel it was well wheeled and packed down so fine even with heavy touring bikes and at gentle gradients the trip was a relaxing end to our riding here. This section of the trail saw us pass through tunnels (torch required) and over viaducts. Despite one puncture it was a glorious ride and our timing had been perfect. The following day was the Ranfurly Art deco day and Cavalcade so we would be entertained and despite not being able to stay an extra night and join in all the activities we decided to leave later the next day given it was light until reasonably late.

The final section of the trail had described the big skies of the Maniototo Plains and we were not disappointed. The skies were huge against rural scenes and we had more bridges and viaducts to cross. Tailwinds followed us and we were happy not to be riding in the opposite direction. To celebrate this good fortune we stopped for a beer at Hyde before finally arriving at our cabin in Middlemarch. It was getting chilly, the town seemed deserted and despite this marking either the start or end of the trail and being the stopping point for the Taieri Gorge scenic railway it didn’t seem to be thriving in the same way as the places we had passed by. While a come down for us as riders it was the town I felt most disappointed for.

Despite this we found the best cabins we had booked in New Zealand and a fabulous breakfast the next day. Our rail trail ride had been an amazing end and as we boarded the train to Dunedin we felt pretty chuffed. I would live to see more routes like this back home and of course the thriving rural communities alongside.

If I wrote a guidebook this would rate even higher.

We(s)t coast

Our ride down the West coast of the South island would start in Greymouth after a stunning ride on the TranzScenic railway following a catch up with pals in Christchurch. Many folk had told us how dramatic the West coast was and while excited to discover more they had also been quick to point out just how wet it would be too. We were expecting mixed blessings.

Following an organised tour to Pancake rocks (though I would highly recommend riding this fabulous coastal road) we left Greymouth for Hokitika. Just 40km down the road and I was pleased to arrive. A visit to A and E the previous day for an excruciating ear infection meant I was not feeling at my best. That said we made time to head to the beachfront and there met fellow cyclists, Richard and Katie; we would meet them again and share a few ales a little further on. In the meantime my lurgy called for a complete days rest.

We continued our journey the following day and after the best chai latte of our trip to date in the ex-goldmine town of Ross we finally arrived at Harihari. We were only expecting a basic camp yet the ground the back of the pub/motel offered glorious showers, free wi-fi, comfy chairs, scrumptious pub grub and a really really friendly welcome. They saw us off with free coffee the next morning and we arrived at Franz Josef glacier some time later. We were told it was a flat ride once we were over Mt Hercules and the cafe was just past the climb. Well, there was a cafe some 30km later and some hills. This was obviously kiwi flat.

It was good preparation for the following day and our three peak challenge to Fox Glacier.

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The beer and wine shared with Richard and Katy however was not necessarily in the preparation guide book. As it turned out the 555m of climbing was not as bad as we thought and we were set on making it without a stop which we managed to do, arriving in just under two hours. Given I had allowed a day for the ride we were then able to relax before our Glacier walk, including a stroll around Lake Matheson with, yep, Richard and Katy. Great day, shared dinner and a fascinating walk on the glacier before we left for the DoC camp at Lake Paringa. With thousands of sandflies and very basic amenities we were pleased to meet Tara and Toc. Given no access to drinking water they shared both their kettle and cold beers. Amazing kindness yet again.

Overjoyed to leave the sandflies we woke to drizzle the following morning. Our first sight of the wet stuff – so far the weather had been beautiful. We rode to Haast township that day before embarking on the steep climb ahead over the Haast pass and into Makarora. More huffing and puffing. We had just checked into a cabin when we bumped into…..yep, Richard and Katy! We shared a coffee but they had already decided to continue. Having arranged to meet up in Wanaka we took refuge in our cabin.

The journey to Wanaka was incredible. My favourite ride in New Zealand – an opinion it seems was shared with other riders we spoke to. Passing Lake Wanaka, climbing up past “the neck” then finally dropping down the hill to more lake and mountain scenery this truly was a wow moment. Wanaka was a brilliant town, we took full advantage of the Patagonia chocolate/icecream shop following high recommendations and….yep, beers with …..Jon, another cycle tourer from the UK and….Richard and Katy! Well, our routes now may be going in different directions so we had to say goodbye!

As per the last time the beers were ill timed for the big climb the next day…43km up hill over the highest sealed road in New Zealand. Oh well. The gradient was gentle for the first 25km where we stopped in the Cordrona hotel though shortly after was a tough push to the summit. I stopped three times to catch my breath on this one though the steeper hairpins of the descent
were certainly just reward. Whoosh.

We had a final stopover in Arrowtown before the final West coast ride to Queenstown. Arrowtown was another interesting place and to end this section of the journey in Queenstown meant more icecream, new cycle shorts and a chance to drool in the outdoor shops. We were more inland now and had come back sunshine though our final reminder of the wet coast would come from our coach trip to Milford Sound. While the scenery would have made this a spectacular ride the cars, coaches, lack of shoulder and the Homer tunnel would makes for a treacherous ride. It was a long and unfortunately wet day in Fiordland and though this meant the many waterfalls were in good flow as we left the valley, our boat tour did not fully reveal the drama this great national park has to offer.

Back in Queenstown we prepared for the final stages. We were heading for the Otago rail trail. Our journey down the West coast had been a tour to remember. Changing landscapes, changing weather and some new great friends too. A part of New Zealand not to be missed.

Never trust a kiwi!

Many years ago the general consensus was that the world was flat. It appears that news has yet to reach these parts of the globe and despite being a discredited theory in New Zealand many people still think of the landscape in this way. “We’re on a flat road again” I shout to John as we lower the gears and rapidly see the speedo start to decline. Oh well, here goes.

We often ask the locals what the terrain ahead is like, what we may pass on the way and, of course, whether there is a cafe.  In general the response will be that once the key climb is out of the way the road is flat, there’s not much to see and we’ll find a cafe at the end of the ride. To date I can recall just passing the climb from Maruia Springs to a flat road into Hamner and the flat from Harihari, once you are over Mt Hercules. Yeah, really?

New Zealand already has a small population for surface area compared to the UK but with most folk living on the North island the South island is much quieter by comparison. Many of the vehicles that have passed us here tend to be camper vans or cars on hire. The West coast is stunning but the gaps between places to stay play a big part of our route plan. Using the DoC (Department of Conservation) sites as well as the larger private ones does offer more choice but you have to put up with many more sandflies and I’m afraid that after hundreds of times bitten I am now more than twice shy. In fact, right now I’m even taking cabins rather than use my tent and never fail not only to wear sandals and socks but to tuck my trousers in too. Sandflies are definitely something the locals had warned us about! There is no mistruth in the sandfly chat.

There are however some tales we are happy not to be true and in this case I refer to the West coast weather. Despite drizzle in the past two days the rest of our 11 day tour from Greymouth has,  so far, has been blessed with glorious sunshine and we were even needing to remove layers for our glacier walk the other day. Just fabulous…and the rain keeps the pesky cobblers at bay.

So, of the lies perported thus far I’m happy to report the additional sunshine and even ok that the “flat” roads are certainly still undulating. I would be overjoyed to find the reports of major sandfly outbreaks at Milford Sound to be the biggest lie of all the statements we have heard though sadly I suspect this is the one thing I can certainly trust the locals to be more than certain of.

Time for even more repellent.

Pedallers paradise?

A trip to New Zealand had been on my “bucket list” for some time. Lush green scenery surrounding a slightly hippy, laid back approach  – the outdoor adventurers idyll. Everyone I knew who lived here/ had been here raved about their trip and told me I would love mine. Expectations were high and as I read through guidebooks and holiday brochures I was really struggling to see what to leave out knowing that to try and see everything would be an impossible task.

I had been told about the cycle route books “Pedallers Paradise” by both Inga and Bas, two Dutch riders from our Africa ride, and so I ordered them from a book store in Wellington. So far  -  so good.

Whether you think something is paradise is of course subject to one’s own definition. For me it would entail rolling hills, stunning views, calorie free ice-cream and great ale to finish the day. We would chat to great folk, do a few touristy things and pedal. While some days may still be tougher from a physical perspective the payback for the additional effort would always be worth it. While predominantly sunny, given the time of year we had arrived, a few short showers would still be expected given that while I may be a complete optimist I am also a realist.

What I hadn’t accounted for were aggressive drivers, headwinds and sandflies!

Drivers, particularly on the busier North island are not so keen on our two wheeled machines and it’s unfortunate that, despite riding well on the left and in single file, we still found ourselves subject to abuse hurled from windows and as trucks passed it was obvious which ones had drivers that also rode bikes.  Most roads have a small shoulder and while other European riders have felt too much in the traffic, as Brits, where finding a shoulder to ride in is rare, we have found it ok in the most part. Conversly, as soon as we stop the hospitality is overwhelming – on a par with Malaysia – and we even found ourselves staying at the home of complete strangers, Martyn and Kathy, in Nelson. Incredible. Fortunately, the South Island is much quieter and so we hope that as holidays end, roads too will quieten…there’s that optimist again!

Despite the above we have still had some amazing rides, taking the old rail trail over the Rimitukas, following Queen Charlotte Drive out of Picton and more recently I enjoyed our back road from Tapawera to Glenhope then onto the main highway towards Merchison. The wind on our last ride was fiercesome again and although cold and tired I still loved the feeling of isolation and desolation the gravel track though old barren woodlands provided – reminding me of the final days of my Lands End to John O’Groats trip back in 2005.

I’m aware there is little one can do about sandflies but they don’t carry malaria so we are finally off tablets. The roads are getting quieter and while I hate riding into headwind but at least it seems that the stronger it is the more amusing I find it – for now at least. We’ve found some good ale and ice-cream (though sadly not calorie free) and the scenery is always good.  I’m not sure I would cycle tour here again though. Given a lack of roads means sharing with the bigger vehicles I too would hire a camper. With mountain bikes to hand I would ride the rougher tracks and roads I’ve loved more but without the panniers. Being outside is the key thing to do here and I must say I’m missing history in terms of architecture and buildings. New Zealand really is a stunning country and while this blog has perhaps considered whether it is really a paradise for cycle touring there is no doubt that it is an outdoor one.

New year. New Zealand. New friends.

After a long flight we finally arrived at our hotel in Auckland around 330pm on NewYears Eve. It seemed our bike, tent and shoe cleaning regime had been up to scratch so we passed through bio-control at the airport without too much difficulty. It was strange leaving so quickly after Christmas especially after my ma’s hospital appointment on Christmas eve and without getting to really see friends and family much again after the main seasonal activities. However, despite some apprehension I was still excited to finally get to land in a country I have wanted to visit for some time. Deemed the land of adventure it was also now a country of new friends too.

We managed to stay awake long enough to watch midnight fireworks from the Skytower though it’s fair to say I’m not a fan of busy new year bars and felt particularly unglamorous so we soon headed back to catch up on sleep. Fully charged the next day we set about sightseeing, going up the skytower and walking around the harbour. This city has a great feel, a fantastic sense of space and fabulous arty industrial areas. A brilliant start to this new adventure.

The following day we would prepare to leave – final shopping (I needed a new camping mug for this tea-aholic Brit), bike building and dinner and beers with Darragh, our first meet up with newish friends here since meeting on the Africa trip. Smiles and ales later we said goodbye. Unfortunately I had not been quite so lucky to meet other older friends from Bristol but we had to get moving.

We made our way round the coast with a plan to reach Miranda. However, with very steep climbs, up and down all day after a month without riding we eventually stopped after 90km at Orere Point. Relieved to reach a camp site we were sore, tired and early to rest. We had made a plan to meet fellow rider, Vince, from our Africa trip too in a few days and wanted to make good Southerly progress. Fortunately roads were flat and after a great lunch stop in a very friendly, quirky cafe and our first hokey pokey ice-cream we were 107km down the road in Te Aroha. Vince would pick us up the next day in Tirau and take us and our bikes to Rotarua.

All went as planned and soon we were in the town known for being geo-thermal and therefore also a little stinky. We visited bubbling mud pools, hot springs, lakes, coffee shops and scenery a-plenty. On our way we passed through a trout farm where we met guy called Red who invited us back for smoked fresh trout the following day. We were really getting a kiwi welcome. Vince had driven up from Wellington to show us round and now a complete stranger was preparing food for us all. Amazing.

The route we planned should then have taken us to Taupo but just a few days into our trip we were changing plans. Given Vince had now shown us around here he would now drop us in art-deco town, Napier. However, before leaving Rotarua there was just time to squeeze in another spa, known as DeBretts and ….a bit of biking!

While obviously keen riders it’s fair to say John and I generally prefer tarmac. Yes, I have a mountain bike, have ridden trails and we rode rough sections through Africa and Nepal but when it comes to technical riding I am a wuss though I will have a go. Vince, being more a downhill rider was determined to show us the technical trails through the redwoods in Rotaura and had brought two spare mountain bikes for us to use. After a steep, gravelly climb we would follow the intermediate route downhill. Known as “corners” the route twisted through the trees, jumping, screeching and whooshing until we reached the bottom. It was the slowest time Vince had ever recorded, John had taken a wee tumble and I had certainly walked significant sections yet despite this we had smiles on our faces and not just because we were now safe at the car!

Another hot spa and a drive across to the coast we’re now in Napier. John and I will be back on the road bikes soon enough to continue our journey. We’ve had such a welcoming start and stunning scenery so far and look forward to meeting Vince again and other newly made friends as we make our way through the next few months.

Gutted only to have missed my old pals it’s great to be able to consolidate new friendships.