Something’s missing.

When asked what I miss about home, aside from friends and family, my usual response has been to reply real ale and salt and vinegar crisps. For this trip however the answer has changed. While the range of real ale, or craft beer as it is known here, is not as broad as the choice back home, salt and vinegar crisps are everywhere. In fact, this has been the case in both New Zealand and Australia. What has been missing however has, for me, been much more significant.

As we travelled through New Zealand and are continuing through Australia we read up and try to discover what the various towns we pass through have to offer. Many of the towns seem very similar – at least in architectural terms – with decorated concrete facades, an occasional clock tower and fairly low rise. Of course, there are exceptions, usually in the bigger cities.

The fact that these countries were late for habitation means buildings, key dates and local information all generally fall around 1860 – ten years after my flat was built in my home town of Edinburgh. Asked what I miss of home….the reply was history. It’s amazing just how much we can take this for granted.

While as someone interested in self build and who enjoys admiring modern design, I miss the mix of housing styles. I miss temples, old churches and cathedrals, palaces, forts and other buildings that give each town it’s own identity. I also miss the multi-culturalism of the UK.

I have to confess we didn’t do much of the Mauri activity on offer in New Zealand and to date have been only to Uluru, Ayers Rock, to consider the Aboriginal influence of Australia but this last trip blew me away.

During our bus ride out to Kings Canyon (no…we didn’t bring the bikes to Australia’s red centre) we were shown a video outlining prehistoric wildlife and landscapes here. It was amazing to watch. In Uluru, we learnt much more of the Anangu people with a walk around the base of the rock by Cassidy Uluru. His family led on negotiations for title deeds for this land to be handed back to the traditional landowners. Despite this history going back for around 50, 000 years the national park at Uluru was only handed back in 1985.

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While, much like in parts of Africa, this is not history that has affected skylines and build but this oral tradition is very much that thing which sets a country apart. For me, what makes Australia so distinct is seeing how what we would call primitive living exists alongside a much more advanced Western culture. The relationship between these two can certainly be tense. The desire to develop while maintaining tradition – the frustration of supporting something which is hesitant to change. There are no easy answers and we see similar discussion both at home and throughout the rest of the world.

I will still miss the architecture but the history is most definitely here. Perhaps the key thing missing is it’s integration?

Edinburgh presentation event, June 9th 2014

So, it’s set and confirmed. On June 9th I will be doing my first public speaking event about my world cycle.

The event, to be held in Edinburgh on Monday 9th June, will be a fundraiser for my chosen charity, The Homeless World Cup.

It will be held at The Melting Pot, 5 Rose Street and for just £10, including a small glass of wine and snacks you can hear tales of Japanese love hotels, cycling the Annapurna circuit in Nepal, riding from Cairo to Capetown and various other stories from this 30, 000km adventure.

I would love it if you could join me for the evening in this chance to meet old and new friends, learn more about world cycling, and you may even win a prize in our raffle.

The event will begin at 6.30pm (till 8.30) so you can come straight from work or use as an excuse for some travel of your own as part of a long weekend.

To book your place please use this link. You can also find this through the events tab on the bikemind website.

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If you love travel, cycling and want to hear more about living out a dream with complete stranger then do come along.
Look forward to seeing you on June 9th.

Backpackers and nosepickers

We”re currently staying in a backpackers in Katoomba. While we both perhaps feel a wee bit old and not so into the socialising aspect of backpacker travel, overall, the place is okay. Clean, friendly and reasonably functional. I’m pleased. After our last experience in Newcastle we vowed it would be our last….but we had already booked this one before deciding our preference was for camping with the grey nomads.

We had been looking forward to our day off in Newcastle. Things to see, time to relax and proper beds. With access to cooking and laundry facilities this often makes the backpackers a reasonable option here given cabins at campsites in Australia are much more expensive. We arrived around 12pm and it was not too bad…the two young girls on reception were very helpful, the room was fine, the pool area seemed pleasant and we could even take our bikes indoors. Posters clearly displayed “no drinking after 9pm” and one of the other guests actually spoke to us….something we have found rarely among the much younger brigade.

There was another chap at reception checking in a small group of guys and this I believe was the root of the trouble that followed. The pool area became busy, the music volume kept increasing, empty beer crate was soon filling and the ashtrays overflowed. By late afternoon the lounge area was full as people drank, slept  and generally did nothing. We went out.

On arriving back from dinner – a reasonable curry house close by -  we made a hasty retreat to our room. While fine at first even I couldn’t sleep through the 3.30am party and the 6am noise as folk finally trundeled or were dragged across the hallway to bed. So much for a good nights sleep.

We woke the following morning to find a young guy sleeping on the sofa in the hallway, an overwhelming stench of booze, food all over the floor in the kitchen and washing up filling the sink. So much for the kitchen facilities. Despite this we made toast and coffee and sat down at the sticky table. I needed to get away from the site of ketchup on toast…does no-one learn how to cook anymore? Even I was finding this disgusting.

I felt sorry for the two young girls clearing up after everyone else though I’m afraid I finally couldn’t hold back my feelings on our stay as I found out our food had also been taken from the fridge. We couldn’t wait to go out for the day. Unfortunately, by now the young guy on the sofa had slid out from his duvet and was now splayed out, with all on show. Not a pleasant site. We stayed out all day, dreading our return. At least there was some solace in our wee room.

Despite complaints there was little that could be done. It seems this is not unusual at backpacker hostels in cities at the weekend. What will now be very unusual is finding me in one at that time.

….as for the nosepicking. This was the poster in the toilets…

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A day in the outback

It had been a while since we took a route that meant we could not actually ride our bikes but we had found one at last. Despite John joking that I always find the hilliest and most difficult journey believe me – this had not been intentional.

We only had a short ride today – just 35km or so between Crescent Heads and Port Macquarie. We had a backpackers room booked and these would be our first real beds since leaving Brisbane. With free WiFi and a town to explore we did not want to arrive late.

Aware we were taking what the map noted was an unsealed road we checked out what to expect from a local – the turn off we were looking at was right next to his house. Having been informed that the first 16km were ok, and despite being warned that we may need to change gear to get out of the potholes, we were undeterred. As it turned out these would be the least of our problems.

We hit our first gravel track after just 4km and while it slowed us down a little it was not as bad as we were expecting and we were still riding at 17km per hour. The gravel soon ended and while the small stretch of tarmac was short lived we were still in good spirits. The tricky bit lay just around the corner.

We were on Plumers Road, an unmaintained route through the national park. While there were brief glimpses of the ocean at what, we were told, were fabulous surf spots much of the route was lined with deep trees. We were in the bush. While there was a reasonable climb up the gravel track, known as Big Hill, again, compared to what was coming this was a dream.

Having come over the hill we approached a campground and a choice of roads. We stopped to check the map and asked some locals going past in their 4 x 4. The mosquitos were on us, the sun was hot and apparently it was sandy ahead. Still, we were half way now and I was not going back.

When riding into Ghanzi, Botswana, our day finished with a 3km push down a sandy track. I gritted my teeth, took off my shoes and despite remaining cheerful I was very pleased to put my bike down. There were many grumpy folk in camp that night…….yet looking back now this was not so bad.

In contrast to that day, completed as part of a supported tour, the sand was deeper, the distance just over double and I was no longer simply pushing a 17kg bike. This time I had the additional four panniers and my tent – around 50kg all up.

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John pushed on ahead – he’s really not a fan of these situations – I was slower at the back. While I can’t say I enjoy this type of riding I have to admit to loving the adventure. It was tough going but we were heading for comfy beds and a warm shower. After around 7km the sand ended and we were able to ride the last section to Port Macquarie. We had a short ferry journey through Settlement point then back on land we were able to begin our hunt for cake and coffee.

I’m a little more nervous now of the 4 x4 routes so close to the ocean but I hope there’s few more back roads to come yet.

Meet the locals

One of the major benefits of riding a bike as we travel the globe is that we meet a lot of people. Not being shut away means folk chat to us – cyclists, cafe owners, other campers. Some are intrigued by the “one year, five continents, twenty thousand kilometres” on the back of my cycle top and there are some take pity on us -  unsure of why on earth we are doing this but keen to know more. It’s always much easier to converse when language is common yet, despite occasional difficulties, these interactions often make our journey.

Regardless of which country we are in the knowledge of the folks who live there is always the best. They will always be able to share thoughts, comments and information that it is impossible to get from maps and guidebooks and this has certainly been the case once again as we started our trip through Australia.

Large towns and cities are often the most difficult to navigate but we were fortunate to be able to follow Kev out of Brisbane. His knowledge of bike lanes was brilliant but even better, arm signals and hill warnings meant we were never caught off guard as John and I followed through rush hour traffic. That day we finished our ride just as it was getting dark. We had reached Burleigh Heads …. the seaside. Fantastic.

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The following day it would be Chris, at the local bike shop, who told us about a great route off the highway. Despite some decent climbing this was a much better option and we had been warned about the steep climb (14%) as we made our way to Murlingarhh. Our final destination that day was Byron Bay, a hippie place again next to the sea. Despite having never been here before I had happy memories. Many years ago one of my best friends called me from here to announce her engagement…, well, I had to send them a postcard eh?

Sadly our run on happy locals had an intermediate blip. As one car sped past screaming so as to make me jump they were followed just a few seconds later by a second car. This time it was a young girl shouting “fuck cyclists” (sorry folks) as she passed. While one can only assume she was trying to impress friends I can only wish her the best of luck…… with friends like these…?

Fortunately these folk are few and far between and it was only the next day when our faith in humanity was restored. Having stopped for a wee cheap meal at a local bistro we only asked about local campgrounds and then the invite came. Before we knew it we had a place to stay, steak on the barbie and bacon and egg for breakfast. Having arrived as strangers we left Maria and Richards place as friends.

It’s funny. As we travel people often ask whether we are worried about meeting the bad guys. So far….it’s only great hospitality that blows us away.

I’ve often said 98% of folk are good and we just need to avoid the remainder. So far we’ve done pretty well. Here’s to the locals…where ever they may be.

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.