Stepping onto our Air New Zealand flight from Seoul marked the return of familiarity. Announcements were in English, we understood what was going on around us and we were heading to a country we had been to (and cycled around) before, staying with friends and seeing other people we knew. It was all too much excitement and we hardly slept on the flight – not helped by the air steward who insisted on filling up my plastic tumbler with red wine to the very top, and more… “the bottle’s nearly empty, you may as well finish it, just down a bit then I can fit the rest in…” With heavy heads we landed in Auckland and did very little for five days except sleep, drink tea and eat cheese. Debs even made a lemon sponge cake. It was great. Oh and we went to the beach a few times too. The sun was shining, the days were long and memories of camping in -6 temperatures in Korea quickly faded.
New Zealand is about the most British foreign country I’ve ever been to. It’s quite strange being as far away from home as you can be, but being reminded of it everywhere. Plug sockets have a switch. Hot and cold water comes out of separate taps (ok, that’s not a great trait). The words biscuits, rubbish bin and pavement are understood and used correctly. It’s green and it rains in the summer. The national speed limit sign is the same, and we even saw an advert for a car boot sale. Lose a few of the mountain ranges and work on the use of vowels (do you mean peg or pig?) and it’s about there. Rumour has it that familiarity breeds contempt but after 14 months on the road, this was just what we needed.
Flying is our least favourite way to travel, not just because I hate it, but it’s a hassle with bikes and you miss stuff on the way, so it’s always a last option. But we wanted to spend as much time in the South Island as possible before coming back to Auckland for Christmas so had to work out how to get South. Riding there would take out most of the time we had, and public transport options were limited after the recent earthquake had taken out a section of Highway 1 (the main route south) around Kaikoura. So reluctantly we flew to Christchurch, though the views over the mountains were spectacular from above. Landing in the evening we rebuilt the bikes in the less-than-impressive bike assembly area which took forever in the fading light and without a decent pump we rode the 12km into the city in the dark with half flat tyres. If anybody from Christchurch airport is reading this, the stand is not necessary, but a pump (and while you’re at it, a multi tool) would very much enhance your bike assembly area. Without those, it’s just an area.
After a couple of nights in Christchurch with friends old and new (and some spectacular cakes), day 1 on the road took us to another old friend on a farm out on the Canterbury Plains. We awoke the next day to gale force winds and black skies so wimped out of leaving for 24 hours and gratefully accepted another meat filled day including slow cooked lamb from the farm. The following morning things had hardly improved but hey this is New Zealand, weather is unpredictable and so we pedalled away from our luxurious weekend farm stay trying to remain upright on the bikes – not easy. We reached the junction where we had planned to turn right to ride over Arthur’s Pass to the west coast. We looked left and saw blue skies and felt the wind at our back. Then we looked right and felt the gale force winds in our face, looked at the black clouds covering the mountain, looked at each other and almost at the same time said “let’s sack that off and go the other way instead”. So off we rode in the opposite direction as planned, towards the central lakes region. Arthur’s Pass and it’s wind and rain could wait. (And it did…)
The wind remained strong – for the first day it half-helped, half-hindered, then for the next two days we were mostly fighting it, and losing. Geraldine to Tekapo is around 100km so should take one day (we rode it in a day last time we were here on less appropriate bikes) but the gale force headwind meant it took two. The first of these involved one of the most frustrating conversations we have ever had. Drivers are not very tolerant of cyclists here (or anything slower than them) and have a habit of squeezing past when there’s really not enough space, without even slowing down. The conversation went something like this:
Bus driver “I just drove past you. You can’t be riding two abreast like that on this road, it gets really narrow”
Debs “We weren’t riding two abreast. Though if we were it would actually be easier for you to overtake us as it would take less time”
Bus driver (ignores this true fact) “Well on the narrow bit to Fairlie you have to keep right over to the left side, so that on a blind corner traffic can pass you without crossing the centre line”
Debs “…” (too shocked to reply)
(Something like “maybe wait until you can actually see there is nothing coming before overtaking?” would have been an appropriate answer)
To have a conversation like this with a professional driver was quite frightening. Roads here generally have no shoulder so there is just not enough space for any vehicle, never mind a bus, to pass you without going into the other carriageway. But they try anyway. And the idea of overtaking anything on a blind corner… when would this ever be a good idea? Waiting behind cyclists for an appropriate gap in oncoming traffic before overtaking is not considered an option to drivers – it might cause a delay of a few seconds after all. Riding here you quickly get the impression that cyclists are not considered road users, and it is your responsibility as a cyclist to get out of the way so the faster traffic can pass you without hindering their journey. Unfortunately regular road signs saying “Traffic behind? Let it pass!” (presumably aimed at the tourist in the motor home) reinforce this. New Zealand is a beautiful country and could be perfect for cycle touring but the roads are not for the faint hearted. With the bus driver conversation hanging heavy over our heads we rode off and made sure we were nowhere near the side of the road on blind corners, taking away any option for vehicles to squeeze past.
We made it to Fairlie in one piece, but the wind continued to push us backwards almost as fast as we could ride forwards. The 45km to Tekapo took all of the next day, and at one point we had to get off and walk our bikes as the gusts were strong enough to blow us off. Finally crossing Burkes Pass and glimpsing the snowy peaks of the southern alps improved our mood a little but this was tough going. Luckily Lake Tekapo is a beautiful spot and after somehow getting the tent up without it blowing away we found the energy for an evening walk.
All was forgiven the next day as we had one of the best rides of the whole trip. From Tekapo there is a bike route to the next lake west, Pukaki, on a gated gravel road alongside a canal so perfectly flat. The wind had calmed (and even gave us a bit of a push), the sky was blue and the mountains clearly visible all around us. Water in this area has this incredible azure colour (the photos don’t do it justice) from the glacial flour that runs off the alps. It’s unbelievable, the more you look at it the less real it seems, as if someone has painted over the real colour. It’s lucky there’s no cars to watch out for because I found myself staring open mouthed at the water for the most of the time. We were beaming the whole way. From the base of lake Pukaki it’s a 56km dead end road to Mount Cook village. Having been there before we weren’t convinced about whether to make the detour again but the weather was so perfect we couldn’t resist the ride. An azure lake on one side, forest on the other and the highest mountains in the country up ahead – all under clear blue skies – it really was the perfect day.
The Mount Cook area was my top spot in New Zealand on our last visit and it was just as incredible this time around. We camped for a couple of nights and spent a day walking through the Hooker valley over swing bridges to a glacial lake. All in the shadow of towering 3724m (over 12,000ft) high Aoraki Mount Cook, famous for being Ed Hillary’s training ground for Everest and basically a damn fine mountain to look at. Apologies for banging on about the weather but it can make or break a place like this – under heavy cloud there would be no views of the towering mountains that surround you. We felt so lucky that it was clear, the blue sky contrasted sharply with the snowy peaks, everything glistened in the sun, it was jaw-droppingly beautiful. You should go there. Now. (But only if it’s not cloudy.)
Riding back the way we came alongside Lake Pukaki was just as good, and we had a beautiful three days ride to Queenstown, including Lindis Pass, another of our favourite roads, but with barren hills in contrast to the snowy peaks. In between we found a couple of decent free camping spots – first by a river in amongst the lupines (would have been perfect for a game of hide and seek) and then by a lake.
Riding into Queenstown was the busiest stretch traffic-wise, coinciding with a particularly narrow road through Karawau gorge. Obviously we made sure we did not keep right over the the side of the road to let buses squeeze past, but held a few cars up for a few seconds each. Queenstown treated us to some amazing weather and some amazing hosts in Donna and family, who we met in Mount Cook, so we had the usual ‘rest day’ and walked up a big hill for a view over the lake. Beautiful.