Back in the saddle in Latvia

After our unplanned return from China and two months at home we were itching to get back on the road, so we had planned a final European loop to get us to Helsinki, from where we would ride home, completing the round the world cycle trip. It is now a few weeks since we pedalled away from Measham for the second time. As with our initial departure in September 2015 we were aiming for the Harwich-Hook of Holland ferry, and as the first time, we rode in glorious sunshine through beautiful English countryside. There really is no better place to ride when the sun shines. We mainly followed national cycle routes on small country lanes, though with a few more hills than our out of practice legs and lungs would have liked.

An overnight ferry (full of other cyclists, none of whom spoke to us – strange lot us Brits are) landed us in the Netherlands at 8am on Debs’ birthday. What better way to celebrate than to stock up on pastries at Lidl and head to the beach for a birthday breakfast. The sun was still shining, the wind was behind us and we were back on the best cycle paths in the world (not confirmed) surrounded by elderly Dutch cyclists on their upright bikes. The paths are almost totally flat, but can have a short steep(ish) incline and then drop at times. On one of these, one of our Dutch cycling friends warned us that “there is about another ten of these steep hills on this path ahead”… a Dutch steep hill that is. Two or three hard pedal strokes and you are up and over the peak. Rocky Mountains they are not. We were pleased to be back in Europe.

We had a lot of time on the ferry

A short ride to Dan Haag (we will be back…) and four trains later we were in the port of Travemunde on the north east coast of Germany, via Hamburg where we stayed with a friend for a couple of nights. The ferry from would take us to Leipaja in Latvia and we were mostly in the company of truck drivers. We settled in with a Lidl picnic and enjoyed the sunset from the boat. It was the smoothest sailing I have ever experienced. A mere 28 hours later we were in Latvia. 


As we arrived at 10pm I had booked a cheap hotel room to save us having to “ride around a strange town in the dark” looking for a place to stay. Rolling off the ferry at 10.15 pm, the sun was still above the horizon. We were five days from midsummer and the days were long. Ah well. The Sport Hotel was the bargain of the century at only €14 for the biggest room ever, with the answer to every British cyclists dreams, an electric kettle. There was even a sofa. Welcome to Latvia.

Shops were sometimes hard to spot. Few windows. The signs helped at this one.

Finally we were back in the saddle, and set off the next morning with no idea what to expect from Latvia and no real plan, other than “ride to Estonia”. Riding up the coast seemed a good place to start, without realising we were apparently following a Eurovelo route (though we are a little sceptical of some of their “routes” that are often just someone’s nice idea) and before we’d even left town we saw five other touring cyclists. That’s more than we saw in the whole five months in Europe at the start of our trip. Cycling in the summer is more popular than the winter then. 

Leipaja had a few sights including a very shiny Russian Orthodox Cathedral and a soviet-era prison but soon we were on the open road and navigating by keeping the sea on our left. The sun was shining but our legs were weary from riding the loaded bikes for the first time in a couple of months. Ride all you like at home but nothing prepares you for carrying the weight of the bags. The first night in the tent since February was strange, it didn’t get properly dark at all so we had to use our buffs as a blindfold to give the illusion of night time. After a night camping by the sea we turned inland and with the help of an amazing tailwind that we savoured every minute of – as most of this leg will be riding west into the wind – we were in Riga two days later. Latvia was flat, green, and mostly well kept. Towns had attractive parks, old wooden buildings, castles and were very pleasant indeed. There was the odd soviet style concrete tower block but not as many as we had expected. 

Making friends with the locals.

It was a rainy morning’s ride to Riga, and included a comedy moment of hiding in a bus shelter when the rain was particularly fierce only to be completely soaked by a truck riding through a huge puddle/lake that had formed next to the kerb. By the time we arrived in the picturesque capital the sun was shining again. Riga is mostly known these days as a stag party destination thanks to Ryanair and cheap beer, but the old style buildings are ornate and the different pastel colours makes the whole place very easy on the eye. I say old style because most of the city was destroyed during WW2 and has since been rebuilt to look old. It’s actually pretty compact, we had a day to walk around but found that we had covered most of the old town in a few hours. Including sampling a couple of bakery treats.

Great fancy buildings in Riga
Great fancy cakes in Riga

Luckily we had arrived on party weekend. Midsummer, or ligo (pronounced leegwa, strangely) in Latvia, is celebrated on 23rd June and is said to be bigger than Christmas. Though most people celebrate by heading out into the countryside, lighting fires and drinking all night, there was a music festival in the city which had a nice atmosphere, even if it was like being in the middle of the Eurovision Song Contest. Latvian pop music is not to our taste. People were drinking and dancing, we saw at least three people fall over they were so drunk, and at one point there was a circle of women close to us who were all at least six feet tall. Apparently Latvian women are the tallest in the world, and on that evidence, I wouldn’t argue against it. 

An annoying-to-navigate ride out of Riga (as most cities are) had us riding up the coast towards Estonia. Our mistrust of the Eurovelo bike route deepened as the bike signs seemed to direct us into the sea – it actually went along the beach for 6kms. The sand was mostly hard packed but the bikes are so heavy it was tough going. Once off the beach the rain returned and we hung out at our usual bus shelter, watching as youngsters stumbled past drinking and singing, the beach party clearly rained off but not their enthusiasm. It was still the holiday weekend and we pulled in to a campsite that evening to find groups of Latvians keeping the fires burning and the alcohol flowing. One guy could speak fairly good English so spoke to us at length about immigration policies (“your mayor, she doesn’t want Eastern Europeans in the country but she lets all the Muslims in”; “do you see any brown people in Latvia? No, we kill them”) before rejoining the party. We fell asleep to the soothing sound of more Latvian tunes, hoping that when we crossed the border into Estonia the next morning the music as well as the weather would improve. I’m not sure I can ever watch Eurovision again.


Latvia had been a nice return to the cycling lifestyle. Flat, easy camping, cheap food, tailwinds. It was good to be back on the bikes again, although I found the first few days quite tough mentally. I had optimistically assumed that normal life would fall back into place as soon as we were cycling again, but in reality everything had changed and it was hard to focus on what we were doing rather than what we would have been doing if we hadn’t had to return home from China. Cycling also gives you a lot of time to think – I had spent most of my time at home busy and suddenly my mind was empty and I thought a lot about my dad and what had happened over the past two months. Even though I often felt sad, I knew it was the right thing to be back cycling and finishing the trip off in the best way we could.
Thanks to: Svenja, David and Zane.

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Cycling North in Malaysia TrulyAsia

Riding North through Malaysia we didn’t have much of a plan other than to stay near the coast and to go to some islands. Penang and Langkawi are the well known Malaysian islands on this coast but our first island stop was Pulau Pangkor, described as “where Malaysians go on holiday at the weekend”, so on a Wednesday we thought this might be a good bet for some quiet beaches. We got to the ferry port in Lumut at mid afternoon and got the what was to become normal look from boat staff when we turn up with the loaded bikes to take them on a ferry. It’s a look that is a mixture of “what on earth are you crazy white people doing with bikes” and “challenge!” This is a foot passenger ferry, and there is obviously no bike storage area, so a bit of imagination is required for getting the bikes on and stowed. We have since learnt that the key in this situation is not to watch the precarious loading of the bikes. On this occasion they were pretty good as there was also the odd moped to carry.


A short ferry ride later we were on our first South East Asian island. The port town was fairly busy with mopeds buzzing around everywhere but as soon as we got out of there the roads emptied out and there was nobody about. We had to ride up our first serious hills (>10%) which made us nearly melt. We were aiming for a small resort on the west coast with budget accommodation and there were so few people around we could name our price for a room steps from the beach. That evening we had dinner overlooking the sea, watched closely by a hornbill (it felt like being on the Lion King). There was a decent sunset as we were facing west and walking up and down a near empty beach (just us and a few hundred washed up plastic bottles, sadly) we were pretty happy with ourselves. 


Hornbill on Pulau Pangkor. Like having dinner with Zazu

The next morning the place was even quieter. There was nowhere open for breakfast and even the mopeds had thinned out. I sent Debs into a hotel to ask if there was something going on that everyone was at but no, it was just midweek on Pulau Pangkor. An afternoon ferry got us back to the mainland and we spent the evening in the fairly nice “resort town” (but we were still the only white people) of Lumut. From there it was a few days ride inland to Penang. First stop was Taiping, a decent sized city famous for having 61 ‘firsts’ in Malaysia – first newspaper, railway station, prison, museum…. for us it was our first experience of eating at an outdoor market and the food and atmosphere set the bar high. It also had some nice lake gardens, overall a nice stop off and totally off the tourist trail.

Lake gardens, Taiping

Taiping night market

That day was mostly memorable for our closest brush with fame yet. We are getting quite used to people wanting to take selfies with us (we always wonder how these photos are explained to their friends. How we imagine it: “I saw these two amazing women today, they were on bikes carrying all of their stuff, how incredible is that? They had really muscly legs and didn’t even look tired!”. What probably happens: “I saw the weirdest thing today! Two white women riding bikes wearing strange hats, they were so pink and sweaty they looked like they were about to collapse, where on earth were they going? They must be mental! I had to take a photo!”) but this was a new high. We had stopped for cendol (will be explained in a future food-related post) and were about to leave when a bus load of middle aged women and children got off. Pleased we’d timed it to avoid the queue, I went to get my bike and noticed Debs being mobbed/hugged. Not wanting to miss out I went over to see what was happening and all of a sudden we were swamped with selfie requests, the women pushing and shoving to get their turn to take a selfie with the weird (amazing?) cyclists. We rode off smiling and wondering how this interaction would be explained to the husbands later. 

Debs and her fans

Anyway back to the cycling. From Taiping we followed some small roads for a while which was a nice change but soon we were back on busy highways. We stopped for an ice cream at a petrol station (our new favourite air conditioned break) and a pump attendant looked over our bikes for ages, before giving the tyres a squeeze (why does everyone do this?) and insisting we needed them shining. We didn’t. That evening we were staying with a warm showers host and stopped in his town to buy some fruit. I walked back from the fruit shop to find Debs chatting to Wendy, who had good English and insisted we came to her shop to meet her family. Sure we said, they were all so excited to meet us, we ate pomelo for the first time and there was much hilarity over the fact that I couldn’t peel it (being a failure is funny in any language it seems). Wendy was excited to have “real life white people” in her shop, we were excited to be invited in, generally there was much excitement. Wendy said to me “your eyes are so blue”, I hadn’t really thought about how strange blue eyes look here. We were asked to stay for dinner but had a host to get to (bad timing, we never usually do) and we spent the evening with David and his wife who cooked us a great curry (they were Indian-Malay). He had cycled in England and the USA. Our favourite story was how he went into a shop to buy bread, they asked what kind of bread, he said he didn’t know, just bread, they showed him a list of breads, he chose one, then they kept asking what he wanted in it, “there were all these raw vegetables, do you want cheese? I just wanted bread”, and we realised he had walked into a Subway. It must be quite confusing in there when you only want bread.


Fishing boats

A horrible, busy, smoggy, black-bogey-inducing ride and a short ferry the next day got us to Penang, an island just off the Malaysian coast which was colonised first by the English. It was a cool place to hang out and wander around for a few days. The first day we were there was the last day of Chinese New Year celebrations (15 days in total, not counting preceding days, it makes me feel like we are missing out on something only having one day) which is also a kind of Chinese Valentines Day where single women throw mandarins into the sea. I’m not sure why. But this was fun to watch and there was a great firework display at the end. [We were at our hotel earlier and a guy called Tony turned up with a large backpack and checked in. Debs told him there were fireworks down at the fort later to which he curtly replied “oh, I’ve already seen some”. When is this ever a reason to not watch a firework display?! We imagined Tony at home. “Hey Tony, want to come to the pub?” “No, I’ve already been.” Odd.]

Sharing the ferry to Penang

The chucking-a-mandarin-in-a-bucket ceremony. Nearly as many mandarins in the sea as plastic bottles….

There’s some cool street art in Penang and lots of old fancy colonial buildings as well as the usual mix of churches, mosques and temples. It kept us busy but our main reason for staying so long was to get visas for Thailand, as currently 60 day visas are free and we were worried about only getting 15 days at the border. On our way back from the Thai embassy we saw our fourth crash in Malaysia, a motorbike going straight into the back of a car, flipping up and throwing the driver onto the ground on his head. We stopped and helped collect his belongings from the road as he dragged himself to the side. The amount of crashes we are seeing here, either happening in front of us or riding past the aftermath of ambulances and upturned vehicles is quite frightening and a reminder that we are at the mercy of other drivers and anybody can be in the wrong place at the wrong time. We just cross our fingers that it won’t be us and keep our wits about us.

Street art in Penang

One day in Penang was filled with risking public transport to visit a hill-top temple with a huge statue and a good view of the city. Despite Chinese New Year finally being over the temple was decorated with more lanterns than I ever thought possible. Just as I was wondering how many lanterns it takes to decorate somewhere like that I saw that some had numbered tags – 19,000 and counting. That’s a lot of lanterns. Someone makes a killing selling these once a year. It was all very colourful. The bus ride back was eventful, our female driver wore a headscarf and aviators and spent the whole time on her two phones. We clung on for dear life and wondered whether it was better to be cycling or on public transport. Not sure.

Chinese lanterns on Penang

Instead of going back to the mainland and riding north we could take a three hour ferry straight to Langkawi, our final stop in Malaysia. This is another popular tourist stop but more for the beaches than the towns. Again we tried not to watch as our bikes were lifted onto the top of the ferry and had a very unpleasant ride as we had to sit downstairs airline-style, could hardly see out of the windows and definitely couldn’t go out on deck for some fresh air or enjoy the scenery. Langkawi was also fairly disappointing at first glance, hotels and tour agencies everywhere, and riding round to Pantai Cenang, the main resort, we were sad to see it look more like Benidorm. The beach was nice but full of bars, sun loungers, jet ski operators, people selling boat tours and backpackers taking selfies. We treated ourselves to a beer on the beach (being a largely Muslim country, alcohol is heavily taxed in Malaysia – it would cost us more to buy one beer than a huge meal for both of us – but Langkawi is duty-free) and found a quiet spot at the end of the beach to watch the sun set but we weren’t tempted to stick around and rode off the next day to find a quieter beach on the north of the island. 

The quest for the perfect selfie

Pantai Cenang sunset

This was achieved successfully, we found a lovely motel right on a quiet beach where you could also camp. After one air-conditioned night we tried out sleeping in the tent for the first time since New Zealand. Despite a cool breeze outside it was like trying to sleep in a sauna and we both laid in a pool of our own sweat trying to sleep. It finally cooled off about 5am and we had a couple of hours until the sun was up. Camping was not something we would be making a habit of. 

Northern Langkawi

We were sad to leave Malaysia. We had enjoyed the food a lot, everybody speaks English well and it’s an easy place to travel around. We had learnt what we needed to get by on a bike – key words for survival (water, danger, ice cream, fried), how to find decent cheap accommodation, what and where to eat, getting drinking water, what to expect from towns, how much things should cost… I always find it quite unnerving to have to enter a new country and start all of this again. 

Even accustomed to following the moped lead in how to get to the front of the traffic
We enjoyed the variety of mosque architecture

An extra four wheels

To get back to Auckland in time to celebrate Christmas with our NZ famil-Lee we had to find an alternative to cycling. Flying was an unattractive prospect and buses are still not on a full schedule after the Kaikoura earthquake so we investigated how an extra four wheels might help us. Most people who rent cars and campervans here pick up in Auckland and drive somewhere in the South Island to fly home. So luckily for us, rental companies need these vehicles driving back up north and offer nice perks to counteract the fact that they need them back as quickly as possible. We managed to book a small self-contained camper for free, as long as we took no more than four days to get from Christchurch to Auckland (1300kms). All we had to pay for was one passenger on the ferry, and the petrol. Deal.

First of all we had a day to look around Christchurch. The city is still in recovery after the major 2011 earthquake that killed 185 people and destroyed most of the CBD. Since the last time we were here (2012) it looked like the city is progressing well – piles of rubble have been cleared, empty lots have been tidied up and there are a number of new flash buildings. In 2012 the re:start shopping mall in bright shipping containers just had a handful of shops; now it is a thriving shopping space with cafes, street performers and food. It was very busy. We liked Christchurch a lot. It seems like there is plenty going on, the regeneration is an exciting time, it’s a manageable sized city and there’s even decent cycling infrastructure.

Clockwise from top left: Big chairs in the CBS; 185 white chairs, one for every life lost in the 2011 earthquake; re:start shipping container mall; damaged cathedral; interior of the new temporary “cardboard cathedral”

But we had Christmas in Auckland to get to. After not driving for well over a year we were a little apprehensive about getting behind the steering wheel. How would it feel to be travelling so fast? We had other things to think about too. How much does petrol cost these days? How often will we need to fill up? What’s the speed limit? Where will we park? How close can we get with the car? All things we haven’t had to consider in a long while. Especially not the speed limit.

Kitchen; bedroom/bike storage

The camper itself was well thought out, with a small kitchen area at the back and a fold up bed/table in the main area. It came with everything you might need – all cooking stuff, real mugs, chairs and table to sit outside, gps, chargers, there was even the luxury of huge pillows and a duvet. Debs was excited to find a coffee plunger; I was more excited about a plug in tourist gps radio (that turned out to be dull). After listening to our iPod through its own speakers for months we could plug it in to the car stereo. We even had two big fluffy towels each. Not that we planned on showering, but nice to have them just in case. It also had a porta potty and a way to store waste so we had that all important “self-contained” sticker on the back. These are highly sought after as new freedom camping rules means that there are loads of designated free camping sites, but only if you have the magic sticker (so you won’t go in the bushes in the night). We were now one of those people who we were jealous of when looking for a free spot to pitch our tent and finding “self-contained only” signs. Life was good. It was luxurious even.

Squeezing the bikes in around all of these luxury items was a bit tricky but by taking the front wheels off they stood between the bed and the front seats. Driving out of Christchurch was easy, it’s hardly a big city, and we had the pleasure of going to a supermarket knowing we could buy what we needed for the next few days all in one go. No need to worry about the weight. We bought an extra couple of tins of beans ‘just in case’. There was even a cool box so we could have real milk in our tea rather than powdered. These are the type of things we can usually only dream of.

As the road through Kaikoura (the shortest way to ferry to the north island) is closed following a landslide after the most recent earthquake, we had a seven hour drive ahead of us to get to Picton. Excitedly we hit the open road, marvelling at how fast we were travelling, how we couldn’t even tell the road was going up (we had a pass to get over), and having nothing much to think about other than which album to have on next. The novelty lasted a couple of hours. That was all it took to realise how much we loved cycling.

It was boring, particularly being the passenger. I think I fell asleep for a while. (While Debs was driving of course.) Everything went by so fast, it was hypnotising. On the bike you can stop and take a picture whenever you like. In the van it was more “that’s a good view can we… oh it’s passed now. Never mind”. We were up the pass and over the other side in no time, and I felt like we hadn’t really had time to look properly at the scenery. Both of us had to really concentrate when driving to make sure we didn’t gaze around, something you do without thinking on the bike. It was uncomfortable sitting still in the same place for so long, and there weren’t many places to stop and stretch your legs. But mostly we felt lazy. We had become so accustomed to the feeling of satisfaction gained from making distance purely through physical activity. It was strange because we expected to enjoy being able to travel so effortlessly, but it just felt wrong somehow. It also meant we couldn’t stop and eat every ten minutes like we usually do. That’s not to say we weren’t pleased to be in the van when it rained for the last few hours to Picton.

Driving up towards Lewis Pass

It was pretty late when we arrived at a good free camp spot by the beach. Dreams of just being able to park up, get in the back and go to sleep within the space of a few minutes didn’t quite work out as we first had to manoeuvre the bikes out and lock them outside, but it was still a much faster process than tenting. We woke to an amazing sunrise over the river and cooked up a porridge breakfast that we could sit on chairs with backs to eat. Whilst the actual travelling wasn’t as fun, the process of camping was made a lot easier with the van.

A three hour scenic ferry ride got us to the North Island and we had another mammoth drive to make sure we could meet up with friends from the UK the next day.

Ferry ride across the Cook Straits

That night we slept by the side of the Desert Road at its highest point (over 1000m) on the edge of Tongariro National Park, in the shadow of Mt Ruapehu. Mt Ngauruhoe (Mt Doom to LOTR fans) was also in view. Cooking rice and tuna as the sun set behind the mountains was pretty special, even if we hadn’t pedalled ourselves there. The next morning the sky was clear and the views even better. It was pretty cold up at that height so we welcomed the duvet.

Sunset over Mt Ruapehu
Sunrise at Mt Ngauruhoe (Mt Doom on Lord of the Rings)
Not a bad view to wake up to (and look at from a chair with a back)

After a second breakfast on the shore of Lake Taupo we drive round to Huka Falls to meet friends for a walk and a soak in the natural hot pools. After not seeing anyone from home since April this was amazing!

Huka Falls
Soaking in the natural spa pools

Time went too fast and we had to hit the road again. Searching for our first west coast sunset in New Zealand we drove north via Raglan, a west coast surf town with some great beaches. The sun set over the sea, we again cooked with an amazing view and the next morning we even had time for a couple of hours on the beach before dropping the van off and getting back on the bikes. A ride, train, ferry and final ride got us back to the North Shore.

Sunset over the Raglan surf beaches
Dinner
Morning beach walk, Raglan

Overall it was a fun way to do the journey we had to do in the time available. Much better than flying. Being able to camp anywhere was nice, and we had three great camp spots. But as a way to travel, cycling still wins. By far. On a bike you experience everything that is around you, so intensely. The weather, the temperature, the wind, sounds, animals, traffic, road surface, you feel every little thing. Being in a vehicle neutralises this. It could be boiling hot or freezing cold outside – we were a constant temperature. The road could go up or down – it felt the same to us. The wind could be roaring, the trees blowing or the streams gushing – all we could hear was the engine and the stereo. We just felt so detached from the environment we were travelling through. Want an adventure? Get a bike! [disclaimer: it is very tiring cycling everywhere.]
Thanks to Gen & Nick (again); Viv & George (again); Hels & Gaby for the English company.

Riding NZ’s west coast: There is such a thing as a free lunch

Last time we cycled in New Zealand we didn’t make it to the west coast of the South Island. Everything you hear makes it sound a must-see – glaciers, rainforests, beaches, quiet scenic roads – apart from the one fact that it rains there. A lot. The Southern Alps that run down the spine of the island do a great job in trapping all of the rain and cloud, depositing it on the west coast and keeping the other side of the mountains nice and dry. We thought back to Oregon in September when we had a stretch of a week or so where it rained every day. Not only does this make everything in our current way of life (cycling, cooking, camping, stopping to pee) harder but it also pretty much ruins the good views that are supposed to be the reward for the effort put into cycling. But hey, it can’t always rain. We crossed our fingers and rode towards the rainy coast, determined to see a glacier or two.
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To get to the west coast from our rest stop in Queenstown we first had to get to Wanaka by riding the highest paved through road in New Zealand, crown range road (that’s now two countries we have ridden the highest paved through road). It is crazy steep, the start involves switchback after switchback up the side of the hill, and then it snakes up to the top of the pass so steeply it was almost impossible to push the pedals round.
The switchbacks up
The switchbacks up
Tight hairpin bends
Tight hairpin bends
The view back down the switchbacks
The view back down the switchbacks
The scenery is pretty barren up to the top, though the gradual descent down the other side follows a pretty cool gorge for a while and passes through Cardrona, famous for its old hotel. But the gradual descent was totally ruined by a vicious headwind. We arrived in Wanaka at 6pm shattered and out of the three campgrounds in town, chose the pricey one with a hot tub to soak our weary muscles.
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It doesn’t even look that steep…
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Finally!
From Wanaka it was two days riding to Haast on the west coast. We were tired from the previous climb and it was pretty miserable so on the first day we stopped and put the tent up at 3pm by a lake and sheltered from the rain and the sand flies for the afternoon. The following day we had Haast pass to climb, but it wasn’t too bad, much helped by passing an organised cycle ride and being invited into their lunch tent. We were told to take as much as we wanted as they were throwing the rest away; loving food and hating waste like we do we ate a huge lunch and carried as much as we could for dinner that day. Then sadly watched the rest be thrown in the bin. If anyone ever says there’s no such thing as a free lunch, remember this story. Keep the faith. Luckily it was mostly downhill from there as we were so full we could hardly pedal, the sun came out and we caught a rare glimpse of the mountains surrounding us. There were loads of waterfalls just by the side of the road and we were reminded of the beauty of travelling by bike as we could hear them roar before we saw them. We arrived in Haast under blue skies, ate our free dinner and went to sleep hopeful that we had hit some decent weather.
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Lake Wanaka. I’m sure it can look better than this…
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Lunch. Awesome.
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Roadside waterfalls
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Yep, it can look good…
It was not to be. The next morning there was low cloud all around us. The mountains that we had seen in existence the day before had disappeared. The road was seriously steep; this section of road is over difficult terrain and wasn’t completed until the mid 1960s. It’s nice to get reminders like these of how young the infrastructure of this country is. It’s easy to take for granted the amount of really old stuff we have in Europe. There’s old stuff to see in New Zealand too but it’s all natural – the oldest buildings are 19th century. In contrast, there’s a church in our small Leicestershire village from the 14th century; this is quite normal. Anyway, the cloud made everything quite dreary, the road was mostly inland with no views of anything and as we arrived at a motel/campground and asked about pitching the tent, the owner said “you know it’s going to p*** it down?” We did know that, we camped anyway, and yes it p***ed it down all night. And all the next morning. In preparation we had booked a room in a hostel in Fox, a tiny tourist town that has little apart from hotels and companies offering helicopter rides to the glacier. Not on that day. We rode through the rain and checked in to the hostel bang on 1pm, the earliest check in time, dripping all over reception. I don’t think the staff were that excited to see us, especially when we handed over an armful of damp cycling clothing for them to hang up in their laundry. The afternoon was spent getting everything dry, making tea in a tea pot, and laying down. It was great. Later I ventured out to buy an ice cream each, though for the same price as two individual ones, I could buy a 2 litre tub – no brainer. (This is not uncommon across the world and only encourages over consumption, which is fine for cyclists (ok, debatable) but not for anyone else.) Luckily there was a freezer at hand so we didn’t have to eat it all that day.
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Not much in either direction
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Just clouds mainly.
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Scenic lunch shelter. You see these by the road, i think they are for kids to stay dry waiting for the school bus.
There are two glaciers that are (semi) accessible from the west coast road, Fox and Franz Josef. We didn’t see any reason going to see both (they are detours from the road), so as the weather was bad as we rode past the turning to Fox Glacier we put all our eggs in the Franz Josef Glacier basket and hoped for a bit more visibility as we rode north. The next morning it was a bit brighter, so we pedalled hopefully out to Lake Matheson, where on a clear day there is a picture perfect reflection of Mount Cook (the opposite side of the mountain to where we had hung out in perfect sunshine the week before). Unfortunately by the time we got there the clouds had swooped in again and the mountains were nowhere to be seen.
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Lake Matheson. The brochure view on the left; our view on the right.
After calling back to the hostel for our stuff and to finish off the rest of the ice cream it was a twisty, hilly road to Franz Josef and it rained the whole time. Undeterred we rode the 5km detour out to the car park, locked our bikes and joined the hoards of other people in waterproofs to walk grimly out towards the glacier. Since 2008 the glacier has retreated around 800m so you can’t really get that close anyway now. We could hardly see anything so took a few terrible photos and walked back as fast as we could. Disappointing indeed. The best thing was that there was an undercover bike storage area where we could eat our sandwiches out of the rain. That night we camped at a lake near a couple of Aussies who gave us a beer and despite the cloud there was even a nice sunset.
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Franz Josef Glacier. Behind there somewhere. I think.

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Blue skies returned the next morning so we had some decent views and a good ride up the coast, though again the road is mostly inland so there’s not really much to see other than trees. It’s not that I don’t like trees. They just get a bit repetitive after a while. There wasn’t much to see, and we were even refused drinking water for the first time on the trip. In Harihari we stopped to read about the first person to fly solo across the Tasman sea (from Sydney, Australia). He didn’t think he’d get aviation permission for the flight so told everyone he was flying to Perth but flew over to New Zealand instead, half-crashing in a peat bog near Harihari and becoming a local hero. The scenery picked up a little as we crossed a couple of sparkly rivers before camping in Ross, a former gold rush town that once had 2500 inhabitants and now has 300. The old pub is quite quirky and has a camping/campervan area with a kitchen where every single other backpacker was making some variation of spaghetti bolognese. I think we saw five different spag bol meals prepared. We turned a few heads with our rice dinner. Debs even taught a German couple how to open a tin with her Swiss Army Knife. Revolutionary. The town occupied our interests for an hour or so the next morning as there are a few old gold-rush era buildings remaining.

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Trees, trees, more trees…
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Ross pub/hotel
There’s a new bike route on this section of coast starting in Ross but we only lasted 100m or so on it as the gravel was so loose it was hard to stay upright. Back on the road the wind blew us to Hokitika, as this was the first time we had seen the sea for four days we had fish and chips on the beach. It felt a bit like being in England – it was grey and freezing cold. Hokitika obviously has someone good working in marketing as they have done two impressive things – a driftwood sign on the beach (selfie central) and registered the domain name http://www.coollittletown.com. It was nice to see the sea again but we wanted to get a bit further so we carried on pedalling inland to Goldsborough, another former gold rush town that once had 7000 inhabitants but now nothing remains. We went for a walk from the campground and it’s strange to be wandering around in the bush imagining a decent sized town with shops, banks, a church and a school once existing there. The next couple of days were spent riding back towards Christchurch over the infamous Arthur’s Pass that we had detoured away from over two weeks previously. Doing this to avoid the worst of the weather didn’t quite go to plan…. as described in a previous post
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All in all I’m sure the west coast can be a spectacular drive/ride if the weather is right but I’m not sure we’d recommend it to cyclists. Although the road was pretty quiet, the grades are crazy steep at times, there’s not much to see on the way, you’re rarely near the ocean and the people weren’t super friendly. It’s good if you like trees and hills and don’t mind riding in the rain I guess. Or sharing the road with houses.
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Rather blustery days in New Zealand

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.

The wind made me look like that.
You’ll have to believe us about how windy it was, as it seems that wind does not photograph well. Struggling to stay upright here.

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.

Church of the Good Shephard, Lake Tekapo. The. most photographed church in New Zealand. I think.

Sunset over Lake Tekapo

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.

Great bike lane, great views, no traffic; slightly problematic bike ‘gates’.
Lake Pukaki, cycling towards Aoraki/ Mount Cook

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.)

A-mazing. This remains one of our favourite places in the world
A holiday-maker waited two hours to photograph us with the mountains behind. Thank you!

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.

Lindis Pass
Spot the campers. Answers on a postcard….

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.


Thanks to Fami-Lee; Gen & Nick; Viv & George; Shane & Richard; Yonghua Chen for the photo; and Donna, Trev & family.