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.

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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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Loving the Slo life in California

We sometimes don’t go to cities on the bikes because of the day required to ride in and the other to ride out. Leaving San Francisco was far more complicated than arriving, lots of navigating, morning rush hour traffic and a sudden scarcity of restrooms right when I really needed one. When we finally climbed out of the suburbs and up to a scenic drive there was an unwelcome diversion directing us back down the hill we had just ascended, to re-climb at a later point. With a big climb still to come (Old La Honda Road) we stepped up the pace as much as we could – we had a hostel treat to get to…
Jo is a big fan of lighthouses, and had been pleased to learn that there are two hostels in light-keepers’ quarters south of San Francisco. After a twisty descent, the last ten miles to Pigeon Point were along a beautiful stretch of coastline. The wind switched to the North and we zoomed along past beaches and rocky headlands. We were very excited to find an extremely comfortable sofa in the hostel (small things) and even more so to find out that the hostel manager is a stargazing enthusiast and would be setting his telescope up that evening.

Giant Jo, comedy genius.

If you have never had the opportunity to look at stars like that, seek one out. Ideally somewhere with a dark sky, a proper telescope and a person who knows a bit about it. We had all three. I have seen Saturn before, but it was no less wow-ing a second time, it looks like someone has drawn a cartoon planet with ring and stuck it on the end of the telescope. We also looked at some globular clusters (not a breakfast cereal for Star Trek fans), a galaxy that’s like ours, and Jeff used a super cool laser pointer to show us some constellations that we instantly forgot. Amazing.

A lazy morning and a speedy wind-assisted afternoon ride took us to Santa Cruz (you’re not that far). We spent most of the ride working out who sang that song. We were sure it started with a ‘The’. Two days later we got it. I won’t spoil the game for noughties music fans. Santa Cruz is a trendy town with a LOT of surfers. We took our cereal and milk down to the sea front to watch the action. I’m afraid that’s all the space it gets in this post though as nearby Carmel steals the show. Not because it is super fancy and historic, but because Carmel law states that a permit is required for high heels and you can actually get a permit from the town hall. Amazing. Sadly it is closed on Saturdays, so Jo was unable to don her stilettos for the ride. We settled for an apple fritter from Safeway instead.

Big Sur, bigger cake

South of Carmel the riding was fantastic. More weekend traffic than we would have liked, but stunning scenery through the Big Sur area. Huge forest fires nearby meant that state park campgrounds were housing firefighters, so we shared a pitch in a private campground with fellow cyclists Greg and Pete. We were next door to some lovely families on a weekend trip, and were very well fed with barbecued meat, refried beans, salad, beer and chocolate cake. Much more interesting than our usual pasta. It was a fun Saturday night and the amazing scenery continued for the next few days. We saw sea lions and funny looking elephant seals. We had possibly the best cycling of the USA, one of the best camp spots (Kirk Creek Forest Service), a few outdoor washes (a creek one night, the ocean the next) and only one more night of raccoon vandalism.

Carmel to Morro Bay: Possibly the best riding of the whole US.

We had been undecided about whether San Luis Obispo or LA would mark the end of our North America ride. As we sat by the sea in Morro Bay eating our first fish and chips since the San Juan Islands I became pretty sure I wanted these great days to be the end of the ride, not a busy dual carriageway into a city. This was cemented when our lovely host in SLO Rod told us about the train journey between the two. The train goes right along the ocean for a long stretch where the road is inland. We had a winner, and the end point of our 6500+ mile cycle.

This gave us almost a week to hang out in SLO, live out a few American dreams, and in my case recover from man flu. Back to the dreams. Since April we have cycled past a lot of signs advertising local pancake breakfasts, or fire station spaghetti nights, or church BBQs. They have always been tantalisingly unavailable, the breakfast is the second Sunday of the month, we are there on the Saturday for example. We had never managed to attend one of these ideal-for-hungry-cyclists events, a source of great sadness. Until Rod revealed that on the first Sunday of every month he cooks eggs at a local community centre’s pancake breakfast. That Sunday! We just hoped they had enough batter and bacon for hungry cyclists…
Whilst waiting for our pancake treat there was time for a fabulous All-American Friday night at the local high school football game. It was just like a movie or TV show. Everyone stood for the anthem. There really were cheerleaders. There was a marching band. And a giant inflatable tiger. There were even more people involved in the overall show than there are on an American football team and lots of students and parents had come to watch. It was a magical experience.

Biking, hiking and living dreams

Pancake breakfast was also totally fabulous, and we were sad to say goodbye to SLO early on Monday morning. The train journey was spectacular and gave us a hassle-free arrival into central LA. We had a few tasks to complete before our flight, beginning with locating some Chinese shopping bags to check our panniers in. We had tried to get some in SLO, they are pretty ubiquitous (we got the last ones in Hinckley) but no one seemed to know what we meant. We started showing photos, which drew the comment “They’re a bit ethnic. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but it’s not very ethnic here.” Anyway, we thought Chinatown in LA would be a safe bet, and we had our very own ‘The Apprentice Shopping Task’ moment as we cycled around the streets: “I’ve seen them, turn round!” Lord Sugar would have been disappointed that we did not negotiate and paid the full price of $5 for two bags.


This gave us time to seek out the Hollywood sign and look at some stars on the floor as we rode to our hosts’ house. Tony and Cathy’s help and a friendly bike shop made our pre-flight prep very easy. We enjoyed our last two days of understanding language and (most of) what was going on around us. With the upcoming election we did slightly have the feeling of leaving at the right time, and to be going to a completely new and very different country was exciting. There would definitely be some things we would miss about being in the USA. It is such a fun place to travel – has amazing scenery, friendly people, does such a great job of being American, and has very entertaining veterinary signs. Here’s our favourites to sign off…

A poem for your dog: Roses are grey, violets are grey.

Neutering your pet makes them less nuts.

Your pets will love us, I shitszu not.
Thanks to: The All-American Veterinary Sign Writers’ Association (if it doesn’t exist, it should, people need recognition for quality work); Ruth & Edward; Jeff at Pigeon Point; Esther; Greg & Pete for great company; Roy, Frank and the rest of the Santa Ana camping crew; Rod, Helen & Casey; Helen’s Bikes, Westwood; Tony & Cathy.

Tall trees and tent invaders: Cycling in Northern California

Usually there’s not much of a change as you cross state lines in the USA, but California felt different. It looked different. The land was brown rather than green. It was dry out here, and hard to believe that just a few days ago we had been pedalling through heavy rain and fog. At least crossing the state lane provided us with plenty of new tunes for the internal radio. Our first night was spent sleeping in a church in Crescent City, and from there the highway turned inland into one of California’s most famous parks – where there would be plenty of trees – the Redwoods.

Redwood trees are tallest trees on earth, and can grow to over 350 feet (over 100m). They can live for over 2000 years. These trees are seriously big – they hurt your neck to look at them while riding. They don’t have low branches, so the trunks seem even taller. The first thing we had to do was ride a big pass, it was hot but the trees provided good shade and kept things cool for us. We met some interesting people that morning. First, at the start of the climb, was a guy who told us with great pride how he had driven all the way from Pennsylvania. Sure, that’s a long way, but when all you have to do is press one pedal at a time (highly unlikely to need a clutch over here) and stay awake, you are not going to impress people who have cycled that far. He also said he loved hugging trees. The second interesting meet was about half way up the climb, we could see a bike ahead with two people stood to the side. When we got closer (slowly, it was steep) we realised it was a tandem, but the two people didn’t look like cyclists. Gradually we could see they had on jeans and backpacks and were smoking. Not your average cycle tourist. They were finding the hill tough. I said “it must be fun downhill though?” to which they replied “I dunno, we haven’t ridden down one yet!” It turned out they had hitched/walked from Missouri (this is a long way, we were impressed this time) and on arrival in Crescent City someone had given them a tandem. So the first thing they had had to do was ride up a huge hill. Bad luck. We said they should probably check the brakes before riding down. They laughed. We repeated this several times, without laughing, and left unsure as whether they knew if the bike even had brakes. Hopefully they survived. On the way down the hill we met a guy riding North (this is very rare) who was carrying everything he owned, including a large knife strapped to his shin. On the the outside of his trousers. Just in case I guess. What was this place?!

It is all about the trees in this part of California. The first place we found to stop for water was a complex with three buildings: Trees of Mystery, Forest Cafe, and Motel Trees. We passed the Immortal Tree (survived lightening, fires, etc), Chimney Tree (hole in the top), Grandfather Tree (old), Big Tree (this made us laugh), two Tree Houses, One Log House… Pretty much anything you could wish for, as long as it was a tree. None of these grabbed our attention until we saw signs for the Tour-Thru Tree. We paid our dollar each to the lady in the booth who told us the road up to the tree was steep and she GUARANTEED we would have to push our bikes the last bit. I heard the word CHALLENGE instead, so of course we rode up. It was steep, but there were no cobbles or gravel – give us a real challenge California. Riding through a tree was fun the first few times, and then it was just as fun watching car drivers try to squeeze their huge vehicles through. We told Ms Cyclist Challenger on the way out that we rode up, did we get a prize etc, and she was very unimpressed. I mean it’s not like we drove there from Pennsylvania.

That night we camped at a state park and were the only people in the hiker/biker site that was miles from anywhere else so quite creepy. We set up camp and watched the Great British Bake Off in the tent (like you do) and then came out to find a raccoon had eaten half of our biscuits and chucked the rest all over the floor. Evil. Why would you waste biscuits like that? This mindless vandalism continued in the night as I was woken up several times by rustling in the tent porch. Each time, I shone the torch on the raccoon which he did not care for in the slightest, staring back at me whilst trying to pull a non-food bag out of the tent. Other times his partner in crime the skunk would wake me. I say me – Debs remained asleep throughout all of this. In the end the only way I could get them to leave the tent was to throw a shoe at them, which worked four times until I ran out of missiles. I was finally getting a bit of decent sleep until it was broken by shouting outside the tent at 6.40am. A college cross country race was passing right by our camp spot and they HAD to set up that early, using very loud voices despite the obvious sign (a tent) that someone was trying to sleep close by.

We only had 25 miles to ride that day but it felt like 100. We were taking up an invitation to stay in Arcata by a family we met in the San Juan Islands. They lived at the top of a huge hill (of course) and on the way up we stopped at a yard sale where some ladies were selling lots of stuff we were not interested in but also had a plate of muffins that we were very interested in. They tried their hardest to offload some books on us and were disappointed to hear that we only wanted muffins, but gave us four anyway as well as a bunch of dried lavender. As we rode off we heard one of them say “look at her leg muscles” and we spent the rest of the ride arguing which one of us they were talking about. Debs has no muscles but was closest to them at the time, so it’s still an unsolved mystery. The 25 miles were completed by early afternoon so we had time for a few hours at the brewery drinking strong local beer in English sized pints.

After a rest day in Arcata it was back into the redwoods for a couple of days. The Avenue of the Giants is a scenic drive through trees so close to the edge of the road that you have to be careful not to ride into them. It really is mesmerising riding through the forest, it makes you feel very small. Not just feel small actually, I enjoyed letting Debs ride ahead of me and see how small she looked when dwarfed by the redwoods. We camped in the state park right among the trees and didn’t see much sunlight for a couple of days. After a particularly brutal pass we suddenly popped out on the coast again, blinded by the sun and instantly amazed by how good the coastal scenery was. So good we had chocolate milk to celebrate.

To rejoin the coast we had left highway 101 behind and forked off onto smaller highway 1. This made a big difference in the amount of traffic squeezing past us as the big trucks stuck to the bigger highway and for the next three days to San Francisco we had the best coastal stretch so far. The road climbs and then drops suddenly to get around a gulch (why not just build a bridge over the gap…. anyway) then climbs again, and repeat. Steep up, steep down. One morning there was a fair amount of fog so we didn’t get any rewarding views for the effort, but on the whole the sun shone and the sea sparkled. We called into Glass Beach in Fort Bragg, where industrial waste was dumped into the sea up until the 1960s. A lot of it was cleaned up but the glass and pottery was left and has been broken down and smoothed by the waves so that now the beach is covered with “glass” pebbles. Pretty cool. As we got closer to San Francisco more and more sports cars passed us and the small towns we passed through became more and more posh. This was the California we were expecting.

Eventually the Golden Gate Bridge emerged on the horizon. The sky was so blue that it seemed to shine against the background. Reaching the iconic bridge felt more momentous than any of the milestones to this point. It has a bike path down the side so for once we didn’t have to fight traffic for space. Unfortunately being a Sunday we had to fight other cyclists instead. These came from two camps – the roadies trying to race across and weave in and out of the slower traffic, and the tourists on rental bikes trying to ride and take selfies at the same time. And then there was us with our wide loads. I’m not sure whether it’s more difficult to dodge truck wing mirrors or selfie sticks – at least wing mirrors follow a predictable pattern of movement. But we made it across safely and into San Francisco.

For two and a half days we left the bikes in the garage and wandered around the Mission neighbourhood where we were staying. It’s a diverse area with Latino bakeries next to posh coffee shops, and alleys full of street art/graffiti (delete as appropriate depending on your perspective. We thought it was cool.)


We sat in Dolores Park, enjoying the view of the city and the people watching. We were close to the Castro neighbourhood, famous for a history of LGBT activism, so joined a walking tour of the area (‘rest day’…).


We had managed to go the whole last five and a half months without going to an American sports fixture so took the opportunity to watch some baseball over in Oakland. It was a Monday night at the end of the season so there was hardly anyone there but it meant we got good cheap tickets. The teams repaid the low crowd with a low score (4-2 loss) and it was difficult to stay awake for the whole match, but we managed. My tv-influenced image of drinking beer and eating pretzels while watching the game was shattered when we saw the prices – $11.50 for a beer (not even an English sized pint), so currently about £9. How do people afford to get drunk there? Despite the low score it was fun to experience a true American Sporting Spectacle.

San Francisco is a cool city, no doubt about it, but walking around you also can’t help but see it’s ugly side – the high level of homelessness. We walked through streets where the sidewalk was lined with tents and people sleeping rough, and along with this comes sanitation issues. Trash/rubbish covered these streets and as you can imagine when people live in tents with no toilet, it didn’t smell great. Homelessness has been very visible as we have ridden down the west coast, more so than any developed country I’ve ever been to, but in San Francisco the gap between the rich and the poor appears to be bigger. Homeless people sit outside expensive whole food shops and cafes, and the tech money pouring into the city is evident in the miles of shiny apartment blocks we rode past on our way out of the city. Our hosts explained that affordable housing is little more than a dream concept and the gentrification of neighbourhoods is driving people out of the city or onto the streets. All of this gave us much food for thought whilst riding out of the city in our own strange situation of self-selected, temporary homelessness.

We had been told many times that the best of the coast was coming up in the next few days, so thought about this instead and hoped for clear skies and a tail wind…

Thanks to Katie; Allison, Ryan and Arwen; the yard sale ladies of Arcata; Judy; Mark; and Ruth and Edward.

We(s)t coast blues

After weeks of endless sunshine and blue sky, our weather fortune finally changed in Oregon. It rained. A lot. When it wasn’t raining there was usually a heavy sea fog that blocked any chance of ocean views. We spent a week camping every night in state parks, and waking up to and packing up in the rain was slow, tiring and annoying. People had been telling us for ages that the Oregon coast was the best bit, with great scenery and camping, and the weather was making this the least enjoyable stretch for us. It reminded us of miserable days in England where it stays grey all day. This was Orengland. We weren’t finding the people as openly friendly either – there are so many cyclists on this route we are just two of many. The towns we rode through were mostly drab, unappealing strips of stores. Add to this an increasingly busy road full of large trucks towing even larger trailers and the cycling blues started to hit a bit.

The Oregon coastline is over 350 miles long and quite unique in the USA in that most of it is state owned and therefore publicly accessible. The coastline is dotted with state parks, wide beaches, lighthouses and cliff walks. All state parks with camping have specific sites for hikers and bikers at a cheap rate. Again people had raved about how great these are – maybe (likely) the weather impacted our perspective but we weren’t that excited by them as mostly the hiker/biker site is a small and not particularly flat area stuck at the back of the campground furthest from the ocean, the showers and anything else you might need. One exception to this was Cape Lookout state park, where we could fall to sleep to the sound of the waves and walk from the back of our biker site to the sea in less than a minute. That evening we cooked dinner on the beach on a rare clear evening as the sun set and Oregon was starting to impress us. Unfortunately the next morning Orengland was back – the rain was heavy until lunchtime so we hid under a shelter and ate porridge until it slowed enough to pack away and hit the rainy road.


Some days the cloud would break mid- or late-afternoon and treat us to some blue skies, but even this just seemed to be a tease – “hey look how great Oregon looks in the sunshine! Bad luck that you don’t get to see it often! Ha!” At least we got to see bits of the famous coastline, and it is pretty nice indeed. Rocky bluffs, steep cliffs, big waves, and we even saw some grey whales splashing about off the coast. We also rode past the supposedly “world’s shortest river” and “world’s smallest harbour”. I say supposedly because there is a habit of assuming that if they are the smallest (or biggest, tallest, etc) in the USA then by default they must also be the smallest in the world…


After a week of us and all our kit being soggy – it was impossible to get anything properly dry as even when there’s no rain overnight the air is damp – we decided to detour inland for Labor Day weekend to Eugene, 70 miles from the coast but home of Bill who we met a few times cycling across Montana and Washington and then camped with on the San Juan Islands. The lure of seeing a friendly face, sleeping in a bed, sitting inside on a sofa AND washing and drying everything we currently own outweighed the extra miles. It was well worth it. As well as those benefits noted above, the detour was memorable for a number of reasons:

1. There were no campgrounds on our route inland so for the first time we camped in the woods by the side of the road. Unsurprisingly it rained a lot, and we were also woken by a car driving very close to our tent at 2am. It was not the best nights sleep.

2. We ate the best piece of pie in the whole of the USA. Homemade rhubarb pie at Donna’s Low Pass Cafe, if you are ever passing by on Highway 36 in Oregon, comes highly recommended.

3. The total trip computer ticked past 17,000kms. Ace.

4. We spent most of the Saturday watching football (of the American variety) as it was the first day of the college season. By the end of the day we had watched parts of least five matches, and I had probably learnt at least 25% of the rules.

5. It was finally time for a Changing of the Flags. Our Union Jacks from Boston were looking more tired than we were, which is quite something, so got replaced.

6. Bill cooked us amazing food. Salmon, ribs, waffles for breakfast, you name it…. We ate it. It was very hard to leave.

7. We finally booked our flights out of Los Angeles. Next stop Japan!


Back on the coast we had another miserable, wet day to Bandon. The highlight was finding a community cafe to dry off in that served a hot lunch with a hot drink for $2 per person. Thankfully we had a host that night so wouldn’t be in the tent, and we kept being told that better weather was coming. Bandon was one of the few appealing towns we rode through on the Oregon coast, and had a nice beachside area and boardwalk. It also had one of the coolest art projects we have seen – a collection of sculptures made using waste washed up on local beaches. Visitors to the gallery can help to make future creations, but unfortunately we didn’t have time to contribute our artistic talent. We also rode past the storage area where waste is kept before being used, and seeing the huge amounts of plastic was very sobering. It was good to see the waste being collected and used but sad to see it existing in such volumes.



Our last day and a half in Oregon was by far the best riding. The skies cleared just at the right time, as Highway 101 passes through empty, rugged coastline with amazing views of sea stacks, natural arches and coves. Reflecting the bright sunlight, the sea was finally that azure colour that it always seems to be on tourist brochures. We stopped every few miles to sit and watch the crashing waves. The kids were now back at school so the traffic was much lighter. Oregon pretty much redeemed itself in the last 70 or so miles. To add a bit of icing on the cake, on our last night we were down by the marina marvelling at the size of the salmon that had been caught that day. One of the ladies who caught it offered us a piece for dinner – all we had to do was find someone to cook it. As we had already discovered, Americans are not light campers so it wasn’t difficult to find someone with a grill at the campground. Thirty minutes later we were sat eating salmon that had been swimming around in the river just that afternoon. Amazing. Though probably not if you’re vegetarian.


Thanks to Bill; John and Kathy; Suzy and Ed; Andrew and Tracy; and the salmon fishers of Gold Beach.