Acceptable in the 80s? Cycling (and hairdressing) in Malaysia

After the excitement of the first twenty four hours in Malaysia where we achieved a lot and slept very little, we had a few relaxing days at Pete and Ghill’s place just south of Kuala Lumpur, catching up on sleep, trying different food and getting used to the heat (and sleeping under air con all the time. I find it takes some adjusting). As our passports were with the Chinese embassy for a week (we’d managed to time our visa application with the Chinese New Year holiday, unlucky) we decided to ride to Malacca and back, a popular town south of KL so not on our onward route. As we were returning to KL we could leave everything we didn’t need behind so set off with only two small panniers each and felt like we were riding carbon road bikes.


It was 110km to Malacca and our first test of riding in the heat, and it nearly wiped us out. The sun wasn’t as strong as in New Zealand but the humidity is high and as soon as we carried our bikes out of the house we were dripping with sweat. I didn’t find the riding too bad, as long as you’re not riding uphill there’s the breeze you create for yourself, but as soon as we stopped at traffic lights it really hits you. It’s like standing in front of an open oven door. Standing still, I thought I could feel insects crawling on my stomach but it was just sweat rolling down. And my back. Nice. And at traffic lights there’s the heat of car engines and the exhausts of the hundred mopeds around you to add a few degrees to the temperature. We stopped several times for food or cold drinks. At the 95km point we were particularly weary, after not riding much for the last couple of weeks it was quite a struggle in the heat, so we had a well timed coconut shake stop and mustered up some energy from somewhere for the final push. 


The roads hadn’t been too busy all day, we even rode on a toll road for a bit for the first time ever but nobody batted an eyelid (a police motorbike went past and gave us a friendly toot), the road was smooth with a wide shoulder and low traffic, but the last 15km into Melacca at rush hour were pretty bad. The only bright spot was stopping at Tesco and buying a packet of custard creams for the first time since leaving England. We arrived in Malacca exhausted, soaked in sweat and starving. Luckily an Indian restaurant was two doors down from our hostel and we ordered tandoori chicken, paneer butter curry, nasi lemak (a rice dish), extra veg, extra rice and a couple of naan, and just about squeezed it all in. With drinks this feast came to just under £5. 

Malacca had enough going on to keep our interest for a couple of days, but we didn’t overdo it. A lot of time was spent reading the paper (there is an English version, we haven’t got that good at languages), eating anything we fancied and acquiring an addiction to Malaysian tea (it come with sugar and condensed milk and tastes amazing). The curry served on a banana leaf was a particular highlight. Malacca has experienced British, Dutch and Portuguese occupation and also has lots of Chinese and Indian settlers so there is a real mix of buildings and architecture. 


It’s also on a river, and by the sea, has street art and our favourite thing, decorated trishaws (like rickshaws, but it’s a bicycle with a kind of sidecar). There seemed to be a trishaw driver contest for a) the most cuddly toys and b) the loudest music, complimented at night by c) the most extravagant lighting. Seeing a grown man pedal a bicycle covered in Frozen toys and flowers and blasting out “let it go” is quite the spectacle. Chinese New Year celebrations were in full swing which meant great decorations and an evening of fireworks and dragon dancing. I also had my hair cut. I’ve explained this at the end of the blog post for those who are interested. It’s quite long but I couldn’t leave any detail out…




We didn’t fancy riding back the exact same way and any other route would be more than a day’s ride so we took a train for half of it. KL trains have ladies only carriages, though this rule seems to only be loosely followed. It depends on the presence of a strong willed woman to banish any men who try to enter the ladies carriage (which we have seen on a few occasions). Otherwise men wander on aimlessly, sometimes sitting right under the ladies only sign. It’s a nice idea that worked about 50% of the time from what we saw.


Back at Petes we had another day in the city picking up our passports – and they were handed back to us with Chinese visas inside. Despite not having any tickets booked into or out of the country the visas were granted. Next challenge, Russia. To celebrate we spent yet more time on a train and visited the Batu Caves north of KL, huge limestone caves with Hindu temples and crazy decor inside (and a huge gold statue outside). Climbing over 250 steps was even more sweat inducing than cycling in the heat, but it was worth it.


Passports in hand it was time to finally leave the comfort of friends and hit the road proper, with all of our panniers this time. Luckily it’s pretty flat around the peninsula (we had no intention of going into the hilly interior, riding uphill in this heat would be no fun at all) so the riding was not too taxing. We were heading north for Thailand, via a few west coast island stops. The scenery comprised mostly of palm tree plantations, for palm oil. I do love palm trees, I think there’s something quite exotic about them as a Northern European, they are always associated with holidays, and not just any old holiday to France or wherever but to somewhere considerably warmer and far away. But after a few days of riding alongside them, they lost their novelty a bit. Luckily we passed through towns regularly enough which are interesting. These are not tourist towns, but places where people live and go about their daily activities. The towns that visitors would normally bypass on a bus or a train. We spent our first two nights in the towns of Tanjong Malim and Teluk Intan, not mentioned in any guide books. We were pleased to find cheap hotels with air con in both and the leaning tower of Teluk Intan. 


You learn a lot about a place by riding through on a bike – there’s enough time to take notice of the little things. The moped repair shops, the washing machine repair shops and the sewing machine repair shops. The old men sitting drinking tea, the children playing, the moped riders carrying anything from several children to wheelbarrows to strimmers. The pregnant cats (I have never seen so many). The holes at the side of the road you could just fall down. The fruit stalls selling things we have never seen before. The numerous cafes offering different things at different times involving a lot of guess work and welcome shade. The many mosques, Hindu, Chinese and Buddhist temples. The lizards squashed in the road (and the odd live one crossing in front of us). It’s all new to us and we love it, it’s great fun.


The actual cycling here is pretty good. The scenery hasn’t been spectacular, but the drivers are fairly considerate (there are so many mopeds on the road there seems to be a certain level of tolerance for slow vehicles). Road surfaces are mostly good. On the whole,the road experience is an improvement on New Zealand. But everyone stares at us. Properly stares. This hasn’t really happened since Southern Italy over a year ago. Moped riders in particular slow down and stare, their eyes not leaving us as they ride past. This results in a particularly impressive skill of rotating their heads almost 180 degrees to be able to keep staring when they are in front of us, and somehow maintaining forward control of their vehicle. Most truck drivers that pass hoot their horn and wave at us. Cars with families in the back do the same and there are often several hands hanging out of the back window waving as they pass. Kids by the side of the road stare, we wave, they look even more confused. Who are these people with strange coloured skin, eyes and hair? It’s not surprising really. It would be like someone with green skin, pink eyes and red hair riding an unidentifiable object along Leicestershire roads. Or a driver and his Hello Kitty trishaw cycling in Bradgate Park. People would stare. So it’s ok. It’s strange to think that even in SE Asia, well set up for the tourist, we can ride through towns on our bikes where white people are a rare occurrence. We are getting used to being the only white faces in a restaurant, on a train, in a park. But it’s not a problem – on the whole people are interested, welcoming and want to speak to us (the level of English here is very good which makes life easy). Despite the sweat, it’s all fun so far.
The hairdressing incident

It was time for a hair cut. The New Zealand supercuts job wasn’t so super and I was getting hot and sweaty under the helmet. How bad could an Asian hairdresser be? I’d seen a sign for 20RM (less than £5) ladies cuts at a salon the night before so got Debs settled with the bikes and some tea in a cafe and I went in search of my new stylist. It turned out she had trained in London in the 80s, had good English so could understand my request for ‘short please’ and wanted to charge me 30RM. The sign from the night before had disappeared so I agreed and sat down. Straight away I was brought two satsumas and a bunch of hair magazines. “Find one” my stylist said. I had a flick through. This was super trendy styling, way too trendy for me, and looking around the salon at the rest of the clientele, way too trendy for Malacca. But my stylist came over with great expectations, so I pointed at a style that was relatively short at the back and longer on the top. I explained I didn’t want to be sweaty under a cycle helmet all day. “I know what you want. I know what is good for you. A fresh style” she said. And proceeded to shave the back of my head. Now I don’t care so much about my hair, and it’s under a helmet most of the time, so I wasn’t fazed by this. She spent ages on the back of my hair. “Your hair line is like a fountain” I was told. Followed by “you have a nice shaped head. You should have a style to show it off”. The shaving continued. She didn’t show me what was going on. The top of my hair was cut normally (well normal for me, others might say it’s a bit Backstreet Boys these days, but I’ll repeat, I don’t care), I even asked for it to be a bit shorter around the sides only to be told “I know what is good for you. Fresh style. Very fresh”, so I left it at that. Finally the shaving and chopping was complete, and I was shown the back with a mirror. I didn’t know what to say, she had given me what I can only describe as a wedge cut, that I think was popular in the early 90s (I’m not sure, I had a mullet at the time). Maybe it was just coming in when she did her training in London in the 80s. “Do you like? Very fresh eh?” I agreed. It’s great, thank you. I went back to find Debs who looked like she wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry. My approach to hairdressers has always been ‘how bad can it be?!’ – as I said, I once had a mullet – but I think I now have the answer. Sorry,no pictures… you’ll have to use your imaginations …
Thanks to Pete and Ghill, and my stylist.

The Longest Day: Arriving in Asia

Good things come in trilogies. From the writers of 36 hours in Spain and 24 extreme hours in New Zealand comes (we’re not sure how many hours in) The Longest Day Ever.
26th January, 2017

00:00 (New Zealand time) Approaching Gold Coast, after a short flight which included a curry and an episode of Silent Witness. Decide Air Asia is a step up from RyanAir.
00:00 (Queensland time) Back in the air, we have just been served another curry. Unsure as to whether this is the first meal of Thursday or the 6th of Wednesday (Breakfast, 2nd Breakfast, Lunch, Airport pack-up, Curry 1. Should I have included the pre airport sushi snack)? Identify this meal as the equivalent of to going to Mughals on the way home from Echos (sic). 
02:30 (Malaysia time) Cabin lights come on after a few hours sleep. We will be landing at 03:40, an hour early. Maybe it is like RyanAir. We feel robbed of an hour’s sleep.
03:45 Start walking. 
04:00 It is an extremely long way to get to passport control. People are irritatingly standing still on the travelators.

This fun wall display broke up the trek to the terminal

04:10 We both have stamps in our passports. Jo also had a green sticker, I do not. Not sure who to ask about this. Carry on to baggage reclaim. 
04:30 Waiting for bags and bikes. Worrying about the bikes as we saw the boxes heading out to the plane in the rain at Auckland airport. Soggy cardboard is not strong.
04:45 Bags and bikes collected, customs completed. The boxes only have a couple of small tears.
05:00 Order breakfast at airport cafe. Enjoy hot drinks. Jo has French toast.

Good morning Kuala Lumpur

05:30 I embark on SIM buying mission. There is a dizzying array of otions. Shop sets phone up for me but I realise afterwards I have no idea which of the numbers on the card is my new phone number. Probably won’t need to give it to anyone anyway.
06:00 Sit quietly, tired. Google the green passport sticker. Seems it varies whether you get one or not.
06:30 Jo buys bus tickets. Lady at counter looks at our bike boxes and says “first you buy tickets, then you ask driver.” Seems the wrong way around…
07:15 Bus is late. We look around at signs to learn some Malaysian words. 
07:30 Bus arrives and clearly does not have big enough luggage areas. After some walking around the bus inspecting them we mime sliding the boxes into the space above the baggage vestibules. This works.
08:30 Wake up to see downtown Kuala Lumpur.
08:45 Bus stops at the main station. We have a ticket to the Hilton. (We are not staying there, but the location helped with our other tasks). It appears that we transfer to a minibus for this journey. The bike boxes are a problem.
09:00 Minibus loaded with us, bike boxes and one other passenger. We let him have the front seat. To fit the bike boxes in we had to push them over the top of the seats from the back of the bus, and then shove them down towards the footwells. Seats taken up by bikes on the bus: 6. Seats available for people inc. driver: 4.


09:15 There is a lot of traffic in Kuala Lumpur.
09:30 We arrive at the Hilton. Jo begins to execute Plan A and makes friends with Vejay, the bellhop. We wanted to leave our boxed bikes and bags in the luggage room whilst we completed our KL tasks. We didn’t have a plan B, so it’s lucky that plan A worked, and within a few minutes our stuff was safely stored. We even had a receipt. I’m not sure whether I should reveal this secret, but should you be in a sticky situation like that it is always best to go to a posh hotel. This might seem like backward logic, but in our experience they are the most likely to help you, smile about it and usually have no process to charge you for simple services that would be free to their guests. Worth considering the individual members of staff though: we tipped Vejay when we collected our belongings later. Paris was not so lucky.
09:45 Bakery donut snack.
10:00 Arrive at a very tall office building. Realise we have no idea what floor the Chinese Visa Centre is on. Gamble and get in a lift with lots of other people. Get out where most of them get out. Wrong floor. Google it. We are two out. Wait ages for lift.
10:05 At the Chinese Visa Center, trying to smile just the right amount on the passport photos. “You can smile, but no teeth.” Jo is told.

Worryingly these are better than our actual passport photos

10:10 Collect number and sit in waiting area. It doesn’t seem that busy, which doesn’t tally with the fact that there were no appointments left to book. Maybe there’s a secret area we can’t see.
10:15 Nope, it’s just quiet today and we get called to a window to discuss our application. We do not have flights book so are very enthusiastic about trains. The interviewer says we may be called for interview. She asks for our Malaysian contact number. Hmmm. I give her the stuff from the phone shop and she identifies the number. If we don’t get a call, we pick our passports up in 8 days time, either with a visa or without. It’ll be a surprise on the day.
10:40 Find a supermarket and get a selection of baked goods and some apples. 
11:00 Arrive at medical centre in mall which also houses Gucci etc. Strange. Request vaccinations. It is busy. Get a number and sit in waiting area.
11:15 Get vaccines and malaria tablet prescriptions. Keep the same number and wait to pay. It is a bargain compared to what we would have paid to have the same in the USA.
11:45 Reclaim our bikes etc from the Hilton. Staff help us to take our stuff to the car park underneath the adjoining mall which we have identified as a good place to build the bikes. 
12:45 Other than being extremely hot, it is a good place. No one even looks twice at the strange sweaty women covered in bike grease with large cardboard boxes. Pumping the tyres up is tiring. Jo hits her head on an AC unit. A few minutes later I cut my shoulder on the same thing. Lack of sleep is making it extremely difficult to get the tiny pannier rack screws in the right place. 

Bike building in the car park

13:00 Jo goes for a walk to find a skip for the boxes etc. We reckon this is likely as there is a supermarket here.
13:05 I wonder where Jo is.
13:10 Consider that she is lost, and hope she has enough sense to go back to the front of the building and retrace our journey from the Hilton foyer. 
13:15 Jo returns. She had gone to exactly where we were, but one floor below. She had found a skip and also walked down enough staircases to find a flooded floor at the bottom with no cars.
13:30 A kind truck driver takes the boxes. We ride out and put the rest of the packaging into the skip. A security guard looks confused. We wave goodbye to Vejay. We ride across the city, past the Petronas Towers. Traffic is quite crazy and there are motorbikes weaving everywhere. Nobody else is cycling around.

Chinese New Year lanterns and the twin towers. No sign of Catherine ZJ or Sean.

14.00 Stop at food stall for some sort of vegetable fritter and another donut. 
14:15 There appears to a bridge between us and the train station we need with a lot of steps. The lift is too small for a bike. We obviously look unsure of what to do. A friendly lady stops to help us and suggests an alternative bridge with fewer steps. From our position it looks to have slopes.
14:20 There are not fewer steps. We are too tired for this. The bikes are heavy.
14:25 Stairs go down, then immediately up again. This is completely unnecessary.
14:30 Around a hidden corner, there’s 20 more upward steps. We are extremely sweaty.

Would we like some fried stuff? Yes please.

14:45 Get train tickets, fortunately there is a lift to the platform.
15:25 Train arrives late, no clear signs about where to put bikes, so we just choose a carriage with a lot of space and stand in the doorway (the only place we will fit).
15:30 The second stop is KL Sentral. People squeeze in around us. Suddenly there is no space. We stand in the way surrounded by surprised looking commuters, totally blocking one of the carriage doors. Imagine two idiots with fully loaded bicycles on a rush hour tube train. Our bikes are going to be a problem if the platform is on the other side to this one.
15:35 The platform is on the other side. People politely squeeze past. A lady gives us an informative leaflet in English about live organ harvesting in China. If true, it is horrifying. She obviously feels very strongly about this as she has literature in another language which she hands out to some young women. They also look horrified. She urges us all to visit a website with a petition. 
15:50 All the platforms are on the side we are pretty much blocking. At one station I have to get off completely to let people off, hoping not to be seen and told to leave the train by staff. Our plan if challenged is to act like dumb foreigners, which won’t involve any acting because that’s what we are right now. We chat to a few people about why we are on the train with ridiculous bikes.
16:15 The train begins to empty out. 
16:30 We disembark. It is raining, so stay undercover at the station. Message from Pete, a university friend we will be staying with, “this is only light rain for Malaysia.”
16:40 Pete is right, suddenly it is much heavier and there’s lightning. Jo lays down and closes her eyes.
16:55 Most of the rain is past, so we start cycling. There is a good shoulder, traffic passes us with space and there are lots of crazy tropical plants around. Lightening strikes in the distance. A mental note is made not to ride at this time of day.
17:20 We reach Pete’s school, and get a motorbike escort to the main school building.
17:25 Our security guard leaves us, and the bursar kindly guides us to the right place on his push bike.

Unescorted; motorcycle; push bike

17:30 We have made it! Two flights, two curries, two buses, one visa application, two vaccinations, several other snacks, one train journey and some cycling. Time for a shower and an evening of lovely company and Chinese food courtesy of Pete and Ghill. 

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.

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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.