Walking the Hillary Trail

There are plenty of well known walks (tramps to use the local term) in New Zealand and we were keen to do at least one overnight hike whilst here. Based in Auckland over Christmas and New Year, the 77km Hillary Trail (named for Everest climbing kiwi Edmund) in the Waitakere ranges west of the city seemed a good pick.

Should you be considering tourist opportunities in the Auckland area, there’s a reasonable amount of information available to help you prepare for the trail. However we found some discrepancies between the content of the reading material and what you will actually experience in real-life…

Jo at the start, clean and sweat free

“The Hillary Trail is a challenging four day/three night hike”

Translation: you can do this is four days if you would like to walk 27km on the last day, with only one water source on route, finishing at a beach ‘town’ where there is no public transport at all. Consider an alternative earlier finish point. Do not prepare by participating in Christmas, a well known festival involving much chocolate and little exercise.

Pretty sure that one silver D of E between two counts as experienced?

“It is likely to rain for at least part of your trip”

If you have been lucky and avoided rain for the first few days by having extremely hot weather, on day four it will piss down while you are waiting for your lift. Make sure you are able to construct a shelter in the car park using your tent groundsheet, a fence and a hair bobble.

It’s been a dry summer in Auckland. Apart from this day.

“Many tracks will be steep, rutted, rooty, slippery and muddy”

All tracks will be like this or made from really sharp stones that you can feel through the soles of your trainers if you complete the walk in the one pair of shoes you have been wearing for the last fifteen months. (See also below).

“Some stream crossings may be difficult”
Some stream crossings may in fact just be streams, so take off your shoes and socks and roll up your trousers. In some areas the track might actually be a stream for up to one kilometre. Don’t bother trying to stay dry. It’s about to rain anyway.

Top Left: Got to knee deep. Bottom Left: Scrambling to cross a waterfall. Right: The track is a stream, Lake Wainamu.

“You will have to carry a heavy pack with your tent, sleeping bag, extra clothing and four days worth of food”

OR you can pack three days worth of food and eat four pies between two when you get to Piha. (Important to try all the flavours: winner Chicken Balti). We packed super light and given the limited/very expensive supplies at Piha had a bit of a small lunch on the last day. We carried the day pack that is usually strapped to Jo’s bike and a borrowed 50L pack, swapping bags about every twenty minutes. We did squeeze in a couple of luxury items for New Year – a mini Brie and a couple of servings of baileys in a medicine bottle. Campsites are basic, water needs treating before drinking, long drops only and showers are the al fresco kind – wash in a stream or the sea.

New Year’s Baileys in the sand dunes
Piha. Translates from the original as ‘Baywatch with Pies.’ The black sand burned our feet.

“The fitter you are, the more you will enjoy the experience”

We were surprised that despite doing very little walking, our base cycling fitness was of huge benefit. We didn’t feel wiped out at the end of each day, and weren’t particularly sore or stiff in the mornings. So we did really enjoy it. The scenery was fantastic and it was a satisfying physical challenge, just like bike touring. There were a other hikers that were moving the campground with interesting gaits by day four though. The main difference between walking and cycling is that there is no coasting time when you walk. At least if you ride up a big hill, you get to zoom down the other side. On foot, the downhill seems even more leg damaging. The closest thing to freewheeling is a flat grassy track. I think there was about 400m like this on the Hillary Trail.

Approx 0.5% of the trail was as flat as this.

“A challenging wilderness adventure designed to introduce families and young people, properly prepared, to the joys of multi-day tramping.”

Despite being only about 30km from Auckland, the Waitakeres feel properly wild. A lot of the walk is in dense rainforest, and it’s dark enough at night to see the Milky Way. In terms of family participation, if you can answer yes to the question “Are you the Incredibles?” feel free to go ahead. If not, give some very serious thought to the length of the days, the uneven nature of the tracks and the amount of food/water you need to carry.

Brill scenery every day

We had a great time. The scenery made the sweating more than worth it. We loved the self sufficiency of carrying everything we needed on our backs, even if squeezing water through the filter bags did get a bit old by day three. We were pleased and surprised that our wicketkeeping and hockey knees held up to the descents and there were no lasting injuries, not even a blister. It was awesome and we will be looking for other multi day trips in the future.

Thanks to: Val for bringing much neeed sandwiches to the pick-up point. The English people that donated some spicy noodles to our baked bean dinner on the last night.

Ps. If you’re reading this HRH, Jo didn’t get to do D of E at school, it would great if you could pop a badge in the post for her.

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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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An Extreme 24 Hours in New Zealand

Extreme is probably a good word to describe New Zealand. It’s well known for its extreme tourist activities. There are innumerable opportunities to jump off something high tied to a thin piece of elastic. Swing bridges are not just for walking across but for zip wiring over, preferably face first. I’ve never seen so many adverts for sky diving, rafting, etc. We managed to resist the temptation to bungee – cycling exposed us to all kinds of extreme without swapping a huge pile of dollars for a few seconds free fall and a t shirt.

The wind is crazy strong – it can smash you in the face to the point you have to get off and walk, get behind you and blow you uphill, or hit you from the side in gusts that push you off the road. Hills are so steep that your legs are at the burning limit after 100m going up hill and down isn’t much better as it’s easy to go out of control fast. People are either really friendly or incredibly rude (the latter are usually found behind the wheel of a large vehicle, or occasionally working in customer service). It’s either been amazing or awful. There’ll be a full catch up on our time here soon, but for now, here’s an amazing/awful 24-hour period last week.

5.00pm. After riding uphill all day, the highway turns into something that seems too steep to be an actual road. Three leg-burning lengthy 16% grade sections are separated by mere 5-6% grades that feel flat in comparison. We have to stop every 100m or so as the legs just won’t go any longer at a time. It’s cold but my t-shirt is drenched in sweat. Chocolate supplies are running low.

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It doesn’t even look that steep. It nearly broke us.

6.00pm. We make it to the top of Arthur’s Pass (920m). Plans to eat our remaining chocolate in celebration are shelved as it’s freezing cold, the rain has picked up and the wind is blowing it into our faces. We quickly each put on two jackets, waterproof trousers, buffs and extra gloves for the steep descent into the village.

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There’s not even a decent sign at the top as a reward. Re-layering for the rainy ride down. Pretty awful all round.

6.05pm. I haven’t put my sunglasses on (it’s dull) and the rain feels so sharp in my eyes I have to part close them. Not a wise idea when riding down a steep hill in cloud.

6.10pm. 4 steep kilometres later we make it to the village. The shop is closed. A bar is open so I go in to get water. It’s so warm inside I don’t want to leave. We swing by the youth hostel ‘just to see’… and it’s full. Time for another 8km downhill to a free campground.

6.30pm. It’s still raining when we get to the campground so we ride straight into the picnic shelter to dry off. Three Aussie girls are eating their dinner. The first thing they say is “do you want some pasta? We can’t finish it…” If you ever see a cold cycle tourist, this is probably the best thing you can say. You could always follow it up with “I’ve also got this huge cake going spare, and a flask of tea, oh and I’ll be making bacon sandwiches in the morning….” (we actually dream of these conversations happening.)

7.30pm. Our pasta starter is followed by a huge pasta main. Appetites are not affected by eating an extra meal. It is still raining.

8.30pm. It’s time, we have to go and put up the tent. It is still raining. We consider putting it up in the picnic shelter but it doesn’t fit properly and we decide it can’t possibly keep raining all night. We choose a nice grassy patch behind a tree to give some wind protection.

9.30pm. The tent is up. We are warm and content. It is still raining, but we have faith in our tent.

2.06am. After about four hours sleep the wind and heavy rain outside wakes us up. It is so loud we have to shout to have a conversation. Debs decides to go to the toilet.

2.07am. Debs steps out of the tent straight into water deeper than her shoe. Turns out one end of our tent is in deep water. It is still raining.

2.30am. After a full assessment of the new swimming pool in the tent porch we decide to pack up and get under the shelter whilst our sleeping stuff is still dry. I’ve never heard of anyone drowning in a tent but you don’t want to be the first. Debs is bitten on the chin by a sandfly whilst packing up and swears a lot. It is still raining.

3.48am. It’s been a slow and wet process but us and all of our possessions are now under shelter. We get the stove out and make porridge and hot chocolate. We are wearing most of our dry clothes, including long johns, puffa jackets, woolly hats, gloves, and all available dry socks. Our trainers are soaking so we are rocking the socks and sandals combo. We are still cold. This is pretty awful.

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Our night shelter

5.00am. It starts getting light, and finally stops raining. We have read two Agatha Christie short stories, and finished our chocolate supplies.

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The calm after the storm

6.00am. The sky is clear, the sun is just up and it’s light enough to ride so we set off, our earliest start since we were trying to avoid the Wyoming wind. There’s not much traffic and it’s nice riding. We can even see the snowy mountains behind us.

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The mountains that were hidden behind thick cloud the day before

8.00am. It feels like it should be lunchtime so we eat breakfast number 2, lemon curd sandwiches. They are awesome.

9.00am. The sun is super strong and it’s time for the second application of factor 50.  The morning layers are off and we are down to shorts and t-shirts. Maybe all the rain was a bad dream. Our wet feet and the number of clothing items drying on the back of the bikes says otherwise.

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9:25am. We stop and eat the last of our biscuits. These were supposed to last all day.

9:45am. There’s nowhere to stop for drinking water on this road, so we pull in to a camping area with a few campervans who can usually spare some. The first van we knock on has two French girls and their families. They fill our bottles, then say the second best thing you could ever ask a cycle tourist (ok, maybe only a British one): “would you like a cup of tea?” Five minutes later we are drinking tea from real mugs with handles (why does this taste so much better than from a flask?) and eating more biscuits. After an awful night, we are having an awesome morning.

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10:30am. It’s time to say goodbye to our new friends and get riding. The scenery is spectacular.

11:20am. The road gets super steep – this isn’t the pass, it’s too soon, so why is it so hard? It’s so hot we are dripping with sweat but still have rain-damp trainers.

12.00pm. We are over the pointless hill and the scenery is amazing. It’s rocky, pointy, and there are strange boulders everywhere. This is awesome.

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Spot tiny Debs. Awesome, awesome and more awesome

12.30pm. It’s definitely lunchtime now. As we ate our sandwiches for breakfast #2 we need to get the stove out and crack open our emergency instant noodles. We spot a perfect picnic area with 360 degree views, hardly any people and a bench. A DoC (Dept of Conservation) lady comes over and tells us she is about to mow the grass so it will be a bit noisy, and enthusiastically suggests another similar place a few kms down the road with big boulders. We heed her warning and ride on.

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Tiny Debs again

12.45pm. Arriving at the suggested spot we have been seriously misled. It is a busy car park with no picnic tables, a naff view and hardly any grass. This is disappointing, so we sit on the grass and cook noodles. Five minutes later the same DoC lady drives in with her mower and starts mowing around us. In true British politeness we smile and move out of her way whilst quietly grumbling to each other. The sun is out and it’s baking hot. Our trainers dry.

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Disappointing lunch spot

1.10pm. The sun goes behind a cloud and it’s cold.

1.11pm. The sun is out and it’s baking hot.

1.12pm. The sun goes behind a cloud and it’s cold. We decide to ride on to warm up.

1.30pm. It starts raining. It’s freezing cold all of a sudden. The road gets steep. The wind is trying to blow us over. The horizontal rain stings our cheeks. It has become hail.This is not fun any more.

2.00pm. We are getting closer to the top of today’s pass, and it’s all downhill after that. The road gets steeper. A car beeps and pulls over. It’s Greg, who we first met on the road in California and who is now cycling/driving around NZ. As we hardly ever see people we know, this is awesome. He gives us some bananas and we chat for a while, trying desperately hard to stay standing up in the wind.

2.30pm. We get to the top of the pass. It’s so windy my gloves blow away (Debs heroically chases them and stops them just before the edge) and putting arms in sleeves of jackets is a more difficult task than it ever should be for adults. We put all of our layers back on (eventually).

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The difficulties of getting dressed in high winds

2.35pm. A scary five minutes riding steeply down hill in the wind. The road then turns into a gradual descent and we hardly have to turn the pedals for the next couple of hours as the wind is pushing us along nicely. We are back down to shorts and t-shirts. The scenery has opened out and we have mountains in one direction and the Canterbury Plains in the other. It is beautiful and we can just sit back and enjoy. This is cycling at its best.

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The descent. Awesome/

4.00pm. We arrive in a town and are confused momentarily by a huge plastic pink donut in the middle of the park until we remember we are in Springfield. We go against Simpsons tradition and buy a couple of pies. The factor 50 is back out.  Our eyes want to close. Were we really wearing all of our clothes and eating porridge to warm up in the middle of a rainstorm 12 hours ago?

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Welcome to Springfield

Britishcitizens & Bananas: cycling Tokyo to Kyoto

Tokyo was a lot of fun but after 6 nights it was time to get going. The ride out of the city was relatively painless, (See Boston, Zurich; Atonyms Naples, San Francisco) especially once we joined the Tama River cycle route. Uneventful cycling was made up for by other random stuff, including:
-Our first earth tremor in Japan. Let’s not say Earthquake because that’s a bit scary.

-I saw Mt Fuji then clouds hid it. Jo wasn’t sure whether to believe me or not.

-A fab food surprise. Bought a fridge bakery item that looked like chocolate flavour sweet bread with a very generous cream filling. Felt pretty weighty. Turned out it had a whole banana inside. That’s the stuff cyclists’ dreams are made of.

-Pensioners’ baseball training. Lots of old men arriving at riverside ball parks with full kit and bats in their bike baskets.

-Walking group Wednesday. If you don’t play baseball in the Tama river area, you join a walking group. Hundreds of hikers bemused by the British bikers.

-A friendly cyclist stopping us and asking us to wait a moment. He ran off the cycle path and came back with bottles of cold water for us. It was a hot morning and a really lovely gesture.

-A road cyclist passed us wearing a balaclava type garment with no eye or mouth holes. It was black. Creepy.

Ohio! Walking group Wednesday.

We left the river and rode uphill in a narrow valley, getting occasional glimpses of Mt Fuji as clouds moved. There was hardly any traffic and a noticeable drop in temperature as we got higher. We found an actual campground and had a long unproductive discussion in Japanese/English with the owner. After some time we worked out that he was telling us about a big power cut in Tokyo.

We followed a little footpath and found this awesome swing bridge.

Early to bed, early to ride up hill. Apparently we were ascending a 1000m pass. There wasn’t much around in the way of food. Eventually we found an open shop and got bread for jam sandwiches. Then it got even colder and started raining. In the clouds we couldn’t we see far in front of us let alone see Fuji. It wasn’t a great deal of fun, and with a better weather forecast the next day we stopped riding early and enjoyed being indoors and having a Japanese bath at a youth hostel. It was a lot of fun eating at a tiny table in our room and arranging our bedding for comfy seating.

Gourmet noodle and lots of snuggly blankets.

Cycling around Fuji’s five lakes the next day was much more enjoyable. At times there were clear views of the volcano and an amazing descent into a river valley. I was on the lookout for Shinkansen, but we were just by the normal train lines. We camped in an empty plot in a village and felt lucky to have found it. Nearly all the flat empty land here is used for growing rice and veg. Even really small patches have rows of leafy greens or a few fruit trees. We had asked permission from the next door house, and the friendly family later brought us out two homemade onigiri and a beer each. Mt Fuji and a beer in the tent – Happy Friday night!

Fuji-san. Always cool to see things in real life you’ve seen loads of pictures of.

The next morning we were drying the tent outside a Michi-no-Eki (like a service station, but with local veg, nice normal price food and no petrol) when a young man came over to chat. First he handed me a plastic bag from the nearby supermarket as he thought we had a long way to ride. It had 2 onigiri and 4 bananas in. He asked about the trip, and then asked if I thought Japanese people were friendly. He was really surprised when I said yes, and tried to tell me that they weren’t, having just given a total stranger a bag of food. It was like some of the comments we heard in the USA about the world/strangers being scary – from people who had just invited two (slightly grubby) strangers into their homes for the evening. Everyone should remember that the world is mainly full of kind people.
That evening more friendly Japanese people let us share their campsite pitch. We were pleased they did because this was no ordinary campsite. It was in a forest park, and all of these things happened:
-As we approached the campground we could see many coloured lights and lots of cars. It was a special illuminations display. For Christmas. It was busy and strange. There was twinkly music and tannoy announcements.

-We went for our first onsen (hot springs). Jo bought the tickets from a vending machine right next to a desk with a real person behind it. We then gave the tickets to the person, who told us something in Japanese. It was probably about shoes.

-Saturday night at the onsen is busy. You go into separate men’s and women’s ones and get naked. Then you have a really good wash at a little seat with a shower next to it. Only then do you go in the hot springs. Our tan lines looked weird.

-Most people put their pyjamas on after to drive home. We just walked back to our tent. It was lovely to get in sleeping bags fully warm and relaxed. At 8:30pm.

-The illuminations tannoy also had a speaker near our tent. At 9:45pm there was an announcement and Auld Lang Syne started playing in the style of a lullaby. Apparently this is the Japanese equivalent of the last orders bell. It played on repeat until the illuminations closed at 10pm. That’s a lot of Auld Lang Syne. Each time it got to the end of the loop we hoped it would stop – those fifteen minutes seemed very long.

Sunday Funday on the road South West from Nagano.

We crossed a pass via a slightly smoggy 4.7km tunnel from our valley to another one with cool river cliffs and quieter roads. On a sunny Sunday afternoon it was the best cycling so far, but we quickly got into a busier area. Cycling in Japan seems to be either 1. Flat (ish) and along trafficky roads in highly populated areas or 2. Ridiculously hilly. The next day was almost all on a busy road with loads of traffic. To make life more interesting it had started raining heavily at about 2:30am. The tent got soaked, and then so did we packing it up. The trickle of a waterfall we had camped near was now a raging river. The rain bounced off the roads, we were being sprayed by trucks and water ran down inside our clothes. It was the anti-onsen. Slightly scraping the barrel for interesting stuff for that day, but we did enjoy a Japanese breakfast at a restaurant where you press a button to place your order. The staff didn’t even mind that we made a lake around our table.

Hikone Castle. Castles are Jō in Japanese, which Jo liked a lot.

The next couple of days took us to a castle, a lake and excitingly past real bamboo groves. Even better, we finally saw several Shinkansen. They look like Concorde and really are fast. Sadly they are not for bikes, unless you put your bike into a (regulation sized) bag. We pedalled all the way to Kyoto instead. There was time for one more little adventure. A police car pulled up in front of us with lights flashing and a Japanese loudspeaker message. Maybe they had seen us not waiting for the green man at crossings? Or perhaps we were flaunting some other road law? We definitely hadn’t eaten any bananas in parks that morning. A smiley policeman got out and asked (I think) for our Gaijin Cards (foreign residents ID). I offered passports, which he took and spent a long time copying the names and dates from. It was a relatively smooth process, after we established that Jo was Joanna Welford and not Joanna Britishcitizen. We also had fun numbering the months – not sure why UK passports do not have this information. At no point was our Japan entry sticker checked, or our passport numbers noted, but we all had a lovely time thanking each other and went our separate ways.

Thanks to: Nina & her Mum & Dad, the kind man with the tinyhouse, Gilles, Jacqueline & Robert.

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.