Rather blustery days in New Zealand

Stepping onto our Air New Zealand flight from Seoul marked the return of familiarity. Announcements were in English, we understood what was going on around us and we were heading to a country we had been to (and cycled around) before, staying with friends and seeing other people we knew. It was all too much excitement and we hardly slept on the flight – not helped by the air steward who insisted on filling up my plastic tumbler with red wine to the very top, and more… “the bottle’s nearly empty, you may as well finish it, just down a bit then I can fit the rest in…” With heavy heads we landed in Auckland and did very little for five days except sleep, drink tea and eat cheese. Debs even made a lemon sponge cake. It was great. Oh and we went to the beach a few times too. The sun was shining, the days were long and memories of camping in -6 temperatures in Korea quickly faded.


New Zealand is about the most British foreign country I’ve ever been to. It’s quite strange being as far away from home as you can be, but being reminded of it everywhere. Plug sockets have a switch. Hot and cold water comes out of separate taps (ok, that’s not a great trait). The words biscuits, rubbish bin and pavement are understood and used correctly. It’s green and it rains in the summer. The national speed limit sign is the same, and we even saw an advert for a car boot sale. Lose a few of the mountain ranges and work on the use of vowels (do you mean peg or pig?) and it’s about there. Rumour has it that familiarity breeds contempt but after 14 months on the road, this was just what we needed.


Flying is our least favourite way to travel, not just because I hate it, but it’s a hassle with bikes and you miss stuff on the way, so it’s always a last option. But we wanted to spend as much time in the South Island as possible before coming back to Auckland for Christmas so had to work out how to get South. Riding there would take out most of the time we had, and public transport options were limited after the recent earthquake had taken out a section of Highway 1 (the main route south) around Kaikoura. So reluctantly we flew to Christchurch, though the views over the mountains were spectacular from above. Landing in the evening we rebuilt the bikes in the less-than-impressive bike assembly area which took forever in the fading light and without a decent pump we rode the 12km into the city in the dark with half flat tyres. If anybody from Christchurch airport is reading this, the stand is not necessary, but a pump (and while you’re at it, a multi tool) would very much enhance your bike assembly area. Without those, it’s just an area.


After a couple of nights in Christchurch with friends old and new (and some spectacular cakes), day 1 on the road took us to another old friend on a farm out on the Canterbury Plains. We awoke the next day to gale force winds and black skies so wimped out of leaving for 24 hours and gratefully accepted another meat filled day including slow cooked lamb from the farm. The following morning things had hardly improved but hey this is New Zealand, weather is unpredictable and so we pedalled away from our luxurious weekend farm stay trying to remain upright on the bikes – not easy. We reached the junction where we had planned to turn right to ride over Arthur’s Pass to the west coast. We looked left and saw blue skies and felt the wind at our back. Then we looked right and felt the gale force winds in our face, looked at the black clouds covering the mountain, looked at each other and almost at the same time said “let’s sack that off and go the other way instead”. So off we rode in the opposite direction as planned, towards the central lakes region. Arthur’s Pass and it’s wind and rain could wait. (And it did…)


The wind remained strong – for the first day it half-helped, half-hindered, then for the next two days we were mostly fighting it, and losing. Geraldine to Tekapo is around 100km so should take one day (we rode it in a day last time we were here on less appropriate bikes) but the gale force headwind meant it took two. The first of these involved one of the most frustrating conversations we have ever had. Drivers are not very tolerant of cyclists here (or anything slower than them) and have a habit of squeezing past when there’s really not enough space, without even slowing down. The conversation went something like this:

Bus driver “I just drove past you. You can’t be riding two abreast like that on this road, it gets really narrow”

Debs “We weren’t riding two abreast. Though if we were it would actually be easier for you to overtake us as it would take less time”

Bus driver (ignores this true fact) “Well on the narrow bit to Fairlie you have to keep right over to the left side, so that on a blind corner traffic can pass you without crossing the centre line”

Debs “…” (too shocked to reply)

(Something like “maybe wait until you can actually see there is nothing coming before overtaking?” would have been an appropriate answer)

To have a conversation like this with a professional driver was quite frightening. Roads here generally have no shoulder so there is just not enough space for any vehicle, never mind a bus, to pass you without going into the other carriageway. But they try anyway. And the idea of overtaking anything on a blind corner… when would this ever be a good idea? Waiting behind cyclists for an appropriate gap in oncoming traffic before overtaking is not considered an option to drivers – it might cause a delay of a few seconds after all. Riding here you quickly get the impression that cyclists are not considered road users, and it is your responsibility as a cyclist to get out of the way so the faster traffic can pass you without hindering their journey. Unfortunately regular road signs saying “Traffic behind? Let it pass!” (presumably aimed at the tourist in the motor home) reinforce this. New Zealand is a beautiful country and could be perfect for cycle touring but the roads are not for the faint hearted. With the bus driver conversation hanging heavy over our heads we rode off and made sure we were nowhere near the side of the road on blind corners, taking away any option for vehicles to squeeze past.

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

We made it to Fairlie in one piece, but the wind continued to push us backwards almost as fast as we could ride forwards. The 45km to Tekapo took all of the next day, and at one point we had to get off and walk our bikes as the gusts were strong enough to blow us off. Finally crossing Burkes Pass and glimpsing the snowy peaks of the southern alps improved our mood a little but this was tough going. Luckily Lake Tekapo is a beautiful spot and after somehow getting the tent up without it blowing away we found the energy for an evening walk.

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

Sunset over Lake Tekapo

All was forgiven the next day as we had one of the best rides of the whole trip. From Tekapo there is a bike route to the next lake west, Pukaki, on a gated gravel road alongside a canal so perfectly flat. The wind had calmed (and even gave us a bit of a push), the sky was blue and the mountains clearly visible all around us. Water in this area has this incredible azure colour (the photos don’t do it justice) from the glacial flour that runs off the alps. It’s unbelievable, the more you look at it the less real it seems, as if someone has painted over the real colour. It’s lucky there’s no cars to watch out for because I found myself staring open mouthed at the water for the most of the time. We were beaming the whole way. From the base of lake Pukaki it’s a 56km dead end road to Mount Cook village. Having been there before we weren’t convinced about whether to make the detour again but the weather was so perfect we couldn’t resist the ride. An azure lake on one side, forest on the other and the highest mountains in the country up ahead – all under clear blue skies – it really was the perfect day.

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

The Mount Cook area was my top spot in New Zealand on our last visit and it was just as incredible this time around. We camped for a couple of nights and spent a day walking through the Hooker valley over swing bridges to a glacial lake. All in the shadow of towering 3724m (over 12,000ft) high Aoraki Mount Cook, famous for being Ed Hillary’s training ground for Everest and basically a damn fine mountain to look at. Apologies for banging on about the weather but it can make or break a place like this – under heavy cloud there would be no views of the towering mountains that surround you. We felt so lucky that it was clear, the blue sky contrasted sharply with the snowy peaks, everything glistened in the sun, it was jaw-droppingly beautiful. You should go there. Now. (But only if it’s not cloudy.)

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

Riding back the way we came alongside Lake Pukaki was just as good, and we had a beautiful three days ride to Queenstown, including Lindis Pass, another of our favourite roads, but with barren hills in contrast to the snowy peaks. In between we found a couple of decent free camping spots – first by a river in amongst the lupines (would have been perfect for a game of hide and seek) and then by a lake.

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

Riding into Queenstown was the busiest stretch traffic-wise, coinciding with a particularly narrow road through Karawau gorge. Obviously we made sure we did not keep right over the the side of the road to let buses squeeze past, but held a few cars up for a few seconds each. Queenstown treated us to some amazing weather and some amazing hosts in Donna and family, who we met in Mount Cook, so we had the usual ‘rest day’ and walked up a big hill for a view over the lake. Beautiful.


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

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Italy part 1: Sunshine and staring

imageNorth of the Alps we were rarely given more then a cursory glance; travelling by bike in the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany and Switzerland is nothing to write home about. We blended in. But, welcome to Italy, the country where two girls on heavily loaded bikes with GB flags on are not the norm. When car drivers overtake us, most slow down and follow us with their stare as they pull back in (which involves them looking out of the side window behind them rather than at the road), often with open mouths. Old Italian men seem fascinated by the bikes and the luggage, often chatting away to us in Italian whilst counting the number of bags we have, unperturbed by the fact that we just smile and nod. Mouths drop open when we say we have ridden 2000 kilometres, a phrase even we can manage in Italian.

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Varenna, Lake Como

Crossing the Alps was not just a physical boundary between the ‘warm up’ ride to get there and the ‘real adventure’. Life on the road is different in many ways this side of the mountains. Italy is the first county we haven’t cycled in before, so everything is new. Bike routes are limited so we spend a long time finding routes on quiet roads, only to scrap them later in the day and stick to a bigger straight road in order to get anywhere. The language is almost unknown to us; we are learning the basics but it is hard not to be able to converse with those wide mouthed Italians who greet us in every town and fire questions at us. Road cyclists in full gear fly past all day. Campsites are closed. Also the clocks changing has made our riding day even shorter. But the sun is out (mostly). Also, we are slowing down. Our mission to get over the mountains in search of warmer climates and new places to cycle meant that we pushed on most days, whereas now we are meandering more, joining up places we want to visit, taking a day off here and there.

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Camping by Lake Maggiore

The descent from the mountains took us through Italian Swiss territory, where everyone spoke Italian and the driving became a little more crazy. Italy in everything but the name (and the prices). Our first lake stop was by Lake Maggiore, where we didn’t see George Clooney but with did meet Benardo, a cafe owner (and interestingly the designer of the first electric car) who invited us to camp on his ‘balcony of the lake’. Our tent could not have been closer to the lake shore, a perfect spot to wake up. Dennis from the Netherlands was also camping there and helping Bernardo with his work; Dennis had cycled over the Gotthard Pass too but on a Dutch shopping-style bike in bad weather. Made our ride over look easy. From Lake Maggiore we road east mostly in Switzerland, spending our last francs before staying in Como back in Italy. A sunny day was spent riding up and down the ‘inverted y’ base of Lake Como, ending up in Lecco where we actually found an open campsite on the lake. The following day we wound our way through small villages to get to Bergamo. Our route crossed a charity run/walk/bike ride several times – at one point we came across a fundraising stall selling fruit who did the usual open-mouthed gasping at our bikes and journey and then plied us with coffee and cake and filled our panniers (well actually Debs has the food pannier much to my relief) with oranges and mandarins.

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Being fed by the roadside

Bergamo has an old town, ‘citta alta’ on the top of a hill, and riding towards this we were reminded of how great it is to arrive by bike – views emerge slowly and you can appreciate the shift in terrain to get there (although maybe not during the ride up steep cobbled streets, but definitely after). The narrow streets and busy Sunday crowds were a bit of a nightmare to navigate walking the heavy bikes but it gave good opportunity for more staring. After a good look/walk/ride around we rode to the youth hostel up on another hill that had a great view of the old town. We checked in, sneaked our bikes into the room (becoming standard practice for us in hostels) to find that we had our own balcony and amazing view. Drinking €2 a bottle (this is not the cheapest) red wine from plastic beakers and watching the sky turn red over the old town, life in Italy was not bad at all.

Thanks to Bernardo and Dennis, the Italian road cyclists who encouraged us up the hills and the volunteers for ‘friends of Africa’ who fed us…

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