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

We(s)t coast blues

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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



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


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