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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
5.00am. It starts getting light, and finally stops raining. We have read two Agatha Christie short stories, and finished our chocolate supplies.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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?
Wyoming has a few claims to fame. It was the first state to allow women to vote; it is the least populated state; it is the home of the first designated National Park in the USA (Yellowstone); it has no pro sports teams; and it has the largest collection of American firearms in the country (museum in Cody). Quite a mixed bag. Yellowstone was on our radar; the gun museum was not. There’s a couple more things to add to the cyclists “highlights” list: it’s the home of the most persistent mosquitos yet, and it’s bloody windy.
It took us six days to ride to Grand Tetons National Park on the very Western edge of the state, and the landscape changed little across this time. It is rocky. It goes up and down a bit. There’s not much in the way of towns, people, even animals. Just rocks. It’s hot and there is no shade. But it is pretty cool. More vast, open spaces. The small towns look as you expect Western towns too – lots of wood buildings and hunting supplies.
Our first stop was Saratoga where there are some hot springs right next to a cold river, so it’s fun to go from the very hot to the very cold, although us British wimps couldn’t take either for very long. Day two was a short hop to Rawlins, the last town with shops for over 100 miles, where we hid from a huge storm in the city museum, camped in our first RV park and watched the EU referendum votes come in and the pound tumble in front of our eyes. Not a great evening.
From Rawlins it is 130 miles to Lander with only Jeffrey City (population 58) in between. As we were now on the Trans America bike route, the most popular way to cross the USA by bike, a lot of cyclists need to stop in Jeffrey City. The church has opened its doors to passing cyclists and the only bar in town fuels them up. For us riding West, the wind picked up 20 miles from ‘town’ and did its best to stop us getting there. It was so strong at times that it stopped us dead, and we were pedalling as hard as possible for 5mph. The last 10 miles took two hours and we collapsed into the bar in front of two pitchers of iced water and ordered an all day breakfast. All of the other cyclists in ‘town’ had been riding in the opposite direction so had arrived ages earlier, were showered and refreshed and regaling stories of being blown by the wind and not having to pedal for the last 20 miles. It was a bizarre scene in the bar: a row of men in cowboy hats who could probably be found there at the same time every day, and cyclists. It’s probably the only place in the West where cowboy hats sit so harmoniously alongside lycra.
We also realised in Jeffrey City why we were so tired. We had been getting up at 5-something and leaving before 7am for a while, and experiences with the afternoon wind picking up made us want to get going even earlier. There were 7 other cyclists staying at the church that night. The first went to bed at 6.30pm and by 7.45pm we were the only ones still up. The next morning we were the first people to leave. Anyone who knows either of us is aware that early starts are not our thing, but the weather is pushing us earlier and earlier. It hadn’t crossed our minds to go to bed early to compensate. Well it had, but early to me is 10pm. We left Jeffrey City to a headwind at 6am and vowed to get more sleep.
Small towns came and went, the wind kept blowing in our faces, and gradually we edged further towards Grand Tetons. The wind affected everything those last couple of days. It hits your mood, enjoyment, how far you get, whether you can enjoy the scenery or not, the skin on your lips… And the noise drives you crazy. Imagine standing right next to someone blow drying their hair. FOR THE WHOLE DAY. When it drops, it feels like you get your hearing back. In the morning, when the wind is not so bad, the mosquitos chase you down and find the small millimetre of skin that has been missed with bug spray. Favourite places: eyebrows, edge of t-shirt line, ankles, ears, temples. They even went through lycra. You end up being stuck with the choice of a headwind or mosquitos – it’s like choosing between drowning or being burned alive. Ok, not really, but it’s a tough choice. Our last big day to Dubois was the toughest yet, the wind blew for the whole uphill ride and we just had to put our heads down and work against it as hard as possible. The scenery was great but it was hard to enjoy it. Worn down and worn out we took a day off to rest in Dubois – it’s the most isolated town in the lower USA (80 miles in any direction to the next town) so it was the perfect day to do nothing except watch England get knocked out of the Euros.
From Dubois we would be in grizzly bear country, and the warnings increased as we got closer to the Tetons. It’s a bit unnerving to be on a bike and hear that a grizzly likes hanging out at the top of the pass that you will be pedalling over very slowly. But we didn’t see him. Or any of his friends. Which was nice. The Teton range welcomed us for the ride down to the park and we found a great campsite by Jackson Lake to stay for a few days, which turned into a week. We are lucky to be on the kind of trip where if we find somewhere nice, and wake up wanting to stay an extra day, we can do that. Six times in a row if we like. This was the nicest place we had been so far and we spent the week sleeping, swimming in the lake, sleeping, eating down our food supplies, sleeping, and sitting. A great way to recover from the six days fighting the wind.
We were also lucky that some friends we had met back in Colorado were also in the Tetons, and offered to drive us around for a couple of days to see some different sights. Grand Tetons and Yellowstone are very much set up for the car driver – there’s no public transport or shuttle buses so if you don’t have a car you have no way of getting around. Justin and Shauna and the Tacoma drove us to a hike to a glacial lake with a 3000ft elevation gain, and the following day we got to explore Yellowstone by car, visiting places we wouldn’t have been able to see by bike. Yellowstone National Park is famous for geothermal activity and geysers but there is also an impressive canyon and huge waterfalls, and loads of bison that just hang out by the road.
July 4th was spent doing very little – no fireworks in the national park but we did join our American neighbours for s’mores by the fire. Finally we left the Tetons and rode through Yellowstone, fighting narrow roads and holidaymakers with their large vehicles. Americans love to tow. The most impressive (or frightening) we saw was a truck towing a trailer (caravan to the Brits) towing a boat. Maybe they left their motorbike at home. The Montana state line is just inside the park so for once we had a subdued welcome to a new state. Goodbye Wyoming, it’s been (mostly) a pleasure!
Thanks to Karim and Darcy; Lindsey; John & Julie; the church folk of Jeffrey City and Dubois; Justin, Shauna and the Tacoma (again); and all our campsite buddies in the Tetons.