World by Bike 13: New Zealand - South Island
I was a little reluctant to get the early ferry from Wellington but, man, was I glad we did. Pulling into the Picton ferry terminal, with tight rocky formations on entrance and thick forested hills either side, I was already over paying the extra $25NZD for this particular ferry.
Arriving on the South Island, I quickly grabbed some chicken and chips, a bizarre and rare cheap option at many convenience stores which oddly all seem to come with deep-fat fryers alongside chocolate bars and newspapers. I don't understand the business model but I do appreciate cheap food. After the quick refuel, avoiding overpriced ferry food, it was onto the Queen Charlotte Drive. I hadn't researched this road, and from the map it looked like tight turns, ever ascending and descending from bay to cove all along the Queen Charlotte Sound. It looked brutal but Charlie had heard good things.
As soon as we started we could tell we were in for a treat. The skies cleared and the empty skies made the water more brilliantly blue than it had been on the boat ride on in across the Cook Strait, and the undulations weren't sharp, but enjoyable, rising to provide a great vantage point along the sound followed by a ripping descent into the next cove or inlet. As we headed westward and south, a whole bunch of tandem cycles were riding the other way, and it was really nice to see so many people out enjoying such a beautiful road. As the road twists and rises so much, and with a more direct road to the big town of Nelson further south, there aren't many cars on the road, meaning you can really attack the descents and use all the tarmac. It was outstanding.
At the end of the sound we crossed some flat farmland, with a strong tailwind behind, encouraging us into the next bay. We rounded the climb up to Cullen Point, and continued along the sea-side road, stopping every few minutes to capture the breath-taking vistas. The brilliance of this ride was capped with a coffee stop in the town of Havelock, and then into forest covered mountains and twisting roads to the town of Nelson. There are much fewer people, and much fewer cars on the South Island, but the scenery is outstanding, with dense forest and dream, winding roads into the hills. With both our bikes functioning perfectly, a slight tailwind slowly fading as we headed towards the west coast, tough but invigorating climbs, and exhilarating descents, it was one of my best days on a bike, ever.
So caught up in the ride that day, we hadn't made accommodation arrangements so headed to McDonald's in Nelson to abuse the Wi-Fi and find somewhere to stay. Within the hour we'd found somewhere and had a relaxed, late breakfast at our host Peter's house the next morning. We peeled onto the road on our way to a supermarket for second breakfast in the mid-morning, and not 30 seconds had passed before we were overtaken by another tourer. We each stopped and greeted one another, and the man introduced himself as Angus, a 26 year-old Scot on a tour of New Zealand before finding work out here. He joined our group and we had a small peloton that day, and we all managed to broadly keep up with one another. Up the hills they would both drop me, and I'd tend to ride them a lot slower, preferring to ride a constant effort throughout the whole day, rather than hammering it up hills and stopping for breaks as frequently as they preferred to do, but we made it work. Angus was a really personable chap, keen to talk to anyone and everyone we met on the road.
After riding together all day to a sand-fly infested campground at the start of the 'Old Ghost Road' trail into the mountains, Angus got chatting to a French girl in her mid-twenties who'd just finished a year of au pairing and was now driving around the South Island solo. She was fun to chat to, and surprisingly she stayed around to talk, even making us pancakes in the morning, despite the fact that three sweaty dudes who have spent collectively a year touring alone probably weren't the easiest conversation - particularly in a second language for her. Conversation was made all the more entertaining though by Charlie having finished a litre bottle of cheap cider from the supermarket, making him particularly talkative with our French vagabond. It was highly amusing, and Charlie did take some ribbing for a few days.
Barely surviving the sand-flies, we packed up early and made a move for the West Coast, attempting to get through the worst of the sand-flies quickly. They were so bad at the Lyell camp ground we stayed at, in the mountains above one of the gold rush rivers, Angus thought it was raining due to the noise and mark the flies were making on his tent where they congregated. The day ahead was relatively flat along various valley floors, only really climbing between valleys. In one of the very few towns in this part of the remote West Coast on the South Island, we got invited to a gin distillery for a sample after the owner had caught up with the three of us outside a supermarket having just finished his own mountain bike rip that morning. But before the gin could hit we were back on the road and into an ever more powerful headwind as we drew closer to the coast line. Riding in a group made this much easier as we could all rotate the lead of the group to share who was taking the wind, giving those behind a little rest and less resistance to pedal into. We all made it to Hokitika that night, a small town but home of one of New Zealand's most popular hosts of cycling tourists, Kevin. He gave us some food, beds for the night and shared stories of all the other people he'd hosted. It was really interesting hearing him chat about groups of people like us doing NZ north to south, or the Malaysian couple he was due to host the next night who were riding around the island, whilst still observing their strict Muslim practices and the wife was riding in a hijab. It's nice to hear that everyone can get involved in cycling and if they're on the west coast they all seem to pass through Kevin. Even a tourer I'd met in London, biking the world eastwards at age 19, had passed through Kevin's and I found his little entry into the guest book Kevin keeps.
The following day our group split and Angus waited around for a friend of his to come down the west coast on his own bike adventure, whereas Charlie and I pushed on south. Frustratingly, but all too commonly, the glorious views from Highway 6 on the west coast of the epic Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers, and of Mount Cook were obscured by dense rain clouds, and the next couple of days down the coast were relatively miserable affairs. Views either consisted of 20ft of tarmac and trees before low-hanging cloud stopped you seeing further, or of the backside of Charlie and the spray coming off the road into my face. We did make it through the rain though, without further bike issues or punctures, meeting all kinds of tourers braving the weather. What was encouraging was that more often than not, they were doing it with a smile on their faces too, as the disappointed tourist camper vans blasted through the bad weather - an interesting comparison. We met a late-twenties German tourer who'd been on the road for 18 months, meandering eastward from Europe and was soon to be riding up from Patagonia to Alaska over the next nine months to a year. We also met one of Charlie's unofficial 'rivals' for the unofficial record of being the youngest person biking around the world (apparently Guinness don't want to encourage people who are too young to set off on that kind of trip). The dude was 17 when he left home from Alberta, Canada and had crossed North America, ridden from Lisbon to Shanghai, and then Perth to Sydney across Australia. He'd met Charlie in Melbourne and they were both super excited to see each other, despite the rain and the cold. We chatted in the downpour for about ten minutes before he rode north and we continued south. We also saw a Korean chap who'd been on the road for several years (I think perhaps even seven years), carrying all the gear you could ever possibly carry on a bike, layered up to his eyes to try and avoid sunburn. There's a cool group of people out there doing epic adventures, but not necessarily shouting about it back home - just doing their own thing. There's something humbling about hearing these stories, but also edifying and encouraging in your own endeavours, knowing someone else has been through what you've been through.
Waking the following morning, on December 20th, the rain had cleared and it was our attempt to get across the Southern Alps mountain range and into the lake towns of Wanaka then Queenstown. The road didn't rise that high, but a lack of water and food for the final 100k of the day before in the rain, and not hydrating or refuelling enough overnight really hit me. I was struggling into the headwind along the valley, and as soon as we started climbing my legs felt empty. It was the closest I've been to getting off my bike and walking up a hill in years. I ran out of water with 30 miles to go before the next town on this, the Haast Pass, and used my water filter for the first time to collect fluids from one of the glacial rivers. I felt very adventurery all of a sudden.
Finally making it to the top of the climb, just 500m up from sea level where we'd started, I was spent. We found a far too expensive gas station / café and I stocked up on water, iced coffee and had some tuna sandwiches with the tins of fish and slices of bread I was carrying. Bread with either jam, peanut butter or tinned tuna was one of my best meals to get around expensive convenience foods in New Zealand. Although I'm not sure they’re giving me the best fuel for this ride, I felt much better after some salty, protein rich tuna.
Charlie was keen to get to our accommodation that night, staying with a contact of his on a vineyard outside of Wanaka, so he took off and we rode the final few hours into town separately. Taking things at my own pace I cruised by Lake Wanaka and Lake Hawea, taking a little swim as the sun went down over the snow-peaked mountains on the far lake shore. It was a gorgeous ride along the lake shores and a great little climb to get between the lakes. After some confusion when I arrived at the vineyard, with our hosts not expecting us, they graciously brought us inside and even cooked me a special dinner, having not expected my arrival and not prepared food earlier. They were a really cool family, with the mother based in London most of the year, and the dad based in Wanaka running his own Pinot Noir vineyard after having sampled a variety he loved so much a few years back that he bought a vineyard and committed to wine-making after a long career in senior financial circles in Europe. His daughter was really interesting, studying Philosophy and Theology at Oxford, splitting her time across Oxford, London and the infinity pool they’ve got in New Zealand looking across the vineyard in the foreground, and snowy peaks forming a border of their poolside vista on the horizon. Having worked in finance, the father was incredibly interesting to chat with and he was incredibly passionate about the Brexit scenario in the UK.
A hearty breakfast, excellent coffee and deep political chat later, Charlie and I were off on our final day riding together the next morning. We were going over the Crown Range on New Zealand's highest paved road at 1100m above sea level, and down into Queenstown from where Charlie was due to fly back to Auckland for Christmas. It was a rainy ride, and Charlie bought me a hot chocolate to commemorate riding in the holiday season, and we inched over the Crown Range, dripping in equal volumes from the rain and the sweat of getting up there. The descent was excellent fun, with Charlie tearing away from me with his mountain bike background, but we eventually made it to the home of the Paris family where we'd be staying for a couple of nights. Becky had found Charlie on Instagram and reached out offering us accommodation. They took us into town to try a famous 3/4lb Fergburger, before taking us to a few pubs in town, showing off the cool, laid-back, gap-year vibe of Queenstown. I'd heard mixed things about Queenstown but I loved it. It was like a mixture of a Swiss-chalet town and a university town, and I liked it. Becky and Alan were incredibly generous, and had such awesome stories of their time living in the States, Bermuda and the business ventures they were invested in. Hearing about Alan's solo sail around the world in his early thirties, their motorbike rides all over the States, and to hear Alan's father was currently on his third attempt to sail around the world solo aged 81 was truly extraordinary. It was inspiring and humbling to hear about. People are awesome and enormously capable when focused on a goal. Thank you, both.
December 22nd was a day well spent. I woke early to get into central Queenstown for Parkrun, a free 5k run that takes places in local parks all over the world now, having started in my local park back home in suburban London. After riding back from town along some gorgeous mountain bike trail along the edge of Lake Wakatipu, I headed to a Christmas market with the Charlie and the Paris'. Normally I'd hit a whole bunch of the 'free sample' foods at a market but on this occasion neither Charlie or I were particularly hungry, as in just a few hours we'd be doing New Zealand's highest bungee jump.
The winds and the rain made the scene for the bungee all the more scary, taking a dirt gravel track in a properly kitted out off-road bus up a mountain to the valley for the Nevis jump, far away from the safety of the main bungee's bridge site. The gap-year twenty-somethings that dominate the workforce at the bungee company are discomfortingly casual about the whole affair as they explain the safety procedures to you, and load each nervous jumper into a small milk crate to winch you over to the oversized gondola cable car that dangles a couple hundred metres above the valley floor. The gondola car itself had glass floors in many places, making the advice of 'not looking down' that much harder, particularly when they ask you to put your 'arse on the glass' so they can strap your feet up. I watched Charlie step up and jump, and was encouraged as he'd been pretty sceptical about doing this height for his first bungee. I'd been pretty nervous as I've done three jumps before, so it's enough to know how scary the feeling is of launching off the edge, but not enough to have been inoculated to it. However, as they called me up I was weirdly awash with calm, and stepped up to the edge. The jump-master did the count down, and I embarked on my fourth jump on my fourth continent. It's a horrible first couple of seconds, but once you start to feel the bungee cord tighten it's awesome. There's nothing like that feeling - the feeling of not dying I guess. All you have to do is get out of your head for half a second and let yourself fall. However, when reviewing the video footage of my jump, I was disappointed in how poor my technique was, again. Part of the reason I do these jumps is to be scared the wits out of, and do it anyway. So I'll tend to look down at the ground, and look at how far it is to fall, and push myself to jump regardless. However, because I'm doing this, I tend to start to just fall forward, fixated on the ground, then push off, so I end up with some weird bent-leg jump, rather than a nice, composed swan dive. I'd say it's a mind over matter thing, but in this case it's possibly body over mind over matter, as your mind doesn't want to do push yourself from the cable car, even if it does feel to be swinging precariously as the winds funnel down the valley, not the sturdy safety you'd hope for.
After the jump we mountain biked back into town and attended a Christmas party hosted by friends of the Paris', with plenty of food, and a good enough crowd of younger people, and first year university students to keep us all entertained. Apparently we blended in well enough, with people being surprised at the end of the evening when we it came up at that we knew absolutely no one at the party. Our social game received some good feedback. Although a barbecue with a cut out of Santa next to it just seemed weird. At one point I even began to question why someone was playing Christmas carols, before realising it was December 22nd, and it was probably okay for carolling to be taking place.
The South Island was epic, and I do like the bungee jump process, even if I'm terrible at actually jumping. I think the bungee process can be analogous to the thought pattern you develop on this kind of bike trip. It’s about pushing yourself initially to get out the door, then enjoying the ride, even if it's tough at points, and looking back with a smile knowing you could push yourself out the door, over the edge, and into the unknown. It's all part of the learning process.