World by Bike 14: An Unexpected Adventure
With Charlie flying back north, and with my Christmas plans falling through, I had some decisions to make. Meeting up with our Scottish pal Angus, as he arrived in Queenstown, we discussed some Christmas Day options but concluded we had quite different route plans post-25th December, so it was best to split.
I'd contacted a friend of friend who now lived in Dunedin, just under 300k east of Queenstown. Amazingly, she'd thought I could potentially come calling, and with excellent forward planning, had left me a key out before she left town so I could use her house over Christmas. Before the 23rd, I’d not even considered Dunedin as a Christmas destination at all, I'd either planned to stay in Queenstown or see a friend in Christchurch. It was excellent forward thinking on Charlotte, my host's part. All I had to do was get to Dunedin.
I left Angus and his friend in Queenstown in the evening of the 23rd, and biked the 40 miles to the tiny village of Cromwell, setting up camp along the shores of Lake Dunstan, watching the sun set over the mountains as I tucked into my peanut butter and jam sandwiches. People had said the stretch of Highway 6 round the Crown Range (instead of over in) wasn't worth seeing, but in the setting sun it was gorgeous: past the bungee site, through vineyards, and alongside the river. Perhaps the views are so good on many New Zealand roads that people don't consider this to be that pleasant, relatively speaking.
Rising early the next morning to start the ambitious 140 mile ride into Dunedin, I packed away the tent and felt my skin quickly start to cook as the morning sun rose purposefully over the mountains to the east. It felt bizarre to feel my skin beginning to burn and seeing snow on the peaks over mountains, less than a mile above me. I wasn't feeling energetic upon starting the ride, feeling the need to keep stopping for snacks and more water as the sun in New Zealand burns quickly due to the thin hole in the ozone layer that hovers high in the atmosphere above this part of the world. It was also because I was only carrying one water bottle now, having left my steel ones in Hamilton, and losing one of my replacements down a descent a few days back.
The day dragged on, but as night eventually fell, I made it to Dunedin. Over the day I'd been through gold rush towns, following the rivers to the coast, and spent some time in one town chatting to an early-twenties French girl, fresh out of completing her master's degree, but after struggling to find a job at home, decided to jump on her bike an explore Europe and then New Zealand. She was all by herself, touring off-road on back trails in the mountains. There are interesting people out there.
I woke on Christmas Day, and headed to Elim Church, a place recommended to me on two accounts. Completely mistiming how long it would take to me walk into the centre of Dunedin with the steep hills that make up the town, and whilst walking slowly to avoid sweating in Christmas Day summer weather. Once there, I met with Nicole who'd I met at that bible college farewell party just before I left Auckland a few weeks back. She'd invited me back to spend Christmas with her and her family, an incredibly kind gesture, and I had an excellent afternoon.
Whilst waiting for the fish to barbecue for Christmas dinner, we all got chatting and it came up in conversation that Ray, Nicole's father, was a pilot and former president of the local flying club. He suggested as it was such a beautiful day, that he'd take us out for a flight. Trying not to sound to over-excited, I politely said that I'd love to if wasn't too much of an inconvenience - I've been told that I've been far too unassuming as a guest on so far on this trip.
After an outstanding Christmas lunch of chicken, salmon, potatoes and pavlova, we headed to the airfield. It was unbelievably cool to pull back the doors on the hanger, pull open the cockpit cover and jump in. The radio noise, chatting with air traffic control, made me smile. I felt like what I'd imagine it'd be to a fighter pilot in the movies, it was awesome. Ray took me around the city, and flew up the coast before returning to the airfield. I couldn't stop grinning the whole time. I loved it.
After the flight we headed to the beach to cool off from the baking sun, and go for a dip in the water. I was shocked at how cold the water was, with it truly feeling like Antarctic waters from the southern oceans had blown up this way. The current was surprisingly strong, and a few times I just floated in the waves to see how far the current would take me - alarmingly far as it turns out!
From there we went to see other family members, as the Bremer family's hospitality continued to be extended to me. Despite the fatigue from my previous day's ride catching up with me, we still all chatted, and Nicole's grandparents said they lived at the bottom of the South Island, and if I was passing through Invercargill I'd be able to stay with them - excellent! We concluded the evening by heading to the outskirts of the city by a small waterfall to spot some glow worms. I did manage to drop my phone in the water amongst the darkness, but luckily I didn't lose it down the falls.
It's amazing how meeting the Nicole in Auckland by chance had led to such an excellent Christmas Day and further accommodation down the line. A big thank you to the Bremers - your hospitality was outstanding. I felt incredibly blessed for Christmas 2018.
I spent Boxing Day phoning back home as they settled down for Christmas Day evening, and catching up on the trip admin work I'd neglected, getting ready for Australia.
The next day I'd hoped to make an early start down to Invercargill on a 130mile /210k ride, but after some issues looking after the cats at my host's house, I didn't leave until nearer 10am. As soon as I hit the road I could tell I was in for a brutal day, with undulating hills down all the way south and a block headwind slowing me to a crawl. The feeling of inevitability is horrible, settling in for the first hour of the ride, quickly realising that if the wind doesn't change direction, you're in for a long-old day, and likely some of the night too.
By mid-afternoon I'd found a short-cut off the main highway, and with that route being slightly hillier, I managed to save some distance and find shelter from the wind, making back time on the push to Invercargill. The shelter from the mountains meant I was often going uphill faster than I had been on the flat into the headwind. I arrived as the last light sunk below the horizon, and settled down for an outstanding roast dinner provided by the grandparents of the Bremer family. It was another excellent evening, with the family I'd spent Christmas with also down in Invercargill to visit their grandparents.
In the morning I made a quick detour down to the unofficial bottom of the South Island at Bluff (with Slope Point being 50km further east, more remote and barely further south) and then back round to the west and north towards the Fiordlands National Park. When taking a photo to mark the end of New Zealand, I was joined by an enthusiastic Asian couple who wanted to take a photo with me. I have no idea why, but it’s not the first time it’s happened. Back at the Grand Canyon in Arizona some Chinese tourists took a photo with me, and a similar thing happened after riding to Paris in 2015. It was much more enjoyable riding heading westward, with a very slight breeze from the east aiding my progress, and cooling me down in another intense day in the sun. 25km before I was due to pitch up my tent for the night, a car pulled up alongside me as I admired the view of the rough waves of the southern ocean crashing against the first land it'd seen since Antarctica. The driver wound down the window and asked if I needed somewhere to stay that evening. Shocked, and a little perplexed I entertained their conversation, and discovered that they lived just in the next town and were happy to have me stay and prepare me some dinner. Warwick and Tina were awesome! Out in the middle of nowhere, they'd stopped and checked in on me, hadn’t been put off by my bedraggled appearance and opened their door to me. They even loaded me up with Christmas cake, breakfast, sandwiches and nutrition bars for the next day.
I was incredibly fortunate to have met them, not only for a place to sleep for the night, but also because there wasn't a town for the best part of 100km the next day, and had I been camping out, I would have definitely ran out of food and water. This was especially true as the day rose with a soul-destroying headwind that left me averaging just 9.9mph over the first three hours. I'd planned a 100mile ride at the minimum, and constantly calculating how late I'd arrive at the current rate of progress was mentally taxing. I even began entertaining thoughts of hitching a ride to the next town, rationalising that I'd already completed my 'north to south' tour.
However, after eventually making it through the popular holiday lake town of Te Anau, I rounded a corner and began to head back inland from the west and picked up a tailwind. From averaging below 10mph I shot up to averaging 16mph over the next three hours, clawing time back and meaning I could push on to the town of Kingston at the bottom of Lake Wakatipu. This made it a 141mile / 227km ride, with only 40km to ride back into Queenstown for my flight back up to Auckland.
I was shattered when I crawled into my tent at midnight behind a public library, but rising early the next morning, I felt worse. My legs were shot as I wasn't carrying enough food or water, and I limped back to Queenstown over the next couple of hours. I spent the remainder of the day firstly at church, then at a bike store to find a bike box for my flight, then packing up the bike outside the airport. Carrying the bike and the box from the shop to the airport was quite the ordeal and probably made quite the scene. One kind woman pulled over and did offer me help, but I was just a few hundred metres from the airport at that point, so I politely declined.
Sweating through my shirt, I quickly established that the Queenstown airport wasn't big enough to be open 24hrs, and with no further accommodation plans, things were looking interesting that evening. Unwilling to find an overpriced hostel for the night, I took a nap at the airport to load up on sleep before planning to rotate between the 24hr McDonald's, Burger King and BP garage just down the street. However, one idea did come to mind, about heading to a pub and seeing if could find someone there. With no better option, I left the airport before my presence became too suspicious, and set myself the challenge of chatting to some random people at the bar to see what would come about. It was a fun game, and within 20 minutes I was chatting to a Scottish chap called Gareth, who said he knew what it was like to travel solo, and that I could crash on his floor if I needed. He was an excellent dude, and he really helped me out at the last hour.
The next morning it was flight back up to Auckland to see in the New Year with my friend, Sam. We drove over Auckland Bay to watch the fireworks and the city skyline light up as the first city to ring in the New Year. 2018 had been an excellent year full of unexpected adventure, challenge and growth, but the hardest point was still probably pushing myself out the door in September. With 2019 now here, it’s time to start the pedal home!