Tuesday, 24 January 2017

A Fond Farewell After An Unscheduled Ending

After leaving Motueka, I gave myself a couple of days to get back to Picton and the ferry back to the North Island.  It was only about 50Km on the first day, as I wanted to stop in Nelson overnight as there was nowhere to stay after that and the full 160Km or so seemed a bit excessive for one day, especially with plenty of hills in between.

Nelson was quite a big town, and although it seemed a nice place to live, I wasn't sure about the people.  They seemed a little rough around the edges, and I also had a startling experience in the public library as I was uploading some pictures from my camera.

Sitting next to me was an extremely obnoxious teenage boy with a girl who seemed okay, yet was loving every minute of this boys foul-mouthed ranting.  In a library, the boy continually made stupid noises, talked openly about having sex, and taking drugs, and in fact admitted freely to being high at that very moment.  No one appeared willing to talk to him and tell him to quieten-down or get out, so I gave him a bit of a telling-off.  It briefly shut him up, but then he quickly forgot about it.  I did wonder if I had pushed a little harder whether the kid would have confronted me, so off his head he seemed to be, so I just promptly finished what I was doing and walked out.

Now this might sound like I am being a bit of a miserable old curmudgeon here, but I saw quite a lot of poorly mannered youths in New Zealand, even in the small towns. There seemed to bit an annoying habit in the young of walking around like gangsters and playing hip-hop music at full volume on their phones for all to hear.  Headphones didn't seem to be a thing at all.

Anyway, the next day I had a tough 110Km or so to go to Picton, passing Marlborough Sounds along the way for some more scenic beauty.

It was a surprisingly difficult day, and the warmest of the trip.  Bizarrely, the previous warmest day of the trip was more than 2 months beforehand while I was cycling through the Coromandel in the North Island.  I was told New Zealand had an unseasonably warm spell when I first arrived, and then had been unseasonably rainy and cold after that.  So even though the months were leading into summer, it just got colder and colder, aided by the fact I was heading South for most of this time.  In fact, the fjordlands hadn't seen snow for a month before I got there, but just as I arrived it got a fresh covering, which actually gave the mountains a renewed splendor.

The cycling profile on Google looked a little hilly, but the road to Picton proved to be some of the most exhausting ups and downs of the trip, and by the end, the constant intervals were taking a physical and mental toll on me, pushing me very hard in warm temperatures under New Zealand's notoriously strong sunshine.

By the end of the trip, I had actually put on about 3Kg.  Probably a bit down to fat, as I ate lots of chocolate, but also I think my legs were significantly bigger and stronger by the end.

It was a lovely day with views to match, however, and although tiring, the roads were glorious to cycle once again.  I was really spoiled by the roads in New Zealand, they are not only scenic, but a cyclists dream.

Going up the West coast, I had passed a few fellow cycle tourers, but we didn't stop to say hello.  Sometimes opportunities arise to have a chat, but at other times one is whizzing down a big hill while the other is climbing, so it just doesn't work out.  Fortunately, on encountering a Canadian lady cyclist at the top of the hill, we both took the time to pause for breath and have a chat before we descended in opposite directions.

She was on her way to her final destination in Queenstown, having started in Auckland, like me.  I have to admit to being surprised that women made up quite a lot of the truly independent travelers that I saw in New Zealand, not only cyclists, but walkers and hitch-hikers as well.

I arrived at Picton too late for the final ferry of the day, which was disappointing as the weather wasn't set so fair the following day, so I'd have another rainy trip across the Cook Strait like I did in the other direction.

Back in Picton and the last picture of the tour :(

I arrived back in Wellington to the same hostel I stayed in previously and a discount for being locked in my room by a broken lock when I was there over a month previously. The weather forecast for the next few days was shocking; wind and rain, so I resigned myself to staying put for a couple of days.

The plan was to head towards Taranaki for some hiking and then back up towards Auckland, taking in a few more sights along the way, but plans were to change massively.

After leaving New Zealand, it was my intention to return home to England for a few months and then to go back to Australia and apply to join my wife's permanent visa. However, due to a misunderstanding of the terms of our current visa (it is a long, complicated, and boring story), she ran a huge risk of having her visa cancelled if I didn't return, and seeing as I had already been away for over 2 months, this could happen any day.  This was explained to me on the phone in the hostel and I had no choice but to cut my trip short by about two weeks and get the soonest flight I could back to Melbourne.

Luckily, I was able to arrange a flight for the day after the next day.  This gave me time to find a box for the bike, dismantle it and pack, and still get back quite swiftly.  It was a bit stressful and I was a little worried my visa might have been cancelled, not enabling me to enter Australia, but everything worked out.

As things turned-out, the gods appeared to be on my side.  On the day I left, there was an almost biblical amount of rain, and the day after I left there was a major earthquake that struck the South Island and also damaged buildings in Wellington.  In the days after that there was extreme flooding in the part of the North Island I would undoubtedly be cycling through.  Although I was sort of gutted that I hadn't experienced what an earthquake was like, I think really I was very lucky.  If I had been travelling through the South Island at the time of the earthquake, I would have run into significant hazards and obstacles, as the quake caused landslips that ruined many of the roads I had cycled on.

So, my New Zealand adventure had come to an end, sooner than planned, but it was still an epic journey of a country that I can now call my favourite to have ever traveled. If it is not on your bucket list of places to go before you die, I strongly encourage you to add it; a stunningly beautiful, pristine, unspoilt country, that would be a joy to travel any which way, but to cycle it was truly unforgettable.

Here's the map summary of the trip:

My route down the South Island was slightly different to the above because Google is re-routing around the earthquake-damaged Eastern highway I cycled down between Picton and Christchurch.  It was extensively damaged and I assume is still blocked to this day.

As you can see, I covered quite a bit of New Zealand, but there was plenty I didn't see, so I reckon that is a good excuse for a return fairly soon.  I do like to explore new countries and cultures, but New Zealand is one of the few places I'd be happy to get a second helping of.

Thursday, 19 January 2017

Abel Tasman, Farewell Spit, and the Wonders of Wharariki

Leaving Westport, my plans were to follow the road down the picturesque Buller valley and head deep into the heart of the Northern part of the South Island's mountains to St Arnaud and the beginning of a multi-day hike.

The roads through the Buller Valley were mighty nice to cycle on.

The quest was to do the Travers-Sabine track, a long distance 80Km circuit through the Nelson Lakes National Park, with a side trip to a small lake renown for having the clearest water on the planet.  The whole trek would have come to just over 100Km and I was anticipating it would take 5 days to do it.

However, the weather had other ideas.  For the trip to be worthwhile, I needed at least a couple of days of good weather and the forecast was dodgy to say the least.

After staying a night in a wonderfully homely hostel in Murchison - run by yet another Brit - the next days' 60Km to St Arnaud should have been in reasonable weather.  The forecast was actually pretty good compared to the rest of the week.  However, clouds hovered ominously, and almost right on cue for the turnoff to St Arnaud, the heavens opened.  Fortunately, there was a small park with a shelter at the turnoff.

Pulling-up for shelter at exactly the same time as me was a French couple riding through New Zealand with a different method to me, which I was quite envious of. They were packed a bit lighter than me on very expensive-looking mountain bikes and exploring the many mountain biking trails of New Zealand.  They used the main roads sometimes, but were equipped to go off-road when a worthwhile trail was around, it seemed a difficult but interesting way to travel through New Zealand.

Thinking that this was supposed to be a good weather day, I began to doubt whether this trip would be worth my while.  The forecasts for the next 5 days were not encouraging, and good weather was fairly essential for such a long tramp.  With this in mind, I decided against it and steered towards the far north west of the South Island, where the weather looked less sketchy.

Coastal areas of the North-West.

Alex was a useful resource of interesting places to go and see, and one of the sights I wished to see most in New Zealand was a place I'd never heard of before I saw Alex post on Facebook, Wharariki beach.  Before I left his place in Wanaka, a couple of weeks before, he gave me some instructions about how to get there.

Wharariki sits right up in the far North West corner of New Zealand, next to Farewell Spit, a curiously narrow curved sand-bar like protrusion from the top of the South Island.  I was advised not to miss this place, despite the fact it was rather off the beaten track to get to.

Farewell Spit

Firstly though, I had to make my way to Motueka, a gateway town to Abel Tasman National Park.  I obviously wanted to see much of Abel tasman also, but wasn't sure whether to do this before or after Wharariki.  With a good forcast for the following day, however, and the likelihood I would arrive at Wharariki at the perfect time of sunset, I set off on yet another long days' cycling.  This time about 120Km with one mighty big climb and a lot of headwinds on the way.

My first big obstacle was Takaka Hill.  Rising to nearly 800m from a beginning at sea level, a hill that really was stretching the definition of "hill" to the max.  Trust me, although 800m doesn't sound that high, over 2 hours of steady climbing on a loaded bike might make you change your mind.  As strenuous and dangerous as the road was, with no barriers in many places and sheer drops, it was yet another spectacular ride.

View from the top of Takaka Hill.
Just in case I had any delusions that cosmic justice was a real thing, and that such hard work deserved an easy 30-40Km to my lunch stop, I was reminded that we don't always get what we deserve.  After a leg-sapping climb, I was afforded only a brief (but glorious) whoosh down the other side of the mountain, and almost the second the road flattened-out again, I was hit with steady headwinds.

A short, rather unhealthy, lunch of lasagna toppers (deep fried lasagna with breadcrumbs, somewhat of a delicacy in NZ) and chocolate muffins, the final 50Km was into an ever-increasing headwind with a final push of 6Km on the roughest road of the trip; unsealed, bumpy, and impossible to cycle in places.

It was a physically crushing day, but I had timed things perfectly.  I had arrived at the campsite - a short walk from the beach - about an hour before sunset, and the conditions were perfect.

Wharariki has a reputation for being extremely windy, due to its position pointing directly into the prevailing wind.  Normally, wind at a beach isn't the greatest thing in the world, but in Wharariki is creates the most strikingly beautiful effect.  The wind blows the sand flat and the constant movement of the top surface being blown away produces an almost ghostly kind of smoke flowing across the beach.  It is truly unique. This combined with stunning rock formations, playful seals, and the sunset reflecting magical colours on silky wind-shapen clouds makes for an amazing experience.

On a trip choc-full of incredible places, Wharariki was definitely right up there with the best of them.  To make things extra-special, its a place that is less well-known, less developed, and less frequented.  I was not there with crowds of people, just one or two others.  Yet again, in this extraordinary country, I didn't feel like a tourist.  And also, yet again, I was in a place that was almost painful to leave.

The campsite had a pretty inexpensive backpacker option, which I lept at the chance of taking, so I got an excellent nights' sleep, which was sorely needed.

I took some time to check out Farewell Spit as well, while I was in the area.  It really is an extraordinary piece of land, shaped by the sea currents.

Instead of going the whole way back to Motueka, I decided to stay a day in Takaka, as the weather wasn't good again and I needed a recharge to tackle Takaka Hill again.  I stayed in a nice little hostel owned by a Kiwi-Japanese husband and wife.

While there I met a chap who was walking the length of New Zealand on the Te Aroha, a route through New Zealand combining a range of tracks and roads.  Something I quite liked the sound of, however, he told me that the weather had been so bad that he had a number of truly miserable days.  His route and his form of travel didn't give him the chance to get out of the rain and stop in comfortable accommodation very often. He was bravely soldiering through, though, and I wished him better luck with the weather.  There had been an awful lot of rain in New Zealand while I was there, but I had done remarkably well to avoid getting stuck in the worst of it.

It was a hard day of cycling to get to Wharariki and Farewell Spit, so that meant it would be almost equally as tough on the way back, and I had no choice but to ascend Takaka Hill again, this time in slightly inclement weather.  Things were a little easier on the way back, as I didn't have quite the same wind resistance.  It was by no means at my back, but it was manageable.

I arrived back at Motueka and considered what to do about Abel Tasman National Park. The weather was a bit 50/50 for the next couple of days again, and I didn't want to wait around in Motueka for to long.  The next day, I decided to embark on a slightly different kind outing.

Having a rest about half-way through my run.

I took a water taxi out to a beach 30Km into the park and thought I could run and hike this back to the bus pick-up point at the end/start of the Abel Tasman Great Walk track. This way, whatever the weather, it'd be a reasonable day.  The track never ascends very high at Abel Tasman, so it was perfect for a good trail run.  Walking the whole track wasn't an option, as it was now the Great Walks season and huts and campgrounds had to be booked in advance.

It actually rained much more than I had anticipated, but it never came down so hard as to truly dampen my spirits.  Even in damp weather, the park was still a treat of picturesque beaches and large estuaries.

To save time, and for a bit of a unique experience, I crossed one of the largest of the estuaries.  It is marked for crossing at low-tide, however, I reached it a little after low tide when the water-level was quite high in places.  I took my shoes off and held my backpack up high over the water as I waded through with the water at chest height. Fortunately, the water wasn't flowing too fast and I made it through without issue, but it was probably quite lucky that I wasn't there 15-20 minutes later or else I might have had to turn back and take the high-road detour.

Crossing this section through the tidal waters was pretty cool.  Felt like a very adventurous trail run.

I hadn't done too much running on the trip, so my legs ran out of steam at about 15-20 kilometres, but I walked the last 10Km or so.  I think the full 60Km would be a great thing to run in a day (one would have to train for this, though), as the track is well-formed, not too steep and great to run on.  Until writing this post, I didn't realise that they actually have a race of 36Km along the track, similar to what I did on my own.  I think a 60Km ultramarathon would be fantastic there, or maybe I'll just do the whole thing on my own when I return to New Zealand next time, and there will definitely be a next time.  Another fascinating leg of the trip.

Sunday, 15 January 2017

The West Coast

It's funny how your expectations of places differs from reality sometimes and the long journey up the west coast certainly defied my initial thoughts on what the road would be like.

I knew it would be steep in places, and I also knew that I'd most probably be fighting the wind most of the time as the most common wind direction in New Zealand is a North-Westerly.  What I didn't expect was quite how isolated and quiet it would be. Starting my leg up the west coast in Haast was a bit of a sign of things to come.  The town was basically a U-shaped road of about half a kilometre long with the odd house and establishment on either side, and that was it.

After Haast, there was almost nothing until Fox Glacier, about 140Km away.  There was the odd house in the middle of nowhere, and curiously a woman with a near new-born baby selling coffee and light snacks from a trailer she was towing.  She had just started-up a new franchise business.  Seeing as I hadn't seen a soul for miles and was in dire need of a break, I stopped and bought a couple of ice creams and a muffin.  She seemed thankful as business was slow.  However, shortly after I arrived and series of people stopped for coffee, which made me feel a bit better about things.  I did have cause to be optimistic for her for the upcoming summer season, though, as she was the only person offering refreshment on a road that would surely be frequented by more travellers inside about a month or so.

While eating my ice cream and looking out at the rugged, choppy waters of the West coast, a few of us noticed some Hector's dolphins not far offshore.  Hector's dolphins are endemic to New Zealand and are one of the smallest species of dolphins, very cute little guys.  I had seen only bottle-nosed dolphins in Milford and Doubtful Sound, so it was a lucky encounter.  A worthwhile ice cream break indeed.

As mentioned in the blogs on Milford and Doubtful Sound, the West coast is one of the wettest parts of New Zealand, so I wasn't that hopeful of good weather.  I had my sights set on staying either at Fox Glacier or Franz Josef Glacier at the end of day one up the West coast.  I was advised by my buddy Alex to also try and visit Lake Matheson, near Fox Glacier, for famed reflective views of the mountains in the lake, however, this required nice weather which wasn't forthcoming.  With this in mind then, I decided to head onto Franz Josef Glacier, only another 25Km away.

I say only 25Km, but when you've already had 130Km of hilly cycling in your legs, another 25Km up and down is not always easy.  I was also pre-warned of 3 big climbs to overcome in the short distance between Fox and Franz Josef Glacier.  I prepared myself with some food and a rest at Fox Glacier and headed-out.

The first climb began straight-away and lasted for a very long time.  Strangely, though, I was taking it in my stride.  By this point my legs had become so accustomed to the regular arduous climbs, they were coping amazingly well with almost anything New Zealand could throw at me.  I felt almost invincible,  I was beginning to relish the climbs and wasn't even close to stopping and pushing, even when they were severe, I had plenty in reserve.

The second climb was almost as long as the first and the roads weaved up and down and around some beautiful mountain scenery on exciting roads to cycle on.  It was another good cycling day, despite the occasional rain showers.  The third and final hill was a tiddler by comparison and I sauntered into Franz Josef with ease.

Throughout my journey through New Zealand, I always kept a close eye on the weather reports.  As slightly unreliable as they were, they were usually spot on when it came to heavy rain forecasts, so I knew that the next couple of days would have to be spent resting if I wanted to get any glimpse of the glacier at Franz Josef at all.  Heavy rain was forecast for two straight days.  I wanted to see the glacier, and for two days a heavy covering of cloud and mist covered about half of the mountains, obscuring any chance of a view, so I just waited for the better weather.

Some nice trail runs in the rain past fast flowing rivers caused by glacial melt-water..

Luckily, I found the cheapest hostel of the trip.  I signed-up to be a member of the YHA hostel group earlier on my way through the South Island.  My membership not only entitled me to the standard money-off deal, but also gave me a whopping extra 25% off a night down to the fact I was a low-carbon traveller.  This meant I stayed 3 nights for just $16 a night.  A really good rate, especially considering the location.  The hostel was also very well equipped with Sky TV, which I took advantage of, watching some cricket while it chucked it down outside.

Even in the rain, I was itching to do something, so I took the opportunity to do a couple of trail runs on some of the shorter little trails in the area.  For some reason, I have always enjoyed running in the rain.  Cycling in the rain, however, is normally not nearly so much fun.

Top of the Alex Knob track.

Finally the rain cleared, so I headed up the Alex Knob track - yet again completely alone. The trail was about 17Km return and fairly steep up to about 1300 metres.  It was cloudy, but at least not rainy for most of the way up to the top and then snowed while I was up there.  It looked as if the clouds weren't going to clear for me, but eventually did and very swiftly, giving excellent views of the glacier and the surrounding mountains and coast.

Seeing as it was such a nice day, I decided to walk to the face of the glacier also.  It was quite amazing how much it had receded over the years based on the photos of the previous year's position of the terminal face of the glacier.  It certainly made for a longer walk than in previous years.

All in all, I had another one of those headless hiking days doing over 30Km if you include the walking to and from the glacier area, the Alex Knob track and the walk to the terminal face of the glacier.  I was pretty beat again on returning late in the afternoon after an early start.  I couldn't hang around any longer in Franz Josef, though, and left the following morning.

The next stop was Hokitika, another 140Km away, and the first major town for a while.  I was running out of food, so this came as a welcome stop because of the opportunity to shop at one of the big chain supermarkets in New Zealand, New World.  I stayed in a quaint little hostel run by one of many English expats who seem to enjoy running these sorts of businesses in New Zealand.  They weren't the first Brits to be running one of the hostels I was staying at, and they weren't to be the last.  I reckon about 50% of the places I stayed at were operated by Brits.

The weather forecast was challenging me once again to put in a big next day and sit it out for a rest the following day.  This time another 140Km (this was for some reason a very popular average distance between major stops) of extremely difficult cycling with lots of climbing.

I was getting somewhat concerned about the state of my front tyre.  I had replaced the back tyre in Melbourne when I had my bike serviced between my Australia and New Zealand trips, but the front tyre stayed the same and was also the tyre I switched from the back half-way through the Australia leg.  I was starting to see the thread showing through the rubber, so it needed a change before the inevitable puncture.

Knowing that I'd have a day-off in Westport, I bought a new tyre in Greymouth and I didn't put the tyre on straight-away and just carried it with me.  It was going to be another long day in the saddle if I wanted to get to Westport and I didn't need a delay and figured the old tyre would probably last until then.

The Pancake rocks at Punakaiki.

The cycling got gorgeous once again on the way from Greymouth to Punakaiki, and culminated in a fascinating little break at Punakaiki's, "Pancake Rocks".  Again, not one to disappoint, New Zealand served-up a truly unique piece of coastline not even the best scientists can explain.

After timing my stop to Punakaiki perfectly with a bit of downpour, the weather lifted and I was back on the road for an exhilarating coastal cycle up some steep inclines, with marvelous cliff-top views all around.  There were plenty of people stopping to take in the views and marveling at how I was managing to pedal up the steep roads.  I was feeling pretty smug about the fact that these hills were no longer breaking me as they once did, and would surely break most people trying to cycle up them with the kind of load I was carrying.  Again, I was feeling like superman.  It really is a nice feeling to be that strong, it doesn't happen often in life.

A wonderful days' cycling was finished at the rather dreary industrial town of Westport. Not one of the prettier places of the trip, but it had a hostel and a bed, which is all that mattered.  The people there seemed very working class and the whole place appeared a little run down and out of money.  I used the opportunity of another town to stock-up on food again for a potentially long stretch without a major supermarket.  As it turned-out, however, plans were to change ever-so slightly.

Friday, 6 January 2017

The Haast Pass

One of the disadvantages of pristine wilderness and lots of mountains, is that the South Island of New Zealand is not served very well by a lot of roads.  For this reason, my trip to the fjordlands meant that I would have to double-back on myself and retrace my steps all the way back to Wanaka before I could find a new route back up the South Island again (over 400Km of doubling-back from Milford Sound).

Te Anau to Wanaka, via Cromwell.

The winds really weren't kind to me, both on the way into the fjordlands and also back out.  I had to cope with a northerly headwind for most of the journey back to Wanaka over two days.  I took a slightly different route on the way back, avoiding a second trip over the Crown Range road (the highest sealed road in New Zealand).  Not only did I fancy going somewhere different, but the road was steeper from Queenstown to Wanaka, and busier, with narrow switchbacks making it rather hazardous.

My new route doubled the distance, but was much steadier via Cromwell through the Kawarau Gorge.  Gorges always make me nervous because some of my steepest climbs and most hair-raising descents have been on gorge roads.  However, this time it wasn't too bad.

Two big days from Te Anau to Wanaka, and with slightly dodgy weather again the next day, I decided to take a rest and stock up on food and get ready for a potentially tough 145Km to Haast going through the Haast pass.  I had heard it would be a difficult but very picturesque cycle.

It turned out to be my favourite day of cycling on the trip.  The few kilometres prior to the Haast pass were tough, but generally the road was testing enough, but also really distracting.

Wanaka to Haast route and profile.

It started-off passing alongside Lake Hawea and then Lake Wanaka, on an entertainingly undulating road, before steadily climbing through the mountains.

Misty mountains

The weather was worse than I expected, with lots of rain, but strangely it didn't dampen my spirits and, as so often happens, the rain actually brought the countryside alive. There was a beautiful mist on the mountains, rainbows formed, and temporary waterfalls flowed.  After the Haast pass, at roughly 565m high, the road was mostly very gently downhill with towering mountains and vast river deltas all around.  This made for easy and enjoyable cycling to a truly wondrous backdrop.

I bumped into some fellow cycle tourers, both from France, who were travelling in the opposite direction.  I stopped and had a short chat, but couldn't hang around for long as my old nemesis, the sandflies, were out in full force yet again  Before I could string a couple of sentences together, they had already bitten my legs four or five times.

Some beautiful sights just off the roadside.

I stopped regularly to do short walks to waterfalls, valleys, and lookouts that started on the roadside.  This probably helped to break up the day and keep me enthusiastic on the bike.  I had set off at 6.30am and arrived in Haast at 7pm, so it was a long day, but a really spectacular and rewarding one.