Friday, 24 August 2018

The Plan for New Zealand 2018

Why wouldn't you want to go back here?
I absolutely loved spending time in Cairns, it is paradise up here and I'll miss seeing the wallabies in the garden every day, but time for a change of scenery and back to my favourite country in the world, New Zealand.

I have toured New Zealand twice before, which you can read all about on this blog.  The first time was an epic 2 and a half month trip through the North Island and all around the South Island, and the second trip was a two-week tour down the West coast of the North Island, taking in Taranaki and Cape Palliser before returning back to Melbourne from Wellington.

I really can't get enough of this place, and there is plenty I haven't seen of it.  A wise man once told me that the best way to travel is not to superficially go from place to place scratching the surface, but to really get to know somewhere.  I do intend to live in New Zealand at some point in the future, I love the place, but before I do, I really want to get to know every nook and cranny of these two beautiful islands.  This is not to say I'm finished with Australia; I have lived here for 4 years, visited every state, yet there is still so much more I want to see and do here also.  Fortunately, a permanent visa in Australia allows me to live in New Zealand, so I can have the best of both worlds.

With each and every tour I do, I am fine-tuning the art of cycle touring and travelling in general to best suit me.  I learnt a lot from this tour in Australia, and I am trying to drastically cut down on my daily distances.  I won't be taking it easy, though, part of the reason for this is so I have time for trail running, games of squash, hiking, and some other activities also.  Working online also is added time pressure and restricts how flexible I can be if the weather is not kind to me (this was an absolute killer with the long distances into the wind in Australia), so I want to take some of the stress off myself a bit.

The first part of this tour sees me spending about a month in the Northland.  I have never been to this region of New Zealand.  This is the Maori cultural capital of New Zealand and home to beautiful bays, beaches, and islands.  The main highlight of this first leg for me is scuba diving in Poor Knights Island.  I'll be there at the end of Winter, but I hear it can be dived in a wet suit all year round because of warm ocean currents.

As you can see from the above route, I won't be cycling all the way up to Cape Reinga, but I might choose to do so, or grab a lift up there, it just depends how I feel, the weather, and my progress.  On this trip I haven't set myself any 100Km+ days.  I have scheduled mostly between 40-80Km on each day, a huge difference from my recent tour in Australia and completely different from any other tour I have done so far.  It is likely though, that bad weather will force me into doing the occasional very big day, while I rest-up when it pours down on others.  On my last two tours in New Zealand, the rain came down heavily on many occasions, but I managed things pretty well.  I need to set aside time for this inevitability.

Stage two of this tour sees me taking a different route through the main part of the North Island from the previous two journeys here.  There are a couple of sections that remain the same, but the vast majority follows a completely different route.  Some route highlights for me are passing by Wairere Falls, cycling the desert road, and hopefully passing through Manuwatu Gorge, something I couldn't do last time because of a landslide.

I know from experience that the cycling in the North Island of New Zealand is super-tough.  The South Island has the higher peaks and longer climbs, but the North is extremely up and down.  Even fairly short days are physically arduous and this showed on my last big tour to New Zealand because despite more rest time and shorter days on the bike, my legs were noticeably bigger towards the end in a way I have never noticed from my long cycling days in Australia.

On to the South Island then, truly the most beautiful place I have visited yet, so I am really looking forward to going back there.

I will not miss out the West coast of the South Island, I will hire a car for this with Eunji.
With so few roads on the South Island, it is inevitable that I am going to have to do some of the same routes as 2016, but in the South Island of New Zealand, this isn't much of a problem as most of the roads are beautiful.  Last time, bad weather forced me out of visiting the Nelson Lakes National Park and this is my first target this time around.  After a few days hiking there, I make my way to Greymouth on the West coast, before the testing climb up to Arthurs Pass, keeping my fingers-crossed for good weather as this should be a spectacular ride with some splendid hiking once at Arthurs Pass Village.

After Arthurs Pass, I make my way down towards Christchurch, then turn South and following the same route as last time all the way to Queenstown, passing Lake Tekapo, Mount Cook, the Lindis Pass, and Wanaka along the way (this isn't a bad route to do twice).

Once in Queenstown, the plan is to hire a car with Eunji, as she'll be joining me for a couple of weeks to see some of the most spectacular places in New Zealand on the West coast, including Milford Sound, Fox and Franz Josef Glaciers, and Glenorchy. I visited these places before, but they are well worth a second look, and in Milford Sound this time I have plans to go underwater and explore the depths as well.  It is possible to scuba dive Milford Sound, and apparently it is a bit of a freaky dive.  A cold layer of freshwater sits in the first 10 metres or so of water, and is full of tannins washed into the sound from the trees.  At this point, you can hardly see anything, but as you hit the salt water layer the visibility is supposed to be incredible, with some unusual reef formations and animals, including the possibility of seeing penguins and dolphins.  It promises to be quite a unique dive experience, and is one of the highlights of this tour.  Not sure how the dive works with the weather though.  Usually rain ruins dives because it washes silt and debris into the water causing bad visibility, and with this part of New Zealand being the wettest place in the country (on an already wet island), I don't quite know what to expect.

After the extended stay in Queenstown, and hiring a car to explore the West coast with Eunji, I plan to visit the Catlins via Invercargill, although I have left this section flexible and might just head straight to Dunedin if I am short on time.  After a few days here, I'll make my way back up the East coast towards Christchurch and my flight back home to England.  This is the plan, but it will likely change due to weather and last-minute unforeseen circumstances.  As the saying goes, it isn't a true adventure if everything goes to plan.

Planned Tour Schedule

North Island

Auckland to Whangarei - 143Km (3 days - Aug 26th - 28th)
Whangarei - 2 days of working. (Aug 29-30)
Whangarei to Tutukaka and diving to Pahia - 40Km then 90Km - 4 days (Aug 31st to Sept 3rd)
Pahia - 2 days of working (Sept 4th -5th)
Pahia to Kaitaia - 118Km (2 days - Sept 6th -7th)
Kaitaia - 3 days of working (Sept 8th -10th)
Kaitaia to Dargaville - 170Km (3 days - Sept 11th - 13th)
Dargaville - 2 days of working (Sept 14th - 15th)
Dargaville - Kitekite falls - Auckland - 250Km (5 days - Sept 16th - 20th)

Auckland - 2 days working (Sept 21st - 22nd)
Auckland to Wairere Falls to Tauranga 206Km (3 days - Sept 23rd to 25th)
Tauranga - 2 days working (Sept 26th - 27th)
Tauranga to Gisborne - 277Km (3 days Sept 28th - 30th)
Gisborne Stay 1 day (Oct 1st)
Gisborne to Taupo - 303Km (4 days - Oct 2nd - 5th)
Taupo - 2 days working (Oct 6th - 7th)
Taupo to Turangi - 53Km (work same day) 1 day (Oct 8th)
Turangi to Featherston station to Wellington - 320Km 4 days (Oct 9th - 12th)
Wellington 4 days working and studying with Alex (Oct 13th - Oct 16th)

South Island

Wellington to Picton - Stay 1 night (do some classes after the ferry) - Oct 17th.
Picton to St Arnaud - 125Km (2 days - Oct 18th - 19th).
St Arnaud Travers-Sabine Circuit over 5 days ( Oct 20th - 24th)
St Arnaud to Reefton - 144Km (over 2 days Oct 25th - 26th).
Reefton - 2 days working (Oct 27th - 28th).
Reefton to Greymouth 77Km (1 day - Oct 29th)
Greymouth 2 days working (Oct 30th - 31st).
Greymouth to Arthurs Pass -100Km (2 days - Nov 1st - 2nd)
Stay in Arthurs Pass - 3 days (Nov 3rd - 4th)
Arthurs Pass to Darfield - 106Km (2 days - Nov 5th - 6th)
Darfield - 2 days working (Nov 7th - 8th)
Darfield to Mount Somers 78Km (1 day - Nov 9th)
Mount Sunday Hike - 2 days (Nov 10th - 11th).
Mount Somers to Tekapo - 132Km (2 days - Nov 12th - 13th)
Tekapo - 2 days working (Nov 14th - 15th)
Tekapo to Mount Cook - 104Km (2 days - Nov 16th to 17th)
Mount Cook - stay 2 days (Nov 18th - 19th)
Mount Cook to Twizel - 65Km (1 day - Nov 20th)
Twizel - 2 days work (Nov 21st - 22nd)
Twizel to Queenstown - 200Km (4 days - Nov 23rd - 26th)
Queenstown - stay for 10-14 days and explore the West coast by car (Eunji coming), work 4 - 6 days total.  Final part of the trip is flexible up to my flight on the 24th of December.
Queenstown to Invercargill - 193Km (2 days)
Stay in Invercargill 2 days - working.
Invercargill to Dunedin via Nuggett Point - 304Km (4 days)
(Alternatively, Queenstown to Dunedin, 327Km over 4 days, saving 4 days)
Dunedin (Stay 4 days) Working
Dunedin to Christchurch - 372Km - Bike over 2 -4 days depending on time.

Fly home for Christmas!

Tuesday, 21 August 2018

Cairns - The Great Barrier Reef

The main event for me in Cairns was to dive The Great Barrier Reef, one of the 7 natural wonders of the world.  I hadn't dived for nearly ten years, so this seemed like the perfect place to get back into it, and I can assure you it won't be ten years until I dive again.

Managed to get a picture with Frank, the famous Humpheaded Maori Wrasse. He loves people and apparently has a great memory and recognises many regular divers.
While in Cairns, I actually managed to do 12 dives in total over two overnight liveaboard trips out to the reef.  The first time was on my own, and then I took Eunji out there with me for the second trip.  She isn't a diver, but there were snorkelers on board also.  Fortunately, each trip out starts and finishes with a snorkel for everyone, so I was able to get out there with her a couple of times, which was nice.

First time I'd seen a cuttlefish.  Their colour changing is quite incredible.
Anyway, the first journey out on the reef and I was a smidgen worried about my first dive.  Truth be told, when I first learned to dive I was pretty terrified.  I am not a strong swimmer and deep water has always been a bit scary for me.  When I was in Melbourne, I did a bit of open water swimming with a group of people on a Saturday.  Unbeknownst to me, the first time I showed-up I went with the intermediate group by mistake instead of the beginner group.  To warm-up they swam about 250m out to a buoy.  I was quite confident I could swim that far, so although intimidated, I gave it a go.  However, once I saw the bottom disappear my heart started pounding, and my breathing patterns were interrupted completely, so I had to turn back.

There is another cuttlefish in this picture, but it is so well camouflaged, it is difficult to spot.
This is a feeling I surprisingly never got while diving, it seems to be a surface of the water kind of fear, a fear of sinking.  When you scuba dive though, the idea is to sink, and once I was underwater for the first time, I was comfortable and surprisingly relaxed.  So although a little anxious again this time, all my fears disappeared as soon as I sank below the surface.  To be honest, scuba diving is both one of the most exciting and relaxing activities I have ever done.  What you see underwater is often awe-inspiring, but getting around is super-easy and peaceful once you have some control of your buoyancy.

"I can mention many moments that were unforgettable and revelatory. But the single most revelatory 3 minutes was the first time I put on scuba gear and dived on a coral reef " - David Attenborough.

I was going to get a refresher course, but the instructors thought I'd be alright just going on a couple of guided dives first, which was great anyway because they knew where to go on the reef, making for a better dive.  It is actually quite difficult to navigate if you just go with a buddy sometimes.

The diving was perfect really, all the dives weren't super-deep and there was no current in the water and very little swell, all excellent for reconnecting with the skills.  The lowest I got down to was about 20 metres, but most of the action was at about 10 metres anyway.

There was plenty to see; sharks, giant trevally, turtles, cuttlefish, moray eels, nudibranchs (kind of a colourful slug-like creature), stunning coral structures, and plentiful colourful reef fish.

The highlight of the dives on this first trip was an extremely friendly green turtle that actually approached a few of us right up close, seeming genuinely curious.  A couple of the instructors picked-up some bits of algae/seaweed and offered it to the turtle, which brought it in very close, and it appeared not to be scared of us at all.  Fortunately for me, the cameraman was in the right place at the right time as I turned my head, sensing the turtle was just over my shoulder, and he got the perfect shot.  This picture will definitely be on the wall back home in England.

What a picture!
The second time was even better diving.  It was noticeable right-away how much more control of my buoyancy I had, something that makes diving super-easy and relaxing.

I was quite impressed with Eunji on this trip, I was a little worried that she might not be that comfortable with the snorkeling.  The reason for this is that the Great Barrier Reef is out there in the open ocean, so even though the reef makes the waters calmer, the boat still has to anchor just outside the reef, making for a daunting swim over the abyss to the shallow reef.  It was clear from our first snorkel together that she was pretty nervous and uncomfortable.  She persevered, however, and got gradually happier during that first snorkel.  The next snorkel she did without me with a guide and was back a little before me when I was diving.  The following snorkel we were back at the same time, and then after that she was in the water for far longer than I was.  I think she really enjoyed the trip, not just for the reef itself, but the whole experience on the boat, which was excellent.

The highlight dive for me was the morning dive on the second day.  Straight-away, about 15 metres down under the boat, there were about 15 sharks prowling the sandy sea floor.  These consisted of the usual white-tip reef sharks and also the bigger grey reef sharks, coming it at about 2.5 metres in length.  Other great variety on this dive included nudibranchs, large groupers, turtles, stingrays, and large shoals of fish.

The night dive also brought some interesting sights; one being a large grouper eating a parrot fish and having the tail sticking out of it's mouth.  During night dives you generally see much more predatory behaviour, with giant trevally, in particular, using your torchlight to hunt fish in the dark.

Our room for the night.
I also witnessed the very odd behaviour of a parrot fish.  At night parrot fish blow themselves a mucous bubble which surrounds their whole body, hiding its scent from predators and perhaps acting as an early warning system of an attack.  They then eat this mucous bubble for breakfast in the morning.  Bizarre and fascinating to see.

It was really great to see the changing colours of cuttlefish, one of my favourite creatures on the reef.
It was brilliant to get back out there again so soon, and amazingly, it is only another couple of weeks until my next dive, this time at Poor Knights Island in New Zealand, apparently one of the best sub-tropical dives in the world.  It will take a lot to beat this experience, however, and I'd thoroughly recommend it to anyone coming to Australia, whether you are a diver or not.  Beautiful nature, fantastic food, amazing service, and a very well organised and comfortable boat, which made for happy, enthusiastic guests who all seemed to get along.  The icing on the cake was seeing some humpback whales on the boat on the way back to Cairns, what an experience.

The boat anchored at 3 different dive sites over two days on the reef.

Friday, 10 August 2018

Cycling in Cairns

So basically, I nailed it.  I made the call to cut the cycling short and head to Cairns early to spend about a month and a half there instead of about a week, as originally planned. It was a marvelous decision; instead of suffering through constant headwinds on roads of endless nothing with an increasingly unreliable internet connection for work, I found myself in paradise, and not just a scenic paradise, suited to cocktails on the beach with your feet up, but an adventurer's paradise too.

It was a relief to get to Cairns after a long haul, both on the bike and on the bus.  I was really hoping I liked it there, as I had a good amount of time before I went to New Zealand.

Well, I haven't been disappointed, I love it here.  It really is the perfect place for me, well in Winter at least.  I hear it is unbearably hot and humid in Summer.  Now in Winter it is about 26-29 degrees and sunny every day and cool at night.  On land, you have loads of mountains within 20-30Km away, and longer trips over 2 - 4 days into the Tablelands and rainforests, as well as lots of trail runs closer to town.  In the sea - this area of the world is famous for that part - the Great Barrier Reef.

The beach in Cairns.
I would say the major passion in my life is a love of nature; if you were to analyse the kind of photos I take, you can see this quite clearly.  The two environments I am most fond of are mountains and the oceans.  I hadn't scuba dived for years before I came here, but when I dived in Fiji, I think I experienced some of the most memorable moments of my life.  Snorkeling is great, but scuba diving opens up a new world like nothing else I have ever experienced.  I was gutted I didn't have enough time to dive at Ningaloo (although I did snorkel a bit), I will in the future as I hear it is actually better diving than the Great Barrier Reef, but at least now I can revisit this world again.

Barron Gorge Falls was seriously impressive.  The picture doesn't do it justice.
The coast in this part of Australia is really beautiful, with the mountains so close.  My first journey out of the city was to Kuranda to see the Barron Gorge Falls.  I tentatively headed out of Cairns on the main highway and was worried about traffic.  I needn't have worried though as there was either a cycle path or a wide shoulder all the way until the turn-off.  It was actually the climb to Kuranda that was a little dodgy due to high volumes of traffic.

There were no cars, but some friendly fellow-cyclists.
Before then, however, I actually made a wrong turn.  I was annoyed briefly, but realised I was actually heading to quite a nice area lower down Barron Gorge, so I thought I'd continue and just make the day a little longer.  It was a good call, there were no cars and a very nice road going through the gorge to an end point near a power station.  The bridge to it offered tranquil, scenic views and after a while I was joined by 3 other cyclists.

As I mentioned, the road up to Kuranda was a bit hairy; big trucks and lots of traffic going up a, narrow at times, winding road.  It was quite a long climb, but with weight off the bike, it felt nicely difficult, a good workout, but not absolute hell.  It was nice to be climbing again and not pushing against the wind on a dead-flat road.  These roads into the mountains should give the legs a nice wake-up call before I go to New Zealand.  The climbs there will be relentless.

A fine view over the rainforest from Wright's Lookout.
I had a few extra kilometres to get to Barron Gorge Falls and Wrights Lookout.  I had seen pictures of the falls on Google, and it didn't look that spectacular, and my picture of the falls doesn't look anything special, but when you are there it is quite stunning, there is just not much in the foreground to give a sense of scale.  It's a huge gorge and a most impressive sight.  Most people drive up there or get the train, which winds through the rainforested mountains, but it is always rewarding to put in the hard yards to get somewhere on your own volition.

Trinity Bay Lookout in Port Douglas.
I made a couple more trips out on the bike, the longest of which was out to Port Douglas and back, about 100Km in total.  It was a very picturesque coastal ride, and as a bit of training for New Zealand, I loaded the bike up a bit more.  It was hard work in the warm, humid weather, and it had been a few weeks since I had been so far on the bike, so I felt it a little.  It is amazing how quickly you lose fitness.

Since arriving in Cairns, indeed since Broome, I have been working out quite a lot; running, circuits, and weight training.  I am without doubt feeling fitter, faster, and stronger for it, but it counts for little on the bike.  It is amazing sometimes how specific fitness is.  Fit on the bike, slow and unfit on your feet; quick on your feet and stronger all-round, but then tired over long distances.

I also took a trip out to a local wildlife park to see some crocodiles.  I would love to observe these monsters up-close in the wild, but well, not really.  A close encounter in the wild with a croc is something you may well not walk away from, so there was no option but to see them in captivity.

I was impressed with the park, however, they had a large lagoon that took 20 minutes by boat to get around, which housed most of their crocs, at least the ones that could live side by side without killing the others.  Those troublemakers were left in solitary confinement in smaller enclosures, but they were still large enough.

They are awesome beasts, the biggest of which was about 5.3m long and over 100 years old.  They are one of the few animals I have ever seen that weren't skittish or scared of humans in the least, in fact it was quite clear by their behaviour that, but for the barriers, they would have quite happily dined on any one of us without a second thought.  To hear one growl deeply at close quarters is quite wonderfully terrifying, to come face to face with one in the wild would be scary to say the least.

Pretty much all of the crocs there were problem crocodiles.  They had been captured because they were either threatening livestock, people or pets.  Most of them were named after the last dog they had eaten.  You have to be careful about where you let the dog off the lead here in North Queensland, crocodiles can inhabit almost any waterway, both freshwater and saltwater crocs, however the salties are especially fearsome. 

There were other animals in the park, and I was particularly fascinated by the cassowaries.  If there is one animal in the world that looks more like a dinosaur than a crocodile, it is these birds.  With the crest on their heads they seems like a living dinosaur.  The one in the picture here was very friendly and you could feed it by hand, but in the wild they can be very aggressive and dangerous.  They are actually Australia's heaviest land animal.

There were also plenty of wallabies, kangaroos, koalas (of the smaller, cuter, northern kind), wombats, and more.  It was a very nice park, with wide-open huge enclosures for the animals, most of whom were rescued or injured from traffic accidents.  

All the way across Australia, I have been very impressed of how the country handles it's ecotourism.  It is clear a balance needs to be maintained between allowing access to see wildlife for the public for economic purposes and not disturbing wild animals or habitats, and in pretty much every occasion I have seen, everywhere gets the balance just about right, and besides, making wildlife and wild habitats economically valuable is going to be the surest way of protecting them in the long-term.  Australia is doing a great job of not over-egging the pudding though and maintaining a great respect for it's natural treasures.  There is some argument over the Great Barrier Reef, though, as it has been suffering in recent years, both due to agriculture and mining, as well as rising sea temperatures, so I thought I'd better check it out sooner rather than later.  This write-up is my next post.