Saturday, 27 October 2018

Arthurs Pass and The Great Alpine Highway

I thought that this section deserved a blog post all of its own, as it was quite an epic cycle across the middle of the South Island.  It had it all; amazing scenery, some of the hardest uphill sections I have ever cycled, great hiking, and good weather.  Not too much musing on life in this post, but lots of pretty pictures.

Sometimes, when you are on a long bicycle tour, you can forget that a part of the tour over a few days can actually be the equivalent to something some people train for over several months and make the trip of a lifetime. In fact, I can remember someone asking me once in San Francisco about my bike tour while I was there and they commented that this must be a once in a lifetime kind of trip.  I just replied with, "No, not really, I do this stuff pretty often".  Over the past couple of years, I have done a once in a lifetime trip at least a few times a year.  Make no mistake, the trip up to Arthurs Pass on a fully-loaded touring bike is not for the faint-hearted, but it is a spectacular, special journey.

It starts with a very steady climb after a short cycle down the West coast from Greymouth.  It was quite grey when I set-off and as I was approaching the mountains, they seemed draped in quite a lot of cloud, which wasn't encouraging.  There were still nice views, but usually when it starts off cloudy upon entering the mountains, it just gets worse.

Flowers in bloom and the clouds clearing.
Fortunately for me, however, the weather was on the improve all day, and by the time I found myself in the really nice areas with great views, the clouds were clearing.  Climbing up the Great Alpine Road didn't seem that difficult at first, just a long, slow, steady climb, but things became dramatically steep a few kilometres from the top of the pass.

It never looks steep in pictures, but let me assure you that it was pretty crazy.
The gradient went from a fairly comfortable jaunt, to an absolute gut-wrenching 16%.  This really was at the limits of what I could cycle, especially as I was weighed-down by quite a bit of food.  Even cars were finding it hard-going, very slowly passing me with engines struggling.

I had to stop on a few occasions; the first kilometre of that incline blew me out so badly that my legs and lungs just didn't want to function after that.  I had to push for a bit to get the bike up to the first lookout.  Even pushing, though, was not easy and I was seriously fatiguing.

The first of the lookouts.
I made it to the first lookout and I couldn't face the next couple of kilometres to the next lookout.  I stopped for a while and was joined by a pair of naughty, curious Kea, who constantly pecked and gnawed at just about every part of my bike.  I think they knew that they shouldn't be doing so, as they kept looking at me as they were doing it.

A kea trying to put holes in my stuff.
I really didn't want to get going again, as I was feeling a bit sick also.  It is amazing that you can cycle all day without feeling that bad, but if you bust a gut for 10 minutes it can completely destroy you.  I had another kilometre to go to get to the aqueduct lookout and then another kilometre or so to reach the top of the pass. Riding on the top of the aqueduct was pretty cool, but slow-going as there was still quite an incline.  Another big push and I was at the lookout and one of the most spectacular views in New Zealand.  After a little more extreme cranking of the pedals, it was all downhill to Arthurs Pass Village.

I was pretty beat, so I didn't do much that afternoon, even though I had planned to do a short walk.  Instead, I just sat down and did nothing but eat.  I'm thinking that my body just didn't want to move very much.

The next day, however, I was very keen to do some hiking so I spent the morning walking some of the tracks around the village and then planned to head out to Bealey Spur, about 12Km south and east of Arthurs Pass Village.  I planned to go there instead of Avalanche Peak for a couple of reasons; Avalanche Peak was capped by quite a lot of snow and would be difficult to reach, and it was quite cloudy in the part of the National Park that the peak would have been facing, limiting the views.  Bealey Spur was also in a different area, having amazing views of the valley floor and a mountain hut to stay in overnight.

The spectacular viewpoint on Bealey Spur.
Obviously I couldn't bring my bike up there, so I simply left it at the bottom of the hike in the trees.  I wouldn't do this everywhere, but it wasn't a very well frequented hike and it was well away from the main road.  I thought it highly unlikely the bike or anything on it would get stolen.  Sometimes you just have to have faith in your fellow man to be able to do these things.

It was mid-afternoon by the time I started the hike and it took about 3 hours to get to the tiny little hut where I would be staying the night.  The views along the track were truly awesome.  One of the reasons New Zealand is so stunning are the huge glacial-carved valleys through the mountains, which makes for these massive, awe-inspiring views.

The hut I stayed at was certainly cosy; it could only sleep 6 people, although I was the only one there anyway.  It was a great little hut, though, and had been there for almost 100 years.  After a long day of hiking, it didn't take me long to fall asleep, as usual.

Once I got back to my bike in the morning, I left straight-away and was hoping for some more downhill, but it wasn't really what I got.  Things went generally more up than down for quite a while until an area with lots of limestone caves and rocks, culminating in a popular area called Castle Hill.

Castle Hill is an impressive place, but has to be one of the hardest places in New Zealand to photograph.  I have seen various pictures of the place before, and it never seemed that interesting, but if you get the chance to go there, don't miss it, as the rock formations are striking in scale.  Just don't expect to take a great picture.

Top of Castle Hill
After Castle Hill, I continued to climb, this time to Porters Pass, which is a little higher than Arthurs Pass, but not quite as scenic, still jolly nice though.

I give a bit of a sense of scale to some of these rocks at Castle Hill.
In general, the scenery on the whole road is amazing, and it is a real test of strength and endurance, but the scenic distractions take your mind off the hardship, and like many things in life, the stuff that is worth doing is often not especially easy.  Indeed, this is much of the reason that bicycle touring is such a great means of travel in general.  The Great Alpine Road was certainly a very memorable part of this tour.

No comments:

Post a Comment