Thursday, 18 October 2018

Through the South Island: Picton to Greymouth

Apart from the odd bit of back wheel trouble, the journey through the North Island went not only smoothly, but much better than I could have hoped for.  I got everything done that I wanted to in the best weather I have ever experienced in New Zealand.

This was highlighted by my few days in Wellington and the crossing of the Cook Strait by ferry.  On all of my previous trips to Wellington (I have now been there 4 times) and on my two previous ferry crossings, the weather had been terrible, not just rainy, but torrential at times.  This time, though, the sun was out every day.  I even felt a little guilty for staying inside for much of a couple of days because I had to work and rest.

It was a perfect sunny day to cross over to the South Island.  I arrived in Picton at about midday and I had a plan to cover about 60-70Km so I could arrive in St Arnaud at around lunchtime the following day.  The weather forecast was fantastic for that day as well, so I wanted to do some hiking in Nelson Lakes National Park.

Wellington in sunshine!
With all my back wheel problems, I had been advised by the chap who rebuilt my wheel in Taupo to get the spoke tension checked and have it tweaked again after a few hundred kilometres.  I decided to do this in Blenheim, as there were a few bike shops in town and then not many after that on the route I was planning.

I found a bike shop and the mechanic had no other work on, so he said he could do it in about 30 minutes after he had his lunch.  This was good, but the owner of the shop, who was there also left me feeling uneasy.  The moment I walked into his shop he looked at me with a weird derisory grin on his face.  I was getting a strange feeling of disrespect from him, and he also asked me some really dumb, condescending questions too, like I had never ridden a bike before.  This is in stark contrast to the welcome I get in most bike shops, which is usually friendly, enthusiastic, and full of questions about my trip.

Picton from the ferry.
My instincts were telling me to go somewhere else, but I didn't really have any reason to leave the shop because they could do the job right-away, so I just left it with them and had a bite to eat.

I came back into the shop briefly  because I forgot something and I could see them starting to work on the bike, then 15 minutes later I came back and they had nearly finished.  However, the mechanic was working on the front wheel, not what I had asked, and I never had a problem with it.  He said to me, "Well you might as well have the front checked while you are here", to which I replied, "Okay, as long as it doesn't cost me extra."

Anyway, after 20 minutes work in total (about ten minutes on each wheel), and no parts needed, I get charged $40.  Now, I had many broken spokes over the last few months, mostly on the drive side, so I couldn't fix it myself, so I know how much I should be charged, and bear in mind that a broken spoke requires the mechanic to take the gearing off the bike to thread the spoke and it requires more re-tensioning; it's more work and includes the cost of the new spoke.  All these guys should have been doing is slightly adjusting the tension on one wheel.

Breaking on the river during the steady climb up the Wairau valley.
I was expecting it to cost about $20, maybe $25, and I have since called up a couple of bike shops to see how much they'd have charged and $20-25 is what I had been quoted, so I wasn't especially happy about being charged $40 for what should have been 10 minutes easy work with no parts fitted (at their rate this works out at $240 an hour).

All this being said, however, if the shop owner had been friendly and respectful towards me when I entered the shop, I might have just let it slide, but I couldn't help but think he saw me walk in with the word, "Sucker", written in bold type across my forehead, so naturally I questioned him about the price.

This then turned into a very strange argument indeed; firstly, he immediately became strongly defensive and when the mechanic started to chime in, he oddly shut him down.  He then tried to play the moral high-ground saying that I give cyclists a bad name (a weird thing to say for a bike shop owner) and when I offered him $20, he told me that I was only, "making things worse for myself".  This was another weird thing to say given that he then helped put my bags next to my bike so I could load it onto my bike and didn't accept my money.  I thought he'd try and keep the bags or make me pay the full amount by other means somehow.  Strangely, though, as I was putting my case forward, he gave no convincing arguments or justification for why he'd charged me that amount, just accusing me of never stopping talking, again, very odd because I really didn't talk that much.

Things got even weirder as he went behind the counter and brought out a pricing list poster for mechanical work on the bike.  He pointed to the "Wheel truing" price, it was $30 for both wheels.  So I asked him why he had charged me $40, he said they had charged me an extra $10 because I hadn't just left the wheels with them, so they had to lift the bike on to a stand to do it (it had no mention of this on the poster).  I replied with, "Okay then, fair enough, I only asked you to do one wheel, so I should pay half of that $40, so $20 seems about right.  However, okay, I'll give you $30 as a compromise."  Still unhappy with this, though, he refused my money saying, "I don't want your money."  I just laughed and walked out, job done for free.  I rode down the road thinking how accurate my instincts had been about the guy and how exactly I had made things worse for myself for complaining.

Well, I cycled-off shaking my head, but after some energy-sapping into the wind cycling down the very open Wairau valley towards St Arnaud late into the afternoon and evening, the ridiculous turned into the sublime.  From one disrespectful moron in a bike shop, I was then approached by an absolute legend in his car.

This area of New Zealand is well-known for its wine, and so the valley was filled with wineries and the usual farm land as well.  This was a bit of a problem for me, however, because there was not even the faintest chance of a spot to camp.  At about 7pm, I was exhausted cycling into a strong headwind and just wanted to stop, but there was absolutely nowhere.  In stepped the hero of the hour, a dairy farmer named Mike.

He pulled-up alongside me and, understanding my lack of options, offered to host me for the evening in his house just a kilometre or so just up the road.  I almost bit his hand off.

Very much a man's man, Mike was into motorbikes, hunting, bushcraft, and farming, so I had some interesting chats with him about hunting, fishing, owning a gun, and butchering game.  To top everything off, he even cooked me a steak for dinner.  These are the sort of people you regularly meet on the road bicycle touring, and they far outnumber the odd idiot.

While I was chatting with Mike, I became acutely aware about how incredibly unskilled I am, especially in the traditional aspects, like hunting, fishing, farming, etc.  I both admired him for his man-skills, but also didn't envy him in other respects.  I felt like that for all his skills that I would love to have, I somehow I had a much better chance of surviving and thriving in the modern world than he had. 

It is kind of bizarre that, as a shy teenager, a bit of a loner, and not someone who especially enjoys talking a lot, I have always done work involving talking to people; coaching, personal training, and teaching.  I have certainly noticed over this year how valuable people skills actually are.  I feel like I am incredibly good with people, even though I don't often seek them out.  It seems as though the strangers I come into contact with on the road enjoy my company and respond well to me, and conversely, I have also been able to put plenty of people in their place when I meet problems.  Perhaps a way with words and the confidence to use them comes with age, but I am certainly noticing the advantages of my interpersonal skills this year.

After a very comfortable night at farmer Mike's, I again battled the wind and a very steady climb up to St Arnaud.  I got there at about lunchtime and pondered on what to do.  I had planned an extended hike over a few days, but the weather forecast was not promising and then work also made such a thing difficult.  The weather was great on my day of arrival though, so I left my bike at a campsite at the bottom of one of the day hikes up to the high peaks on the ridgeline of the mountains along lake Rotoiti.

The hike was spectacular, as was the lake at the bottom, and I had a spot of lunch with a drop dead gorgeous view before starting.  I raced up the track and spent time at the top appreciating the views.  No one was there, as usual, although I met about 3 people on the way up who were on their way down.  Those moments, when you are one your own with the sheer wonder of nature laid-out in front of you are almost spiritual (I hate using that word, but I can't think I a better way to explain it).  Everyone, religious, or non-religious as I am, needs to have the appreciation of something bigger and grander than themselves, for some it's god, for others it is their children, mine is nature.

I am not sure where this appreciation for nature comes from; perhaps it is the freedom, peace, and escape from modern life that draws me to it.  I am not a person who ever really feels lonely, sad, or depressed - I just never feel like that - but I do get stressed easily.  How the hell people manage juggling all the crap that surrounds having a mortgage, having a car, paying bills and taxes, having kids, and going to work every day genuinely boggles my mind.  I handle physical stress very well, but I cannot handle the mental stress that all this involves.

I waffle-on, but examining life is what I have always done, but when I bicycle tour, the time on the bike and the physical suffering, combined with the interesting experiences and adventures I have on a daily basis, make the mind wander and I contemplate all sorts of things quite deeply.

I decided to move on, planning to utilise the nearly 2 weeks I was ahead of schedule.  I planned to criss-cross the South Island along the mountain passes, adding miles to the trip, but also making doubly sure I explored everywhere I missed two years ago.  However, the forecast was terrible for a couple of days, so I booked myself into a nice comfortable hostel 60Km away in Murchison, had a rest and sat-out the worst of the weather.

Making my way to Murchison from St Arnaud.
Well, the plan was to head across the Lewis Pass in the "better" weather the following day, but the only thing that was better was that it didn't rain as much, other than that it was one of the worst days weather I've experienced cycle touring.  This made me change plans, as heading across the Lewis Pass seemed a stupid idea.

The top of the skyline track in Murchison after a short trail run on a wet day off the bike.
After about 8am that day the winds blew, gale force, in exactly my direction of travel, South/South-East.  It was not only incredibly hard to cycle into, but also freezing cold.  No matter how hard I cycled, I did not get warm all day.  Adding to my woes, I also broke the cable to my front deraileur.  Fortunately, this didn't hinder me that much as I still had all my granny gears, I just didn't have the top two chain ring's worth of gears to choose from.

Instead of heading South-East, straight into the teeth of the biting wind (and rain and snow, as I was told by someone who just drove through the Lewis Pass), I stuck with my original plan and went West towards Greymouth.  By the time I had changed my mind, however, I had already taken the scenic route, adding an extra 40 or so kilometres to my day.

It was just one of those days you have cycle touring sometimes; sometimes it feels like all the gods are against you.  That's life, I guess, you just have to tough it out.  At least I found a decent free campsite for the night and had no trouble getting to sleep.  After a day like that, basically I lie down, turn off the lights and within a few seconds I am dead to the world.

I thought the day was going to get better as the cloud cleared in the morning, but I couldn't have been more wrong.
I still had 70Km to get to Greymouth and I absolutely had to be there before 1pm so I could work, so I couldn't have an easy day.  It was a freezing cold morning.  In the tent it was fine, but the first couple of hours on the bike were extremely uncomfortable, especially for my hands, which were either painful or numb.  I noticed that the water was freezing in my bottle as I rode.

Grey and cold all day.
I made it in time to Greymouth and checked into a nice hostel and tried to get warm, something that wasn't now very easy as I was a very deep cold.

Despite having 3 bike shops in town, for some reason none of them were open for the weekend, which meant I couldn't get my bike repaired.  This was a nuisance seeing as there now wasn't a bike shop until Christchurch on my route, as I was making my way there via Arthur's Pass.  Likely to be mainly in the granny gears, anyway, I just decided to carry-on without the rest of my gears, as I didn't see it being a problem and I was super-keen to go to Arthurs Pass, one of the potential highlights of the trip.

A nice day at the office in Greymouth.

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