Saturday, 17 November 2018

Dunedin to Te Anau

Nugget Point
I had arrived in Dunedin, the hilly city, and boy did it live up to it's reputation.  Dunedin is actually home to the steepest street in the world, Baldwin Street, at a 35% gradient, and although I was not tempted to challenge myself by cycling up it (I wouldn't have got very far), I did manage to find plenty of other roads to test myself on.

Absolutely broken by the cycle into Dunedin, I settled into a hostel and just did nothing for the rest of the day, but managed to arrange a warmshowers host for the following two days.  Typically, their house was right on top of a steep hill.

The famous old railway station in Dunedin.
Kel and Sharon were marvelous hosts; they did seem to know exactly what I needed and what would make me feel comfortable.  They were both welcoming and sociable without being suffocating and it is fair to say that I really enjoyed my time with them.  I think they were rather used to meeting and hosting new people.  I especially appreciated being invited to Kel's parent's house for a big family dinner.  Such a family atmosphere is a rare thing for a solo bicycle tourist, and it was nice to get a glimpse into New Zealand family life.

My naked bike on Kel and Sharon's balcony.
Well-rested and well-fed, I planned to spend a couple of days in a campsite on the Otago Peninsula to do a bit of work and do a bit of exploring.  It took me about 2 hours to get there from the centre of Dunedin.

I wasn't sure what I thought about the Otago Peninsula.  It was very scenic, but was a little money-grubbing also.  Any possible attraction was monetised to an extortionate degree, which is a little unusual for New Zealand in my experience.  It reminded me of a famous bit of narration in the film Goodfellas; "Wanna go see the penguins, sea lions or albatrosses? F@#k you, pay me.", "Wanna look at the castle? "F@#k you, pay me."  "Wanna ride to the other side of the peninsula?  F@#k you, pay me."  Of course they weren't his exact words, but you get the idea.  On each occasion, the sums of money being asked were not insignificant either.

Sometimes I do think I am a cycling contradiction when it comes to the philosophy of money.  On the one hand, I have always been staunchly anti-work; and I don't mean that I think people shouldn't work hard, of course, cycle touring itself is hard work.  What I mean by this is sacrificing your soul in pursuit of the almighty dollar.  I have always worked for money as little as possible, but I don't think anyone could ever accuse me of being lazy, that's just not my style.  Some people obviously enjoy their careers/jobs, but for many it is a meaningless grind.

There were lots of these nice little fishing huts dotted along the shoreline.
So with this in mind then, you might think I was vehemently opposed to capitalism, but you'd be wrong.  It, in its purest free-market form, is without doubt best best solution out there, but the problem is that government has meddled with it so much that it has forced most people to be dependent on soul-sapping jobs and very little choice in their lives.  If you want to have a family, you are going to be forced to sacrifice your soul for a all too significant portion of your life (obviously there are exceptions) and this is now true for men and women, whereas as in the past most families only needed one bread-winner.

I won't go into details, after all this is not an economics blog.  Cycle touring, for me, is a way of escaping this reality somewhat.  I can survive on working 10 hours a week, and I will be looking at discovering ways to do even less, so that I have the freedom to explore life's possibilities and learn as much as I can in my short time on earth.

The view of Dunedin from the Otago Peninsula.
It seems to me that building a conventional life, i.e. buying a house, raising a family, etc, is becoming more and more difficult, and not just difficult, stressful.  I have always disliked children, and perhaps when I return to England many of my friends (who now have them) might be inclined to think that I have flippantly brushed-off the thought of having kids and that I haven't thought about the possible negative effects on my life - especially later on - and the joy and meaning they bring.  I mean, what will I do in my old-age?

On the contrary, I think about this stuff a lot, and I take very seriously the idea of raising a family, especially as I watch a fair amount of stuff from Jordan Peterson, who is a strong advocate for having children.  Problem is though, I am not encouraged by what I see around me.  Men, in particular seemed doomed to wage slavery in order to provide for their family (this problem is compounded in Far East Asia where they even have to provide for their parents as well, perhaps a major reason for the low birth rates there), while at the same time being completely unappreciated by wider society - and in my experience, their wives and girlfriends - for their efforts.  The lack of freedom government laws and regulations allow - not to mention popular culture and it's restrictions - you in regards to raising children is also worrying, especially in my country of birth.

I had the pleasure of staying with a couple earlier in this trip that home-schooled their children.  In my country this is not only illegal, but if you take your kids out of school in term-time for a trip somewhere, you are prosecuted.  No way am I going to put up with that.  On principle, I would never have a child in a country with such pathetic and damaging laws, especially with a stultifying atmosphere in schools with a pinch of questionable moral (and sometimes overtly political) teaching, which I think shouldn't be a part of the classroom.

So the combination of not liking kids, the inevitable stress that comes with it (not of the raising of children itself, I might add, but the expense and the amount of work that entails), and the fact I probably wouldn't see them anyway and having to leave them in the hands of people with questionable motives, turns me off.  Parenting has always been difficult, just imagine raising kids a few hundred years ago when you had to slave-away for them only to watch them die or be killed in war.  The world is never perfect, but I think liking them and seeing them sometimes is probably a good idea.  My hats-off to people who take on the challenge.

I digress, but yeah, I am a freedom-loving kinda guy, perhaps more so than anyone else I know.  This is why I am drawn to self-sufficient traveling, being in nature, and particularly mountains, as mountains ooze freedom out of every crevice.

So with this split between a world-wandering, anti-money, childless hippie and a free market, low-regulation, self-reliant (not a fan of welfare), conservative-minded free-speech absolutist, I feel like I can dip a toe into both the right and the left of politics and have a fairly balanced view of the world, which it doesn't seem is reigning supreme in world affairs right now.  I can't help but notice that it is all going a bit crazy.

But back to the trip.  Ever since I had made it to Cromwell, the weather conditions had become more unreliable, with high winds, rain, and cold regularly putting in an appearance between some short spells of good weather.  During my stay on the Otago Peninsula, all 4 seasons were certainly evident and this made for an awkward stay.

I like campsites for working; they are cheap and there is usually somewhere you can hide away to do some online teaching.  However, the wind was raging and the rain came down heavily at times, so this meant working outside or in the tent was off the table.  The campsite was also quite busy, so I had to rush from place to place to find some privacy, making for a stressful weekend of work.  I hadn't experienced this at any other time in New Zealand, which on the whole has been very stress-free when it comes to work.

Looking ahead at the weather, it appeared that I had a weather window of 3 days before the heavens would open big time on me.  This combined with the remote area I was going encouraged me to try and make the 315Km or so I needed to get to the next major settlement, Invercargill, in the 3 day period.

I knew this would be difficult, but at just over 100Km a day, I thought I had it well-covered.  I wasn't, however, banking on the harshness of the roads or the weather conditions.

I left the Otago Peninsula with the intention of getting-up high so I could get the perspective over the top of the peninsula.  Trouble was that this was a 400+m climb up an extraordinarily steep road.  It was well-worth it as the views were spectacular, but it did some early damage to my legs and energy reserves.  What followed were a series of 100-200m climbs through to the outskirts of Dunedin to eventually hit a flat coastal road and a serious headwind.  This was going to be one of those days.

Each climb was brutal in severity, causing me to get off and push the bike on various occasions.  I can now say with certainty that Dunedin is the steepest area I have ever cycled; I have never had to jump off my bike and push with such frequency.

After the headwinds on the flat coastal road, I had another 400+m climb, again of ridiculous gradient to join the main road towards an area of New Zealand known as The Catlins.  My joy at making it over yet another nasty ascent was short-lived as the headwind was even stronger on the flat 40Km to a town called Balclutha, where I would spend the night.  At only 103Km, it wasn't the furthest I had ever cycled by a long-shot, but it will be remembered as one of the hardest days in the saddle ever.

Florence Bay in the Catlins.
This was then followed by two more ridiculous days cycling. The next day I strived to make it to Curio Bay, another very hilly 127Km away with a view to getting up early to see the penguins, but I had no luck and didn't see any, although there was a nice coastal view.  The next day I only had about 80Km to do, but I was incredibly tired from the previous two days and I had a strong headwind to contend with.  I considered stopping early because the wind was killing me, but then saw the weather for the following day was just a deluge of heavy rain, so I had no real choice but to get to Invercargill and duck inside a hostel for the day and head for cover.  I remember sitting in a little cafe in a state of despair looking at the weather and knowing I had not choice but to flog an already tired body for several hours into the wind.  I guess it is my equivalent of waking up on Monday morning and realising I have a week of mind-numbing and stressful work ahead of me.

After a whole day of doing nothing except having a haircut and a shave (the first of both in New Zealand), I felt great (and guilty) the next morning so did a 10K run and went to a local gym to do some weight training (also for the first time since being in New Zealand).  Then in the afternoon I cycled 40Km to Riverton.  The following morning I then did 14K of trail running.

I think all of this combined with the previous few days of hard cycling blew me out quite a bit.  All of a sudden I was waking up tired, which is something I rarely do, even though I was sleeping absolutely fine.

I was actually very fortunate to be offered a night's stay on a dairy farm in a very swanky little separate building by the chap who was in charge of the local squash club, who I had contacted looking for a game.  This was very handy as it was a perfect place to sit down and work for the day.

My room at the dairy farm.
Rarely do I feel lazy when compared to others, Andy and his wife really worked hard.  Up at 3.30am and working most of the day.  They only stopped for lunch and dinner and to watch the All Blacks narrowly scrape by England in the rugby.

I left the dairy farm the next morning a little later than usual as I only had about 70Km to do to get to a free campsite, so you'd think I'd be feeling pretty good after a sound night's sleep.  I wasn't at all though; despite having a slight tailwind for most of the day, I just felt exhausted.  All the past week's efforts had caught up with me.

Gemstone beach, so named because it washes-up an array of smooth coloured stones for some reason.
I got to the very picturesque camping area at about 4pm and then settled-down in the tent and listened to a podcast at about 5pm and very quickly fell asleep, even with the sun shinning bright outside.  I then woke up at 7pm, brushed my teeth and then went straight back to sleep, finally waking-up at 5.30pm the next morning, basically a whopping 12 hours sleep.  I clearly needed a rest.

A great campsite all to myself right next to the Clifden suspension bridge.
I felt much better the following morning and had quite a comfortable day's ride into Te Anau with clear skies above.  I had spent some time in Te Anau a couple of years before waiting for weather to clear for two major trips, one into Milford Sound and the other to Doubtful Sound in a kayak.  This time I had only one trip planned, a dive to the depths of Milford Sound.  It was to be a predictably beautiful and eventful couple of days.

A nice spot for lunch in Manapouri, about 20Km south of Te Anau.

Friday, 2 November 2018

Christchurch (Sheffield) to Dunedin

I was pretty tired from 4 days of pretty intense cycling and hiking, so settled-down in a campsite to work and relax for a few days.  It was a really nice campsite and the owners provided bicycle tourers with a nice big, fluffy towel - as they reasoned we wouldn't be carrying one, and they'd be right - which was a nice touch.

Ever since the start of my tour a couple of months ago, I have been aware of another bicycle tourer named Anthony Marra, who started at roughly the same time.  If you have read any of my previous blog posts, you'll know that on every tour I do there is someone that upstages me, that crazy person who is on just another level.  Just when I think I am doing something pretty adventurous, there is always someone who tops me, and then some.

During a 10K run in Fairlie with the backdrop of the Southern Alps.
On my first tour in Australia there was a guy pushing a 150Kg homemade cart from Cape York to Cape Leuwin (diagonally across Australia from the most north-east point to the most south-west).  On my second big tour of Australia I met a man who had cycled the full circuit of Australia 4 times in his seventies! 4 times!  I still can't believe it.  This time in New Zealand, this American chap named Anthony was cycling all round New Zealand, like me but also carrying his surfboard and skis on a trailer.  He'd find a mountain, bushwhack up it and then ski down, and also surf occasionally.  And I thought I was good carrying a couple of squash rackets and doing some scuba dives.

So I had been following his progress, mainly on Instagram.  He had gone ahead of me through the North Island, especially at the start, but because he stopped for days to climb a few mountains and ski down them in the South, I caught-up with him and had a feeling we might bump into each other.  We did so at Fairlie Holiday Park.

He was an interesting guy and was on some sort of adventure scholarship for the trip.  He asked me if I was a mormon because of my name, apparently there are a lot of mormons with the name, "Chris Smith", I just replied saying that I think there are a lot of Chris Smiths period, but not many mormons from outside the US.  I assumed he was one, not least because every mormon I have ever met has been super-nice, and also somewhat without wit and sarcasm, as a few of my little quips seemed to miss the mark, but he was extremely polite.  Anyway, it was good to finally meet him, and boy has he done some crazy stuff on this trip.

From Fairlie, I had planned to meet up with my friend Peter from England, who I had met while teaching in South Korea some years ago.  We had also caught-up in Wales last year when I was on a short tour while visiting home.

Pete hiking towards the observatory in Tekapo.
If you look at my "About" page, you'll see that Peter was one of my main inspirations for doing bicycle touring in the first place.  He had ridden from Korea to England over 9 months with a friend of his.  I think he was only 22, perhaps 23 at the time, slightly fresh-faced and I suppose came across as fairly shy, although I don't think he is.  I like Peter, similar to me, he has a bit of a baby face and almost seems too nice, but in actual fact is as hardy as they come and is not afraid to bite back if he needs to.  I used to run with him a couple of times a week and the boy can certainly take some physical punishment, so I always feel pretty comfortable that he'll handle any potentially long and arduous hikes I have planned with ease.

It worked-out that meeting in Tekapo as he was heading north and I was heading south was the best idea.  Tekapo is a beautiful place, but it is a little short on walks and slightly over-run with tourists, but I ended-up formulating a good plan to take us to a nice cheap camping area, whilst at the same time getting us away from the hubbub of the main tourist centre of the town.

Firstly though, I had to get my bike fixed.  I had been running on the bottom set of gears for about 300-400Km after a snapped cable to my front deraileur and it needed fixing.  I didn't have the part, so I called around in Fairlie and I was put in touch with a lady running a bicycle hire business in Tekapo.  She very kindly arranged to get the cable needed for me and offered to fit it for me.

This lady was an absolute star.  Turns-out she had only just started the business and had only very recently taken a bicycle maintenance course, so was glad of the practice of fixing my bike.  When I offered to pay, she actually said not to worry about it, but I insisted to at least pay for the part and gave her an extra $15 on top of that.  She seemed almost guilty to take my money, so made me a cup of tea and a sandwich with a piece of banana bread and a cereal bar.  She also let us leave our stuff in her garage while we went off for our hike and overnight camp, as Pete met me at her place.  She was an absolute saint.

Pete was a good model.
I planned to hike up to the observatory in Tekapo and then head-out another 12Km or so to Lake Alexandrina, a nearby lake recommended by a lady I met in a shop for being tourist-free and very scenic.  It was a good walk out there and back via a different route, and was good to catch-up with Pete on his travels again.  Maybe next time we'll meet up in Australia, as apparently he'll be over there next year.

After saying farewell to Pete, I made my way to Lake Pukaki, Omarama for an overnight free camp, then to Cromwell via the Lindis Pass, bypassing Mount Cook this time (I had been there before on my last trip here) with a view to going there by car with Eunji when she comes over.

It was a beautiful cycle and I managed to squeeze it all in perfectly before forecasted bad weather came in.  On my previous trip I didn't get much of a view of Mount Cook at Lake Pukaki or it's famed blue waters because of low cloud, this time, however, it was really pretty.  I also never climbed the Lindis Pass because I got a lift with my friend Alex overnight, so it was good to experience riding on that particular beautiful section of road as well.

As I made it to the top of the Lindis Pass, there were a number of people looking on in admiration and taking pictures of me.  It was quite a climb, but pretty steady and not too difficult, and I had a lot harder sections of road already cycled and also to come.

I made it to Cromwell in good time with a fairly strong tailwind.  I had flown through New Zealand since Gisborne, way up in the North Island because of such good weather, but now I faced about a week of less than perfect weather going into Dunedin.

The scene from the top of a good little trail run in Cromwell.
I had to stop in Cromwell for a few days, and then Alexandra - only 30Km away - for a couple more.  I took the opportunity to play some squash, which I hadn't even thought of doing for the last month and a half, so busy I was taking advantage of the good weather.  I got a couple of good games in with reasonable standard players in Cromwell and Alexandra, which I sorely needed, but was incredibly stiff after the first one.  Cycling doesn't really prepare you very well for the demands of a hard game of squash.

I eventually got myself onto the Otago Central Rail Trail, a scenic gravel trail through the mountains, and it was certainly very picturesque, even in slightly cloudy weather on the first day and windy, rainy conditions on the second.  I met almost no other cyclists on it, except for at one bridge when, a bit like London buses, several showed-up all at once.

One of the tunnels on the Otago Central Rail Trail.
The second day on the trail was a real trial.  The wind was strong and in my face and it rained steadily, which not only made me wet, but made the trail difficult to cycle on.  I then had a really heavy downpour about 500 metres from the town of Middlemarch at the end of the trail.  I was desperate to get undercover, but couldn't find anywhere.  Eventually a nice chap let me sit inside his shop for a bit and I contemplated my next move.

By this time, heavy showers were rolling in regularly and the wind was gusty and quite fierce.  I thought I'd cycle to the next "town" and see how I felt, as it looked like it had a campsite and was only 7Km away.  As it turned-out, there wasn't a campsite and the weather was terrible.  Wild camping seemed impossible in the strong wind and rain.

I didn't really know what to do, and to add to my frustration there was a youth camp complex right in the village with no one running it.  There were beds, a kitchen, and comfortable sofas that I could see through the window, but I couldn't access it.

My home for the night.  It was perfect; dry, sheltered from the wind, and free!
After a bit more head-scratching I luckily stumbled across an old, abandoned railway station.  Very small, but open, just big enough for me to lay inside and completely sheltered from the wind and rain, and of course, totally free.  I was very happy to spend the night there and was wonderfully protected from the terrible weather outside.

I woke in the morning to a temperature of minus 2 degrees Celsius.  Despite all the cloud and rain during the day, it was a very clear night, causing the low temperatures.  It was pretty uncomfortable to get everything ready and get started, but I soon warmed-up as I got stuck into some of the toughest cycling of the trip, up and down some crazily steep hills on the way into Dunedin.

Again, the pictures never quite show just how steep the roads are.
This part of New Zealand really reminds me of Scotland, the landscape is kind of wild, barren and hilly, and the weather has been wet and cold so far.  Perhaps it sounds like I don't like this, and part of me doesn't, but I also quite enjoy the harshness of Scotland and this part of New Zealand.

The similarities don't just lie in the landscape.  There is a history of Scottish immigration to New Zealand, and especially in the South Island regions of Otago and the Southland.  Dunedin, for example, actually comes from the Scottish Gaelic name for Edinburgh.  Other Scottish names in the region include, Invercargill, Balclutha, and Oban.

Back to the cycling, and just when I thought I come through the worst of the hills, I had one last slog up, "Three mile hill", into Dunedin, of about 450m.  Not the highest climb, but certainly the hardest climb of the trip outside of the last few kilometres up to Arthurs Pass.  It was just consistently steep, with no respite the entire way.

Coming into Dunedin it was clear that this is not a great place for fully-loaded bicycle tourers.  Not that it isn't a pretty city, because the landscape and the architecture are really nice, but the hills are crazy.  I have been to some hilly places, but this place really takes the biscuit.  I settled-down into a hostel and just rested for the afternoon and evening and much of the next day, although to get to my warmshowers host I had to get myself up one almighty steep, long hill again.  In fact, everywhere I went I had to do this; up and down, and I have to admit, it was a little bit stressful, even for someone who enjoys a bit of physical hardship, like me.

I had a few plans for things to do in Dunedin, but more on that in the next blog and my journey into the far South and the Catlins, the next leg of the trip.