Monday, 3 December 2018

Te Anau - Milford Sound - Te Anau - Queenstown - End of Tour!

So the home stretch of the tour and the New Zealand weather saved the worst for last, but seeing as I was so ahead of schedule, it wasn't much of a problem.  I did have a fair amount of sitting and waiting in Te Anau though, which funnily enough, is exactly what I had to do here 2 years ago.

I've spent more time in Te Anau than any other place in New Zealand and this is mainly because it rains a hell of a lot there.  2 years ago, I waited for 2 days to find a weather window to cycle into Milford Sound.  Then after I came back, I had to wait 3 more days for a weather window to do some kayaking in Doubtful Sound.  This time around I managed to have no time waiting to cycle into Milford Sound, but then because of work and 5 consecutive days of rain, I had 5 days to sit it out.

Rare clear skies over Lake Te Anau
Last time I was in Te Anau, though, I was there a month earlier in October and this made booking into a hostel pretty easy.  This time, however, I was in Te Anau in mid-November, and what a difference that made.  It was about twice as busy, which meant no chance of finding an affordable bed inside, so that meant I had to rough it in a campsite in the tent.

The tent has held-up remarkably well considering I have stayed in it most days over the last 8 months or so, and it kept me warm, dry, and comfortable in the relentless rain showers.  On my first night in Queenstown, sadly, one of my poles snapped.  I did a bit of a repair job and it managed to still stand, although it was a bit of a slanty shanty.

The first port of call was Milford Sound.  Now, I had cycled in and out of Milford Sound before, so I was exploring ways I could get in there without expending so much effort.  The reason I was going again (not that you need another reason for wanting to go to this beautiful place twice) was to scuba dive there, as it seemed a pretty awesome place for a dive and to keep my skills updated.

In the end, of course, I ended-up just cycling in.  The other options were to catch a shuttle bus, which was too expensive, or to hitchhike.  The second option might seem a good idea, as Milford Sound is a dead end; there is only one road in and out.  However, when I thought about it, I felt a bit guilty and I didn't want to be a fifth wheel on someone's trip of a lifetime into the Sound.

Luckily, I managed to find a naughty wild camping spot not far from the Sound after the long cycle in and up to the Homer tunnel.  Although I was chuffed to not have to pay for camping, I did have to spend the night with thousands of sandflies, possibly the only downside of going to Milford Sound.  I had to be up early for the dive, which was scheduled to depart at 8am.

I got up super-early and wanted to head to the Sound for a spot of breakfast with a view undisturbed by tourists.  I was joined by two curious kea, who as usual, were very interested in my bike.

I don't look cool, I know.  But wait til you see the one of me underwater.
Getting prepared for the dive was quite something.  The water was a chilly 11 degrees Celsius; I can't dry suit dive, so I had to wear a very thick wetsuit, with a hood, socks, boots, and two vests underneath.  Getting into wetsuits isn't easy at the best of times, let alone when they are so thick.  They did keep me nice and warm throughout the day though, which was the important thing.

The boat was much smaller than I had imagined, and I was joined by only 4 other divers, so the trip was very personal, which made it seem extra-special.  The diving itself was really interesting.  Not only was it different to the usual warm-water, coral reef dives, but because of the uniqueness of the environment and the protected nature of the waters, it made for a some very special and unusual marine life.

That little fish was quite interested in me and spent a couple of minutes staring into my eyes.

Because of the high rock walls of the mountains in Milford Sound, it creates a much darker environment underwater than normal in relatively shallow conditions.  This means Milford Sound is one of the best places in the world to see deep water species of fish and coral at more shallow depths accessible to divers.  Black coral dominates the underwater landscape of Milford Sound, which reminded me very much of Christmas, as the coral is actually white when it is alive, but goes black when it dies.

Animal species spotted on the day included; octopus, loads of huge crayfish (protected in these waters, so they grew to mammoth proportions), 1 metre-long dog sharks, and a plethora of weird and interesting fish, one of which checked me out closely on the first dive down.

Right in the middle of the picture, two little fiordland penguins at the top of the rocks checking out what is going on.
The action wasn't only underwater; on the boat we were lucky enough to spot a family of fiordland penguins watching us from the shore.  Having missed the penguins of Curio Bay, I was delighted to finally get a look at some, even if it was from some distance.  There were plenty of seals hanging around on the rocks also.

The wetsuits did their job, but things were still pretty cold once out of the water on the boat, so between dives we were sent out on a mini expedition to one of the Sound's many waterfalls.  This first required a short swim to shore in our extremely buoyant wetsuits, so buoyant that it was hard to do any swimming stroke except for a doggy paddle.  Then all it took was a short walk through the bush to get to the waterfall.  There was one German chap on the trip with us who had a very expensive-looking underwater casing for his camera so he took some shots of the group under the waterfall.  To be honest though, the guy was a little strange, so even though he promised to email the picture on, I won't hold my breath.

Having cycled all the way in, I was sure someone would be able to give me a lift out.  It is much harder to cycle out of Milford Sound because the gradient is much steeper, and with the previous experience of this 2 years ago, I saw no reason to do it again.  Unfortunately, though, no one could do it, so I had to suffer the steep 2-hour climb out.

The climb was brutal, but I had a big stroke of luck at the top.  Homer tunnel is patrolled by people during the day to make sure no one gets into trouble because of the conditions, and the steepness of the road can sometimes cause car engines to over-heat.  On the way out of the Sound, riding through Homer tunnel isn't really an option, as it would just take too long and you hold-up all the traffic.  For this reason, the staff offer cyclists a lift through using the bike rack on the back of their vehicle.

Homer tunnel control centre.
Luckily for me, I had hit the tunnel at the perfect time, just as they were going home for the day, so after I was given a lift through the tunnel, I was offered a lift further down the road also.  Knowing full-well that the next day's weather forecast was terrible, the offer of a lift all the way back to Te Anau was too good to resist.  It wouldn't have been a particularly hard cycle, but it would have been a miserably wet one the next day.

Back to Te Anau then, and I had some work to do for a couple of days.  The weather was diabolical for the next few days, but I had plenty of time to get to Queenstown, so although I was eager to get going, it wasn't a disaster.

With a bit of time on my hands, I managed to arrange a game of squash with a local player, ranked in the top 3 in the country at over 45 years old.  Up until the point of writing, I have not lost a match either on my tour of Australia or here in New Zealand, this is despite having hardly played for weeks on end at times.  I came closest to losing on this occasion, though.  I had played a supposedly higher level player in Dunedin, but he was a young guy who was very fit and just ran around and I just controlled the game no problem.  Shane (my opponent in Te Anau) was a different kettle of fish, an older, cannier, player with lots of holds and good racket work, which really tested my rusty movement and I fell 2 games to love down in no time.

I have come to learn that I am quite a disagreeable person; I really enjoy confrontation, especially in argument, and I am quite competitive.  I used to think this was born out of insecurity, I thought I should be above getting upset over losing, that it wasn't logical somehow or other things were more important, so I should have some perspective.  I have since learned that this is probably just a natural aspect of my personality; even when I was quite shy and quiet when I was younger, I never had a problem telling people when I thought they were wrong, and I fiercely came out of my shell in a sporting context.

With this in mind then, I was pretty motivated to keep my 100% record and wasn't treating this as a nice little friendly match with a local.  I kept things friendly off court, obviously, but played a few mind games with him by telling him that no one had beaten me yet, and there was no pressure on him.  I'm sure it made no difference, but it helped my psychology as I fought the urge to have a head explosion at moving around the court like Bambi on ice and just calmed-down with a steely determination to win.  I ended-up clawing it back and winning a hard fought match 3-2, 100% record still in tact, for now at least.

I was as stiff as a board the next day and could hardly move, so I guess it was sort of lucky it rained all day, forcing me to do nothing.  Squash must be one of the worst sports for muscle stiffness if you haven't played for a while; hips, lower back, and butt in particular were very sore, in a good way though, like you know you've worked hard.

I tried to sneak-in workouts where I could the following couple of days, running on the many trails in the area and doing some bodyweight exercises.

Finally the weather cleared and it was time for the final stretch of the trip, just 120Km into Queenstown via the very scenic route.  It was quite an adventurous and spectacular finish to another amazing bicycle tour of New Zealand.

Instead of taking the main road into Queenstown, I took the back roads, which first lead to the Mavora Lakes and then passed through pristine valleys with high mountains to Walter Peak on the opposite side of the lake to Queenstown.

It was a great ride and I took things nice and easy doing only 60K or so on both days, camping at Mavora Lake overnight, which was a stunning place to camp, although again inhabited by thousands of sandflies.

The first of two ford crossings.

At the Mavora Lakes I was joined by 3 other cycle tourers; a couple from Belgium and a girl from the UK, but who was living in Queenstown and had not long started her tour from Bluff to Cape Reinga.  Everyone was very nice and we enjoyed a nice chat in the evening and in the morning over some coffee.

The second ford crossing.
The Belgian couple were very friendly, and had cycled from Belgium to Turkey, then took a plane to Australia and cycled from Sydney to Melbourne.  They actually cycled the Barry Way, which I had done previously and was some of my favourite riding in Australia, so they quite enjoyed their short tour of Australia before coming to New Zealand.

I set off early the next day expecting to be caught-up by the English girl, who was traveling much lighter than me, and sure enough, after an hour or so we met at the first stream crossing.  After that we decided to cycle together for the rest of the way.  I just about managed to keep up, although I did bomb past her going downhill as the weight of my bike creates quite a lot of momentum.

Ronnie looking on to the Von Valley.
It was ironic that the only day of the whole tour that I rode with someone was the last.  It was great as Ronnie was good company and it was nice to get some pictures of me on the bike.  Once we got into Walter Peak, she crossed to Queenstown on the ferry and I went to a free campsite close to shore, which was absolutely stunning.  The two best campsites on tour were on the last two days.

Although the tour had officially ended, I now have plenty of time left in New Zealand.  After a few days in Queenstown, I will be joined by my wife, Eunji, for two weeks in the car and I will be revisiting some places and making sure I get to other parts I didn't reach this time around, especially the West coast of the South Island.

With a few days wait in Queenstown, I used the time to do some weight training, some sprints, hiking, and some trail running to wake up the legs that had adapted mainly to cycling for the past few months.  I was also keen to explore some of the back roads and trails of Queenstown and Arrowtown while I had some time.

Amazingly, over the last 8 months of touring on the bike, I have managed to do things almost exactly on budget.  My aim financially was to be able to fund the everyday expenses (food, accommodation, bike repairs and new parts, etc) of the tour by earning approximately $200 a week teaching English online.  At the end of the tours of Australia and New Zealand, I find myself about $50 to the good in this regard.  I accepted that expensive trips like scuba diving, whale watching, and other adventures would have to be funded out of my savings.  In Australia, I spent far more on these things, but in New Zealand it was only really 2 scuba dives at opposite ends of the country.  I will probably also do something with Eunji when she gets here too.

So that's me probably done with New Zealand on a touring bike.  I feel like I have explored this beautiful country extremely well now, although I can see myself at some time in the future coming back to do some shorter trips cycling the trails.  This trip was even better than the first and has definitely reinforced my affinity for this beautiful country.

The most amazing free campsite of the trip was on the last day.

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