Two days in a row was a bit much to ask for. Today’s forecast called for rainfall of up to an inch an hour, along with wind gusts of up to 60 km / h. Time to revise our plans. The bad stuff was scheduled for late morning, and growing worse as we travelled inland along our planned route, so we decided to stay along to coast to the town of Westport, and detoured to a couple of stops along the way. Our planned 110 km with tons of climbing turned into a relaxing 45 km.
Our first stop was at Cape Foulwind, named by the famous Captain Cook. He chose the name either after difficult seas and winds prevented him from landing, or from the aftereffects of his first-ever steak burrito. The historical records are a bit unclear.
The girls met us there and we went for a nature walk along the bluffs, enjoying the views and exploring the plant life along the way.
My photographer doing her thing
After our tour of the area we hopped back on the bikes and rode to a seal colony down the way. The lookout point is located high above the rookery. Looking down we initially couldn’t see anything, but after awhile the seals became apparent. Their color blended in so naturally with the rocks that they were difficult to spot.
View from the lookout
Zoomed way in
The rain started in earnest as we were loading back into the van. Having timed the rain almost perfectly we headed into the town off Westport for lunch and a little sightseeing. Finally we headed along the Buller River on the road we had hoped to ride. It’s a shame we couldn’t ride it as it would have been beautiful on a sunny day.
Tomorrow’s forecast looks better, with a dicey bit in the morning and sun in the afternoon. Two riding days left!
Mother Nature smiled upon us today. That bright yellow orb in the sky finally showed itself, leading to absolutely marvelous views as rode North along the coast.
Yesterday was a really nice rest day, with bacon and eggs for breakfast, hair solon sessions for the ladies, a trip to the local gold mining museum for the boys, a nice nap, and basically a lot of time to recover from 6 consecutive days of riding. We spent some time at a local jade shop. In a small-world coincidence, the jade carver is the brother of Jos’s brother in law. We found a couple of nice pieces of jewelry made from local New Zealand jade right here in Hokitika.
Packing the van
Today brought a more significant ride challenge: 112 km with over 1,000 meters of climbing, most of it at the end of the day. The scenery more than made up for any tired legs though. We found a couple of lighter moments during the day.
Goofiness on the road
Most of the day we rode along the coast, with views that would make Big Sur jealous. If we had to pick a day for sunshine, this was a great choice.
Pancake Rocks was the highlight of the day. We took an extended break at this spot, going for a walk on an incredible rock formation jutting out into the ocean. The pancake rock formation is a bit of a geological oddity. Nobody really knows how the formations happened. At high tide blow holes shoot through the rocks. It’s really quite stunning, and with the sunshine and the company it was even nicer.
We stayed at a roadside motel run by a lady who is either extremely nice or really lonely. Maybe both. She talked our ears off, gave us tons of free stuff, and plied Amy with free champagne.
Shortly before sunset Jos, Amy and I went down to the local beach and took sunset pictures.
Finally, we stumbled upon a 19th century graveyard. We wandered around after dark under a full moon. Freddie Kruger never showed his face, but I think we got lucky.
Crossing over the Haast Pass we officially arrived in the Westlands, the Western coast of the South Island here in New Zealand. To say it’s a different sort of place would be an understatement. I’m pretty sure I’m not tough enough to live here.
The region averages 70 – 100 inches of rain a year. Seattle or Porlandiers might not mind it, but you have to love the wet. The entire region is home to only 32,000 people, so if you want to get away from it all or drop off the radar entirely, this is the place to be.
Sandflies, or midgies as the locals call them, are everywhere. The size of a tiny gnat, these devil-spawn bite incessantly, leaving welts on any exposed skin. Interestingly though, it’s only the females that bite. The males are content to spend their days sucking on nectar and maybe hoping for a little action. The females make life miserable for anyone not wearing full-length clothing. There’s a life lesson in there somewhere, although I’m failing to understand it at the moment. Abel Tasman was the first white man to visit here in 1642. The Maori canoed out to greet him and promptly killed 6 of his men. I think the Maori were taking out their aggressions after a particularly rough night with the sandflies.
Given the sparseness of the population, things like internet or cell service are dicey at best. We take our 4G connectivity for granted, but down here cellular connectivity only exists in a couple of towns. Wi-fi is spotty and typically charged by the megabyte. We rarely have connectivity solid enough to do much useful.
Tiny little towns line the main road along the coast. Calling them one-horse towns would be optimistic. The horse ran away ages ago. Most bridges are one-lane, with traffic control basically done on the honor system.
And yet…the beauty of the place is simply astounding. One moment you’re in dense, lush rainforest. The next you’re on the ocean. Impossibly green mountains jut straight up from the valleys, giving views that would seem to only exist in a watercolor painting. The rainfall has made the local rivers come alive, with raging torrents one day and trickling streams the next.
Glaciers are viewable from the road (although the weather has yet to make that visible). Two of them can be visited by helicopter.
Milford Sound reflects the glacial impacts on the land. It or Doubtful Sound are not to be missed. It’s simply breathtaking.
Sheep are everywhere, with cattle filling in the remaining grazing land. They come right up to the fences alongside the road, at least until Terry barks at them and they run away.
There is a near-universal politeness to the people we meet, with odd locals adding in some flavor. The places we stay are quirky, reflecting the rough-hewn nature of the place. No Marriotts here, which is just fine. Every place we’ve stayed has it’s own charm and it’s own challenges, which seems entirely appropriate.
In our world of universal fast food, instant access to all of the world’s information, and the elimination of most of the challenges which defined life up until the last few decades, this place is a throwback – To an era of struggle, hardship, and self-sufficiency. To trusting your neighbor (our current place didn’t bother with locking the doors). To being much more a part of nature rather than an occasional observer of it.
This has been a remarkable journey so far. I’m sure many more adventures await.
After our picture-perfect weather climbing over the Haast Pass yesterday, Mother Nature decided to throw us a curve ball. A cyclone is swirling around the south Pacific, with a high pressure ridge on the East coast. The result is essentially a squeegee wringing water out of the cyclone all along the Westlands area where we are located.
Day 6: Haast to Fox Glacier
Necessity being the Mother of invention, we’ve had to revise our plans. The weather forecast for day 6 called for strong rain developing later in the day, along with beastly winds, so we decided to skip several miles in the beginning of the ride. It turned out to be an excellent idea. We started from the ocean lookout, having skipped a couple of major hills and about 2 hours of riding. A monster day became much more manageable.
The lushness along the road is quite beautiful, with ferns and dense forest lining the road. Given the relative shortness of the day we weren’t forced to power through everything, and instead just kept up a modest, steady pace.
We had arranged to meet the van at the next beach location, quite a lovely spot. When we got there the group was feeling strong enough that we just carried on. Our bodies are all varying degrees of trashed, but at the same time we’re riding ourselves into shape. The strong rider varies from moment to moment, with each of us having good stretches and other moments where we could use a nap.
After arriving in the town of Fox Glacier we had hoped to take a helicopter ride up to the actual glacier. Unfortunately the copters were grounded, so I guess we’ll have to make a return trip for that experience. The rains showed up at dinner time, and got progressively stronger, making our decision to cut the ride short look wise in hindsight. We went to bed with the sound of increasing rain, not knowing what the next day would bring…
Day 7: Hokatika to Harahari
This section of New Zealand can receive over 300 inches of rain a year. It occasionally will receive a meter (39 inches) of rain in a day. This storm wasn’t that strong, but the national news weather forecast scale was red, the maximum setting. We took that seriously. Rain is forecast for the next several days.
Utterly torrential rain came pouring down during the night. Riding from Fox Glacier was simply not an option. The weather map showed drier conditions up the road in Hokatika, our destination 2 days hence. We decided to drive there, check out the weather, and decide on our plan.
Rain absolutely bucketed down during the morning drive, but Hokatika was dry when we got there. After a little retail therapy where I picked up a nice bike jersey and Agnes found a jade piece (Hokatika is the heart of the New Zealand jade industry) and a bit of lunch, we decided to try the trip in reverse. Rather than fight the 30 km/h headwinds we would have had, we now had a powerful ally in the wind.
We flew down the road, averaging 35 km/h for stretches and making epic time. After a short break in the town of Ross, where we met a local character who owned a bunch of motorcycles and drank beer for breakfast (and lectured Amy about smoking while sucking down another 24 oz beer) , we headed back out where we once again met up with the rain.
Our next stop was in a funky little restaurant / store place called Bushmans with a gigantic plastic sandfly mounted outside. Amy took a ton of pictures. Terry decided he’d had enough at that point and called it a day. He was soaked and developing hypothermia and made the sensible choice. Jos and I weren’t quite that bright so we carried on.
About 50 yards down the road the skied opened up again, and we got soaked the entire way back. Fortunately it was a pretty warm rain, and actually was fairly pleasant. We didn’t do any sightseeing though, cranking as fast as we could go. I hit 55 km/h on one rainy descent, probably not the smartest thing I’ve ever done, but with Jos’s 28 mm tires the ride actually felt really steady, We got back to the hotel completely waterlogged, but with a good story to tell.
Day 8: Harihari to Franz Joseph Glacier
Ride day 8 brought more of the same. The skies were threatening once again, but we decided to continue heading south to Franz Joseph glacier. It was only 63 km away and the skies were threatening so we basically made the day into a hammer-fest. That was great for about 45 km, and then my legs turned to jello. Jos led me in the rest of the way.
We skipped the section between Fox Glacier and Franz Joseph Glacier, about 25 km of goat hills. Jos and I goofed on Terry and told him we should just continue on and ride this nasty bit. Needless to say, he wasn’t buying.
The town of Franz Joseph has some public toilets that are straight out of a science fiction movie. A robotic science fiction voice from 2001 a space odyssey says “ Welcome to Exeloo, please press button to close door. Your maximum use time is ten minutes.” , and then plays Star Trek music. Pretty entertaining.
We made a public display of ourselves changing out of wet riding gear in a park across the street from the restaurant where we went for lunch, and then drove back to Hokataki, where we finally have a rest day. We’ve ridden 6 days in a row, and 8 of the last 10, and are all ready for a nice day off.
After yesterday’s epic battle we had a near perfect recovery ride today, 66 km (about 40 miles) along a beautiful stretch of road from the lakeside resort of Wanaka to a cabin in Makarora. Tailwinds assisted us virtually the entire way. The temps were cool but not cold. And the scenery was just otherworldly beautiful.
We followed the shoreline along the shores of Lake Wanaka and Lake Hawea virtually all day long, with rolling hills adding some excitement. On one steep downhill stretch I hit 72 km/h, a new speed record for me on this bike.
Given the short distance to cover, and the general trashed condition of our legs after yesterday’s struggles, we stopped several times along the way to just absorb the scenery.
Coffee stop along the way
Waterfall along the side of the road
We took a quick break at one point and saw a couple of riders with Paniers. It turns out that these two gals were from L.A and Fremont, were in the process of travelling around the world, and just decided on a whim to come to New Zealand and cycle around the South Island. They had never done a serious ride before!
Panoramic view of Lake Wanaka
Lake Wanaka is 1,000 feet deep, with the bottom actually being below sea level. The dramatic scenery is a result of glacial action from the last ice age. As the glaciers retreated they carved out this incredible valley and left the lakes in place.
We ended the day in Makarora, a place that is one stop short of a one-stop town. The location makes up for the lack of amenities. I sat by myself on the porch for quite awhile just enjoying the view, not thinking about anything or attempting to do anything other than enjoy the moment.
As we’ve done about half the nights so far, we (well, not me) made a fabulous dinner. Tonight’s delicacy was pot roast, veggies, and corn on the cob, followed by cheese cake for dessert. I’m not sure we’ll lose any weight after all this cycling, but I suppose it’s important to keep our strength up.
“’Hard’ is what makes it great.” Tom Hanks – A League of Their Own
In days of old, men would sit around the campfire telling stories of ancient battles against the elements. Hearing these stories, women would swoon, and children would pretend to be these heroes of old. Yeah, it was a day like that…
Even without Mother Nature’s help this was going to be an epic day. We rode from Queenstown to Wanaka, taking the less traveled route over the top of the Crown Range. This is one of the iconic cycling routes in New Zealand, featuring a switchbacking ascent, followed by a short flattish section, and closing with a lung-busting bit to the summit.
The New Zealand weather service had forecast morning rain until about 9:00 a.m., followed by clearing and a strong tailwind in the afternoon. Apparently the weather service here is about as reliable as it is back home: useful for 10 minutes of entertainment value on the nightly news.
We started from the condo in Queenstown with a steady rain. This was my first “opportunity” to try out the new rain jacket and paddle gloves I’d picked up here. They worked surprisingly well. Water still seeped in here and there, but the exertion from the cycling more than made up for the wetness and actually kept me quite comfortable.
Our first bit out of town took us to Arrowtown, which lies at the base of the climb. I had been leading the group ( a rarity so far) but came to a turn and didn’t know which way to go. “Uphill” was the correct choice, but I stopped. Downshifting and attempting to get going again I managed to drop the chain and lodge it in between two of the front chainrings. No amount of futzing with it would get it unstuck so I had to walk the bike up the short hill. Fortunately we were in town and close to our first scheduled stop. Jos tried a trick with a piece of twine, pulling on the cable from underneath. That helped a bit, but eventually Terry had to loosen the chainring assembly with an allen wrench in order to provide enough clearance for the chain to come free. Having derailed the timeline with my navigation and shifting issues, I’m now on the hook for the first round of beers tonight.
We rolled out of Arrowtown and shortly began the big climb. This was serious business, with grades ranging from 9% to 12% as we made our way along the switchbacks. The rain never let up, varying from one degree of sucky to another. Our awesome support crew of Agnes and Amy were waiting for us at the lookout point. So much for the views.
We crested the last of the switchbacks and met up with the girls again. They did an incredible job today, finding places to park in pullouts along the way, having food and fluids when we needed them, and just providing friendly faces when it was time for a break.
Feeling confident after conquering the switchbacks, we enjoyed the relative ease of the flat section leading up to the final push. And then the games began again. The temperature dropped to the point that we could see our breath in the rain. The pitch increased, reaching as much as 14% at points, while the rain continued its relentless pour.
About a kilometer from the summit I felt the siren call of a nature break. I hopped off the bike, found a bush and took care of business. While I was doing this I thought “I hope I don’t get arrested for indecent exposure”, but the cops would have needed a microscope to find the evidence.
Terry joined us at this last stop before the summit, having had to push his bike up the last bit. His cleat malfunctioned and he couldn’t clip his shoe back in. He fought with this the rest of the day, and ended up replacing his cleats after we made it back into town.
We made it to the summit of the Crown Range, the highest paved road in New Zealand, hearts pounding, thoroughly drenched, but in remarkably good spirits. Time for a quick photo op, and a chance to enjoy the “view”.
So now it was time to enjoy the fruits of our labor – a mountain descent. Normally this would have been a brakes-free, bombs away freefall with speeds up to 50 mph, but with the bucketing rain it was really a little scary. We rode the brakes on the steep, winding descents and just held on. Jos pulled over and stopped, and figured out that his rear disk brake had locked up and his wheel wouldn’t turn. The disk was so hot that it couldn’t be touched, our 3rd mechanical issue of the day. He managed to get it free, but spent a couple of hours at the motel that night trying to remedy the problem.
We did have one last interesting stop on the way into town: Bradrona. Quite picturesque actually. This was a first for me. We all have to do our part for breast cancer awareness.
Now you might think that all of this sounds like misery. Not for us; it was actually great fun. Doing battle with the elements, feeling your body working to its capacity, conquering big audacious goals, and sharing the experience with friends is about as life-affirming an activity as you’ll ever find. At the end of it all we were wet, exhausted, and ready to do it all over again.
As it ends up, my “ride 90 miles for the entire month of February” training plan turned out to be sub-optimal. Who would have guessed?
After spending the last week exploring the sights in Wellington and traveling down the East coast of the South island, we finally started the purported purpose of the trip. We started today with a photo op at Sterling Point in the town of Bluff, the southernmost outpost of civilization on the South island. We met a guy there would had just finished an 18 day unsupported ride from the Northern tip of the North Island to here. His Mom met him there while we were taking our photos at the start. It was nice to share the experience with him, and a good send-off to the trip. The weather was almost stereotypically New Zealand: cloud cover, a bit of wind and the occasional fine, misty drizzle. Given our multiple layers of clothing it was actually quite nice.
Other than a quick tune-up ride at Jos’s house, this was my first attempt at riding on the left side of the road. A bit surprisingly, this turned out to be a non-issue. We navigated traffic circles, made the occasional right turn, and had no traffic issues whatsoever. This being our first ride, Jos made the unfortunate discovery that he had left his cycling shoes at home in Wellington. We made an unscheduled stop at a bike shop in Invergargill, met the girls at a coffee shop for a quick hello, and were back on the road.
I realized pretty quickly that Terry is in great shape. Spending the winter in Phoenix and cycling 4-5 times a week has its advantages. I’d see him start to wind up and then it was time to hold on. This will be a recurring theme for the remainder of the trip. At lunch I gave him the moniker of “Big Piston”.
Today was the only flat day of the trip. The views started with ocean and coastal scenery, migrated to rural farmland, and eventually ended up in the shadows of the mountains. Sheep, as expected, were everywhere. Terry had a lot of fun barking at the sheep, although the big Merino sheep (which produce Merino wool) didn’t seem to care so much.
We met up with the girls again at our lunch stop. I thought this would be a coffee shop where we might get a muffin or something. Wow, this place rocked. We had fish & chips that were absolutely world-class, along with the rib-sticking coffee that we’ve had all along the way. It’s been really wonderful having the ladies along to share the adventure and help out, and Agnes has become quite competent at driving on the wrong side of the road.
The spritsy weather continued through lunch and a bit afterward, leading eventually to sunny skies for the last 1/3 of the day. We had a mild headwind most of the day. By the time we finished we’d covered 136 km, or about 84 miles. That is 34 miles longer than my longest ride since October. And it showed. I held on OK through the lunch stop, and for about 20 miles after that, and then the wheels started coming off. Terry and Jos were really patient with me, and basically nursed me home over the last 45 km. Man, I hate being THAT GUY. I suppose someone has to be the weak link. We’ll see if things improve over the next several rides.
As we neared the end of the ride I went into full-on bonk mode. There was just nothing left in the tank. Terry hung with me and made sure I made it back safely while Jos went ahead and prepped the car. I stumbled into the store at the end of the ride, found Amy, and slumped onto a couch. She’s seen me tired at the end of rides before, but this was the first time she’s seen me completely trashed like this. My heart was just pounding after what would normally be minimal exertion over the last few miles. I was essentially useless while the guys packed the bikes onto the car, and really didn’t have any energy until after dinner that night.
I’m hopeful that things will improve after a couple more days in the saddle. Tomorrow is a rest day where we’ll visit Milford Sound, then we bike to Queenstown, have another rest day, and then ride 6 days in a row. Regardless of my relative cycling prowess, the trip will continue to be epic.
In February of 2011 the city of Christchurch was struck by a devastating earthquake. Their experience is a cautionary tale for those of us living in the San Francisco area. A magnitude 7.1 quake had hit in 2010, causing relatively little damage. The 2011 quake was smaller in magnitude, but the frequency of the shock waves was much higher, resulting in far greater damage. Over 8,000 buildings in the downtown area were red-tagged.
The sheer volume of rubble is difficult to comprehend. The debris in Christchurch was twenty times the city’s annual rubbish volume. Five years on, the rubble is largely cleaned up, but large sections of the city are empty lots, buildings everywhere are condemned and still waiting for demolition, and major landmarks are damaged beyond repair.
The rebuilding is now well underway, with several fascinating examples of turning lemons into lemonade. Cranes and the sounds of construction fill the air. The cathedral has been replaced, at least temporarily, with the “Cardboard Cathedral”, a structure supported by giant cardboard columns as you can see below. It has an airy, beautiful feel to it and is expected to last at least 50 years.
For weeks after the quake the downtown area was off-limits to all but emergency personnel. Retail space was non-existent, so Re: START was created. This is an open-air mall created with shipping containers. Stores are located in re-purposed containers, and public art displays fill the area.
The city is well on its way back. The recovery continues. But for those of us living in earthquake country, it’s a reminder to create a proper disaster kit and to be prepared to be self-sufficient when the time comes.
This is the national greeting here in New Zealand, basically meaning hello, and said in such a gracious manner that we can’t help but like everyone we meet. We’re kicking off a truly epic four week adventure here, hoping to mix in the best that New Zealand has to offer in nature, sightseeing, cycling, and friendship. We’re off to a great start.
We flew in on a 13-hour nonstop from SFO (boy are our arms tired…) , with a connecting flight to our current home in Wellington. We met up with our friends Terry and Agnes along the way, and met out host Jos shortly after landing in Wellington. Jos has taken on the truly heroic job of planning this entire trip. He has arranged for all of the accommodations, figured out the best cycling routes, planned most of the activities, and is acting as our host for this entire expedition. We felt right at home with him the instant we met.
Flying from SFO we lost an entire day. We left on the evening of the 3rd and arrived on the morning of the 5th, meaning that March 4th never existed. The good news though is that we’ll get to re-live March 30th on the way home, landing before we took off.
Jos led us on a walking tour of Wellington, the capital of New Zealand. There is an absolutely lovely park about 2 blocks from his house. After walking through there we eventually ended up downtown, wandered around the harbor, visited the WW1 / Gallipoli museum, and then returned to Jos’s house where he and his wife made dinner and spent the night sharing stories. It was a surprisingly productive and entertaining first day.
I’ve (Tom) taken a very different approach to this trip than I normally do. Typically I manage and obsess over each little detail. This time I’ve just trusted in the fates, and on Jos’s good judgement. Having a local do the planning is such a a big win. Amy and I are clearly not experts on New Zealand culture or geography so we’re just going with the flow. This is liberating and a little intimidating at the same time, but it feels like the right way to go.
Our plan is to stay here in Wellington for another day and a half, then take a ferry to the South island. We’ll rent a car and make our way down the East coast of the South island. After reaching the very southern tip of the island, Terry, Jos and I will cycle up the West coast, going through Fjordland and Milford Sound, Queenstown, Fox Glacier, and whatever other scenic wonders we find along the way. Finally, we’ll cross back to the North island where we say goodbye to Jos, then drive with Terry and Agnes back to Auckalnd over the the next few days before finally returning home.
One final note for today: We’ve started a new blog here to capture our various adventures. It’ll evolve over the next days and weeks so pardon the dust as the construction continues.
So please, follow along as we embark on this journey. We read all of the comments and love the feedback we get along the way.