My big return to the two-wheel life wasn’t quite what I’d expected. Upon arriving in Invercargil my Warmshowers host Amy asked if I fancied a ride at the local velodrome. There was a ‘give-it-a-go’ session on and I was up for stretching my legs having been sat on the bus for 10 hours coming down from Christchurch.
I have never seen a velodrome in real life. To those reading who do track cycling this may sound pathetic but my induction into the arena was terrifying. On TV the corners don’t look that steep but when you stand in there the bends’ 40 degree slants look suicidal. After nearly coming flying off my the bike on my first attempt (velodrome tip – don’t look down at the wheels, eyes straight ahead!) I managed to nail the corners at speed while the coach yelled ‘faster, faster!’ What a stressful way to cycle. I ended the session with a little too much adrenaline in my blood, very much looking forward to getting settled into a gentle 15km/h pace on my own loaded bicycle.
The next day I cycled the 70km round trip down to Bluff and back, past the fields of sheep and deer and into the little town that has nothing going for it apart from oysters and a signpost. I collected my picture with the famous sign at the bottom of the island as a million tourists have done before me and prepared for my ride to the very north of the island. London was 19,000km away as the crow flies, the furthest I have ever been from home. Time to start cycling back!
For months I’d been dreaming about getting back on the move. I’d passed the time reminiscing all the good times of the last two years and imagined rainbows welcoming me and my bike back to the open road. I did get rainbows, I’d just forgotten that they first need rain to appear…
The first day cycling from Invercargil was miserable. It was cold and headwinds blew the incessant rain into my face. It was probably beautiful but low clouds covered the mountains and I kept my my head down to keep the rain out of my eyes. To make matters worse my pedal fell off. You may recall the other one’s bearings wore in the middle of Australia and now the other one was finished. I balanced it carefully under my foot and pushed on in search of a campsite. My options were limited. This country is completely covered in fences, unlike anywhere I’v ever been. There were signs out saying ‘no freedom camping’ and ‘$200 fine for camping outside authorised areas’. Often the signs were placed in exactly the kind of places where I would instinctively search out a stealth camping spot. Eg. a small track leading through the undergrowth which isn’t blocked by a private fence.
Darkness crept up on me earlier than expected that day. I considered asking a farmer if I could camp on their land but I was soaked through and in a bad mood so carried on to Tuatapere and pulled up at a campsite. $18 (£10) to pitch a tent! Bloody hell. I cycled for 10 weeks across Australia without paying a penny for accommodation and in New Zealand I hadn’t even lasted a day.
In the morning I noticed that my salami stick was loose in the tent and broken apart. I thought it was strange that I could have mashed it up like that under my mat, until my headtorch flicked across the huge hole in my tent. An animal (mouse or rat, I can only assume) had ripped open a 3-4 inch hole in the mesh of my tent, had a good chomp on my salami and then wandered up to find my bread and had a good chew on the baguette stick right next my head before sneaking back out on a full stomach. Little shit! I don’t normally keep food in my tent (especially meat) but it had been raining so I just threw everything in. That was going to be my breakfast! I’m not hosting a rodent buffet, especially not for rats that break my gear. Time to get the duct tape out. What a disastrous first night back in tent.
The next day was just as unpleasant. It rained all day and low clouds spoiled any potential views. Occasionally they’d clear for a minute and I’d get a glimpse on what I was missing out on but then they’d blow back over and soak me again. I think I only took two photos those first couple days.
After sourcing a new pedal, I popped into the Department for Conservation office when I arrived in Te Anau to ask about the road to Milford Sound. She showed me a weather warning for snow storms and told me where I could rent snow tyres from. ‘I won’t be needing those – I’m on a bicycle’. Her eyes bulged. ‘I would seriously advise you against doing that’. Good, sounds like the perfect road for me then.
I also asked in the i-Sight tourist office for info about getting a bus back from Milford Sound and was shown the same weather warning. She also told me cycling it would be a bad idea and babbled on about ‘snow and avalanches’. Did she really just say avalanches? Fortunately I have good selective hearing when it comes to my cycling routes.
I pushed on in the rain. By the time I pitched my tent by Lake Te Anau it had started snowing and I cooked dinner once again in my tent. I was woken up in the night by a rattling noise. When I stuck my head out the tent and switched my headtorch on I saw a possum with its mouth in my tuna tin so threw a rock at it and it ran up a tree. I tied my rubbish bag back up. What am I supposed to do it my food in this country? If I leave it in my tent the animals chew their way in. If I tie my rubbish up to a tree the possums rip it open. The animals must be starving here…
One night I spotted a mouse climbing around between layers of my tent and another night a rat doing the same. In one place an animal found its way into my pannier bag and ripped through two plastic bags to get to my ‘scroggin’ (that’s what the Kiwis call their fruit & nut mixes). I’d often find small rodent poo pellets on my panniers in the morning and one morning I saw a small hole had been chewed in my brand new bag! Not happy.
Speaking of vandalised gear, I need to send a shout out to both L.L. Bean and Carradice. A year ago L.L. Bean sent me my Microlight fs-2 tent which I love and they have now have hooked me up with some extra bits of gear to keep my dry in the day and comfy at night. Carradice sent me a set of their Super C panniers which are really awesome bits of gear and far superior to the old panniers in my opinion. It’s my fault for keeping food in them that the animals have attacked my gear, certainly not the manufacturers!
The snow met me pretty early on the Milford Sound road. It started gently but then became heavy, coating the landscape around me. By the fourth night in the tent I’d had enough. I’d put my tent up or down in the rain or snow every day so far. Everything that had gotten wet on the first day was still not dry because the sun never came out. I was now carrying four days worth of soggy clothes. The nights were far colder than I’d been expecting and frustratingly long (13-14 hours).
To make the most of the daylight hours I’d wake up before the sun came up and eat breakfast in the dark. That morning I could see the stars when I came out my tent in the morning. The clouds had disappeared and they stayed away the whole day. Finally I could see the mountains around me and they took my breath away. The sun had come out at the most perfect moment because the ride into Milford Sound was one of the best days riding I’ve ever done.
Big snow-covered mountains towered over the road as it wove through thick green rainforest while waterfalls provided the noisy backing track to nature’s masterpiece. Forgive the romantic language, it really was something special. Eventually I reached Homer Tunnel at the top of my first big mountain pass in NZ. There had been a steady stream of snow-moving vehicles and cars spreading grit over the last couple days. One of the road maintenance guys was waiting for me at the top. I thought he might stop me cycling through the tunnel but instead told me that his colleague would be watching on the CCTV to make sure the lights stayed red at the other end until I passed through. That lured me into the tunnel under a false sense of security because it was a rather scary ride. 1.2 km long but badly lit, full of potholes and bloody steep! I have never cycled such a steep tunnel, thank goodness I was going downhill! It might not have been the ‘Tunnel of Death’ in Kyrgyzstan but it was still an uncomfortable ride.
The road worker said I was lucky I’d not come over the pass the day before as the snow storm had been pretty bad up there. Apparently I was even luckier not to have cycled east as they’d had total carnage on the road towards Mossburn. He said a lorry had jackknifed and a couple cars slid off the road. Yikes! Here there was just some patches of snow beside the road and the crazy descent down to sea level was a blast once I was sure there were no sneaky patches of ice on the road.
I took a boat trip out into the fjord at Milford Sound. Other tourists had said it was a ‘must-see’ place although the road was a bit long get there. The cruise was nice but for me it was the road that had been the ‘must-see’ adventure. The sheer cliffs strutting out of the water were impressive but to me the highlight was spotting the sea-life. We saw dolphins pass right by the boat and then seals sunbathing on the rocks. Upon closer inspection I saw that some of the seals were hanging out in the low branches of the trees by the water. Seals in trees!? Now I have seen everything…
That wasn’t the only unusual animal behavior. I got back to land in time for the bus back to Te Anau (not a chance I was cycling back over that pass) and the driver entertained us with a video of the kea (alpine parrots) causing mischief at the Homer Tunnel entrance. The road staff had been baffled by their traffic cones mysterious movement. At first they’d thought it was tourists being trouble but after checking the CCTV tapes realised that it was actually the kea that were dragging the cones out into the middle of the road. It’s an amusing video…
The road worker had been right about the snow towards Mossburn. As I ascended out of Te Anau the fields became increasingly white where the snow hadn’t yet melted. The road was lined with a layer of ice and the sheep were leg deep in the white stuff.
In Mossburn I chatted to a local woman who told me they’d had 3 inches. Unusual for the this time of year, apparently. I certainly had not expected to see any snow or such low temperatures and it was only going to get colder…
I arrived in Queenstown in a rather sombre mood. I’d heard about the attack in Manchester and that had distracted me from the gorgeous road along Lake Wakatipu. By the time I pedalled into Queenstown the beauty had won me over. What a stunning little town! Why did I have to grow up in grey old London…
Having not cycled for four months before arriving in New Zealand, my legs had taken quite a battering that first week back on the road. Nothing is flat on this island! I took a day off in Queenstown but rather than resting I decided to go for a big hike up to the summit of Ben Lomond.
It was a 7 hour round-trip. On the way up I spent most of the time wondering how much further to push on before turning back. The clouds were low and I’d been walking in thick mist the whole way. Just as I reached the mountains’ saddle I popped out above the clouds and…. WOW!
The weather was back on my side and the 360 degree panorama was sensational. Now that the sun seemed a regular fixture I headed towards Wanaka the ‘tough way’ over the Crown Range. After those miserable days in the beginning I was going to make sure to hit up the mountain roads while the skies were clear…
It had been an incredible fortnight in NZ. What a way to get back in the ‘normal life’. (For me, at least). It hadn’t been easy but then again, long distance cycle touring isn’t without its tough moments.
I’d happily take a little cold and rain for views like these…