My legs had finally had enough. The first week cycling around the mountains had been a nasty re-start for the thighs after my long break but instead of resting them I’d hiked up to the summit of Ben Lomond and cycled over the Crown Range. They felt flimsy leaving Wanaka but I pushed on towards the coast.
The scenery did a good job of distracting me. The road was cut into the hillside by long lakes and although it was still cold the snow had been melted away.
It took me a couple of days to reach the West Coast. By the time I reached the Tasman Sea the weather had turned for the worse and I’d caught a cold. It wasn’t surprising considering the amount of time I’d spent shivering in my tent trying to get warm after long days cycling in the cold rain. Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to rest up…
When I left Melbourne to fly over to Christchurch I was initially denied boarding because I didn’t have an onward ticket from New Zealand. I had no idea I needed that in advance to enter visa free. I had a stressful half an hour to buy an onward flight on the airport’s useless WiFi if they were going to let me on the plane. The problem was, I had no idea when or where I wanted to fly from! I was forced to act fast and so I bought a ticket to San Francisco from Wellington in a month’s time. After a relaxing few days in Christchurch and a slow start out of Invercargil it was now daunting on me how much ground I had to cover to catch my flight from the North Island. The days were short and the roads exhausting, so it was hard to cover that much distance everyday. I’d make the flight but there was no time to pause and feel sorry for myself even if I was a little ill. So, onward I pedalled…
That night I camped on the beach. I was miles from anywhere but still I had company. Enter the sandflies!
I have never been in New Zealand in summer but I reckon the best thing about winter here is the lack off sandflies. Cyclists and other tourists warned me of the ‘hellish’ insects and told me to buy strong repellent as soon as I arrived in the country. Until I arrived on the West Coast I wasn’t even sure what a sandfly was. I’d seen a few of them on my clothes before but as I’m always layered up in the cold there is nothing for them to bite. Here on the beach, however, there were zillions. And they were hungry.
I was mildly curious when I got the first bite. Not so much by the second and certainly not after an itchy half dozen. They are smaller and far cheekier than mosquitoes, desperate to get a sneaky nip in wherever they can. I couldn’t keep them out of my food either, so I turned my headtorch off while eating dinner. I didn’t want to see how many flies I was eating with my pasta. A little ‘added texture’ never hurts, I suppose…
I have been through too much to let a little cold stop me but it was still tiring. Everyday it rained and I always felt cold, so it was impossible to shake the illness. Fortunately the clouds receded to a drizzle when I reached Fox Glacier so I could actually get my camera out for the first time ever seeing a glacier!
In recent years the glacier has receded quite a bit, meaning I had to cycle further up hill and hike even further to catch a glimpse of the great ‘wall of ice’. Cheers for the inconvenience, global warming. Nevertheless – it was a formidable sight.
I was soaked through by the time I reached Franz Joseph. I accepted defeat, checked into a backpackers’ hostel and crawled into bed with a mug of tea. It had rained all day. All night I heard the patter of raindrops against the window and in the morning it was still going. Stubbornly I still headed over to the Franz Joseph Glacier but it was a waste of time. I hiked for 90 minutes in the pouring rain and could barely make out the ice between the low clouds. There were some incredible days in New Zealand but plenty of miserable ones too. That was one of those days as I pedalled in the rain all day long.
The following morning was my 25th birthday. I woke up and the sun was finally back out. I had breakfast looking out over the lake and cycled with a tailwind all day. What a treat! That was all I had wished for on this birthday.
I left London when I was 22. I turned 23 in Turkey. That morning I woke up camped in a petrol station, where the Kurdish family who owned the place had invited me in for dinner and tea before waving me off towards Ankara. I turned 24 in Myanmar, ending that night in a monastery where two old (and rather confused) monks let me rest the night. I spent my 25th birthday on my own but I had sunshine and beautiful scenery with me. I can’t think of prettier place to have ended my first quarter century on this planet.
The temperature was 14C degrees – the warmest I’ve had in NZ. Positively roasting! I treated myself to fish ‘n’ chips for lunch in Hokitika and was only mildly irritated by the fact I was charged 60 cent for vinegar. Honestly… how can you charge for vinegar in a chippy!?
I ended the day in a hostel in Greymouth. After a two teetotal birthdays I thought I deserved a bottle of red with a frozen pizza for dinner. The woman in the supermarket refused to accept my British drivers’ licence and said I needed my passport. That time I was more than a little irritated. We have the same Queen – surely that counts for something? I complained and asked her if I was getting a bottle of wine or boarding an aeroplane, before remembering that I did in fact have my passport with me. Whoops. At least I was more polite to her than the woman who had asked me for my ID when I tried to buy a beer in Tuatapere. She’d looked at the card for a long minute before handing it back to me saying ‘we can’t accept it if it doesn’t have a date on it’, to which I replied ‘you see those 6 numbers in the middle? I think you’ll find that’s my date of birth. Sometimes people remove the first half of the year, but you can probably guess which century I was born…’
Don’t ask for ID if you don’t know how to read a date and more importantly, don’t deprive JKB of a beer after a long day cycling in the rain!
In Reefton I stayed with Don, a policeman originally from Birmingham. He and his wife had spent 14 months cycling from the UK to Singapore around the time I’d been riding the same direction. We were talking about the fact that I hadn’t seen a single other touring cyclists in New Zealand (apparently there’s loads in summer). It occurred to me that I’ve seen very few cyclists the last year and Don said they’d only met half a dozen other cyclists on their long tour (although they didn’t head through Central Asia where there were tonnes of us). It turned out that of those they’d met I had also met four of the same! The first two were Richard and Barry who they had met in Turkey (two British blokes that I met in Kyrgyzstan). Then Don mentioned an Aussie couple they had met in Iran. When I asked what their names were it turned out be the very same Sarah and Scott who I cycled with across Kazakhstan and stayed with in Chengdu, China! It is a very small world…
The Kaikoura earthquake last November destroyed sections of State Highway 1, which is the main road that connects Picton (where the North Island boats dock) to Christchurch and the towns further south. As a result of the road closure all the traffic now has a long detour inland and up over Lewis pass. Unfortunately I had to join the traffic for a section of this and for the first time in New Zealand I felt unsafe on the roads. I had to share the road with big trucks on narrow roads with no hard shoulder. It probably didn’t help that it was a bank holiday for the Queen’s birthday. So they’ll take accept our monarchy for a day off work but won’t accept our ID…
It was a largely unexciting cycle up to Nelson. It was still beautiful but tame in comparison to the big snow-capped mountains in the island’s South West and I had too much traffic to deal with until I could join the ‘Great Taste Trail’ to the sea.
My last campsite on the island was just past Havelock. I have very few pictures of my tent in New Zealand because I usually made camp in the very last light of the day and packed up just as light was breaking. I did this because the days were short but also because I was usually stealth camping somewhere I wasn’t allowed. I touched upon how difficult wild camping is here in the last blog and that hasn’t really changed. At least I have managed to avoid the paid campsites.
That night I put my tent up on Cullen Point, relieved that it would be my last chilly night in the sleeping bag. Spots like that are good – I was 50m from a very obvious ‘no camping’ sign but the lookout was only accessible by foot (or bike) and no one will go to a lookout in the dark. As I put my tent up on a slope and fumbled about in the dark I wondered how I have the patience to live like this. A homeless traveler sneaking around in the bushes… it’s hardly glamorous.
But in the morning I was reminded why I do it. I ate my porridge as the early pink sky coloured the Mahau Sound and lit up Havestock by the edge of the water. I am more than happy to sleep on slopes hidden away in bushes for morning views like this.
The final 35km along Queen Charlotte Drive were a pleasure to ride.The South Island had saved some of its best until last. From Picton I caught the boat to Wellington and the first hour through the fjords was even more magical than the coastal road.
It was an amazing way to end an amazing part of the world. ‘Time flies when you’re having fun’ could not be more true than for my last month. The weather has been tough at times but after four weeks in NZ I wish I had time to see more. I will be back for the North Island one day…
Let me end this blog with another ‘small world’ story where, once again, Aussie Sarah & Scott are the linking couple. A few days prior I was looking for hosts in Wellington when I saw a couple of familiar names – ‘Eric et Charlotte’. They were the very same Frenchies that we’d hung out with in Chengdu around New Year’s Eve 2014/15, 17 months ago. I had no idea they had stopped cycling in Wellington! I stayed with them for a couple of days before my flight and it was lovely, as it always is, to see some familiar faces and catch up with friends. It is a very small world.
New Zealand – I have some kind words for you here. Of the 37 countries I have cycled, I think you are my favourite. Everyone I have met here has been lovely (and I am very easily irritated by people in general). Watching the British Lions lose to the Auckland Blues my last night in the country was an unfortunate end to my time in the country. I only wish you weren’t so good at rugby…
I am typing this sat at Sydney airport where I am transiting for my flight to the U.S.A. It is time for me to return to the Northern Hemisphere!