New Zealand – The Final Part
Having battled my way down the West Coast of South Island and across the Haast Pass I allowed myself three days in Wanaka. I was meeting friends from the UK and also from Canada (having met in Auckland) in Queenstown a few days later so was in no rush by this point. They are only separated by 70 km so it would just be a day of cycling to get between the two. Wanaka is easily one of my favourite places in New Zealand. It has quite a modern feel with plenty of restaurants and cafes but doesn’t feel overrun by tourists in any way. The setting on Lake Wanaka is just stunning with distant views up to some of the high summits of the Mount Aspiring National Park. With fresh, very early snow on the peaks, the scene couldn’t have been more perfect. I took a couple of days off for exploring, recovering from a hard stretch on the road and getting jobs done and then spent one completely blissful afternoon sleeping on the shore of the lake and swimming in the staggeringly clear waters. I then headed to Queenstown via the Crown Range Road, the highest sealed road in New Zealand at 1076 m. It plots a beautiful course along the Cardrona Valley before climbing steadily into the mountains. The gradient only ramps up for the last few kilometres and with a decent tailwind the ascent was over before I knew it. The descent on the other hand was fast and steep with numerous switchbacks. I wouldn’t have fancied climbing up that way! I rolled into the tourist bubble that is Queenstown, excited to spend a few days living a “normal” life and catching up with friends. I wasn’t to be disappointed as we enjoyed some great evening meals and a few too many beers. It felt great to switch off completely and spend time with some good friends. I didn’t take a complete break from cycling as I indulged in an afternoon of quite frankly terrifying downhill mountain biking and also treated myself to a morning of whitewater rafting. It was definitely worth it. When will I get the chance to go rafting with some of my best friends in the wilds of New Zealand again? Probably never!
It was a sign of my growing contentedness and confidence that when the time came to go our separate ways, the panic that I may previously have felt never came. After a good late breakfast we said our goodbyes and I headed off to the south along the shores of Lake Wakatipu. My aim was to make it to Te Anau, the gateway to Milford Sound, in a couple of days. After a lovely run down the side of the lake, the afternoon was fairly flat and easy, other than the final few kilometers into the wind. I stayed at a small campground on a farm and then was up early the next day for a flat and fast run in to Te Anau. It was only 60 km and I knew there were no major hills so it was a great chance to test my fitness and really hammer it. I came through well and made it there for lunch before checking into the hostel. I spent the afternoon restocking supplies and watching the stunning “Atu Whenua” or “Shadowlands” at the purpose built Fiordland Cinema. This is a short film recorded over a number of years highlighting some of the stunning wilderness and nature of the nearby Fiordland National Park. What made it even more exciting for me was that the next day I would be travelling into the heart of it, with a full day tour and kayaking adventure.
I was up before daybreak, stocked up with egg and bacon sandwiches, and on the bus down to Milford Sound. The journey was just beautiful as the sun began to peek through the clearing mist. By the time we made it to the Sound the day was completely clear and perfect for kayaking. The trip was easily one of the most magical experiences of my life. We spent over three hours on the water kayaking right up to the base of Mitre Peak, a mountain that rises over a mile vertically from the waters edge. There have been so many highlights on my trip but this has to be right up there with the best of them. Milford Sound is a major tourist destination with hundreds of visitors taking cruise trips each day. Similar to my love of the stunning views at the top of a hard climb on the bike, for me it was made so much more special by being able to experience the sound in such a physical and intimate way.
Leaving Te Anau felt like I was on the real fast track to the end of my time in New Zealand. I had just three weeks left and a fair amount of ground to cover south to Invercargill and then north again to Dunedin and Christchurch. The time had come to spend some good, consecutive days in the saddle. Invercargill lay about 180 km to the south following the scenic route, which I covered in a very comfortable two days. I spent a good night at a free camp spot next to the Clifden Suspension Bridge and was even able to have a huge roaring fire that Ray Mears would have been extremely proud of! I also met Mike, travelling by bike for three months round New Zealand, who was on a similar route to me before heading to Queenstown and a flight back to San Francisco. We would go on to spend the next four days cycling together. We took a lovely route to the south coast and headed east into Invercargill. We each had a few different things that we wanted to see on the way, so we split up and then met back up several times. A highlight of the day was the beautiful fishing town of Riverton where I met up with Annie and Clive, friends of my mum from the UK. It was so nice to just sit and have a coffee with them for an hour and receive some messages of support from home. It was then into Invercargill with Mike and a city centre campground for the night. Invercargill didn’t really feel like it had much to offer but we did treat ourselves to fish and chips and a few beers and bought bacon and eggs for the next morning.
The stretch between Invercargill and Dunedin runs through the Catlin Mountains, a rather under-explored region of coastline missed out by many travellers. It turned out to be absolutely wonderful. We planned a reasonably short day to Curio Bay and a free camp spot at Waikawa via the southernmost cape on the South Island, Slope Point. This was a glorious ride with lovely coastal vistas but it did involve a 25 km section on a gravel road. I have taken a few gravel paths and had no problems, but this one would prove to be an exception with recently deposited loose gravel. The skinny wheels of my bike struggled with this and very soon the inevitable happened; my tyre slewed in the soft surface and I was face down on the road and covered in scratches. I survived fairly intact though aside from a small but very deep cut on my shin that wouldn’t stop bleeding for a few days. Thankfully, the road condition improved slightly and there were no more dramas as we took the detour to Slope Point. I had reached the southernmost point of my trip, and with it, a major milestone in my adventure. It was all north from here! We finished the day watching penguin chicks at Curio Bay before arriving late at our campground to be greeted by some other travellers that we had met on previous days. It was amazing how soon the pain and fatigue disappeared with a bowl of spaghetti on the go and a frisbee being thrown around.
The next two days through the Catlins were generally straightforward, a few sharp climbs and a bit of heavy traffic aside. We spent the night at Kaka Point, a nice small town on the coast and enjoyed an evening in the local pub, celebrating the birthday of a fellow camper and trying the excellent local chowder. The barman Paddy regaled us with many tales of the South Island and shared a few of his favourite places. The next day was the final push to Dunedin. The highway grew unpleasantly busy, especially with heavy farm and industrial traffic. We decided to turn off and took on a very steep and challenging climb. The views and downhill to the sea were worth it though as I broke 80 km/h for the first and only time so far! The final stretch of road ran right along the spectacular and secluded coastline. The Pacific drifted endlessly into the distance with nothing but miles of ocean and a few islands before South America. After one final short but very steep climb we descended into Dunedin, with its heavy Scottish influence. I went my separate way from Mike as he had a friend to stay with and I was meeting a friend of mine. I had first got to know Remco in Port Macquarie on the East Coast of Australia. He had a car so it was great to take a couple of days off the bike and explore the Otago Peninsular, enjoy Dunedin and take in a Highlanders game in the Super 15 Rugby competition. I certainly enjoyed the city.
I was left with just under 700 km to go to Christchurch, where I would pick up a free hire car relocation to get myself back to Picton, take a ferry to Wellington and take another car back to Auckland, giving a couple of days to get packed up before my flight to the US. From Dunedin I headed inland to Middleton, covering about 80 undulating kilometres. Middleton marks the start of the Otago Central Rail Trail. This is a 150 km trail following a former railway line that runs right into the heart of the South Island and would form the route for most of the next two days. The first day on the trail I easily covered 120 km but I have to say I was a little disappointed. By New Zealand’s high standards at least, the views were unspectacular and the flat and easy riding offered no challenge. The only difficulty was in the varying quality of the surface which was fairly frustrating as you went from hard, compacted stone to loose gravel. It made for a lot of time looking at the ground. I spent the night in Omakau and the only real thing to note is that I began to feel particularly unwell. It would later emerge that I had a form of food poisoning. I won’t go into details but it made the next few days considerably more difficult than they would otherwise have been. The following day was only 60 km, I couldn’t manage anything more, as I finished the trail in Clyde and made my way to Cromwell. From here I had no option but to put in a 110 km day to Omarama. There was simply nothing in between. Thankfully I had an excellent tailwind to help me along the shores of Lake Dunstan, to the foot of the Lindis Pass. This would be the final high crossing of my trip. It was a long and laboured climb up to 932 m but I found it considerably easier than some other previous ascents and thankfully there was no real steep finish. It was almost entirely downhill from there to Omarama and other than battling an incredible crosswind for a short stretch that had me leaning at a ridiculous angle to just stay on the bike, it was a pretty enjoyable end to the day. The evening was a different matter though as I was just becoming more and more unwell. I was struggling to eat but had to keep forcing myself. I still had three days of riding to go.
My next destination was the town of Lake Tekapo, only about 90 km to the north. I passed through Twizel and then came to the bottom of Lake Pukaki. This view was the main reason I had chosen this route, and thankfully the weather rewarded me. The skies were clear and I could see right up into the snow-capped peaks of the high Southern Alps. At the heart of this group stood the summit of Mount Cook, clear above the rest. It was an awe-inspiring place to stop for lunch and the regular glimpses of these mountains made the rest of the afternoon a true pleasure, despite a massive lack of energy. I spent another unwell evening in Lake Tekapo, with yet more marvellous views to sustain me at least. I was also still 700 m above sea-level and the next day was aiming for Geraldine, at just 70m. This made things somewhat easier! The vistas continued as I descended from the central plateau towards the Canterbury Plains and I have to be thankful that I had the downhill to get me through the day. I wouldn’t have made it otherwise. I did meet a lovely family from Ireland for a chat just after lunch though and soon after hit a huge milestone; 10000 km. It was pretty ridiculous feeling to think that I had cycled all this way. I was immensely proud of myself. From Geraldine I was left with 130 very flat, boring kilometres through the farmland of the Canterbury Plains to get me to Christchurch. I could have split this between two days but there was no point. I just kept my head down and got the distance out of the way. I was totally exhausted. I felt so rough that there was very little feeling of celebration. I had a day to explore before picking up the car. I used this to have a look around the earthquake ravaged centre of the city. On my previous visit to New Zealand, seven years ago, Christchurch had been a charming and vibrant city. The difference is quite stark. I actually think they are doing a remarkable job of recovering, especially the shopping mall built from shipping containers, but much of the centre is still a building site. Eventually it will be a very modern and beautiful city again, but this still feels some time away. I was joined again by Remco, as he was in the city preparing to return to Australia, and we enjoyed a very relaxed evening. It had seemed that I was almost over the worst of my illness but that night, my body felt as though it finally gave in. I had been battling so hard to keep going and get myself to Christchurch and if I hadn’t eventually managed to get to sleep, I was on the point of getting Remco to take me to hospital. I picked up my car the next morning, packed in my stuff and headed straight to the doctor. They confirmed that I had food poisoning caused by either poorly prepared food or bacteria from drinking untreated water. It turns out that despite it’s image, a lot of the wild water sources in New Zealand are riddled with bacteria. I had been really unwell that’s for sure, losing more than half a stone in the space of a week. Thankfully, a course of antibiotics soon had me on the mend.
From Christchurch, I made my way to Picton via the Lewis Pass and the charming mountain town of Hanmer Springs. I took the ferry back to Wellington and again enjoyed an evening in this small and energetic city. I picked up another car and headed north and then west, to a region of New Zealand I have never previously visited. I stopped in Wanganui, an unexpectedly beautiful place with a small town, colonial American feel. I then intended to drive round the Taranaki Peninsula to enjoy the views of the perfect cone volcano of Mount Taranaki. This was thwarted somewhat by lashing rain and low cloud so I just kept on going up to Hamilton. I took in another game of rugby as the Chiefs, with a host of All Blacks in their side, were upset by the Highlanders from Dunedin! The next morning it was into Auckland where I had a few jobs to do before returning my car. I was kindly being hosted by a friend I had made at my very first hostel in Opoutere. We spent the afternoon watching South Africa against Pakistan at Eden Park in the Cricket World Cup. It looked as though South Africa would win comfortably but a wonderful fightback saw Pakistan home and the atmosphere created by their supporters was just incredible! My final day in New Zealand was spent visiting the stunning and dangerous coastal town of Piha. The beach is famous for its huge surf break and savage rip-currents. Needless to say I decided against going for a swim. It was then just a case of packing up and jumping on a shuttle to the airport.
So that was it. New Zealand done. It had been probably the best three months of my life. The country is just a compressed set of incredible landscapes and scenery. It is safe and secure and basically one big adventure-playground for outdoor enthusiasts. I had just been so happy and relaxed and loved my time on the road there. But the time had come to move on and fly to Los Angeles, with a higher population than the whole of New Zealand! There had been so many highlights, from the early days spent on the beaches of the North Island, the company on the road to Wellington, the coastal roads In the South and the wonderful scenery around Wanaka, Queenstown and Te Anau. If I had to pick one thing though, it would be my day across Arthur’s Pass. It summed up everything I love about this trip and this country. The start was painfully hard with a lung-busting climb, and the rest of the ride was far from easy But the reward was a day spent crossing a high mountain plateau, ringed by snow-capped mountains, wild rivers and pristine lakes. The USA will provide a new set of challenges that’s for sure, and I was feeling slightly nervous as the plane took off, but I kept reminding myself that it was time to move out of my comfort zone yet again! I’m sure there will be yet another set of rewards and highlights to come.