Sunday, 10 March 2013

New Zealand: the Pinball Cyclist

Rather than one of my usual tales about a Honey Seller's bottom or a near mental breakdown in China  I thought it may be a pleasant change to try and sum up almost 6000km of a journey through New Zealand in one blog post with a few pretty pictures and a few words.

Looking at my map on Social Hiking one may wonder if I had no clue where I was heading in New Zealand and I can safely say yep, one is absolutely right! I sometimes feel a bit inadequate when I've peeked at other cyclist's blogs and seen magnificent spreadsheets detailing their plans filling me with admiration.. and fear! Yet I decided to not let it bother me and as I had a few months to explore this country while waiting for extortionate air fares to South America to lower I set off with a view to get to the south island and well.. just go where the wind took me.

What I learnt very quickly is that there is a reason people 'plan'. Planning would have been good for Tajikistan - arriving to cycle up to 4655m in the Pamirs at the beginning of winter could have been avoided with foresight yet  it did turn out to be a great adventure despite having to get rescued
35km before the border with Kyrgyzstan. Cycling across China in winter was another error yet I survived and have the nerve damage in my feet to prove it. When people plan their route in the South Island of New Zealand they do a mostly clockwise route because of the prevailing wind. I didn't know that as I hadn't planned and set off west then east then west and then anti-clockwise and wondered why almost every cycle tourer I saw was heading in the opposite direction.

Enough of my waffling and let's get to the photos..

After Marlborough Sounds and Nelson Lakes I headed to the east coast where at Ohau, north of Kaikoura there is a marvellous spot where you can watch seal pups playing in a stream and under a waterfall while their mothers are out at sea doing the shopping. The Kiwis have got it right when it comes to nature, no entrance fees, no fences just simply educating people to keep their distance, observe, respect and enjoy

Seal pup Ohau stream

In Kaikoura there is another seal colony on the peninsula
I headed from there to Christchurch stopping en route to photograph the invasive though picturesque broom covering the countryside. Another non endemic species that has rendered farmland useless . I spoke to a weary man in a small rural village who removed his cap revealing a mahogany conker like head and wiped his forehead. "25 years I've been fighting to contain this pest" he sighed after I'd questioned him about it,

The devastation from Christchurch's 2011 earthquake brought unexpected tears to my eyes and I'm sure anyone who also has had no previous connection to the city who entered it has felt the same. Maybe it was not just the gaping emptiness of some streets, defined only by a few flowers in memory of lives lost stuffed into caged barriers in front of piles of rubble but the combination of that with the vibrant Re:Start 'container' city. My cycle to see my central asian cycling buddy Lee and his girlfriend Liz in Sumner some 13km away brought further emotion.This small seaside town had been badly affected by the earthquake and it was with a solemn air that I cycled past the donated containers of the company I used to work for protecting the traffic and people below as abandoned homes teetered precariously on crumbling cliffs
A few days rest and being totally spoilt by Lee and Liz I was off to the west coast via Arthur's Pass with my friends meeting me there a couple of days later.
wild camp en route
Kea: the notoriously mischievous alpine parrot
From there I continued west, taking the back roads and finding one of my most perfect wild camps by Lake Brunner. Wanting to see so much I headed further inland up Buller Gorge then retraced my tyre marks to finally join the west coast not before being invited to have a cup of billy tea -flavoured with the delicate taste of Manouka leaves - and 5 griddled scones from some bearded miners

It was at this point I became obsessed with the 'end of the road' and did a 200km detour to the northern most point of the west coast you can reach by road which is at Kohahai and the start of one of New Zealand's great walks, the Heaphy Track. I spent my days there as Miss Crusoe building fires and cooking trout thanks to a man who gave me his catch, going for walks, reading and sheltering in my tent during squally days. As ever new NZ's wildlife played a part with a weka bird that became a permanent resident in my awning and a dormouse that sheltered in my tent whenever it rained.

 View from my 'castaway' tent at Kohaihai Point after a storm
End of the roads are fine on the way there, you just get on with the bluff you have to cycle up and over to get there and the headwind you face. on the way back it is soul destroying especially when the wind swings around and you face another headwind.

I continued down the west coast stopping off before Franz Josef glacier where I was rewarded with the glorious view of the magnificent southern alps highest peaks and invited by Kieran - who was building on the DOC campsite and had the same passion for nature and mountains as me - to dinner in the workman's hut. A feast of sausages, bacon and sweet potato was prepared and of course a few beers.. and wine and brandy consumed as we shared climbing dreams.
Lake Mapourika
At Fox Glacier I stayed with David, a friend I'd met in Whakapapa on the north island. More hospitality and beers but some brisk hikes in stormy skies to the seal colony at Gillespies Beach and a walk in what I can only describe as an enchanted wood with glow worms at night, gnarly branches, serpentine roots. A rainforest at the base of a glacier.

It was shortly after this that my obsession with penguins began and so I started my mission to cycle down every track leading to a beach where the Fjordland Crested Penguin may be. I searched, I backtracked, I waited patiently at dusk on deserted beaches and windy points yet nothing. Reading that they also hung out at another end of the road in a remarkable and isolated place called Jacksons Bay with a population of permanent residents reaching the staggering total of two I decided to head there. After nearly drowning in a wild camp in this area where the average annual rainfall is an incredible 8m I arrived battered and drenched at Jacksons Bay. It was with admiration and respect that I visited the atmospheric cemetery tucked off the side of the road in a wet forest of trees, crumbling tombstones and rusted wrought iron, interred beneath me and steeped in history were the early pioneers that fought to sustain a livelihood in this unforgiving environment.  As I left there and made my way to the official end of the west coast road the sky lightened the sun came out and I discovered the marvellous Craypot shack serving delicious fish and chips.
drying out after a flooded night at the 'end of the road' Jacksons Bay
"so.. the penguins.." I began after splurging 2 day's budget and feasting on the best fish and chips outside of Aldeburgh.
"Oh they left 5 days ago"
What? They just packed their bags and left saying 'see you next year?'
Apparently so.
My disappointment was short-lived having met Pete and Laurie two mountaineers forced to abandon their plans due to the adverse weather and we decided to join together for a wild camp taking a gravel track I'd seen, followed by a 3km trek through the bush leading to a wonderfully isolated and deserted Lake Ellery where we pitched for the night and built a fire.We shared stories of our mountaineering escpades, whisky and a bottle of wine in this peaceful location.

The next day I nearly drowned again, the wind swung round and I can only describe my cycling experience that day as cycling through a car wash. The next day the sun came out for my ascent of Haast Pass yet en route I met a lovely German couple, Isolde and Andreas. They had wine, I had couscous, they had a hotel booked for the night, I built a fire. They stayed. A lovely spontaneous encounter. Thanks to Konrad Wines for providing the wine..

Fond farewells and I cycled up and over Haast Pass to the incredibly scenic Lake Wanaka and next to it Lake Hawea
Camp at Lake Wanaka

Lake Hawea

From Wanaka I climbed Roys Peak at 1578m with views over Lake Wanaka and Mount Aspiring
View from the summit of Roy's Peak

Then it was back on the bike for my journey to Queenstown via the Crown Range, this being the highest  mountain road pass in New Zealand
Before the descent. The Crown Range mountain pass

with an exhilarating descent

Queenstown was not my cup of tea but afforded more glorious views and I hiked up Ben Lomond at 1748m on an overcast day for what turned out to be just a closer look at the clouds. I'd heard about a gravel track leading from Walters Peak to Te Anau, a remote route the start of which could be accessed by taking a steam boat across Queenstown's lake. As I left the hustle and clutter of Queenstown behind I felt my smile return and for 2 incredible days I rode on a dirt track meeting only a farmer who helped me herd the cows that were blocking my path

Camp on the shore of Mavora Lakes
On the 700m altitude plateau

It was now nearing Christmas time and I was prepared to spend it alone having decorated my bicycle with tinsel and a Christmas stocking but when on Facebook I'd mentioned my failed search for penguins a couple I'd met on the North Island -and who were now running a lodge in Martins Bay another remote location at the end of the Hollyford Track - came to the rescue and invited me for Christmas dinner.. and there may be penguins. It was to be another end of the road ride yet the 100km of the picturesque Milford Road which I took at a leisurely place was worth every turn of the pedal

Festive cycling
Leaving my bicycle at the historic and quirky Gunn's Camp and thanks to my hosts I hitched a ride on the supply helicopter over Milford Sound and arrived in the stunning Martin's Bay where I had one of the most memorable and fun Christmas Eve's. A huge thanks to Nico and Steff for their outstanding hospitality, kindness and for making this possible.

an alternative to Santa's sleigh
The penguins at Martins Bay had also gone away for Christmas but I was not going to finish my search just yet. On Boxing Day Johnny the boat man eased my return journey to Gunns Camp with an adrenaline filled traverse of the lake where I joined the path for a 30km hike back to my bicycle.

I cycled the 100km back from the end of the road and joined forces with Werner a Belgian motorcyclist I'd met at Gunns Camp. We explored the Doubtful Sound and then headed south to the Catlins where I'd heard that there were definitely penguins to be seen with a stop-off at Slope Point, the South Island's southernmost point (Bluff is where most people end their north - south journey but Slope Point is further south and an exhilarating ride to reach it)

Finally at Curio Bay we watched at dusk as the Yellow-Eyed Penguins returned from a day at sea to their nesting young. It was an absolute privilege to be so close to nature in such an unspoilt environment. the location could not have been more atmospheric as this was also the site of a petrified forest of some 180 million years old. 

It was a sad farewell to Werner and I was back on my own battling an awful headwind. I finally reached the town of Dunedin where I decided to take a steam train through a gorge and to join the Otago Central Rail Trail a delightful ride on gravel following the old rail road now only for hikers and cyclists.

 Of course it would have been more delightful had I not started cycling in the middle of the 18th Severe Weather Warning I had cycled in during my time in New Zealand. And of course, every other cyclist was going in the opposite direction to me with big smiles and a cheery wave as they sped past me at 35kmh to my measley 7kmh. As I ptiched one windy night I watched in dismay as my tent bag was sucked up by the wind and went on its own journey east. I clambered down a grassy slope and found a safe camp next to a river out of the wind. The next day as I lugged my bike up the slope there was my tent bag! Thrilled by this boomerang return I slid back down the slope to pack up my tent only to discover the wind had blown it into the river and it was only thanks to a gorse bush that my tent is not freezing its pegs off in antarctica. The next night I camped in a hut
Despite the adverse weather which reached gusts of 120kmh the trail was worth it for the tranquility and more outstanding views.

Finishing the trail I headed towards Crowmwell and then I think my 9th mountain pass of my New Zealand cycle over Lindis Pass and then down to the incredible blue waters of Lake Pukaki and later Lake Tekapo taking in a wild camp much to the surprise of the Merino sheep who wandered past the next morning

The impossible blue of Lake Tekapo

Next stop was Mount Cook Village, another dead end road to climb up on foot to the Mueller Hut and onwards to Mount Ollivier. In just 3 hours of steep climbing you can be in the heart of the magnificent southern alps. The Mueller Hut has an interesting tale of the mischievous and highly intelligent Kea alpine parrot pictured earlier. Observing from a rock a Kea had watched how to open and close the hut door and one night as 2 climbers retired to the empty bunks for a 4am start to ascend Mount Sealy the Kea slid the bolt from the outside and locked the climbers in! after much jostling the climbers eventually got out but it was too late for them to ascend the mountain that day. Beautiful story.

A quick scramble up the rocks took you to the summit of Mt Ollivier, just short of 2000m which was Sir Edmund Hillary's first peak.

With a heavy heart and a vow to return to climb Mt Cook one day I left the area to begin my cycle ride back to Christchurch to collect some gear I'd left at my friend Lee's and to say my goodbyes. Huge thanks to Lee and Liz for the laughs, conversation and jam jars of wine.

There was just one more route I knew I had to do before I departed and that was the Molesworth Road, sold to me in an instant when I heard it was remote, 4-5 days of gravel and steep steep climbs. I started cycling up Lewis Pass and took a right to Hamner Springs. My first attempt at the route resulted in me breaking into tears on the side of the road 2km up Jacks Pass. A recurring stomach bug I'd had since I poisoned myself near Nelson had taken over my mind and body again. I yearned for the lovely note and gift left outside my tent after my 72 hours of delirium from a fellow brit when the poisoning first took hold

Yet instead I took myself to the chemist who prescribed..marshmallows!

The next afternoon after self diagnosing the night before- refraining from a marshmallow binge- and opening antibiotics I'd carried for 24500km I set off again and 4 days later I'd completed possibly my favourite ride in the whole of the country and coined it with the phrase "If you haven't cycled the Molesworth Road you haven't cycled New Zealand". It was tough, it was isolated, it was perfect.

I arrived dusty and dirty in Blenheim, home to the world famous Marlborough wines and Sauvignon Blanc and reached the sanctuary of a hostel my friend Bloeme whom I'd met in a small town in Laos some 9 months earlier was running. A feast was prepared and wine tasting in the form of buying 5 bottles of wine as I was too tired to cycle around the vineyards was a fitting end to an incredible journey around New Zealand. Another farewell to dear friends and wonderful hospitality and then it was a short cycle ride to the ferry the next day and a bus to auckland as I'd run out of time.

A rather battered bicycle was put in the skilled hands of Frank Clavis of Velomaster, a legend, a talented former track rider and bike builder and now making his own range of touring bikes. A gentleman who had helped me immensely when I first arrived on his doorstep some months ealier suffering a spoke break catastrophe.
New sprocket. Old sprocket
Then it was sadly time to leave this incredible country to start a new challenge in South America. I cycled to the airport where I was reunited with another legend named Colin. When I'd arrived at the airport some 5 months earlier I'd got chatting to Colin, an airport shuttle driver, who ended up offering to look after a suitcase I'd carried my gear in on the flight and my bicycle box. He and his wife Nora contacted me regularly throughout my journey in New Zealand: checking if I was ok and sending their warm regards. It was with regret that I never got to stay at their home in Hamilton yet eternal thanks to a wonderful couple and, as they have not yet visited the South Island and were wanting to see my photos, I dedicate this blog post to them



  1. As I said before: you must publish all your blog posts as a book on your return Jilly! For those of us who have been following your journey it will be a lovely nostalgic trip of your adventures all over again. I am looking forward to it already. May the wind always be in our back and the sun shine on you all along!

  2. Thank you Jilly, for the wonderful stories and photos. I have just been in New Zealand for one hour... And now continue on this blurry Sunday morning ;-)

    Keep it up!

  3. Hi there next time you go to new Zealand let me know in advance and I will come with you it has been my dream to go there and I love cycling aswell. Enjoy the rest of your journeys safely x