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Kia Ora South Island

Kia Ora South Island

Stephen Hawking
“Humans are an adventurous species. We like to explore and are inspired by journeys into the unknown. Science is not only a discipline of reason but, also, one of romance and passion. Exploration by real people inspires us all.”

Day 339 – 27,225km

A constant dilemma when travelling is how long to stay put in one place before moving on. Too short and I feel I haven’t rested enough, spent enough time with someone or seen enough of where I am. Too long and I lose momentum, fitness and enthusiasm for where I’m heading next.

Sydney was a brilliant stop and a necessary break for body and mind. However, with a rather congenial winter there and a windy Invercargill awaiting me, part of me was somewhat unenthused about the transition.

Alas, the bike was finally packed into its cardboard box – a logistical nuisance in itself – and I was ready to board my flight across the Tasman. While gliding through the clear blue skies at 35,000ft, that feeling of ambivalence disappeared as the Southern Alps sprawled beneath me. Rather than dread, it was excitement. I had been looking forward to New Zealand and it looked like a place designed for a proper cycling adventure. I knew it wouldn’t be a mindless whizz along flat roads but rather a hilly, windy, chilly but oh so beautiful leg of this journey. I was not disappointed.

A Windy Welcome

“Invercargill, why are you going there?” It became a running joke amongst Kiwis I met. They enjoyed mocking the place but it was the southernmost place I could visit and represented my starting point in South Island; 2,000km lay ahead of me until Auckland. I would be cycling north, to warmer temperatures, in due course, but it was very much winter at times in South Island.

After seeing Burt Munro’s motorbike at the museum – he was from Invercargill and famous for his world record-breaking escapades – I was good to go. I finally replaced my tattered 6mm roll matt, which has been a companion since Kazakhstan, for a warmer 12mm one in anticipation of a few chilly nights in a tent. I said goodbye to my kind host, Jim, tucked my trousers into my thick Gore-Tex socks, my socks into my sandals, adjusted one of my three buffs, put on my gloves and set off.

I asked Jim the night before what the prevailing winds were. “South-westerly, it’s much better starting here and going north.” This turned out not to be the case. I was battered by headwinds, and I mean serious headwinds, for consecutive days. I wish I had never asked. Starting on the coast and heading into the mountains is fun. Hard work, of course, as obviously you’re gaining altitude, but rewarding.

South Island is full of Scottish place names and it felt very much like riding my bike around the Highlands. Beyond seeing a few Highland Cooos; the grasslands, rolling hills, roaming cattle and summits disguised in a snowy dusting all felt like that part of the UK I know so well. So far away and yet so familiar.

Highs and Lows

I remember crossing the French and then Italian Alps way back in August; I enjoyed the fact I was amidst the Southern Alps now. And the scenery was quite something. The vast lakes had the bright sunlight shimmering down on their surfaces while the road twisted and turned like an old wooden rollercoaster skirting around the edges. It reminded me of walking the path alongside Loch Lomond last summer during the West Highland Way with its short sharp ups and downs despite edging a flat feature. I think I even gave a few celebratory yelps of excitement when I first descended towards Lake Wakatipu, the famous S-bend shaped lake upon which lies Queenstown. The pictures don’t show the fiendish winds I was battling but I’m ok with that, I think I’ll choose to remember the crisp colours and sheer glee rather than cursing my muscular weariness.

This was an aperitif, however, and a glorious aperitif it was too, but there was much more to come.

Wanaka, Lake Hawea, Omarama, Lake Pukaki and Lake Tekapo. Crown Range Road, the Lindis Pass and the Burkes Pass. All these places I kept hearing about when I told people I was heading to central South Island but they didn’t really mean anything. They would soon. Any name with ‘… Pass’ in it usually represents an impending uphill battle for us two-wheeled folk. We hate and love them at the same time. Mountain passes have always been the real thrill of riding bikes for me, all that hard work is worth it for the self-congratulatory summit feeling and subsequent thrill of whizzing down the other side.

Those place names above are the famous spots but it’s the bits in between that matter more. If you’re a tourist sat on a bus, or even a group of people half asleep in a campervan, then you’ll seek out and rave about these “must-see” attractions. The joy of riding a bike is that you see them gradually yet also constantly. You cannot help being totally present in the surroundings which is why we get such a huge kick out of the scenery as we see it develop around us. Perhaps it’s me getting on my high horse but seeing busloads of people stretch their legs and gaze at the views at these designated “viewing spots” makes me happy with my mode of transport and how I to experience the land.

Kindred Spirits

Never have I been to a country which seems so highly praised by others. Whether it be the politicians, nature, sport or people; everyone I’ve met seems to have something positive to say about this country. Much of it I was confident I would be fond of but it’s impossible to make a judgement about the people and overall feeling of a country until you’re there. I’m delighted to say that from the start, I have been greeted with disarming friendliness from everyone. It might be because, as a cyclist, I create little of the antipathy locals have towards coach/caravan tourists but I actually think it’s a much deeper openness that the country should be rightfully proud of. I often wonder how people abroad view the UK and how we do things…

I have stayed with a number of people in NZ so far who have been immensely generous to me, as well as a few lovely spots of Freedom Camping on beaches and by lakes. Sam, Adam, Emma, Katherine, Minnie, Hannah, Christian and Liv, thank you. You’ve all given me, directly or indirectly, places to stay so far which I’m grateful for. The joys of a hot shower and a cold beer at the end of a wintery day is hard to beat. Being able to be amongst friends or friends of friends is all part of this crazy lifestyle on the road and they’re all experiences that shape my perspective and give fond memories.

Just to embarrass her, I specifically have to mention Becs Wardell as well. Not just because she put me in touch with several other people to stay with but seeing her in Lake Hawea was a real highlight. I have such admiration for any long-distance cyclist because, quite frankly, it is often a challenging, transient and uncomfortable existence. She cycled 20,000km from Switzerland back home to New Zealand (starting Apr 18) with a selection of people joining her at times on the road. We’ve been in pretty regular communication during our respective journeys. As I said to her, certainly from my perspective anyway as a solo cyclist, we kept each other sane, amused and motivated during, at some points, pretty strenuous parts of our trips. It was great to meet up, compare and contrast our experiences and muse about the world. Her website is here if you’re interested. Becs, congratulations again and I look forward to our next encounter.

Coastal Crusade

Christchurch was my first main checkpoint in NZ where I planned to stop and rest. I knew it would mean I had successfully made it across the Southern Alps and would then follow the coast towards Picton before my ferry crossing to Wellington.

I stayed in Methven, panted my way over a few steep ascents before seeing the road gradually drop away from me as I rode towards Christchurch. I needed a few hours of easier riding and wanted the mental space to think rather than being wowed by the scenery or struggling with the terrain. It was a tough opening chapter. Every morning, my legs felt heavy from the efforts the day before, something I don’t remember at other parts of the trip, not even China. Every day was either literally going uphill or into headwinds which has the same impact. Those extra few days in Sydney had perhaps caught up with me. Looking back, of course it was worth it. I’m delighted I opted for the route I did, even if it did present a few spots of bother on the way.

There’s a lot of good in Christchurch and I enjoyed it there but it’s also hard not to think of two disheartening events as well: the earthquakes and the shooting. The impact of the former is still so visible in the city with huge spaces of where houses used to be, construction sites and a constant run of roadworks all the way up the coast. The March 2019 mosque shootings shook everybody worldwide and again, is still closely felt in the city. I thought about both a lot during the hours I spent in the saddle in the days after.

Another key aspect of Canterbury life, and specifically Christchurch, is the Crusaders. The Super Rugby is a big deal. Thanks to Minnie, my wonderful host in the city, we managed to get tickets to see the Super Rugby Final vs the Jaguares. As with the AFL games at the MCG and SCG, it was a wonderfully fortuitous sporting encounter to stumble upon. In fact, following the cricketing World Cup successes of both England and New Zealand as I’ve been making my way across Australia and here has been great. The final on Sunday should be an enjoyable evening.

I merrily let my Crusaders flag fly off the back of my bike for the next few days. As a means to generate conversation and friendly horns from drivers, it was a good decision.

Sounds of the South

The final stretch up South Island was a change of topography again. The big inland mountain ranges were behind me and instead I had the sea to my right and steep cliffs to my left. The road itself was inconsistent given the recent earthquakes in Kaikoura but stopping for lunch overlooking the coast and happily watching seals lounging about in the midday sun was pretty hard to top.

I was fortunate to stay with some cousins, David and Sue, at their beautiful farm near Blenheim after a particularly challenging afternoon. I stopped for a delicious lunch at The Store, Kekerengu (thanks Sank), before a tough stint to finish. The big three of impending darkness, headwinds and rain all greeted me as I lumbered my way up the never-ending hills. The other big three of a bed, beer and shower awaited the other end though, making it a just reward to another demanding day.

Marlborough Sounds is another special part of New Zealand. Famous for its blue skies, mild climate and vineyards, it felt more like Tuscany or France than New Zealand. I hopped aboard the ferry, sat on the top deck the whole trip, read my book and happily watched the world go by as South Island faded into the distance.

What a place!