Friday 23 December 2011

Broad Bay, New Zealand - Happy Christmas

A very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. Thanks for following in 2011 ... keep watching in 2012!

While you've got your credit card handy for Christmas shopping, why not sponsor me by making a donation to Oxfam with just a quick click on the link on the right. Thank you.

Friday 16 December 2011

Oamaru, New Zealand - Alps to ocean

Since cycling away from home 17 months ago, I’ve really enjoyed writing “the bicycle diaries” and many of you have said you’ve enjoyed reading them. And so I strive to make my writing as professional as possible. Now any professional writer would tell you that every good story needs some romance and on this point I am pleased not to disappoint! So as the journey continued from Mount Cook it was not as “I” but as “we”.

Our journey from the Southern Alps to the Pacific Ocean started on a rock where Bart and I sat for maybe an hour on our descent from a high trek in the mountains. Before us the view stretched up the Hooker Valley to its black, rock-covered glacier and grey-blue glacial lake below the spectacular slopes of Mount Cook. On a hot afternoon, we soaked up the views and the joy of each other’s company. Both cycle touring around New Zealand, we'd met by chance in Twizel as we were about to pedal up into Mount Cook National Park. After three wonderful days there we got back onto our bikes and our little convoy headed east, pedalling along a route known as “Alps to Ocean”. The first night we threw our tents up at a gorgeous little spot in woods by a small lake. An elderly couple pulled up beside us in their old campervan and we enjoyed the romantic scene as they set out their table and chairs by the lake and happily spent hours sitting quietly together in golden evening sunshine, feeding the ducks while their old, fat, half-blind dog was curled up at their feet. In another three days of pedalling we had left the high mountains, passed across the dry lands of the Waitaki Valley, cycled through limestone gorges and weird rock formations to eventually pop out on the coast at the beautiful town of Oamaru. We strolled hand-in-hand through its historic Victorian quarter where restored warehouses with wooden floors and high vaults now house cafes, delis and artsy-fartsy little shops. Bicycles from a bygone era with flowers in their baskets were propped casually against the walls and old-fashioned shop signs hung above, adding charm to the narrow lanes. In a bitterly cold southerly wind we hugged each other for warmth as we sat on the shore watching surfers riding the waves while Bart explained the finer points of the sport to me and how to tell a goofy from a regular surfer!

Alas, no amount of creative writing can the change the fact that on another grey, cold morning a bus whisked Bart north to Christchurch to catch his flight home. And so we had to say goodbye … at least for now.

Sunday 11 December 2011

Twizel, New Zealand - The three Burkes

“You need an engine” said the morbidly obese motorhome driver when I cycled into the campground at Fairlie. “You need some exercise” I said. No, I didn’t as I’m much too polite. I did point out that I have an engine and gripped my rippling leg muscles to demonstrate. This was met with a vacant look – yet another person who can’t grasp the concept of travel without the internal combustion engine. Burke number one!

Burke number two was a much more agreeable encounter. I cycled out of the plains and up into the high country known here as “MacKenzie Country” after a Scottish sheep rustler called James McKenzie. He first recognised the potential for the area to support sheep farming so stole a few to get his enterprise going! The gateway into MacKenzie Country is Burke’s Pass and the day I cycled over Burke’s Pass will go down as one of the most memorable of this whole adventure. A steep climb took me up into the high tussock grasslands, a beautiful bronze in the morning light, and as I cycled along the quiet road I passed through an avenue of lupins of every shade from white to peach, pink and purple. I turned a corner and in the distance were the snow-capped, glacier-gripped peaks of the Southern Alps. I turned another corner and found myself cycling along the shores of the spectacular Lake Tekapo. Fed by glacier melt, the water is a pretty eggshell blue in one light and a startling aquamarine in a different light.

I wanted to get much closer to the mountains and so a cycle up a very long dead-end took me to the stunning scenery of Mount Cook National Park. Above me were mountains of 3000 metres and more, the highest of course being Mount Cook itself at 3754 metres. It was on the slopes of Mount Cook that Sir Edmund Hillary trained for his successful ascent of Everest and a beautiful bronze sculpture of the climber gazes for eternity up to the mountain. I pitched my tent in a little campground at the foot of Mount Sefton where blue-tinted glaciers formed static cascades over the rocks and the slopes regularly rumbled with avalanches. A walk from the campground took me up the Hooker Valley for a closer look at the Hooker Glacier with Mount Cook above on a day without a cloud in the sky. Then I made a stiff climb up the lower snow-covered slopes of Mount Ollivier with Bart, another cyclist that I’d met up with in Twizel. The views across the sea of snow-covered peaks were spectacular as we soaked up the sun and the high mountain atmosphere.

After three idyllic days in the park it was time to continue south and to Burke number three … that’s my friend, John Burke. Next stop from here, in about ten days, will be his house in Broad Bay near Dunedin … just in time for my second Christmas on the road!

More photos on Flickr.

Thursday 1 December 2011

Geraldine, New Zealand - Extreme ironing

New Zealand is a land rucked up into mountains and cut into grooves by tectonics and glaciers. Like my limited wardrobe on the road which is scrunched up and squashed into one small pannier, it needs a jolly good iron.

I cycled over one of the bigger rucks when I eventually left Murchison in drizzle and for the first but not the last time of this ride, cycled over the mountains that form the backbone of New Zealand’s South Island, the Southern Alps. The “ruck” was the 864m Lewis Pass. The cycle over the pass was surprisingly easy but I didn’t count on the gale force winds on the other side that forced me to walk for 10 miles on a long, empty stretch of road. Even when I was walking the wind was forcing me and the bike into the verge. I was not a happy chappy that day.

But sunshine and smiles returned as I found the only bit of the South Island that has been ironed and with a favourable tail wind, flew south across the Canterbury Plains. The plains, formed by moraine gravel deposits from glaciers during the last ice ages, stretch from the east coast south of Christchurch to the sudden uprising of the Southern Alps, big lumps of mountains covered with grey scree and streaks of late snow. I cycled south on the quiet back roads that meander through small farming communities and the patchwork quilt of their surrounding fields. I loved the little villages along here which, unlike back home, have managed to maintain their network of quaint country stores with neatly stacked shelves and polished wooden floors. Many of them now double as cafes to service the more modern market. In this slice of heaven it was too easy to forget that just 30 miles away was the city of Christchurch whose historic centre is still closed to the public after February’s devastating earthquake. Where I might have expected to find holidaymakers in the campgrounds, instead I found people displaced from the earthquake zone and waiting to go home … if they still have a home.

There’s no more easy cycling now as the plains end and the road climbs up into the high country, so I’m taking a rest day in the town of Geraldine which is as sweet as it sounds. I’ve got some chores to do as well … none of which is ironing!

More photos on Flickr.


Tuesday 22 November 2011

Murchison, New Zealand - Rain interrupted play

Rarely a day goes by that I’m not engulfed at some point by torrential rain and have to scurry for cover under a bus shelter, gas station forecourt or chocolate wrapper. Then the rain will suddenly stop and the sun will come out and all sogginess will be forgotten.

At St Arnaud in Nelson Lakes National Park a bitterly cold southerly wind from Antarctica turned the rain to snow on the mountains and summer reverted to winter. And while my days are interrupted by rain, my nights have been interrupted by other nuisances. In Picton I was kept awake by a German woman snoring in the next tent like a walrus with blocked sinuses and in Marlborough Sounds everybody had to listen to the couple in the blue tent having sex! Then in Nelson somebody decided it was a good idea to put the campground right at the end of the airport runway.

Of course I should be grateful I made it to the South Island at all after a fantastically rough ferry crossing of the Cook Straight. Time after time the ship climbed up huge waves and then plunged down the other side in an explosion of white foam. Regular readers of this blog will know that I spent 19 days at sea crossing the Atlantic Ocean on a cargo ship and now consider myself to be a bit of a salty old sea dog ... or perhaps just an old dog. Either way, I don’t seem to get seasick and while other passengers were vomiting into sick bags, I enjoyed not having to queue at the cafeteria for my cup of tea and gluten-free cookie.

As you can see this blog comes from Murchison, a pleasant farming settlement with surrounding green pastures tucked away in the mountains. I’m glad it’s a nice wee place as I’m presently trapped here by torrential rain and flooding that closed local roads and almost floated my tent away. Fingers-crossed, the sun will be out soon and play can resume.


Tuesday 15 November 2011

Nelson, New Zealand - Six degrees

It’s often said that everybody in the world is connected to each other by only six degrees of separation. Like me, you may be sceptical but here’s a funny wee story my friend John sent me recently.

John was reading the online blog of a screenwriter. There was a link on the blog to a book writer, so he followed the link. On that page there was a link to someone the book writer met at the Book Festival, so he followed that link too. That took him to the webpage of my neighbour and she has a link on her page to “the bicycle diaries”.

Not even six degrees!

Tuesday 8 November 2011

Wellington, New Zealand - Wellingtons

Here’s a little facet to life on New Zealand’s North Island that I find quite endearing. When I pull into a corner shop or tearoom in the countryside there is always a stack of Wellington boots outside. Rather than go in with muddy and manure-splattered boots on, farmers slip out of them at the door and wander around the shop in their socks! Mind you, some of the socks are just as unpleasant!

I’ve not seen any Wellingtons outside the shops in Wellington, a far more upmarket kind of place. Wellington must be one of the world’s more picturesque capital cities, stacked on the hills above the waters of Wellington Harbour. It’s a likeable city with attractive old buildings in pleasant juxtapositions to the new. It’s a city that makes the most of its waterfront – working container ship terminals and ferry ports sit comfortably beside marinas, green space and sculptures, and little bits of sea that have been captured by boardwalks and bridges to create arty, watery parks.

It wasn’t an easy ride getting to Wellington as south of Napier I ran into some bad weather. I might have guessed I was in for a rough time. The signs were all there. Like the sign that said “Welcome to Woodville – Wind Farm Capital of New Zealand”. The type of wind that bends trees forced me to stay put for a day in Dannevirke, a pleasant town with some attractive old buildings that was originally founded by Scandinavian settlers. When I’d exhausted all other free entertainment options, I had to resort to flicking through a pile of old “New Zealand Women’s Weekly” magazines in the campground kitchen. I least I caught up on world events (wasn’t Kate’s dress lovely); enjoyed fascinating stories such as “Swallowing a Spoon Saved My Life”; and pondered the weightier issues of the day including “can you become addicted to lip balm?”

Let’s hope the weather improves - I’m catching a ferry across the notoriously rough Cook Straight to New Zealand’s South Island.

Photos on Flickr.


Tuesday 1 November 2011

Napier, New Zealand - Star wars

You’d think these days that one western country is pretty much like the next but I’m finding it’s quite different cycling in New Zealand compared to the States.

After the airiness and space of the plains and mountains of North America, New Zealand feels quite cramped and crowded and the roads very busy. In the States I’d often cycle out of one town in the morning and not hit another until it was time to pitch the tent in the evening. In New Zealand the towns and scenery delights come in quick succession and they’re lovely little towns, not yet blighted by big shopping malls. There is always a lively main street with all sorts of different shops such as bakers, butchers, delis, greengrocers, bicycle shops and surf clubs. There’s not such a huge range of groceries in New Zealand but they’re certainly cheaper which is good for the hungry cyclist (. . . me!) and the budget traveller (. . . also me!). And Tigger and I can now claim low food miles as we scoff our Kiwi fruits!

The temperature right now in New Zealand is just right – pleasantly warm during the day and cool enough at night that you have to wrap up or, as one New Zealander said, “put long-sleeved pants on”. I like chilly nights as where’s the joy in camping if you can’t snuggle up in your sleeping bag!

These last few cold, clear nights the stars have been spectacular but they’re not the only thing glowing after dark. At my camp spot at Katikati I found they had a rival in the “star wars” as the riverbank sparkled with the little lights of thousands of glow-worms! But the best thing about camping in New Zealand compared to the States, is that you don’t have to worry about anything big, hairy and omnivorous coming out of the woods at night!

As I pedal my way down the North Island, there seems no end to the natural wonders on offer. I cycled up onto the volcanic plateau at Rotorua which sits on the caldera of a recently extinct volcano and is now a hotspot for geothermal activity. There are fumaroles and hot springs sending steam and smelly sulphur up into the air and bubbling, boiling mud pools which I find I can happily watch for ages. Then there’s a fabulous dawn chorus to wake up to each morning with a few familiar songs from blackbirds and sparrows (that somehow made their way here on a one-way ticket) and some exotic notes such as those from the Tui bird. It’s a handsome bird that’s black with two white pom-poms dangling from its neck. But the best thing is its song – it sounds just like R2-D2 from Star Wars!

I’ve now left the central volcanic plateau of the North Island and cycled over the crazy, steep roads of the Maungaharuru Range to return to the east coast at the beautiful art deco city of Napier where Lyn (Zelda’s mum) and Bill are putting me up and showing me around. A few days of hard pedalling from here should take me to the world’s most southerly capital city – Wellington!

Photos on Flickr and map below.

Friday 21 October 2011

Whangamata, New Zealand - 10,000 miles

Wow! I’ve now cycled 10,000 miles since leaving Scotland last summer in eleven different countries and four different continents. I’ve only just changed to my second set of tires and I’ve still only had three punctures! In recognition of this achievement and all the fabulous tales from the saddle that I’ve brought you, why don’t you sponsor me if you’ve not done so already and make a donation to Oxfam by clicking on the link on the right. Thank you.

I must confess a few of those recent miles have been pushing – the hills on New Zealand’s Coromandel Peninsula are short but severe! However the pushing is usually rewarded with a sweeping descent through pretty rolling hills that eventually bottoms out at some gorgeous golden sand beach. I pedalled by Mercury Bay where Captain Cook anchored in 1769 to watch the transit of Mercury and at the same time declared the land to be British. I’m not sure if he’d run this by the Maoris first! If New Zealand was colonised by Brits, why does everybody talk with “sich a finny accint”?

One of the more unusual beaches on the east coast of New Zealand’s North Island is Hot Water Beach. One evening, just before low tide, I walked along the beach, enjoying the Pacific washing up between my toes. There were dozens of people frantically digging large holes in the sand or already relaxing in steaming pools of hot water courtesy of the local geothermal activity! I was too cheap to rent my own shovel to dig a hole so sneaked into a recently vacated pool – it was hot … really hot!

In a couple of days I‘ll turn inland to cycle through the heart of New Zealand’s land of fire - in pursuit of more hot action!