Tuesday 31 January 2012

Hokitika, New Zealand - Green and gold

I’m not sure if I mentioned this before but this is not my first visit to New Zealand. One of my favourite spots from my last visit eleven years ago when I trekked the mountains was a wild, windswept beach on the west coast near Fox Glacier called Gillespies Beach. So as I pedalled my way north up the coast, I was really keen to revisit it.

A gravel road that winds and climbs through the rainforest is the only access to Gillepsies Beach. Like so many of the little settlements along New Zealand’s west coast, the one at Gillespies was founded in the 1860s at the height of the gold rush. Little remains from the heyday, just a couple of shacks and a miners’ cemetery tucked away in the bush. The beach is covered with large, flat pebbles and dotted with big chunks of driftwood. It’s pounded by the wild Tasman Sea and huge waves crash into shore, sending up a hazy mist all along the coastline. There were more people here than the last time I visited which was before the Lord of the Rings films made New Zealand so popular (and so expensive) but a long walk along the beach soon got me away from the others.

There was something else new as well. On the road to the beach there was a very sad memorial to nine people who had died in a plane crash at Fox Glacier in 2010. They were tourists taking a skydiving trip over the mountains, no doubt the highlight of their holiday, but paid for it with their lives. I remembered at the Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia there was a similar memorial to thirteen people who had died in a vehicle crash out on the salt flats. Again they were just on holiday and taking a day trip. But the most poignant story I came across was in Argentina. On my way pedalling north up through the Andes, I stayed at Rosa’s hospedaje in the tiny, middle-of-nowhere settlement of Pituil. Rosa showed me a single line entry in her guest book written by a Swiss girl, Annie - just the date, her name, country and passport number. Like me, Annie was cycling alone through South America, living the dream that I am living now. But just after Annie wrote that one line in the guest book and cycled out of Pituil, she disappeared and has never been seen again since.

Oh dear, that’s all terribly sombre considering I’m pedalling up one of the most beautiful coastlines in the world … where you might still find gold in the hills. Further north from Gillespies is a town called Ross, also known as the “Gold Town” for there is still an active goldmine here. I took a long walk through the bush above the town up to the old goldfields. I was hoping for a find similar in size to the Honourable Roddy which at a whopping 3.6kg was the largest gold nugget ever found in New Zealand and unearthed at Ross in 1909. It subsequently became tableware for the toffs at Buckingham Palace. But I was out of luck and continued cycling north to the very pleasant coastal town of Hokitika which is famous not for gold but for jade or, as it’s called in New Zealand, greenstone. It is collected locally and in the workshops in town on a wet day I watched the artisans craft it into beautiful trinkets and jewellery.

Cycling up the west coast through these little towns that retain a hint of a bygone era has been quite idyllic. My route has been a narrow corridor through fern-filled, damp and drippy rainforest that deafens you with its insect cacophony as you pedal along and every now and again pops you out at a beautiful bay. It takes your breath away with its stunning vistas as the mountains send down icy fingers of glaciers into the rainforests below. But in my mind, the view to beat all views is that from Gillespies Beach as the snow-capped Mount Cook rises above the green of the rainforests. I enjoyed the view relaxing against a large chunk of driftwood in the evening sun and listening to the surf break with a cup of tea in my hand. On Gillespies Beach, I had struck gold.

New photos on Flickr - click on the link on the right.


Wednesday 25 January 2012

Franz Joseph, New Zealand - update

I'm pedalling my way north up the west coast having crossed the Southern Alps for the second time by the Haast Pass. The Tasman Sea is to my left, mountains and glaciers to my right, rainforest all around and rain, hail and sunshine from above!

Monday 16 January 2012

Wanaka, New Zealand - The Holy Grail

What do I think about all day when I’m pedalling along? I often ask myself this but struggle to find the answer. I did manage to focus my mind long enough the other day to consider what is the one thing most appreciated on the road … the gold at the end of the rainbow … the Holy Grail of cycle touring? I thought it might be a big pile of fresh, folded laundry still warm from the dryer; or perhaps the much-longed-for but rarely experienced tailwind; or maybe it’s finding unlimited free WIFI. But in the end I decided the Holy Grail of cycle touring is … the fluffy towel! There is no joy in using my travel towel which is like a large piece of fuzzy felt but the joy of rubbing and wrapping yourself up in a proper fluffy towel is without limit. So I say thank you to all the people on this trip who have loaned me a fluffy towel – this blog is dedicated to you.

There have been no fluffy towels in the last ten days of cycling but there has been some spectacular riding to make up for it. I left Queenstown on the beautiful, old steamer the TSS Earnslaw as a pianist played period tunes in the saloon. This ferry crossing took me to the south shore of Lake Wakatipu and a cracking, two-day route through the mountains on a remote gravel road to Te Anau where I sat out three days of torrential rain! A few days of hard cycling from there and a massive climb over New Zealand’s highest sealed road, the 1076m Crown Saddle, have now brought me north to Wanaka, a lakeside outdoorsy kind of place tucked in beautiful mountain scenery and my gateway to the west coast or … as they call it here … the “wet” coast. Fluffy towels at the ready, please!

More photos and words on Flickr - click on the link on the right.


Saturday 7 January 2012

Queenstown, New Zealand - Do you believe in ghosts?

In the late 19th century the central Otago area of New Zealand's South Island experienced a gold rush and the Central Otago railway line was built between 1891 and 1907, its coal-fired steam trains servicing the gold towns that sprung up along the route. I've used this railway line to cycle west from Dunedin as today trains no longer run on the route ... or do they?

I joined the Otago Central Rail Trail in the sleepy village of Middlemarch where, in the absence of a campground, I pitched my tent on the rugby field! The rail trail carries walkers and cyclists along what was once the bed of the old railway line and loops north across the Maniototo Plains, hot and dusty high country, before turning south to the lively, rural town of Alexandra. On the way it passes through the spectacular Poolburn Gorge where the trail is a single track cut into the ledge above the rocky valley, crosses the 37-metre high Poolburn Viaduct and dips into some cute little towns that have a lingering atmosphere of the gold rush days. When I joined the rail trail I really felt like I'd stepped back in time - it was so peaceful with just the crunch of gravel under my tires and the wind whistling through gentle, rolling hills bathed in soft morning sunshine. It was a million miles away from the noisy bustle of busy roads and the city.

There are several tunnels to pass through on the trail and the longest is so long and dark that you need a torch to find your way. As I made my way through the light at the start of the tunnel gradually faded and went out, leaving me in an eerie, ghostly gloom. The air was chilled and the walls of the tunnel closed in around me. After a few minutes in the blackness, I popped out on the other side and left the trail to pop into the bushes, as you do. When I scrambled back up onto the trail, I noticed I was covered with a black dust which I am sure was fresh coal soot. So maybe trains still run on the line afterall!

Photos on Flickr.


Sunday 1 January 2012

Broad Bay, New Zealand - update

After a relaxing break at my friend John’s house on the beautiful Otago Peninsula, it’s time to get back on the road again heading west and south. Pics from the peninsula are in the New Zealand South Island folder.