Friday 24 February 2012

Bateau Bay, Australia - Food, glorious food

Food! It consumes half my daily budget and even when I’m not eating it, I’m usually thinking about it. Whenever I roll into a new town in whatever country or whatever continent I’m cycling in, my first thought is to hunt out groceries.

My favourite grocery experience was probably in South America where I enjoyed shopping for fresh produce at the fruit and veg stalls, and buying a nice piece of meat to fry from the “carniceria” hoping to boost my iron intake for the thin air of the Bolivian Altiplano. But I also enjoyed the huge variety of foods available in the States and pulling off the road to make little picnics in the town parks along the way. One thing I’ve enjoyed in abundance is avocados. I started eating them by the barrow-load in Argentina where they were cheap and delicious then loved adding them to my salads and tortillas in the States. Mind you, nobody would want to be cycling behind me after I’d had a few ripe avocados! And for the gluten-free traveller, New Zealand came up trumps with wide availability, even in little towns, of delicious gluten-free breads, cakes and other goodies.

Of course, one benefit of this bicycle trip, apart from all the nice scenery and stuff, is that I can eat what I want with impunity. My sister will vouch for the fact that I was eating three breakfasts per day when I arrived at her house in Portugal and in the States I frequently enjoyed the MacDonalds’ 1200-calorie afternoon snack of large fries with a chocolate milkshake! There’s always plenty of fruit, veggies and salad in my diet but unfortunately the calorie count is usually bumped up by chocolate, biscuits and ice-cream. So when my bicycle trip is over and I’m not riding over mountains every day, somebody PLEASE remind me that I can’t eat as much as I am now.

Wednesday 15 February 2012

Christchurch, New Zealand - Shaky quaky

You’re all probably aware that in February 2011 the city of Christchurch suffered a devastating earthquake. As well as taking many lives, it destroyed the historic centre and thousands of homes in the suburbs. But you may not be aware that earthquakes are still rumbling away in Christchurch on a weekly basis. I felt two large earthquakes centred on the city at Christmas time when I was in Dunedin; on my first night camping on the Banks Peninsula, a 4.1 quake shook the ground beneath me; and just last night another violent quake shook the city. It was with a little trepidation therefore that I accepted an invitation to stay in the earthquake red zone at the house of Sean and Sharon, a lovely couple that I’d spent time with in Little River.

I cycled into Christchurch expecting to find a city almost back to normal but I was in for quite a shock. The historic centre remains closed off with high, wire barricades all around. You can peer through the wires into a post- apocalyptic scene of tumbled down buildings with rubbish blowing through the deserted streets. I cycled on to Sean and Sharon’s house along cracked, pot-holed roads through ghost towns of abandoned homes, some sitting at alarming angles or sunken into the ground with windows and walls cracked open. I chatted at length with Sean and Sharon who helped me understand just how devastating an impact this disaster has had. There is no end in sight to the frequent aftershocks so people can’t rebuild their lives and move on, and the psychological impact on people is immense – they have to live with a constant sense of dread and unease, worrying when the next big quake will come and where their loved ones will be when it hits. They told me that many households now sleep with lights on so they can move quickly should another big quake strike during the night but also for some sense of comfort during the dark hours. And so many people are caught up in protracted wrangles between insurance companies who decide that a house can be repaired so they only pay out repair costs and the council who say the same house is unsafe and has to be demolished. It’s been a very sobering few days for me!

Christchurch is the last stop on my bicycle tour of New Zealand. In nearly four months of meandering around the country there have been some great highlights – the spectacular scenery of Mount Cook National Park; cycling the quiet tracks of the Otago Central Rail Trail; exploring the former gold-mining communities of the beautiful west coast; some great wee camping spots; catching up with old friends in Auckland and Dunedin and making many new ones – but it’s been tough riding with hard hills and horrible headwinds! And there has been a downside too - New Zealand doesn’t half attract holidaymakers with no brains! Every day I’m passed by thousands of tourists in motorhomes spending every waking minute driving hundreds of miles to ensure they don’t miss any sight that their guidebook tells them they must see on their once-in-a-lifetime, whistle-stop tour of New Zealand. But they end up being processed at speed through New Zealand’s rather well-worn and overly packaged tourist trail. Then there are the young backpackers and gap year students who are whisked around the country on special buses that stop long enough so they can experience such life-enriching activities as jet-boating or bungy-jumping or hitting golf balls into a floating hole in Lake Taupo. Then it’s off to the pub to spend the rest of the time drinking. Some gap year! The most notable gap is between their ears!

This may sound like me being grumpy but I’m not – I’ve had a great time in New Zealand and I’m very sad to leave. But I’m not finished down-under just yet … so keep reading as I eat my tucker by the billabong and waltz with Matilda on a short cycle tour in Australia.

Thursday 9 February 2012

Little River, New Zealand - The birds

Here’s a funny wee story. In December 2010 when “the bicycle diaries” and my world cycle adventure were in their infancy, I was riding north through Argentina and made a stop in El Bolson. There I met an English couple, Hugh and Pauline, who were also cycling through South America and we spent the afternoon chatting over ice-cream. Well a week ago in Hokitika would you believe that our paths crossed again as Hugh and Pauline made their way south down the west coast on their bicycle tour of New Zealand. As Harry Hill would say … What are the chances?

Since cycling out of Hokitika I’ve also crossed paths with two interesting New Zealand birds. My first encounter was with a weka, a large, brown bird that stomps about in the undergrowth as if it owns the place. I was camping at Goldsborough, a post gold rush ghost town, and cooking my supper in a little shelter. I heard the rustle of plastic bags from the vicinity of my tent and when I went over there I was just in time to catch a weka making off into the bush with my new, unopened bag of breakfast cereal! I had to admire the bird’s boldness and gave it some cereal anyway. But New Zealand’s most mischievous bird is the kea, an alpine parrot with gorgeous, rich green plumage across its back and a stunning blaze of red under the wings that it shows off as it flies through New Zealand’s high forests and rocky peaks. I had camped in Arthur’s Pass Village, high up in the Southern Alps, but had been warned not to leave my tent or bicycle unattended as the keas, in their search for food and fulfilment of a rubber fettish, regularly destroy both with their long, sharp beaks. I locked my bicycle safely inside the cooking shelter and all evening kept a close eye on my tent. I was just drifting off to sleep, feeling smug that I had foiled the pesky parrots, when the streetlight projected onto the side wall of my tent, like something from an Alfred Hitchcock film, the shadow of a kea stalking my pitch! I was out of my tent faster than you can say “pretty Polly” to scare it away!

I had cycled to Arthur’s Pass Village on my third and last crossing of the Southern Alps via the long and very steep Arthur’s Pass. Another couple of days of tough riding through rugged mountain landscapes took me over Porter’s Pass and down a fast descent onto the flat Canterbury Plains. I’ve now cycled out onto the Banks Peninsula which is the remnants of an ancient volcano, split apart and flooded by the sea. I’m spending my last few days in New Zealand in a little slice of heaven at a lovely little place called Little River! No avian problems here – just the tuis and bellbirds making beautiful birdsong.