Saturday, November 27, 2010

Redwood Valley, NZ: Dear Murtons

Dear Angela, Peter, Andrew, and Ben,

It wasn't enough for you to open your spare room to us, feed us, let us store our bikes while we hiked, wash our clothes, make us feel like family.  But you arranged for the most spectacular warm sunny day to take us sailing.  In the most wonderful boat built by Peter, that turned heads everywhere it went.

The able crew sets up the sails in preparation for launch.

Number one son Ben kayaking on the beach of Fisherman's Island

A Murton family portrait

A little island, where Andrew snorkeled with the  seals.
It was a full day -- thanks for encouraging me to go for a snorkel, and not laughing too much as I wiggled into your wetsuit.  Looking down and seeing the seal swim beneath me is an image I won't soon forget.  We were all so tired from the sun and wind and water -- it was so quiet in the car on the drive back.

You have a good life there in Redwood Valley.  The wine tasting was fun, but the cider was even better.  And I hope it rains soon so your fruit and nut trees and vegetables grow as strong and healthy as Ben and Andrew.

And we wish you the greatest success with the business, and all the physical and financial challenges that come with it.  We are in awe of the quality of craftsmanship that goes into your work.

Restoration in progress on a boat dating from the late 1890's.

Beautiful classic lines to this old boat, almost fully restored.

The workshop with a menagerie of boats in various stages of restoration.

So here is a shameless plug for Murton's Timbercraft -- the best place for all your custom boat, furniture, and other wookworking needs --

A million thanks, and Auf Wiedersehen!

Love, John and Doris


Thursday, November 25, 2010

Abel Tasman National Park, NZ A Photo Album

Sometimes everything goes our way. After a day of dodging rain showers, we dropped into the rich valley where Nelson is located. A tailwind pushed us like a helping hand into town. Our goal was the home of Angela, the daughter of our friends Terry and Christine of Lower Hutt. Hospitality and generosity are inherited, it seems.

With a place to store our bikes for a few days, we switched travel mode from cycling to tramping. Our goal was to do the Abel Tasman Coastal Track, one of the "Great Walks", a hike of four days, three nights and 54 kilometers.  We loaded up the minimalist backpacks and were dropped off at the southern trailhead in the early morning (thanks, Angela!).

The tide was out and not a soul in sight as we began our tramp.

The track alternates between walking along the water to routes through dense forest with occasional views of golden beaches below.

The sands in this area a a rich golden color, a result of iron oxide staining the quartz grains.

Our first campsite at Te Pukatea Bay was steps away from the water.

The rainforest can be deep and dark. obscuring the view to the ocean that may only be a few meters away.

We certainly were not alone on this trek.  One of the great things about the Kiwi educational system are opportunities for school trips to beautiful places all over the country.  Generally these  trips happen at the end of the school year, which is the end of November, which happens to be about now.  So on the trail we often passed groups of students of all ages in various stages of weariness and perspiration.

Also, many visitors to the park are dropped off by water taxi at one bay and day hike to another pick up point, or access campsites by kayak.  One of the more popular sections crosses over a swing bridge, and we encountered several foreign tourist tour groups.  The foreigners are easily recognized, because when we pass them traveling in opposite directions, they stay to the right side of the trail.  The Kiwis stay on they left, just like when driving a car.  And the Germans march together in an orderly line, evenly spaced, no stragglers.

Swing bridge river crossing along the way.

Beautiful streams empty into the ocean from the highlands.

Ho hum, another gorgeous golden beach.

The track is fully within the Abel Tasman National Park, and campsites are only allowed at designated locations and require reservations.  Many visitors stay in the huts, which have bunks and a wood stove and common area for cooking and sitting.  Nearby are the campsites, and since this hike was one of the Great Walks, the facilities are also quite nice.

Cooking shelters and flush toilets and filtered water are available for even us tenters.

Our campsite locations were controlled partially by the tides, since the track crosses estuaries that are flooded at high tide.  We were up before the dawn on the third day to cross Awaroa Bay.

Crossing the estuary barefoot through icy water.

The estuary is quite shallow, so large expanses of sand are exposed at low tide.

Shells left behind by the tide.

The last segment of our tramp was after the last water taxi pickup, so it was less traveled and we had it nearly to ourselves. 

Rock and water.

Tree ferns dominate the forest.

Gossip time at Separation Point.

Fur seals also frequent Separation Point, the northernmost point along the hike.

Whariwharangi Hut at our last campsite is a restored homestead from 1896.

Descending to Wainui Bay at low tide, where we will meet the shuttle bus to take us back and reunite us with our bikes.


Saturday, November 20, 2010

Pelorus Bridge, NZ: Encounters of the Natural Kind

Picton is is the port town at the end of the ferry line. Everyone goes through Picton on their way between islands. I can't say I liked the place -- the campground was overpriced and located next to the railroad tracks and a house full of Friday night revelers that left us with droopy eyes in the morning.  So it was good to leave, as much for the picturesque views of the harbor as to leave a bad night's sleep behind.

Cars and trucks lining up on the dock for the morning ferry in Picton.

Our route was along the Queen Charlotte Drive, winding along the Marlborough Sounds coastline.  It was a Saturday morning, so traffic was light.  Undoubtedly sleeping it off like the wild partyers from last night.

Calm morning waters.

We stopped for a brief walk to top of scenic overlook.  Out of the bushes near where we parked the bikes we were greeted by a couple of curious birds.  Pardon our naive initial excitement at thinking we saw kiwis, which are extremenly rare and nearly extinct.  No, these were weka, an endemic but not uncommon species.

The endemic Weka, a flightless bird.
We have since learned that they are quite curious and can be a bit pesky in areas where people give them handouts.  Like this car park.  They lost some of their novelty once they started pecking at our panniers.

Hey! Stop that!

Overcast morning skies made the coastline views a bit gray, but still impressive.
We ended up at a Department of Conservation campground at Pelorus Bridge.  We were there early, since it was at the halfway point to our next destination.  Which gave us plenty of time to provide nourishment to the local sand fly population.  This was our first encounter with this insect of South Island legend, and the bites on our ankles itched for days as a reminder of this place.

Green and peaceful.
But that evening, we had the most magical encounter. A hand-lettered sign at the campground entrance said "Glowworms" with an arrow pointing to a nearby walking trail through the bush. So, as it began to get dark, we wandered on the trail, looking into the damp, mossy recesses along the path. And as the evening light dimmed, we began to see the small points of light. More and more appeared, and it was like we were being stared at by dozens of eyes.

We retreated to our tents, and I read a bit from The Hobbit, the part where Bilbo and the dwarves are wandering through the dark forest of Mirkwood.  And that night, as rain pelted for hours on our tent, I dreamt of all the magical things in this Middle Earth of New Zealand.


Friday, November 19, 2010

Wellington, NZ: End of an Island

It was a windy and overcast and chilly day when we came down from the Rimutaka into the suburbs of Wellington. I wish I could say we had the energy to pedal up a big hill for a view of Wellington after dinner, but that would not be true. Instead we were chauffeured from the cozy home in of our new friends Christine and Terry, whom we met briefly at the hot pools of Waikite Valley.  We exchanged emails regarding route options as we wound our way down the North Island.  They have a habit of bringing traveling strangers from foreign lands into their home, and lucky for us we are part of that privileged group.

The sunset is muted over Wellington on the overcast day we arrived.

Terry and Christine
Provided were everything a bicycle tourist would want after a month on the road -- a warm meal, hot shower, and the first "real" bed since leaving home.  And good company.  We stayed two nights, taking the train into Wellington one day to visit the downtown and the Te Papa museum.  Simply one of the best museums we have ever been to -- an immersion of Kiwi natural history and culture presented in highly interactive and modern displays.

View of the harbour from the Te Papa museum.

We cycled into Wellington to stay our last night at the HYA hostel, so we would be in good position for the ferry ride to the South Island.  We walked the intimate downtown, seeking out some decent bread, a gourmet grocery store filled with the best of New Zealand products, and indulging in satisfying bowls of Malaysian laksa.  Food is a preoccupation for us me.

Cycling into Wellington on the bike path along the Hutt River.

Banners along the waterfront remind us of the season, except here the Santa hat is on  a Tui bird.
The ferry across Cook Strait is a three and a half hour journey.  It is the major transportation link between the North and South Islands, and the hold of the ferry is filled with camper vans and trucks alike.  Very little is in open sea, and the ride is scenic as it winds through the Queen Charlotte Sound.  And a booking snafu saved us the normal $20 each for bikes for the crossing -- more money to spend on food.

We met two other bike tourists on board, the first of our species since the first days of our trip.  Time passed quickly as we exchanged notes on our travels through the North Island.  While our style is to stay primarily in campgrounds, they don't fret about where they will stay, instead knocking on farm house doors asking if they can pitch a tent in the pasture.  They invariably get offered dinner and a bed.  We have been much too reserved to try that yet, but it opened our eyes to the possibility if the need arises.

Navigating through Queen Charlotte Sound.
Nine our of ten times when we discussed our itinerary with a Kiwi, they would say, just wait until you get to the South Island.  It is beautiful, laid back, and open.  Only four million people live in New Zealand, which is geographically the size of California, and only one million of them are on the South Island.  And the North Islanders do not seem to have any problem admitting which of the two islands is better. 


Monday, November 15, 2010

Featherston, NZ: The Rumataka Incline

On the advice of numerous cyclists and other sage travelers, we avoided New Zealand's Highway 1 as it slices down the southern half of the  North Island.  We heard it would be like cycling down Interstate 5 of California -- lots of trucks, with the New Zealand touch of narrow bridges and minimal shoulders.  So our route went down Highway 2 instead, a route barely traveled by tourists (I counted zero camper vans for three days).  A very rural stretch dominated by dairy farms, we found ourselves in Eketahuna. We spent two nights there, unanticipated, due to misty rain.  It turns out the town is located in a microclimate that traps moisture as it comes over the mountains, and if we had just gone 10 kilometers south over a pass, we would have had sun and warmth.  One quote we heard was we could grow old waiting for the rain to stop in Eketahuna.

As we headed south, we heard over and over about the Rimutaka Grade, about a steep, curvy road with heavy winds, unsafe for cyclists.  But an Internet search of other bike tourists that had past this way confirmed the dangers, we began looking for an alternative.  One was to buy a train ticket and ride over the pass.  But the more intriguing alternative was to follow the trace of the old rail grade, the Rimutka Incline, which has since been converted to a bike and walkway path.

A mandatory stop was at the museum in Featherston where the only remaining Fell engine is housed.  The Rumutaka Incline railway was constructed in 1877, and was the link between the harbour of Wellington and the agricultural valleys over the mountain range to the northeast.  Because the incline had grades of 1 to 13 in some sections, too steep for normal steam engines, it required a special engine design.  Even today rail grades are seldom greater than 1 to 30.  The Fell engine was used continuously until 1955.  The unique design used a third center rail for extra grip on the uphill and braking on the down.  Read all about it here -- it is a fascinating history. 

Oiling the old engine -- it still runs and they fired it up while we were there.

Old photos covered the walls in the museum.  This one shows the turn with constructed fencing in the area named Siberia.  It was added after a train was blown off the tracks due to high winds.

The rail trail was 17 kilometers from end to end, and there was campsites along the way.  So we planned an overnighter and filled up with provisions as we headed to the Incline.

I doubt that steam engines still cross here, but it is a romantic thought.
It was a beautiful sunny day, with puffy clouds on the horizon.  It was only 7 kilometers up to the high point they call the Summit, and that was our destination.  But the first two kilometers of the trail turned out to be just a narrow walking path through the forest along a creek, which we had to push our bikes along the whole way.  So we opted to camp at Cross Creek at the bottom of the grade, and the site of the old railway station.

Crossing the bridge at the end of the trail to Cross Creek station site.

Information posts were situated at points of historical interest all along the path.

Remnants of the old turnstile where standard trains coming up the flat valley were turned around after switching their cargo cars to the Fell engines, which would carry the cars to the Summit station.

Troughs where trains would be serviced -- brakes were replaced after every descent, they wore out so quickly.

We had the Cross Creek campsite to ourselves.  There was a small shelter with benches.
We were full of anticipation of the ascent the next day.  From Cross Creek we would follow the gravel rail bed, and we fully expected the great weather to greet us the next morning.  But some time overnight the winds picked up, so great that they bent our tent nearly flat.  We huddled in the shelter to cook breakfast as gusts of wind howled outside.

We proceeded up the trail.  the grade was steep but rideable, but the 100 km/hr gusts kept us from pedaling.  So we pushed our bikes most of the way up.

The site of the Siberia creek crossing (see previous old photo).  The bridge is gone, but all that remains is the piling.  The drop into and out of the creek bed was so steep we had to take the bikes down one-by-one -- John at the front, and me hanging onto the back so it would not roll down on its own.

Entering the Summit Tunnel -- one of four on the trail.

The Summit Station site -- the top of the steep 1 to 13 grade, and the beginning of the gentler 1 to 40 grade descent for the remaining 11 kilometers.

It's all downhill from here!

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