Sunday, January 30, 2011

Omarama, NZ: Two Days, Two Passes

We heard  about the Crown Range Road from other bike tourists.  It is is the most direct route between Wanaka and Queenstown.  In the year 2000 the last dirt stretch was paved, and now claims to be the highest sealed road in New Zealand.  It is a popular route, for campervans and bicycles alike, and the morning we conquered it, there were plenty of both.

It was a quiet, drizzling Sunday morning when we left Arrowtown.  Campervans zoomed by from both directions, but neither the vehicles or the increasing moisture could slow us down any more than the 5 km/hr we were going.  John always pulls ahead on hills, and I saw him stopped at the top of the final grade.  Also at the top was a bus with a trailer with bike racks with the logo for Pacific Cycle Tours.  As we were desperately putting on all our layers to trap some heat before the wind sucked it out of us, cyclists on ultra-light racing bikes began to come up that final hill.  The driver of the bus was hooting and hollering for each one of them and taking their picture.  They would reach the top, and then dive into the bus.  All I could presume is that hot tea and warm clothes, and even perhaps a personal masseuse, awaited them.  No cheers for us, but then I guess we didn't pay for them.

View from the top looking south from where we ascended.  It was a cold night, and there was a light snow covering on the peaks across the valley.

The sun came out and the wind was at our backs as we cycled down the other side towards Wanaka.  It was 40 kilometers of downhill bliss -- we just had to coast and take in the scenery. 

The Crown Range Road goes through the former gold mining region of Cardrona, but now famous for its ski fields.  The racing cycles passed us at breakneck speed, collecting as group at the historic Cardrona Hotel.   As much we wanted to also stop of a hot coffee and peek inside, we decided not to mingle.  So we had a picnic in the park down the street and drank up the sunshine instead. 

They passed us one more time, but a sub-group slowed down to chat.  One woman said how much she admired what we were doing.  And when we learned that this group was on a trip that took them from Bluff to Picton, from the south tip to the north tip of the South Island, in 12 days, each of them cycling 140 kilometers a day. Learning this, our admiration was mutual.

Following the high of the Crown Range Road, one of our best days yet, was the ascent of Lindis Pass.  On this day the skies were gray and overcast, there a constant flow of cars and trucks passing us,a strong headwind, and a steady uphill.  There were no stores, no services, nothing but a few sheep ranches and endless fences to break the view of the dry landscape.  And nobody cheering us on, just a group of guys in a car at the top all getting out to pee.

Only 105 meters lower than the Cardrona Pass, the tough conditions made it feel like it should have been higher!

At the top, hoping we can find a campsite before it starts raining.
It was too far to get to a holiday park that night, so we descended, stopping periodically to look at potential campsites.  We finally reached a rest stop, and since it did not explicitly say "No Camping", we took advantage of the protection from rain and wind in the canopy of trees.  Dry clothes and a hot meal and we were renewed.  Only on car stopped all evening, and the driver stopped by to chat.  He was an Asian currently picking fruit on a work visa, but had just finished up 1 1/2 months of bike touring in Australia.  He gave us a box of cookies, a gift of admiration, which we accepted gladly.

Our campsite at the north side of Lindis Pass.
Although it rained a bit overnight, it cleared out the next morning before we were underway.  And like almost every day we have been in New Zealand, the weather today was nothing like the day before.  Strong winds blew us to Omarama, puffy clouds and the big blue sky of the Mackenzie District all around us.  No passes to cross today!

Bands of clouds pass by as the storm from the previous night clears.

Our first view of Mt Cook, the highest point in New Zealand.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Glenorchy, NZ: If You Don't Like the Weather, Just Wait a Day

Queenstown is adventure central for New Zealand.  From here there is paragliding, river rafting, bungy jumping, skiing, tramping, kayaaking, etc.  It is a compact town built on the northern shore of glacial Lake Wakatipu, a long sinuous body of water that looks like a giant scour mark on the map.  We arrived by midday after our steamship ride across the lake, and there were tourists of all variety milling about the streets.  We had no intention of staying here, and after obtaining some artisan bread and other groceries, we headed along the north shore towards the head of the lake.  Once again, our quest to see the end of the road shadowed the warning signs.

We were told this road to Glenorchy had some ups and downs and steep climbs.  Oh, hills are no problem for us -- we did the Coromandel!  And then there were the norwesterly winds, blowing into our face.  Oh, they don't seem too bad, and we can get protection from the trees alongside the road!  And then there was the mist shrouding the peaks -- it wasn't forecast to rain till later, right?

So 24 kilometers down the road and two hours later, John stopped and turned to me and said he was questioning our decision to ride this road.  It was like riding in a moist wind tunnel on a treadmill set to maximum resistance.  We pondered our options, which included turning back and going up the many downhills we had just finished.  A couple of day cyclists came by from the opposite direction, and we had a 15 second conversation that verified that it was not raining at the end of the lake, and the terrain flattens out in "5 to 10 kilometers".  We didn't have a chance to ask about the wind.

So we pushed forward, rolling down a long, steep incline that we both knew was the point of no return.  And for the next 26 kilometers and three hours we dug deep into our reserves and pushed the uphills, and due to the wind, the downhills and flats, too.  It was a wild ride, with clouds moving around the peaks and light constantly changing the hue of the water.  We had a final rest just a kilometer out of the village of Glenorchy, at a broad opening of a road with a fairly impressive fence and stone sign.  A fancy SUV came out of the road, and the driver rolled down the window.  For a moment I thought he might invite us to stay at his fancy house.  But he asked if we were lost, and we replied, no, just tired and resting.  He chortled, and said it was not far to Glenorchy, wished us luck, rolled up the window, and drove off.  We later learned that the Blanket Bay resort rents rooms for over $1400 a night, so fat chance of us getting an invite to stay there!

It was a kaleidescope of colors and clouds on the cycle in.
We were beat, and slept like the dead that night.  We had planned to stay a day to explore the surroundings, but shortly after breakfast it started to rain.  It rained all morning, it rained when we walked to the local cafe for lunch, it rained the two hours we sat in the local library, it rained as we walked back.  The campground was one of few comforts, and we hung out in the kitchen in the late afternoon.  We ended up talking for a good while with Karen and Gary, early retirees and like-minded travelers from Australia.  The skies cleared, our laundry dried, we were well-rested, and all was well with the world again.

Water hazards formed all around us as the rain poured down all day.
The next day was fantastic -- not a breath of wind, blue skies, and stellar views of the high country that was obscured on our way in.  And the dread of traveling back on that road that was so tortuous just the other day proved to be no problem without a headwind.  Easily, our best day cycling in New Zealand.

All is forgiven when the sun is shining!

Looking northwest towards the peaks surrounding Glenorchy.  The turquoise color of the glacial waters of Lake Wakapitu was stunning in the morning light.

Healthy and happy!

Monday, January 24, 2011

Mavora Lakes, NZ: Gravel Road to Heaven

We met a couple of bike tourists from Sweden almost two months ago.  The conversation upon meeting others of our species generally includes: where are you going, where have you been, how long have you been in New Zealand, and if they are traveling in the opposite direction, where is the nearest grocery store.  This couple mentioned that they did a particular route, and it was the best thing they had experienced in New Zealand -- the gravel road that passes by Mavora Lakes north of Te Anau.

Since then we have done a fair amount of research online and questioning locals about if our skinny tires, drop handlebars, and loaded panniers could handle it.  No red flags came up, the weather forecast showed several fine days, so we decided to go for it.

An ambitious cyclist would do it in one day, most others two, and we stretched it out to three.  Our first day traveling north was on a quiet Sunday morning.  The gravel road was very well packed and with a steady, almost imperceptible, uphill grade.  By early afternoon we had covered the 70 kilometers from Te Anau, including the 38 kilometers of gravel.  The hardest thing we had to do the rest of the day was select a campsite.

The road passed large pastures of grazing sheep for many kilometers, making the landscape along this gravel route not much different from many other roads in New Zealand.

The road made a steady climb towards the mountains where the glacial Mavora Lakes are located.

Look familiar?  The outlet of South Mavora Lake was the film location for Lord of the Rings, where the Fellowship leaves Lothlorien on the Anduin River.

Mavora Lakes is a Dept of Conservation recreation area, with a few designated campsites with tables, water, and toilets.

Fine weather offered beautiful views looking towards North Mavora Lake from the shore near our campsite.
The next day was the real highlight of the trip.  Leaving the Lakes and the DOC controlled area, we entered land that was privatively owned, with a public road running through it.  A stern sign stating no camping allowed was posted at the boundary.  Here range cattle wandered the grasslands in a glacial-carved valley.  The cattle were a bit skittish as we cycled by, and an extra ring or two with our bell was necessary to keep them moving away, as well as to confuse the big bulls that lumbered towards us.

Big, sunny skies.

The valley began to narrow as we moved north, with mountains hemming us in on either side.

At the point where there was no more valley, we dropped down into the channel of the Von River.  This view is looking south from where we came.   

A steep couple of kilometers dropped us into the narrow Von River valley.
It was early afternoon, a day of full sun a little wind, and warmer than we had experienced in a while.  After 45 kilometers, we rested in the shade of trees next to an old stone house at a stock station.  The longer we lingered, the more we realized the stone patio would make a nice campsite.  We waited to set up our tent, instead leaving our bikes fully packed and just sitting down to cook dinner, out of sight of the road.  We had not seen a car for hours, and John wandered out in the open to take a photo.  Just then a fast-moving ute came down the road, and spying a figure, pulled in to investigate.  We were informed by a polite but stern gentleman that no camping was allowed and that we really shouldn't be there without permission of the owner, which we did not have.  Obviously, being on bikes, we could not leave the restricted area that night, so he said we could stay, just leave the place clean.  We said many thank-yous and apologies, and set up our tent for the night, a bit chagrined.

A lovely, illegal campsite.
The following day brought a change in weather, and we had to bundle up to stay warm under cool, overcast skies.  Today we would cycle the remaining 20 kilometers to catch a steamship that would ferry us across Lake Wakatipu, transporting us from this open land to the bustle of Queenstown.

And if we get a chance to tell another bike tourist about the trip, we might also just have to say it was one of the best experiences of our journey.

Cycling the last bit of gravel to Walter Peak Station.

The TSS Earnslaw, a vintage steamship operating on the lake since 1912.  Before roads were constructed to Walter Peak Station, sheep were transported on this boat to and from Queenstown.

The ship is powered by coal shoveled into the furnace in the engine room below the deck.

Last views of Walter Peak Station from the deck.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Te Anau, NZ: A Fiordlands Journey

Te Anau is a town built for tourism. Not big, but full of accommodation options, eating establishments, and booking agencies for access to the Fiordlands and the premier tramping routes in the area.  Here we were on the edge of yet another very unique section of this small country -- the Fiordlands -- virtually inaccessible except by air or boat or by a few trails that thread their way between huts.  Carved by glaciers that etched deep canyons out of the granitic rock, it is a terrain more familiar in Norway, and a destination for just about every tourist visiting New Zealand.  Including us.

Most tourists choose to take a couple hour boat cruise through Milford Sound.  The boat originates from the dock at the end of the dead-end Milford Road.  Getting to the dock requires going over a pass, through a 1200 meter plus long tunnel, on a narrow road with a constant flow of tour buses passing, through an area that gets 20 feet (feet!) of rain a year.  And then coming back again.  What would you do?  The last cyclists we met rode in and took the bus back out.  We chose to take a tour bus/cruise combo for a one-day trip to save our bodies to continue our journey beyond Te Anau.

Our bus and fellow passengers for the day.
We selected the least expensive package, but ended up with the best tour guide.  Simon, a former conservation worker, was well-versed in all things about the natural history -- the plants, the birds, the geology.  He traded in the life of constant travel and low wages to provide for his family, and live a simple life on the shores of Lake Te Anau in a cabin without electricity.  John sat up in the front seat of the bus next to him, and chatted with him most of the day.  Not only about what we would see out the window, but about trails and tramps and routes to explore in the region.  The drive took longer than the cruise, and depending on the group's interest, Simon would make frequent stops at vista points and natural spots.  He showed us wild black orchids, one of only four growing in the valley on the way to Milford Sound.

Mist was lifting and rising all day on the surrounding peaks.

Aptly named -- Mirror Lakes.

Rushing water emanating from the glaciers high in the mountains, with the distinctive turquoise tint from fine glacial silt.

If I were a true German, I would jump into this icy pool naked.

One of the reasons we did not bike the Milford Road -- Homer Tunnel.

Meet one happy boy -- he has been quaking with anticipation of seeing Milford Sound since our journey was just a concept.

The waters were like black glass.

Waterfalls cascade from a hanging glacial valleys.

Seals greet us from the shore.

The boat passes under a waterfall.  Only a couple folks in our group frolicked in the cascade.

Water, water, everywhere.

Twenty feet of rain per year = lush rain forest.

Glacier view.

A Kea, the native, rare everywhere except in tourist centers where they might get a handout.

A parting view at the end of a most spectacular day.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Blackmount, NZ: Southern Hospitality

Invercargill was not a city we planned to visit, but my snapped shifter cable changed the itinerary. We arrived late Saturday, and the bike shop not open until Monday, we occupied ourselves by blowing our wad at the local farmer's market and visiting the amazing Queen's Park.  First thing Monday morning, we were in the bike shop.  Within five minutes my bike was up on the rack and complimentary cappuccino was brewing -- $22  and a half hour later we were on our way.  By this time I also had not a twinge of shin muscle pain, so it looked like both bike and body were cured.  The next day we were on the road early in the morning, taking the Southern Scenic Route towards Te Anau.

Things are finally going our way!
Despite the formal designation, the route in this part of the country is rural and remote, and greatly reminded us of our time on the West Coast.  Campgrounds were a bit widespread, and we figured we might be able to find a place to free camp along the way.  Just as we made a late afternoon stop at the park in Orepuki for a restroom break and to fill our water bottles, it began to drip.  Drips turned to rain, and we ducked into the bus shelter across the street to wait it out.  Minutes turned to hours, and the rain did not stop.  Since only two cars passed in the last five hours, and it was a rather spacious bus shelter -- it seemed like half the size of our place at home -- we decided to go ahead and cook dinner.  The rain continued, the wind howled, the sun set, and no more cars passed,  So we just went ahead and set up the tent inside the shelter to spend the night.

Shelter and seating -- what more could you ask for?

Weather kept happening into the night.

The next morning we went out to fabled Gemstone Beach -- no gems, just horrendous winds blowing foam across the sand.
It took is an two hours to go 10 kilometers the next morning, as winds from the passing storm front was directly into our faces.  But as morning turned to afternoon, we turned inland so the headwind was now a tailwind.

Most of the sheep we see now have been freshly sheared, with the linear traces of the shearing blade evident.
Again, with no campground nearby at the end of the day, we planned to duck into the forest for the night.  But a big black cloud formed to the east, and another to the west, and both approached fast and coalesced before we could outrun it.  So public facilities once again came to our rescue.  We pulled under an awning in a schoolyard.  A local gentleman came by, walking his dog.  We asked, could we camp in the schoolyard?  No, that is not allowed, but if you wait a minute I will go get the key to the community center next door -- you can stay there.  The rain has started, and it won't stop soon.  So just like that, we had a cavernous hall with a kitchen, hot water, and a heater to ourselves for the night.

The trust and kindness of strangers are amazing.

We spent the night at the foot of the stage on a beautiful polished wood floor.

The clouds broke up just before bedtime, painting the pastures in the distance with light.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Curio Bay, NZ: Catlin Treasures

The further south we traveled, the more frequent were those, Kiwis and tourists alike, who said "visit The Catlins".  We decided to go for it, but it seemed forever to get here because of that pesky leg injury.  But we cautiously entered the region after the layover in the "hospital hostel" in Owaka by doing a few short cycle days.

Beaches, rocky headlands, good surfing, and remoteness are all part of the character of the place.  Many of the small roads were unpaved until just a few years ago, so there currently is a perceptible increase in tourist services development.  But much of what is here is still on the minimalist side, and there are broad areas of rural, isolated country and a bit of the beaten track of the standard tourist with limited time.

A half day of cycling south of Owaka brought us to windswept Tautuku Bay. the wind was blowing so hard the waves were being pushed back as they came into shore.

A minor stream crossing and a roll across the sand found a free campsite well protected from the wind and with an ocean view.
Our recollection from looking at a geologic map of the area was the "basin and range" character of steeply dipping sedimentary rocks on the highlands separated by valleys.  So traveling south to our destination of Curio Bay included a few steep climbs, which got the leg to barking.   But the sun was shining, and any day that happens is a cause for joy.

We were racing to get to Curio Bay by early afternoon, because at low tide petrified trees are exposed on the rocks in the tidal zone.  And somewhere on the second to last grade there was a snap, and I no longer could shift gears.  We pulled to a grassy stretch of ground, and spent the next hour trying to thread a spare cable through the shifting mechanism.  Let it be known, the wire cutters on a Leatherman tool are insufficient for trimming bike cables.  We finally knocked on the door of the house that we were parked in front of and begged for a more adequate tool.  Within seconds the homeowner retrieved a cutter from the front floor of her car (only in the land of infinite fences -- her partner works as a fence builder).  We spent another half hour chatting it up about local politics, bike travel, and the uselessness of television while John finished the job.  But the shifter worked only for three gears.  Enough to get us to our immediate destination, but not to the bike shop, at least 100 km away.  And since our new friend also works for the local tourist information center, we got the scoop on catching a bus to a town where we could get the shifter serviced.

It finally was late afternoon when we arrived at Curio Bay.  The tide was still out, the sun was still shining, and the petrified forest was beautifully exposed and lit for our exploration.

Tree trunks are scattered like pick-a-sticks.  The forest was flooded by volcanic debris and covered and silicified during the Jurassic period.

Tree rings can still be seen in some of the logs exposed in cross section.

Stumps of the felled trees pop up everywhere.

Many of the stumps have a cylindrical core of silicified wood, surrounded by a cone of ash.
Curio Bay also has rare wildlife -- Hector's Dolphins, Southern Right Whales, and also Yellow-Eyed Penguins.  The birds waddle up on shore in the late afternoon.  Not to look at petrified trees, but rather to feed their young in nests in the bush on the shore.

The penguins at Curio Bay are remarkably tolerant of human observers.

Ready to dive in!
We stayed one night at Curio Bay, and made arrangements to take a tourist bus into Invercargill, the largest town in the Southland.  The transportation system moving tourists around the country reaches even the loneliest places, which was fortunate for us.

Waiting for the Bottom Bus to take us to Invercargill.
Although we would have preferred to ride the distance, it was not sensible with my injury to try with only three gears.  We traveled in three hours what would have taken us two days, and missed the challenge of 100 km/hr headwinds.  We hired seats on the Bottom Bus, one of the many transport companies with vehicles that seem all too frequent and pass all too close to us on the New Zealand roads.  And this was a cultural experience in itself.

The driver stopped once along the way and walked to the back of the bus to make sure the bike as still there.  My bike got to ride inside.

Our bus was occupied by 14 other passengers. They all joked around like friends, which apparently is what they were since they had been traveling on this bus together for a couple of weeks since Auckland. They were mostly girls from the UK in their twenties, all with iPods as fashion accessories, and more interested in flirting with the bus driver and playing DJ for tunes on the bus speakers than looking at the landscape. When asked if they wanted to stop one more time to look for penguins, they replied with a "no, not really...they are cute and all, but we just want to get to the hostel". So we sat in the back of the bus, craning out the window to see every rise and fall of the terrain we could have biked, with little interaction with our fellow travelers. The contrast of our travel mode and experience was more stark than the generation gap.  We felt affirmed that we are, indeed, rich.

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