Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Moetapu Bay, NZ: Goodbye, South Island

The Southern Alps are the major geographic feature of the South Island. This mountain range controls everything here -- weather, waterways, roadways, and the movement of people and their vehicles. So steep and impenetrable, there are really only three routes to cross over the range by our chosen means of travel -- Haast Pass, which we did from the West Coast. Arthur's Pass is in the middle and is the highest and most spectacular, renowned because of the train that crosses over from Christchurch to Greymouth. A road also follows this route, and we approached tentatively from the east with the full intent of getting to the pass, but chickened out when the weather turned wet and cold. The northernmost route goes over Lewis Pass, lower and gentler than the other options.

After we left Hanmer Springs we had a day of steep ups and downs that wore us out, so we camped just shy of Lewis Pass. The next morning was clear and bright, and after a couple of kilometers of up to wake us up, we had a the reward of a spectacular downhill. By the time we reached the river valley and turned north, a southerly wind pushed us the rest of the day into Murchison -- a 112 kilometer day. You need only two fingers to count the number of times we hit triple digits on our daily kilometer count on this tour.

A clear morning for our descent of Lewis Pass.

Murchison was like coming home, since we had passed through the town when we were heading to the West Coast. It was still just as warm and dry and quiet as the first time, so we stayed an extra day for quality internet time and ice cream indulgence. After that, we retraced our route along the Buller River to St Arnaud, the base for our Nelson Lakes tramp almost three months previous. Over another minor pass, and we were in new territory on a road that is a straight line to Blenheim.

The Wairau Valley was formed by a major fault that runs as straight as the road and the river alongside it. The valley is long and narrow with mountain peaks on either side. We were so inspired by the exhibit at the Sir Edmund Hillary Alpine Centre at Mt Cook, that John found a secondhand copy of his autobiography. So the night we camped in the heart of this valley alongside the braided Wairau River in the shadow of these mountains, John read how young Edmund, who was stationed with the Air Force in nearby Blenheim, developed a love of mountain climbing with the summiting of his first peak, Mt Tapuae-o-Uenuku. The past and the present were linked as the peak stood like a beacon from the very spot where we slept. Humbled we were, because Edmund would have two days off to tramp, and would ride his bike with a full backpack to the base of the peak, summit, camp, and hike down ride back to Blenheim the next day.

Big sky in Wairau Valley

Blenheim is another agricultural center, with wine grapes being the major crop. The town is populated this time of year with lots of foreign workers, from the Pacific Islands as well as European travelers on work visas earning money by picking fruit. We learned of a local farmer's market, and spent an enjoyable Sunday morning talking with the local farmers and tasting some of the best almonds, plums, blueberries, and olive oil grown in New Zealand. This market was definitely a local's event with kids running around and people just hanging around chatting. We stood out as both travelers and cyclists, which is a great opener to strike up a conversation with segment of the population not involved in the tourist industry. The couple behind Windsong Farms actually lived and taught skiing In Mammoth Lakes for several years -- small world!
Grapes coming to a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc near you soon.

Our last day on the South Island was spent sitting in our tent on a secluded cove in Queen Charlotte Sound. It rained from dawn to dusk. This was a walk-in DOC campground, and required descending a few scores of steps to get to beach level. We had carry our bikes and panniers in separate trips. The day we arrived was beautiful calm and blue skies. Our only company were local residents walking by for a late afternoon swim. But rain came in overnight, and since this was a rustic camp with no lounge to retreat to, we had no choice but to sit inside and read and do crossword puzzles. It was fun, and we didn't really want to leave the South Island anyway. So many of our rest days were spent waiting out the rain, that it seemed appropriate that the skies would weep on our last day, too.

Queen Charlotte Sound -- spectacular on a clear day.
Our secluded cove on Moetapu Bay the day we arrived.
It was a full moon, so the tide was very low when we arrived.  High tide in the middle of the night flooded the grass just a few feet from our tent.
What a difference 12 hours make -- rain trapped us in our tent all day.  Cooking is a challenge in the tent vestibule.
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