Cycling long distances gives me a lot of time to think. A lot of time to work things out, to reflect, to converse with myself. To converse with others on the road, to have conversations I’ve never had with people in my head. To get into imaginary arguments with drivers who dangerously did not give me enough space, to run through lists, and lists of lists in my head, to run through future conversations and job interviews. To go over the most efficient camp set up, so as to avoid losing or breaking items while unpacking and repacking, although still unsuccessfully. Items already lost or broken this way on this trip, USB key, spare camera battery, charms necklace, cell phone, glasses, wallet (again! but recovered! more on that later.)
Constantly covering KMs doesn’t give a lot of time to grow roots, not even pierce the soil really. But the satisfaction for me comes from watching those kilometres click away, to draw lines across a map and the satisfaction of saying “I’ve been there! On my bike!” And recently I’ve found it even more satisfying to draw those lines over the blank spaces in between roads worth mentioning on a map, “Yeah I went through there! On my bike!” But roots are nice and are the kind of thing that keep me from breaking or losing things and myself, so this trip I’ve come to Aotearoa New Zealand with a Work Holiday Visa, and plans to spend a good chunk of my year here firmly planted in one spot, hopefully, Wanaka, but first I would have to ride there!
When I landed in Dunedin Airport and cycled over Scraggs Hill, an unpaved steep, sheep and cow covered trail really, I was jet lagged, alone, and had no real idea what I was getting into other that what I gathered online. Cycle touring is not that common in Aotearoa New Zealand, with kiwis and tourists preferring supported, luggage transferred, multi day vacations. The few self-supported tourers I’ve met have been foreign. When I knocked on the door of the first “backpackers” I could find, I was told they were closed for business, but it was getting dark and Nicky offered to pack my bike into her tiny hatchback, which to my surprise fit three of us and my bike and gear and brought me to the campground just outside Dunedin, I would not have made it otherwise.
The idea is to cycle as many of the Nga Haerenga NZ Cycle Trails as I can. These are 22, mostly off road, long distance rides. A lot of them require some sort of train, helicopter, shuttle, or boat to avoid highways, rivers, or other impassable obstacles. I wasn’t to keen on that, so after checking out the art galleries in Dunedin, and riding what is said to be one of the most beautiful day rides in the world, the Otago Peninsula, I avoided the tourist train by riding over the 35 km climb to the start of the original trail, and first rail to trail in NZ, the Otago Central Rail Trail, 150 km of flat and very scenic views as I approached the Southern Alps.
At the end of that trail, The Roxburgh Gorge Trail, Great Rides Cycle Trail number two, is cut in half by an abrupt end and a jet boat ride to get to the second section. The budget is tight, so after doing the 11 km to the dock I turned around and headed back under moonlight, which was absolutely worth it, following thee Mata-Au Clutha River back up the rocky cliffs and catching sights of possums and rabbits in my headlamp.
Of course there are not only the official NZ Cycle Trails. The country is a mountain bike paradise, other trails, unpaved secondary roads, and 4WD tracks offering so much possibilities. After a day on a shoulderless highway I climbed up a dirt road to Bendigo Historic Reserve. Otago was once covered in forest, but after the arrival of humans, and the hunt for gold and mining the whole place is rocky and covered in shrubs and vestiges of old mining towns everywhere. My bike set up allows me to ride long distances, but also I can unload and head for more challenging terrain. Bendigo’s ghost mining town has mountain bike and hiking tracks flowing around old buildings, mine shafts, and mining equipment so I spend the afternoon exploring the ruins and camping by the derelict hotel.
I arrived in Wanaka following the Alexandra to Clyde River Track along the Mata-Au and all of a sudden the B&Bs and quiet towns turned into lots of camper vans and younger people with unconventional haircuts and body modifications. Cardigans and slacks replaced by branded and fresh sports wear. It was too early, I needed more time in the saddle. So after a few days I packed onto a bus and headed for the Alps 2 Ocean Trail (Cycle Trail number 3!) to glimpse at Aoraki Mount Cook, the tallest mountain in Aotearoa New Zealand. To avoid a costly helicopter shuttle across the river, I rode over an unpaved road from Lake Tekapo and slept in mice filled backcountry huts. The country has huts all over, most of them along popular hiking trails, these on account of being where nobody wants to go were free but nearly derelict.
The Alps 2 Ocean trail is 301 km from the foot of the highest peak, to ocean side town of Oamaru. It is actually a circuit of trails linked at times by unpleasant roads, but the trail sections around Lake Pukaki and Lake Ohau are amazing. I completed about half the distance, heading southwest on highway 8 once I got to Omarama. To get back to Wanaka, I had to go over Lindis Pass, an Alpine Highway with lots of tourist bus traffic. It was challenging, and unpleasant, that is, until I got to the downhill where there was almost no pedal power needed for half a day. I spend two nights camping next to a 19th century derelict hotel, and doing an unloaded ride up Lindis Peak, riding up to 1226m chasing herds of sheep up and down the mountain. I was at a peak, and over every uphill, there’s a downhill, something was bound to go wrong.
By the time I got back to Wanaka, I had a cold, I had a sinus infection, I had lost my wallet and broken my phone volunteering at the Contact Hawea Bike race, I was out of camping gas, my bike rack broke, I had broken my glasses, I had 50 cents and I was completely fucking demoralized.
But the sunrises and sunsets creeping over the mountains around Lake Wanaka are beautiful, enough to keep my hopes up. There is a tree in Wanaka, “the tree”, misshapen like a over-sized bonsai, growing out of the lake. It’s a tourist attraction, but a man often rolls his piano there and plays during sunset for spare change, with crowds of tourists taking photos. It was one of the most beautiful things I’ve experienced. I’m pretty good at getting myself out of trouble, or maybe, I’m just middle class and privileged and I’m on holiday, but either way, my wallet was found, and all 200$ still inside, I managed to fix my bike rack for $15, I have a job interview next week, glasses ordered and on the way for only $40, and I’m starting to dig up some soil to plant my feet for the winter. My diet consists mostly of crab apples, instant noodles, and peanut butter, and I live at a campground for the moment, but it’s enough, and this morning, frost covered my tent, and the Southern Alp peaks were wearing little white bonnets of snow for the first time this year, and I’m excited to jump back into winter for the second time this year.