‘South Island, Mum. You’ve got to visit the South Island. The North Island is all very beautiful, but it’s just like Wales. You’ve seen it all before . It’s the South Island that’s spectacular.’ These sentiments were reiterated several times but so were the warnings of steep windy roads and heavy traffic. The main highway from Christchurch is closed due to the November 2016 earthquake. This diverted all the commercial traffic up the smaller twisty central highway. ‘No place for a bicycle’ we were warned. Mind you, we’ve had a lot of warnings like that.
We went for a compromise. An outdoor pursuits instructor in Christchurch had recommended the South Island’s northern coastline going from Picton via Nelson west out towards the Golden Bay. He reckoned it was one of his favorite rides; it also passed the test of my daughter who had liked it out there. So having flown into Wellington, we took the ferry and buses out to Takaka, and cycled a little further west to get a better view of Golden Bay before turning around to start our New Zealand leg for real.
Our route back took us over the Takaka pass. At 791m it’s a mere babe of a mountain alongside the many big sisters reaching 3000 m or more. Two such snow capped beauties we admired whilst looking out across Havelock’s inlet.
The Tasman’s Great Taste Trail, where we admired the views from the top of the ridge before sweeping back down to the coast and crossing the river, was our first experience of New Zealand’s many bike trails. The ferry from Mapua delivered us to the deserted estuary beach where sand and shingle replaced gravel tracks and bitumen, as we wound our way across the deserted island.
Thus we’d started our NZ trip but the honeymoon period was over. Half a dozen rain spots was all we’d felt so far but that was about to change. The Scottish game we call it having spent two weeks of 2014 cycling up to John O’Groats with the on/ off rain kit syndrome. Cycle for ten mins; it’s raining, on goes the rain kit. Thirty mins later it’s dry; off comes the rain kit. Thirty mins later – it’s raining- on goes the rain kit. Ten mins later it’s stopped, off comes the rain kit. This interspersed with whole days of continuous rain was what we were in for.
Official advice on the New Zealand bike trails site is, ‘take rain proofs and a sense of humor – you never know you might enjoy cycling in the rain’. Coffee culture in NZ where even tiny villages have a café that we could cower in certainly helped.
We’re no lightweights when it comes to outdoor pursuits in rain having spent five whole days in continuous rain on a sea kayaking trip in Alaska and four days hiking in a rain forest in Vancouver Island but cycling is possibly the trickiest because of the changing levels of exertion required to climb hills and mountains, pedal along the flat, or freeze on long downhills. In heavy rain it’s easy to keep cool but in drizzle and light rain it’s not long before you are wondering if it’s leaky rain clothes or sweat that’s soaking you to the bone. When you can see them the views in the rain are very atmospheric with trees and hill tops poking up above the clouds.
The must do Tongariro Alpine Crossing, with its stunning snow capped volcano, craters, sulphur lakes and alpine views was fantastic. It’s a 19.4km one day hike across a mountains pass. Boots not bikes, is definitely counted as a rest day but I’m not sure our legs were convinced! The day started in perfect sunshine but this didn’t last. A couple of hours into the walk the cloud closed in. Fortunately we’d already snapped away at Mount Ngauruhoe and we’re lucky that the cloud cover lifted enough for us to enjoy views of the Red Crater and Emerald lakes. The alpine views on the downward path swept before us like flicker cards presenting the scene as the cloud, and by now drizzle, wafted past.
Calamity! 19.4km afoot makes for a pretty tiring day, and Clare dozed off in the shuttle bus on the way home. As she snored, her bag fell over, and her battered, cracked, scraped, but still working camera ended up in a puddle inside the bag. End of camera.
A couple of days later we tackled the Timber Trail. It’s an easy grade 2/3 mountain bike ride, which was an obvious choice to get a taste of a full length bike trail, especially with the added attraction of crossing eight suspension bridges.
A solid day of rain before we started ensured the mud levels were at their best. Sections of it were slow and exasperating as we slipped and slid along the track, frequently shoving the bikes through squelching mud. Information boards presented the history of the logging industry in the area while the two days of sunshine, and respite from the rain, kept our spirits up.
Our last few days of riding in New Zealand continued in the same vein – pretty hilly and rather damp. There’s an old saying about no bad weather, just bad gear, but it does slow you down. Fortunately we still made it to the camera shop in time to pick up the ordered replacement. And on our very last riding day the hills receded into the distance as we dropped down a scenic gorge, then traversed agricultural plains – with no headwind and no rain! We never quite made it to Auckland, meeting up with emigrated old friends Sally & Stuart near Hamilton. We decided to duck the logistical and timescale challenges of getting in and out of Auckland with boxed bikes, and gratefully accepted a lift to the airport, ready (really?) for America.