Friday, November 20, 2009

Southland (NZ part 19)

(NZ part 1 here)

I've started noticing signs of fall coming on. Nights are getting quite cold, and we are near our southern-most point in our adventure. The water in my camelbak is warmed by my body heat, but the bit that is in the drink tube is cooled by the passing air. I wore my wool hat for the first time in quite a few weeks the other evening. Sometimes it's too cold to ride in the morning or evening with just my normal short sleeved shirt and bike shorts, even when the sun is out. My thoughts are starting to wander toward home and my family more as well. I think about my parents, and their experiences growing up, and time spent seeing the places they once called home.

And I think about going home and trying to live as simply as I can, as we have been here, on our bikes. Simple living, but engaged. As I ride across an historic suspension bridge I look down and realize my feet, my body, my whole physical being, its activity has been paralleled by my attentiveness. My thoughts have become as active and energetic as my feet, and have also settled into the rhythm of riding.

We camp south of Te Anau, near Manapouri. It is rural, yet more human scaled here. The Fiordlands to our west seem much less inhospitable than they did on our ride to Milford Sound. Small towns and farm country surrounds us as we head further south towards the coast. The riding is much flatter here as well, although we do climb onto plateaus and look out over gentle slopes. Clifden, the Waiau River, Tuatapere - the towns feel more and more like those connected to the sea. There are shipyards, and merchant streets we ride along, and the smell of the ocean. And then we see it, crest a bluff and look down on the long arch of Te Waewae Bay. The waves roll in, small, but Dan says this would be a place to surf.

The coastal riding is relatively easy, and we roll on. And the wind kicks up at our backs. We race through the growing human landscape, sailing on the gusts and our desire to be back in the places where we know we can pull over and camp without hassle. We make it a long distance day, stopping to resupply in Invercargil. We continue on and camp in a farmers field outside of town, on the boundary of an area we've looked forward to with anticipation, the Catlins.

Fiordland 2 (NZ part 18)

(NZ part 1 here)

The ride starts with a long uphill slog. We climb for several hours before reaching the entrance to the Homer Tunnel, which we must pass through to get to Milford Sound. The valley ends abruptly in sheer cliffs and scree slopes and the tunnel runs straight through the the mountain forming the western wall of this bowl. We've been told the only safe way to get through the one way tunnel is to wait near the entrance and coordinate with one of the numerous tour busses that make the trip to Milford. When they have gotten clearance from the busses at the other end of the tunnel, several of them head through at once. A driver agrees to let us ride down (and it's steep heading west - 10%?) in front of him, lighting our way with his headlights, as there are no lights built into the tunnel, and ensuring no busses come up behind us unaware. It is so dark we can hardly see our handlebars, but we are at least a little relieved that the drivers know we are there. We pop out into the new valley, and have an easy, fast ride down the 15 km or so to sea level. The forest is incredible here as well, and mountain rivers cross under the road and roar along beside us often. At one, we catch a quick glimpse of Mount Tutoko, the highest in the area, still covered in snow and glacier.

And then we are at the Sound. We sit at the edge of the water, eating lunch and watching the clouds blow around, clinging to Mitre Peak, rising almost three thousand feet up from Milford Sound. I feel rewarded with the most majestic views on a beautiful, sun filled day. It is yet another day that I will crawl into my sleeping bag hardly able to believe the places I've seen and the good fortune I've had to get here.

(Mitre Peak rises out of Milford Sound)

At camp in Milford, I run into a geologist named Kieth, from the University of Vermont, who I was told would be in New Zealand at the same time. The meeting here, on his last day in NZ, is purely coincidental. We sit and talk for a little while, and he tells me of his desire to one day put his finger on the very line dividing the old rock of the New Zealand coast from the newer rock crushed against that ancient coast in the most recent collision of plates. It sounds quite ambitious to me, and I wonder if such a point exists, but I keep my thoughts to myself. So many things in nature manage to elude the theoretical absolute, but maybe geology is different in this respect.

The ride back to Te Anau is as incredible as the ride in. The hills from Milford Sound up to the Homer Tunnel are grueling, but beautiful. We put on headlamps and charge up the Tunnel in front of another tour bus, before dropping into the Hollyford Valley again, and coast to The Divide. Just north of Lake Te Anau, I get a view I didn't notice on the way out, a mountain that looks like it was once flat, but broke free at one edge and hinged upward. The slope on the south side is an even grade for thousands of feet, then the peak drops abruptly into the river valley on its north side. I am reminded that there are new things to experience whether in a new place or a familiar, as we are always capable of changing our perspective if we so choose.

Fiordland (NZ part 17)

(NZ part 1 here)

We make camp on the Von River, which flows along next to the road. The stars are bright once again, away from the lights of town, and our usual companion Orion is with us again, upside down from our Northern Hemisphere perspective. And the Southern Cross, new to us. I often search for these few familiar stars before my mind wanders across the other starts.

(Back country in Walter Peak Station - Photo Dan Cantrell)

Our ride starts with a solid climb, ending in a high grassy plain that stretches out before us almost without end it seems. We make good time, riding side by side again in the compressed tire tracks. We stop at Mavora Lake, as a possible camp spot, but the sand flies descend on us, and we waste no time getting back on the road. After more gravel, we hit the main road into Te Anau, and turn right. The sun is setting ahead of us and storm clouds are caught on the hills around the town. Down a small access road 20 km out of Te Anau we pitch our tents and wash the dust and sweat off in a dipping hole. I wake in the night to rain, just enough to pull the rain fly closed, then drift back into sleep. At breakfast I snap my spoon trying to extract a sand fly from my oat meal.

We ride into Te Anau through the rain, and arrive at a Backpacker by mid day. Renting a room seems like the best option for drying our gear and preparing for a potentially wet trip with no supplies up to Milford Sound. The next day, with our food bins fully packed we head north on Highway 94 for the 240 km round trip.

On the sealed road surface, with no headwind, we make good time. Highway 94 runs along the east side of Lake Te Anau for about 30 km, through farm land and low scrub that has a look of a recovering burn, and through an occasional forest. Looking across the lake, large bays cut into the mountains and forests. Black Cone, Dana Peaks, Hewitt Peaks, Turret Peaks, Mount Kane, and Castle Mountain rise above the lake and into the clouds. Then End Peak and Mount Eglinton separate us from the Lake, and we ride in a valley flanked by jagged peaks on both sides. Occasionally a tour bus roars past, with a few passengers sitting in the front seat, reminding me of people sitting in front of large screen televisions, watching the landscape rush past but cut off from it so profoundly by a quarter inch of glass.

(Riding toward Milford Sound - Photo Dan Cantrell)

The forest builds, and at times we ride fully enclosed in a dense green tunnel of ferns and possibly a type of beach. The forest is so lush and the trees so large, at times five feet in diameter or bigger, I am reminded of the Olympic Peninsula in Washington. And then we slip out of the forest into a breathtaking flat, golden grasses waving in the ebb of the breeze. The peaks rise up one- two-thousand feet, so steep vegetation can hardly cling to the rocky surface, and slides can be seen all along the valley. The Eglinton River runs towards us, weaving back and forth across the golden flat. Soon we are back in the magical forest, and we climb past lakes and streams in an overgrown Adirondack scene. I crest The Divide from the Eglinton to the Hollyford Valley and am struck again by this landscape of mountains and rivers. The Hollyford River descends to the coast heading north in front of us, and the road turns west through the Darran Mountains to Milford Sound.

We make camp for the night near a fork in the road, where a side road descends down the Hollyford Valley. I think repeatedly about where that road leads, my consciousness is pulled in a way that is hard to explain or even comprehend, so strong that I still feel the pull of that valley nearly ten years later. Maybe it was the force of gravity and water, sleeping among these fastest of rising mountains, with the open seas below, colliding with the Hollyford River in a spectacular dance of sand and froth. Or maybe it was that same pull that every traveller feels when looking down a road that heads into the unknown, magnified by the magic in the mountains.

Wanaka and Queenstown (NZ part 16)

(NZ part 1 here)

"Real travel requires a maximum of unscheduled wandering, for there is no other way of discovering surprises and marvels, which, as I see it, is the only good reason for not staying at home." Alan Watts, The Book

We spent several days hanging around the Wanaka area, from the quick trip out to Aspiring Hut to a day riding single track near town we were told about at the bike shop. The town was one of those wonderful surprises for me, although really every day held surprises and marvels as we really never had much of a plan other than to make it back to Christchurch for our flight home. But I felt very comfortable in Wanaka. But we felt we needed to continue on, and we wanted to continue on. I was so used to the rhythm of being on the bike, and the feeling associated with seeing new country each day. Riding a bike is such a sensual way to experience a place, and I loved it all.

We head south out of town, toward Queenstown, on a back route to the adventure capital of New Zealand. The road follows the Cardrona River valley, climbing through the high foot hills of the Southern Alps. The landscape is dry again, now that we are in the rain shadow of big peaks. The hills are gentle and tan and brown. Eventually we reach the small town of Cardrona, and speak with an older chap outside a shop, who tells us about the times when this was once the main route between Wanaka and Queenstown, and how in the hills, up near he Cordrona Ski Fields, European car manufacturers used to bring their vehicles for rough testing and rally training. He is encouraging about our route over the pass at the head of the valley.

We continue up, the kind of long gradual climb that gives you time, that let your mind wander to fantasies of where you are heading, to longings, to regrets from the past, and to the mild burn in your legs, knowing it is all fleeting in some way. Construction crews work on the road just below the pass, a rugged area where the river has ripped away the gravels and narrowed the surface of the road. And then we have made it. We stop and take in the valley, Lake Wakatipu zig-zagging below, pinched between the arid mountains of southern New Zealand, the flanks of the Richardson Mountains to the north, and the Eyre Mountains in front of us, and the famous jagged peaks of the Remarkables off to our left, providing cover for one arm of Wakatipu. The road snakes along the shoulder of the mountains to our right, and we descend on dirt and gravel ball bearings until we hit asphalt, then switch back and forth happily until we blast out onto the valley floor.

The ride towards Queenstown is busy, there is more energy here than we've seen in quite a while, and it makes Wanaka and the old timer in Cardrona seem even farther away. Queenstown is quite a draw for those looking for an adrenaline rush, so the activity level doesn't fully take me by surprise. We camp on the outskirts of town the first night. It is a low quality affair, with no lights or electricity in the kitchen and trash overflowing the containers. After being out in the backcountry, an abused campsite in a developed area looks all the worse. We won't be here a second night.

On the ride into town, we are able to ride side by side on a path, and it is nice to have a leisurely day ahead of us. The conversation shifts from the spectacular riding we've had thus far, to home and families, and back. Camp is made at a fairly nice (and clean) camp ground just a few minutes from town early in the day. We spend a little time exploring in and around Queenstown, but since we aren't planning any adventure activities, we decide to move on before long. We take rides without our trailers along the lake, and up Ben Lomond, to the top of the gondola, for views that are almost surreal.

There is a passenger ferry, the Earnslaw, that runs from Queenstown across Lake Wakitipu to the old farming outpost of Walter Peak Station. The ferry is used almost exclusively as a round trip from Queenstown for sight seeing, but we see that we can take our bikes along, get dropped at the Station, and have a long ride out through a fairly rural area, so it looks perfect. The boat is an old steam powered ship and we watch the engineer and the two stokers operate the coal fired engines. Each of the two engines have three cylinders, and produce 500 hp. They have been in service for over eighty years, and burned about 1 ton of coal per hour.

Walter Peak Station is very nice and tourist oriented, but we head south on the gravel road toward Te Anau without much deliberation. I feel the freedom of a young child on summer vacation as I ride along one of the most beautiful rural roads I have ever travelled. I look down at the gravel, two packed tire tracks passing under me, and imagine for a second I am young and riding my old dirt bike.

(Dirt track out of Walter Peak Station)

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Wanaka & Aspiring (NZ part 15)

(NZ part 1 here)

In the morning, we continue south, with Lake Wanaka and the rugged mountains of Mt. Aspiring National Park on our right (Mt. Awful, Mt. Alba, Mt. Kuri, Mt. Jumbo, Mt. Albert, Mt. Twilight, and the Minaret Peaks), then cross a thin spit of land (the Neck) and ride with another glacial lake, the deep and brilliant Lake Hawea, on our left. It is a splendid trip in to Wanaka, and I feel at home almost instantly. We ride around the town, checking out the beach, before settling on a basic camp ground on the west end of town. The feel here is calming, and we wander around more, stopping at the local bike shop and discovering a funky movie theatre that we return to in the evening and watch Fight Club from one of the couches that serves as seating. (Someone beat us to the Volkswagen Beetle parked in a corner of the room.) The town seems to be full of fun and youthful souls, and we find ourselves in conversation with other travelers more than we have at any other time on the trip.

I enjoyed being in a town, especially Wanaka, but our adventure was still calling to us loudly, and at that point it was Mt. Aspiring that spoke to us. We studied our maps, and decided on a ride out the Matukituki Valley, to Aspiring Hut, near, but not in sight of, the namesake for one of New Zealand's World Heritage Sites.

We ride north out of town, again along Lake Wanaka, this time along the other side of it, on decent and quite roads. Soon we are on dirt, then on the longest washboard I have ever experienced in my life. Everything rattles. The suspension only soaks up so much of it, the rest rattles teeth and gear alike. I find there is only one speed that seems to keep things in harmony: slow. Dan is frustrated by the rigid frame on his bike and complains bitterly about the road conditions. I agree with him of course. We ride past the entrance to Treble Cone Ski Fields, where heavy machinery roars on the switchbacks overhead. Amazingly as we ride past, we hear and see car-sized boulders tumbling down the slope from the work site. Eventually we are at the end of the auto road and onto the track, which we ride without too much trouble, and to the amusement of several hikers making the same trip. At Aspiring Hut we take the wheels off our bikes and trailers so them can be brought into a vestibule area - we are warned that the parrots would likely destroy every bit of rubber on them if left outside. We enjoy a warm evening in the hut, cooking and eating with climbers there to explore the peaks around the Park. They tell stories and laugh easily.

Haast (NZ part 14)

(NZ part 1 here)

The hike out Douglas Rock Hut turns out to be quite a slog, but still incredibly scenic. The Copland River has gone down a bit after the rains of several days before and many of the smaller streams that ran across the trail are no longer visible. The long day of stepping down takes a toll on my right knee, sensitive from an old ski injury, and I am very glad when we reach the trail head. And even more happy when we are offered a ride to Fox Glacier to return the hiking boots. A pint of Speight's on the porch of a pub in town does wonders for aching bodies.  We return to camp to fight off sandflies, which we have little success with short of cooking and eating as quickly as possible, then climbing in to the tent for the night. During the night they find the tiny whole where the two zippers of the door meet, and mount an attack. In the morning, we decide we've had it with them, and we will forgo the rest days we truly need in hopes of making it off the west coast, and out of sandfly territory, as quickly as possible. We figure two medium days should get us over Haast Pass.

We make camp near a small river south of Lake Paringa on the first night. We wash in the river and repeat our routine of a quick meal and retreat into the tents. Even an easy day of riding was painful, but eventually helped ease some of the aches. The ride into Haast the next day follows the coast line more closely than we've been in a while. We reach Haast in early afternoon, and with a forecast calling for rain and strong winds, we opt for a night in a Backpacker. The next morning things have not improved much, so we take the rest day that seems to have been granted to us and stay for another night.

When I finally hit Haast Pass, I am exceedingly grateful for the pace we have taken over the past several days after the beating I took coming down the Copland Track. The road up the Pass is decent, and the traffic is not too heavy, and we climb on and on. Every now and then there is an encouraging shout or honk from one of the cars, and I keep pedaling. I vow to pedal until the final crest, which isn't that impressive as this is the lowest of the three Southern Alps passes. The bike has been working fairly well since the repairs, but this climb, with the weight of the trailer and the need to shift out of the bottom gear on occasion, the rear derailer starts to get fussy. After switchbacks, I reach the crest of the Pass. Dan is there already, as he usually is, but I have stayed closer than usual. Maybe I'm built to climb...  I pull over in a turnout, park the bike, let Dan know I need to give the shifting components a look. After a short road side tune, we are rolling again, down the gentle east side of Haast Pass, into the Lake Wanaka drainage and the more arid Otago climate we've been looking forward to. As the descent slows to undulating, we pull off the road to break for a snack. I am crushed when I realize that I have left my leatherman, a gift from my father, at the top of the Pass, being careless during my bike repair. I can't really stand the thought of riding back up the west side of the Pass. Dan says he will wait, and I decide to walk and hitch hike, and am quickly rewarded by a ride to the top by a friendly young Kiwi who chats quite knowledgeably about Vermont. He insists on turning and driving me back to my bike after I grab the leatherman off the guardrail at the top, and I don't put up much of a fight. Dan is surprised and happy to see me back so quickly. We make camp south of Makaroa, which is a cluster of only a few buildings.

Friday, November 6, 2009

On Foot, In the Alps (NZ part 13)

(NZ part 1 here)

Welcome Flats are without a doubt welcome after the long climb from near sea level. There is a hut here, and it is spacious and very well built for being isolated by 17 kms of bush. There is nothing quite like the feeling of being out in the middle of nowhere and coming upon something as civilized as shelter. It sleeps 32 on cots, has a good kitchen area with water from cisterns, coal/wood stove for heating, and natural sulphur springs hot pools a minutes walk down a small path. There are a total of four pools with varying temperatures depending on the route the inflow takes - the largest is about 2 feet deep and is maybe the second hottest, with a good deal of water flowing directly in from the springs themselves, 20 feet away. I soak in the pools for a while, watching the mountains in the mist and rain, before returning to the hut to make dinner.

In the morning I wake up to a beautiful day. The clouds have opened up a bit and the sun is beginning to stream into the valley as we start our hike toward Douglas Rock Hut and maybe Copland Pass. The peaks along this part of the valley are even higher, and glaciers and snowfields can be seen on many of them. Welcome Flats extends for maybe 2 or 3 kms up the valley and is like a high grassy pasture. The clouds break enough to catch a glimpse of the highest peaks of the area, in the far end of the valley where we are headed. Winds blow snow trails off the fluted points catching the morning sun light. To our left now, the Copland River relaxes on the Flat, mist rising off the cloudy blue water. We catch up with Cynthia, a camper we met a Welcome Flat Hut, and end up hiking with her for most of the day.

(Part way up Copland Track - photo by Cynthia)

The trail runs back into rainforest and suddenly our views of the peaks are cut off except for small breaks in the bush or at spots where steep bolder filled creeks churn through the forest and hold the canopy back. Mosses cover the ground on either side of the track, run over roots and up into the branches of the trees. Most trunks have a thick fur of light green moss. On a foot bridge, I get a view out across the valley to my left. The chain of peaks break and a high hanging valley joins the one we are in. On each margin of the valley, white ribbons of water and spray step down to join the Copland River, and in the far distance, over the horizon of the valley, rise more peaks and snowfields supplying these two creeks. I can hardly believe the beauty of this spot, thick rainforest covering slopes as far as I can see, a stark contrast to the barren grazing lands of Molesworth. Avalanches and mudslides mark where the mountains are slipping back on themselves, while above tree line, layers of exposed rock, pointing off at 45 degrees from horizontal show how this earth has risen, some of the fasted rising peaks in the world.

We reach Douglas Rock Hut after about 3 hours, eat part of a lunch, and head further up the valley. I am amazed at the size of the Copland River, it still holds quite a lot of water here, and we are over 20 kms up this valley. The gradient of the river has increased again, and the bed is full of house and car sized boulders which the river slams into head on, or sometimes slips underneath. Less than an hour from Douglas Rock and we are into what seems like a high alpine bush or grassland. We have left the trees, and there is no longer a full canopy overhead. Tussocks line the trail and rise to eight feet or more in height. Mixed in are small deciduous shrubs or trees no bigger than my arm. Occasionally we step around ragged yellow flowers that droop under the weight of the dew. The valley turns off to the northeast. We sit on boulders in a small creek, eat the rest of lunch, and decide we will try to follow the valley up to it's terminus at Copland Pass. I feel like I have already made it, have seen what makes me content while sitting on these boulders. The knowledge of this place is what I've come for, but I will go on to the pass with Dan as well.

Again we cross a high flat stretch. The walls of the valley have become more U shaped, and overhead hanging glaciers peer over sheer cliff walls and their outflows make long misty waterfalls that trail off in the wind. We round a bend and finally see the end of the valley - a huge bowl with what appear to be cliffs rising on the three sides. Two tarns of the brightest blue sit in depressions carved out by the glacier, and the Copland River begins where it breaches the dam made by the terminal moraine. Other moraines, older, skirt the north side of the valley, now beginning to grow vegetation. The newest are made up only of scree and boulders of grey rock.

(Approaching Copland Pass)

As we reach the end of the valley, we see that it is not vertical cliff. We climb up and out, traversing back and forth across a ridge bounded on either side by deep, narrow gorges, carved by the glacial outflow streams. We come closest to the one on the northern edge, in spots walking right along the edge, glancing down at the potholes and waterfalls of the little stream. The last one visible falls away into nothing, its bottom hidden from our view. The alpine vegetation has almost completely disappeared and the trail criss-crosses the grey scree fields, making the grey kairns which mark the path very hard to spot at a distance. Small pockets of snow come in to view as I reach the last pitch. I have lost the trail altogether, but Dan has headed off up to my left, so I work my way towards him. Before I get too far he retreats and says the scree is far too unstable to make it up the left side. As we traverse the opposite way a large rock I'm standing on begins a creeping descent and I hold my breath while it slows, and stops. The climbing is not technical, but it is still quite a long hike out, so an injury could be a real hassle.

At the end of the traverse we are able to drop into a slight depression that has hidden the trail and the more stable rock, and we head up again. We crest the ridge and see a few small snowfields between us and the main mountain divide. We make a quick dash up and have a look over the edge, in to the valley on the eastern side of the Alps. It will be quite some time until we make it to that part of the island on our bikes. Within 15 minutes the pass has been covered by clouds and the wind picks up. It is time to head down, looking out over the valley, to the clouds floating over the Tasman Sea to our west, the Copland River just a ribbon through grey boulders and dense green forest.

(Descending from Copland Pass - Photo Dan Cantrell)

We are back at Douglas Rock Hut by about 9 pm, for a total of over 12 hours of hiking. It has been an incredible day. We eat dinner with the western light streaming in on the glaciers and the high peaks, later the near full moon hangs framed between spires to our north.

Water Music (NZ part 12)

(NZ part 1 here)

It is still raining when I wake up, but it has let up significantly. We gather our gear and decide to do the tramp - it's going to be raining whether we're on bikes or on foot. We stash the bikes and excess gear in the bush by the trail head, then cover it all with a rain fly and huge fern fronds. The parrots probably present more of a threat to our gear than thieves. The bush is so thick and dark you can hardly see 20 feet into it from the road, but it is still nerve racking leaving everything you have to survive and heading off. But it is all just gear, nothing that couldn't be replaced if need be, and our load could definitely stand to be lightened.

We finish taking care of all the gear and hike into the rain forest with the Copland River a little way off on our right. I switch to my sandals quickly as the hiking boots actually have very little support and water is flowing everywhere around us from the rain. I don't feel like hiking in uncomfortable, soaking wet boots, and I don't feeling like stopping to take them off every 15 minutes to cross a stream.

Now that the rain has slowed, I feel lucky for the rain as it has filled the forest with the sounds of running water, bubbling, murmuring, cascading everywhere. They cut through the forest around every corner, coursing along over moss-covered roots and splashing down exposed rock faces, sometimes running right along next to the trail channelized by glacial moraines, or channels of a previous Copland River. The sound of water comes from everywhere around us.

(Stream crossing on Copland Track - Photo Dan Cantrell)

As we climb higher we gain more views into the valley, which cuts through enormous peaks almost as the the trail begins. Clouds sit on the tops of mountains and dump rain that pours off the mountains and clouds in huge cascades, or long, feathery spray. At one point I see four waterfalls at once, all of which seem to fall from the clouds as I can't see their source. A flat ceiling of grey clouds, resting on walls of sheer mountain slopes, wisps of waterfalls dropping one hundred, two hundred fee, some not touching down at all but returning to vapor and clouds in a gust of moist wind. Punchbowl lookout. Architect Creek suspension bridge - max load, one person bouncing thirty feet about the churning, frothy creek.

The Glaciers (NZ part 11)

(NZ part 1 here)

We ride on the next day, make it to the town of Franz Joseph, where the glacier of the same name descends from the Southern Alps. The weather is good on our riding, surprising me after the forboding comments on the West Coast I have heard. We've had no rain and only minor headwinds as we approach a few of the major valleys hitting the coast. The winds drop down out of the Alps, funneled through the valleys, then spill out onto the plain we ride along. I wonder if this is an unusual weather pattern as most of the trees I see are knarled and shaped by a prevailing southwest wind. As we reach the valleys and turn more perpendicular to them, we ride the bikes leaned into the wind for fun, like children seeing if they will be held suspended in a gale, with outstretched arms and rain slickers flapping. After a bit of play, we notice that we are almost sailing along and can actually make impressive time once we have "come about" like this. Pedaling in the top gear is easy.

Franz Joseph is quite touristy, buses everywhere. I see the glacier as I ride down Highway 6 through town. We pedal further, and camp on the natural levees along the glacial outflow river, which flows along with quite a bit of melt and rain water. Even so, there is a huge, braided plain to fill before the water even touches the foot of these levees - actually lateral moraines created by the glacier when its terminus reached this far down.

We hit rain on our ride south from our Franz Joseph campsite. I don't mind much. Spending a day riding in the weather isn't like making a mad dash for cover in your dry clothes during a downpour. You are just in the elements. We continue south toward the other main glacier town, Fox Glacier. The hills between the two are some of the toughest for me thus far, probably 20 km of what seems like mostly uphill, then finally, a nice long downhill into the town of Fox Glacier, a bit smaller and slightly less touristy than Franz Joseph. It is hard to gauge which hills are hardest from memory, as there is often such a play between the mental and physical toughness of pushing forward on a long trip like this.

(Drying out in Fox Glacier - Photo Dan Cantrell)

We eat muffins and hot scones under a roof and allow our skin and shirts to dry out a little. I notice some tourist fresh off their bus tour giving us a bit of a once over, and feel proud of our perseverence under all conditions. We have hardly slept indoors since we started on our ride. Any good dirtbag traveler knows the looks we get. Studying our maps we pick our next stop. We rent hiking boots from Alpine Guides, restock on camp food, and bike out to the Copland Track trail head. By the time we reach the trail head, it is raining hard, and the sand flies are the worst we have seen them. We crawl into a hastily pitched tent after a quick dinner and a donated beer from some Hawaiians who have decided to skip the tramp (hike) and head north to Fox Glacier. I tell Dan if it's raining like this in the morning we should bail as well.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Tasman Sea (NZ part 10)

(NZ part 1 here)

We continue along the Buller River towards Westport, the first town we will hit on the west coast. We're now on Highway 6, which will take us most of the way down the west coast as there are very few through roads that follow the general route we are planning. We've also been warned about how wet this area can be, so easier riding might be fine.

In Westport, and ready for a rest. I need to get the front brake bracket on the borrowed bike fixed as the rough riding has cracked one of the arms. I find a shop that does marine welding for all the fishing boats in the area, and they do a solid looking fix for a very reasonable price. We take the opportunity to do general maintenance on the bikes as well - cleaning the drive components, checking pivot points, etc. I also took apart the whole front fork hoping that it will reduce the pounding on the brake bracket.

We head south out of Westport on Highway 6, even though we've been warned that the wind will be against us the whole way and we will be soaking wet the entire time. We didn't know either when we decided to take a left and go counterclockwise. Westport has reminded me of Negril Jamaica - the way it sits at the intersection of inland and coastal roads, with it's hills dropping down to a large plain stretching out to meet the sea.

I see the signs of rainforest starting to crop up the farther we go. The forest is lush, the ferns and trees are grow bigger. We have left the rain shadow of the Southern Alps and are now riding as exposed as the island itself, facing the storms that blow off the pacific. But the weather holds, and we are making great time with little head wind. We spend our first night out of Westport on the Punakaiki River, and our second on a beach strewn with logs just north of Hokitika. A man surf casts in the evening as we lounge around camp. He walks past with his dog when he finishes, empty handed. The are both thin and deliberate in their motions.

(Beach campsite north of Hokitika)

We find ourselves in Hokitika the next day, to check in with the world beyond our daily riding. The town was a hub during the gold rush and signs of that history are conspicuous, clinging to the glamor it must of had at the height of it. Jewelry shops, gold and jade shops, and NZ artisan window displays can be found on most streets. We sit outside at a cafe that serves fancy desserts, and pedal on before the end of the day.

We find a glorious campsite south of town, at the convergence of the Kakapotahi ("One Kakapo") and Waitaha Rivers. We camp at the end of the sand bar stretching out into the confluence. Rains in the mountains bring the Waitaha River up significantly on a much appreciated rest day (we get no rain down near the sea). I watch throughout the afternoon as a gravel bar disappears, then is back by the next morning. The Kakapotahi is a lowland river, and does not come up much at all. the Waitaha begins beneath the glaciers of the Southern Alps, and is full of glacial flour sediment and is very cold. The Kakapotahi is much clearer and not so cold - I bathe there.

In the evening we get a visit from Mark, who lives nearby. He invites us to stop past for breakfast before we head further south. He shares the most delicious honey with us, his own, and I have not recovered from the addiction to this day.

Blackberries Please (NZ part 9)

(NZ part 1 here)

We spent only a little time at Lake Rotoroa, as beautiful as it is. We are getting into a groove and packing the gear and getting on the road seems to be what comes easiest to me these days. We start the day with a back road ride from Lake Rotoroa to Murchison - the Braeburn Road. It begins with a really tough uphill with very poor traction, but that is short and we quickly top out and head down into the watershed that leads into Murchison. The downhill is fast, but very demanding. It is bumpy, the traction has not improved much from the climb, and we cross the medium size stream four or more times. My arms and brain are tired by the time we reach the end of the downhill, but I have managed to avoid mishaps.

(Braeburn Road - Photo Dan Cantrell)

The road reminds me a great deal of a Vermont woods road, with it's trees forming a canopy over the road. As we pop out of into the open valley at the bottom we ride through a sheep farm I image could be one in Vermont a hundred years ago. Sometimes the landscape seems so managed here, but at other times I feel more remote than I ever have because the whole of the landscape is so rural.

We slowly ride down the dirt road, talking and stopping at the most prolific blackberry patches I have ever seen. The bushes practically line the road, so our progress is relaxed. We make camp on a sandy bank of the Buller River. I again try for the rising fish and they again take note that I am not a Kiwi and do not bite.

Back into the Back (NZ part 8)

(NZ part 1 here)

We decided to ride inland up the Motueka valley from the coast in order to get off the beaten track again, and we are feeling like we have made a great decision. Our overall goal is to head toward the west coast, passing the Nelson Lakes area on the way. We could have taken the asphalt Highway 6 out of Nelson, but we settled on this road, which backs up to one of the larger tracks of wild country on this part of the island.

Our campsite was on the main road between Motueka and Tapawera, but we have now slipped off onto a side road that is dirt for most of the way, and goes through the towns of Kiwi and Kaka (both NZ birds?). As we ride further, our surroundings get better and better. To our west are the Marino Mountains, the Matiri, Radiant, Scarlet, and Lookout Ranges, the Wangapeka Track, and Kahurangi National Park, to the northwest, the Tasman Mountains, the Domett, Marshall, Arthur, and Snowden Ranges, and the coveted Heaphy Track.

At first we ride in farm country, then we begin our climb, and the farms get smaller and the landscape more mixed, with pastures surrounded by woods. It reminds me of Vermont in many places. The forests here look less managed here than they have in other places we've ridden through. We ride along a small creek that has carved a small gorge, then the ride stars to really wind upward with more intent and the trees closed in around us - we may be leaving the watershed. We reach the crest after much switch-backing and enjoy a long gentle descent into the Hope River valley and back to Highway 6.

We ride on from Glenhope to the turn to Lake Rotoroa, then up to the Lake and find a campsite just as the rain comes. I climb into the tent as Dan takes on dinner duties.

Hitting Stride (NZ part 7)

(NZ part 1 here)

I sit on the banks of the Motueka River, maybe 30 km up stream from the town of the same name. We arrived here the night before, after a relatively easy ride up the lowest portion of the watershed. The food bins are at full capacity from a grocery stop, so we estimate that we could be self-sufficient for about 5 days as long as we can find water. This morning breakfast was biscuits cooked on the camp stove, with boisenberry jam and tea. We have stepped it up at least one notch.

The weather is hot, so I have been in the river several times. It's cold, but feels good as it's probably in the mid-20s, and we have had a good deal of only moderately warm weather to date. There are fish in the river which I have had no luck catching.

(Hiking in Able Tasman)

Two days ago we went for a good hike along the Coast Trail in Abel Tasman National Park. We made it as far as Watering Cove, which was strikingly beautiful. By the end I was quite sore as I realize I have probably walked less than a few miles since we arrived in New Zealand. Abel Tasman itself was very nice, but also quite touristy, and I hope that we will be able to find spots just as nice where they won't want to charge us to fill up a water bottle.

(Watering Cove - Abel Tasman National Park)

It is starting to feel really good to get on the bike and ride now. I look forward to the quite time to sometimes think and other times just pedal. The pain has dropped significantly, but I have also realized it is just another one of life's oscillations - you decide how far up the the crest you can ride before slipping back down into another comfortable trough. So far every hill I have chosen to climb has led to a glorious downhill, whether on this bike, on skis, or in a boat slipping out onto a wave. I realize my limitations are almost fully self imposed.