Wednesday, June 23, 2010

And Back Again (NZ part 26)

(NZ part one here)

We wake up on the banks of the Rakaia River with only 3 days left of our trip around the southern island of New Zealand. It seems hard to believe that we have been living off of our bikes for nearly three months. We break camp and study the maps again for a good place to spend some of this time without riding directly back into Christchurch. We are certain we don't want to spend several days at the end of such an amazing trip killing time in a city, or inconveniencing our hosts that have agree to shuttle us to the airport. We quickly settle on a quick detour to the Banks Peninsula, an interesting geological feature the result of two adjacent extinct volcanoes. The collapsed cones, each with just a narrow opening to the ocean, provided the safe ports that helped establish Christchurch as the major hub for the south island. Of course, this route will mean more climbing, but we usually enjoy the resulting downhill, so this doesn't dissuade us.

We take small side streets through the outlying towns around Christchurch rather than ride along Route 1, and eventually intersect with Route 75, the main southern route from Christchurch out to the peninsula. We ride along farm fields, sheep pastures, and rugged drainages before reaching the main turn to the actual climb onto the flanks of the volcanoes. Dan has an urge to try an alternate route, one that appears to cross a small spit near Forsyth Lake, at Birdlings Flat. If he can cross, he will be onto the volcanoes on a small Bossu Road, which climbs abruptly to the ridge line. My knee has a nagging dull ache, so I opt to stay on the more gradual paved road up to the ridge, and we settle on a campsite ahead of time where we plan to meet later that day. After 3 months of always riding in tandem, it is very odd feeling to split off in separate directions, but we are probably due for some time on our own. I plod along at a very relaxed pace for the climb, stopping at a small tourist shop to pick up gifts of lambswool caps and socks for family. The climb to the ridge is slow, but not extremely difficult, and I opt for Summit Road, which traces the spine of the ridge line for the ride toward our agreed upon meeting place in Akaroa. The ridge route provides repeated glimpses down to settlements along the outer coast, and temps me to drop down for some exploring. Eventually I drop down into the inner harbor of Akaroa on a blazing paved road, losing a piece of clothing strapped to my trailer to air dry in the process. 

I make it to the campground outside of Akaroa in the early afternoon, and with not sign of Dan yet, I reserve a site and set up camp. By evening I am just slightly concerned, but Dan pulls in completely stoked with his ride in time for some dinner, and all is well.

We ride back up to the Summit Road in the morning, a long long slog up, but very rewarding once we hit the ridge. There are climbs once on the ridge line, but nothing in comparison to the haul out of the crater. Before long we are leaving the eastern volcano and headed for the bays and harbors closer to Christchurch. We wind past Pigeon Bay and Port Levy, and down off the flanks on bullet of a road toward Purua. The corners are so tight and the grade so great that we are faster than the cars, and have to pull around and pass one in excitement. Then we are at Lyttelton Harbour and feel the imminent return to the city. We stop for an ice cream at Govenors Bay, and are invited to stay with a couple who run a bed and breakfast there. We camp in their back yard and they refuse to let us pay for the great hospitality the show us. Our final ride in New Zealand is an easy, quick shot in to Christchurch, and we take our time to make it there in the early afternoon. A celebratory pint in a local pub, and then we are back where our adventure began.

It seemed to end as abruptly as my story. Certainly some of the greatest times that I can remember, and always in the back of my mind as a trip that will never be repeated, but should definitely be reprised. Thanks so much to all of you who supported this idea, helped make it a reality, and of course shared in the story. Thanks, as well, to my riding partner Dan Cantrell - that was some adventure.

Canterbury (NZ part 25)

(NZ part one here)

Leaving the Mt. Cook camp is hard, but we have gotten so accustomed to breaking everything down and heading onward that we fall into the routine. We retrace our ride from the previous day, heading south along Lake Pukaki, then turning east when we reach the southern end of the Lake. Again, we ride mostly along the contours, so the pedaling is easy. It is another brilliant morning, and we are greeted with huge panoramic views of the snow-covered Southern Alps. We are now riding on the Canterbury Plains, and the climate feels distinct from the more humid and cool points we've hit along the southern coast. By mid-day, we will be quite hot, and water consumption is once again on our minds.

Since we are returning to areas that have higher population density and more tourist traffic, we find ourselves on larger roads again. One of our main objectives of route planning at this point is sticking to the smallest roads we can find on the maps in order to avoid traffic. We zigzag onto a canal service road between Lake Pukaki and Lake Tekapo, make a brief stop at the southern end of Tekapo, then ride on northeast, along Route 8 and then 79. We don't feel in a rush, but we are coming to the end of our trip, and we need to make sure we are within easy riding distance of Christchurch the day before our flight. The riding is also much easier here in the plains, so we cover many more miles than on some previous days.

We ride through the larger towns of Fairlie, Geraldine, Mayfield, and Ashburton Forks. Looking ahead we see two main options for crossing the Rakaia River, one closer to the mouth of the river on the eponymous town of Rakaia, the other farther upstream, near the town of Mount Hut. We set our sites on Mount Hut, but throughout the afternoon the winds dropping down off the Alps are hitting us at about 45 degrees off head on. When we reach an intersection to head to Mount Hut, we realize we will be riding almost directly into the winds, and at the last minute opt to bear east, for the lower bridge. The turn converts the slight headwind into a perfect tailwind, and we sail along easily on the straight, quiet country road. We cross the bridge in Rakaia in the early evening, and easily spot great camping spots all along the large boulder channel of the river.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

To Mt. Cook (NZ part 24)

(NZ part one here)

Back on the main roads, we make quick miles on the way to Mt. Cook. Riding along the Waitaki River, with the Southern Alps to our left and ahead of us, it is hard to pay attention to the road.

We pass Lake Waitaki, then Lake Aviemore, and through Otematata. Just east of Omarama, we head north across a wide, flat valley. The miles pass and we suck down water to keep hydrated on the hot and shadeless bitumen. We cross the Ohau River and stop at Twizel to resupply. Campers are the dominant vehicle here, and I again feel a little disappointed with being out of the backcountry. While I certainly have enjoyed the cover of a camper van, there is something about hordes of them that just feels so anathema to appreciation of the backcountry that I can't reconcile. But we are running low on supplies, and this is the place to stop. We get it done and head farther north.

For the most part, our route is quite flat - no big elevation changes, only rolling hills here and there. We come along side Lake Pukaki and my spirits lift. The road follows the contour of the Lake and occasionally pops up onto small plateaus with grand views of the Lake, and the Gammack and Liebig ranges. It is not until we have almost left the Lake that we catch a view of Mt. Cook.

We ride all the way to Mt. Cook village, with the National Park visitor center and the Hermitage lodge. In true dirt bag style, we will not be staying here, but will find a campsite down the road a bit. We spend some time wandering the visitor center, looking at maps and reading displays before hoping back on the bikes for a gentle coast down to a suitable camp site. And we found a good one. We set up on the outwash plain of the great glaciers of the Southern Alps - the Hooker, Tasman, and Murchison glaciers. We backed up to the Ben Ohau Range to our southwest and Lake Pukaki to our southeast. Mt. Sealy and the Sierra, Navigator, and Balfour ranges formed a shoulder wrapping around to our west. And in our face Mt. Haas, Tasman, and the great Mt. Cook, with the rugged Burnett Mountains embracing us from the east.

We were rewarded with a stunning evening at one of the most inspiring sites I have found myself in. The simple luxury of a warm meal and good company seemed heightened by the surroundings in some way.

The morning starts out chilly, but who can complain when you wake up here?

(Camping near Mt. Cook - Photo Dan Cantrell)

Sheep Tracks (NZ part 23)

(NZ part one here)

We ride northeast out of Naseby, after having scoped some possible off-track routes toward Mt. Cook. We opt for riding maintained road toward Dansey's Pass. Before long we pass the scenic reserve of Kyeburn Diggings. We ride along in the Kye Burn River valley, before breaking off and beginning the long climb. It is a long, moderate grade climb, but difficult with the weight of the trailers and a loose gravel surface. We reach a stopping point shy of the actual pass, and head off due north on what the map shows as a vehicle track, but there is very little sign of much traffic. Our plan is to drop down into the Otekaieke drainage, which will eventually dump into the Waitaki River, so even if the track completely disappears, we should be able to make our way to Route 83. We zigzag descend through sheep pastures and tussocks until we reach a barbed wire fence with no visible gate.

Since we have already descended many hundreds of feet and we can see vehicle tracks on the opposite side of the fence, we decide to lift the bikes and trailers over and continue. The riding is a bit slow as the trailers bounce and jostle over the uneven ground, but the scenery is well worth it, and we once again have the feeling that we are surrounded by the unknown. We aren't far from civilization, but just getting off the roads makes all the difference. We drop farther into the Otekaieke valley and occasionally cross over the river. Signs of sheep are everywhere. At times we work to avoid riding through droppings, at other times we give up and just ride. There will be some bike cleaning necessary when we reach camp.

We ride close to 10k down the valley before the track turns into a solid farm road, and quickly come up on a fairly large metal gate, just being closed by whom I presume to be the owner. He is less than happy when he sees us, but as we talk to him he seems to cool off a bit and even becomes a bit friendly as we show him our maps and tell him about our riding adventures. He admonishes us a bit for taking the "vehicular track" designation on our New Zealand Automobile Association maps to suggest a potential route, but overall wishes us well on our journey. Before long we are on Route 83 and searching the banks of the Waitaki River for a suitable camp spot. Though not a big milage day (maybe 70km), we settle in quite happy.