We had a go. A little bit of a go, at least. We bought bicycles and panniers, and we cycled a couple of hundred kilometres through rain and wind. That is our experience of cycling New Zealand. It’s sad because I arrived with big dreams of cycling from south to north, but things don’t always work out. Anyway, I digress, this is my story of not cycling New Zealand.
Things started badly in Christchurch when we couldn’t find bicycles. Delayed by a day, we spent the next night wandering the streets until we happened upon a 24 hour diner. While warming ourselves inside, the building caught fire and we dashed out, only to find that one of our brand new, almost never ridden bicycles had suffered a flat tyre. We trudged back to the bus station and slept on the pavement before boarding a bus out of Christchurch shortly before a 5.7 earthquake struck the city.
Day One – 40km in rain
Things started slowly as I raced around the city of Invercargill, looking for spare inner tubes, puncture repair kits, and various other bicycle bits. By early afternoon we had found what we needed and got the bicycles into a rideable state. It had also started pouring of rain. This was not quite the New Zealand I remembered. We purchased a roll of bin liners and wrapped our worldly belongings inside them before hitting the road. We looked like real, cycling professionals…
We had just endured a year of working in Australia and this was to be our great holiday, a month on bicycles, loving life. Sadly it was far from the start we hoped for. We cycled 40km in pouring rain before deciding to hole up for the night, sleeping on a golf course. Everything else we passed had been caged in barbed wire with signs explicitly defining free camping to be illegal, something I didn’t expect. [I last visited New Zealand nearly a decade ago and was unaware of The Freedom Camping Act 2011 – I have already been arrested for camping where I’m not meant to, in Amsterdam]. The rain literally didn’t stop all day or night – and unfortunately I know how to use the word literally.
Going to bed wet, in a wet tent (water came through the floor), after cycling for several hours is not a whole lot of fun.
Day Two – 87km in WIND
After a night of wetness, we packed away our wet belongings and begun to cycle under grey skies. We were grateful for the respite from the rain, but in its place were strong winds. On a brief, windless flat, I got the bike (fully loaded) riding along at over 40km/h (for a short stint), but when the wind blew – which was 95% of the time – we battled into double figures. Hitting 15km/h seemed a great achievement and this was how we rode. I don’t mind a physical struggle, in fact I quite like it, but this was more of a pain in the arse than a struggle.
After 30km of riding, I realised that I had forgotten my almost new iPod. I don’t use it much and I’m not used to owning a phone, so when I plugged it in to charge at the golf course, I walked away without thinking twice. I stuck out my thumb and Leah flagged down a kind farmer who drove me all the way back to the golf course to pick up my phone and the back to the bikes again – he just so happened to be dropping off a vehicle close to where I left the phone.
The wind continued and by the time we clocked up 80km for the day, we were pretty exhausted. I can’t put into words how much wind disrupts cycling, but on a windy day, go outside, and try to cycle fast. It’s hard. We battled into the nearest village and got a brief glimpse of our first mountains. Last time I was in New Zealand, I spent a lot of time in mountains, and it had been strange to see so few in the first hundred or so kilometres of our journey.
As a reward for our effort, we were treated to a lovely sunset and a cycle trail at the end of the day, finally clocking up 87km for day two.
Day Three – 24km going nowhere
Our intended path went straight up a mountain pass for 70 km before a 25km descent. The weather predicted thunderstorms for seven hours. I don’t mind taking risks, but all of my risks are calculated, a balance between safety and enjoyment. I saw little enjoyment in cycling up a mountain for many hours during a thunderstorm and thought it could be a touch dangerous. We pitched our tent for the night without going anywhere and sat in the kitchen of a campsite, miserably watching the skies erupt and the torrents of water flowing from the heavens. Despite not going anywhere on our journey north, we still managed to cycle 24km to the shops and back (several times) for something to do.
On one of these rain forays to the local shop (which sold overpriced coffee, biscuits, and powdered onion soup), an approaching coach was overtaking on a long bend. I saw it, pointed it out to Leah, and we both swerved off the road. She hadn’t seen it before I mentioned it and it missed us by mere inches as it hurtled along at 100+km/h. As someone who enjoys cycling, I find it very disturbing when other drivers endanger cyclists by their lack of road awareness. Had I not been looking ahead, this story would be a very different and much less pleasant story. I would probably not be telling it.
Going to bed during a thunderstorm was hard. The tent was wet, the world was wet, and we were wet and cold.
Day Four – 74km on a windy, rainy cycle path
‘Surprisingly,’ the forecast for day four was rain. Not wanting to waste another day we started cycling, opting to cycle around the mountain rather than over it. It begun on a busy road and we blasted out 16km before finding a gravelly cycle path to continue along.
The gravel was slow going and the wind blew as rain fell intermittently, but finally we were witnessing some of the pretty New Zealand that we had longed for. We pedalled happily, the smiling cyclists with flies on their teeth, as the skies finally got blue.
It was beautiful and we were on top of the world.
Then the rain and wind returned. 58km on gravel is fine. Lovely in fact. But cycling up and down slopes on gravel, in the wind and rain, was tiring. Sometimes I shouted for joy, happy to be in the elements. Other moments I asked what I was doing on this journey that was undertaken purely for enjoyment. All in all, it was an awesome day, but towards the end, we were bedraggled rats, shaking of cold.
Just before we arrived into Kingston, on the southern tip of Lake Wakitipu, the rain relented.
It was early afternoon and despite a tiring 74km, we were ready for the 50km ride into Queenstown – until we saw the road. Traffic was heavy, the bends were tight, and the road was narrow. After the near miss with the bus, we didn’t fancy it. The skies opened once more, we got cold as we sat around for several hours, and finally spent the night sleeping in the TV room of a campsite, trying (with difficulty) to stay warm.
Day Five – 15km around Queenstown
A kind man took us and our bicycles 50km along the Devil’s Staircase – an appropriate name – in his open backed truck, dropping us in Frankton. Although many (we saw one) cyclists do use this route, I’m happy for my own peace of mind that we didn’t.
We had a beautiful ride from Frankton, along the lake, into Queenstown, not knowing quite what we do after.
Queenstown was packed, not as I remembered it from nearly a decade ago, but the mountains (of course) remained unchanged.
We met up with some friends for the night, seven of us pitched on a tiny camping spot, paying $175 for the pleasure, then played some mad bubble football the next day.
And then a new opportunity arose, something for the future. I rarely think of the future – and I don’t like thinking too far ahead – but it is sometimes worth looking at the very next step in life, having a little idea of what to do, if only for a week or two. And that was when we decided to stop cycling.
Our cycling journey is over (and we have two bicycles to sell), but we are still in New Zealand for a few weeks. I’m sad things didn’t go to plan, but sometimes you have to know when to give up on something (or when enough is enough). We have a different plan for now – not better, not worse, just different. I hope this one works out.
NEXT POST: Why I stopped cycling in New Zealand.