< previous | next >Letters Home: Betsy Kepes in New ZealandContents | NCPR Home

Messages for Betsy
A Bike Tour: Christchurch to Mount Somers 1/3-7/06

January 3rd-5th Christchurch

It was easy to stay put for a few days in Horotane Valley at the home of our friends Chris McGill and Mark Scambury. Their house perches on the side of this beautiful valley with views out to the ocean on the north. To the south, the rugged summit of Castle Rock is a thirty-minute scramble up a steep sheep pasture.

Chris has a passion for gardening and her gardens flow all over her large property. She plants many native plants, but isn't averse to Australian, Asian, European and American plants if they catch her fancy. She is constructing a paper birch garden now and had several Australian shrubs that looked very exotic to me.

I was assigned the task of weeding a large garden that had been taken over by a variety of morning glory. Even though the white flowers are pretty I was told to pull out every vine. They are a weed here and were strangling the plants underneath. Ripping out the vines was therapeutic-such a rugged way to garden-until I came to the area where large, rambly rose bushes were hidden. I had to slow down and wear gloves.

Tom climbed a tall ladder to the top of the macrocarpa hedge, carrying sharp clippers and an axe. Hedges are very popular in New Zealand and require an incredible amount of maintenance. Macrocarpa is an Australian plant, evergreen and rather like a cedar. It has a pungent smell, a mix of cedar and spruce, and a proper macracarpa hedge is kept carefully pruned to a wall-like standard. Tom's job was to cut the top down where errant branches had grown upward. Within minutes he had two big rips in his pants from the sharp dead branches of previous prunings.

Chris never stopped moving while we were there. Her plum trees and apricot trees were ripe and she picked baskets of fruit that she made into chutneys and jam. She also baked luscious fruit desserts for us to gobble up.

One afternoon we biked into Christchurch, which was less hair-raising than I'd feared because of well-marked bicycle lanes. The most difficult part of the ride was remembering that all traffic occupied the left lane. This was especially difficult to remember when we circled the numerous round-abouts at road junctions.

Christchurch is the biggest city on the South Island, about 350,000 people. Its biggest industry in the summer seems to be tourism. Many restaurants and gift shops advertise in Japanese, hoping to attract a few of the many Japanese tourists who flock to New Zealand. One area of downtown is full of outdoor gear stores and sushi restaurants. We stopped in at the Scorpio, a well-known bookstore. The shelves were filled with English, American and New Zealand authors but the prices were at least double what we'd pay for books in the US. The cause: high importing costs and high costs for small print runs in country. We decided to browse and not buy, although Jay talked me into getting him Howl's Moving Castle, an fantasy book first and now a well-reviewed movie. The medium-sized children's paperback, printed in England, cost $19.99 NZ, or about $15.00 US. We'll all read it to get our money's worth out of it.

In one of our stops, Jay lost his sunglasses, a critical safety item in sunny, windy New Zealand. We stopped at a little pharmacy on the way back to Horotane Valley to pick up a cheap pair of new ones. The shop also doubled as a post office and across the street was a bike store and an organic food shop. We parked our bikes and did all of our errands, by-passing the fish and chips take-away shop, though Jay thought that should also be on our list of places to go. Chris made us a delicious tea (supper) instead.

January 6, 2006 Christchurch to Glentunnel

Bike panniers, the small nylon bags that hang off the front and rear racks of a touring bicycle, have enough space to hold a picnic lunch and a rain jacket. Unfortunately we need to carry far more than that. By the time we'd packed up our bikes the panniers were bulging and our small bike trailer was puffed up with a large dry bag containing three sleeping bags, a tent, emergency food, and bags of clothes. Admittedly, we have a few frill items--my laptop computer being the heaviest one. We each have a small waterproof bag for books and a journal and Tom carries a camera, a pocket-sized radio, a small pair of binoculars and a satellite phone.

As we tucked in the last of our gear, Chris ran out with a little jar of just-made apricot chutney. Yes, I could find a place for it.

We wobbled out of the driveway after Chris took photos of our three-person bike touring team. I don't think I took a full breath until after we'd ridden fifteen kilometers and gotten clear of the busy streets of the city and suburbs.

With all our preparations, we hadn't put in any lunch food so we stopped at a dairy (mini-mart) in Prebbleton and bought crackers, peanut butter, hummus and a long sleeve of "fruit digestive biscuits", basically graham crackers with bits of raisin in them. A cemetery across the road seemed ideal for a lunch stop.

Just as we'd settled in, a man rode up on a bicycle. "Are you bicycling far?" he asked, in what seemed to us a Jamaican accent. Perhaps it was a Maori accent, or South African? We couldn't tell.

He invited us to his home next to the church to have a cup of tea and we met his wife, a Kiwi (New Zealander), and their two sons, ages 6 and 8. He was originally from Zanzibar and had met his wife, a sculptor, when she was apprenticing with an African artist. We shared lunch and tea and addresses and then we were on our way.

An hour later when we were standing by a corner looking at road maps, a truck stopped and the driver helped us figure out how to go southwest. We smiled and thanked him and he invited us to his house up the road for tea. It was tempting, but we declined. Two invitations to tea in two hours. We felt lucky to be so welcomed on our first day on the road.

The next few hours were glorious-flat, paved roads with very little traffic through farmland edged by sharp mountains. The sun was shining, the wind was at our backs and nothing could be finer. Most of the pastures contained sheep, though we also saw cows and once a muddy plot of happy pigs. When I smelled broccoli I realized that the brassica crop in many fields was for sheep food. Lambs were chewing away on the rich food, perhaps to fatten them up before being sent to the packing house, the same way the witch in Hansel and Gretel fed the children candy before she planned to eat them.

Our map showed towns along our route-Shady Knolls and Charing Cross-- and we thought we might stop in a country store for an ice cream cone. The "towns" however were merely crossroads, no stores or houses to be seen. Our emergency food would come in handy earlier than I had thought it would. We did have a few digestive biscuits left and after hours of riding they tasted better than they had at lunch.

Our map, free from the Automobile Association of New Zealand showed a symbol for a motor camp (campground) but when we got to the place on the road where we thought it should be we found nothing. I did see a long driveway that said "Absolutely no trespassing. Dogs will be shot." We decided not to ask for directions there.
In a small settlement we saw a man out gardening. "The motor camp? Yes, just up the road in Glentunnel, won't be more than fifteen minutes."

And it wasn't. The Glentunnel Holiday Park hummed with life, most young families with kids, all on their summer vacation. Kiwi motor camps usually have cabins to rent as well as tent sites, and a kitchen with boiling water on tap for tea. We found a site away from the center of activity, near a pair fellow bike tourists, and soon had a tent up. Our mileage for the first day-72 kilometers, almost 50 miles-an excellent beginning.

January 7, 2006 Glentunnel to Mount Somers

Wind, lots of it. Wind so strong it pushed us off our bikes. Wind so strong that the Scottish couple we had camped next to biked ten kilometers and turned around. We met them on their way back when we were stopped at a roadside rest. Tom pointed out the lenticular clouds, shaped like flying saucers, that indicate high winds. The Scottish couple wondered how long the winds would last. They'd been fighting them now for five days and were tired of it.

We couldn't offer an answer but we weren't ready to turn around. It was our second day out and we at least needed to see for ourselves how bad the wind was.

For a couple of hours we drove into the wind, pedaling our bikes slowly along as if we were riding up a steep hill. I fought to keep my front wheel straight and hung on whenever a particularly strong blast tore at us. Occasionally we'd drop down behind a slight hill and the wind would cease, a rare quiet moment, but then we'd be out in the gale again. I kept glancing at my road map, displayed on the top of my front bag and saw how slowly we gained ground.

Finally we made it to the curve where the road plunged down to Rakaia Gorge. The new road direction and the steep downhill were lovely. The road dipped and turned and dipped again. I felt like a marble going down one of those curly plastic mountains. I didn't let myself think about what it would be like going back up the other side.

We stopped for lunch at a windy, somewhat desolate rest stop. The concrete picnic table stood out in the wind so we put on our raingear for wind protection and found a large Pinus Radiata (a California species that grows spectacularly quickly in New Zealand) to hide behind. Jay ate his sandwich quickly so he could return to Howl's Moving Castle. In two days he'd devoured it and was on the last chapter.

The wind in the bottom of the gorge was so high it was tossing water from the river into clouds of spray. We pedaled across the bridge, bracing against the wind.

We soon discovered the only thing worse than bicycling into gale force winds is going steeply uphill against gale force winds. We walked and pushed the bikes. It took huge effort to get my bike uphill, the drag of the bike cart holding it back. Tom and I switched off on that job, leaning into the bike like oxen pulling a heavy wagon.

Even big hills have a top and we made it to ours. The wind was still strong but we were distracted by a bicyclist going the other way. A blonde woman pedaled happily by with the wind at her back. She pulled a child's bike cart, padded with blankets and occupied by a large german shepherd. I wondered if she made the dog get out and walk on the uphills.

In a few more kilometers, after we'd been blown off the road twice more, our road angled sharply left and suddenly we were in heaven, with the wind at our backs and the mountains on our right and the miles rolling by so quickly I felt like I was on the Japanese Bullet train. I spun along in tenth gear, the hardest gear on a bike, and Tom said his bike odometer indicated we were cruising along at over twenty miles per hour, up considerably from our less than five miles per hour pace into the wind.

We did still have one slight difficulty. This section of the road had a number of one-lane bridges, common in New Zealand, that we raced across, hoping the oncoming cars would notice the bridge was already occupied. The longest of the bridges, over the wide, braided Ashburton River, had a turnout halfway across, reassuring if we needed it.

In the two days we'd been riding, we'd seen one small store in Prebbleton and another small store in Glentunnel, at the beginning of our second day. The countryside was sparsely inhabited by farmers on large stations, what we might call ranches. Usually the farmhouses were invisible at the end of long driveways and hidden more by the living hedge fences. One place advertised fruit and vegetables for sale but it was closed. When we looked ahead late in the afternoon of our second day and saw a roof with a teacup painted on it, we picked up speed, happy to find an oasis.

The little store sold pots of tea, served in white china cups with a pot of cream and a jar of sugar. Jay checked out the ice cream, six flavors, and chose chocolate caramel swirl for his ice cream cone. We sat outside at a round picnic table and listened to the other customers talk about their tramping trip. They were sipping iced coffees piles high with whipped cream.

Refreshed, we hopped back on our bikes and rode the last kilometers to Mt. Somers. The small motor camp here is surrounded by gardens and inhabited by a few quiet, adult campers. When we signed in, the woman at the desk found out the Jay was a Tolkein fan. She told us her husband had been an extra in the scenes filmed near Mt. Somers and she let Jay look at their scrapbook of photos and newspaper articles about the filming. In the motor camp kitchen we met a Kiwi couple from the coastal city of Dunedin. They are here for the weekend to look for rocks and fossils. We soon had out our maps as they told us the best routes to bicycle and they invited us to visit their home when we got that far south.

The wind is still howling as I write this, sitting at the table in the clean motor camp kitchen. I noticed the cupboard has a good-sized frying pan. Tomorrow morning we'll walk down to the dairy here to buy eggs and jam to put with pancakes for breakfast. No maple syrup here. The cost to us of this luxurious place? About eighteen US dollars.

< previous | next >Letters Home: Betsy Kepes in New ZealandContents | NCPR Home
2006 North Country Public Radio, St. Lawrence University, Canton, New York 13617-1475