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January 8, 2006 Mt. Somers to Pleasant Point
Our "Holiday Camp" in Mt. Somers featured a ping pong table and a kitchen with an extra bag of flour so before we left we had a good game of table tennis after sourdough pancakes. Our new rock hound friends lent us their bottle of golden syrup, a satisfactory substitute for the real maple.
The English couple who'd been part of our discussion about health care while we all made supper in the kitchen (they were shocked at the prices Americans pay to go to the doctor), stopped by to say goodbye. "We're off to Christchurch," he said, "Looks like a good day for the beach."
It did. By nine in the morning it was already hot. We put on shorts and sunscreen and just as we were leaving the woman in charge of the motor camp came over. "Would you like to see the scene in the Lord of the Rings where my husband appears?"
Of course we would. We crowded into their cluttered back room, saw the crowd scene and heard stories about what it was like to be an extra. Our motor camp host, with bushy black eyebrows, had earned $100 dollars a day for dressing up as a citizen of Rohan and boarding a bus at 5:30 am to be ferried to the filming site, high up a mountain road north of Mt. Somers. Jay was mesmerized by his stories. My favorite insider tip: when Gandalf walked with the hobbits, away from the camera, an 8'6" giant put on a Gandalf cape to make the difference in size more obvious. When Gandalf and the hobbits walked toward the camera, the hobbits walked several steps behind Gandalf, but the film was manipulated to make it look as though they were walking together. We thanked the couple and Jay wished aloud that he could have been in the Lord of the Rings too. But meeting an extra and seeing the scenery where the movie was filmed was certainly better than nothing.
Our ride to the town of Geraldine was easy, with the wind mostly at our backs and the temperature not excessively hot. Again we traveled with the mountains on our right, through farmland, mostly sheep pasture. We waved at several racing bicyclists and saw another bike touring family, parents and two kids, but we didn't get to talk as they were going the other way and fighting the wind.
Geraldine was a bit disappointing. It was hot, the road was busy and the streets were filled with tourists. We are already spoiled by traveling back roads and staying in off-the-beaten track places. After picking up food and white spirits (white gas for our camping stove) we headed out of town, on back roads leading to Pleasant Point, which actually is the name of the town.
These roads were much quieter and the agriculture leaned more toward wheat and oats. Once we stopped to photograph a wide field, purple with the flowers of a legume, and behind the field, rows of mountains. It was still hot, but on a moving bike the air felt cooler.
The first thing we saw as we pedaled into Pleasant Point was a large playground with a Flying Fox (zip line), a good omen for sure. We stopped to test out the playground equipment and the Flying Fox was a thrill-a long, long cable to zoom down then tires at the end where each ride ended with a tremendous bump. I only did the ride once. Jay went up and down several times.
As we rode to the motor camp we passed two more playgrounds, a public pool and a town library. Pleasant indeed, this place. The motor camp was set in a park amongst huge trees, a type of cedar I think. The place was completely empty except for a young man renting one of the cabins. He wore a referee shirt and drove off with a wave, probably going to ref at a rugby match. Tom and Jay put on bathing suits and rode off to the pool while I stayed with our gear and enjoyed the quiet.
Later in the evening a police car drove into our campsite. The local policeman was polite, but he wanted to know who we were. He seemed reassured that we were actually bicyclists camping with our son. When I complimented him on how clean and welcoming the town seemed, he beamed. Then, as we have come to dread from some rural white New Zealanders, he revealed his racism. "It's because we don't have any Maori people here and most of our families have two parents." We changed the subject. (The Maori are the native people in New Zealand, descendents of Polynesians who came by boat to New Zealand about 800 years ago. The biggest concentration of Maori people was and is on the North Island and the Maori language is an official language of this country. In the South Island it is mainly place names and the names of trees and birds that keep the Maori language alive).
It rained in the night, but not much. Our bikes, leaning against a giant pine, were dry in the morning.
January 9, 2006 Pleasant Point to Waimate
Pleasant Point boasts the world's only Model T train car. For a small admission fee, we went on a slow glide in this funny old car, with the horn going "ah-ooga!" at each road crossing. The ride went to a small museum of old train engines, old radios, and a small theatre where we watched two American cartoons from the 1950's. It was an odd mix of history and memorabilia, but enjoyable, and the only other couple on the tour were music teachers in Wellington so I had a chance to talk shop with them.
We ate lunch in the Pleasant Point park and didn't start bicycling until almost 2pm. To stay off the main road we embarked on an elaborate route on squiggly back roads. Even on the map it looked like a maze we had to get through, and if we had crumpled up the map, making random hills and vallies in the paper, it would even more have looked like the landscape we pedaled through.
After hours of going up and down hills, walking our bikes on the steepest ones, we struggled through a few kilometers of shingle (dirt road). Very few cars passed us and we were free to look around and enjoy the countryside. In many places it looked like what I imagine England to look like-long, sweeping hillsides, the pastures bounded by hedgerows and filled with sheep. Then we'd see a few native cabbage trees and I'd be back in New Zealand.
Once our very-back-road became an almost dry river and we walked our bikes across the ford, getting wet up to mid-shin. Then, up the next hill, an old stone church, Anglican, surprised us even more than the ford. At one time there must have been a much greater population in this remote area, or at least a very devout church-going people.
Near the end of our long and quiet ride we saw a sign advertising fresh eggs and thought they'd make a good breakfast. The farmer, an older man, was intrigued by our bikes and asked lots of questions. He also was full of jokes and we left, still laughing.
At Waimate we found a peaceful motor camp and set up our tent under huge English oaks.
January 10, 2006 Waimate to Kurow
Our motor camp in Waimate shared its space with a raceway and a botanic garden with resident peacocks, wallabies and a red deer and her fawn. We talked to the man who ran the park and he told us the English oaks grew twice as fast here as they would in England. Though this produces lovely trees in no time at all, the wood isn't as strong and the trees have "health problems" they wouldn't experience in their native land.
Waimate is known for its old-fashioned flavor so we had "morning tea" in the Savoy Tea Room, a place that would have fit perfectly into a movie from the 1940's. The pastries, however, were very fresh and came in pinks and browns and white. The tea, of course, arrived in white china with a pitcher of hot water to dilute the pot of tea, and a pitcher of cream as well as sugar. Jay downed a glass of orange juice.
Back on the bikes, we pedaled through the impressive Waimate Gorge and at the other end found a sign explaining the discovery of a pit of thousands of moa bones. The moa were flightless birds, the smallest species the size of a turkey, the largest twice as tall as a human being. They lived everywhere in New Zealand until the Maori arrived and hunted the birds and ate the eggs. The last ones probably died out in the 1700's.
We pedaled far up the Waitaki River, about 40 kilometers, to get to a bridge. This dry valley reminded us of Montana-irrigation ditches bringing water from the mountains and steep, dry slopes with almost no trees. One difference though - Montanans aren't plagued by gorse, a prickly bush native to England and used for hedgerows. In New Zealand it is a noxious weed and will quickly take over pastureland. We saw places were the thick gorse had been burned and was now being plowed under. In other spots we've seen where it was poisoned, yet everywhere it seems to grow back.
We stopped to look at an old house from the early days, made of river clay and grass, dried into bricks. And just as we thought we'd never get to the end of the long, straight road, we saw signs for the Kurow Tavern, then a sign for the motor camp. The bridge was old, and a single lane, but with no traffic we didn't even have to race across.
The Kurow motor camp had a trampoline, much to Jay's delight. And it had a washing machine, which we very much needed to use. For tea (supper) we biked into town to a take away place and ordered "three pieces and three scoops" (three pieces fried fish and three scoops French fries) which arrived in the usual greasy bundle of newspaper. We brought it back to our campsite and had a picnic feast.
January 11, 2006 Kurow to Kakanui
Near Kurow we saw our first Maori rock art-paintings made with charcoal and red clay pigments and preserved under over-hanging limestone cliffs. Jay was astounded to learn that much of it had been chipped off in the late nineteenth century and carted off to museums. I told him that was not unusual for then and that people made money selling ancient art, and still do.
The little settlement of Duntroon featured a new fossil museum and a chatty volunteer tour guide who whisked Jay to the back to have a go at digging out his own fossil from soft limestone. Jay loved it and appeared twenty minutes later with several small shells he'd unearthed. I was most interested in the ancient penguin and dolphin bones. One of the dolphin species had huge teeth, an extinct species that may have preyed upon the giant penguins.
We thanked our tour guide and headed up and up a back road to have lunch at Elephant Rocks, the site where some scenes from the new Narnia movie, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe were filmed. It was a dramatic spot, with huge rounded boulders surrounded by sheep pasture. Jay remarked that before the scenes were filmed there the sheep manure must have been removed.
Not long after lunch my rear tire went flat and we sat on the side of the road repairing it. A tiny piece of glass in the tire seemed the culprit.
Back on the road, we passed by spectacular limestone cliffs and more fossil sites. Tom had to stop often to take photos.
After several steep climbs, we had miles and miles of downhill. This is the glorious part of bicycling, coasting along through a landscape. I loved the smells of summer in New Zealand-hay and sheep and the sweet scent of gum trees (eucalyptus from Australia).
We crossed busy Route 1, the main north/south road, and continued on a small road to the ocean where we stopped for a walk on a long, almost empty beach. Two girls were playing together in the waves and Tom and I, overprotective parents for other people's children, thought the surf too dangerous for pre-teens alone. Didn't the family read the newspapers? Over the Christmas holiday a man had drowned when he jumped into the surf near Christchurch to rescue his dog.
We didn't leave until the girls were out of the water. A short ride later we found a small café and it was still open. Jay was interested in an ice cream cone, but inside we only saw milkshakes and smoothies for sale. We ordered them but were disappointed. Kiwi milkshakes were just that-frothed up milk with a bit of flavor added. No ice cream and not even very cold. The smoothie was cold but very milky. We'll stick with straight ice cream from now on.
The owner of the cafe was a friendly guy and told us how to find the motor camp, a small rather run-down place managed by a man who was having a party with several friends. We found a spot on the edge of the lawn to set up our tent and brought our box of new potatoes (purchased from a roadside stand) inside the kitchen to prepare for supper. In the kitchen we met a young couple-English and Scotch- and listened to the woman's lovely Cornish accent as she talked about their lives teaching in "Lun-don" and Africa and traveling in Australia.
Heavy rain and wind in the night, but sparkling clear in the morning.
January 12, 2006 Kakanui to Waikouaiti Beach
We started our day with a glorious ride along the coast on a quiet road. The beaches had names like "All Day Bay" with home-made signs reminding visitors to close the gates behind them.
When we had to get back on the main road we put our heads down and concentrated on staying on the shoulder and pedaling as fast as possible. The traffic came in waves and in-between, during the quiet moments, the road was lovely. Not as lovely are the animal-carrying trucks, often linked to a second container. The blast of air as they roar by is tinged with a spray of urine and the thick scent of manure.
At the top of a hill in Hamden we stopped at a dairy to use the phone to call Tom's father for his birthday. And we celebrated it with enormous single scoop ice cream cones of After Dinner Mint-mint swirled with chocolate ice cream.
The next stop-the Morekai Boulders-draws in every tourist passing by on Route 1. We joined the procession of people walking down the beach to marvel at the perfectly round boulders tumbled onto the beach after weathering out of the limestone rock. Some of them are ten feet in diameter and they cluster, very photogenically, at the edge of the surf. Several are split open and are even more interesting inside-crystals of calcite arranged in patchwork squares, edged in lighter crystals. Geologically the boulders formed from concretions of minerals gathering in the bedrock, but the Maori myth says the boulders were left by the gods as baskets of food for the first people.
After another short section on the main road, we turned inland onto the Trotters Gorge Road. Instantly the traffic ceased, though the road was well-paved and spectacular-through a deep, rocky gorge. We stopped at the top of the hill, after a long climb out of the gorge, and sat in the sun to read. Two cars passed us in an hour, and one was the mailman.
At Palmerston we re-joined the main road and pushed on to the next turn-off toward Waikouaiti Beach. The signs to the motor camp office pointed to the kitchen door of a house. The woman was polite as we paid our $22 but she too was in the middle of a party. We saw a friend carrying a cheese platter and fruit. Our dinner of rice, green peas and sardines wasn't as elegant, but we certainly ate it with gusto.
January 13, 2006 Waikouaiti to Broad Bay
The beach at Waikouaiti was a long crescent, with rocky headlands at each end. It was incredibly lovely, even more so when we saw people galloping horses along the white sand. We spent a couple of morning hours enjoying the beach and watching the horses flow by. One wheeled contraption, pulled by an old truck, had eight young horses attached to it. They were "being exercised" but that doesn't express the beauty of their race across the sand, all the horses a beautiful roan color with long black manes. I could almost hear the movie music as they thundered by.
We thought we had an easy day of biking to Dunedin, the largest city in the south of the South Island, but we forgot about hills. I felt like a snail crawling up a mountain, especially when a couple of racing cyclists whizzed by us. But as always, the uphills gave way to downhills and on a back road at the ocean on a clear summer day, nothing is finer than being on a bicycle.
Fortunately we found a small store to buy lunch food before our major climb of the day. Mt. Cargill presides over the harbor city of Dunedin and we would climb from sea level up 300 meters, or over a thousand feet. Fortified with bread, cheese, tomato and a bit of chocolate, we began the ascent. When I imagined myself as a mountain climber, it didn't seem as difficult. I am climbing this mountain because I want to, I told myself. Not because it is the only way to get to Dunedin. Bicyclists are actually banned from Route 1 on this stretch, where the road becomes a motor way (four-lane highway). And although the uphill road went on for kilometers, the gradient was fine for riding, we didn't have to get off and walk. Several times I thought I was at the top, but then the road curved and more uphill came into sight. The road passed through pasture and thick native bush. It seemed hard to believe that a city of 135,000 existed on the other side of the mountain.
At last, the top. We stopped for a drink of water and to admire the view of the harbor and the mountainous Otago Penninsula. Dunedin sits in the only flat spot at the very end of the long bay, with small settlements perched on the edges of the rocky peninsula. One long and wild downhill and there we were, flying down the city streets, headed for the center of town.
2006 North Country Public Radio, St. Lawrence University, Canton, New York 13617-1475