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February 1, 2006 Invercargill to Riverton
New Zealanders often talk of the strong winds that blow from the wide open Pacific Ocean across their small piece of land. We pushed through a strong Nor'wester as we left Invercargill. Fortunately we didn't have far to pedal and we re-fueled with ice cream cones at a convenient dairy halfway to Riverton. On the beach in front of the motorcamp "sand sailboats" glided across the low tide sand.
February 2, 2006 Riverton to Tautepere
One of the pleasures of being a bicycle tourist is discovering hidden places that travelers in cars only catch a glimpse of as they speed past. Our quiet road took us along beach after beach and though we couldn't stop at all of them, we admired each one. When a road sign pointed off toward the sea to a place called "Cozy Nook", we couldn't resist visiting it. A few kilometers later we walked our bike down a gravelly hill to a small stony arc of beach tucked out of the wind. Cozy Nook was a fishing village, a sign told us, until it became "fished out" and long before that the bay was an abundant source of food for the Maori, who used a small rocky island offshore as a fortress when they needed protection from invaders.
Our next discovery was Gemstone Beach, a long windswept coast where the heavy surf pushed pebbles back and forth across the shore creating polished stones. We had the pleasure of poking around on the shore, searching for beautiful rocks. After we admired our treasures we threw them all back. Bicycle tourists can't collect much except postcards.
February 3, 2006 Tautepere to Te Anau
We smiled through a glorious, wind-at-our-backs day of bicycling, with mountains replacing the beaches of the day before. The wide dry vallies and craggy peaks reminded us of Montana.
At lunch, we sat under a eucalyptus tree and talked with a farmer who stopped by on his tractor. A cyclist saw our bikes and pulled over to join us. Christian from Austria pedaled with us on our afternoon ride, which included a slow crawl up a mountain pass and the long glide back down.
We considered stopping at Lake Manapouri, where mountains across the long lake hid the fiords on the other side, but with the wind still in our favor we pedaled twenty more kilometers to the resort town of Te Anau.
After a quiet day on a back road the buzz of Te Anau was surprising. It was crowded with hotels and tourists and expensive things to do-cruises and helicopter rides and jet boat tours .Even the motor camp was huge, designed for the hordes of tourists who come to Te Anau to explore Fiordland National Park.
February 4, 2006 Te Anau to Totara campsite
After re-supplying our food and books we headed north on the Milford Sound road, pedaling for miles along the wild shores of Te Anau lake. This is a very popular tourist route and when we met a DOC ranger at our evening campsite he suggested we get off the road the next day from between 10am and noon when the tour buses would roar by on their way to a 1pm cruise on Milford Sound.
February 5, 2006 Totara campsite to the Hollyford Track
We left our riverside campsite early (no other campers but lots of sandflies) and bicycled through a wide valley lined with craggy peaks. As instructed, we took a two hour reading break in the late morning and had absolute solitude at a riverside log while buses and cars whizzed by on the road.
The Milford Sound road features a 2 kilometer long tunnel with no lights and only one lane for traffic. We turned off the road before that cycling nightmare and turned onto a dirt road to the Hollyford Track. Stupidly, we continued riding at our paved road pace until we jolted into deep potholes and both bikes got flat tires. We rode more cautiously after that.
At the midpoint of the 20 kilometer deadend road was Gunns Camp, a private inholding in the National Park. The Gunns operate a small motorcamp and a little store and museum, all powered by a coal-fired generator. The soft drinks for sale were kept cool in a pool of a small stream. We couldn't pass up the chance to buy a snack at this rustic outpost-salt and vinegar potato chips for Jay and Whitakers peanut chocolate slabs for Tom and me.
After carefully pedaling to the end of the road we hauled our bikes up onto a narrow suspension bridge and crossed onto the start of the Hollyford Track. We hid our bikes in the bush and converted into a three person hiking team, though as it was 7pm we didn't walk far. Native bush in New Zealand is often incredibly dense with ferns and vines and hummocky ground so looking for a flat spot to set up our tent was a challenge. We eventually found a pebbly spot at the base of an old landslide. We had a direct view of a sharp peak and the glacier below it-amazing.
February 6, 2006 Hollyford Track
In a journey already filled with spectacular days, this was one of the best. We had the honor of walking through an ancient rain forest and every few kilometers we stopped at dramatic waterfalls. The most awe-inspiring one, Hidden Creek Falls, thundered straight down into a circular bowl of rock, creating a cloud of mist and rainbow. Where the trail opened up for a view we stared at glaciers high in knife-edged mountains.
Near the end of the day the trail met the Hollyford River and we decided to bushwhack to a long beach on a wide curve of the river. The sand there had deer prints but no signs of human beings, perhaps because of the abundant sand flies, although the flies were just as fierce at the hut we'd passed earlier in the day. Even with the bugs, the spot was perfect. We washed up in the cold, glacier-fed river and sat in the smoke of a campfire made of driftwood.
February 7, 2006 Hollyford Track
We re-traced our steps, in no hurry to leave the grandeur of the forest. Whenever we saw a good view we'd stop to admire it. We passed a Japanese hiker, a kiwi couple and four Germans. The Hollyford Track is one of New Zealand's "Great Walks". Each of these hikes has huts spaced a day's walk apart and heavy-duty trail construction to make the walk easier and less muddy. The most popular of the Great Walks is the Milford Track where reservations for the huts must be made months in advance.
By late afternoon we were back at the trailhead and transformed ourselves back into bicyclists. We considered spending the night at Gunns motorcamp but the sandflies there were even worse than our beach campsite. After a good chat with the owner and the purchase of a re-supply of snacks we headed up the dirt road and found a site deep in the big trees with no sand flies at all.
February 8, 2006 Milford Sound road back to Te Anau
We sailed along the road, pushed by a tailwind. We easily pedaled in one day what had taken us a day and a half on the way in.
Back near town, we checked into a small family-owned motor camp, set up our tent, took showers then biked into Te Anau to look for a place to have tea (supper). Jay wanted Chinese so we shared a large dining room with a busload of Chinese tourists. The local waitress told us they'd been very busy in the last week because of travelers during the Chinese New Year holiday.
February 9, 2006 Te Anau to roadside campsite
It rained heavily in the night and was misty in the morning. I used the relatively low-cost internet access ($4 an hour) at the Te Anau library to finish a college financial aid form for our 18-year-old son Lee. We haven't managed to leave ALL of our usual responsibilities behind. Tom and Jay found an interesting book about archeology in the kids' section and st at a table doing home school.
The mist continued through our picnic lunch and no one objected when Jay suggested we see the 1:30pm showing of Howl's Moving Castle at the Te Anau movie theatre. The theatre was new and had soft, cushy seats, the complete opposite of our bicycle seats. The animated film was produced by a Japanese director from an English children's book. Jay and I had read the book and didn't entirely approve of the changes in the movie, but it was richly animated and entertaining. And the seats .wonderful.
After the movie we put on all our raingear and headed out of town. The main road had bus and tourist traffic and we looked forward to a "shortcut" on a dirt road. Unfortunately when we turned off the paved road we discovered the dirt road had very recently been "improved" with a thick layer of loose gravel. It was almost impossible to bicycle through, except at a snail's pace on a narrow ribbon at the very edge of the road. We decided to find a place to camp and re-evaluate our plans in the morning.
While there is plenty of open land in New Zealand, most of it is tightly fenced to keep sheep, cows and deer away from the roads. Just before dark we found a small triangle of land between the dirt road and a hedge, with enough room for a tent. We ate leftover lunch food for supper, glad to have a dry place to rest.
February 10, 2006 the road to Mavora Lakes
Bicycles are a wonderful invention. They can efficiently carry pounds and pounds of gear with very little effort expended by the human riders, that is if the road is smoothly paved and level. We had a level road to Mavora Lakes but the deep loose gravel was so difficult it was often easier to get off the bikes and walk. We had almost 60 kilometers to go to get to the end of the road where we'd planned to take a restored steamship across the lake to Queenstown. As I walked along, with even my footsteps sinking deep into the gravel, I calculated how many days it would take us if we had to walk our bikes the whole way. Did we have enough food? The valley was long, with no stores and only a few large sheep stations (ranches). We still could turn around and take the main road. After an easy 100 km we'd be in Queenstown.
But we'd been looking forward to this wild route through the mountains, completely away from the bus and tourist traffic. When the road surfaced improved slightly, enough that we could ride slowly, we decided to push on.
It was a slow motion day, with stops to walk when the gravel grew deep again and halts at long driveways to walk up to a farmhouse and ask for water. At the first two farms, no one was home, the third one had barking dogs and though the fourth one was vacant, Tom found an outside faucet near a sign that read, "Bugger the housework, I'm out in the garden." We decided the homemaker there wouldn't mind sharing water with travelers.
We plugged along and by mid-afternoon I was pleasantly surprised to see the turn off to Mavora Lakes, our destination for the day. Before the turnoff we stopped at a hilly paddock, former site of a scene from one of the Lord of the Rings movies. Jay and I had a mock battle. I was the orc, of course.
The Mavora Lakes were stunning -long and blue, sandwiched between two mountain ranges. The DOC campground was large and we found a site with a picnic table. The only ugliness was the didymo, or "rock snot", infestation in the water. This new invasive species covers the rocks in rivers and lakes. As the name implies, it definitely detracts from the aesthetic beauty of the shoreline. I'm not sure how it affects the biology of the water bodies.
February 11, 2006 Mavora Lakes to Queenstown
At the campground we met two English cyclists who'd come from the way we were heading. They reported a relatively smooth road and no new gravel. Hooray for us, though we had to tell them the bad news about their road ahead.
The road past Mavora Lakes is little used-we saw two trucks, one motorcycle and two bicyclists during the entire day of riding. Motor vehicles are slowed down by fords-the water was mid-calf on the two we crossed- and by the fact that the ferry at the end takes pedestrians and bicycles, nothing bigger. We also saw no inhabitants of the valley, though we passed two old homesteads, one made of stone. The land here was dry and open, with a wide valley floor and steep talus slopes on the mountains. It was too rough to cultivate though beef cattle roamed the landscape.
What a rare thing to bicycle through such a wild landscape with touring bikes, not mountain bikes. Our only real challenge was a long, steep, curvy downhill, descending to the lake. I stopped at every corner to let my wheel rims cool down.
Shade was a rare commodity during the heat of the day, though we did find willow trees growing along a small river and stopped there for lunch. As we got closer to Lake Wakatipu the landscape became less rugged and sheep replaced the cattle. We even found another spot in the shade to stop and read. We thought we had plenty of time before the last ferry.
But we didn't factor in a flat tire. Suddenly our extra time disappeared. While Tom fixed the tire I pedaled madly, hoping to get to the ferry dock at Walter Peak Station to ask the captain to wait a few minutes for Tom and Jay. I raced across the dry, empty land and almost gasped aloud when I crested a hill and looked down onto elegant lawns and gardens in front of a mansion. A sign warned that this was private property and I did feel conspicuous in my sweaty t-shirt as the well-heeled tourists drank cocktails on the veranda. The steamship was still far out on the lake so I unloaded the gear from my bike and headed back on a light bike to tell Tom not to worry, we still had time.
I hadn't gone far when I met Tom and Jay on the tandem. They were pleased to know they could slow down and all of us enjoyed a few minutes off our bikes at the lake while we waited for the steamship. The Ernslaw was originally used as a mailboat around Lake Wakatipa to deliver people and packages to the remote sheep stations there. Now it is a big tourist attraction and it is stoked by young employees who shovel in tons of coal each day as the boat plies back and forth between Queenstown and Walter Peak Station, where for a bit more money one can have a meal or watch sheep dogs work.
What a great way to arrive in Queenstown, the adventure capital of New Zealand. As we steamed into the bay we saw para-gliders above the village and lines of motels on the hillsides. It seemed hard to believe we'd been in such a quiet landscape only minutes before.
2006 North Country Public Radio, St. Lawrence University, Canton, New York 13617-1475