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

Messages for Betsy
Queenstown to the Scargill Valley 2/11-21/06

February 11, 2006 Queenstown

We should have known better than to camp in a crowded motor camp in the center of Queenstown ("the adventure capital of NZ") in the middle of the summer. As soon as the friendly girl in the office assigned us site #134 we should have smiled, asked for our money back and pedaled out of town.

But we didn't and site #134 was a rock hard square of dead grass surrounded by acres of tents and motor homes. We salvaged a bit of dignity by claiming a bedraggled little tree as part of our site and leaning our bikes against it. Tom had to wander off and find a rock to pound the tent stakes in.

Our many neighbors spoke many tongues. I heard German, French and something that sounded eastern European. The campground was relatively quiet until 4am when rain started tent zippers zipping. Then loud Australian voices next to us began cursing and talking in inebriated tones, accompanied by a car stereo. Next an Irish voice boomed out, chatting with a Dutchman who was taking his tent down. Later English voices yelled obscenities at the Aussies. It was a true multi-cultural frat party. Jay, fortunately, slept through it.

By 7am I gave up trying to go back to sleep. We ate a hurried breakfast and when we left the campground a sign boasted, "Arguably the best motor camp in New Zealand." Jay snorted, "Substitute worse." Definitely.

Fortunately the day improved. Jay found a Lord of the Rings store filled with figurines and memorabilia. The hand-woven elfin cloaks were beautiful and very expensive, made in New Zealand on a farm near Wellington. After a bookstore and an internet place we found a quiet upstairs Chinese restaurant. The generous rice and vegetable "Super lunch special" was only $6.50NZ ($5.00US), tax and tip included. (Actually there is no tipping in NZ, nice for travelers, not as good for people in the service industry).

Lord of the Rings site where Aragorn goes over the cliff.

Jay's Lord of the Rings site book told him to go to Deer Park Heights on the peninsula across from Queenstown to see where several scenes from the movie were filmed. We found a bike path along the lake, a right-of-way past elegant homes and condos. We crossed the Kawarau River on a pedestrian bridge and arrived at a quiet and wooded motor camp with sites right on the river. It seemed a dream come true. We claimed a spot near the shady playground and continued on to Deer Park Heights.

I had imagined a tacky tourist trap with animals stuck in small, smelly cages, but Deer Park Heights encompassed an entire mountainside with 5km of roads winding past miniature horses, yaks, buffalo, goats and European red deer. The road was steep so we walked up, bypassing the $20 fee for cars. It was late, after 6pm, and we had the entire lovely hill to ourselves. The animals were friendly, the Lord of the Rings sites clearly marked and the view fantastic. The strangest site was a realistic-looking Chinese prison built by the Walt Disney company in 1986 for a children's movie called The Rescue.

We could see busy Queenstown across the harbor and, thankfully, world's away.

February 12, 2006 Queenstown to Wanaka

By now we'd been bicycling for five weeks and all of us had settled into the rhythm of the journey. Early morning was time for a bit of reading or writing before packing up and squeezing everything back into our bike panniers and the dry bag we lashed into the bike cart. Breakfast was usually oatmeal with raisins or muesli with yoghurt. We rarely managed to leave our campsite early, but then again we almost always got in late the night before.

We always searched for paved back roads to avoid traffic. From Queenstown we found an idyllic back route that reminded us of Vermont-gentle hills, open fields with vistas of mountains and new upper end "lifestyle blocks" (hobby farms). When we saw an OPEN sign at a Gallery we stopped and walked through an airy studio, previously a barn, filled with oil paintings of New Zealand landscapes. No sign of the artist or anyone else.

Arrowtown bustled with tourists along its old-fashioned main street, re-created to its nineteenth century Gold Rush look. The grocery was expensive but we needed snacks and food for lunch. Even at tourist town prices, "bicyclists' petrol" costs less than gasoline, the equivalent of almost $6.00US per gallon.

We chose the more difficult route to Wanaka, hoping to avoid the tour buses. The road began with a steep climb up a narrow road to a pass in the Crown Range. We walked our bikes for a few kilometers, stopped for a picnic lunch, then biked and walked up more steep curves. At the top some Japanese tourists snapped our photo. We are occasionally part of the amazing sights along a New Zealand bus tour route.

At first our descent was too steep to enjoy. My hands cramped up from gripping the brakes so tightly, but before long the valley leveled enough that we had a speedy descent without fearing for our lives.

The pub in Cardronna.

Life got even better when we reached the small settlement of Cardronna, an old gold mining town rescued from near death by a ski area. In the old pub patrons are welcomed into a refurbished 19th century tavern. We ordered Devonshire teas and were giddy with pleasure when plates arrived loaded with warm raisin scones, homemade plum jam, butter, whipped cream and a pot of tea. Bicyclists' petrol is much more fun than the gas station variety.

The rest of our route was an easy downhill to Wanaka, along the Cardronna River which had only been partly restored after gold mining dredging.

February 13, 2006 Wanaka to the Clutha River

Kayaking on Lake Wanaka.

After a quiet night in a motor camp (now something we didn't take for granted), we explored the village of Wanaka and discovered kayaks for rent at a reasonable price. Before we left the man at the rental counter looked at us, looked out at the huge lake, choppy in the early afternoon, and asked us to stay on the village side of Eely Point. We agreed and spent a pleasant hour paddling past sailboats at anchor and children playing at a beach. Tom and Jay paddled a double kayak, the water equivalent of their tandem bike. The water was rough, but clear and clean. Beyond Eely Point the lake churned with white caps and we could see islands, several of which are part of Mt. Aspiring National Park.

Back on land, Jay found a playground on the shoreline filled with creative structures-a web-like rocket ship, an angled merry-go-round and a dinosaur slide. It was even fun for grownups.

We decided to leave Wanaka and bike far enough out of town to find a wooded campsite. After less the 20km we came to the Clutha River where fishermen stood under a bridge. We wheeled the bikes past them and found a wide piece of sand. The river rushed by, clear except for the didymo(rock snot) filming the rocks.

February 14, 2006 Clutha River to Tarras to Omarama

This part of the South Island is merino sheep country. I expected to see fluffy white sheep frolicking in pastures of green grass, but these merino were rumpled and gray, looking for bites of withered grass in dry, dusty fields. The adult merino have folds of skin around their necks, like giant double chins. Obviously the wool needs a bit of processing before it becomes the fine, soft sweaters for sale in many stores here.

It was almost lunchtime when we pedaled into Tarras, a little settlement that our bike book warned us contained the last food for sale for the next 80kms. It was easy to fill our tanks at the Tarras coffeehouse where Jay devoured bacon and eggs on a bagel. (Bagels are a novelty here and usually much more expensive than regular bread). Tom and I tried another Devonshire tea, not as voluminous as our first one in Cardronna, but served on elegant bone china.

Next door, in the merino wool shop, I hoped to see a sale table. Merino sweaters are soft, durable and machine-washable but very expensive. No bargains for me but Tom found a merino hat while I talked to the saleswoman about Shrek, a famous merino ram who escaped capture for years and grew a ridiculously long fleece. He looked like a rough gray pompom in the photos, with stick-like legs supporting his sphere of wool. When he was finally sheared, it was in front of a TV audience and bits of the fleece were auctioned off, raising over $50,000 for a children's charity.

In the compact Tarras grocery store we found Cadbury chocolate bars on special, victims of a heat wave the week before. "It got up to 40degrees C.", the friendly clerk told us. "Bloomin' hot. The chocolate's fine, just a bit of white on top, nothing wrong with it, but some people want their chocolate bars just so." We weren't picky, and were happy to get a deal on Valentine's Day.

Lindis Pass road sign.

Rainbow below Lindis Pass.

After Tarras the road gradually ascended a long, dry valley. A couple of British tourists who we'd met at the Tarras parking lot had warned us that there was "absolutely nothing" all the way to the next village of Omarama. They didn't realize our fondness for open space. I completely enjoyed the rugged landscape of smooth brown hills and, near Lindis Pass, native bush tussock lands.

By late afternoon the sky threatened rain and seeing the parched land all around us I hoped it would. We crested the surprisingly gentle hill to the pass and flew down a long valley on the other side before the storm caught us. When the tandem had a flat tire we didn't mind sheltering under a pine to fix it.

The second flat tire-same bike, same wheel- wasn't as welcome. We were cold and wet, it was almost dark and what was the matter with the tandem anyway? Tom found he'd missed removing a bit of wire embedded in the tire, the cause of both flats. We fixed this tire in the company of a rainbow, with low yellow light glowing on picturesque clay cliffs. The desert and its stark beauty reminded us of the American Southwest.

February 15, 2006 Omarama to Twizel to Lake Tekapo

The South Island continued to amaze me with its diversity of landscapes-rainforest and desert are only miles apart. This was a day of hot, desert travel with no sign of the clouds and rain of the day before. Trees were rare, most of the streams we passed were only dry, rocky depressions with a trickle of water, if there was any at all.

We arrived at the town of Twizel, an oasis in the desert that began as a temporary place for workers and their families during the construction of a giant hydro project. But Twizelites didn't all leave when construction ended and now the village tries to attract tourists, though the small downtown was very quiet at midday. It did have a bakery (for Tom) and a small bookstore (for Jay).

After Twizel we had views of snowy Mt. Cook, New Zealand's tallest mountain. Particularly spectacular was the view of the craggy peak while looking across the turquoise waters of Lake Pukaki (part of the hydro project). We followed a back road alongside a massive canal of water. Once, looking for a shady resting spot, our only option was to sit on a rocky bank in the shade of a small concrete water tank alongside the road. The landscape was definitely not for those seeking a mild and green countryside.

When we turned into a late afternoon headwind we had to put our heads down and get to work pedaling. The long, straight road with no landmarks alongside it (no trees at all) made progress seem elusive. After many miles the road curved-hooray!- and we neared the village of Lake Tekapo. A forest of planted pines was a most welcome break from the bare landscape.

We cycled into town just before dark and found a large Japanese restaurant with a completely empty dining room. (Lake Tekapo is on the tour bus route to the base of Mt. Cook and during the day busloads of Japanese tourists will disgorge at this small village). The friendly staff assured us the restaurant was still open and welcomed us to a seat by the window.

I ordered a rice dish that included natto, a sticky fermented soybean treat that even many Japanese find a bit repulsive. I heard the waitress put in our order, in Japanese, and understood the reply from the cook, something that would translate as, "Are you sure she wants to order natto?"

From across the dining room I answered in Japanese, "Hai, daisuki." (Yes, I really like it). The staff looked surprised and then started laughing. I told them, in my very rusty Japanese, that I'd lived in Japan and that I was thrilled to get a chance to eat natto again. They loved it that I could speak Japanese but soon realized I wasn't a great conversationalist in their language. We ended by exchanging smiles. The rice with natto was excellent, though I'd forgotten it is often served with a raw egg yolk. Fortunately the yolk was slightly cooked by the hot rice underneath it.

Mt. John Observatory (above), and the stars of the Southern Cross (below).

We didn't get to the motor camp until almost 10 pm. Tom set up the tent then sped back to the village to catch a van up to the Mt. John Observatory for a tour of the southern sky at night. He was in his element- a dark, windy mountaintop with telescopes all around. The constellations that we see in the northern hemisphere are upside down here, and some have different names (Orion is called "the bucket"!) And of course there are many southern constellations that we don't see at all, including the Southern Cross, the pole-finding constellation.

February 16, 2006 Lake Tekapo to Burkes Pass

Tom enjoyed Mt. John so much that he suggested we walk up to the top on the trail that began near the motor camp. It was an easy climb through pine woods to the open summit. We decided not to pay for the daytime tour of the telescopes but enjoyed the view of the desert and the mountains near Mt. Cook. A young woman sat with her knitting, waiting for customers to the "Astro Café", an old silver trailer now outfitted with a coffee machine and snacks. The environment was certainly "atmospheric"- no trees or shade anywhere.

On the way back down to our bikes we stopped in the shade of the pines to read and play chess. Once again it was mid-afternoon by the time we started bicycling but the road was quiet and the elevation gain up to Burkes Pass was minimal. ("Are we already at the pass?" I didn't believe the sign).

We glided down a few kilometers, then followed a woods road to a hidden little flat spot where we found plenty of room to set up the tent away from the giant-sized raspberry vines.

February 17, 2006 Burke Pass to Peel Forest

Ah, to be back in trees again! I'm definitely not a desert dweller. Our morning ride into the village of Fairlee was like a late-summer ride in northern New York State, with the sweet smells of fresh-cut hay, and wild roses, with a hint of cow manure odeur to add a balance to the perfume.

Fairlee seemed a town comfortably stuck in the 1960s, with a row of shops that sold hardware, fruits and vegetables, appliances and food. The grocery store reminded me of the Acme grocery next to the old Grammar School in Canton--creaky old floors and a certain bareness to the shelves, as if to tell us we didn't really need that many kinds of food after all.

Our next section of road looked like a sine wave-up a rounded hill into a rounded valley then up another rounded hill and….I kept track of the name of each bucolic hollow-Cattle Valley, Beautiful Valley, Gapes Valley…

We stopped in Beautiful Valley for lunch and a reading break and met a lively older woman out getting her mail. She didn't bicycle any more but she still drove her father's 1965 Jaguar to vintage car rallies. Kiwis are very fond of their old cars. Until recently cars were very expensive here and most people knew how to keep them on the road for years and years.

Our next town was Geraldine where we indulged in our favorite snack- ice cream cones- and found a copy of one of the Narnia books for Jay as he was once again finished with his book.

As we left Geraldine at 4:45pm on a Friday I realized the rear wheel of my bike had a broken spoke and the wheel was wobbling badly. Tom didn't have the tool to fix it but remembered he'd seen a bicycle repair shop in Geraldine so we turned around and raced back into town. The people in the store were very helpful and pleasant, though they did lock the door behind us.

It was another late-in-the-day ride as we passed through farm countryside on our way to a DOC campground at Peel Forest, a surprisingly intact native bush reserve.

February 18, 2006 Peel Forest to Valetta

I wish I could describe the wonder of waking to the dawn chorus of New Zealand native birds. The most distinctive call is from the bell bird, a robin-sized gray bird whose liquid notes are delivered in a rich voice worthy of a solo at the Metropolitan Opera House.

After breakfast we followed a few of the trails into the bush, including one to a huge thousand-year-old Totara tree, looking somewhat like an ancient cedar.

The Sims at their farm.

Back on the bikes, and back into farmland, it didn't take us long to get to Valetta where we pedaled up to Alan and Nola Sims farm. We'd met the Sims seven years ago when we bicycled through this area and we planned to stop in, say hi, have a cup of tea and pedal on. But Alan wanted to show us the farm-flat fields planted with valuable seed crops, including carrot and beet seeds for farmers in Holland and radish seeds for Asia and white clover seeds for domestic sale. He farms with his son Matthew and they try to stay current with the latest agricultural trends, though Alan said the farm machinery man doesn't bother him anymore as he never buys any machinery new.

Nola came back from town then and we sat with tea and muffins, hearing about her grandchildren and accepting an invitation stay the night. Later we learned more about the rules to cricket- the New Zealand team was playing Indonesia-and helped prepare dinner from fresh garden vegetables. Alan was concerned about that the farm down the road, now owned by a large agri-business firm, was taking too much water out of the aquifer to water crops. Water is always serious business in dry farming country.

February 19, 2006 Valetta to Glentunnel

We said goodbye to the Sims and pedaled quiet, Sunday morning roads to Methven, a farming town that becomes a small ski resort in the winter. Methven had a small bookstore where Jay hoped to get a new book, but the shop was closed on Sunday. How tantalizing to be able to see the bookshelves but not be able to get in! Fortunately the grocery store was open and we ate hummus and bread in the shady town park.

Next stop was the Rakaia Gorge where we walked across rocks to the very cold and swift river for a quick dunk. Next to us jet boats roared as others enjoyed the warmth of the Sunday afternoon.

We pedaled on along the edge of the mountains to the Glentunnel Motor Camp, the same place we'd spent our first night of the bike trip six weeks earlier. It was quiet there now, very unlike it had been with the Christmas vacation crowd back in early January. We met an English cyclist there who was traveling so lightly he had to borrow a plate and cooking pot whenever he came into a motor camp. He told us a story about a German cyclist he'd met who'd been carrying three bath towels. Only long-distance cyclists would find that side-splittingly funny. We exchanged tall tales and enjoyed his company.

February 20, 2006 Glentunnel to Rangiora

We thought it might be a long ride to Rangiora and we needed to be there by late afternoon, so we managed to leave the motor camp early (for us), by shortly after 8am. The day was still cool and fresh, though the woman at the Glentunnel store warned us it would be a hot one.

This was a bittersweet day for me as I knew it would probably be the last full day of bicycling we'd do in New Zealand. We'd come full circle on our trip and would visit a few friends then return to Christchurch. As we pedaled along I savoured the sights and scents one can only get from the seat of a bicycle. (Sounds like I'm talking about roadkill! I wasn't, but that in itself is an interesting topic. Most often seen roadkill -asian possum, rabbit, hare, hedgehog, hawk. All these are non-native and have no natural predators here).

In Oxford we stopped for a rest and bought plums and raisin bread at the store. I convinced Tom and Jay it would be a better end to our day to take the longer scenic route to Rangiora via the Ashley Gorge Road-more topography and less traffic.

It was a beautiful route and the day cooperated with bright sunshine and hot but not unbearable temperatures. We stopped by the edge of a stream to read aloud The Silver Chair by C.S. Lewis, a perfect family read-aloud.

In Rangiora, a good-sized farming center and now within easy commuting distance of Christchurch, we stopped at the grocery store to buy a bottle of wine for our hosts. (When Tom arranged our visit on the phone he'd asked if we could bring anything and Chris had suggested wine). We were amazed by the selection of New Zealand wines and in the end we chose at random, hoping our hosts weren't wine connoisseurs.

Chris and Marie met us in their lovely one-hundred-year old "villa"-a one story house with tall ceilings, beautiful woodwork and lots of character. Marie is from Holland and Chris from England and they've lived in New Zealand for eighteen years. We were their first Servas (homestay) travelers and we all greatly enjoyed our evening together. After a wonderful dinner out on the deck we drove to a nearby beach and walked along it until dark. Back at the house Jay convinced everyone to play a game of Hearts. Maria had the most infectious laugh I've ever heard.

February 21, 2006 Rangiora to the Scargill Valley

Betsy entering Scargill Valley.

It was difficult to leave Chris and Maria's in the morning as we hadn't finished all of our conversations from the night before. Then in compact downtown Rangiora we needed to get Jay another book- he picked a hefty copy of Treasure Island.

We plotted a back roads route inland to avoid the heavy traffic on Route1 and the biking was easy on level roads with little traffic. Our Automobile Association map failed us, a rare occurrence, when it labeled a road as paved when it was actually rough dirt. Several kilometers and one flat tire later we returned to pavement.

The day before we'd over-estimated the distance of our ride and on this day we under-estimated. A stiff climb, with a headwind, up to Weka Pass took ages and then we still had 25kms to bicycle along the Scargill Valley Road to get to the farm of our friends Sue and Neville Sinclair. Fortunately the late afternoon light was absolutely stunning, making the dry hills a deep gold and the fields closer to us glow with a rich techni-color hue that didn't seem real. What a perfect way to end a long day of bicycling.

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