Saturday, December 31, 2011

Going snowhere fast: NZ day 8

After a very restless night, I fell into a deep slumber just before dawn.  By the time I awoke at 9am, I was feeling surprisingly refreshed.  I ambled to the kitchen for some breakfast, and noticed that all the noisy high school students were in the process of checking out of the hostel.  All was peaceful as I sat there by myself eating my muesli, staring out the window.  It had been snowing a lot overnight, and it was obvious that my plans of bushwalking around Mt Cook weren't going to eventuate.  The outlook for the day was bleak, and I felt pretty melancholic.

The view from breakfast was a white out, or to be more precise, a dark grey out

After breakfast I bumped into Jer, who had just arrived on the bus from Lake Tekapo.  He looked completely exhausted, and was unsure if he was going to continue on the journey.  He headed to the room to unpack his gear and have a lie down, I headed out to the garage to do some maintenance work on my bike.  The garage was wet and cold, and my hands weren't working in the freezing cold.  I noticed I had a badly bent spoke, presumably from some flight damage, and managed to straighten it up reasonably well.  After much skinning of knuckles and crushing of fingers I headed back inside to see what Jer was up to.

Snow business
Jer seemed in higher spirits after a bit of a chance to unwind.  I was feeling a lot better too, now that we were both back in the same location.  The weather appeared to be unchanging - heavy grey skies with constant wet snow.  It wasn't the most appealing conditions to be out running around - I hadn't bargained on it snowing at Mt Cook in November, so we were hardly prepared in terms of our clothing.  Still, Jer had never seen snow before, so we wandered out into the cold to see what it was all about.

As soon as we got outside Jer said "I've got to do this" and excitedly ran over to the snow...

...where he made a snow dick and balls.  Classic humour presented in a new medium

After the obligatory snowball fight, Jer seemed a lot happier, and we went for a walk around Mt Cook village.  It was clear that we were very much in a tourist resort type of place, with little to do on a snowed in day, unless we wanted to spend bulk amounts of money at cheesy attractions and overpriced restaurants.  Fortunately, we found a cafe  that had reasonably priced coffee, and watched the world go by for an hour or so.  From there we headed over to the Department of Conservation information centre.  This excellent facility really took me by surprise - it's free of charge to enter, and we spent a couple of hours wandering around the vast displays looking at all the artefacts and information from mountaineering adventures of days gone by.

Venturing up to Mt Cook village in the wet snow

With a light dusting of snow, the valley took on a different feel, quite unexpected in November

Lots of great quotes around the information centre, this one seemed particularly topical

Jer peruses the memorial books for the mountain, something like 200 people have died here in the past 100 years, including recently. Living in Australia, we had no real appreciation of just how brutal alpine environments can be

From the information centre we plodded back down to the hostel, with the snow and weather now significantly heavier.  We sat around in the kitchen, staring out at the snow piling up.  At this point Jer told me he had made up his mind to get a bus to Wanaka, about 200km away, and wait for me there.  I was still keen to try and ride out tomorrow to the town of Omarama, then over Lindis Pass and into Wanaka the following day.  I had it in my head that Lindis pass was going to be a real cycling highlight of the trip, and there was no way I was going to miss it.

We would definitely be leaving Mt Cook tomorrow, so for lunch I ate the rest of my food, before heading out to watch Jer work on his bike.  He had been reflecting on his saddle sores and problems, and realised that in the week before leaving Australia, he had swapped out the stem on his bike, and was now running much more aggressive geometry.  Looking at it in the garage, it looked to be set up more like a time trial bike than a tourer.  After a little adjustment, he had the bike set up much more sensibly, and was feeling a lot better about riding it again - and I was pleased he was no longer talking about abandoning altogether.

I test rode Jer's bike in the snow for about 20 seconds.  For the first 15 seconds I thought "this isn't too bad", then I realised it was actually freezing, wet and horrible

The Brazilian
We were sitting around quietly in our room, just watching the snow fall.  As the day progressed the hostel became progressively busier, much more so than the previous evening, and I was starting to feel claustrophobic and anxious again.  Up until Mt Cook, all the hostels we stayed in were part of the BBH chain, and had a friendly, quiet, relaxed vibe.  This place was part of a different chain, a big international chain with perhaps more of a party / young person feel to it, and something about it just wasn't working out for me.  In fact the whole of Mt Cook had a vibe that just wasn't sitting with me at all - for me cycle touring is largely solitary, and all about seeing things and experiencing things in your own way and at your own pace, and getting off the beaten track.  Here in this hostel and in Mt Cook, I felt like I was being crammed in to some experience where I wasn't free to just do my own thing, I had to play the same game as everyone else, and it was making me very aggravated.  I discussed this with Jer and he felt the same way - we agreed we needed to get away as quickly as possible, back on the bikes, and get this tour back on track.  We decided that in the morning we'd get the bus to the town of Twizel, about 60km away, and ride from there to Omarama for the night.  That way we'd be out of the snow, away from this place, and we could try to reprogram our newly acquired negativity on the 50km ride in the afternoon.

Our dorm room was getting pretty packed now, with about 6-8 guys staying in there.  They were all pretty quiet and kept to themselves, until suddenly this guy bursts into the room, dressed in about 5000 layers of the latest snow and rain gear.  The guy darted across the room straight to the window - swoosh swoosh swoosh swoosh - and stood there gasping wide eyed, with his hands over his mouth, looking on the verge of tears.  This continued for about five minutes, right next to my bed.  Then he exclaimed in a strong Brazilian accent "IT'S SO BEAUTIFUL! IT'S SO WHITE! IT'S LIKE HEAVEN HERE! I'M IN HEAVEN! I NEVER WANT TO LEAVE! IT'S NOT LIKE THIS IN BRAZIL!". He went on and on like this for at least 15 minutes "THERE IS SO MUCH SNOW! IT'S BEAUTIFUL! I HAVE TO FLY BACK TO BRAZIL ON THE 15TH OF NOVEMBER, BUT I'M JUST GOING TO STAY HERE FOR THE REST OF THE TIME! IT'S SO BEAUTIFUL! EVERYTHING IS SO PERFECT HERE! I WANT TO GO OUTSIDE AND PLAY IN THE SNOW! BUT I NEED TO EAT!  LOOK I AM SHAKING! IT'S JUST SO BEAUTIFUL!" His rambling went on, and on, and on.  Maybe he was just an excitable fellow, but he was annoying me a lot - he wasn't speaking to me in particular, just having a full volume monologue.  Jer and I ventured back into the snow, and back to the cafe to wait out the rest of the day in relative peace.  We had a few coffees there, then dinner - it was expensive, but worth it just to have a little bit of solitude.  As we sat there, the snow got heavier and heavier, and we both agreed it was the right decision to catch the bus out of the worst of the weather on the following day.

Ever wondered how tall I am compared to the life-size Sir Edmund Hilary? Well, now you know

Our view from the cafe window all afternoon - the snow piling up.

I do not like it
We eventually left the cafe and headed out into the heavy snow.  We really weren't dressed properly for the occasion, we were freezing and wet in our canvas street shoes and jeans.  On the way back, Jer made the discovery that snow on roads is awesome for doing skids, and we ran all the way through the village back to our hostel to stay warm.  As we got back to the hostel the Brazilian guy was wearing all his snow gear, standing around in the middle of the road looking stunned, with only his eyes poking out from all his clothing.  He said "ARE YOU OUT RUNNING IN THIS?  YOU ARE CRAZY!"  I said "nah mate it's freezing, trying to get indoors", to which he replied "YOU ARE CRAZY!  CRAZY AUSTRALIAN BIKE RIDERS! IT'S SO BEAUTIFUL! LOOK, LOOK AT MY HANDS! I PUT THEM IN THE SNOW, AT FIRST IT WAS COLD, BUT THEN IT FELT LIKE BURNING. IT'S SO BEAUTIFUL!!!" ...Indeed.

Apparently this was unseasonal weather for Mt Cook in November.  It did seem pretty intense

A cold man with wet shoes finds his way back to the hostel

My bed was the one with the bidons next to it, the Brazilian guy was in the bed opposite. Close quarters with a strange man

Back in our room, I packed my panniers and sorted my gear for a quick getaway in the morning.  Our bus was arriving at about 10am, and I was keen to be totally ready to get out of there.  I hopped into bed, with the snow was still falling heavily outside.  As with the night before, I pulled my blanket up over my head and tried to sleep.  That hostel was so noisy, I could hear every conversation and sound through the whole place it seemed.  Coming to Mt Cook had been a last minute addition to the tour, when I suddenly had a few extra days up my sleeve due to a flight change.  Lying there under my covers, I was pretty sure I hated the place - it looked like a beautiful paradise, but seemed all strangely wrong and sterile.  In hindsight, I still don't like the place - I concede that Mt Cook and I got off on the wrong foot with the weather and everything else, but my mind is made up.  Still, I'm glad I went there, I certainly had some insights about myself that will no doubt benefit me at some point in my life.

Jer inside the dorm room. Looking at this photo brings back all the feelings of anxiety and claustrophobia I had in that place

I just want to go to sleep
Of course, our Brazilian friend wasn't finished yet.  I was in bed, under the covers, almost asleep, when he walked in with all his snow gear on.  Swoosh swoosh swoosh swoosh.  He started talking to Jer, on the top bunk above me, giving it plenty of his "IT'S SO BEAUTIFUL!" routine.  He then proceeded to change out of his snow gear, which made the hugest racket, like something from the movie Transformers. Zip swoosh zip zip crinkle rip zip zip zip ziiiiiiip crinkle rustle swoosh swiish clip swoosh. He said to Jer "IT'S SO BEAUTIFUL!  LOOK AT THE SNOW!  IT'S HEAVEN HERE!  I'M GOING OUTSIDE, TO PLAY IN THE SNOW!!!".  He then put all his snow gear back on - swoosh clip swiish swoosh rustle crinkle ziiiiiiip zip zip zip rip crinkle zip zip swoosh zip. I heard him to say to Jer (referring to me) "DOWN THERE, HE IS ALREADY ASLEEP! SO BEAUTIFUL!".  I almost was asleep weird Brazilian guy, I almost was...

On a personal note for New Year's Eve

It's only a few hours away from the end of 2011 here in Australia, and I've been reflecting on my year of writing and blogging.  It's been a huge year for me, I've had some great adventures on and off the bike, and it wouldn't have been possible without the help and support of a lot of people.  I'm fortunate to be surrounded by exceptional people, so I thought I'd give some thanks...

Firstly, huge thanks to my wife and two young daughters for supporting my cycling endeavours - I spend a lot of time out of the house with training, riding and touring, and it wouldn't be at all possible without the encouragement and understanding of my family.

Huge thanks to all the editors and publishers who I've been involved with in 2011 - it's been great to have so many manuscripts and photographs about my cycling exploits published.  You've all been incredibly patient with me, and I've learned so much as a professional writer and photographer from all your input and teaching.

A massive thanks to the businesses and organisations in Australia and New Zealand who have taken an interest in what I do, and have assisted me to get out and have my adventures.  I have experienced places I would have never otherwise got to experience.  Thank you for believing in me and trusting me enough to share my thoughts about your parts of the world.

Special thanks goes to Iain and Paul, two elite level cyclists and elite level friends who help keep my bikes running smooth, and help me out a lot with fitness, technique and mental focus.  Contrary to what I might like to think, I'm not naturally athletic and I suck at working on bikes.  Without these two guys, I'd be sitting at home, out of shape and a nervous wreck, surrounded by a bunch of non-functional bicycles.

A big thanks and cubes must go to Jer and Rudi, who are usually the unwitting stars of my adventures.  Without those two guys, this blog just wouldn't happen.  I give you two guys a LOT of shit both in person, on the blog and in magazines - thanks for being such top gentlemen, and here's hoping for more adventures in the future.

My relentless teasing isn't just limited to the blog, here's a little something I whipped up and sent Rudi after our ride this morning. It really never ends...

Finally, and most importantly, a big huge colossal thank you to all the readers of the blog throughout the year.  When I started this in January, it was for my own amusement and the amusement of my mates, I never dreamed I'd be reaching out to thousands of people all over the world, most of whom I'll never even meet!  I'm an insecure little fellow so I check my blog stats quite a lot, and I'm always thrilled to see the number of readers from all over the world sharing in what I do - it's an amazing feeling and it definitely encourages me to get back out on the bike and keep sharing my world with you all.  I hope you've enjoyed reading my ramblings in 2011, and I'm looking forward to sharing more in 2012.

Have a safe and healthy 2012, and keep riding to new places!

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Going it alone: NZ day 7

Once again, I was awake before my alarm went off, awoken by some loud and constant noise outside.  As I lay there gaining my senses, I realised the sound was incessant, howling wind.  It was so ferocious it didn't even sound like wind, more like a kind of  booming and howling noise.  Jer was fast asleep with no need to get up early, so I quietly packed my gear and got ready to go.  When I walked over to the shed to get my bike it was overcast, freezing cold, blowing a constant gale, and the ground was wet from  overnight rain.  I woke Jer to let him know I was leaving, and he just laughed at me. I hopped on my bike, rolled down the hill to the highway and headed west in the dawn cloud.

Within a few minutes of leaving Lake Tekapo, the cloud lifted and the sun came out

Today the mountains seemed bigger and whiter, and I was excited to be heading towards them

104km to go on (presumably) flat roads, shouldn't be a problem

Blue ribbon ride
After west riding along the main highway for 3km, I turned south towards the Tekapo canal road.  The canal road was apparently traffic free, flat, and a few kilometres shorter than the highway.  After an unexpected steep descent, I arrived at the bridge crossing the canal.  This was an area I'd looked at dozens of times on the map, but nothing could have prepared me for the sight of it in real life.  The canal, which links Lake Tekapo and Lake Pukaki, was a perfectly flat bright blue ribbon, cutting across the side of a valley through a vast and barren landscape.  The canal is built on a huge embankment, with a paved road running between the canal and the steep drop to the valley floor below.

The Tekapo Canal road.  One of the strangest, starkest and most awe inspiring places I have ever been

Following the deserted road in the early morning sun, high above the valley floor

As I got onto the canal road, a tail wind picked up and propelled me along at about 30km/h with only light pedalling.  A great wave of excitement and happiness came over me.  Here I was whizzing along through a completely bizarre and foreign landscape, the sun was shining, the riding was easy, and I was all by myself and completely free.  It felt good to be riding solo - Jer is a great friend of mine, a great rider, and like a brother to me, but there is always something so exciting about setting out on an adventure all by yourself.  The riding was taking none of my concentration, so I was free to enjoy the view and contemplate life in general.  I remember at one point thinking that this was probably going to be the best day's riding I'll ever have in my life, and it was a shame that Jer was going to miss out on it.  In hindsight, I think that might have been the exact moment I jinxed myself.

Life gets interesting
I whizzed along the canal for a little while, nobody else was around - no cars, no houses, no nothing.  It felt a bit like the canal and the road, and indeed the whole landscape, was put there entirely for my enjoyment - it was shaping up to be that kind of day.  Eventually I rode around a bend, and got a clear view of a massive mountain range ahead in the distance.  The canal gently turned away from the valley, and out onto a vast plain.  Away from the shelter of the valley wall, the wind was noticeably stronger and coming in from the side.

Out from the shelter of the valley wall, exposed to the mountains.  A strong cross wind was blowing, but I was still able to maintain a speed of 20km/h, with a little effort

The canal cuts through a small hill, offering a temporary respite from the wind.  Even though the cross wind was fairly strong and somewhat unpredictable, it was nothing I couldn't handle

The canal crossed under the highway running between Lake Tekapo and Lake Pukaki - the alternative route I had been advised to take if it was too windy.  Standing at the crossroads of the canal and the main road, I felt uncertain and uncomfortable about my chosen route for the day.  The wind was blowing so strong that I was having trouble standing up with my bike, and the shine I felt earlier in the morning was beginning to wear off.  I noticed that the gates to the western section of the canal road were open, and while I was standing there a car drove through and turned onto the highway, so I figured the wind mustn't yet be bad enough to close the road.  Still, the wind and cold seemed to be getting more intense, and I had all but decided to ride the highway, when some part of me realised I'd probably never be faced with this opportunity again, so I had to accept the challenge and have the experience.  I pushed off into the wind on the canal road, feeling a mixture of determination and fear.

With nothing between me and the mountains, the icy wind froze my face and smashed me all over the road.  I was often leant right over into the wind, wobbling around like a little kid learning to ride

The only shelter was a rock in the barren landscape, I rode over to it and huddled behind it eating a muesli bar.  I was so strung out from the wind and stress I didn't realise I had actually sat down on a long dead sheep carcass, who I presumed had found the only quiet spot on the plain to die

I finished my muesli bar, stood up, and rode back over to the road.  The wind was freezing, and threatening to blow me into the canal or off the embankment at any moment.  It was a slight cross-tail wind, so I was still able to plod along at about 14km/h most of the time.  Turning back wasn't really an option any more as it would then be a cross-head wind, and I'd be unable to ride into it.  There were no houses, buildings, trees or anything I could shelter behind, so I figured my only option was to press on.

I struggled along in the wind for a little while longer, and spotted a very exposed stretch of road up ahead. The exposed section seemed to span the mouth of another intersecting valley, with the canal built up on an embankment high above the valley floor on either side.  This exposed looked to go for a couple of kilometres, and gently curved to the left, where I could see the canal went into a cutting beside a small hill.  The cutting looked as though it might offer some protection from the wind.  As I neared the exposed section of road, I saw the only road sign on the canal that day - a high wind warning sign.  If the wind was bad where I was now, the exposed section spanning the valley must be "dynamite", to use the term I'd heard yesterday.  As I drew closer the ferocity of the wind increased and the noise was insane, a constant deafening roar.  I stopped by the side of the road, lay my bike over in the shallow drain, huddled behind it and carefully opened my pannier.  I removed every piece of riding gear I had - winter gloves, beanie, raincoats, warmers, buff - and put them all on to protect me from the wind and cold.  By the time I stood up the side of my face was numb, like I'd been at the dentist.  I looked at the road - the wind was blowing from right to left, so there was not much chance I'd end up in the canal, but a very good chance I'd end up down the steep embankment and come to rest about 100m below, which wouldn't end well.  I started off on my bike, slowly wobbling towards the exposed section.  For maybe the first time in my life, I felt a very real and genuine fear for my physical well being - not a feeling I often get living my sheltered and predictable life in Australia.  This fundamental fear galvanised me into action somehow, and I blocked all thoughts other than getting across to the shelter of the distant cutting.

I'm not sure how long the journey across that exposed section took.  It might have taken 30 seconds, a few minutes or an hour.  Time stood still as I was forced to use every last gram of my strength, skill and resolve to keep moving forward across the wind.  The wind was beyond savage, gusting unpredictably.  One moment I'd be riding forward, leant towards the canal at what felt like 30 degrees to counter the wind, the next moment the wind would change slightly and I'd be careening toward the icy water of the canal.  I'd correct that and try to head back to the centre of the road, when the wind would change back and blow me dangerously close to the edge of the escarpment.  I was using all of the road, and a little bit of the narrow verge as well.  About halfway across, I started to think that maybe I could make it, and that I had things reasonably under control.  I hadn't seen another vehicle the whole time I'd been riding the canal, so if I stayed near the centre of the road I had at least some margin for error.  Then I saw a little red car coming towards me from the sheltered cutting, and my heart sank as I realised we'd be meeting right in the middle of the windiest section.

For those who mightn't know, people in New Zealand drive on the left hand side of the road.  I was headed towards the oncoming car with a steep embankment dropping on my left, a freezing and deep canal on my right, and the wind hitting my right shoulder.  The car would be quickly passing on my right hand side as well, causing a reprieve in the wind for a brief moment.  I was already riding at 100% of every capacity, and having to deal with this put my body and mind into overdrive.  I leaned hard into the wind, the car whizzed by, and in the leeward pocket of still air for that moment, I veered wildly to the right, towards the canal.  I tried to stay relaxed on the controls, and was slammed out of the calm by the full force of the wind, back towards the embankment.  I remember thinking of nothing as I struggled to eventually regain control and stop from plummeting into oblivion - some other part of my brain must have kicked in.  I settled back into the struggle against the wind, which now seemed slightly easier after dealing with the disturbances caused by the car.  I eventually reached the other side of the exposed section and arrived behind the cutting, only to find it wasn't sheltered enough to stop and stand up.  The only shelter was a little concrete box that housed pumping equipment or something like that.  I rolled in behind there, huddled out of the cold wind, and ate some food.  I stared back at the exposed area I'd just ridden across.  It was easily the most real experience of my life, with me drawing on everything I had mentally, physically and technically to avoid disaster.  It was terrifying and exhilarating, and definitely not something I was keen on repeating anytime soon.  I later learned I was probably justified in being so terrified - when I checked the weather that night, the speed of the cross wind on that day had been 170km/h.

Some of the exposed section I'd ridden over.  With gloved hands and in a state of fear, taking photos wasn't high on my priority list

The only thing visible was my forehead crease of concern

I knew this day wasn't over by a long shot.  I still didn't know how far I had to go, or what awaited me ahead, but I felt like the worst had passed.  I was worried how long it might take to get to the end of the canal road in the wind, but I was also relieved that Jer had stayed back in Tekapo - if I was struggling, he would have had no chance in his weakened state.  Sitting around behind the concrete box all day wasn't going to get me any closer to my destination, so I rode back over to the road and continued on my way.  The road changed direction slightly so that the wind was a little more at my back.  I was once again sheltered somewhat by a small rise, so the riding eventually became less harrowing, and soon I was easily whizzing along at 30km/h.  I quickly passed by a commercial salmon farm growing salmon in the canal itself, and reached the end of the road, high above Lake Pukaki.  Dropping down the steep road from the canal to the shores of the lake, I was met with a closed gate.  I rode around it, and the sign said the canal road was closed due to high winds - information that would have been handy to know a couple of hours earlier.

Looking back along the canal into the mountains

Road closed. The other end must have been shut off after I was already on the road

Possibly the worst photo ever, but it gives you the idea that there was a power station in the middle of nowhere

The drop from the canal to the electricity turbines is 110m.  Made for a fun descent to the shore of the lake

Apparently the blue colour of the water is due to "rock flour", created by the glacier upstream grinding stones to a powder that is suspended in the water.  It's a beautiful and unusual sight

Sheltered from the wind, riding along the eastern coves and beaches of Lake Pukaki

I soon rejoined the main highway, towards Lake Pukaki.  Once again I was back out into the savage wind, and into some rolling hills, on a route I had foolishly assumed would be flat

At the northern end of Lake Pukaki, I could see a big storm in the head of the valley, obscuring the view of Mt Cook, my destination for the day

The first building I saw since leaving Lake Tekapo about 60km earlier.  I stopped in to shelter from the wind at the information centre

Another one rides the bus
It was clear I wasn't going to get anything to eat at the Lake Pukaki information centre, the building was literally just an information kiosk, full of brochures and things like that.  I was aimlessly standing around out the front, when another cycle tourer turned up, called Murray.  Murray was pretty much the opposite direction version of myself - he looked like me, had red hair, red beard, same jersey, lived in the same town.  He was headed from Mt Cook to Lake Tekapo, hoping to ride the route I'd just ridden.  We stood around comparing notes, and decided to take a break and hang around to see what was happening with the wind and storm on the horizon.  I walked into the information centre and pulled my best hungry cyclist face, and the kind lady there took pity on me and made me a cup of coffee and lent me her mug.  Murray and I sat for a while in the vaguely Star Trek themed lookout shelter, and I pondered my next move.

The view to the alpine storm that didn't seem to be going anywhere.  It was freezing inside that shelter, but was infinitely better than being out in the wind

Murray informed me that getting to Mt Cook was going to be tough.  It was raining there, the route quite hilly and exposed, making it difficult in the wind.  I informed Murray that the wind on the canal would be insane, and he'd be better off waiting until early tomorrow morning to try it.  In a way we had told each other what we wanted to hear, and enabled each other to give up for the day.  I was physically feeling not too bad, but mentally I was already drained by the wind after my harrowing morning.  Murray decided to head off towards the power station and camp the night on the shores of Lake Pukaki, and I decided to get the bus the remainder of the way to Mt Cook that afternoon.  We bid each other good luck, he pedalled away, and I asked the lady at the counter to book me seat on the bus to Mt Cook.

After waiting a little while, a shuttle bus from Mt Cook Connections turned up, driven by the friendly guy called Allan.  He bounded out of the bus to greet me, and the first thing he said was "Are you Jeremy's mate?".  I was a little taken aback and said nervously said yes, and Allan told me he was giving Jer a lift to Mt Cook tomorrow.  The people at the hostel had mentioned to him that Jer's mate was going it alone despite the wind, and it seemed I already had a reputation in the region as something of an adventurous fellow (or brainless idiot).  There was nobody on the bus but me, so I asked "can I sit up front and ride with you?", to which Allan replied "I hope you do!".  I jumped in the bus and off we went, north towards Mt Cook.  Even though I had basically given up for the day, I still felt good about my efforts, and now my reward was sitting in a warm bus in good company, getting a personalised guided tour of the area.

Apparently this is where they shot some of Lord of the Rings.  Allan was pointing out the filming sites as we drove around, LOTR continues to be big business around here it seems

The road undulated through forest on the western shore of the lake.  I was pretty pleased not to be riding in such gloomy weather

Allan was a total legend of a tour guide.  Even though it was just me I still got the full spiel, plus numerous stops at scenic spots along the way

Headed to the storm at Mt Cook.  Up there is where the moist air from the West Coast uplifts and dumps rain.  It's often a murky place I'm told

Whereas in the other direction the sun was shining and few clouds in sight.

We soon passed the northern end of the lake, and drove into constant rain.  I was absolutely freezing in this photo

Nothing to do and all night to do it
About an hour after leaving Lake Pukaki, we arrived in Mt Cook.  Allan took me for a drive around the small village, pointing out a few of the places to visit and walks to do.  It was raining heavily when we arrived, which progressed to wet snow as we drove around.  The village itself felt a little bizarre to me - it seemed to be built only on tourism, and had a strange vibe.  Allan dropped me off at my hostel, I put my bike in the shed and went to my dorm room to relax and do some laundry.  It felt good to not have to do any preparation for tomorrow, a scheduled rest day, so after a few hours of chilling out and updating my notes, I went out for a walk in the fine rain.

Mt Cook village seemed to consist of empty accommodation and two overpriced eateries.  It wasn't really tourist season, so the place had the deserted vibe that I was getting to quite like on our trip.  Most of the buildings in the village seemed to blend into the environment, built behind earth walls to shelter from the incessant wind.  On all sides I was surrounded by large mountains, which felt quite claustrophobic and intimidating.  I had a coffee in a cafe, checked out the excellent free information centre, then wandered back down to the hostel to make some dinner.

As is often the case in these places, there is always one massive building that went up before they realised it would be a good idea not to build eyesores in a natural area

I was sitting in the kitchen eating my usual dinner of tuna and rice, when suddenly the sun broke through the clouds.  Off I went for a walk to look at the mountains

The setting sun hits the western wall of the valley

Foul weather looking to the north, where the moist air from the West Coast rises up and dumps rain

Wearing my cycling jacket off the bike.  Yes, I am that stylish

Although I felt cold, it was still warm enough that the snow was melting once it hit the ground.  Things are looking good for lots of bushwalking tomorrow

Right on dark the snow got heavier, and I hurried back to the hostel

Back at the hostel I thought I had better check my email to see how Jer was getting on.  As I wandered around the labyrinth that was hostel, I felt the place was quite dark and stuffy.  I walked into the kitchen, where I found a large group of American high school students, I presume on some kind of school excursion, all sitting around talking very loudly.  I walked into the television room and there were more high school students in there, watching Flight Of The Conchords on full volume, while many of them provided their own audio commentary of exactly was happening on the screen, at the top of their voices.  This assault of noise and people was a far cry from the life I usually lead, and it made me confused and angry as to why one would travel all this way just to sit in front of the television doing the same old thing as at home.

I found a computer and checked my email, it seemed that Jer was having a rough time in Lake Tekapo.  He still felt ill and was thinking of going straight to Dunedin - he must have been feeling some weird emotions being stuck inside a hostel all day.  I sent a message back saying just to come up to Mt Cook, have a day off here, and we'd see how he felt when we were leaving.  My internet credit ran out at that point, and sitting in the noisy room with TV and voices at full volume, I didn't feel compelled to wait around for a reply.

I suddenly felt very claustrophobic in that place, and went straight back to the dorm to try and get some sleep.  Fortunately there were only two other people in my room, and they were quiet and kept to themselves, much like me.  For some reason I was very anxious and couldn't get to sleep, then the students came back from the lounge and into the room next door.  Through the paper thin walls I cold hear their very loud carrying on, which heightened my anxiety and made me even more awake than I already was.  It had been one of the most monumental days I have ever had on the bike and was feeling good about the ride, but the chaos of the hostel and the claustrophobia of the weather and mountains was making me feel strange and lonely.  I lay there for hours, unable to sleep, but with nowhere to go if I got out of bed.  Eventually I pulled the covers up over my head, and pretended to be somewhere else.  I must have drifted off to sleep eventually.  It was a strangely negative end to what I would technically consider an excellent day.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Email subscription to Velo Cetera now available

In the past 24 hours, at least three people have said to me "hey idiot, there is no way for people to subscribe to your blog by email".  I have taken their concerns on board, reconfigured the proxies, phase shifted the mainframe, and added a "follow by email" button in the right sidebar.  Simply throw your email address in there and you'll get the latest posts delivered to your inbox on the day I post them.  It's all controlled by Feedburner, so it's totally automated - I won't know your email address or spam you or anything like that.

While I was doing that I also added a "join this site" button, again in the right sidebar, so you can follow my ramblings with your Google or blog account, if that's more your cup of tea.  And the faithful old Atom RSS feed remains for those that have been using that already.

And now, to get back to writing up more of the saga that was our cycle tour in New Zealand...

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Hitting the high country: NZ day 6

When I awoke, the scene that greeted me out the window at Geraldine wasn't exactly inviting.  It was raining, and the roads looked cold and wet.  Even if it stopped raining now, we'd still get covered in road grime as soon as we turned a pedal.  Today we were forging on to Lake Tekapo - leaving the Canterbury Plain, riding through the foothills, and over two mountain passes to the lake about 90km away.  While I wasn't relishing the prospect of a wet, cold day, I was still very excited to be heading to Lake Tekapo, one of the iconic sights of New Zealand.  I was sitting there eating my breakfast when Chris, our host at Rawhiti House, came in and asked me how far we were riding that day.  I told him Lake Tekapo, and his advice was to get as far as we could as fast as we could - there was a north-westerly change due in the afternoon, with hail storms in the mountains.  That was a meteorological phenomenon we weren't too keen to be a part of, so we rugged up in our warmest waterproof gear, bid farewell to our hosts, and headed west out of Geraldine.

Not the most inviting weather for a jolly day on the bicycles

13km into the day my speedo magnet snapped.  I removed it and shoved it in my pocket.  This was a pivotal moment in the trip for me - no speedo meant I was forced to abandon my obsession with average speed and enjoy the world around me. No speedo also led to me riding faster for some reason...

We pushed off into a light drizzle, and after about two minutes of riding the rain stopped and we rode along, with the grimy spray from the road soaking our legs.  Leaving Geraldine we entered the foothills, the road becoming progressively more rolling, eventually leading into an ongoing series of moderate ascents and descents.  We were sweltering in our heavy riding gear, which we had set up to withstand an arctic blast, and soon stopped to remove all but our rain shells.  As the hills got progressively larger, I noticed Jer was standing up on the bike and really attacking every climb, which seemed a bit unusual, but I figured he must be feeling better.  After a little while of pushing slowly uphill into the grey morning, we stopped for a bite to eat by a small creek.

As I underwent some dodgy roadside repairs to my speedo, Jer confessed to me that he felt quite unwell.  He couldn't really pin down what the problem was, but he was looking the unhappiest I've ever seen him.

The weather seemed to constantly change from overcast to very overcast as we rode through the rolling hills

About mid-morning we reached the foot of Mt Michael, our first serious climb of the day, which rose steadily upwards for a few kilometres, then became steep for the last little pinch.  Right at the bottom of the mountain Jer suddenly stood up in the saddle and took off up the hill.  This took me totally by surprise - the general idea of long distance cycling is to conserve and carefully meter out your energy, and we still had a long way to go.  On top of that only half an hour before he had complained of feeling sick.  Whatever it was, I didn't have the strength or inclination to match his burst of speed, and I gently rode up the hill, stopping to take photographs and enjoy the view.

On the slopes of Mt Michael

Jer arrives at the lookout on the summit, looking a little less than 100%

Quick stop to survey our route for the remainder of the day.  I could see the foot of the climb to Burkes Pass, but low cloud covered the range.  I had no idea what lay ahead

As we stood around at the top of Mt Michael gathering our thoughts and preparing to drop down to the town of Fairlie for lunch, we had our first and only encounter with the tour buses that are apparently common in the area.  We were standing quietly at the lookout when a vast, gleaming coach pulled up and disgorged its passengers about 20 metres from where we were standing.  The passengers all stood in a little huddle on the hilltop for about 20 seconds, then piled back into the coach and they were gone.  It seemed to us a completely bizarre way to try and experience a new place, so isolated from the smells, sounds and other sensations of the journey.  But then again, they probably thought we were a pair of prize idiots, having ridden loaded bikes up a steep mountain to stand around in the cold pointing at things...

The mountains get serious
After dropping back into the valley, we rode into the town of Fairlie, looking for a Four Square.  All over New Zealand, it seemed the local Four Square supermarkets were the best value place to go for a simple road lunch and to resupply.  I ducked in and grabbed something to eat, and retired to a park bench in the middle of town to scoff my lunch.  As we were sitting there, Jer told me that he was getting a saddle sore, hence all his standing climbs.  Often, once a rider starts getting sore in one part of the body, it quickly leads to aches and an increased pain sensitivity in other parts of the body.  This sometimes leads to feeling sick, which leads to feeling negative, which then sets off the whole spiral again.  It's not a great situation to be in, particularly on a long cycling tour full of long days in the saddle, and I think Jer was really starting to suffer.

Lunch of champions. Ham and salad roll, date scone, and a world famous caffeinated carbonated beverage.  All this cost me less than $7

We quietly sat there finishing our food and filling our bidons in preparation for the 30km climb ahead to Burkes Pass.  A guy walked over to us and was looking at my bike, he was curious about it as he had not seen a cyclocross style touring bike before.  We chatted about the bike and it turns out he rode a fair bit himself, so I asked him what the climb up to Lake Tekapo was like.  He replied "It's not too bad, just a wee bit hilly".  To a more naive traveller that might have sounded like good news, but I was already well familiar with understated NZ cycling nomenclature from a previous trip.  A "wee hill" means a gut busting climb for hours, a "light breeze" means a cyclonic gale, and "fast descent" means miles and miles of riding down bone jarring, brain frying escarpments.  I asked him if he reckoned the predicted storm would arrive and he was strangely direct in his answer - "yes, yes it will".  It was certainly promising to be an interesting afternoon.

We still had no clues as to what the weather might do for the day, but it did appear to be thickening

The climb began straight out of Fairlie.  Not quite imperceptible, there was definitely a feeling of riding uphill

Works on so many levels

The long climb became noticeably steeper as we progressed towards the pass

We plodded along up the increasingly steep climb under the dark grey clouds.  There were times along this when stretch Jer dropped off the back and I lost sight of him, which was highly unusual, as it is generally me that usually ends up getting caught off the back.  Along this stretch I was subject to the worst magpie attack I have ever experienced - it felt like someone had thrown a brick at my head, and almost knocked me over the handlebars.  It seems the magpies in New Zealand have adopted a different approach to Australia. In Australia they tend to fly along next to a rider and peck you a bit, making plenty of noise and warning - in New Zealand they adopt the strategy of a silent Stuka dive bomber, unexpectedly spearing into your head from a great height with the added force of gravity.  Just before the steep final push up the climb, we stopped in at a little caravan selling coffee by the roadside.

Jer was so exhausted and poorly he could barely speak, and I had a pounding headache and sore neck from the magpie attack.  What a pair of sorry princesses

After a coffee and the remainder of my date scone from earlier, I felt a lot better and ready to tackle the climb

About halfway up the pass Jer said "look behind you" - I was surprised by the view and how far we'd climbed.  It always pays to look over your shoulder in New Zealand, for a dramatically different perspective

Jer making the final push up to the top of Burkes Pass

Getting close to the top of the pass

Jer arrives at the summit.  I made some inane joke about Mr Popper's Penguins, all I got in reply was an annoyed grunt

Uphill across the flat
At the top of Burkes Pass the scenery changed dramatically, to a sparse and mostly treeless alpine plain, covered with tussocky grass.  Large snow capped mountains loomed in the distance, much larger and more imposing than the ones we had encountered a few days earlier.  The weather changed too - with the temperature dropping, the wind picking up and the occasional large drop of rain falling on us.  Two things were clear - a storm was rolling in, and Jer was by now completely shattered.  I wasn't feeling too bright myself, from a combination of fatigue and anxiety, and we still had at least an hour to ride until we reached Lake Tekapo.  I assumed the lead, pulled my best Jens Voigt face, and punched into the wind all the way into Lake Tekapo.  Jer grimly tucked in close behind, and neither of us said a word until we arrived at our destination around an hour later.

Cold, windy, raining, and slightly uphill all the way.  

I felt a strange wave of emotion as I sighted the iconic blue lake.  Jer reported feeling a similar thing.  The last hour of our day had been a tough one

We rolled into town, straight to the information centre to ask for advice on how to get to our accommodation.  I was mentally and physically fatigued, covered in grime, and was having difficulty understanding what the lady behind the counter was telling me.  It must have been a more taxing day on the road than I realised, and it was very quickly starting to creep up on me.  I walked back outside to find Jer sitting on his bike eating some chocolate.  I gave him a bit of a hearty shake by the arm by way of saying "we did it", and very nearly bowled him over.  I had to quickly grab him to stop him falling off the bike, he too was being quickly overcome by fatigue now that we had stopped riding.

Tonight we were staying at Tailor-Made Tekapo Backpackers, another BBH hostel, situated on a quiet street off the main road.  Apparently Lake Tekapo and township is part of a giant hydroelectricity network of lakes, dams and canals, and the hostel was once accommodation for the hydro construction workers and their families.  Our hosts were very friendly, lively and helpful - although in my slightly addled state I was once again having trouble comprehending and processing exactly what they were saying.  We got to our room, threw our bags in, and I went about my usual business of stretching, eating and working on my bike, while Jer went straight for a shower and headed into town for a much needed feed.

Another hostel, another pannier explosion

I was standing outside in the yard cleaning up my drivetrain when one of our hosts walked past, saw me doing some maintenance, and said "love your bike and it will love you back hey?" We got chatting and she asked me what our plans were for the next day.  I said I was planning on riding the hydro canal to Lake Pukaki then on to Mt Cook.  She said "watch out for the canal if it's windy.  It's dynamite in the wind.  People have died there".  She then went on to tell me that the road gets closed in high winds and it's advisable to go on the main highway.  I wasn't terribly concerned as it wasn't windy right at that moment, and besides, I'd ridden in strong wind plenty of times.  Just as I was putting my bike away, it began to rain quite heavily and I went back inside and had a shower.

As I was sitting there getting ready to go into the small township for a look around, Jer walked back in, looking a little brighter.  I asked him how dinner was, and he told me he had craved protein, and walked into the first place he got to and asked for a steak.  The waitress had said "That's great sir, we have a novel concept of cooking our steak here!", before bringing out a hotplate and a raw bit of steak, which he then had to cook himself.  Jer reckons he was so hungry he threw it straight on the hotplate and started eating it immediately, with his expensive steak  dinner going from totally raw to totally overcooked during the course of the meal.  It certainly wasn't the quick, easy and satisfying meal that most hungry cyclists hope for.  I was sure to get the details of the place so that I could avoid the same disappointment as I stepped out into the rain to find something to eat.

I was fortunate enough to get a meal of fish and chips in town for the meagre sum of $6, which I got the impression was a bit of a steal at Lake Tekapo, as it appeared to be a fairly expensive tourist town.  I stopped at the local Four Square to resupply with lunches and dinners for the next few days - I wouldn't be going past a shop all day tomorrow, and I was unsure of what provisions I'd be able to get at Mt Cook.  Arriving back at the hostel, Jer had realised he was quite injured with severe saddle sores, and after a brief discussion it was decided that he'd stay here at Lake Tekapo and recover tomorrow, and I'd push on to Mt Cook solo.  Jer would then take a bus up to Mt Cook the following day, which would give him close to 60 hours off the bike, hopefully enough time to recover.  We both felt a lot better after arriving at that decision, and went for a walk down to the shores of the lake to take a look around.

The rain lifted and the clouds blew away in the evening.  This were looking up for tomorrow

Walking around the rocky shores of the lake in the twilight.

The iconic and oft photographed "Church of the Good Shepherd".  What most photos don't show is the huge car park rammed full of tourists right behind it.  Still, a pleasant and quiet spot at the right time of day.

Back at our room I made preparations for the challenge of the following day, a 100km solo ride to Mt Cook.  I repacked my panniers and handlebar bag, checked all my equipment, and carefully laid out my riding clothes.  It had been a long, and at times very challenging day on the bike - Jer and I had both ridden exactly the same route at exactly the same time, but we each had a vastly different experience.  I was in bed by 9:00pm, and fell asleep as soon as my head hit the pillow.