Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Canterbury punisher: NZ Day 4

As soon as we got up this morning, we meant business.  Breakfast was consumed, panniers were packed and bikes prepared in record time.  Today was the day we'd be getting this show on the road, literally.  Our destination was the town of Methven, about 110km away from Christchurch.  We were following the route suggested in the very excellent and highly recommended Pedaller's Paradise cyclist guidebook (by awesome coincidence the "sample page" on that website is the very same we were following this day!), taking us across the Canterbury Plains on quiet roads, crossing Rakaia Gorge and into Methven.  On paper it looked reasonably straight forward, with an almost imperceptible rise for the first 90km or so.  I'd been around some of the Canterbury Plains in the past, and my main recollection was of it being very flat, so I wasn't too concerned about the day's riding.  I did have some reservations about the weather - it overcast and breezy, and also quite humid with rain threatening.  Standing out the front loading my bike up with gear, I had no idea what the weather held for the day.

Loaded up and ready to ride. People often ask me what kind of bike I use for all this stuff, it's a Redline Conquest Classic with a few modifications

We pushed off into the Monday morning Christchurch traffic at about 7:30am, wobbling around on our loaded bikes.  It had been a little while since I had ridden a loaded tourer, and although I was only carrying around 8kg in luggage and gear, I still found the cut and thrust of city traffic riding somewhat challenging.  After what seemed like an eternity of scurrying through busy commercial and industrial areas, we were finally out of Christchurch, and out on the open road.

After a while we passed a few cycle tourers, we kept leap-frogging them all day.  They were a friendly couple from the US

A photo of me taking a photo riding into the Selwyn District

If it's flat, it must be easy...
We rode along the flat highway heading roughly north-west for a couple of hours.  As we progressed the traffic gradually thinned out, and the weather relented somewhat - it was turning into a clear and warm day.  At a place called Aylesbury Corner (quite literally just a corner on the highway), we turned off the main road and into a quiet farming district.  We were making excellent time, and the ride did seem like it was going to be pretty easy today, so we stopped for a little while to have some food and relax on the side of the road.  This point was also a bit of a milestone for myself - everywhere we went from here on this tour on was somewhere I'd never been before.

For some reason Jer thought the sign meant it was 69km from where we started to Methven, and that we only had 29km to go.  I informed him it was in fact still 69km to Methven.  I then joked we had 7 hours to get 70km, there would have to be something wrong with us if we couldn't do that.  Turns out, we're both idiots

As the morning wore on, we inched ever closer to the mountains

Even from afar the mountains energised and excited us, it seemed like we were stopping every few minutes for photos

Stopped at the small village of Hororata for a lunch break.

This was actually the best coffee we had while we were in New Zealand. You should see the face Jer pulls when he doesn't like something

Heading out of Hororata, the wind increased dramatically.  It was one of the north-westerly winds we'd heard so much about - an unrelenting icy blast blowing straight down the mountains and into our faces.  Just to mix it up up a bit, every now and again the wind would swing drop off for a few seconds, then swing around 90 degrees or so, blowing us either across the road or off into the culvert.  It made for tough work,  sitting heavy in the saddle, plodding along at speeds as low as 10km/h.  

Even struggling along in the wind, I was delighted to be away from the city and out in the countryside.  I find cities make me claustrophobic, even when experienced from the security blanket that is my bicycle.  In a city it feels to me like there is so much going on and too much to look at, but nothing to capture my imagination.  Out here, where there were few houses, few people, no traffic, and maybe an occassional hedge or two, I found my imagination and curiosity firing all the time.  This is what cycle touring is all about for me, and why I make the effort to get out on the open road.  By the time we reached the road to Rakaia Gorge, I felt like my mind and body had pretty much been reconfigured into touring mode.

Excellent signs abound in NZ, although some of the distances stated therein seemed entirely fictional

Very gradual climbing, through spring flowers on the Canterbury Plain

Something we hadn't bargained on in NZ was the magpies.  Throughout the whole day we kept getting smashed by these birds, looking like crazy people as we rode along waving our arms above our heads in a futile attempt to deter their attacks.  Introduced to New Zealand from Australia, the NZ variety seemed far more aggressive and persistent than their Australian cousins, even attacking flocks of sheep.  Upon seeing this occur, I asked Jer "if there was one of those crappy animated movies about a sass-talking magpie that musters sheep, then forms an unlikely friendship with an eccentric farmer, and against all the odds wins a sheepdog tournament, what would you call it?"  Jer thought about it for a nano-second and replied "Shepherd's 'pie!".  You've gotta hand it to him, the guy is quick!

Jer showed me that if you hold a yellow flower up to your chin and it reflects yellow on your skin, it means you like butter. I'm not one to argue with science, and it appears Jer hates butter (or possibly likes it)

Wind: the invisible enemy.  Between about 80km and 90km, I reckon we stopped at least eight times to take a break from the gale

Get that man a cold drink - by this time we'd been in a howling headwind for about four hours

It's not just a clever name
As we got closer to the mountains, the wind increased in speed and decreased in temperature, until it was insane and impossible to ride in a straight line.  It was swirling all around and impossible to predict.  It was as though the mountains hated us and were determined not to let us pass, causing us to predictably make the relevant Lord Of The Rings reference.  After what seemed like an eternity of punching into the wind, we reached a T-intersection at around the 90km point of our ride.  To the west was Rakaia Gorge and beyond that our overnight destination of Methven, about another 20km away.  To the east was a tiny village called Windwhistle.  We were keen to get to our destination and didn't like the prospect of having to backtrack to where we were, but we were also low on water, and I wanted a can of a particular world famous carbonated caffeinated beverage.  We turned east and rode for about one kilometre until we reached the Windwhistle Garage, which appeared to be the only business in town.  Turns out Windwhistle isn't an ironic name, it was indeed so windy that it was whistling all around, and we were having difficulty even standing up in it.  In addition to the wind, I reckon it's highly likely that when they were naming the place, Coldville might have also been thrown in there as an option.

Jer stretching out the front of the garage.  The owners were very helpful, letting me use their workshop to adjust a few niggling things on my bike

Jer had been complaining about some undercarriage related discomfort for the past few hours.  Sitting heavy in the saddle with no real climbs so far wasn't helping, and neither were those tight shorts I imagine

A few minutes from Windwhistle we turned a corner and were confronted Rakaia Gorge, in stark contrast to the flat farmland we'd been riding through all day.  Standing out on a spur over the gorge, the weather turned dark and foreboding, and a light rain started to fall

I had to push my bike back in from the spur, it was so windy I couldn't get started without falling over.

The weather appeared to be closing in fast, the air pressure felt to be dropping, and I felt an immediate desire to get across that gorge and away from that place as quickly as possible.  I felt very exposed out there on a bike so close to large mountains in an environment I was not at all familiar with.  Those same mountains that had intrigued and energised me all day were now suddenly frightening the living shit out of me.  We left the top of the gorge and after a hectic descent for a few kilometres, found ourselves at the river.  Out on the exposed rocks the wind was intense, blasting us and our bikes with a fine black powder, stinging our faces.  We stood silently surveying the scene, particularly the climb back out of the gorge.  The road seemed to cut straight up the western escarpment at an impossibly steep angle.  In normal circumstances I would have procrastinated for ages before tackling such a climb, but on this day, we were quickly back on the bikes and headed to the base of the gorge wall.

Those scandalous shorts!  Come to think of it I've not seen them since that day, it was their first and last appearance ever

We stood around briefly trying to decide the best way to tackle the climb.  We soon concluded there was no easy way, and reluctantly rode off knowing that painy season was about to commence

The bridge across is level, this isn't a trick photo.  The cutting is the angle of the climb out of Rakaia Gorge - insane

We both managed to get up the climb without walking, although at a few points the gusting wind blew our front wheels off the ground, and blew me across two lanes of traffic just after this photo

98km into the day, a second steep climb followed the main ascent out of the gorge.  I'm not sure what I'm talking about here, but you can guarantee it involved a lot of swearing

Late respite from the wind
After two tough climbs we arrived at the foot of the Mt Hutt ski field, although the ski season was long since over and the area was pretty much devoid of people and traffic.  We reached a sign telling us it was 12km to Methven, and we turned south-east, with the wind now at our backs.  The mountain wind which had been so unkind to us all day quickly turned into our ally, propelling us at 45km/h the entire way into Methven.  Riding at such high speed for such a long way all but erased the memories of our struggles to Windwhistle and out of Rakaia Gorge, and we arrived at our accommodation feeling as though we'd only been on a ride to the shops.  The trip computer told a different story - although it was only 110km of riding, the final 69km had taken us 6 hours and 40 minutes!

Jer steams towards Methven at full speed

Our hostel, the Mt Hutt Bunkhouse.  We had the place to ourselves, a pleasant contrast after the hustle and bustle of Christchurch

After dumping our gear in our large room, Jer had a nap for a little while, and I went about my usual post-ride routine of stretching, eating, applying various lotions and potions to various bits of my body, and putting on my compression tights.  I went outside to do a little bit of maintenance on my bike - it seemed our little trip to the riverbed of Rakaia Gorge had filled my drivetrain up with very fine black sand, which had turned into a grinding paste stuck all over everything.  As I was cleaning it all up the manager of the hostel came and chatted to me for a while - he told me Methven was a ski town and the season was finished and the tourists gone for the year.  I locked away my bike, had a shower, and walked uptown with Jer.  The town was empty, to the point that it was eerie.  Shops were all closed, no cars, no people, and strangely silent - we eventually found a pizza place that was open and devoured a large pizza each while listening to some local reggae music on the radio.

I must get myself some of that hair conditioning spray. Keep your eye out for the declining standard of hair care as the trip progresses over the weeks

Methven certainly seemed pretty quiet in November

Walking back to the hostel under the the late afternoon overcast sky, there were no shadows, just a soft grey light over everything.  I was feeling a bit lost and odd.  I stopped by a phone box and phoned home to see how everyone was.  My wife and kids sounded like they weren't having a great time and were missing me - I asked my three year old daughter what she did that day, and all she said was "I cried because I want you here".  In that instant I felt very much like I wanted to go home - and trudged back to my room feeling quite overwhelmed by everything and nothing in particular.  Getting back to the hostel I busied myself doing my laundry and packing my panniers, before turning into bed early, before the sun had even gone down.

My panniers had a tendency to explode at the end of each day.  This photo was taken about 20 seconds after we first walked into our room

Although it was only 110km and the terrain wasn't all that hardcore, it had seemed like one of the most epic days I have ever had on a bicycle.  In the space of a day we'd propelled ourselves from a busy seaside city, across a vast agricultural plain, to a near deserted rural town by towering snow capped mountains.  We had gone from one situation to a totally different one, all in one day, all under our own power.  One of the great pleasures of cycle touring, particularly in New Zealand, is experiencing the gradual transition from one place to the next.  I drifted off to sleep with the route notes for the following day still in my hand, pondering what fresh challenges tomorrow would bring.

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