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.

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