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.


  1. "I removed it and shoved it in my pocket." should say "after stopping nearly 1000 times in the space of 5kms I removed it and shoved it in my pocket" We want the news, not a fancy blog.

  2. Haha I wonder who this "anonymous" could be...!