Sunday, January 8, 2012

Passing it up: NZ Day 10

Today was the big one - we were riding over Lindis Pass, and onto the town of Wanaka, about 120km away.  I'd heard varied reports about the pass, some people told me it was difficult and they had to walk it, others told me it was pretty easy and I'd have no trouble.  I'd seen a few photos of it and it looked like an amazing landscape, so I was looking forward to getting up there and working it out for myself.  When I first woke up I wasn't terribly enthusiastic however,  I'd had an excellent night sleep in our comfortable room at the Ahuriri Motels, and I wasn't all that thrilled at the prospect of leaving my warm bed.  A quick look out the window showed overcast skies, and not a lot of wind.  Jer was keen for it to stay calm, and said "as long as the wind is calm on the climb up Lindis, I don't care if it blows its arse out for the rest of the day".  We quickly packed up our gear and got on the road towards the village of Tarras, our proposed lunch stop beyond the pass, about 80km away.

It was a chilly morning in Omarama, as evidenced by my saucy tights and shoe covers

Jer uses plastic bags from the 4 Square to attach his shoes.  He's a resourceful fellow

The climb before the bigger climb
As soon as we pedalled out of Omarama, we were immediately heading uphill on a long  gradual climb across a large plain of farming land.  The wind began to pick up slightly, blowing most of the clouds away and leaving us to ride in fine and breezy conditions.  Looming in the distance was a massive mountain range, and somewhere up there was the pass.  It all looked very imposing, and I could only guess at where the road actually began to climb in earnest.  As we rode along we noticed many thousands of small rock pyramids stacked up the roadside - we initially thought they might have been to mark tracks or property boundaries or something, but there were too many of them.  We later asked someone "what's with the rock pyramids on the side of the road?" and they said "was it at Omarama?  That's just what people do when they drive through there, they stop and build a pile of rocks".  I wish we'd known about this excellent tradition while we were passing through, we would have certainly added to the collection, no doubt with some schoolboy humour-eque structures.

The clouds starting to blow away in the early morning

This looks like a flat road, but it's uphill I assure you.  Where does the road pass over those mountains?  I have no idea

The clay cliffs to the south of Omarama, curiously known to some as the "Omarama Badlands"

I originally included this shot because Jer looks pretty camp in it, then realised it also features one of the mystery rock pyramids.  Double win

We reached the wall of mountains and I expected the road to rise sharply at any moment and head straight over the top.  Instead the ribbon of tar ducked in behind a spur, and followed a small river along the valley floor, deep into the range.  At every bend I'd see another wall of snow and rock before us, and assume that was the mountain we had to climb.  Then every time we'd get the the foot of it, the road would weave somewhere else, following the winding valley floor.  We gently climbed through this convoluted labyrinth of spurs and valleys and twists and turns for a long time, all the while with the mountainous walls closing in on us.  With each turn I'd be relieved the climb wasn't happening just yet, and also wanting to just get it over with.  We were both feeling good and strong and riding quickly, but it was still a very intimidating and foreboding environment.  As I rode along looking up at the mountain peaks, I kept thinking "what is this that stands before me?", and subsequently I got the song Black Sabbath stuck in my head - which seemed to be the perfect soundtrack for our journey to the foot of the pass.

A sign that says "Killermont".  That's encouraging

So which mountain was it?  I still have no idea where that road actually goes

Here we go.  As soon we hit that corner the gentle gradient was finished, and the climb to the top began in earnest

Over the top
I was a bundle of nervous energy as I hit the base of the final climb over the top of Lindis Pass.  I couldn't see where the road went exactly, and the only way was up.  As soon as the steep climbing began we emerged above the tree line, into an almost lunar landscape of rocks and tussock grass.  I had been anticipating this climb for a long while, and had it in my head it was going to be a struggle to get to the top.  I reached the final very steep pinch to the top, and in my excited state I went against my normal touring style, and  I attacked the climb with aggression.

Jer climbs towards the final pinch through the tussock grass.

And there we were - looking up to the pass, where the road crossed the lowest point of the range.  It looked impossibly steep, and impossibly high

When we were both hard at work on the climb, Jer started asking me maths question to try and break my concentration.  We must have been doing it pretty easy as there was a lot of mirth on the mountain

Near the top, Jer really put the hammer down and rode away from me.  His previous health problems appeared to have evaporated and he rocketed up to the top of the pass

After hyping Lindis Pass to ourselves as the most hardcore thing ever, we both breezed up it easily in the 39 tooth chainring. I acted all smug, although inwardly I was very relieved to have the "high point" of the tour behind us

We stopped briefly at the top of the pass to admire the view and soak in the moment.  We had both expended a lot less energy in the 40km of climbing than we expected, and didn't stop for a bite to eat.  Our next milestone was the town of Tarras, about 40km away and all downhill from my memory of the map, so we pushed off from the top of the pass and began the steep descent towards our lunch stop.

Once we were over the pass, the road went down...

...and down...

...and down!

We descended towards Tarras for what seemed like an eternity.  At first the descent was steep, through a rocky gorge, then it would flatten out a little and follow a flowing river, then it would get steeper through a gorge again, and so on.  This was the first time in a long time I had been faced with such a long descent, and my legs were getting confused by it all.  I had become so used to constantly pushing the loaded bike into the wind that I didn't quite know what to do.  I rode in the highest gear and tried to push on as hard as I could, but I still felt like I couldn't exert enough force, and my legs were starting to get tight.  I'd climbed up the highest pass I've been on without a problem, but now on the simple descent I was getting tired and starting to cramp.  It was still about 25km to the cafe at Tarras, so we pulled over in the middle of nowhere and ate some food on the side of the road.  It felt good to be lazing around in the green grass in the warm sun, and we soon removed our cold gear to enjoy the New Zealand spring weather.

I thought it was odd that so many motorists looked at me strangely while I ate my apple.  In hindsight, it probably looked a bit like I'd had some terrible velo related misadventure as I lay in the grass

Fun fact: In "real life" Jer doesn't ever wear a hat, no matter how sunny it gets

After our rest stop we hopped back on the bikes all refreshed, for yet more descending

The best way to describe it would be to say that the descent down from Lindis Pass goes for a really, really, really long time.  Bring your coasting legs

The length of the decent from Lindis Pass was mind boggling, and the road alternated between steep rocky gorges and gently sloping riverside.  We were heading downhill for so long that I lost all sense of altitude, and around every corner I was amazed to see that the valley just kept heading downwards.  We eventually passed a sign advising us we had arrived in Central Otago.  This was great moment for me - pretty much the whole reason I put this trip together was to ride the Otago Central Rail Trail, and now we were getting closer.  I'd spent about a year looking at pictures of Central Otago in the lead up to the trip, and now as we headed south I was able to recognise visual cues in the environment marking our transition into a familiar (albeit through photos) landscape.  I was also getting very tired in the legs, with a little bit of cramping as we rolled along the side of a small river.  We stopped and had another bite to eat, I did some stretching and soon felt a lot better.  We rounded a right hand bend and I spied something I hadn't expected - the road headed sharply upwards over a big hill.  I had it in my head that it was all downhill to Tarras, but now as I started to spin up the climb I remembered the advice a mate had given me some months earlier - "you'll get over Lindis Pass alright, but Cluden Hill will soften you up".  With those words playing in my head, I changed into granny gear and began to chug away towards the top.  As soon as we got on the climb the weather instantly changed from cool and breezy, to stifling and scorching hot.  A few hundred metres up the hill Jer let fly with a hilarious in-joke that had me in stitches, and I was literally gasping for air and struggling to ride at 5km/h.  I couldn't recover at all after that, and slowly plodded on to the top in the hot sun.

It was so hot on that climb.  Little climatic differences are one of the great joys of cycle touring, and you get to experience the diversity of a landscape in a way that's just not possible whizzing past in a car

I'm nutty for zipping my jersey all the way open and letting it all hang out in hot weather, but Jer is far more conservative than I.  The fact he has his jersey undone even this far indicates that it must have been a VERY hot climb to be showing off the assets like that

Be careful what you wish for, twice
The climb up Cluden Hill was a bit diabolical, and by the time we rolled past the "Welcome To Tarras" sign, I have to admit I was feeling pretty spent, and looking forward to some hot food and a coffee.  The only problem was, Tarras wasn't there.  We rode for another kilometre into "town" and all we saw was a shed.  We went around a sharp right hand bend, and there was an old stable - but we certainly couldn't spot anything resembling a town in any sense I could recognise.  We were starting to get a bit worried at the prospect of running out of food, when we rounded another small bend and finally saw a small row of shops.  Tarras at last, and time for a well earned cup of coffee.

Thumbs up for not quite arriving in Tarras

It was early Sunday afternoon, and the cafe at Tarras was chock full of lively locals.  There was apparently some motorbike rally on somewhere, and a heap of people with touring motorcycles were stopped there having a feed.  The moto riders seemed fairly bemused by our bikes and apparel, although we all viewed each other with mutual respect, as people with a shared appreciation for getting to places in a difficult way while wearing strange clothes.

Lunch was eaten, and it was time for a coffee.  To provide some necessary background information, Jer is a little bit precious about his coffee.  By a little bit precious I mean very precious, and since arriving in NZ he had made a point of complaining bitterly and comprehensively about what he perceived as a low standard of coffee across the nation.  I personally had no problem with it and always enjoy a coffee, particularly in NZ, but for Jer he certainly wasn't getting any closer to finding the perfect cup here in a foreign nation.  A couple of times he had said something like "this coffee is terrible.  If someone gave me a cup of hot shit, I'd rather drink that".  The coffee was served, and as we sat in the courtyard out the front of the cafe, his usual complaining started up about the terrible coffee, how he'd rather drink shit, etc etc etc.  His whole process of coffee critique had become quite a performance piece, and I certainly did my best to wind him up at all possible opportunities.  He finished his coffee and pulled his usual "I don't like it face" and looked in the bottom of the cup to offer his usual coffee post-mortem, and discovered that as we had been sitting outdoors, a local bird had done fairly massive dropping right in his latte.  You can imagine my mirth as I pointed out that he had gotten exactly what he wished for.  For the record, I thoroughly enjoyed my lunch and coffee, and was feeling very refreshed and energised as we set up to make the final push to Wanaka, about 40km away to the west.

Jer had the foresight to re-stock with a few bottles of world famous caffeinated carbonated cola beverage, so we could have an afternoon pep up out on the road

Just before we set off that morning from Omarama, Jer had said "as long as the wind is calm on the climb up Lindis, I don't care if it blows its arse out for the rest of the day".  Now this statement was coming back to haunt him as well, and as soon as we turned onto the road to Wanaka, we were greeted with a savage headwind.  Normally I'm all for laughing at Jer when  he jinxes himself, but I didn't find it too funny this time, as I too had to battle through the wind due to his earlier insolence to the weather.  After a few kilometres we slipped back into serious cyclist mode, with neither of us saying anything as we took turns drafting each other towards Wanaka.  I had once again foolishly assumed the road from Tarras to Wanaka would be mostly flat, and this was not the case, with the rolling road and wind now really starting to take it out of us.  Jer suddenly seemed to be fading fast, and it was feeling a bit like a repeat of our ride from Burkes Pass into Lake Tekapo, so we wisely decided to pull over and have a drinks break before things got out of hand.

Jer takes a rest in the shade near Wanaka.  He had said he didn't care if it was windy after the calm climb, but secretly I think he was starting to regret his earlier statement.  I certainly wasn't letting him forget it

Our first view of the Clutha River, which winds through Central Otago. This was another place I'd learned a lot about, and finally seeing it with my own eyes was a real buzz

Elite level relaxing
I didn't really know what to expect as we approached Wanaka, I was guessing a gentle roll down a long hill to a lake.  The reality was different, with a final monster climb thrown in right at the end of our day to sort us out, followed by undulating terrain all the way into town.  We eventually rolled down to the lake, made some enquiries about our accommodation, then made our way around to Wanaka Bakpaka, perched on the side of the lake.  At the end of our 120km day a final challenge awaited in the form of an incredibly steep driveway - we somehow negotiated it, dismounted our bikes and tumbled into the lobby.  

Our first glimpse of Lake Wanaka as we rolled into town after a long day.

A quick pause on the beach to ask some locals how to get to our accommodation. It was just a short ride away, skirting the shore of the lake

The view from the beach at Lake Wanaka at the end of a 120km ride. The feeling of relief was overwhelming

Wanaka Bakpaka accommodation was an amazing spot - it's a modern, clean and well designed place right on the edge of the lake, with insane views overlooking the town and mountains.  We were shown through the massive kitchen, and through a quiet courtyard to our private and spacious twin room.  The whole place was more like a modern hotel than budget accommodation, and this nice surprise immediately put us in a good mood after such a long day. This hostel is part of the BBH hostel network we stayed at for most of the trip, and had the quiet, easy going, relaxed atmosphere we had come to expect from them.  For me, this is the most important aspect of accommodation for independent travellers - a relaxed and calm environment in which to reflect and recover after a long journey.  After tough days on the road I'm generally hot and cranky and quick to pass judgement on whether I'm going to be able to relax or not, and walking into Wanaka Bakpaka, I definitely got the vibe it was going to be a good spot to unwind.

After a shower and a clean up, we wandered downtown to get some dinner.  It was Sunday afternoon and very quiet, with a very relaxed beachside sort of atmosphere.  A Kiwi friend of mine had described Wanaka as "the place where Kiwi's like to go to holiday, without all the bullshit", and I was certainly getting that feeling.  The town appeared to have been spared the hideous trappings of many resort type places, and seemed to have retained some kind of old school local charm.  After a walk around town in the afternoon sun we found a pizza place, scoffed a giant pizza each, then walked back to our room  to rest and recuperate.

Jer heads towards town from the hostel.  Even on foot, that driveway is steep!

Back in the quiet of our room, the strenuous riding of the day caught up with me, and I fell onto the bed, unwilling and unable to get up.  Once again, New Zealand had served up a day of contrasts - we'd started in cold flat farmland, climbed over an alpine pass with a lunar landscape, descended through endless rocky gorges, and finished up lounging around in shorts on the beach by a clear blue lake, like we were on a summer holiday.  It had certainly been the biggest day of our trip so far, both in terms of distance and climbing, and maybe even one of the biggest days I've ever had on the bike.  In the past I've certainly ridden a lot further in a single day, but something about the loaded bike, the wind, and the excitement of uncertainty had made for an exhausting and deeply satisfying experience.  The following day was a rest day in Wanaka, so I drifted off into a relaxed sleep knowing that I didn't have to wake up early, and confident in the belief that tomorrow would bring a great day of doing nothing in particular all day long.

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