Sunday, January 15, 2012

Warm welcome to Central Otago: NZ Day 12

After the usual morning ritual of scoffing breakfast and packing our bikes, we pushed off from the hostel in Wanaka just before 8:00am.  Throughout our trip we'd been leaving early, but never actually spending all that much time on the road.  We'd been getting our destinations between 2 and 3 o'clock in the afternoon, although the sun wasn't setting until around 9pm.  So today we decided to take it slow, and start our day with a coffee in Wanaka.  After sitting around in a lakeside cafe for a while, we began the long gradual climb out of town, towards the town of Clyde at the start of the Otago Central Rail Trail

Our ride out of Wanaka didn't last long.  Within a few kilometres Jer stopped, trying to repair his speedo, which suddenly wasn't working.  He adjusted the sensor and rode another kilometre or so, then stopped again.  I asked what the problem was, and he said "my speedo isn't working.  I looked at it and somehow the sensor has shifted onto the opposite side of the wheel.  I just don't get it".  I looked at the bike, and with great delight I pointed out that he had installed the front wheel facing backwards.  It's an inconvenient and embarrassing thing to happen to a seasoned cyclist, so I did what any sympathetic friend would do - I assured him that the story would most definitely end up in the blog, and then I rode away laughing.

Jer climbs south from Wanaka, with all his wheels now correctly oriented.  From here we left behind the snow covered Southern Alps

We rode south along a quiet road skirting the base of the Pisa Range, through the tiny town of Luggate.  I'm told the pub there is excellent, although we didn't feel like stopping in for a beer at 9 in the morning

Once again we found ourselves in a new landscape - impossibly green pastures covered with a sea of yellow flowers.  The road undulated very gently, and for the first time on the trip we had a strong tailwind pushing us up the hills

The lack of snow made the Pisa Range look a little less imposing than the Southern Alps, although this range is still higher than 1900 metres above sea level.  The sheer size of the ranges in NZ was mind boggling for us, coming from a country that is fairly flat

On the side of the road I found a discarded All Blacks flag, and decided to catch a bit of the local rugby fever for myself

With the benefit of hindsight, I probably should have stocked up on some sheep poo pine cones.  You just never know when they'll come in handy

Into Central Otago
We easily covered 50km in well under two hours, and the riding was fast and fun.  Jer commented that this section of road between Wanaka and Cromwell via Luggate was the most pleasant stretch we'd ridden in New Zealand, and I had to agree.  We had a tailwind, the terrain was not too challenging, the weather was cool, and we'd only seen a couple of cars all morning.  We rounded a bend and suddenly found ourselves in yet another whole new landscape - green pastures suddenly gave way to drier grasslands,  the mountainsides became studded with masses of jumbled rock formations, and the sky seemed to open up above us.  I'd heard this area referred to as "big sky country" but never really got what that meant - I always thought the sky was the sky and that was that.  Here it looked impossibly vast and unusually blue, completely dominating every vista.  At last, we had entered Central Otago.

The first of many vineyards we came across.  Central Otago is apparently famous for wine production, of particularly high repute are the Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc varieties

We started seeing all manner of peculiar machines working in the vineyards

The road soon flattened out completely as we followed the western shore of Lake Dunstan, created by the damming of the Clutha River downstream at Clyde

We were halfway between the Equator and the South Pole.  It was certainly the furthest south I've ever been, although the Otago sun was now searingly hot

As we rode along the lake, we could see the town of Cromwell on the southern shore.  With the easy riding of the morning, we had arrived a few hours ahead of schedule.  We were due to meet up for lunch with my friend Ross, who was keen to share his knowledge of the area with us.  Ross had mentioned to me a couple of times about a distinctive fruit monument on the edge of town, heralding our arrival into town.  It certainly was distinctive, I spotted it from at least 4km away across the vineyards at the edge of Cromwell.  After stopping for the obligatory photos, we met up with Ross at the nearby Golden Gate Lodge, and swapped two wheel for four as Ross very kindly took us on our own personalised tour of the region around Cromwell.

This is just a wild guess, but I think Cromwell might also be a big fruit producer

Even nestled amongst the hallowed giant fruit, the Central Otago sky still dominates

It had to be done

Rolling with Ross
Ross is one of those great people who I met purely by chance, through my work as a writer.  We first met each other through the magic of the internet while I was researching my trip to Central Otago - it then turned out he also worked as a writer, and we struck up a friendship.  I'd talked to Ross a lot on the phone in the past, but this was the first time we'd met face to face.  Ross was a short guy with a grey beard, with boundless energy and enthusiasm.  He's one of those guys that within about 3 minutes of talking with him, you're on the same page and full of energy as well.  His personality was infectious, and his passion for his local area was obvious as we toured all around Cromwell in his four-wheel drive.

Our first stop was Roaring Meg power station, along the Kawarau Gorge.  The main route between Queenstown and Cromwell, the road clings to the side of a steep and scenic gorge with a raging blue torrent below.  At this stage I was very pleased to be off the bike - the heat was so intense that the sun smashing into my helmetless head was giving me a pounding headache

We drove around numerous local sites, from mountain ranges to historic miners huts to old sluicings, with Ross enthusiastically explaining the history and significance of all we were seeing.  I'd certainly heard and read that Central Otago was full of history, and as we drove around Cromwell it seemed that every place we saw had some link to the past, as well as a new use in the present.  Soon we arrived at Old Cromwell town - a little historic precinct on the shores of the lake.  The buildings and everything were apparently moved there after the valley was flooded by the new dam, and the original town centre lay deep at the bottom of the lake.  

We stopped for lunch at a place called Armando's Kitchen, which Ross assured us had the best food in town.  He wasn't wrong, Armando's is apparently the newest cafe in the Old Cromwell strip, and without question the best lunch and coffee we had on our entire journey in New Zealand.  The cafe was located in an extension to an old miner's cottage at the top of the hill overlooking the lake and Old Cromwell town, and was the perfect spot to shelter from the blazing Otago sun and contemplate the odd contrast of the blue lake and the stark brown hills.  When we first walked in Ross said to Armando "Meet Leon and Jeremy, two cyclists - from Australia!" - we must have looked pretty out of place, two grotty and feral cycle tourers standing in a sparkling new restaurant...

I mentioned that I hadn't eaten a salad in weeks, and one of the staff started talking me through all the salad options they had there.  It all sounded great, then I spied the pork belly sandwich on the menu, and any thoughts of eating any sort of vegetable or greenery quickly disappeared out the window.  I'm totally nuts any kind of pork / bacon themed dish, and that sandwich was easily the best I'd eaten anywhere in the world.  To top it all off, one of the girls that worked there must have though I looked malnourished or something, and bought me out a massive bag of fresh salad and herbs to take with me on the road.  As I sat there having a coffee and after lunch and grazing on my salad, the guy who grew the salad turned up at the cafe, and started chatting to me about the Central Otago area.  It really was an amazing lunch in Old Cromwell Town, and somewhere I wouldn't have even known about had Ross not taken us there.  And of course being cycle tourers were are naturally a thrifty pair of fellows, so we were delighted when our gourmet lunch and coffee came in a under NZ$20.  Old Cromwell Town and Armando's Kitchen get our full recommend for any cycle tourers traveling through the area - it was the perfect place to shelter from the blazing sun, while shifting ourselves into the Central Otago frame of mind.

A collection of buildings from the old town centre, now used as cafes and shops while still retaining much of their original charm

Armando's Kitchen.  I'm going to put it out there and say the best cafe lunch I've ever had - perfect combination of great food, lovely staff, beautiful location and good company.  Going on about this place has made me atomically hungry

The view from the veranda at Armando's Kitchen.  There goes Ross taking his dog for a stroll by the lake

 Ladies, who are you to resist the charms of Jer?


If I jumped off this jetty and swam deep enough, I'd be standing in the former main street of Cromwell, before the dam was built

Jer strolls around the streets of Old Cromwell Town historical precinct

There is something self-righteously awesome about strolling around eating a bag of salad instead of a bag of chips

Riding along a lakeside should be flat, no?
We reluctantly left Old Cromwell town, and drove with Ross back to our bikes at the Golden Gate Lodge.  Upon arriving there we were fortunate enough to meet up with a few more Cromwell locals, including Ross's lovely wife and the owner of the lodge.  We sat around for another hour or so, just chatting about the local area.  It appeared to me that the people of Cromwell are genuinely proud of their town and their region, and with good reason - it's a beautiful landscape with a rich history and huge range of things to do and places to explore.  I got the impression that a lot of people just pass through the area on their way to Queenstown, and never really experience the vibe the area has to offer.  It's a shame, as just like Omakau, the town has a uniquely New Zealand flavour that takes just a little while to uncover, but is well worth the rewards.

By now it was mid-afternoon, and it was well and truly time for us to push off into the blazing sun.  We'd spent a long time just sitting around eating and drinking and relaxing, so getting going on the bikes again was a real struggle.  As we were leaving I asked a loaded question - "the road to Clyde is pretty flat isn't it?".  The answer was a resounding no - the road snaked up and down along the side of a steep gorge.  I said "we should be right with the tail wind though?" and the answer was "no, the wind will be blowing up the gorge into your face, it's like that down there".  This didn't sound all that promising, and once again my awesome power of assumption had failed me.  We gingerly set off into what was promising to be a punishing afternoon.

Heading over the bridge out of Cromwell, towards the barren and hot gorge to Clyde

The landscaped changed again as we entered the gorge, and it was like riding across the surface of another planet - hot, rocky, stark, under an iridescent sky

The road between Cromwell and Clyde completely took us by surprise.  I had just figured it would be an easy ride by a lake, with no real gradients, maybe even gently downhill.  I could not have got it more wrong - for the next couple of hours we faced a never ending succession of sharp climbs and descents, all the while buffeted by an intensely hot headwind.  Here the Otago landscape was intimidating, we were wedged between two steep gorge walls, next to a huge river, under a sky that was so radiantly blue it seemed almost like it might crush us.  There was nowhere to have any respite or anything to shelter under, so once again we put our serious cyclist faces on and silently drafted each other all the way to the top of the Clyde Dam, a stones throw from our destination for the day.

We could see the dam wall in the distance, and despite the fact it looked like a flat easy ride to get over there, a few large climbs still awaited us

Just before we got to the dam wall, the landscape became a little greener and softer.  We felt like we'd escaped the clutches of the gorge, but the constant changes in landscape were hurting my brain

Looking down the Clutha River to the town of Clyde.  Somewhere down there was the start of the rail trail


The hydroeletricity plant at the Clyde Dam.  I didn't really know what I was looking at, but I was impressed by the sheer size of it all

 Stopping at The Workshops
From the top of the dam wall, we rode down a steep descent into the main street of Clyde.  I had heard Clyde described as things like "quaint" and "historic", and for some reason I had it in my head that it was going to be some kind of ghost town full of old buildings.  I was half right, there were certainly a lot of old buildings around, but what I wasn't expecting was how much life there was in town.  Most of the buildings, although over 120 years old, were still being used today as pubs, cafes, bike shops, hairdressers, and the other kind of businesses normally found in a country town.  Instead of boarding up and locking away historic places to create a divide between past and present, the people of Clyde seemed to be still living their history to full effect, which gave the town a really positive vibe.  On first impression, Clyde reminded me a little of the historic Queensland mining town of Charters Towers where I lived for many years, and because of that I instantly felt right at home riding along the old streets.

Rolling into the impossibly well maintained town of Clyde

Former banks and assay offices were now being used as cafes and bike shops

Since riding the rail trail was such a momentous occasion for us, we'd decided to skip our usual budget backpacker hostels for a while, and stay in some of the boutique heritage accommodation Central Otago is known for.  We were staying a few nights at a place called The Workshops.  As the name suggests, The Workshops was located in a building that was originally an old truck workshop, and after a short ride through town we found ourselves at our destination, welcomed by our host Samantha.  People in Clyde seem to be well accustomed to dealing with tired and disheveled cyclists, and Sam told us that on this particular day we had the entire B&B to ourselves, and we should head in and make ourselves at home.  We dropped our bikes right where we were standing, and stepped inside the large blue building.

The Workshops was fully renovated by the owners Steve and Samantha in 2003, and to say the project was a labour of love would be a profound understatement.  The interior of the building was a far cry from it's humble origins as a truck workshop, and was now more like a luxurious private museum.  The interior had been painstakingly converted into a B&B with thoroughly modern facilities, but with a strong heritage style to remind you that you were very much in Central Otago.  Above our heads were beautiful exposed timber beams, and polished timber below our feet.  The lounge area had an unusual feature - the original truck inspection pits had been retained, and now formed a subterranean focal point for the large lounge room.  All around the walls was an amazing collection of historic workshop equipment, mechanic manuals, books and old music equipment.  This was our home for the next few days, and it was just us - the sense of privacy was overwhelming after so many nights in busy backpacker hostels.  The greatest surprise of our trip still awaited us - The Workshops came equipped with two bathrooms!  Truly the greatest end to what was a tough day of riding.

I found the interior almost impossible to photograph with my little camera, so you're best off checking out the website.  This is the dining room area - much of the original material has been recycled into the new design, like the iron grates

The lounge area, with one of the exposed inspection pit features in the foreground.  Such an amazing space - perfect to retreat in peace from world, but with enough cues to remind you what part of the world you're in

After a shower and a cup of tea on the lounge, we had pretty much forgotten that we had even been riding at all, despite clocking up over 80km in three hours in the saddle.  We went out into the outdoor dining area and met our host Steve - another Cromwell local who positively exploded with enthusiasm and knowledge of the area.  We were spending the day with Steve and Sam tomorrow, out on the Clutha River learning a lot more about the history of the area, so Steve pointed us in the direction of a few of the local sights nearby as we set off to explore the town of Clyde.

Doing what we do best - not much
I was so excited to be in Clyde, after spending so long researching the rail trail and the area and preparing for this journey.  In fact I was beyond excited, and stepped through the streets with a careful air, making sure I took my time and saw all there was to see.  We'd scheduled in a lot of rest days on the rail trail for this specific purpose - to allow ourselves time to soak in the sense of all that was uniquely Otago.  We knew we had a lot to discover, and were fortunate in that we had a lot of time to do so, and ambled through the pleasant streets amongst stone pitched fences and old miner's cottages.  After the euphoria of arriving at the start of the rail trail began to wear off slightly, we both realised we hadn't eaten since lunch, and stopped in at the Post Office Cafe for some dinner.  We got a bit of a surprise as we stepped in from the quiet street - the inside of the old building was humming with the noise of both cyclists and locals enjoying afternoon drinks.  This seemed like an eminently sensible option, so we too had a celebratory pint of beer, and sat around on the back lawn in the evening sun, not saying much and reflecting on our journey that had brought us to this point.  Feeling refreshed and slightly jolly from a couple of beers, we walked back out into the streets to discover some more of Clyde.

Jer once again appears to walk like Fritz The Cat.  In reality he walks like a normal person, but for some reason this never translates into photographs

The main street of Clyde.  Look familiar?  It was where they filmed the Mainland Cheese TV ad of a few years ago - the one where they have "Cheeseday"


After a late afternoon ice cream, we walked back to the luxury of The Workshops, and sat around drinking cups of tea and perusing the massive book collection.  It wasn't until I sat down and wrote up my notes later that night that I realised what a massive and unusual day it had been.  Not only were were in a completely different physical environment from our starting point at Wanaka, we were now in a completely different cultural climate as well.  Today was also the first time on our trip that we'd really gotten to have meaningful interactions with local people - so far all those we met in Otago were genuine, engaging and warm people, with a particularly dry sense of humour that I enjoyed a lot.  I definitely felt like I was getting closer to whatever it is that defines "New Zealand" for me.  

As you'd know by now, I'm normally in bed pretty early on a cycling tour, but for some reason tonight was different.  I think maybe the reason I'd been going to bed so early was partly as a coping mechanism to escape from the hustle and bustle of hostel accommodation.  Tonight there was no such pressure though, and in the quiet solitude of The Workshops was free to do what I wanted.  I stayed up very late, just so I could walk out and see the stars in the clear, crisp New Zealand sky.  I eventually turned in to bed, confident that I had made the most of my first day in Central Otago.

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