New Zealand (part 1) Molesworth, Earthquakes, Ghost Road

We’re flying back to New Zealand in just a few days. That means I’m more than a year behind here. So it’s time to recount a little of our visit to those lovely little islands in the southern hemisphere.

We’re going back this year because we love New Zealand — the landscapes, the people, the birds, the place. We’re also going back because we love daylight, and the northern hemisphere is running short on that. The little Scamp trailer is quite dandy and all, but when the sun goes down at 5pm, 360 cubic feet of space for two people is… a little tight. Beyond all that we’re also going because we can. We can park our van and trailer, leaving behind minimal stuff and almost no expenses. To not take advantage of such ease of multi-month travel would be a little sad. And finally, it’s the (much deserved) off-season for There aren’t that many events to track in Dec/Jan (hallelujah!), so it’s my best time to travel because much of the rest of the year I have to remained pretty connected.

I really can’t wait to get back there, for so many reasons. This time we’ll have a better idea what we are getting into and how to operate.

photo by Lee Blackwell

Versus here, leaving Tucson bright eyed and bushy tailed, we were pretty clueless.

Eszter likes to give me grief for ‘over-researching’ things, but in this case there is no grief to give. We went in pretty blind — having no real plan other than to see what opportunities presented themselves and try to keep our expectations reasonable and low.

We found a place to camp near the Christchurch airport for night 1. That worked out and was as far as we had planned the trip.

Hanmer Springs has hot springs! And there’s a long cycletour dirt route called the Molesworth from there. I’m not even sure how Eszter found these things out the next morning, but I went so far as to verify the route was open, and suddenly we were off, riding bikes on the *wrong* side of the road, heading out of the city.

We navigated by Eszter’s NZ camping app, and a little bit on my GPS. I was worried that the roads would be busy/unsafe, and I was… mostly correct.

Flexibility. I didn’t have too many preconceived notions of NZ, but one thing I’d heard repeatedly was how everyone sees the country by ‘campervan’ and that camping is easy. That’s only somewhat true. We had much to learn and definitely a few challenges finding places to legally camp by bike. Sometimes the only option was holiday parks, which are similar to a KOA in the states, though they vary widely and have a lot more personality. This park (above) had rail cars you could rent out, and a library in a car, too.

“Don’t worry honey, it’s a shortcut.” Actually this was an attempt to avoid the many dairy trucks on the highway just parallel to it. I hopped over several trees before being rightly vetoed.

We made Hanmer safely. I acquired curved silver bar-ends from the outdoorsy shop there. I think they’d been on the shelf for at least 20 years and definitely made me smile as I rode so many miles with a similar pair.

We soaked until late. Had some interesting conversations with locals. Marveled at the long days. Rode out in the rain to start the Molesworth. Part of this plan was we needed to make the town of Blenheim in two days in order to meet Kurt and Kaitlyn. We were somewhat unnecessarily rushing things, but at least it gave us a direction.

The Molesworth was beautiful. Stunning. Completely free of traffic.

YES. This is what we came to NZ for.

Carrot bird! They have carrots for beaks. And they swooped us somewhat aggressively. It was so neat being in a foreign landscape with new plants, birds and geology.

Even the sky was foreign. One of the most interesting things for me was how I was confused by the sun’s location. I didn’t realize how much my sense of direction depended on the sun being in the southern part of the sky! Being summer in NZ, it was very much to the north, but that part of the software in my brain was obviously subconscious. I’d have to override it with the logical/thinking part of my brain… which when you’re riding a bike isn’t that easy to do.

Even stranger was that the moon looked wrong. It just looked plain wrong. It took me a few clear days to put my finger on it. But, indeed it is illuminated in a reflected or opposite way compared to the northern hemisphere. Again, it was my subconscious that was telling me it was a moon that I didn’t recognize or that didn’t look right.

Improvising a thank-you note when we could find no writing instrument in the entire house.

Most people who have traveled by bike have had the following experience.

It’s getting late. You’re tired. The chill of the night is starting to come on. You don’t have any clue where you’re going to lay your head. The previous hours of riding haven’t provided anything promising (in our case it was mostly private-looking farm land). This is a special kind of anxiety that only people traveling in a lightweight and human-powered mode can relate to, I think.

Often, you travel by cozy looking houses, maybe with the lights on or smoke puffing out of the chimney. As hardcore as you may be, and as prepared as you may be, there’s still a part of you that longs for comfort. A part that wishes someone would magically come out of that cozy house and invite you in.

Well, for the first time, that actually happened to us. We stopped to pull water out of a small creek, hoping somewhat desperately we could find a little piece of ground to scratch out a night’s sleep on, somewhere in the next 10 minutes. I had looked at the little white house somewhat longingly. Then we noticed someone walking towards us. My first instinct was that we might be doing something wrong and they didn’t want us just below the road taking water.

Instead, it was a very kind kiwi, who invited us to stay in her empty cottage across the road. There wasn’t hot water, but it sure was cozy. It was a lovely welcome to the country.

And then it rained. That was a less lovely welcome to the country.

We met up with Kurt and Kaitlyn, and it was so great to see friends from the states, ready to ride — and hike-a-bike, too!

The route would have been quite fun and not all that epic had it not rained most of the time, or had the primary trail surface not been off camber roots.

A backcountry hut presented itself. The first of many for us, this one was much needed.

Somehow we survived the trail, despite Eszter only having one functional brake. We landed in “Sunny Nelson”, a town on the northern coast.

It was anything but sunny, and the holiday park was anything but cozy. There were varying levels of disgruntlement from all of us as the skies continued to let loose and the thought of more cold riding in the rain put the four of us mostly in-town and in-doors, which wasn’t really where we wanted to be.

Just as we were accepting this reality, a rather major earthquake rolled across the northern end of the south island. I was fast asleep when I heard the rattling doors and cupboards, thinking it was the college aged kids being dumb. Then I felt a new sensation — the entire ground beneath us rolling and shaking. There was much more of a wave component to it than I would have expected. Almost more regular and repeating like turbulence in an airplane, yet unpredictable too. Very little sound associated with it — just man made objects vibrating. We were in a very rickety hostel up on a steep hill so it wasn’t clear whether it was safer inside it or out. We didn’t have much time to think about it, though.

“That was fucking awesome!” one of our hostel neighbors exclaimed.

Yes, it was awesome that it stopped, for now, and that no one in the immediate area was hurt.

Most of us were still somewhat worried, but a girl from Chile yawned from a chair and complained, “great, now there are going to be aftershocks all night, I need some sleep.”

“Oh yes there are great tastes… on the great taste trail!”

Finally the forecast looked reasonable and we rolled out of trail on a neato little bike route.

Sadly we didn’t try any of the wine as we rolled by vineyards, but we did stop for a coffee and snack when the little sign on the trail showed a steaming cup of coffee with an arrow. That was a win.

St. Arnaud is the seat of Nelson Lakes National Park and quite the spot. We planned to wait out more rain there and allow me to work the Baja 1000 weekend with a roof and semi-stable internet.

The hostel in St. Arnaud fit the bill. There were many trails nearby. This one above was a pretty neato dayride I did inbetween coding and server-babying sessions.

I probably should have been prepping for the event to start, but with a bluebird day I couldn’t resist joining the girls for a ‘run’ above treeline. Must return and go further!

I had to resort to hitchhiking in order to catch back up with my friends after Baja went… well, about as well as it ever does. It’s a sinking ship from the beginning, and we just do our best to bail water to keep it afloat. We’ve always succeeded in this, but the challenge of being in another country, in a small hostel with intermittent internet, with a crappy laptop and a wedding about to take over the place… well, those were just some of the challenges that presented themselves.

When it was finally done and dusted, I gathered my gear, knowing there wasn’t enough time or daylight to ride, and set about to hitchhiking, with a bike.

A young couple from the UK picked me up and I rejoiced when I found Kurt and Kaitlyn in the next town, Murchison. Kurt picked up my bike, for some reason, and hefted it to see how heavy it was, or how it bounced or somesuch. When he did that I actually looked at the bike. “Oh no, there’s no seat bag! We have no tent.”

No shelter in NZ with these atmospheric conditions was a no-go. Various plans were hatched, then I inquired at the closest hostel. The American girl that was running the place was very kind, first offering to drive me back to fetch the tent. Then she just gave me the keys and asked if I’d driven on the left side of the road before.

“Nope, but I’m a fast learner.” Or so I told myself.

It was only mildly terrifying. But tent was retrieved, all were reunited and all was well!

Swing bridge! It was on the Old Ghost Road, which was the only route in the country we knew about beforehand.

Treeferns! Well graded and pleasant track.

The Ghost Road is really a trail, not a road, and it fulfills dreams made by miners of old. They had planned to create this dubious connection, over giant mountains on the west coast. The plans were later found and a ‘great walk’ style trail was envisioned. The timing was just right that the government wanted a ‘great ride’ cycle trail, and the Ghost Road has become a flagship great ride. The amount of money and sweat that has gone into this trail is just astounding. And we got to enjoy it all.

Tree ferns growing.

Proof that there were ‘fine spells’ on the tops. Or at least fine moments. I think I had made optimistic and wholly unfounded statements about such fine spells coming to be. In truth, this was probably the coldest night we spent in NZ.

Luckily we had plenty of comedy and general camaraderie to keep us warm. Particularly when Kurt complained that his ‘whisking arm’ was getting tired, as Kaitlyn had him helping prepare their dinner. Kurt is one of the strongest and most capable cyclists I know, but, you know, everyone’s whisking arm gets tired sometimes!

It was challenging to coordinate all four of us on the same page, in a different country, with many unknowns, and with no real set plan or goals. But I am glad that we put the effort into it, since we certainly did share some good times.

Such as the next day of riding, above treeline and through landscapes so mysterious they defy description.

After Ghost Lake the trail got nicely rowdy. Grade 4 as they call it in NZ.

Banked corners and markers every corner. It’s a different kind of trail.

And yet still, the place. The place.

I’ve seen some trail layout challenges and interesting solutions, but this was a new one. They needed to lose 1000 feet, and FAST. So, let’s just build stairs!

The trail is newly opened, and not quite finished. We rode/pushed through quite a bit of muck in the middle of the trail. The solution? Mostly gravel, I think. Surely some drainage. We also hit it after much rain.

“Cyclists dismount. Two person limit.” I love swingbridges.

Even more, I loved the emerald river we followed through a steep and impossibly beautiful gorge. This trail is the closest a mountain biker can come to paddling a remote canyon like this. Flowing.

Unfortunately, the end of the Ghost Road was soured by Kaitlyn’s rapidly swelling knee. The future of the trip was unsure, and we all hoped that it would not be a serious injury. One thing was clear — she was done pedaling for the immediate future. We rested at the ‘holiday park’ in Seddonville, which was a converted schoolyard. We had the place to ourselves and really it was one of the best nights.

The best part was the guy behind the bar/hotel/restaurant, Graeme. We could mostly understand him, but his backwoods kiwi accent was thick. When another local walked into the bar and started conversing, it wasn’t clear to us they were speaking English, at all. We couldn’t pick out more than a word here or there. It was awesome.

“G’dayhowyagoinmate” all in one word and maybe two syllables.

I was assigned the task of calling Graeme from the schoolhouse in order to ask what the WiFi password was. What could possibly go wrong?

Kurt and Kaitlyn had less time on the island that we did, so we had bus tickets to whisk us down to Queenstown. You see, Kurt had spied a ‘super smooth’ trail in the mountains above Queenstown as they were flying in, and that promise of a trail was pulling him in like a magnet. It was good timing to spend some time on the bus, given Kaitlyn’s inability to ride and the promise of good doctors in a place larger than Seddonville.

Along the way the bus was kind enough to stop for some touristy diversions, such as the pancake rocks (above) which shoot out water when the tide is right.

We also overnighted at Franz Joseph glacier, for a short hike up to see the *RAPIDLY* decreasing mass of ice and snow. It’s pretty alarming to see how big it was just a decade ago.

We made Queenstown. Now to get the knee checked out, have Thanksgiving with Eszter’s brother who was working there and living in a campervan. Then, see where New Zealand takes us from there.

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