New Zealand Part 4 – central sun, Wanaka, Mt. Cook and having to leave.

I think we reached the interior of New Zealand right as it finally became summer.

I can’t say we saw all that much of the friendly little fireball in the sky previous to this. But we were about to learn just how strong the NZ sun can be. I don’t know if it was the hole in the ozone layer (which is actually shrinking these days), the clear air, or just that our bodies were expecting winter, not summer. But the sun seemed to have a special intensity when it did shine and on bluebird days.

poppies! did these come from north america, or europe, or?

Heavily sunburnt kiwis and foreigners were a common sight. We slathered the sunscreen on thick.

Nonetheless, it was a good time to climb the ‘highest road in NZ’, the Nevis Rd. Steep climbing, open views and few vehicles, it was lovely. NZ doesn’t really have an off-road culture, of the type we are used to in the western US. ATVs seem to stick to the farms, while jeeps and 4x4s are rarely seen. It works out well for us sensitive bike tourist types.

Our destination for the night. Also the first hut we had to ourselves.

You too can stay here, for the low price of five New Zealand dollars (roughly $3 american). Oh, but you have to climb 4000 feet or so to get here.

Many of the huts have maps and DOC brochures relevant to the area. As we drank tea and kicked back in our luxury accommodations, it started to sound like we could stay high and ride ridgelines instead of dropping back to the valley floor as we’d planned.

Information on the tracks/roads was sparse. We didn’t know whether this was something people did, or whether it was a good idea, at all. Very few mountain bikers had signed the hut log, and a few of them mentioned being flown to ‘the top’ in a helicopter!

It was just a magic night, sleeping in our own little hut, perched high above New Zealand, out of the wind while dreaming of tomorrow’s unanticipated adventure.

Taking the adventure route was the correct choice. Some of the best riding of our trip, culminating here at ‘the obelisk.’

Though the gales were howling, the views and riding made them easier to ignore.

From the obelisk we again chose the adventure route, with very little beta. As we dropped off the ridgeline we could see tiny little Alexandra below, and it felt a little like the Manapouri powerline. We were ready to walk and scramble if needed.

Sometimes you win — the descent was ‘surprisingly rideable.’

We really liked Alexandra and the quasi-desert around it. The sun shone bright the whole time we were there.

Yet the trail ahead called even though it was a place we wanted to linger. It felt like a genuinely kiwi town, and everyone was kind. I suppose by genuinely kiwi I might only mean that it’s a town that isn’t really on the main tourist route, so we were surrounded by kiwis.

Thanks to one such kiwi, Geof, who we met at the coffee shop and is a past TD rider, we knew of a ‘rustic’ hut on our way north. This one is just for travelers and has been that way for some hundred years. We are travelers! The timing was just right and up this high the night had a chill, so the hut was welcome.

Singletrack! Sadly it seems that most true singletrack we encountered was more along the lines of a bike park or stacked loop system. That meant that with a some exceptions, they often couldn’t be a part of a thru-route.

Luckily Wanaka has all sorts of trails and every mode of recreation you can think of, including XC (as in covering country, not looping) trails.

We would ride along the banks of impossibly blue and raging Clutha river many times in our adventures around Wanaka.

Our goal was to ‘have christmas’ in Wanaka with Eszter’s brother and his girlfriend. It was a fantastic plan, and in fact the whole idea of being out of the USA for Christmas was brilliant as well. Besides the deep and thoughtful rejection of all forms of Christianity that I have settled on, my patience for the overblown consumerism and stress of ‘the holidays’ is pretty low.

Things were refreshingly laid back in NZ. We barely even knew the holidays were coming until right before, and no one gave us fake and patronizing holiday greetings for weeks leading up.

We marveled at how empty the Wanaka area was (and the trails — this photo is from Roy’s Peak).

The crowds did come. After Christmas the place blew up with kiwis ‘on holiday.’ It hadn’t really occurred to us that it would be a camping holiday, but it makes perfect sense. It’s summer and school is out! Camping for Christmas, or Christmas in the summer, what a great idea!

There was a holiday park just outside town that swelled to 2000 people, all camping in the kiwi style with caravans and big canvas tents. It was so cool, and something to see.

We took advantage of being on bike and found secluded spots outside of town.

For Christmas, we went hiking. Mt. Aspiring National Park.

The Rob Roy glacier and associated ‘scene’ defies description. One of the most complex and stunning places we visited, by far.

Andras and Vanessa had to head back to Queenstown, but we continued on into the park, amazingly by bike! The first 10km is a grassy two track that almost everyone walks and no one drives. For some incredible reason, it’s open to bikes!

This gave us a slight advantage in getting up higher with our day.

It seems the red huts are the truly alpine ones. I’d like to visit more red huts…

Liverpool hut was a little scrambly to get to, in a uniquely New Zealand way. Roots make good ladders and hand holds, it’s true.

Riding the national park ‘two track’ back out. The weather called for major wind and rain, to come, otherwise we would have surely stayed at the red hut.

Instead we spent a semi-restful night, then woke up to what appeared to be massive tailwinds. Indeed, it was nuclear.

Free ride back to town. Get drenched a little. Dry off at holiday park with 2000 kiwis…

The crash on the beach in the sun after it clears out. Lovely.

Wanaka sunset.

“Don’t worry honey, it’s a shortcut.” It was an ambitious day ride, but we wanted to see what Grandview had to offer. This shortcut behind farms didn’t have anything to offer other than scratchy plants and no tread. Win some, lose some, we abandoned.

We figured hike-a-bike is easier unloaded.

So let’s have Scott do the math and wholly underestimate the mileage. I might have called it 60 miles and it was more like 80.

You know, pretty average. Par for the course for us.

Views were worth it. The sun beat us down and water ran alarmingly low.

A killer downhill, made even better by the surprise appearance of a clear and cold spring, right on the side of the trail. Salvation!

We were wrecked, but our time was starting to run short. We had some highway to ride and were leery of the traffic. So we planned to get up super early.

The fly in that ointment was that it was new years. We camped in a free spot not near any civilization, with a handful of campervans that were dead silent…. until midnight. Then it rained and they went inside. And it stopped raining, and even though the new year was more than an hour old, screaming and banging things resumed.

Ah, well. We got up early anyway, forded the river to avoid a backtrack, and beat traffic and wind over the pass.

The wind caught up with us on a dirt road up the Ahuriri Valley, where we hoped to reach a hut for the night. 30 mph headwinds had other plans for us. Even though Ez is much more resilient to wind than I am, for some reason I was content to plug out the 10 or 15 miles at 2-3 mph. I admit it didn’t really make sense. After an hour and a half we flipped it.

Due to that detour we got flagged down on the highway by none other than Scott and Jo, who live in Christchurch and are bikepackers. That was a fortunate meeting!

We hopped on the “Alps 2 Ocean” cycle route in the town of Omarama, which was my favorite placename to purposely pronounce incorrectly.

There was some purpose built grade 3 singletrack on this one, somewhat to the chagrin of a few folks we met on touring bikes. Hey, you can always walk… we do it all the time!

The high mountain platter! One of the best meals we had.

We turned off the cycle trail for an out/back to a hut up another stunning glacially carved valley. At the hut we were joined by some college aged kiwis from Christchurch who were very new to tramping. It was fun to see all the little things they fretted over, but the card and role playing type games we played with them were even more fun. And then went to bed at a reasonable hour. They may have been new to tramping but someone had taught them good hut etiquette.

Another hut win and good people we would have never met otherwise.

Back at the lodge for a second high mountain platter the next day (yes, it was that good) the place was inundated by all sorts of folks riding the route. Some on e-bikes, mostly unloaded, all seeming to love it. Go NZ cycle trails!

Purpose built cycling gates… just a little too narrow for poor Donkey (nickname for Eszter’s bike).

These canals are part of a power generating scheme, and also used to hatch salmon. Apparently it’s legal to pull any escapees out of the canal.

We didn’t have time to stay in the town of Twizel. Mt. Cook and free camping to the north called us.

Though Cook was an out/back (or in/out as they say in NZ) for us, mostly on highway, as we watched the sun set on it from camp, we had no choice but to get up early and try to beat the campervans.

It worked. The last few kms are on a gravel bike path, as the steep walls and glacier falls pull you in.

As with national parks in the USA, you need to leave the bikes behind in order to actually see the place.

Pretty darn nice camping in a very informal site for a national park. Having a bike meant we could get a bit further out from the vehicles, and access to the cook shelters was fantastic for the morning and when it rained.

We stuck to the main touristy hikes, and while they were busy, it wasn’t that much by national park standards.

This trail is pretty much a giant staircase. There was some quality suffering going on, but it seemed like most people were making it.

Kiwis love their signs, and many are humorous to us. “… may be prone to kea damage.”

We could have stayed longer, but our time was running out. We rode until sunset, trying to get as much of the pavement done in the evening. Just as we needed to camp a tiny piece of DOC land presented itself — the Pukaki Climbing Boulders! Perfect. A 5 min hike-a-bike took us to this stunning campsite, and just enough off the road. One of our best sites.

Back to cyclotour mode, to finish up the Alps to Ocean in the opposite direction.

We hit Lake Tekapo where our dirt route ran out, and so did our time. Time to make preparations to leave country, sadly.

Time to savor the last flat whites and cheese scones. We could have easily stayed up to the 3 month no-visa limit, but work season was about to ramp up for me, and internet access had proven challenging throughout. We took a bus back to Christchurch.

A flightless bird is the logo for NZ’s air force. Love it.

We had one more task, which was to see an actual kiwi (bird), even if was just in a zoo. We did that in Christchurch, and then were kindly hosted by Scott and Jo, whom we had met a few weeks earlier on the road.

I don’t know how I don’t have a picture of them, or the ‘wee scenic wander’ we took by their house, or of Indie the heeler cross, our favorite NZ dog. It was a lovely quick visit to Christchurch and an easy transition to traveling back to the states.

We left quite satisfied with our time, falling in love with many things about New Zealand, and definitely feeling like there was plenty more to go and see. The thought of returning every year in Dec/Jan certainly was discussed.

As the days grew short this year (2017) and the Scamp seemed to grow smaller and smaller, the choice became clear — pack up the bikes and head back! So here we are, as I write this, about to launch again for more kiwi adventures.

Thanks for reading, cheers!

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