Return to NZ, part 2

Ahh, bikepacking in NZ. Quiet 2-tracky roads in deep forest and no wind.

Sometimes it is that good. Eszter lured me into not backtracking to town for food with the promise of this shortcut route,
which turned out like a dream.

When the dream ended, we still had nothing more than a kilo of oatmeal (porridge) in our bags. When we spied this sign, we thought
we were saved. Bikepacking signs are rare, so we always follow them.

We climbed a steep hill to the Huha farmstay. The owner offered us a not-so-cheap room.

“So, why does the sign say HuHa bikepackers?”

“Oh, is that sign still there? I think that’s from the previous owners.”

More than anything we were hoping to share bikepacking stories and meet some interesting folks. Instead we rolled on to a sandfly infested campsite just down the road. I borrowed a stove from our car camping neighbors so we could heat up the oats for dinner (a nice european couple, working in China and touring NZ paddleboarding). It was not so luxurious.

Friend! We pedaled some nice miles with Heather Rose.

Heather got us to go rafting down the Buller River out of Murchison. Last trip we’d ridden along the river and been impressed by it.

We spent most of our float in the river, swimming or floating down in our life vests. It was the correct strategy for a hot summer solistice day (Dec 21). Though “rest”, it was not.

No, duh.

Especially true on ‘push’ bike.

Following the TA route took us to the “Big River” hut, the first we’d stayed that is supplied with coal for heating.

The heavens smiled and rained on us, making the hut a little chilly and a fire welcome. Our first attempt at the fire whimpered out… you have to use a little wood to get it up to temp before throwing the coals on. Once those coals are going though…..

Nice boardwalk singletrack!

Duffy singletrack too!

Per usual, we underestimated the Big River track. Despite recent trailwork, it was still harder than expected for our ‘touring’ setups.

Blackball, NZ. 1080 is a poison that is dropped into the forest in an attempt to kill stoats and other introduced species that prey on native birds.

Blackball has it right. 4 hours is plenty.

They got their start fighting for a 30 minute lunch. Seems preposterous now that the miners were only given a 15 minute break. Maybe in 100 years it’ll seem preposterous to work 8-10 hours a day as people do now?

Blackball is on the Westcoast, in the rain forest.

We climbed a lovely trail, semi-loaded, to stay in the hut at treeline. Little did we know the DoC trail crew was there setting up the hut for a massive trail construction effort.

They were ever so kind and fun to talk to. And ever so easy to make fun of.

At some point late at night I asked why the generator was running (while we sat laughing around the table under dim candle light). The trail boss sheepishly admitted he was charging his phone (!). A generator for one phone.

Top priority was to make a flat spot for the BBQ that, sadly, hadn’t been flown up yet.

We continued up onto the “tops”.

A glorious ridgeline towering over the ocean to our left. To have clear weather up here is rare.

We appreciated the day and all we had, even as the going was slow and arduous.

Our new trail crew friends have been building high-grade “great walk” quality trail all along this ridge that we stumble-plucked our way through on this day.

“Pretty average” trail conditions. This was the good part of the trail.

Not as easy as it looks.

Near the car park the track gets semi-rideable. We came upon a fossicker looking for gold in the creek.

“So how was it?”

“That was some good bush-bashing. The track is in pretty bad shape up there. We’re pretty glad to see the car park.”

Hand outstretched, “Ahhh, WELCOME TO NEW ZEALAND!”

It felt good to put a bit of a proper adventure ride in our back pockets. It isn’t really what we’re aiming for on these trips, but we are bikepackers, dammit, so bikepacking we must, even if it means hours of dragging our bikes for just a wee payoff.

We hit the only store in Blackball because it was fish and chips night.

The owners might be the grumpiest couple in the entire South Island. No matter what subject you might bring up, they’d have something negative to say. It was truly something to behold, and quite entertaining.

After gorging on fish and chips I selected a few more snacks and took them to the register.

“Ooooh, big spender!”


“You people usually don’t have any money.”

(You people? What does she mean… Americans? White people? Computer Programmers? Oh, bike tourists!)

“You usually just come in here waving a water bottle, ooohh, give me some water!!” (she made a hilarious mocking face while holding up a bottle, one that I will never forget).

“But you give it to them, right?”

(Long pause, thinking)…. “oh, yes, we aren’t so heartless that we wouldn’t give them water, but they could at least buy something!”


We pitched our tent at the community center for the right well price of $10 NZ ($7 US). Here we met the DJ for Blackball’s very own radio station. He was a sweet old man, but perhaps the slowest talker in the entire South Island. The introduction to a tune would take several minutes, followed by another minute of silence before the LP (yes, a record player!) would engage.

“Tonight… we have … some special guests….. A couple of YANKEE DOODLES!”

“Ah, yes, my name is Scott Morris and I’m a Yankee Doodle. We have a couple mountain bikes and we spent the day thrashing about the tops, connecting the Croesus and Moonlight Tracks….”

I proceeded to fumble through the story.

“…thanks to Blackball for the hospitality and for the lovely community center for travelers to camp at. We like it here.”

It was true, we really did like Blackball.

Greymouth wasn’t as kind to us. We’ve squeezed our bikes onto full buses before, but this one had more luggage per person than usual, so we were out of luck. There’s no guarantee they’ll take us with bikes, and we knew that going in.

Still, it was a frustrating hour spent waiting and trying to figure out what was going on.

A flat white (coffee) was needed before plan B could be conjured. The barista asked,

“How is the day?”

“Not bad, but we just got kicked off our bus.”

She handed us some free wifi vouchers with our coffees. Sometimes a small act of kindness can go a long way. I try to remember that and be on the giving side of such a small kindness whenever I can.

Free camping on the beach was a good consolation.

No penguins though. Just distant dolphins and maybe whales.

We were pretty stoked with our impromptu beach camp. Little did we know the next night would top it — an impromptu rain forest camp surrounded by glow worms!

These little guys ‘fish’ for insects with their sticky lines, attracting them by bio-luminescence.

It’s a temperate rain forest, but camping in it was pretty interesting. Moist and plants everywhere.

We wandered the forest finding denser and denser pockets of glowing bugs. It was pure magic.

Could the glow worm forest be topped? Yes. We got a hostel room due to a west coast rain storm (that did bring moisture most of the day). Our timing as perfect. It was Christmas Eve and the guests are treated to a feast!

We chatted with Czechs, Germans, Israelis, Indians, Chinese and some kiwis too. There was beer and wine, and … Christmas crackers (those dorky things you pull apart and have a little toy inside), commonwealth style. It was a pretty special international Christmas.

Back tramping. The rata (red flowering beech trees) were strong this summer.

Destination: backcountry hot springs… with a hut nearby.

The secret to this soak was to hit it mid-morning, when the sand flies are nearly absent and the other hut guests are already hiking back to the car park.

Another bus (riding the west coast highway during high season isn’t an experience I need in my life) took us to Wanaka to meet up with Heather again, and…

Indie pup!

Plus her owners, Scott and Jo. Look — we did a regular, reasonable, fun mountainbike ride!

Scott texted us: “Having a cruisy morning. Is it heaving there? Should be there in the arvo.” God I love kiwispeak.

New Years-ish camping and hanging out with these van-lifers. We were hoping some of the coolness that is van life would rub off on us.

Indie gets her own door to the trails.

Ah the crown range road. I don’t know what we were thinking riding this road on New Year’s morning. And on day 3 of the Rhythm and Alps festival. We got going early-ish, but there was no such thing as early enough.

The TA route took us off it mid-descent, onto lovely quiet dirt into Arrowtown.

Then we made the mistake of camping outside Queenstown, in a secret spot that I guess isn’t so secret. A couple of cars pulled in after dark, one parking the front wheel a few feet from our tent. Once they finally got settled it was…. four episodes of “Friends” on their laptop at full volume. Occasionally they’d adjust the laptop, which was resting on the steering wheel, sending a lovely honk right at our ear drums. They’d laugh and giggle at that.

We had ear plugs (standard NZ equipment) but it was a funny night with minimal sleep.

Our next mistake was leaving Queenstown midday to ride out of the chaos and to Glenorchy. It felt ‘cool’ as we sat by the lake and the breeze ripped into us. It was anything but cool riding the highway out of town.

Beautiful, yes, and luckily there was a cold lake to jump into.

Multiple swims wasn’t enough. After a shiver inducing jump in the lake we’d still overheat in 2 minutes of riding in the sun. My avid brakes had that warranty issue where the plunger swells and activates the caliper… making the lever very firm and adding a strong bit of braking resistance.

The ride was a low point of the trip for me, but we got food in Glenorchy, enjoyed a more chill atmosphere and found a sweet free campsite with views of glacial mountains.

The next day I rallied for the main purpose we’d headed this way, and something we didn’t get to last year — running the Routeburn Track.

We hit the high point above the saddle on the route, squeaking in a good fjordlands weather window… glimpsing Milford Sound and the coast.

In hindsight, we should have chilled and waited for another good weather window (there were many) but at the time we knew the weather is different in this part of NZ and couldn’t believe we’d have weeks and weeks of more sun, pretty much no matter where we went.

Yeah, it was starting to dawn on us that we were tired.

falcon, new NZ bird!

But did we rest? Not really. We did decide to switch to a little different mode, though. The bike touring parts of the trip had been the hardest, or least enjoyable. Perhaps mostly due to my low tolerance for busy roads, and heat. But nonetheless we always seemed to not put a priority on the touring sections. It was just our way to get around, but we kept underestimating it and kept going into it tired from previous adventures.

So we based out of Glenorchy. There was plenty to do, free camping, huts, an almost passable grocery store and …. a cheap hostel with the best internet we’d found yet! First trip was a ‘hut-pack’ bike ride up to nearby huts used for Scheelite mining.

We pushed bikes up to the lovely McIntosh hut. Ez left hers inside and I unloaded mine. There was a giant mountain to climb!

Eszter got ahead, unencumbered by carbon fiber and spokes, and we both took a wrong turn above the upper hut. I saw her up above, but did not see her cut back to the actual track we were supposed to take to Black Mountain. Since I didn’t have these tracks on my GPS basemap, or any other way to navigate, I hurried to try to catch up, but never caught glimpse of her again.

Eventually I dragged my bike and topped out at a magnificent peak… but not Black Mountain. Ez was nowhere to be found, but I left my bike and tried my bike shoes at traversing along the ridge for a while. No fresh prints. Neato scrambling, but, she must have disappeared!

As I descended I saw the track we should have been on and took it until we ran into each other. Chalk that up to failure to communicate (about staying together, navigating, expectations).

We stashed the bikes in town and took a shuttle back to Arrowtown… a tramp intruiged us and we had an ambitious ~week on foot planned.

For several miles we simply walked up this… river, or maybe creek. Pretty average.

Actually dang fun, and refreshing on a hot afternoon.

The climbing thus commenced on steep, narrow and barely existent track.

It was damned lovely. Just what we were looking for. Wide open spaces.

Super nice huts. We stayed in two just like this one, which was empty.

Exciting sidling. The Motatapu Track is not for anyone uncomfortable with exposure.

These little steps made themselves just by people walking on the grasses.

Straight down, straight back up.

That is a decidedly non-IMBA approved trail layout right there. 100% fall-line. Yet it works.

I’d hike Motatapu again.

We hit the end of the track just as the only car in the car park was dropping its passengers (trampers going the other direction) and heading out. Struck it just right — instant ride to Wanaka for resupply.

We had planned to complete the loop by tramping over Cascade Saddle in Aspiring Park, but the weather had us decide otherwise. Plan B was to hitch-hike a ways towards the Pisa range and head up to the Meg (pronouced Meeeeg) hut for a night. It doesn’t look like much, but it was a favorite stay. And… finally, a respite from the NZ sun.

The walk along the ‘tops’ of the Pisa range wasn’t filled with views, but the fog and moisture felt divine.

Somehow we managed to get sun burned through that layer of thick clouds. Only in NZ…

Back in Glenorchy, our foot and hitch-hike loop was complete. We picked up the bikes and again headed into the scheelite country, this time on a more rideable old track.

There is no shortage of elevation gain in NZ.

Storms! None reached us, having to cross the ‘barrier range’ from the west coast.

Scramble! Mt. Alaska was the big mountain above our hut this time. I took my bike as far as ‘reasonable’ then joined Ez on foot.


Down down down.

Tiny old mining shack. Lovely place to spend a night with a hell of a view. The cables hold the roof on…. or hold the hut from flying off the mountain (which has happened to a number of huts in NZ).

! Day use only? Bummer.

Descending to town was frigid in the morning — the only time we rode with all our layers we brought. Sadly it was a one day cool spell.

Ride to the tramp! We rode a fair bit of gravel, and then some tramping track, before ditching the bikes when the going got…

muddy. Poor Ez found a nasty deep mud hole.

We had yet to see a Kea, those mountain clowns, alpine parrots, perhaps smartest bird in the world. This steep climb led to Kea Basin… maybe, maybe, it would live up to its name?

No keas, but behold… a glorious amphitheater of glacier fed waterfalls. Beyond imagination, beyond belief.

Our next wee tramp took the imagination even further, as we climbed our way to the head of the Earnslaw glacier.

Keep getting closer…. is this real?

The tent, let’s set up the tent here!

The falls roared all night, but goodness gracious, what a place to wakeup.

For the route back we tried an ‘easy’ tramp, fighting through the bush to gain tree-line. Then struggling through speargrass (owie!) and slippery snow grass to gain the ridge, where the fun scrambling began. It was, as most thing are, harder than expected.

Going down! The tramp description said this was an easy slope to descend.

It was classic kiwi understatement. But we loved it.

I found this photo in the pub near the end of our stay in Glenorchy. That’s a scheelite miner creating a ‘track’. Possibly one we pushed our bikes up. It says so much that I love about NZ, encapsulates the attitude, toughness, beauty and at the same time, nuttiness of it all.

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