Triplogue - New Zealand

20 February, uphill from Taupo to the Whakapapa, 99km (f)

A gray day greeted us through the massive sliding glass doors of our room. Lake Taupo’s reflection of the dismal sky left it looking like a great disk of diamond-plate steel. My mood was in tune with the weather. I couldn’t help but think our luck had run out on us after the event of the day before. My perceptions seemed to come true as we rode through the drizzle along the lake and cars whooshed by us.

Fortunately the cloudy sky began to dissolve, sun cracking through the breaking clouds. Just as we began to be bathed in the sunlight we came across a rather large sow which we goaded into posing for our camera with a granola bar. What I’d anticipated as a calm and easy morning became a little more challenging as we ascended to the tops of the cliffs surrounding Lake Taupo climbing some 200 meters in two kilometers or so. Riding along the top we were afforded views of the massive lake formed by a collapsed volcano millions of years before.

In the exhilaration of our descent I began to forget the way the day began as we reached terminal velocity down the other side. Circumstance soon reminded me of my earlier sentiments when a pack of soccer fans started driving by us. They all had the "stars and bars" of the confederate flag draped in their rear windows and jeered at us as they passed. I nearly leapt off my bike when one used an amplified megaphone as they passed me. I felt a solid hit to my kidneys as one zoomed by. Couldn’t figure what had hit me, but it felt like a softball with its speed.

Until that point I hadn’t thought of Andy who was trailing behind me by a few hundred yards. I became worried about what indignities and assaults he had suffered at their hands and stopped to find out. He’d been hit by something too; it had left a welt on his back and exploded on impact. We stopped at a little market and a deliveryman made a call to the police on our behalf.

The route from there was stupendously lovely and narrow road that wound along the rocky lip of the lake. It was hard to concentrate on the beauty of the ride with huge double trailer lorries passing so closely to us along with the fresh memory of our recent attack as distractions. I found myself flinching as each vehicle passed. Stopping at a campground for a snack we exchanged stories with the owner, who told us she’d run the young rebel hooligans off her parking lot a few moments before. She called ahead to the police and added to our complaint. The police told her that they’d stopped the car and hoped we’d stop in at the police station at the next town to make a report. I found some elation in the fact that they’d been at least stopped. Perhaps scared about the consequences of their actions. Even so another vehicle with the flag passed, this time throwing water balloons at us, renewing my flinching reflex.

Our experience at the police station left me in no way assured that there would be any consequence to our report. The desk officer gave me no confidence that there would be any follow-up. Surely no one would ever be able to comprehend the report he wrote before us; every other word contained a grave misspelling. Afterwards we downed a fast food lunch and were on our way. Our route following lunch could take us two different ways. One via a quiet road up six kilometers sharply to over one thousand meters. The other over a busy road though more gradual. I lobbied for the quiet one; we could simply "take our medicine" and do the climbing more quickly. I am not sure if this was the smarter decision, for the climb reduced my legs to wobbly rubbery appendages and we still had some 45 kilometers to make our final destination.

Our guidebook described the terrain as flat for the next hours and a pair of older cyclotourists affirmed that when we met at a café while snacking. The owner of the roadside tearoom was a motorcycle and cat enthusiast. The walls of his little shop were covered by posters of BMW two-wheelers while the furniture and floor seemed covered by his cats. In reality there were only two, an Abyssinian and a Persian. They were absolute whores for attention.

The reality of our afternoon was that it was a constant uphill and we ascended yet another 600 meters that evening before reaching our destination. Our residence that evening was to be the Grand Chateau Hotel in Whakapapa village. We recognized it on the side of the massive volcano from the postcards we’d seen of the volcano erupting behind the building. It loomed ahead and above us for miles. When we drove up the driveway and entered the lobby, our receptionist asked us if it was raining out, so drenched we were with sweat.

The name Whakapapa presented some problems in and of itself. First, in the Maori language the sound "wh" is pronounced as an aspirate "f". Second, an "a" following this consonant is pronounce "uh". Making the name of the town sound obscene if you dared to pronounce it correctly. We were in a "no-win" situation, if we dared pronounce it correctly the locals blushed and looked as us as though we were being presumptuous. Pronouncing the name as we would in English yielded a quick correction. More often I allow myself the luxury of pronouncing everything wrong and giving the Kiwis the pleasure of correcting me.

The hotel itself was Andy’s favorite type. Sporting a faded grandeur and vacant feel that evoked the same spine chilling effect you’d get from watching "The Shining" late at night in an empty house. Before dining in the massive formal dining room we played a game of pool on a table so large I felt like Alice in Wonderland. It had special long cues and bridges in order to use it. Without exaggeration, it was at least 3 meters by six meters, perhaps larger, and the balls were less than regulation size --making our game all the more challenging.

At dinner I nearly fell asleep at the table. My belly was full and my legs were aching. It had been many months since I’d ascended over 1300 meters and ridden over 100 kilometers in a day.

Calling the cops and displaying the damage

Above Lake Taupo, only 1000 meters more to climb

Gordon and Carol in the rain

Ohakune's Giant (and dark) Carrot

21 February, Whakapapa to Ohakune, 54km (a)

We woke up to find ourselves ensconced in a thick misty cloud –which did not bode well for the day of hiking we had planned. We decided to postpone any decision as to what we’d do with our day until after breakfast, however. Downstairs in the dining room, the same tape we had heard last night was playing –classical music’s greatest hits-- and this influenced our decision to ride. Charming as the once-elegant Grand Chateau hotel was, did we really want to be trapped up here another night, inside of a cloud, listening to Pavarotti sing "Nessun Dorma"?

Within what seemed like minutes, we were flying down the long hill towards a crossroads called National Park. Rather than abating in lower altitude, the mist grew worse here, occasionally thickening into something classifiable as genuine rain. It was a nice change of pace to be whooshing downhill, though, so I didn’t mind a bit.

Climbing out of a deeply cut gorge, we caught up with a pair of our cyclist brethren, Cathy and Gordon from northern England. We stopped to talk to the older couple by the roadside under the intermittent drizzle, and were struck by their gumption. Pressing on to our goal –where we knew we could catch a train to Wellington in time for Saturday night—we raced down a long, almost imperceptible descent, with what must have been a pretty strong tailwind. After half an hour of this pedaling bliss, we turned off to the left into gorgeous sheep-filled scenery at the foot of the North Island’s tallest mountain (shrouded in clouds).

Ohakune surprised us by being easily the most charming country town we’d passed through in this country. It had a frontier, old-West look and feel to it. We stopped at Visitor Information to get the dope on the train and learned that Okahune’s landmark, a giant plaster carrot, lay just down the road. I insisted we bike there for a photo before lunch in a trendy café, where we ate bagels and ran into Gordon and Cathy once again. They were done cycling for the day, and we envied them staying in such a beautiful place. Fred proposed several times that we do the same, but since the train didn’t run the next day (NZ basically shuts down on Sundays), we thought it best to stick with plan A –or was it plan B?

The train station was a ways out of town and absolutely deserted. We were the only passengers to get on or off when the dinky rattling old iron horse hissed to a stop. An officious woman told us we’d have to take our bags off our bikes before loading them, then recanted when we said we’d lift them up ourselves. The same woman sold us our tickets, served us tea and provided a running commentary throughout the bumpy 5-hour journey. For all we knew she was driving the train, too.

Wellington (f)

The day before had destroyed me. Every bone in my body had ached, so I felt no shame in arriving to Wellington by train. We did feel some shame and panic when we realized that every accommodation in the entire town was booked. Except for the kindness of a woman at the train station we’d have never found a place to stay. As it was we ended up out by the airport the first day.

We managed a place in the center of Wellington the next day. There we developed a feel for the city, which is decidedly quirky. It felt as though a weird little city like Santa Cruz, California, with all of its hippies and odd-balls, had been declared a capital. Complicating matters, the International Dragon Boat Competition was being held along side the National Maori Cultural Festival.

The amazing tourist attraction of Wellington is their new national showcase museum, Te Papa. It is truly the "papa" of all museums. Its edifice is like an airport terminal in stature, floating out by the harbor, its massive halls filled with geologic, historic, cultural, natural and technologic exhibits. Perhaps one of the more amazing museums I’ve ever seen. Like the town of Wellington, many of the exhibits were quirky and strangely curated. My favorite was the sheep and wool exhibit that explored the history and uses of sheep in New Zealand.

One of the best bargains of the trip, after the free trip to Te Papa was the repair of my damaged bag. When the Dutchman and I collided it tore the buckle off one of my front panniers. It cost only $3.50 for the buckle and sewing it on.


NZ traffic jam

Pete helping us cheat

24 February, Wellington/Picton to Hauwai, 65km (a)

I don’t think I knew what wind was until today. From the moment I woke up and peered out the filthy, rain-spattered window of my little cell, I knew it wouldn’t be an optimal riding day. But the rain was only a secondary problem, or so I realized during the ride to the boat harbor, which was way too fast and way too easy –meaning that the wind was coming out of the south, the direction we’d be heading the rest of the day.

The scenery between Wellington and Picton is said to be gorgeous. We didn’t see any of it, though. Fog and rain had swallowed up all the views, and it was way too cold to go out on deck. So we spent the three-hour voyage gabbing with an adventurous German cyclist called Stefan and an angelically beautiful young Dane called Finn.

It was raining pretty hard when we disembarked in Picton, but we decided to do the butch thing and ride. It was tough going at first, up a big hill that led out of town, against the wind and under the rain. But after a while the rain subsided and the road led through a steep-sided canyon that cut off most of the wind. When we arrived in the town of Blenheim –where we thought we’d spend the night—the sun was shining, tempting us to continue, wind or not. At tourist information, we booked bed-and-breakfast-and-dinner on a farm some forty kilometers further down the road.

We figured we’d make it there in two hours, three hours tops, but it took closer to four. The wind had picked up considerably and was coming right at us. All our concentration was focused on simply keeping our bikes on the road, and proceeding towards our goal, one revolution of the pedals at a time. Pretty as the scenery was –especially through two rather high passes—the riding was hell. The wind was so loud I literally couldn’t hear myself think.

Just as I was contemplating crawling into a ditch and quietly dying, a car pulled up to us and stopped. The pumpkin-shaped driver leapt out and asked if we were two tired Yanks. It was Pete, our host for the night, and he was offering us a ride the final couple of km back to his place. On the way, he pointed out NZ’s only salt works and the site of the new port, which he saw as his winning lottery ticket. He told us that when the Wellington boat arrives literally at his front door, he’ll have a housefull of guests every night. In spite of his optimism, Fred and I noticed no work underway to make this new port a reality. Pete may very well have a long wait ahead of him. And in the meantime, he’ll be working in the salt mine in order to make ends meet. Tomorrow is the first day in thirty-five years that he’ll be working for someone else.

Pete’s house is pleasantly situated in a little glade at the base of some hills and was therefore protected from the screaming gale. He introduced us to his "housekeeper" Joy. "I give her free room and board in exchange for housework," he explained with some embarrassment, causing us to wonder if he wasn’t telling the whole story.

"We’re having seafood soup and steaks for tea," announced Pete. Did this mean we’d be having scones and crumpets for dinner? When I announced my intention to go out and have a look at his sheep (15/16 purebred Fresians, which he keeps for stud purposes), Pete made a rather off-color joke involving gumboots. And during the newscast we all watched together, chomping away at the delicious meal, our opinionated host maintained a running commentary. Overall, a hilarious evening. And one which came to an abrupt end. Country people turn in early, it appears, which suits us fine in our wind-blown state.

25 February, Hauwai to Kaikoura, 104km (f)

In the predawn darkness I was shaken from my bed. At first I’d assumed that it was merely the first train of the day passing by Pete’s farm, but the rattling was too intense. Luckily I was sleeping in the part of the farmhouse that rested on a cement slab, unlike Andy and the others, who rode the quake atop the pilings that made the foundation in the back part of the house. Andy darted about the house excitedly, admitting that it was his first major earthquake. It measured 5.8 on the Richter scale; even so we all somehow made it back to sleep, except for Pete. Today would be his first day working at the salt marsh down the road. Before the quake he had some trepidation about starting the new job; he’d not worked for someone else for over 35 years. I couldn’t help but wonder if he thought Mother Nature’s demonstration a bad omen.

I was worried about something different this morning, curious if we’d have to fight the vicious winds of the day before again. Thankfully as we set off down Pete and Joy’s gravel driveway the sky was clear and the breeze non-existent.

The first part of the day reminded me of the coastal hills of California. Brown drought-dry grass covered the rolling hills where sheep grazed instead of cows amongst the occasional trees. Soon we rolled down to the coast where the road hugged the craggy coast. Denser greener foliage carpeted the volcano-formed slopes of the snow-capped mountains above us. We stopped to talk to a pair of German cyclists who where decidedly antisocial and went on our way. Stopping only to photograph sea lions nursing their pups and basking in the warm sun on the rocks, we pedaled on to Kaikoura.

Our motel in Kaikoura, the aptly named Panorama, gave us a startlingly beautiful view of the bay and the mountains beyond. Pushing up the sea bottom’s limestone formations formed the coastal lands. Squiggly white layers of rock make fantastically intricate seascapes, where we found birds nesting and seals resting during our evening walk. Hiking up the cliff, we walked amongst sheep grazing in the golden sunset and I thought that a sheep’s life might not be so bad here.

On our way back to the Panorama we stumbled upon a little café that served us a world class meal. There we met Belgium and Iranian couples, shared a bottle of wine and reveled in what a perfect day this had been. What a contrast to the day before!

Road to Kaikoura

The view from our room at the Panorama

Before and after shearing

Scots of Christchurch terrorize the countryside

26 February, Kaikoura to Cheviot, 76km (a)

The frantic pace of the NZ segment of our tour caught up with me this morning. Motivating myself to get out of bed was harder than usual, even with two cups of coffee (thoughtfully provided by my considerate riding partner) under my belt. Just as we were discussing our breakfast options, our Arizonan-Iranian neighbor, Mike, came by and asked us if we wanted some cereal, thus saving us a stop and getting us on the road at the bright and early hour of 10:30.

The first 20-odd kilometers of the day took us along more beautiful coastline, with more seals and huge colonies of sea birds. Then the road turned abruptly inland and up into a serious of steep but beautiful passes. We panted and strained our way up a slope, only to drop down again and recommence climbing. On the plus side, the scenery here was stunning.

Once we’d descended again, the ride became much easier, following river valleys past endless fields of sheep. Some of these beasts looked different from what we’ve grown accustomed to seeing. Having been freshly shorn, they had a pinkish hue, resembling baby mice. Passing one barn, I heard a telltale buzzing sound, and instructed Fred to stop. We thought we could sneak inside and get a photo or two of the sheep-shearing, but the gate to the farm was firmly closed. The stop wasn’t a total washout, however. As we sat waiting for shaved sheep (some of them with hockey-style haircuts resembling their shearers’) to emerge from a hole in the barn and into a holding pen, Masa rode by. We’d met him on the boat from Wellington, a cute young Japanese from Kobe with an extremely limited vocabulary in English but a million-dollar smile. We invited him to ride with us the last hilly 10km to Cheviot, where we had a beer in the first bar we came across. The place was packed with oldsters, many of whom came up to talk to us. One woman with a heavy Scottish brogue said she’d seen us from the bus earlier and was afraid we’d get "burrrnt." I made her repeat this last word four times before I understood her, and assured her that we were well-coated in sunscreen.

We went in search of a motel (for us) and campsite (for Masa) and were very fortunate to find them both in one complex, an adorable, out-of-the-way place run by a friendly Dutch couple. As Masa set up his tent, we took a dip in the frigid, scum-surfaced pool. On our way out to buy groceries, we saw another cyclist checking in and recognized him as Earl, a 71-year old from Nebraska who had also been on our boat from Wellington. We decided to invite them both to dinner at our place and bought the makings for a feast in tiny Cheviot’s only grocery store.

Before dinner we still had time for a yoga session in a secluded lawn next to a field full of wooly baah-ing sheep. It felt fantastic to give our sore muscles a proper stretching.

It was amusing to host a dinner party in the middle of nowhere to a couple of cycling strangers. Loquacious Earl told us how he’d flown to NZ for free aboard an Army plane, and how this was his first trip abroad. Everyone back home in his small Nebraska town thought he was nuts, but he had been determined to cycle New Zealand for a long time. We swapped road stories and found his complaints (sadistic truck drivers) to match ours exactly. Meantime, Masa smiled and shoveled alarming quantities of pasta into his face. Both our guests said they were going to get an early start the next morning. Fred looked at me hopefully and I shook my head. No way was I going to be part of a 120-km race to Christchurch, where Masa had a rendezvous with his girlfriend at three o’clock. "Maybe we’ll see you on the road," I said to Earl and Masa as they retreated to their respective tents.

27 February, Cheviot to Christchurch, 70 km (f)

Both Earl and Masa were well along their way by the time we finally rolled out of the Cheviot Motel at 9:30 a.m. The first kilometers of gently rolling brown and grassy hills passed by easily though we were ascending to make a pass into the Hurunui Valley. We made our way up the valley cursing the inaccuracy of our guide book which declared the route without noticeable hills until the pass into the Greta Valley. Time after time we dipped into the river valley and pedaled our way out.

Finally we reached to top of the valley and stopped at a gas station for a quick roadside meal of chips and drinks, our bodies begging for the replenishment of salts. Descending was not the picnic we’d anticipated. The wind had taken a turn and we were now having to pump our way down the hill and were only traveling at 15km/h. With each turn of the crank the temperature rose, the road became more truck trafficked and we fatigued. As we hit kilometer 70 we arrived in Amberly, where we ran into Earl, who had just arrived though he’d left two hours before us.

I’d grown tired of trucks passing too closely to us as they passed and lobbied Andrew for taking a bus the last kilometers to Wellington. He readily agreed and we found a helpful woman at the tourist information office to give us advice on getting there. While helping us she renewed drivers’ licenses, answered phones and did her nails. She was a tornado in action. "Just make your way to the ‘Tank and Tummy’ across the way and you can pick up a bus there," hustling us out the door so she could get onto solving the Gulf Crisis for Kofi Annan.

From the faithful T & T we had a snack while waiting for our bus. It buzzed by us though we were waving frantically and we were ready to ride on to Wellington on our own. At the last minute the driver hit the brakes, stopped and put our bikes in the massive luggage compartment at the back, bags and all. Within minutes I was napping and we were on our way to the end of the line for us in New Zealand.

We found our way to the YMCA and ran into Masa and Kiko there. Masa was searching for a campground in Wellington without any success. The town itself was not very cosmopolitan. A hot night there involves driving around the block revving your motor and trying to run down pedestrians while hooting and hollering at chicks. We opted to see the cinematic classic "Starship Troopers" and went out for a drink.

At the bar we met the most annoying homo ever. Tony greeted us with the standard, "Where’ya from?" His follow-up of, "I’m so sorry," failed to warm us to his charms. Somehow he’d thought he’d endeared himself to us and began talking our ears off until we could stand it no longer and left.

We managed to avoid the star attraction of town, climbing up the church tower. It was maybe 30 meters high and all we could imagine seeing from up there is a view of all the ugly 50’s, 60’s and 70’s architecture that had polluted the Christchurch building stock. We could hardly see the advantage of hiking up it especially knowing that earthquakes had toppled the tower at least twice since its original construction. Of interest is the City Museum and Gardens. The museum sports a fantastic exhibit on Antarctic exploration as well as more stuffed fauna then you can shake a stick at, displayed in really well done dioramas.

Departure from Christchurch (or ch-ch as the locals abbreviate it) was more difficult than anticipated. No bike boxes were available at the airport so the logistical nightmare of getting the boxed bikes to the airport lay before us. A crammed-to-the-gills airport shuttle got us there after stopping at every hotel in town before taking us to the bike shop to pick up the bikes. We endured the sneers of the other passengers while we dealt with the marginally competent staff at the shop.

I had the excited feeling we were going on to a new adventure when we finally got into the air. Thankfully we’d be arriving the day after the madness that is Sydney’s signature gay event of the year, The Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras.

Samurai Cyclist

Computin' in Ch-Ch

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