Wanaka (NZ) – Motueka (NZ) / 20605 km / 10.05 (!!) Million Turns / May 13th – June 13th, 2020
On May 13th we finally got green light to get back on our bikes again. It had been 8 weeks since we got stuck in Wanaka, and so much had happened! Our plans had changed drastically over the lockdown period. Originally, by the time the lockdown was lifted, we would have been in Japan already! That was obviously cancelled, and so was our little dream (and ambitious) plan to head back through Europe by crossing Mongolia and then take a train through Russia, only to cycle back home from Moscow or Finland. With the doors on this plan being shut due to the worldwide restrictions, new doors opened. We had been lucky to be in New Zealand, one of the very few countries where one could more or less move freely around by that time. New Zealand would turn out to be the only (reliable) COVID-free country in the world only two weeks later! So, our new plan was to explore New Zealand extensively, taking our time.
One of the first doors that opened was Mt Aspiring National Park, Wanaka’s backyard. A few days after the restrictions were eased, we cycled out to Aspiring Hut, with a borrowed backpack, our camping gear and food for a couple of days to explore the area by foot. Our plan paid out well; two nights later we found ourselves on one of the most beautiful camping spots of the whole trip. Right on top of cascade saddle, in the freezing cold, we enjoyed 360 degrees view of snow-capped peaks, a few glaciers here and there and the bliss of silence around us. We even saw two chamois dartling on a ridge. The quietness and peace, the fresh air, and the incredibly starry skies reminded us of all the reasons why we left on this trip: the simplicity of being out in nature with everything you need on your bike. The freedom we enjoyed here once again was even more appreciated after two months of lockdown.
We returned back to Wanaka and prepared ourselves to our new-old-life on the bikes again. On may 20th it was time to leave the place that we had started to call home for some time. Our stay here was supposed to be a two-night camping in the garden, somehow it had turned into eight weeks. We owe Neil big time for taking us two strangers into his house without much questioning! Neil, if you read this, you know you are always welcome to pitch your tent in our garden for a night or two ;). We said our goodbyes to Neil, Ester and Rafael and set off, excited but also with a heavy heart. Wanaka had been such a special place, an oasis of natural beauty and wilderness. Not only did we get stuck in Wanaka, we got stuck ON Wanaka too.
We headed out to the famous West Coast of the South Island. A totally different landscape and climate awaited us: a lush green coast with palm trees. Our bikes were heavier than ever: the West Coast is scarcely populated, so we carried food for over a week. Looking back on it now, one could say we underestimated New Zealand a little. Or to put it in another way: New Zealand would not be without any challenges. Winter was at our doorstep and soon we discovered why the coast is so green: rainfall. Not just some, the West Coast has an annual rainfall up to 10 meters (!). We Dutchies often complain about the weather in the Netherlands, but to give you an idea: The Netherlands has an annual rainfall of 0,79 meters only.
The blue skies that accompanied us on the day of our departure, changed into a storm and relentless rain overnight. It rained non-stop for three days in a row and it didn’t take long before all our stuff was wet. As we were so glad to finally be cycling again, the idea of waiting it out didn’t even pop up in our minds and we continued in the rain. But our happy moods became slightly dreary with the weather conditions.
A day later we had another setback, when we discovered that a rat had eaten its way through our inner tent and completely ruined Sabine’s rear pannier. We still had 80% of the “Wet” West Coast to go, but we sort of fixed the pannier by putting a large plastic bag over it. But, when the sky cleared over 72 hours later, so did our moods. It only took four more days for our shoes to be dry but we appreciated the fact that we could put our rain gear away for a while.
After the rain stopped, a new challenge came. Our answer as to why the West Coast is so scarcely populated became clear. If it didn’t rain, sand flies would take their revenge and eat us alive as soon as we were not moving. Their bites are a lot itchier than mosquito bites and if they weren’t biting, they seemed to have the habit of flying into our ears or eyes. On this occasion the wind was our ally, as sand flies can’t stand even the littlest movement of air. Our food breaks became quick operations and we would often eat our food while walking in circles around our bikes to prevent accidentally eating a few sand flies too. Another fortunate thing about sand flies compared to mosquitoes is that they can’t bite through your clothes. So, when we were not on the bike we would try to keep as little skin exposed as possible. It must have been a hilarious sight to see us going around here, looking like the Michelin Man and moving around frantically.
All the little hardships aside though, the West Coast turned out to be even prettier than expected. A windy road flanked by ferns and palm trees, beaches and a rugged sea on our left, lush green mountains and even a glacier or two on our right side, the Franz Josef and Fox glacier! New Zealand is one of the few places where glaciers exist so close to sea. It made us feel tiny, cycling through all these natural wonders. As a bonus, due to COVID-19, we had the usually dangerous with traffic roads basically all to ourselves. We soaked up the mystical surroundings, listening to the Harry Potter audiobook (Stephen Fry as a narrator!) on the way. Cycling at its core.
Two other doors opened due to COVID-19. One of the “Great Walks” in New Zealand, the Heaphy Track, is open for cyclists, but only during winter. By cycling the Heaphy Track, we could cross the remote Kahurangi National Park towards the northern tip of the South island. The other track that came into view was the Old Ghost Road. Kiwi’s are keen cyclists, and these two tracks are two of their big prides in the country. We simply had to see for ourselves. A little sidenote though: both of these rides are high grade mountain bike tracks, which meant rocky areas, super uneven surfaces and steep climbs and downhills. Not really made for fully loaded bicycles without suspension. We were warned by quite a few people we met, but stubbornness got the overhand and we decided to send some of our gear ahead and go for it.
The Old Ghost turned out to be quite a humbling experience. The Old Ghost road used to be a gold miners road, which was converted into a mountain bike and hike trail. It was a challenging, but stunning ride! A tiny trail along a mountain ridge, climbing up quite high only to tumble down into the next valley, multiple suspension bridges and cycling along a deep gorge are a few of the highlights. The humbling part is that large of the track are rocky and only about half a meter to a meter wide, tiny errors would send us into the abyss. We knew it wouldn’t be an easy ride, but the first day almost made us think otherwise. It was almost all day up, but we were able to cycle way more than we thought we could, and only had to push for some smaller sections, mostly due to the rocky surface. At the end of that first long day, we had managed the biggest climb of the track. It started snowing, turning everything around us into a magical white layer. We stayed in the beautiful Ghost Lake Hut and had a wonderful evening.
The next day however, we had one of those Murphy’s Law days. It’s funny how after more than a year on the bike, you think you have had all terrains and you know your bike all too well, only to be taken by complete surprise by some tiny random issue. After the previous day’s climb, this morning started with a steep downhill. We followed up on a warning sign to check our brake pads before setting off. Thus far, our hydraulic brake pads easily lasted for more than 14.000 km. Suddenly, we discovered that our current brake pads were leaking. The combination of grid, snow, and the steep gradients with loaded bikes meant that our brake pads were wearing out by the hour, and we now noticed they were almost all finished. We only had four spare ones left (for the two of us, we need eight). We changed a few and continued our ride on the famous sky ridge through the clouds! The track became challenging, huge boulders blocked our way and this first part we were pushing/carrying our bike more than we were cycling. It took us hours to get 4 km further – downhill! Then, an hour later, Tom had his first spoke broken. We managed to repair this, our hands numb with cold. We then found out that Tom’s front brake pads were completely finished and tried to swap them for new ones, but somehow a bolt became stuck which we couldn’t remove anymore. Tom’s front brake was useless now. Not so convenient when there was still about 800m of descent ahead. We tried to spare our brakes as much as possible (we wouldn’t be able to buy new brakes until another week or so!) by using our feet as brakes too and all sorts of manoeuvres. But the cold and the challenging track made us tired, and most of all: Murphy’s law still applied. After another hour Tom couldn’t brake in time and flew headfirst into a creek, hitting his head. Fortunately, the biggest injuries were a cut in his eyebrow and a dent in a can of coconut cream (yes, he wore his helmet ;)). We decided to not tempt faith any more and called it a day. There happened to be a hut only 300m further down the track, we aimed for it and Tom spent another four hours wiggling the bolt before it finally let loose, so finally we could change his brake pads. Murphy’s law day was finally over! The next day the trail had us cycle through endless New Zealand bush and a beautiful river gorge, cycling over a super narrow trail covered with loose rocks that made every fiber in us vibrate non-stop. So, when the trail sign that marked the end of the Old Ghost came into view, it was a sense of accomplishment mixed with relieve that ran through us! What a track, what a challenge.
After the Old Ghost road, everyone (including the internet) told us that the Heaphy Track would be far easier and we pushed on towards the next track. The Heaphy Track offered us a totally different landscape and experience, cycling along deserted beaches that could easily have been the film set for Cast Away, between Nikau palms. We then climbed into the up to the huge plateau. The ever changing weather turned into mist and rain here, and as our progress was slower than expected, we ended up cycling in the dark to Saxton hut! The next day too turned into a misty day, but the landscape on the plateau, tussock and quite wet with several boardwalks to ride on made it another memorable ride. By now, we were at the Northern tip of the South Island, and again a new climate welcomed us. The area is named the “orchard of New Zealand”, endless lines of fruit trees lined the roads. Finally, it was slightly warmer again too.
We were so absorbed by the warmth, riding down from the mountains of the Heaphy Track towards Golden Bay with squeaky brakes, that we missed our biggest milestone of the trip. It was only 8 kilometers later, that we noticed: we had hit our ten million turns milestone! The name of our trip “ ten million turns” comes from a funny calculation Tom once did. With our 26 inch wheels, it would take us around ten million wheel turns (aka 20.500 km) to get to Auckland, New Zealand. He wasn’t too far off in that calculation! It was a strange realisation: the wheels that had moved us forward over the past 16 months, had now rolled ten million turns round to the other side of the world!
Ten million wheel turns further, ten million lessons further, ten million experiences richer, and still we kept learning new things. The first part of New Zealand after lockdown had been intense, we had had our hardships. However, the south island of New Zealand truly is a one of a kind. Never before have we seen such diversity in landscapes and climates over so little distance. It had been rugged and wild, but most of all: incredibly rewarding. Now, it was time for a well-deserved rest. We aimed for Motueka, where we would see two of our friends that we had met in Nepal a few years ago! More about that in our next blog.
Talk to you soon,
Tom and Sabine