Queenstown (NZ) – Wanaka (NZ) / 18654 km / 9.09 Million Turns / March 1st – March 19th, 2020
Airport nights. One way or another they will always be remembered for a long while after, and not necessarily for good reasons. Our flight to New Zealand from Melbourne was due to depart at 6 in the morning and with the expected complications of checking in two bikes, we thought we’d be better off staying the night (again!) at Melbourne airport. After thoroughly weighing our bags and getting rid of all possible items that were not essential to keep under the weight restrictions, we were so nackered when the plane lifted off that before we knew it, we landed at Queenstown airport. Fortunately, we had a window seat and New Zealand, or Aotearoa as the country goes by her Maori name, wasn’t all too shy to show off some her pristine beauty. Far off we could discern the highest peak of Mount Cook already, while directly below us loomed Mount Aspiring and Lake Wakatipu (get used to tongue-twisting names in the upcoming blogs as Maori names are very poetical but also unpronounceable sometimes).
Anyway, although still very tired from the stressful night at Melbourne airport, we did have a goal to reach once we landed in Queenstown: getting the hell out of that place as soon as we could. New Zealand is expensive, but Queenstown tops it all, and cheapskates we were (had become?), we didn’t want to spend our entire weekly budget on a single night in a scruffy dorm bed here. There was one escape card though, getting across Lake Wakatipu, towards a free campsite we only heard great reviews about. The only difficulty was that the last boat of the day would depart at 4 in the afternoon. It was 11:30 when we landed, and we still had to assemble our bikes (estimated time: 2,5 hours), get to the supermarket (30 minutes ride) do groceries (45 minutes of running through the aisles) and getting to the ferry (30 minutes). Should fit right? In the end, we hopped on at 15:59, and the boat, an old steam-powered vessel, departed with us on it. We high fived each other, enjoyed the amazingly good weather and views and still panted heavily from the stressful last 18 hours of transiting, but the free campsite of Walter Peak everyone was so lyrical about was a true gem indeed. No sense of time except the ferry hopping over from Queenstown, no-one around except from a few other cyclists, total calmness, and some of the most amazing views. We even had a barbecue at our disposal. No surprise we stayed a couple of extra days here to let it all sink in and be one with this special place.
Walter Peak was the start of our New Zealand ride, expected to be 2 months, but in hindsight, we’d be here just a wee (another kiwi word) longer. But we didn’t have any clue about that at this stage: skies were blue except for some high altitude cirrus clouds, and tourism was at its peak, except for the fact Chinese were already banned from entering. But of course, one could have known better. Just like cirrus clouds precede bad weather, so does one covid case precede heavy restrictions; we were however still without worries and fully immersed in the ride.
Straightaway, New Zealand reminded us of one country we cycled through before: Kyrgyzstan, coincidently also one of our favourites. Sheep, golden grasslands, mighty snow-capped peaks and crystal-blue rivers. The countries could be cousins in one way. After several days of cycling through the Southland region, the similarities with Kyrgyzstan faded a little. It was a few days of riding through classic rural farmland with rolling pastures and less wilderness, but then, we followed the Clutha river upstream, it only took an hour before we thought it might well be Canada instead of New Zealand. Big coniferous trees, a raging river, this looked exactly like the Rocky Mountains! This small country seems to be jampacked with all the best natural scenery of the world, but then combined on one island. We’d already seen the golden grass of Kyrgyzstan, the wild forests of Canada, but would encounter places that looked like Jurassic Park or Mount Fuji or the Alps or Hawaii! It doesn’t do justice though to state New Zealand is just a big copycat of all those unique places. New Zealand itself is those places too. It is everything the world has to offer, all in a big David Attenborough-like documentary. We knew we were in the right place to experience more natural beauty and adventure.
Our first rest day was in the town of Alexandra with Warmshowers hosts Kelly and Michael, who had ridden in South America for a while and were now living in a tiny house. We got an introduction into this lifestyle, where your living space is not more than about 30m2 for two persons, but all is incredibly efficiently organised. We got to sleep in a tipi-tent outside. It was also that weekend that coronavirus hit the Netherlands for the first time. We were a bit naïve still that we were safe but heard from our hosts that New Zealand’s numbers were rising steadily too (already 8 cases!). Actually, it was then that we realised Japan would most likely not be an option anymore. In our unperturbed states, our solution was to…. rebook flights to South America instead! Chile or Brazil seemed like good places to avoid the virus. Fortunately, plans weren’t pursued further than checking the Skyscanner app.
After Alexandra, it was time for a little detour up north to visit the highest mountain of the country, Mount Cook. There’s a well-laid out cycle trail towards it which we were happy to follow since the NZ roads are somewhat problematic to cycle over. No hard shoulder, two narrow lanes only, and a speed limit of a 100 km/h are not ideal circumstances for a fragile cyclist versus a steel car. So, these gravel trails were ideal, if they went in the desired direction of course. We did notice on the route description of this cycle trail that it crossed the glacier river delta at a certain point, but there wasn’t any bridge. No problem for Kiwis though: Just charter a chopper! That will only set you back about 200 euros each, but hey, it does let you avoid the road. Arranging choppers for recreational activities is something quirky about kiwi culture, but considered very normal. You can charter a chopper to go skiing (heliskiing), hiking (helihiking), and cycling (heli-well you get the picture).
None of that was targeted to us cheap cycle tourers though, so we took the road up across the other side of the river to avoid having to arrange a chopper. It was one of the most beautiful roads we ridden on the trip, most likely top-5, with a light blue glacial lake on the left and the mighty peak of Mount Cook right in front. The view is the same though for car drivers though and sometimes they do forget there are other, slower, types of traffic on the road, like cyclists. We were warned by the police who stopped us that what we were undertaking was EXTREMELY dangerous, and that we should be VERY careful for all these maniacs on the road. A bit reluctantly replying that we already cycled through India and the Himalayas didn’t change his point of view. This is NEW ZEALAND I’m talking about, drivers are the biggest IDIOTS in the ENTIRE WORLD! Well, we couldn’t state we weren’t warned. With extra yellow jackets we rode on, aware and alert.
Mount Cook proved to be fully worth the detour though. Although we couldn’t undertake the famous Muller hut hike, from where you have the best views, due to heavy winds, the Hooker valley proved to be a nice alternative instead, although it was a bit of a walk in the park with hundreds of other tourists. Fortunately, we finally had official consent to wild camp legally in New Zealand, as we were first extremely confused by what the rules were. Turns out, it sort of is made confusing in a way to keep people from doing it, after we asked at the visitor centre of the National Park. But with a tent, for one night, 200 m away from an official path and without leaving any trace, we were allowed to camp. ‘Nuff said, we took out our dear Hilleberg tent and stuffed it in a rented backpack to have a night up close Mount Cook.
While camping near the ridge of the mountain, Tom was looking at the map (not surprising) and noticed we were only 20 kilometres separated from the West Coast road which we would be cycling a couple of days later. The only issue was that to cross that 20 km, we had to cycle more than 450 km all the way down south to Wanaka and onwards Haast Pass, and then up again. Crossing this wall of rock and ice was impossible and no roads crossed here, even on foot it was considered an expert pass to cross. While riding into the beautiful town of Wanaka afew days later, we did our groceries to prepare for that West Coast part of our adventure. It was March 19th, 2020, and all oatmeal, toilet paper, and pasta were sold out. The rest is history…
Tom & Sabine