Through the Shire and up Mt. Doom: Our final days in New Zealand

Motueka (NZ) – Wanaka (NZ)  / 22101 km / 10.78 Million Turns /  June 13th – August 5th, 2020

There was one town marked on the list from the beginning: Motueka, where our friends Mark and Sarah lived in New Zealand. And the moment was finally there when we made a final left turn on their driveway.

We met Mark and Sarah in Nepal back in 2016 when doing a trek near Everest. As we were doing a practice run up a nearby hill to prepare for the pass crossing the next day, we stumbled upon each other at the (very clouded) summit, but immediately started chit-chatting. The next day, we decided to tackle the pass together, also given the warnings on internet and from locals that the trail is often a bit confusing, so better to be in a group. That pass-crossing day turned out to be a hell of a ride, with trail finding, descending down slippery snow-covered loose boulders, and to top it off, getting lost on a wide glacier looking for a (safe) way across. We (Sarah mostly) even considered swimming across the glacial lake and climb up a ice wall to make it, but to sum it up, the quote of the day was “for f* sake, please start listening; if you were a dog, I’d shoot you!”

Well you can imagine the getting-lost-on-a-Himalayan-glacier experienced but fortunately, in the end, succeeding made the bond between the four of us very tight and we hiked for a week together afterwards. As such, it was a natural choice to pay them a visit, while also getting some rest ourselves.

Motueka is known as the orchard of New Zealand, with loads of apples, hops for beer, and kiwifruit (kiwi is the name of an inhabitant, so the kiwis add the word ‘fruit’ to make sure one is talking about the green juicy kiwi, not an actual person, if you get the point). Not much cycling to plan here, but mostly a lot of rest, cleaning our bags (we had a ‘minor’ issue where Tom’s pannier was full of stinky deer blood, long story but true) and catching up on each other’s lives. And a mandatory game of Catan of course every morning, afternoon and evening. It was a great leisure time, where we got to see the area around, meet Mark and Sarah’s family and had some proper relaxing time.

Still, we’re in New Zealand so that means that after every few days of relaxing it is ‘tramping’ time again (A tramp is the kiwi word for hike and stay in a hut). Motueka is close to Kahurangi National Park, one of the largest and remotest parks of New Zealand. As Mark works for the Department of Conservation (DOC), he can access the ‘warden’s hut’ near the highest peak. This small perk meant we had a fully equipped hut all for ourselves. A good surprise awaited us though when we opened the door; a giant fat rat was caught in the trap set just for this case. Rats are a rampant pest in New Zealand so there was a big cheer from Mark and Sarah as there was one less on the island now.

With the rat taken care of, we made ourselves comfortable and got the fire going. The next day we hiked up the highest point of the park, Mount Arthur, a tabletop summit where you could look almost a 100 km in all directions. Stunning views and a perfect closing of our time together.

As final cherry on the cake Mark and Sarah offered us their holiday cottage in Saint Arnaud, on the shores of lake Rotoiti, an offer so generous we were very happy to accept. It did take another 100 km back up into the mountains, but time was still on our hands, since the entire world except New Zealand was just getting out of heavy covid lockdowns, so we couldn’t go anywhere soon.

Lake Rotoiti again was a marvelous place, where the mountain range of the Southern Alps starts, so you are right at the beginning of the higher mountains. Same old story but it never gets boring, hiking up to viewpoints for two days and taking in the views of this magnificent island. It would be our final days on the South Island and we were already missing it, even though we hadn’t left yet. It was still two days of cycling, down from St. Arnaud to Blenheim, a 100-km straight as an arrow road with, yes, headwinds all the way (hurray!). Fortunately, again like always, we were warmly greeted by our Warmshowers hosts, Rene and Leonie. And if you now think, those are not really kiwi names, you’re right, because we could speak Dutch again for a long time! Rene and Leonie moved here 30 years back, looking for more space and a deeper connection with nature. We spent another wonderful evening with strangers that became friends.

   

Most likely, the higher beings that rule the South Island really did not want us to leave the next day, because 10 km before the port where the ferry leaves for the North Island, Tom had a blow-out of his rear tyre. With a hole as large as this thumb, cycling onwards was no option, but fortunately, in the pouring rain, we were able to reach Leonie who gave Tom a lift for the last stretch. With a done-for tyre, Tom had a bit of a Catch-22 situation on the boat, since we were only allowed to cycle on the boat with a bicycle, but not walk with a bike (Kiwis are very strict on safety rules). So the security looked a bit baffled what to do with a bike you couldn’t cycle on; it can’t go on the bus as other pedestrians, but also not on the cycle lane as cyclists. After some heavy debating, Tom was allowed to board the ferry via the freight truck in the end. A final goodbye to the South!

..

Welcome to… Windy Wellington! The country’s capital is actually very livable, with a minute high-rise business centre, but most of all a lot of green and forests just outside the main city. However, the local city marketing slogan printed on the buses couldn’t have put it more aptly: “Horizontal torrential rain and hurricane winds, if you still live here, you must love Wellington like no other place”. The weather was indeed windy and wet, but our Warmshowers hosts Rodney & Marilyn and later Hugh & Ismene put on the heater to get us warmed up again. Wellington was our first ‘city’ again after Melbourne, although it is ten times smaller and felt a lot more like a sprawled out town. Enough to see and do however, with the National Museum Te Papa and the natural ecosystem park of Zealandia as highlights.

After having ordered a new tyre, our bikes were ready to rumble again, and we made our way up north, again blasted by showers and heavy winds, but we had to deal with that most kiwis said. It’s winter and it’s the North Island, no protection of high mountains here that will shield any storms. We meandered up through rolling hills, sheep pastures and landscapes that were a near copy of Lord of the Rings ‘Hobbitshire’, making it a pretty cycling route, but not as exciting as the vastness of the South. Three things that stood out in a negative sense: The weather (heavy winds and showers), the elevation profiles (tens of small climbs of 50-80 m instead of a proper, gradual pass) and the driving (horrible, sorry kiwis, it just is).

Although we could avoid for the most part the busy Highway 1, in the end we had to surrender ourselves too and in the rain and hail cycle along New Zealand’s busy road, still a two-lane though. We were making our way to the volcanic centre of the North Island, Tongariro National Park. Covered in thick grey clouds, it didn’t look too promising. That night was one of the hardest ones as well. After a short stop at a gas station to cover for the heavy rainfall, we decided to cycle out to find a campspot but since a lot was fenced off and it was pouring, we headed up the first dead-end road we spotted, which ended up right near the railway track. In the pouring rain, next to the thundering noise of trains passing by, we pitched the tent. To add to the coziness, it was the first and only time our stove stopped working, so we could eat a half finished pasta sauce without any pasta. We gave up, when the next day the continually falling rainfall turned into snow and we booked a hostel bed to warm up, fix the stove and dry our stuff.

Luckily, all storms pass and the result was a magical sight, the entire country turned white! We were overtaken by thousands of cars with skis on the rooftop, it was the first day of the season and for many kiwis, that only meant one thing: drive as fast as you can up an active volcano for some snow time. Although alluring, our budget and lack of stuff made it a bit difficult for us to go, but the hike in the Tongariro National Park was still stunning. We walked towards Mt. Ngauruhoe (good luck with pronunciation), better known as Mount Doom as it was the filming location of the last scenes of Lord of the Rings. Not much orcs and lava to be seen now, it was all quiet and white as a snowflake. The Tongariro Park was definitely our highlight of the North Island, although we arrived soaking wet and left with numb fingers due to the cold, we wouldn’t have wanted to miss it.

Next up was the Timber Trail, a cycling trail right through the last remaining patches of Jurrasic Park-like virgin forests of New Zealand. In many places, the forests have turned into coniferous types, the ones we know from Europe and America as well, mostly planted for logging and timber industry. However, the old virgin forests are more like cold jungles, with ferns, palms, vines, mosses and all other kinds of very moisture loving plants. It is so thick you cannot see for more than a few metres and the forest is most likely filled with many mysteries. The Timber Trail follows an old mining railway that cut right through, and as such you can cycle pretty comfortably on a wide trail whilst still feeling to be somewhere far away from civilization. The trail is also home to the largest suspension bridges of the country, creating the feeling you are flying over the canopy. We went over them not once but three times often, for the experience and some drone shots.

Since we’ve mentioned it was wet quite a number of times here, we’d like to skip writing about the entire next 7 days where it was also raining to keep up the good spirits and fast forward to again a sunny day. And it was (partly, it did rain for an hour or so), also for the reason we’d today reach our ‘official’ finish of Auckland! What a surreal feeling, and what an anti-climax as well. There wasn’t anything or anyone waiting in that big city for us making it a natural end to our travel; Amsterdam to Auckland just sounded nice. But in the end, all trips need an end, although we already knew there would be a pretty long encore still. We took our finish line pictures, did a high-five but that was that. Before flying off back to Europe, we would spend 10 days in a silent retreat (Vipassana mediation) just north of Auckland. Again a whole different experience which made a lasting impression to both of us, but that’s food for another blog.

After being completely Zen and re-energized, we had our usual routine left: finding bike boxes (this time remarkably easy), dismantling the bikes and arranging transport to the airport. We’d be going home, at least, close to home! With a tear in the corner of our eyes we lifted off from Auckland Airport, the first stretch of three flights, back West. In little over a day, we would have made undone by roaring jet engine a distance it took a year to cross by human power.

We cannot finish this blog without mentioning all the great people that hosted and helped us during our time in New Zealand. A bit longer than planned, but that made all the difference in really soaking up all this country has to offer. ‘In order of appearance’: Kelly & Michael, Ester, Neil, Rafa, Richard, Janet, Fleur & Neil, Mark & Sarah, Rene & Leonie, Rodney & Marilyn, Hugh & Ismene, George, Kate, Pete & Eva, Anneke & Tane. Without you we would have washed away in the rain, frozen our fingers to icicles and most likely needed to have spent lockdown in a tent instead of a cozy home. Thanks a million!

Tom & Sabine

 

 

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