Saturday, March 1, 2014

New Zealand: The Ups and Downs

New Zealand: Tour cycling paradise

Ask any tour cyclist and I can guarantee you that New Zealand is on their list of places to ride.  For me, it was one of those places that I always wanted to visit, but never had the right opportunity.  For hiking and biking you need to go during their summer, which was always my winter.  As a teacher this meant I was limited to 2 weeks, which wasn’t long enough to make the trip.  Therefore, New Zealand was a “must see” place on my route for The Loong Way Home.  Although my visit was just shy of a month, I got a taste of the country, enough to know that I want to return to ride, hike, and kayak!  Most cyclists I encountered were spending at least 2 or 3 months riding around New Zealand, and loads of them just focused on the south island, known as the more impressive island when it comes to natural beauty and astonishing scenery.

Here’s my take on cycling New Zealand’s south island, the ups (the good bits) and downs (not so good bits).

"Pancake Rocks" on the West Coast

The Ups
1. The Scenery: I’ve seen a lot of beautiful places on my trip so far from alpine mountains to lush tropical rain forests, and everything in between.  Every day riding I see something that makes me say, “Wow, beautiful!”  In New Zealand, that phrase comes out of my mouth every second.  In fact, if it weren’t for the massive flies and plump bees, my mouth would have been open the entire day while riding in awe of the scenery.  I spent 95% of my day riding next to the most unbelievable scenery: incredible peaks, bright blue skies contrasted by stark white clouds (on a sunny day), lush vegetation, trinkling or rushing waterfalls, and golden brown hills.  Even in the rain, the scenery is spectacular with a magical and mysterious low grey cloud coverage against the dark green backdrop.  I had such a hard time making a selection of photos at the end of a day because I took so many pictures.  Just as soon as I put my camera away, I had get it out again.  In the beginning, I was more reserve with all my ohs and awes, but in the end, I wasn’t shy, and belted out contently at the top of my longs as  I rode by what I consider the most beautiful part of my trip so far.

Nugget Point, The Catlins

2. Other Tour Cyclists: People told me I’d see a lot of tour cyclists in SE Asia, but I only encountered a couple handful of other fully loaded cyclists in the 3 months I was there.  Upon my arrival in New Zeland, I was told I would encounter loads of tour cyclists as well.  In the center of the island I found a few, maybe 2 or so daily, but on the west coast, I encountered on average 4 or 5 cyclists a day, sometimes as many as 10!  It was awesome!  In Asia I always stopped to chat with them because it was such a rare occurrence.  Here, sometimes we stopped, other times we continued pedaling, it all depended on the road, traffic, and our moods, I suppose.

Finally, another solo lady!

During one of my school visits in New Zealand I told the kids that I still hadn’t seen another solo female cyclist out on the road.  Wouldn't you know, the following day it happened.  At a lookout, I saw a cyclist pulled over.  From a distance, I couldn’t make out if it was a man or a woman, as I approached, I was certain it was another young lady and I asked her in disbelief, “Are you a lady, a solo female cyclist?”  Indeed she was, Kara Froese, Canadian, 21 years old tour cycling the south island for 3 months.  We cycled together for most of the difficult stretches to make our way over to the west coast, of course talking the entire way, making the route a breeze despite the grueling head wind.  Two days later I encountered another solo female, this time a 68 year old French woman on a recumbant bike, who does a constant 70 kilometers daily, a true inspiration to me.  The following day I met another young gal, Johanna, a 21-year-old Swedish girl. 

Be and Johan,...."famous people" for me

Out on the road I also met Be and Johan.  I had read their blog while staying with a Warm Showers host in Hanoi, who has also hosted them.  In fact, I planned my route in part on their suggestions from the SE Asia portion of their trip.  Not knowing where they were at the moment, I came across them on the west coast one afternoon.  For me, it was like spotting a famous person.  They were indeed famous in my book!  Also in the area was a Hungarian couple who I learned about from another host of mine from Thailand.  The couple is going around the world on recumbent bikes for a 2-year honeymoon.  If that is what marriage is like, sign me up! 

The world of tour cyclists is small and cycling New Zealand’s south island showed me that!

3.The Warm Showers Network: If you look at The Warm Showers map for New Zealand, you can hardly see the terrain below in some places because there are so many hosts in this country.  However, it isn’t the quantity of hosts that I found, but the quality.  So many of them have done heaps of touring themselves, so they know exactly what it is like to be on the road and therefore they are extremely accommodating.  In fact, many left their doors unlocked if they weren’t going to be at home so I could settle in when I arrived.  Others went off to work in the morning and left me there so I could go about things on my own schedule.  New Zealand hosts also have amazing stories and experiences to share, which made for quite entertaining conversations.  In a pinch, I even contacted a warm showers host by phone upon arriving in the same town and asked if I could stay that very night.  No problem.  My hosts here, warm showers and friends-of-friends, were truly hospitable and opened their homes to me in New Zealand.

Entertaining Warm Showers hosts, Don and Robyn in Westport

4. Campsites: There are campsites galore in New Zeland and a wide selection of accommodations for all types of budgets.  There are plenty of backpacker's hostels, although I never used them.  I would rather have my own space in my tent and fresh air.  The campsites were wonderful and most had free hot showers, kitchen facilities, and a lounge.  I was also guaranteed to have other cyclist company for the evening.
Looks flat, right? Wrong!  Uphill baby....all the way!

The Roads: A Bit of Both (Up and Down)
Although they literally go up and down relentlessly, for me, the hills are neither good nor bad, I like to climb although at times they got the best of me in New Zealand. There are few roads on the south island and most, if not all, are hilly.  It is impossible to find a flat stretch that lasts more than 500 meters.  In fact, the word hilly becomes relative and people describe the hills in comparison to the ones you’ve just come from in order to have some sort of reference.  Most parts weren’t steep, which I think is more challenging, because you feel as if you should be pedaling faster, but you can’t.  The highest mountain pass doesn’t compare to strenuous climbs in Europe, but for some reason, they were more challenging for me.  I always felt like the ups were longer than the downs, but I’m sure that is a biased opinion.  There were some incredibly steep parts and for these I had to do a lot of out loud cheering.  I got plenty of waves and honks from cars, vans, and trucks, but since I was climbing the majority of the time, I couldn’t take my hand off the handle bar to wave back.  75% of the traffic on the road I would say are tourists, which can be dangerous because most are not used to driving on the left side of the road.  This means they also can’t gauge the space on their left and lots of times come too close to me on my bike.  The roads do not have wide shoulders, many without a shoulder at all, so sharing the road can be dangerous.  Having said that, traffic on certain stretches is minimal which makes for pleasant riding. 

My worst enemy......

The Downs
1. The Sand Flies: Wow!  These little flies are nasty.  My parents encountered them first on the west coast and looked like they were wearing red poke-a-dotted pants on from all the bites.  I couldn't believe how they'd been eaten as I hadn't even seen them en route.  I thoughtfully gave them my insect repellent for the rest of their trip and headed west.  Foolish me, I got eaten alive!  If you are moving, they don't bother you.  The moment you stop pedaling you have about 30 seconds before you start getting attacked.  Repellent really doesn't work, unless you bathe yourself in Deet every 20 minutes.  Having a picnic lunch or sight seeing on the road is a real challenge.  You can stop, nibble a bit, then get started again.  Sometimes I found that if I danced around they wouldn't land on me, not great for digestion, I know.  New Zealand is very strict on the products you bring into their country so that you don't ruin their ecosystem.  Personally, I think that if they let more foreign products in, perhaps you'd introduce a predator insect so that the sand fly wouldn't devour the tourists.  

2. The Wind: As we cyclists say, let the wind be with you!  And in New Zealand, if it isn’t you are in for one tough day.  The wind here is so strong it can literally stop you while going downhill.  I went from an average of 23 to 27 kph on flats in Asia with no wind to an average of 13 kph with head wind in New Zealand.  Calculating my route times became depressing, I just couldn’t cover the kilometers I had in the past. My days were long, 7 to 8 hours in the saddle, and to not get frustrated by the howling, I listen to my ipod in one ear.  I know, not the safest option, but it kept me sane!

Bargain bread basket at New World, gotta love it

3. Steep Prices: Coming from SE Asia, where a coffee cost me 30 cents, lunch a dollar, and an average hotel room $5, I was in shock with Kiwi prices for the first week of my trip.  A week’s food budget in Asia lasted me a day in New Zealand.  The ohhing and awing I did with the scenery was similar to what came out of my mouth when I saw the prices over here. I gawked, my mouth dropped open, I couldn’t believe my eyes.  Prices are outrageous, but after cycling this vast country and seeing the limited network of roads, I understand why.  A cup of coffee is about $3,50, a sandwich $7, fruit was a luxury item in my diet, costing anywhere between $3 to $12 a kilo.  In the beginning I found myself eating the unhealthy options because they were cheaper but in the end I just accepted the prices and paid for the more healthy, nutritious food. A bonus to having my parents come from New Zealand was getting treated to restaurants, which I wouldn’t have eaten at on my own.  I tried some of New Zealands’s typical dishes and found myself cooking plenty while camping and staying with hosts.

4. Wifi: Again, after coming from SE Asia where free wireless is everywhere, I was shocked to arrive in New Zealand.  Their definition of “free” is slightly different.  For the kiwi’s, free means that they have a network connection but you have to a pay for an hourly or daily service.  In SE Asia, “free” wifi means exactly what it says, you can use their wireless network for an unlimited amount of time without paying a cent.  If I couldn’t find a free wifi area in Asia, at most I would have to go to KFC or Mc Donald’s and hang out there and use their network (rarely consuming anything), sometimes I would even turn on my wireless network finder and see which establishment had wireless and simply ask them if I could sign on.  I was never once denied internet in Asia upon request.  In New Zealand, I continually got rejected.  The best deal I could find was an occasional library with an hour connection for free or a McDonalds that had 60 cent ice cream cones with 30 minute wifi voucher.  It seems silly to have to pay for wireless on top of the fee you are paying for food or a campsite.  Customers and guests would be a lot happier if were all included in the price!

Overall, the ups outweight the downs for sure and I will definitely be back here to explore some more, even if it means wearing a full body sand fly protection suit.



1 comment:

  1. I love your New Zealand recap, you are so dead on with your observations, we've had similar thoughts and experiences. And you are definitely right, the scenery here just can't be beat! Enjoy Australia!