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Riding New Zealand: South Island

In part two, Athena tours south from Marlborough > Milford Sound, finishing up in Queenstown

Up until this point in my life, I had severely overused the word ‘epic’. It took my cycling through New Zealand to realise this, since there is nothing quite as epic as descending towards Tekapo and seeing the most vividly blue water that you could ever imagine, or hiking beneath New Zealand’s highest peak, Mount Cook, whilst snow fell in early summertime, or diving into the crystal clear waters of the mountain-framed Lake Hawea. New Zealand epitomises the word ‘epic’ like nothing or nowhere else I had ever been, or anything I’d ever experienced. I spent two months cycling around the South Island and it really was unforgettable…

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My eyes are closed and my jacket is zipped up tightly over my neck. I sit on deck in the light rain with my head in my hands, whilst a bitter wind whips at my face and sneaks into the tiny gaps in my clothes. I rock forwards and backwards as the boat hits the waves, whose crashes send salty sea spray onto the deck, into my eyes and hair. Breathe in and out, I tell myself, in and out. There is a lull in the ferry’s undulating, so I raise my head and open my eyes to a grey and green landscape. It is the first sighting of New Zealand’s South Island and passengers start filtering onto the deck to take photos of the approach into Picton. Never mind photos, all I want is to put my feet on solid ground and pedal off this damn ferry and the seasickness in my stomach…

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I fell asleep that night with the rain tapping on my tent to be woken the next morning by the sun’s early glow filtering through my green rain-fly. I made porridge on my camping stove as I always do (laden with honey and banana) and sipped my morning coffee while packing my belongings into my pannier bags in the exact order that I have always packed them for the last three months. My day-to-day routine has remained the same, but on certain days I had a different feeling in my stomach; the feeling one only gets when something new and unknown is about to happen. That feeling of ‘I have no idea what I’m doing but it’s going to be great’. Pedalling away from Picton, up onto the Queen Charlotte Drive, that particular feeling raged as strong as ever. My wheels were spinning on new land; I was well again and breathing in the South Island.

The Marlborough Sounds are somehow both perfectly formed and wildly rugged; calm, blue waters scattered with islands of tropical forest protruding out of the water like hump-back whales coming up for air. My Garmin only read 2.91 miles before I waved my right arm and pulled into the side of the road again. It may have been the sixth time I had stopped already but I could not help myself – the sun was on my skin and I wanted to live those moments for as long as possible; I fell in love with the South Island instantly. From the emerald waters of the Marlborough Sounds I headed north to the golden sands of Abel Tasman National Park, before turning south to the alpine lakes of the Nelson Lakes National Park. Each day I pedalled amidst a new, unique landscape and everyday I grew even

more affection for this incredible island.

However, as the scenery became more epic so did the weather, and on the morning that I was due to begin the Alpine crossing from the West Coast to East, over Arthur’s Pass (920m), the menacing sky quickly burst into torrential rain and 80mph gusts of wind. I was quickly soaked through my two raincoats and I could barely see the road in front of me as the water sprayed from my wheels and off my helmet. There was no shelter in sight so I battled on, cycling further and further away from civilisation until I physically and mentally could not go any further, stumped without an idea about what to do. Ten minutes later I stumbled into a roadside pub; my face red and stinging from the battering wind and tears that I couldn’t quite hold back. All I could think to do was order a coffee, clamber over to the table nearest the fireplace and sit in a daze while the rain seeped out of my sodden clothes, creating a pool of water at my feet. What am I doing? I ask myself over and over again. And what am I going to do?

What I’ve discovered about travelling by bicycle is that life on the road confines you to the moment. Right then in that pub was the lowest low of my whole trip, but a few hours later I was warm and dry, and relieved to accept a lift from a kind stranger to the summit of the Pass. Then the next day, with the wind behind me, I wanted nothing more than to travel like this forever – special moments soaring effortlessly through the mountains; tiny amongst such a humbling landscape.

"From the emerald waters of the Marlborough Sounds I headed north to the golden sands of Abel Tasman National Park, before turning south to the alpine lakes of the Nelson Lakes National Park...a new, unique landscape...everyday"

In Christchurch I took a week off the bike to recharge and rejuvenate, and when I was ready to set off again, my two wheels were joined by two more. Marty – who I met while cycling in America – was not put off by my daily moaning about the relentless headwinds and hills and so, with a slightly lighter load than my own, he joined me on the road to Mount Cook. Each day we pedalled towards the looming Southern Alps – Marty was fresh off the plane with an old film camera in hand, so was constantly convincing me to stop more to appreciate the ride, whereas I was already too excited for the destination at this stage of my trip. We rode through Mackenzie Country (the place my mum loved so much that she had named my brother after it) where the hills were rolling and sheep were a-plenty. The roadsides were laden with wild fuscia and violet, and the lakes were the bluest of blues I had ever seen. Arriving on the shores of Tekapo, we lay in the dirt and stared into the dazzling darkness above as stars shot through the sky. Then, once we had made it into Mount Cook National Park, we hiked across swing bridges and beneath white-topped mountains shrouded in cloud as snow fell around us. The

roads were virtually empty but for our wheels. Observing the snowy peaks in the distance beneath the moody sky, I felt like this faraway corner of New Zealand was our own little secret; a hidden mystery.

From Mount Cook we headed South to Queenstown – New Zealand’s adventure and tourist hub. Though undeniably beautiful – floating at the edge of a deep blue, mountain-framed lake – this party town was somewhat overwhelming, so we escaped with a day exploring sleepy Arrowtown and a trip to the wildly rugged Milford Sound. The latter, for me, was like stepping into another world; any minute you’d expect a pterodactyl to soar over the cliff-tops or something resembling the Loch Ness monster to poke its head above the water beside the boat. Tropical trees and plants were growing out of jagged cliffs as crashing waterfalls fell mysteriously from somewhere high above. The clouds remained low, forming an eerie blanket over our heads and confining us to this mystical world that seemed impossibly far away from reality, just for an hour or two.

"...the roads were virtually empty but for our wheels. Observing the snowy peaks in the distance beneath the moody sky, I felt like this faraway corner of New Zealand was our own little secret; a hidden mystery."

As a final farewell, the Land of the Long White Cloud became cloudless and the sun shone bright and glorious on our final week in New Zealand. We woke up on Christmas Eve on a grassy bank beside the clear, crisp waters of Lake Hawea, and spent Christmas Day slowing down in dreamy Wanaka. On Boxing Day, we loaded the bikes for one last time to take on the infamous Crown Range Pass (1076m), an implacable 20 mile climb to take us back to Queenstown. When I stood at the summit that day, mountain high, with two wheels beneath me and my two panniers fully-loaded, I felt lost in the moment once more. I had everything I needed in life right there with me. I was not dwelling on yesterday or worrying about tomorrow, all I was thinking about was the warmth of the sun, and the thrill of the imminent descent; those carefree feelings. And then Marty and I were two birds once more, stretching our wings, turning our legs and soaring downwards, back towards reality.

END

NOTES
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Time/Season
I travelled through New Zealand October-December.

Bike
I’ve been touring on a Condor Fratello (which I adore) with a Brooks C17S saddle, Shimano 105 groupset, hand-built Mavic wheels, and a Tubus Logo rack.

Luggage
I have two Ortlieb Back Roller panniers, an Ortlieb dry bag on the top of my rack, and a small handlebar bag.

Tent
MSR Hubba Hubba (2-man) light, freestanding, easy to set up, and very spacious for one person.

Maps
Take maps for sure, especially if you want to explore off the beaten track, but you can easily get by picking up free maps from any tourist information centre – they give all the main tourist routes and roads…

Camping/Accommodation
I’d recommend downloading the mobile app Campermate. It uses your location to find campsites and gives you details of price, facilities and reviews for each campsite. There are masses of campsites to choose from in New Zealand. Most privately owned ones cost between $15-25 NZD or the official DOC (government owned) campsites which are in general more basic but scenic cost between $5-15 NZD. There are also a lot of hostels and backpacker lodges which are pretty cheap (approx. $30 for a dorm room) and a nice option on a wet or windy night.

Coffee
You won’t struggle to find a decent cup of coffee in New Zealand. There are plenty of independent coffee shops in even the smallest of towns with excellent coffee, cake and lunch selections.

Tyres
A lot of the cycle paths and recommended bike routes in New Zealand feature gravel tracks so it may be worth getting slightly thicker tyres (cyclo-cross tyres would do the job). I had slick tyres so had to stick to the tarmac, which was never a real problem but did limit my options.

Traffic
At the time of year I was in New Zealand (October to December) the roads were in general a lot quieter than the UK. You will notice however a lot of large farming trucks – especially logging trucks – which I didn’t find to be particularly wary of giving space to cyclists or slowing down at all when they passed. I had no serious issues, but it is worth being aware and maybe fitting your bike with a small mirror so you can see them approaching.

Ferry
Once you get to Wellington you need to take a ferry over to Picton to get to the South Island. There are two ferry companies, Interislander and Bluebridge. Both are roughly the same price and it only cost me $10 extra on Bluebridge for my bike. I booked a couple of days in advance, but you may need to book earlier at busier times of year.

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