Bike tour part three

Friday, May 25, 2012

The Otago Central Rail Trail

The Otago Central Rail Trail is pretty much a cyclist's dream. Just imagine: a road, with a maximum grade of 2%; gorgeous scenery, with bridges and tunnels; no motorized traffic allowed; and a pub ever 12 km. It's almost too good to be true.

We kept hearing about this mythical land of milk and honey while we were in Dunedin, so we decided to go check it out. However, between Dunedin and Middlemarch (the start of the trail) are some of the most vicious hills described in our wonderful guidebook. We opted for the "historic train" option, which goes to Middlemarch one day of the week, and Pukerangi (20 km shy of Middlemarch) on all the other days.

Due to our decision to see the penguins on our last evening in Dunedin, we spent the night in a cozy little cabin on a farm on the Otago Peninsula. Penguin Place is a good 40 km from the city centre, so splitting the difference and staying out on the peninsula meant that we only had 20 km of terrifying night cycling on the winding bay road. It also meant that we had another 20 km to go in the morning before the 9 AM train ride. Fortunately, we set out early enough to fight through a stiff headwind and get to the train station in time to enjoy a delicious pie from the farmer's market.

The Taieri Gorge Railway was a fun experience in itself. The train was nearly empty, and it's clearly used as a tourist sightseeing adventure rather than a transportation tool. I'm guessing that it might not be too many more years before it disappears, which would be sad; but then again, it might get converted to cycling trail. In any case, at the present it is indeed a train. Here's photographic evidence.

Looking back down the Tairi Gorge

At Pukerangi we got off the train and started getting our bike gear in order. The train then turned around and took its shipment of tourists back to Dunedin, and we were left alone in the middle of nowhere. I'm not sure what we were expecting, but it is rather odd for a train to have a destination that consists of a hut and a portapotty.

Pukerangi: the end of the line.

From Pukerangi it was 20 km of "mostly gravel and occasionally steep" deserted roads passing through farmers' fields on the way to Middlemarch. We reached the beginning of the rail trail at about 2 pm, and conveniently managed to give our camping gear to a tour company. This left us with only two panniers each to deal with on the (mountain bike recommended) trail. We set out in blissful vehicle-free silence and easily covered the 27 km to Hyde in under two hours.

The start of the rail trail!
Bridges are fun.

We reached Hyde just as it was starting to get pretty cold, and managed to snag a room at the only establishment in town. It was also the most expensive place we stayed at, and we shared a massive buffet dinner with a group of retirees who had almost finished their guided tour down the trail in the opposite direction, and who had chosen the tour company primarily based on their food offerings.

The Historic Hyde Hotel

The second day of rail trail adventures came with more interesting scenery, such as tunnels!

Riding into the tunnel!
Tunnels are dark. We actually walked the bikes, aside from these photo ops.

Day two was also our first encounter with the famous South Island Nor'wester (similar to the Chinook back home). Unfortunately, at this point in the trail, we were heading North west. Combined with the very slight uphill, we only managed to go about 8 kilometers per hour in Granny gear. When we rounded a corner and had the wind from the side briefly, I actually got blown off my bike. Yikes. Fortunately, the bridges/viaducts have railings:

I don't know what makes a viaduct different from a bridge.
Waipiata Man!
You'd never know there's a gale-force wind blowing right now.
Uh oh, those clouds don't look good...
We're at the peak! Too bad the wind doesn't slow down too...
We crossed over the 45th parallel (S) twice.

We reached Oturehua (Oh-ter-ee-HU-ah) just as the first fat droplets of rain were beginning to fall. We found ourselves as the sole occupants of the Crow's Nest Hostel, and had a nice relaxing evening with a bottle of unlabelled wine (purchased from the hostel owner), a deck of cards, and Whiskey.

Ryan loves Whiskey

After a night of pounding rain, Whiskey woke us up bright and early to a surprisingly sunny morning. The wind had shifted to a strong (and COLD) South Westerly, and we had also begin heading South West. Sigh. Apparently there's a reason most people did the trail in the opposite direction.

Another viaduct.
Tunnel 13! We didn't actually pass through 13 tunnels...
The view from the cockpit.

We had planned to finish the trail on the third day and spend the night in Clyde at the end of the line. However, by the time we'd fought through the (now bitterly cold) headwind to Alexandra, the rain had started up again and it was starting to get dark. Though we only had 8 km to go, we decided to hole up in Alex and hope for better weather in the morning. Fortunately, we got it! It didn't get any warmer, but our last 8 km of rail trail took about 30 minutes in the calm and beautiful morning.

We did it! 150 km of gravel and headwinds.

Thus concludes our rail trail adventure. Though less idyllic than anticipated due to the headwinds, it was gorgeous and a great break from the traffic and undersized shoulders of New Zealand highways. To anyone considering biking the rail trail: Highly recommended, but if you have a choice, pick West to East!

Finally, you can stamp a passport along the way at each former railway station. I didn't have the official passport, but I stamped my journal.

Stamps from Stationmaster Ryan!

Bike tour part two

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Dunedin and Otago Peninsula

Dunedin gets a post all to itself, as we spent three whole nights there. Aside from the 12-hour stay in Christchurch, Dunedin was the biggest city we stayed in by far, and also one of our favourite places. There were just so many things that we planned to do here, including visiting the Speight's brewery, going up the steepest hill in the world, and seeing penguins!

After a successful escape from Christchurch via bus, we arrived in Dunedin just in time for businesses to open up in the afternoon of Anzac Day. Anzac Day is basically the same as Remembrance Day, except instead of marking the end of the war, it occurs on the day of the first military action by Australian and New Zealand troops. While the dawn cermonies were long past by the time we emerged from our bus, we wandered around for a while and happened across the war memorial, which was being visited by other cyclists:

Cyclists pay their respects. Note the high-vis vests!

Dunedin reminds me of sort of a combination of Guelph and Victoria. It's a university town with the corresponding concentration of pubs and bars, but it's also right on the ocean and very picturesque. We found ourselves in a private room of a very friendly hostel right in the middle of downtown, and then set out to discover some of the features of the city. First stop: the Cadbury factory! Unfortunately, it was too late for us to take a tour, but we were allowed in to the "exclusive-access" gift shop.

So much chocolate!
This would be more exciting if I liked Cruchies.

The next day we hopped on our blissfully unloaded bikes and headed up. the 300 m hill to "New Zealand's only castle". As castles go, it wasn't particularly exciting, but the bike ride and the views were spectacular. Here's some pictures!

Taking a break on the way up
Guardian lions. Roar.
This view reminds me of the view from the 100 hills area on Saltspring, but with fewer trees.

We'd pre-booked into the Speight's brewery tour the night before, as it's popular enough that you can't just show up and expect to get in. For good reason, too - it's probably the best brewery tour I've ever been on, with a whole museum describing the history and the evolution of beer making techniques. A lot of the equipment is original, if repurposed, such as these old mash tuns that are now used to store water:

Beautiful old copper mash tuns.
Our enthusiastic tour guide.

It also helped that our tour guide was particularly entertaining. When it came to the drinking portion of the tour (the part where they put you in a room with beer taps and a time limit), she encouraged us to pour beer liberally and not care about waste. "If you don't like it, just tip it out, don't worry." I only had to tip out one of them... for a national-brand beer, Speight's is pretty decent.

Mmmmm, beer. And cider.

The next morning we biked over to the north end of town to check out the world's steepest hill (38% grade!). It's really hard to capture steepness in a photo, but I'm going to attempt it. I did not, however, attempt to bike up it. We made it almost as far as the asphalt/concrete line, which is nowhere near the steepest section.

Ryan giving up the bike attempt.

Even walking up this road is tricky enough that instead of a sidewalk, there's stairs. That's steep!

The steepest section just drops away.
Walking back down on the sidewalk stairs.

One of the major reasons we wanted to visit Dunedin was to visit the penguins. We would have been happy to see any penguins, but we were especially fortunate to be able to visit the rarest type: yellow-eyed penguins. There's apparently only 4000 of them in the world, and they can't be adapted to live in zoos. They're really picky about their nesting habits, as they can't breed in sight of each other (kind of like humans...) and so there's only a few beaches acceptible to their lifestyle. Fortunately, one of them (Penguin Place) is protected by a private conservation effort, fully funded by people like us who go hide in trenches and watch the penguins come in from fishing journeys in the evening.

The Penguin Place beach.
Our first view of a yellow-eyed penguin!

Penguin Place was an fantastic experience. My only regret is not having a better zoom! This is an extreme crop, as close as I could get.

This guy waddled up the path and kept turning around to call to his buddy! So adorable.

Bike Tour Days 1-3

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Kaikoura, Waiau, Amberley, Christchurch

Welcome to number one of six blog posts on my (and Ryan's) first big bike tour! In total we biked 20 days out of 26 and covered 1100 kilometers of New Zealand's beautiful South Island. We started at Jacqui and Scott's home in Kaikoura, and following the incredibly useful Pedaller's Paradise guidebook, took the scenic inland Alpine Pacific Triangle route headed South. For each of these posts, you'll find a map and an elevation profile at the top left describing the current segment (okay, I'm a bit of a nerd). First day's destination: Mt. Lyford!

We set out at the crack of 10 following an enormous breakfast of banana- and nutella-filled crèpes. With fresh legs and first-day eagerness, we sailed up hill after hill, swooping around switchbacks and learning to deal with 75+ pounds of loaded bike. We stopped for a break after about 30 km, and I pulled out my camera to record the beautiful mountain scenery, only to find that I'd left the battery on the charger back in Kaikoura. Oops.

Sadly camera-less, we plugged on until lunch became necessary. We were sitting by the side of the road marvelling at the lack of traffic when we saw a colourful van chugging up the hill towards us. Fortunately, Jacqui and Scott had realized my mistake and had driven down the road to find us! They covered our 4-hour journey in about half an hour, and brought popsicles in addition to the camera battery. Yummy! You can read their version of the day at their blog :)

I don't know why Ryan looks so upset in this picture

The rest of the afternoon was fairly uneventful, with beautiful sunshine and perfect quiet roads.

Peace and Quiet
Ryan looking at sheep

We arrived at Mt. Lyford lodge after about 60 kilometers. The sign advertised a spa (hot tub), in addition to hot food and a place to sleep - perfect! My knees were starting to feel the combined strain of the weight and the hills, and we were just plain tired after doing physical activity for the first time in an embarassing while. We pulled in to the driveway and found a chain across the parking lot entrance. I was too sad to even take a picture.

After the disappointment of Mt. Lyford, we pressed on the next 23 km to Waiau, which supposedly had a hotel and a motor camp (or "holiday park" - basically campground/cabin/shower/kitchen complexes that you can find throughout New Zealand). We rolled in to town just as the sun was disappearing behind the mountains, only to find that the holiday park was also closed! Apparently travelling in the off season has its downsides.

Next we tried the Waiau hotel, which was open, but didn't have any rooms. Apparently hotel can mean "pub". The bartender sent us back to the holiday park, where we fortunately found someone to talk to. The guy that was looking after the owners' dogs unlocked the showers and let us set up camp! With a fair bit of relief we set up camp, showered, and went back to the pub for burgers and chips.

Camping at Waiau Motor Camp - cold!

After Waiau we merged on to the main highway and encountered more than our share of logging trucks and milk trucks. It was a fairly stressful ride after the previous day, and sore muscles, sore knees, and general tiredness from sleeping in the cold didn't help. However, it was still a gorgeous summery day, and we saw some fun stuff along the way to Amberley, like Frog Rock:

Frog Rock. This is actually marked as a feature in the guidebook.
Ryan is happy now, see?

We arrived in Amberley feeling somewhat better, as most of the trip was downhill and it was only about 60 km. Ryan even felt so good that he went for a run! I did not. We stayed at another nondescript motor camp, this time right on the side of the main highway. Oh, and also train tracks.

Sleeping next to trucks and trains.

The last day of our first leg was a short 40-something kilometer trip into Christchurch. We biked along the main highway until it turned into a "motorway" (no bikes allowed), and then we negotiated the pothole-laden streets of earthquake-stricken Christchurch. I wish I'd gotten a chance to take pictures of the downtown "red zone" - it's really quite a sight - but we were too stressed out by the traffic and the difficulty following maps that were no longer relevant. We finally found the bus depot, booked a ticket for the following morning to Dunedin (skipping the flat and traffic-filled Canterbury plains), and splurged on a hotel room for the night.

I don't feel that we got a very good idea of what Christchurch is all about, due to everything being destroyed and re-created in temporary buildings. Bars were relocated to trailers, the bus depot was set up in a shed, and the convenient bike paths led to nowhere. However, we did find some surprisingly delicious Indian food in a repurposed gas station, and I finally had a chance to take a picture:


And so the adventure begins in earnest. Next up: Dunedin, castles, chocolate, beer, and penguins!