The final bike tour post

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

The Love Shack, St. Arnaud, Murchison, and Hot Springs

Originally, our plan was to ride bikes until our half marathon, and then spend the final two weeks in New Zealand relaxing with Jacqui and Scott. However, we weren't quite ready to stop biking, so we decided to head for the hills!

We slowly pedalled out of wine country on a beautifully quiet road, still recovering from the leg strain of running 21.1 km two days earlier. To ease back into it, we decided to only do a 25 km day from Renwick to Wairau Valley - partly because the next place to stop was St. Arnaud, a good 60 km uphill. We arrived at the Wairau Valley tavern just in time for the rain to start, so a short day seemed reasonable.

Wairau Valley is described in the guidebook as "a tiny settlement". This is a book that lists places with a population of 50, so when it says tiny, you expect tiny! It also erroneously described the village as having a hotel, when in fact it has only a tavern. And a soap shop. And a love shack.

We inquired at the tavern about camping, as they had a sign out front advertising lawn space. The bartender called her boss, and informed us that it would be $10 each to either set up a tent or to sleep in the "Love Shack." As it was raining (and packing a wet tent in the morning is never fun), we opted for the love shack option.

I wasn't quite expecting the love shack to have single beds, but it did. Old, saggy-framed beds with questionable mattresses, and even more questionable blankets. But hey, any shelter in a storm... and it had a heater! We set up our sleeping bags on top of the covers, and made sure not to step on the floor in bare feet. It was actually quite cozy.

Well... we don't have much choice!
The outside of the love shack.

Having arrived around 1 pm, we had many hours to kill in Wairau valley. We walked to the soap shop, where I bought some home made shampoo and soap bars, and then spent several hours playing cards in the tavern. We asked what time they opened in the morning, and the answer was "not until late".

The following morning we woke to wet ground but clear sky. Breakfast consisted of crackers and cheese and granola bars, and we set out up the hill towards St. Arnaud.

Along the way, we stopped at a picnic table to have lunch. It started raining again, just enough to make us cold and wet, but not enough to drive the sand flies away. Sand flies are pretty much the same as black flies, and they were advertised in the guidebook description of this road. Lovely.

Hooray for waterproof panniers!

Maybe it was the rain, or the flies, or the half marathon... but the 550 metres that we climbed to St. Arnaud were tough. It just kept getting steeper and steeper and even passed by a ski hill. Just as I was keeping an eye out for good emergency camping spots, we reached the peak, the sun came out, and we started coasting down towards the town. I even stopped to take a picture of a rainbow.

Double rainbow!

St. Arnaud is a picturesque mountain town that was just waiting for snow to show up. It's sort of like a tiny version of Banff, with an overabundance of seasonal and temporary living space. We were looking forward to our first hot meal of the day, so we asked at the (rather posh) hostel if there was a restaurant in town. It turns out that there are two eating establishments, and they both close on Tuesdays. Argh! The only available food was at the gas station/general store, so we bought some overpriced cans of tuna and whipped up some kind of nutrition.

The next morning it was thankfully not raining, but it was quite windy. We decided to go visit Lake Rotoiti on our way out, and the poor ducks couldn't get in the water because of the swell. Fortunately, although it was a headwind, it was all downhill to Murchison!

Ryan poses with the ducks
I'm in a picture too!
Misty morning fog

Apparently I didn't take any pictures of Murchison, which is strange, because we actually went there twice! It wasn't until we were walking into a café (one of three to choose from!) that we realized we'd been there before. Our bus to Nelson stopped at the same café. It will forever be known as the one place in New Zealand that doesn't sell ginger beer, and also the first place where I decided I wanted ginger beer.

After Murchison, we left the busy SH6 and cut due south on the SH65 to Springs Junction. This was one of the few roads without an elevation profile in the guidebook, so we didn't really know what to expect. It turned out to be much better than anticipated, with a gradual uphill trend but nothing too horrific.

In 1929, Murchison was hit by an earthquake. This isn't particularly unusual for New Zealand, but it was quite a big one: 7.3 on the Richter scale. By comparison, the earthquake that destroyed downtown Christchurch clocked in at 6.4, and the scale is logarithmic. In any case, the Murchison earthquake was a big one, and it created a waterfall. Geology in action!

An earthquake made this!
Self shot in front of Maruia Falls

About 15 km short of our evening destination of Maruia settlement, we stopped for a roadside snack. It was starting to get quite cold and the clouds looked ominous, so we didn't stop for long... until I discovered my tire was very soft. A flat tire on a bike sucks; a flat tire on a bike in the cold sucks even more. My fingers weren't functioning well enough to operate the bike pump, so Ryan put some air in it and we hoped it hold on for the next hour.

Grey storm clouds approaching

We rolled in to Maruia, me on a slightly soft tire, at around 2 pm. We'd covered our unknown 65 km much faster than anticipated, perhaps because it was too cold to stop for very long! Looking forward to hot showers and meals, we pulled up in front of the hotel/general store/schoolhouse (I swear they were all the same complex). The front door said "Rooms available, call #####". Great.

A steady drizzle had begun at this point, so we sat under the eaves of the hotel and debated our options. The rooms were expensive; the general store was closed; and the "phone for service" (no phone provided) wasn't very friendly. Springs Junction, with a restaurant and hotel, was only 18 (flat) kilometres further. Despite the rain and the leaky tire, the thought of a hot meal convinced us to press on.

The Alpine Motor Lodge at Springs Junction was deserted when we arrived. We pulled our bikes under cover from the rain and went in to pay for hotel rooms, whatever they might cost. It turned out to be relatively inexpensive and quite pleasant; our room featured heated blankets, a 13-inch television, and a babbling brook. The brook was outside the window, not in the room...

After showering and getting warm, we went back to the restaurant for dinner. While it had been empty only half an hour before, it was now full of teenagers on their way back from a field trip or something. We figured we'd grab a beer and wait for the queue to shrink, but sadly, despite the Speight's sign out front, there was no alcohol served on premises. Gasp!

The next day we had a special treat lined up. We'd booked a room at the fancy Maruia Springs, a Japanese-style hot springs resort. Since we'd gone all the way to Springs Junction the night before, we only had 15 km to get to the hot springs. We took our time in the morning, patched my tube (which had gone entirely flat overnight), and pedalled up the gentle slope to the resort.

Again, no pictures. Ah well. We had the resort to ourselves for most of the day, so we took our time checking out the different hot pools. The main pools are ringed with rocks and quite shallow, and while the large pool was too cool to linger in due to the rain, the small one was just about the perfect temperature.

I hate hot tub chemicals, so being able to lie in a hot pool without them is a treat. There were signs all over Maruia springs talking about the black algae, and warning people not to be afraid of it. It's a good thing we were prepared, because the water was black! You couldn't see your own hand six inches below the surface. The algae wasn't too slimy though, and our skin felt baby soft when we got out. I'll take algae over chemicals any day.

Also at Maruia springs are Japanese-style bath houses. These were pretty amazing, and again we had them all to ourselves. Individually, that is. All in all, it was a pretty relaxing day - just what you want after an 80 km day.

The day after Maruia springs was also an 80 km day, but this one included our highest mountain pass yet. Fortunately, that was right at the start. Unfortunately, it was on a very busy road that, while trending downhill, had many ups and downs. Because the pass is at 900 metres, the scale of the elevation profile hid all the smaller hills.

Heading up the pass in the morning light
Lewis pass! Almost as high as Calgary

Despite the somewhat frustrating undulating hills, it was a very scenic ride from Maruia Springs to Hanmer Springs. That's right - we went from one hot springs to another. It's hard to see in the picture below, but this river valley was full of sheep. I feel like this picture sums up the trip nicely - mountains, rivers, epic skies, and of course, sheep.

Click to see the big version and all the little sheep!

At Hanmer Springs we met up with Jacqui and Scott and spent some time in the vastly-different hot springs. I opted to ride back with them to Kaikoura with my bike in the back of the van, while Ryan gave us all but one pannier and found a room in a hostel. He biked the whole 135 km, including many hills and a 600 m pass, the next day.

And thus concludes my sixth and final blog post. I've been back in Calgary for three weeks, and it feels oddly like I never left. We did a triathlon two weekends ago, Ryan ran a half marathon last Saturday, and next weekend we're doing the Ride to Conquer Cancer. In a way, all that biking in New Zealand was good training for these events, but it has been be hard to adapt to fast heart-pounding road riding after leisurely pedalling through the countryside. New Zealand, I'll miss you.

It is by riding a bicycle that you learn the contours of a country best, since you have to sweat up the hills and coast down them. Thus you remember them as they actually are, while in a motor car only a high hill impresses you, and you have no such accurate remembrance of country you have driven through as you gain by riding a bicycle. -- Ernest Hemingway

Bike tour part five

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Nelson to Blenheim, and a half marathon too

And we're back on the bikes! After the cold of Central Otago and the long bus ride up to Nelson, we were looking forward to some sunny fall weather. We weren't disappointed; Nelson in May is gorgeous.

Nelson is considerably larger than most of the towns we'd been through, and it was rather refreshing to have such luxuries as a choice in eateries and hostels. We got off the bus at around 7 pm, which meant that we were standing downtown at night on somewhat deserted streets. We happened upon a hostel within a block, and managed to snag our cheapest room of the trip at 50 NZD for an ensuite. It was a bit dingy, but a bed is a bed, and it was nice and quiet for its location.

Not far from the hostel was the destination that I most anticipated in Nelson: The Free House. It's got a friendly shared-table atmosphere, lots of board games to use while you visit, and a refreshing food policy: they allow you to bring in takeaway, or to order from next door restaurants, and they'll bring it to your table and clean up for you. Pretty sweet deal! The highlight for me was the beer selection; the best of the South Island, in my experience. To be fair, I think Dunedin had some awesome brew pubs, we just didn't have time to see them! Jacqui and Scott blogged about the Free House when they first visited it. Good stuff.

Another great part about Nelson is the beach. We went for a short bike ride on our first full day, and ended up spending some time in the sand enjoying the sun.

We could easily have enjoyed another day or two in Nelson, but we were on a deadline... the Vineyard Half Marathon was coming up! We wanted to reach Blenheim a couple of nights before the race in order to rest up our leg muscles, so we set out towards Blenheim on the busy State Highway 6.

The road between Nelson and Blenheim has a series of hills, starting with a steep 100m climb, then followed by a 400m and a 250m (check out the elevation profile at the top of this post). While we'd gained more elevation in a day before, these climbs were particularly intimidating because of all the transport and logging truck traffic. Eek! Fortunately, we ran into a line-painting crew on the big climb, and they were going at exactly the right speed. Thus escorted, we made our way up hill number two without incident. Again, no pictures... I was concentrating too much on not dying!

We spent the night in Havelock, home of the green-lipped mussel. I didn't like them very much. The hostel we stayed at was a cavernous old schoolhouse, and it poured rain all night. We left our bikes out back tied to a tree, where they were guarded by these three:

How many dogs fit in a box?

The next 35 km or so to Blenheim were flat and rather wet. Despite the ominous-looking clouds, we decided to camp for a couple of nights until Jacqui and Scott arrived. We stayed at the Blenheim Top 10 Holiday Park, which was a pretty terrible value. It cost almost as much as the Nelson hostel, and we got a patch of grass for our tent. Nowhere to put stuff under cover, nowhere to lock the bikes, no dishes or cookware in the kitchen... but at least they had showers. And a human hamster wheel:

This is harder than it looks.

We wandered around Blenheim to see what sights were to be seen, as we were spending four days there. If only the half marathon had been in Nelson! I wasn't drinking beer for a couple of nights, but at least Nelson had good coffee too. Alas. Blenheim did have some beautiful gardens, and this fellow:

Beware, Dog!

Again, I have few pictures of Blenheim. How is it that I have something like 400 pictures from this trip, yet I seem to have missed so much? Anyways, I digress. We spent a wet couple of nights in a tent in the crappy roadside holiday park (did I mention it was near a major road, as well as a train track?) and then transferred to a nice motel with Jacqui and Scott and Dexter. Scott ran the half marathon too (and blogged about it), so it was a great chance to see them again.

The morning of the race dawned magically clear and sunny, after three days of solid rain. What luck! I was nervous about actually being able to run 21 km, as I'd only run 17 km cumulatively in the previous two months. However, the run was on nice soft grass, the scenery was pretty special, and I made sure to pace myself super slow. I finished in 2:20, which isn't particularly fast, but it's 4 minutes faster than my only other half marathon! You can't quite make it out in the following plot, but I managed to gradually increase my speed, as planned. My first 6 km I averaged 6:53 min/km, then I bumped it up to 6:43 for 10 k, and finished off the last 5 k averaging 6:23 min/km. I didn't even hurt in the knees! Thank you, biking.

Garmin's view of my half marathon

The day after the half marathon we biked a slow and flat 10 km to adjacent Renwick, where we found Watson's Way Backpackers. This is not your typical student-party-budget hostel; It's more of a luxury guest house with shared space. Even the beds were pretty high quality and new feeling. We talked about going on a wine tour of one or more of the many nearby vineyards, but we ended up just relaxing at the hostel with some board games instead.

This was honestly my hand. Apparently Ryan's was consonant-heavy.

The next day went to the Four Square to stock up on emergency provisions, and then went for a delicious breakfast at the Three Bears Cafe. Still recovering from the stresses of running a half marathon, we set off for the last chapter of our biking adventure. Destination: hot springs!

The Three Bears Cafe

Bike tour part four

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Cromwell, Queenstown, Milford Sound, Franz Josef

Sometimes, it makes sense to take a bus. After three days of sometimes-freezing headwinds on the rail trail, we decided to spend a relaxing two days biking the 80 km to Queenstown. I'm not even going to bother making a map and elevation profile for this segment, but I'll make up for it with plenty of pictures.

It took us a good 2 hours or so to bike the 20 km from Clyde to Cromwell, but in our defense, we stopped at the edge of the lake to make tea. The lake in question is Lake Dunstan, apparently created in 1990 when Clyde's "famous" hydro dam was built. Ryan was excited to see it.

Look, a dam!

I was more excited by the fruit in and around Cromwell. Apparently many of the orchards are being converted to vineyards, which is somewhat sad (though at the same time, wine is delicious). We stopped at a cidery that made delicious "Wild Cider"; definitely the best cider I had in New Zealand!

We spent the night in a hostel created from an old military barracks. We had the place mostly to ourselves, as is apparently typical for the off season, and we had a pretty good night despite the lack of heat. Most of New Zealand is less heated than Calgarians are used to (pretty standard for the West Coast), but this particular building actually had no heat. Someone showed up to try to fix it at some point, but they didn't have any luck. In any case, I slept with my sleeping bag under the covers.

In the morning, not only was there heavy frost (it stuck around until 11 am), but there was even ice on the puddles. We took our time and had a nice hot breakfast before heading out.

Vineyards are beautiful in the morning
I want to eat it alllll

By the time we'd pedalled most of the way to Queenstown, things were looking up. The temperature skyrocketed to around 12 degrees, and we came across this beautiful lake on the side of the highway. You can just see a hint of the fall colours; apparently if we'd detoured to Arrowtown, we would have seen more, but alas, we opted for the "get there in time for dinner" option.

Gorgeous roadside stop

When we got to Queenstown, Ryan decided to go for a run. He'd found a pool in Cromwell and swam 2km before we biked, so he was determined to do a full triathlon! Semi inspired, I managed a 5k run - my first in the Southern Hemisphere. It was unremarkable.

Queenstown really is the Banff of New Zealand. The official population is about 5000, but there were probably three times that number of tourists. We stayed in our first party hostel, which wasn't super awesome. However, we got mysteriously upgraded to a room with an ensuite and fridge, luxuries! If only there wasn't a wet T-shirt contest directly below us...

We only stayed in Queenstown for two nights, and didn't really see much of it. On the first morning, we caught a tour bus at 6 AM and headed off to Milford Sound! It really is a gorgeous place, though I have to admit that riding a tour bus is probably not my choice of transportation. They did make several stops along the way to spew out us tourists and let us take the same photos that everyone else takes.

Mirror lakes - on calm days, they are perfect mirrors

We got very lucky with the weather in Milford. It was a calm and clear day, but it averages over 6.5 metres of rain annually! I didn't quite understand how much that was until I looked up some places in Canada. Vancouver: 1.2 metres. The wettest part of Haida Gwaii: 4.2 metres. No wonder there were so many waterfalls in Milford sound.

Generally just a beautiful place
Uh oh... we're those people.
One of many streams
The sound itself
Sunlight, mist, and waterfalls

We took a tour boat out to see the sound. We were promised seals (they're everywhere), but we lucked out again and saw dolphins! I think I might have seen them before as a kid at home, but I might be confusing the memory with porpoises. In any case, as the tour boat captain said, "I could watch them all day and never get tired". I can't believe how fast they can swim!

I'm terrible at taking pictures of dolphins
Rainbow falls, unsurprisingly
Looks just like the other side of the Pacific
Going under a waterfall!
Wet lens makes for interesting pictures

After the Milford adventure, which took up most of the day, we again got up early and found ourselves on another bus. This one took us up and over the Crown Range past the Cardrona ski resort. I'm sad it didn't stop to let me take a good picture, because the road looked fun, and very switchbacky. We'd talked about biking it, but it was just too cold! The warning signs about ice on the road made me pretty happy with the bus decision.

The bus to Franz Josef took 6 hours, including a stop at a salmon farm and a crazy cafe. I thought I took pictures, but apparently not. The cafe was covered in possum furs and government protest signs, mostly against the usage of 1080, a pesticide that they drop from planes into the forests to try to control the possum population. The Bushman's centre's solution is to turn the possums into pies and chair covers instead. They sell the pies "by donation", because apparently you can only sell possum meat from a government approved source - of which there are none.

At Franz Josef, we got some info about hikes in the area, as our weather continued to hold and it seemed like the thing to do. Since we arrived in mid-afternoon, we only had time for a short walk on the first day, and we chose to go to a cave to see glow worms! It was almost like seeing them in the wild, except the cave is artificial. It was built in the 40s as a diversion channel for water for a now defunct hydro dam. In any case, there was no tour or anything official - you just walk up an old overgrown road for a ways until you find the cave.

I promise, there are glow worms in this picture. See them?
This is what they look like in the light and out of focus
Looking out from the structure attached to the cave
Ferns everywhere!

On our full day in Franz Josef, we went for a real hike to go see the glacier. You aren't allowed to walk up to the ice itself, but there's a nearby hike up Alex Knob that gives you "a better view than the helicoptors". For some reason, all the trail descriptions were listed in units of time instead of distance and elevation, and this was an "8 hour hike". Garmin tells me it was 17 km and about 1100 m elevation gain. It ended up taking 5 hours, both for us and the German backpackers that we leapfrogged up the trail.

We reached the top of the hike just in time to see the whole glacier and valley slowly filling up with clouds. We had lunch, sat around for a bit, and melted some snow to drink (I forgot my water bottle and Ryan's was only half full... oops), and by the time we left the glacier was almost invisible! A beautiful hike, and a nice break from biking. Aside from the 8 km bike ride to and from the trailhead, that is.

Watching the clouds roll in
Fog on the glacier
Looking back towards the ocean

From Franz, we continued our bussing adventures and skipped all the way up to warm and sunny Nelson, at the north end of the island. Including stops, our bus ride took 10 hours - almost as long as the flight! Again, I didn't take any pictures while bussing. Oops.