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

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