About 22 kilometers long is the Cook Strait, which is dividing New Zealand’s North and South Island and connects the Tasman Sea to the South Pacific. According to Wikipedia it’s ‘one of the most dangerous and unpredictable waters in the world’. Fortunately it was a calm crossing that day and we haven’t had to use the emergency vomit bags on the ferry. Three hours after we left Wellington we reached Picton.
There we met another cyclist: Dean from Ireland, who I’ve met already two years ago in Dharamshala in India. I’ve never thought to see him again, but sometimes the world is a smaller place than it seems to be. It followed a great night, as we had lots of stories about our trips to share.
The next morning we woke up and it was summer. At least it felt like that. 20 degrees and sunshine kept us off our bikes for a while as it was much more tempting to just lie in the sun at the sea. After Dean boarded his ferry to Wellington, Jason and I hit the road and started cycling westwards along the Queen Charlotte Sound towards Nelson.
We decided to leave the sealed road but following a more adventures dirt track over a mountain to Nelson. Barry, our warmshowers host in Wellington, recommended it to us. He described it as hard work, but definitely worth it. The first kilometers were easy and not steep at all and we were wondering when the part would start. The track was leading through a beautiful valley with yellow flowers everywhere. Suddenly it got steeper and steeper and the surface worse and worse. After crossing a creek it was not possible to ride anymore. The gravel was so rough and loose and really steep that pushing was even hard. With lots of breaks we somehow managed to push for about 7km to the top. Every time I stopped I was cursing Barry for that tip, but at the end of the day I was more than glad to have chosen that track. It was definitely worth the effort.
From Nelson we left the coast and were heading slowly towards the west coast. The road was leading through narrow valleys and along rivers and in the distance we sometimes had a great view on snow-capped mountains. Rivers were awesome places to camp. There was always enough drift wood for a fire at night and the possibility of a quick bath in the ice cold water after a long day of riding was more than awesome.
One night we planned to stay with a warmshowers host. According to his profile he had no internet at home, it would be alright to just show up. That’s what we did. But we didn’t find our host there. We bumped into his friend Trev, who was looking after the house, while our actual host was travelling overseas. Trev had no problem with us staying there for a night. In fact he was quite happy about some company, I guessed.
It was a beautiful house, but I was wondering how they could live there. Billions of sandflies made it nearly impossible to sit outside and quickly I had a constant urge to scratch my legs and arm, as they were full of bites. I had heard a few stories about these nasty insects before, but that it will be that crazy I didn’t imagine. Trev mentioned though, that this place is one of the worst sandflies areas in whole New Zealand. Anyway we had to get you used to them, as the whole west coast is full of them. At least they don’t bite at night, what probably saved us that night. We could sleep in a little hut, but we forget to close the door properly and left a light on. After a while the room walls were black of flies attracted by the light. We tried to get them out, but after a while we surrendered and ignored them.
Finally we reached the west coast and suddenly the riding got much harder. Not just because of the sudden drop of the temperature, rather because of the constant strong headwind. Despites the wind it was an interesting landscape. Some parts of the road leaded direct along the sea, sometimes through thick rainforest. Combined with the limestone hills it nearly looked like places in South East Asia.
In Hokitika we stayed with another Warmshowers legend. Kevin has hosted over hundred cyclists and other travellers during the last few years. He was even driving with us and his kayak to the next lake, so I got my first kayak experiences, what was much easier than I thought. The day we planned to leave, we got typical west coast weather. It was pouring rain for the whole day, but Kevin offered us to another day. Thanks Kevin! That was hospitality as its best.
We were getting closer to the Southern Alps and were already supposed to see the white peaks. Instead we were only seeing a thick layer of fog and clouds stuck in the mountains. Actually we weren’t surprised, as the west coast is the wettest part New Zealand’s. Still it was a nice atmosphere and except for the wind I enjoyed cycling there.
The glaciers are the biggest tourist attraction on the west coast. The little townships at Franz-Josef and Fox Glacier exist probably just for tourism.
At Franz-Josef we camped not far from the walk to the glacier and got up with the first sunlight, so we had the whole valley for ourselves. Just as we came back, the first tour buses arrived. It was great walking alone through that valley what was once formed by the massive forces of the ice. Now it was very colourful: Green moose and red algae on the rocks, lots of waterfalls and the glacier at the end.
Unfortunately it’s not allowed anymore to get really close to the glacier. Over the last few years the glacier has retreated so much, that’s it too dangerous now. Even the guided tours you can book there, don’t access the glacier from the valley anymore, instead they land with helicopters on it. Due to global warming the glaciers will further retreat. The Franz-Josef glacier will probably lose another 5km length and 38% of its mass till 2100.
On the last part of the west coast we got to feel the rain again. It started raining in the afternoon and didn’t stop before the next morning. Luckily we found some shelter under the veranda of a town hall and the warden even allowed us to camp there. The next morning there were still some parts of the road flooded with 10 to 20 centimeters deep water and all the rivers were massive.
Finally we left the west coast over the 560m high Haast Pass into Otago. It was big change in the Landscape. The Southern Alps form a barrier for the wet weather coming from the west, so it is much dryer in Otago. Suddenly even the sky was clear and we could see the snow-capped mountains. From the pass it was going downhill to Lake Wanaka and Lake Hawea till Wanaka.
Over another pass, what is with 1077m the highest sealed road in New Zealand, it was going to Queenstown. It’s supposed to be the ‘adventure capital’ and there are heaps of shops selling tours like skydiving, paragliding, bungy jumping and so on. I’m not really interested in spending my money on that kind of stuff, so we jumped straight on board of an old refurbed steamer to get on the other side of Lake Wakapitu.
There’s just cattle and sheep station, but a 90km gravel road leads south to the main road, what sounded really interesting. And it was. Except for thousands of sheep, lots of cows and a few farmer there was just nothing but an incredible landscape. We bumped into a shepherd, who told us that his stations has about 30000 sheep and they’re one of the biggest suppliers for Icebreaker. Good to know where my shirt is coming from. After getting deeper into a valley and uphill the landscape changed from green grass to very dry vegetation. Again we camped on a river again with a beautiful view on a snowy mountain. A few times we had cross some rivers. Due to the heavy rainy during the previous days, they were quite full. Each time we had to dismount all our gear from our bikes and carry everything barefoot through the rivers.
After a quick stop in Te Anau we were thanks to a big tailwind ‘flying’ south to Invercargill, the most southern city in New Zealand. It’s nearly half time of my New Zealand adventure and from here it’s going north again, back towards Auckland. Hopefully it’s getting warmer soon and I get more tailwinds.