Worcester, Mass. 
July 4, 1993 

New Zealand bike touring

By Lynne Tolman 

   CHRISTCHURCH, New Zealand -- Wrapped in clouds as thick as a sheep's winter coat, the steep forested hills stayed tucked in past noon. 

   I mentally filled in the obscured scenery as I pedaled my bicycle past empty paddocks and an occasional run-down barn. The hilltops would be round and green, I imagined, nothing like the rugged, snowy peaks of the Southern Alps we had struggled to cross two days earlier. 

   This lonely stretch of two-lane highway along the west coast, leading me away from the once-thriving gold-mining town of Ross, would be pleasantly dull, I thought. Not much to look at, since hills blocked sight of the Tasman Sea, but nothing to complain about, either. No steep climbs, no headwinds, no traffic and no rain. That's all a touring cyclist can ask. 

   When the landscape finally kicked off its covers, I got a bonus. A jagged line of snowcapped mountains towered in sharp relief. I'd had no idea that the Alps, the initial hurdle and spectacle of my trip, would remain in view every day for the rest of my four-week bike tour around the South Island. 

   Bicycling is an ideal way to travel in New Zealand, which is a mecca for outdoor enthusiasts of all kinds. Not much goes unnoticed when the pace is 10 to 20 mph and no windshield buffers the elements. And Kiwis, as New Zealanders like to be called, are especially friendly when they see someone sweating the hills they call home. 

   My buddy and I started in Christchurch in mid-March 1992, the beginning of autumn in the Southern Hemisphere, and biked 917 miles in all. We carried our tents, sleeping bags, clothes, tools and spare parts aboard 18-speed road bikes. Most of the touring cyclists we met in New Zealand were on mountain bikes, but most roads were well sealed and our narrow tires served admirably. 

   Christchurch is a bicycle-friendly city, and not only because it's flat. I knew I was welcome when I saw traffic lights shaped like bicycles at the edges of shady Hagley Park, where willows sway over the placid Avon River. Once I got the hang of riding on the left side of the road, urban streets were easy to navigate. But I saved most of my city sightseeing for the end of the trip. 

   "Nor'wester coming," people warned as we headed west across the Canterbury Plains, in a tone that made it clear a nor'wester there is akin to a nor'easter in New England. The northwest winds coming off Australia bring warm rain, and the clouds tend to bump into the mountains and get stuck over the west coast's rain forests for days. I kept my head down to battle the oncoming gusts. 

   The rain started the same time as the climbing, about 50 miles west of Christchurch. The road signs and most maps mention only Arthur's Pass, the 920-meter-high divide, but there's another pass of equal elevation first. Cranking up the steep inclines of Porter's Pass in my "granny gear," I got so hot I didn't mind when I saw raindrops turning to snowflakes. I confess I had to walk my bike uphill in a few spots. This must be why the Kiwis call them push-bikes, I thought. 

   There were few signs of civilization in the mountains, but a lone ski lodge appeared just when we felt like quitting for the day. Flock Hill Lodge is on a 36-square-mile sheep station next to a national forest. At $20 NZ per person ($11 U.S.) for a heated room and use of a common kitchen and bathrooms, it was our most expensive night in New Zealand. 

   Morning sun quickly melted a light frost, and we learned an encouraging Kiwi expression from lodge owner Phillipa Innes: "Good on ya!" (With the accent on the middle syllable, it rhymes with "lasagna.") I translated it as a combination of "good for you" and "go for it." 

   We chose a hostel in the tiny village of Arthur's Pass, a wise move because 2 cm. of snow fell overnight. The village was a featured stop for the horse-drawn coaches that carried city folks across the Alps as the 1860s gold rush populated the west coast. Today, Arthur's Pass is a rustic base for tramping (hiking) and skiing. 

   At the summit, we watched the antics of keas, clownish parrot-like birds that will jump right onto brightly colored backpacks, bikes or cars, and do considerable damage with their beaks. 

   Speeding downhill into lush Otira Gorge, we saw a definite change from brown to green. Fern-like trees called pongas lined the river where the road flattened and we had to start pedaling again. We shed our winter clothes and soaked up the sun as the mountains receded in our rear-view mirrors. 

   We reached the shore early the next morning and lingered in Hokitika, a seaside town featuring a greenstone factory. Craftsmen use diamond tools to fashion jewelry in swirling Maori designs from nephrite jade, which the Maoris called pounamu, or, literally, green stone. 

   At Ross, we ran into the Kiwi Experience, a busload of low-budget backpackers of all ages and nationalities, who soon made the Empire Hotel pub resemble a fraternity party. They invited us to join them for a hangi, a traditional Maori meal cooked in a pit. Tender lamb and eel provided a welcome change from the usual pub fare of fish and chips. 

   Morning drizzle ended while we explored the goldfields museum, containing a replica of the largest gold nugget ever found in New Zealand. It weighed 99 ounces. 

   After the clouds lifted to reveal the surprising view of the Alps, the landscape became even stranger. Franz Josef Glacier is a frozen river that cuts a swath right down to the rain forest, a couple hundred yards from the sea. 

   We splurged on a half-hour helicopter ride ($110 NZ after a $20 discount for Youth Hostel members) and peered into blue ice crevasses, then hovered next to the island's highest peak, Mount Cook, at nearly 12,000 feet. We landed on a snowfield, got out of the chopper and tossed a few snowballs. 

   My snapshot of Mt. Cook would look different from the classic postcard views, I learned from a park ranger that night, because 10 meters of the mountain top crumbled Dec. 10, 1991. I also missed the postcard perspective of Lake Matheson, near Fox Glacier a hilly half-day's bike ride down the road. The lake is famous for its picture-perfect reflections of Mount Cook, but the surface wasn't still enough when I arrived. 

   We stocked up on food and cooking fuel in Fox Glacier, knowing we were headed, as the Kiwis say, for "the back of nowhere." Roadside camping is legal in New Zealand, and suitable spots are easy to find. We set up our tents next to a two-room schoolhouse at Jacob's River, and a Japanese cyclist heading the other way joined us. His English was limited, but we answered each other's crucial questions about the roads we had covered that day: How far? How hilly? Wind direction? Any shops? Tearooms? Any motor camps (campgrounds) or hostels? 

   Motor camps usually had showers, a common kitchen, and wee cabins with bunk beds and electric heaters. We gratefully shelled out $10 each for a cabin on rainy nights. 

  An easy mountain crossing at Haast Pass (562 meters) led us inland to a region of deep blue lakes anchoring year-round resort towns geared to fishing, boating, skiing and tramping. The busiest is Queenstown, a thrill-seeker's playground offering bungee jumping, jet boating, whitewater rafting, paragliding and more. Less vigorous -- but no less scenic -- are a cruise on a vintage steamship and a gondola ride to a restaurant overlooking the town and the Remarkables, the surrounding mountains. 

   Neighboring Arrowtown, population 1,000, has a too-cute main street that preserves the frontier style of the gold-rush days, but even that was an antidote to the bright lights of Queenstown. Arrowtown also had the most colorful autumn foliage, a bit early last year at the start of April. 

   Perhaps the most popular sight on the South Island is Milford Sound, actually a fiord. Most tourists go by bus from Queenstown or Te Anau, then take a boat ride past pointy Mitre Peak and the numerous thundering waterfalls made magnificent by an annual average rainfall of 23 feet. The hardiest sightseers walk there on the famed Milford Track, a four-day tramp that calls for plenty of insect repellent to ward off sandfly bites. 

   To save time, we chose not to pedal the mountainous 85-mile road from Te Anau to Milford. We traveled with Milford Sound Adventure Tours, a one-man operation consisting of a comfortable bus loaded with one-speed mountain bikes. Eleven miles from Milford, we got off the bus and on the bikes. It was downhill all the way, an exhilarating 2,000-foot drop. On the way back, we coasted another eight miles. That was our only day "off" from cycling. 

   Heading south, we marveled at the numbers of sheep grazing in the rolling hills, even though we'd seen plenty of sheep all along. New Zealand has about 4 million people, about three quarters of them on the North Island, and about 60 million sheep. 

   "You eat mutton?" asked Roy Menpes, a stout grandfather supervising his teen-age grandson's ear-tagging of a newly purchased herd of ewes. Over coffee offered almost as quickly as his "Gidday," the elder Menpes opined wishfully that the sea would soon be fished out and people would return to carnivorous diets. 

   The coffee powered us along the windswept southern coast to Invercargill, a city of about 50,000 people. We spent one rainy day there, window shopping and taking in a play. 

   With 15 miles to go the next morning to catch a ferry to Stewart Island, my friend's rear tire went flat. We hurriedly installed a spare tube, then hammered down Route 1 to Bluff, the most stressful stretch of the trip. If we missed the ferry, we'd have to wait six hours for the next one. 

   We got to Bluff, breathless, 10 minutes before the catamaran left the dock. A rough ride across the Foveaux Strait landed us in Halfmoon Bay under a rainbow. The stress evaporated and another Kiwi phrase echoed in my head: "No worries, mate." 

   Stewart Island is about the size of Oahu, the Hawaiian island that includes Honolulu. But Stewart Island has only 500 people, compared to 500,000 on Oahu. Stewart Islanders all live at the northern tip of the island, a mere 2,500 miles from the South Pole, and the rest is native bush parted only by the occasional muddy track. 

   There are only 12 miles of roads, and we took two restful days to explore them, pausing at each crescent beach. Dinner came fresh from the island's salmon farm. Here is the most likely place to see kiwis in the wild, but heavy winds at dusk canceled our charter boat ride to search for the nocturnal, flightless brown birds. 

   Back in Invercargill, I boarded an overnight bus to Christchurch, where I would spend the weekend before flying home. The soft upholstery on the bus was kinder to my body than a bicycle seat, but the scenery went by in a darkened blur through the tinted windows. I'd rather travel on two wheels any day. 

IF YOU GO ... 

  • BRINGING YOUR BIKE: Pack it in a discarded box from a bike shop or a bike box provided by an airline. Remove front wheel, pedals and seat; lift and turn handlebars. There is no charge to check a bike as one of two pieces of luggage on international flights, and some of your other gear should also fit in the box. Air New Zealand saved my box at the Christchurch airport while I toured.
  • WHEN TO GO: December, January and February are the warmest, driest months, with average temperatures in the 70s on the South Island. But with Kiwi families on summer vacation, traffic is heavier. Weather is chancier in spring (September-October) and autumn (March-April) but still warm enough for camping. On the west coast, it rains often in every season.
  • GUIDED BIKE TOURS: Among tour operators with trips in New Zealand are Backroads Bicycle Touring, 1516 5th St., Suite W, Berkeley, CA 94710 (800-245-3874) and New Zealand Pedaltours, 522 29th Ave. S., Seattle, WA 98144 (206-323-2080). For a more complete listing, contact Bikecentennial, P.O. Box 8308, Missoula, MT 59807 (Tel.: 406-721-1776).
  • CAMPING: There are motor camps and hostels every 40 miles or so, except on the east-west road over Arthur's Pass and on the west coast between the glaciers and Haast. Tent sites averaged $6 NZ ($3.30 US); cabins and hostels, $10.
  • MAPS AND SUGGESTED READING: An American Automobile Association membership gets you free maps from the New Zealand Automobile Association (offices are in Christchurch and Auckland). "Cycle Touring in the South Island" from the Canterbury Cyclists Association is available at Christchurch bike shops. 
    "New Zealand Handbook" by Jane King is for outdoor enthusiasts. "A Personal Kiwi-Yankee Dictionary" by Louis S. Leland Jr. offers humorous translations of English and Maori words and phrases that could baffle Americans. "Two Wheels Around New Zealand" by Scott Bischke describes an American couple's yearlong bike trip.
  • FOR DETAILS: Contact New Zealand Tourism Board, 501 Santa Monica Boulevard, Suite 300, Santa Monica, CA 90401 (800-395-7480).

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