Oh baby, it’s a wild world

455km Wanaka to Dunedin

Just the two of us, off to the Mavora LakesSometimes the weather is just not made for cycling. When it’s cold and pouring rain, for example, you’re probably better off inside. Hail, snow and sleet are also rather unpleasant. And when the forecast calls for gale-force winds, making a cup of tea and watching the world from your kitchen window is far preferable to pedalling.

Unfortunately, when you’re miles from nowhere and the nearest bank machine is 4 days of riding away and you’re running out of money, you don’t have much choice but to hit the road. Admittedly the no-money bit was a disaster of our own making but how were we to know that our route to Dunedin would take us through some of the most unseasonable weather these parts have seen in a long time?

It’s New Zealand, silly! We should have anticipated it. But it looked just fine when we left Queenstown…

So it was that we found ourselves first waking up to freezing temperatures and snow on the mountains and then surrounded by nothing but farm fields, with a cold wind straight from Antarctica howling and whipping around our heads. If a penguin had come flying over the hill, direct from the South Pole, and hit us in the side of the head we wouldn’t have been surprised.

The rain lashed our cheeks until our faces grew numb, alternating between sleet and hail. Our clothes were more drenched than dry. And then we got lost – an easy thing to do on those quiet country lanes, where signs get misplaced or turned around and where it’s never clear quite which road is the main road.

Looking down from the peak of the Crown RangesIn fact, we probably would have been okay if we’d just taken the dirt road the sign was pointing us to but instead we thought we’d just better double check with the locals so we ran into a cold barn to ask John, the sheep farmer, if he knew the way to Waikoikoi.

“Just stay on the tar seal,” said John, with confidence. “You’ll see it bends around in a bit. You definitely don’t want that metal road.” (A metal road is what Kiwis call a dirt road)

Well, what the heck did John know? A lot about sheep farming, like how much a fleece goes for (about $3), but not much about roads. Despite being a local for few decades, John sent us on a nice 7km detour into the wind and the rain until finally the road swung round and put us right back on that metal road we didn’t want in the first place. Thanks, John.

We should have just followed Rule Number 1 of bicycle touring: never ask the locals, unless they are cycling. Because despite what you might think the locals tend to know very little about their own roads and will tell you it’s flat all the way up Mount Everest. By this, we think they usually mean ‘flat’ as in their feet are flat on the accelerator but that’s another story….

Green fields and amazing mountainsThat was Tuesday and that evening we counted our cash in the yard of the campground and realized that if we didn’t buy any food we could just afford a heated caravan for the night instead of our tent.

It was the best $15 we’ve ever spent in our whole lives. You just can’t imagine how happy we were in our little metal box from the 1960s in rural New Zealand, making endless cups of hot chocolate and living off the scraps at the bottom of our cooking bag and running the electric heater all night. We weren’t just happy, we were ecstatic – until we had to get out the next morning.

Wednesday continued much in the same vein as the day before, except we didn’t get lost (but we did get doubly-soaked by all the trucks flying by because now we were on a main road) and a nice lady in a cafe took pity on us and told us we could stay by the heater all afternoon if we wanted to. We did want to so we sipped our coffees and read the newspaper three times and held our gloves in front of the hot element until they were merely damp instead of dripping and we finally had the courage to go back out and tackle the weather again.

The famous Cardrona HotelBy late that afternoon, and 3 full days after this miserable run of weather started, we arrived in Balclutha – a small farming town but big enough to contain several banks. We stuffed our wallet and ran to the grocery store and then to the campground, where we cooked up a shepherd’s pie that would have fed a family of 6 under normal circumstances but was just right for two starving cyclists.

We only had 80km left to the big city of Dunedin and usually 3 days would be plenty for bad weather to howl itself into oblivion but not this time. We awoke to a wind warning, with speeds set to hit 120km an hour. This didn’t seem good on the face of it but then we realised…. the wind was coming from the southwest and we were going northeast so this was going to be the best tailwind we’d ever seen!

So while the big campervans with their high sides stayed put, we headed out with all the excitement of kids on Christmas morning and it was great. If you cycle, you can imagine the thrill of riding at 30km/hour without so much as a pedalstroke. It was almost as glorious as that night in the caravan.

Yes, we had rain and yes, we did have to work a bit going up the hills, but how happy we were to get to Dunedin that afternoon, having survived all our wild weather, and then check into a hotel and watch the weather continue to roar from the window in our room. A bed for the night instead of our tent is an unusual luxury for us but one we felt was well earned.


  1. Yves
    13th March 2009 at 4:10 am #

    WOW! Nice story! I don’t know if Cat Stevens ever cycled in this circumstances to write this song. This must be “Extreme Kiwi-Cycling” …
    Hugs, Yves

  2. Rebecca Hogue
    13th March 2009 at 12:54 pm #

    I’d hate to see the winds that are strong enough to allow penguins to fly! Hope the weather improves for you. Looks like some of the rain is coming this way – so we’ll have some soggy cycling days ahead, but they’ll be warm soggy days.
    Cheers, Becky

  3. Bob
    3rd April 2009 at 1:05 pm #

    Great post. The unpredictability of life on the road. One of my best biking memories is waking up to 20cm of snow along the Great Alpine Road in Australia in Feb 2005. It was a tough day but I wouldn’t have missed it for anything 🙂
    Happy cycling!

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