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Unicycle School!

Posted March 14th, 2009

unicycleWhat would you do if you spotted a poster in a bicycle shop, offering free unicycle lessons? Show up of course!

We can’t tell you how much fun we had this afternoon with the On One club in Dunedin – and would you believe they also cycle up and down New Zealand’s mountains on one wheel? And commute to work? And go out at night? And ride forest tracks? And even tour around the country on these things?

How wrong we were to think unicycling was just about juggling and clown tricks.

We’d be happy just to ride a few meters unaccompanied, which Friedel almost managed, but not quite. Andrew had a few tries but was more happy to stick to photographing Friedel’s progress. A little more practice is required. Maybe something for the next time we’re living in Canada, waiting out the long winter?

If you’re passing through Dunedin, do try and join these guys for one of their Saturday gatherings. You won’t soon forget your hour on one wheel.

Oh baby, it’s a wild world

Posted March 12th, 2009

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. (more…)

Haast to Queenstown and the Mavora Lakes: A Bike Touring Route

Posted March 11th, 2009

Just the two of us, off to the Mavora LakesThis 5-day bicycle ride arguably takes in some of the finest scenery anywhere in New Zealand.

With the sun on your side, you’ll pedal past the gorgeous lakes of Wanaka and Hawae as you glide downhill from the Haast Pass towards the resort town of Wanaka.

Then there are the mountains to admire at every turn, not to mention waterfalls, charming pubs, the adventure capital Queenstown and the rugged wilderness leading up to the Mavora Lakes.

There’s little not to like here, unless you run into bad weather, in which case many of the best views may elude you. Cross your fingers and hope you get a good look at this beautiful corner of New Zealand.

Distance: 360km
Duration: 5-6 days
Terrain: A few good climbs, punctuated by plenty of rivers, waterfalls and gorgeous mountain views. There’s some dirt road riding too.
Accommodation: You’ll have to camp around the lakes but everywhere else there’s the option of a bed for the night.
Highlights: Scenery leading up to Wanaka and Queenstown and the Mavora Lakes
Lowlights: Not many, though bad weather can be trying if you’re so unlucky to get it.
Be sure to bring: Fat tires for the dirt section.

Section 1 – Haast to Cameron Flat DOC Camping (70km)
Shops: Haast
Accommodation: Haast (all types), Pleasant Flat DOC (camping NZ$6/pp, 45km from Haast) and Cameron Flat DOC (camping NZ$6/pp and 70km from Haast)

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*GPS data logged with the QSTARZ BT-Q1000

Our tent at Cameron Flat DOCThis just might be one of the most beautiful rides in New Zealand. Say goodbye to the West Coast as you head out of Haast on Route 6, bound for Wanaka and Queenstown.

For the first 45km, the road twists and turns but stays fairly level, with the river bubbling along on one side and the mountains rising up on the other side. It’s beautiful in the early morning as the sun is just breaking over the hills.

What a great viewThe Pleasant Flat recreation area (shelter, picnic tables, toilets) is your last chance to chill out before the big climb. Once you leave and cross the bridge, the hard work begins. Of the last 10km to Haast Pass, the first 3km are by far the toughest. You may have to walk your bike. After this initial strenuous ascent, things level out a lot and the final summit is easily tackled.

Down the other side, you’ll quickly reach the Cameron Flat DOC site, where you can camp or just take a break before continuing to Makarora.

Section 2 – Cameron Flat DOC Camping to Wanaka (80km)
Shops: Makarora, Albert Town, Wanaka
Accommodation: Makarora (camping, hotel), Boundary Creek Scenic Reserve DOC (NZ$6/pp), Kidds Bush DOC (6km off Highway 6, on a small road by The Neck pass), Lake Hawae (camping, hotel), Albert Town (domain site NZ$7/pp, B&B), Wanaka (all types)

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The mountains become silhouettesHope for a sunny day when you wake up because under blue skies, this must be one of the most scenic rides in all of New Zealand.

The road from Cameron Flat campsite continues largely downhill, through Makarora where you’re first greeted by a hotel and camping ground with mediocre and vastly overpriced food and then a second cafe and campsite a few hundred meters on. We didn’t try the second cafe but it’s worth a punt. Don’t stop at the first one unless you’re desperate.

Your descent continues at a good pace, offering stunning views of Lake Wanaka, and the Boundary Creek campsite and picnic area is easily reached, before the road turns up again for the climb to The Neck – a narrow strip of land between Lake Wanaka and Lake Hawae. Stop to take the obligatory photo at the lookout point and then cruise downhill again, soaking in the incredible scenery.
The remaining distance to Wanaka is politely described as undulating but be warned that the undulations are rather large! The hills are steep but in low gear you should be able to chug up to the peak and then zip down the other side, hopefully gaining some momentum for the next ascent.

Albert Town is the community just before Wanaka and if you’re on a budget, consider setting up at the domain here, where a forested area for tenting and toilets can be yours for NZ$7/pp. Alternatively, the Lake Outlet Holiday Park is the cheapest in town and is immaculately maintained with a good kitchen and hot showers. It’s set right on the shores of the lake and is very tranquil.

Being a resort town, Wanaka has plenty to keep you busy. A nice two-wheeled diversion is to ride the gravel path along the lakeshore. This is one route to the Lake Outlet Holiday Park but the path is a pleasant way to spend an hour or so, regardless of where you’re staying.

Section 3 – Wanaka to Queenstown (70km)
Shops: Wanaka, Queenstown
Accommodation: Wanaka (all types), Cardrona (holiday cottages), Queenstown (all types)

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*This GPS graph also shows the TSS Earnslaw crossing and the first 7km of the road to the Mavora Lakes

Most cars take Route 6 to Queenstown, avoiding the beautiful but twisty road that runs through the Crown Ranges and the former goldmining town of Cardrona. This is, of course, all the more incentive for cyclists to take the ‘slow route’ and you’re sure to see a few racing cyclists if not fellow tourists heading the same way.

To reach the road, go through downtown Wanaka, past the tourist bureau and shops and out the other side until you see the left turn for Cardrona. This scenic drive is also marked by a brown sign showing a miner on horseback, holding a pickaxe.

The famous Cardrona HotelAfter an initial hill as you leave town, the road climbs almost imperceptibly towards Cardrona, the only real population centre before Queenstown. The most important stop here is the historic Cardrona Hotel, depicted in a Speights poster. Soak in the atmosphere inside over a coffee or a beer, depending on your inclinations and the time of day. Signs by the village green tell about some of the area’s past.

The climb starts in earnest from Cardrona, with the toughest section just 2km before the peak. It’s challenging stuff but it’s not as steep or backbreaking as what you experienced starting up the Haast Pass.

At the top, you’re rewarded with a superb peek into the valley below and then an awesome downhill run that comes as close as anything in the Southern Hemisphere to the descents found in Europe’s Alps. A series of switchbacks leads down to Route 6, which by now is quite busy for the final 19km into Queenstown.

It’s easy to think that Queenstown is nothing but hotels as you enter the city. In fact, it’s much more with swish restaurants and a huge concentration of adventure activities like bungy jumping and jet boating. If you’re into action and have some cash to spend, you’re going to love this place. Otherwise, you might want to consider heading straight for the next section of the trip, a rural road with virtually no one in sight.

Section 4 – Queenstown to Mavora Lakes (55km)
Shops: Queenstown
Accommodation: Queenstown (all types), Mavora Lakes (DOC Camping, NZ$5/pp)

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The TSS EarnslawAfter the excesses of Queenstown, the peaceful ride across Lake Wakatipu (New Zealand’s third largest lake) and the ensuing wilderness couldn’t be more of a contrast.

You get across the lake on the TSS Earnslaw, a coal-fired steamer that’s been ferrying sheep and men over the water since 1912. A one-way cruise is NZ$29, plus NZ$5 for your bicycle (leaves every 2 hours from 10am to 6pm) and tickets are available from numerous vendors on the waterfront. But first, stock up on provisions for 2-3 days, remembering that you could be stuck in the middle of nowhere if there’s bad weather.

Disembark at the Walter Peak farm station, pushing through the hoardes of tourists, past the sheep paddocks and onto a dirt road. From here on in, you’ll only see a handful of cars a day and their numbers will probably be matched by fellow cyclists.

Most people choose to start this route with the 10am sailing from Queenstown but you can equally go late in the day and camp just about anywhere along the road. An ideal spot is about 7km from the Walter Peak farm, where the road approaches the lake shore. Roll your bike down the hill and set up in the grassy field, just by the water.

The route to the Mavora Lakes climbs gently at first and then more steeply around the 26km mark, until you reach an altitude of about 800 meters. From here it’s a mostly downhill run to the well-signed turnoff to the lakes and the DOC campsite. As this is a fairly short day, you may get in early enough and with plenty of spare energy to get a fire roaring in the fireplaces. There’s lots of dead wood around and baked potatoes never tasted so good as when theye’re done over the coals! Or just go for a pleasant stroll around the north and south lakes. With ample supplies, this would be a great tramping base for a few days.

Section 5 – Mavora Lakes to Lumsden (70km)
Shops: Mossburn, Lumsden
Accommodation: Mossburn (caravan park), Lumsden (Pohutukawa caravan park, NZ$13/pp, various motels and farmstays)

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This is a land for sheepThe road continues its descent from the lakes, with very few uphill exceptions, although the condition of the road is worse than the day before with more loose gravel so it may take you a bit longer to make progress.

There’s a fork in the road about 22km into the day, with one direction heading for Te Anau (45km further on) and Milford Sound and the other towards Mossburn (32km away).

We went to Mossburn, reaching the paved road around the 32km mark. The final distance to Mossburn is quickly covered and aside from picking up a few provisions, there’s little to hold your attention here.

The next place to stop is in Lumsden, where you’ll find a pub, a post office and a library with free internet access. The campground is nice enough with lots of flat grassy pitches and a cozy kitchen but unfortunately we found the staff rude and wouldn’t rush back.

Posted in New Zealand

Too much stuff

Posted March 5th, 2009

274km Fox Glacier to Wanaka

What a great viewIt took a full day of rain (and in NZ a ‘full day of rain’ means 12+ hours of the wet stuff) before the heavens finally dried up on Monday morning, leaving our soggy tent in the middle of one big puddle.

The evening before was marked by the very odd sensation of being on a water bed. Every twist and turn on our sleeping mats sent a squirt of water rushing off to another corner of the ground underneath us. But the tent inside stayed perfectly dry. It’s been our home now for 362 nights. It’s suffering quite a bit of UV damage, general wear and tear and of course those holes the ants chewed back in Thailand and it still held up to a rainstorm. Amazing.

Best friendsSo, after all that rain, when we awoke to deeply grey and cloudy skies we didn’t see the darkness. Just a sky with nothing falling from it and we were off. Out the driveway of the campground we went, past the road to Fox Glacier (closed because of all the rain) and onto the nicely rolling road towards Haast. Just a few minutes into our day, another cyclist approached.

“Good morning!” we shouted at him, waving and ringing our bells.

“You’ve got too much stuff,” he replied, putting his head down and pedalling harder as if to show us that with his mere 2 bags to our 11, he really could go that much faster.

“You haven’t been travelling long enough,” we yelled back but he was probably out of earshot by then.

We mulled over his words. Stuff. Well, yes, we do have rather a lot of it. One of these days we are going to take a picture (as suggested by Grace of Bikefish Adelaide) of us with all our stuff out of our bags and set in neat piles around us. Maybe then we’ll really know how we manage to fill all our bags. Every once in a while we go through a phase where Friedel decides we have too much stuff and tries to weed it out while Andrew reminds her just how much we actually need those things or if we don’t now then we will down the road. (more…)

Camping in New Zealand

Posted March 4th, 2009

Tenting in TiraumeaNew Zealanders love the outdoors and as a result you’re never far from a campground.

It’s normally no trouble at all to find at least one campsite within an easy day’s ride, although things are difficult for wild camping aficionados, with most land fenced and plenty of ‘no camping’ signs in the most beautiful spots.

For this reason you’re almost always likely to end up  at an official campsite. What kind of campsite you’ll find is an entirely different matter. One day you might arrive at a very basic site run by the local municipality for a few dollars. The next day could bring a fully-serviced caravan park with luxurious extras like hot springs. In towns and cities, you can often pitch your tent on the back lawn of the local hostel. Just stop by and ask if camping isn’t advertised.

Camping prices are also spread over a wide range. Some are free such as domain campgrounds and a few run by the Department of Conservation (check their site for a nice guide to DOC campsites or pick up a leaflet at a NZ tourist bureau). At the other end of the scale, you might pay NZ$20 per person in a resort town or at a posh private campground.

Budget NZ$10-12/pp for a tent site on average. The nice thing for solo cyclists is that campsite fees are usually charged per person and not by site, making camping a very economical way to go for anyone on their own.

Domain Camping – What’s That?

Just about every town and village in New Zealand has a domain – a grassy patch of land for recreation. For the passing cyclist, this is somewhere you can often pitch your tent. Facilities tend towards the rustic end of the scale but prices are low. You might pay nothing at all or for a small charge (around NZ$5) you can occasionally strike lucky with a hot shower and electricity. The hardest thing about domain camping is finding out where they are. They aren’t always signed. Ask at information bureaus or the local shop. The more off the beaten track you are, the more likely you are to find them.

What will you find? Even at the free end of the scale there should always be some source of water (usually from a tap but sometimes from a nearby river) and either pit or flushing toilets. Once you start paying a few dollars, you’ll find showers, often operated with a coin or token, laundry facilities and a kitchen.

The kitchen may not be fully stocked with cooking utensils, pots and pans so bring your own supplies, just in case. In all but the cheapest spots you’ll find a cooker. There will always be a fridge, a sink and often a microwave, a toaster and a kettle. Sometimes you’ll find free tea and coffee.

The most expensive campsites like those run by the Top 10 chain will have extras like a swimming pool, a playground for kids, a games room and internet access. Occasionally these campsites focus on caravan traffic, however, and refuse to take tents!

If you don’t want to pitch a tent, campgrounds also tend to offer cabins and dorm beds – a good option if the rain is pouring down outside. These run about the same price per person as a bed in a backpacker’s dorm – from NZ$15-25 per person. You may have to provide your own linen for the cabins or rent it for a small additional fee.

This map gives a good overview of campsites in New Zealand, including some free sites.

Posted in New Zealand