We’d been hearing about New Zealand’s charms for years. One of the best cycling destinations in the world we were told. Rugged mountain passes, spectacular coastal roads, stunningly beautiful countryside and miles and miles of unpaved backroads where the sheep far outnumber the motorists.
In short, a pedaller’s paradise.
As long, that is, as you don’t mind raging headwinds, pounding rain and drivers who think cycling is something that should be practiced on a stationary machine in the privacy of your own home.
A (minor) Hurdle to Clear
Before you can pedal out into paradise, you’ve got to get your gear past the stringent eye of the bio-security authorities at the airport. New Zealand, quite logically, wants to keep all sorts of foreign pests and destructive vegetation from reaching its shores.
Which means bikes and gear must be spic and span ready for inspection upon arrival. Items showing traces of soil or seeds can be held for disinfection or even refused entry into the country. A nightmare scenario you’ll surely agree.
Our inspector greeted us with a smile. “I’ll just have to have a look at the bikes,” he instructed. We busted open our carefully packed bike boxes and bags. Brand-new tires I boasted. Not a speck of dirt on ‘em. Tent’s been thoroughly washed as have the bags.
“Bikes look pretty good,” conceded the officer, “but I’ll have to take the tent back to our lab for inspection.”
Uh-oh I thought. More trouble on the way. Things hadn’t been going well since we’d heaved our bikes and gear on to the scale at check-in back in Melbourne. Also with a smile, the JetStar agent informed us our bags and bikes came to 91 kilos—11 kilos over our allotted 80..
We’d have to cough up an extra $275! That’s half a month’s travel budget for us.
We snapped into action, ripping open bags, stuffing ourselves into so many layers of extra clothing that even rail-thin Eric began resembling the Michelin Man. I stuffed my pockets with spare bike parts and gear and even considered the possibility of wearing the heavy bike lock around my neck as an article of jewelry. Finally, 30 minutes before take-off we’d got it right. Not a gram over 80 kilos we’d calculated. With a heavy sigh, the agent informed us we were still 3 kilos too heavy. But, having observed our valiant efforts at weight reduction, she’d let it slip. No extra charges but we’d better sprint through passport control or risk missing the flight.
Now we were trying to finagle our way through customs with a questionably clean tent. Perhaps the microscope would pick up some exotic plant material left over from the highlands of Laos or the Borneo jungle and our precious Big Agnes shelter would be confiscated and burned. The government website stated that items would not be returned upon inspection unless deemed safe.
We were braced for bad news. But what we got was a courteous, “Here you are. Enjoy your stay in New Zealand.”
Woo-hoo! We’d made it. Admitted to new Zealand for a three month stay. Tent and all.
Now it was time to search out those rugged mountain passes, spectacular coastal roads, stunningly beautiful countryside and deserted rural roads.
Prepped for Paradise
On the South Island of New Zealand it doesn’t take much to uncover such spots. The country has been blessed with far more than its fair share of natural beauty.
On the advice of John, a helpful blog follower who’s now hosting us in Invercargill, we headed inland from Christchurch. The road was deliciously flat, but headwinds hampered our progress on day one. It seems there’s always something conspiring against us. If it’s not headwinds it’s heat. If not heat then it’s rain. If not rain then a band of crazed drivers are on the loose.
After so many years on the road, you might think we’d get used to such climatic headaches and simply carry on. Not the case. I find myself having less and less patience for such annoyances. After 50 kilometers of dueling with mother nature, we plopped down by the side of the road. The whistling wind was causing such a racket we couldn’t even listen to podcasts while pedaling.
Within a few moments a passing farmer rolled up to see if we were all right. New Zealanders have a well-deserved reputation for friendliness and hospitality.
“We’re fine, it’s just the wind,” we assured him. “Just carry on 5 more kilometers, “directed the farmer. “You’ll come to Hororata. Plenty of room to pitch your tent at the domain. Got toilets there too and drinking water.”
Sounded good to us. A DOMAIN, we were to discover, is just the name given to a town’s recreational areas, a kind of park with playing fields.
We set up camp in the domain. Nobody stopped by to hassle us or ask us to leave, for which we were quite relieved. So-called “Freedom Camping” is frowned upon in New Zealand. Touristic areas are slathered with signs forbidding you to camp. Those caught can be fined up to $500 on the spot.
So far, things have worked out to us on the camping front. Farm families are warm and welcoming when we ask to camp on their land. We’ve been invited in to shower, wash clothes, check our emails and sent off with chocolates for the road. In other cases we’ve employed the arrive late, depart early, leave no trace behind method of stealth camping.
On day 2 we got our first taste of the hills everyone had been warning us about. A terrific time free-wheeling it down to the Rakai Gorge and a bit of huffing and puffing on the way back up. I fear those first fifty pancake flat kilometers out of Christchurch may be the only ones we’ll experience in this country.
After the torturous climbs in Indonesia, these hardly feel demanding. There’s no heat and humidity to contend with and certainly not a constant stream of logging trucks or über-friendly folks on motorbikes attempting conversation as we pedal in pain.
There is indeed much truth in the notion that New Zealand is a pedaller’s paradise. Adventure is there if you want it, but if comfort is more your style, you can easily stick to the main roads hoppingp from one comfortable acoommodation to the next.
Our first taste of advenuture came on the rough ride to Cattle Creek where we got our feet wet more than once as we forded some minor creeks on the way up Hakataramea Pass. The ride over Danseys Pass lead us deep into sheep country and the lush emerald-green grazing grounds of the high country.
After biking through the thick Naseby forest, we were spit out onto the famous Otago Central Rail Trail.
Sure, it’s touristy. You’ll come across those who’ve allotted 5 days for the 150 kilometer track, are checking into a cosy B&B each night and are having their gear transported by mini-van. But the trail is beautiful and shouldn’t be missed. And, if you need a break from the drizzle and mist, Central Otago is known as one of the driest spots in the country.
Finding quiet backroads is fairly easy and we’re rarely bothered by traffic. We got our desired dose of stunning coastal scenery on the ride through the little-visited Catlins region. That’s the place to head to for pristine waterfalls, windswept hills and precarious sections of road hugging the wild coastline of the deep south.
Christmas Eve saw us conquering the final hills around stunning Curio Bay before we cruised into Invercargill for some much needed rest.
Soon it will be back to the bikes and time to see if the rest of the country lives up to its reputation as a pedaller’s paradise. I’m betting it will.
Check out more New Nealand South Island Photos on Flickr.
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