Friday, February 6, 2009

Great Scenery and Close Calls with Disaster

We've been making our way down the west coast of the South Island, enjoying beautiful lush forests and rich meadows without having to "pay" for all this greenery with rainy days. Oh, we did sit out two days, and had one very wet night after we and our bike were under cover, but the wind has been almost entirely at our back, the traffic light, and life has been good -- mostly. But we'll get to that other side of things later in this entry.

The West Coast, aka the Wet Coast, is a rainforest, washed by winds whipping across the Tasman and dropping their moisture as they hit the Southern Alps, which they do as soon as they hit land. Annual rainfall is over 3 meters where we are, up to 5 in the mountains, quite a bit more than Seattle's average of 0.95 m. Except where rivers have created deltas, there's little flat land, yet the road has managed to get through without excessive hilliness, for the most part.

As some of the photos show, even the climbs have their payoffs in scenery. The climbs have mostly been 50-100 m (160-325'), but a few have climbed as much as 200 m. Unfortunately, a lot of them do it a bit too quickly for our pleasure, and we've been getting some hiking in along the sides of NZ's roads along with our biking. The downhills are pretty exciting, though!

The mountains, as we said, are always close by, but the clouds have been so low they've been hitting the mountains at the 2- or 3,000-foot level, and we only get brief glimpses above that, and almost none of the really high peaks a little further back, the ones that get over 10,000 feet. The second photo here is one of the few, and it shows a part of the range that's not quite up at the highest elevations. The forest has been dense with trees we're beginning to recognize, but not always by name. They have names like "white pine" and "beech" but they're not even distantly related to North American pines and beeches.

On one of those "rain delay" days, by the way, we found ourselves in artsy Hokitika. The rain cleared mid-afternoon and we explored an art show of sorts on the beach. The "HOKITIKA" driftwood sculpture has been there for a while, but the snowman made of rocks, mussel shells and pine cones and the dancing driftwood were quite the new additions.

Near Hokitika we also saw one of the more unusual bridges in NZ. Now one-lane bridges are fairly common in NZ. They're a lot cheaper to build and replace, apparently. They have signs at each end letting drivers and cyclists know which direction is favored and which has to yield, or Give Way as Kiwis put it. But this particular bridge also carries the local train line! As you can imagine, we walked it, particularly after seeing a banged up German tourist at the backpacker the day before who made the mistake of trying to ride it and had her bike wheel fall in the crack next to the rail. Also nearby in the old gold-mining town of Ross was a replica of the largest gold nugget ever found in NZ, which acquired the name "The Honourable Roddy." The government eventually bought it and made a gift of it to King Edward, who turned it into a set of dinnerware!

At two places the road comes close to glaciers, Franz Josef Glacier and Fox Glacier. In both cases there's a town on the highway at about 500' elevation, and a 4-6 km unpaved road up to the glaciers themselves. At Franz Josef we hiked through the woods, over the glacial streams, under the rocks and over the rocks,

up to the glacier, or more precisely to as close as you're allowed to go without a guide. Glaciers tend to underwhelm due to all the dirt they pick up and carry, but these two are relatively white as glaciers go, and quite impressive. We'll let the photos of the hike and of the glacier speak for themselves. The glaciers are receding after again after a brief advance in the '60s through the '80s, but they still get down to remarkably low altitudes, well under 1,000'. We were not able to hike right up to the glacier face without a guide, but certainly got near enough to feel their presence. If you click on the closest close-up to enlarge the photo (hit the back button on your browser when you're done to go back), you might see little bug-like people hiking in groups across the glacier, to give you some idea of the scale.

At Fox Glacier, the town, we chose to go in the opposite direction about 6 km on a sealed (paved) road to Lake Matheson, reknowned for the view one gets of Aoraki/Mt. Cook reflecting across the lake. While the clouds were a bit higher than they'd been the day before and the day after, they never did pull back to show off NZ's highest peak, 3754 m (12,316'), so here's our photographic attempt along with one from a nearby sign to show you how it was supposed to look.

As always, getting there was half the fun, with NZ's gorgeous trails taking us through the woods.

We've now reached the town of Haast, the southernmost town on the west coast except for two small communities on the 20-km dead-end road that continues from Haast along the Tasman. The main road now turns inland, up and over the Southern Alps on the lowest crossing, Haast Pass, only 563 m, 1,850'. That's still about 1800 feet higher up than we are right now, so tomorrow we're climbing one-and-a-half Empire State Buildings, more or less. Well, we've done much bigger climbs in the Canadian Rockies, so we're not too worried. What we are worried about is the sandflies. Most are smaller than this specimen we passed along the way, but Boy are they annoying! They are very very tiny, very very numerous, and they bite. This week we've changed our names from Jeff and Louise to Itchy and Scratchy.

What has also worried us these past few days are those three near-disasters reference in the title of today's entry. The first came to our attention when we both felt that the bike was a bit wobblier than it should be. Jeff got out the tool to tighten any screws that might be loose, then uttered a few profanities. The rear carrier is attached to the bike with two brackets near Louise's seat, and also from below at two so-called braze-ons near the rear axle. One of the braze-ons had broken off the bike, and the left leg of the rear carrier was hanging in space just next to the drum brake. The picture shows the broken piece resting for its photo to be taken, on the rear axle just below where it broke off.

Fortunately the other three points held the weight and did not fail with the added stress, but we couldn't keep riding that way. Jeff solved the problem by pulling out his screw collection. About 5 years ago we had a ride almost end in the middle of nowhere when one of the two screws that holds the cleat onto Jeff's bike shoe broke, and there was no way for Jeff to get his foot disengaged from the pedal. We saved that ride by pulling out our one spare cleat screw from the collection! This time, we needed two fairly standard 4 mm bike screws, but longer than usual so we could move the rear carrier struts to the braze-ons that hold the rear fender, and attach both items to the single remaining braze-on on each side. And we did, so we're fine for now so long as we don't have any more braze-on failures, which are quite rare.

Next close call was two days later when Jeff was wheeling the bike to our room and the wheel caught on a curb and toppled away from him. It was a fairly low-impact fall, but enough to break one of the two prongs that holds Jeff's rear-view mirror in place. This is a seriously important piece of safety equipment, as it is essential to know when cars and trucks are about to pass. This time good-ole duct tape saved the day. This goes back to a ride we took almost a decade ago, when a blow-out ruined our rear tire. We had no spare. But another rider had duct tape, and we covered the hole well enough to make it ten miles back to our car. Since then we've had about a yard of duct tape wound around a tire lever, sitting unused in the tool kit. It paid for itself this time and the mirror looks ugly but hey, it does the job once again!

Our third close call is the most serious, and will ultimately require us to buy a new camera. We took a kayak trip yesterday afternoon on Lake Paringa, and it was a beautiful paddle on a big empty lake, just us and a few crested grebes out there. But getting out of the kayak the camera shifted in Jeff's pocket and got pressed in a way it didn't like against the wooden dock. The camera still works, but not the display on the back. We can take photos using the visual viewfinder, but cannot check the results on the video display, or change the settings. Since we need to replace the camera with one that takes SD cards, not a challenge, but that also takes lithium batteries that fit our battery recharger, a big challenge, we may have to make do until we return to Wellington, where there are several good camera shops. Sigh ...

Well, that's the news from Westland. We'll write you next from Queenstown, where bungy jumping was invented and adrenaline is the local drug of choice. But you know us, we're very good at saying no to drugs. Hopefully the drugs will listen.

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