Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Picton to Pancakes

It's good to be back on the bike, but it was a challenging first week. We started out easily enough with the ferry trip from Wellington on the North Island to Picton at the top of the South Island. The bike assembly area was, uh, well-marked, and the bike went onto the bottom deck,
which at times is filled with railroad freight cars. The route is very scenic, out past Wellington Head,
which we've previously sailed past coming in and out of the harbor on the Volendam, and across Cook's Strait to Queen Charlotte Sound. That is a remote stretch of coastline,

where we saw only an occasional house at the waterline, and not much else that nature didn't put there. At last Picton hove into sight, along with a sister ferry boat headed north, leaving Picton.
That day was short, about 15 km including a short ride around the Picton area, and the next was also an easy 40 km, fairly flat as it took us into the heart of NZ's wine country. For almost 50 km, much of that day and the first part of the next, we had vineyards constantly in sight, usually right next to us and sometimes on both sides of the road.
Day three was a big challenge. The road went straight up the Wairau Valley along the Wairau River
and then up a side stream that brought us to a col at 727 m, about 2300', followed by a short descent to Lake Rotoroa in Nelson Lakes National Park. In those 93 km there was only one town, at 25 km, where we refilled the water bottles. Unfortunately, we did not have enough water bottles to fill for those next hot 70 km, and we were rationing the precious fluid for the last hour or two. With some headwind and constant climbing, our average speed sounds ok -- 17 -- until you convert that from kph to mph, where it comes out a wimpy 11. We both started fantasizing about a pickup truck loading us and our bike aboard for the steep last part of the climb, but the highway, a fairly major highway by NZ standards, was averaging only 3 or 4 cars an hour in our direction, and about the same the other. And none of them was a pickup.

So on we toiled, about 5 1/2 hours of actual biking (well, half and hour of that was pushing the bike up two sections where even 6 or 7% grades seemed too much for us), and a lot more time on breaks to catch our breath and stretch. But we made it, and had three nights to recover in this beautiful location.

Walking actually proved therapeutic for our aching legs, and as always in NZ there were great trails along the lake for us to explore.

Around 8 pm the sun got low in the west and made for interesting shadows on the hills and a nice backlighting for this cormorant.

The next day was an easy 60 km following the Buller River southwestward toward the Tasman Sea.
We broke up the pedalling with a twenty-minute hike across an abandoned railroad bridge and through this tunnel, looping back over the same hill.
Our destination was the BBH in Murchison, run by a lovely English couple who emigrated to NZ a year ago to reinvent themselves after a lifetime of living in the same small community in the UK. BBH is a network of hostels, but they're better than the youth hostels we've tried in the US and Canada. They are individually owned, usually by couples, and they are all over NZ, in almost every town we're going to stay in on our cycling trip.
They always have community cooking facilities, and we've always been able to get a private room with either a queen sized bed or twin beds. Indeed, the directory makes them easy to assess beforehand and to find when you bike into a new town. They've ranged from good to great, and at an average of just over NZ$60 (less than $35 US at the current exchange rate) per night, they are doing wonders for our budget!

Our next day was another long one, the remaining 98 km down the Buller to Westport, again to a BBH, or "backpacker" as they're also called. As we checked in, the owner commented on our tandem, said they've hardly ever had any come by, but that tonight we were the second one to arrive!
And so we spent a good bit of the evening chatting away with Lin and Bernard from Manchester England, also retired from a university job, who are riding around the South Island clockwise, the opposite direction from us. But that allowed us to trade info about what was ahead, and there is a chance our paths will cross a few hundred km from here in the Queenstown area -- we exchanged email addresses and cell phone numbers to stay in touch.
By the way, we did stop at one place between Murchison and Westport that is supposedly the most-photographed piece of road on the South Island. The photography started over a century ago, as the historical picture shows,

and the road is just as narrow today, though with a guard rail at least. We also had our day brightened at many places along the road by this bright orange flower, which we had not seen along North Island roads.
The shoulder came and went, but the traffic was light and it did not seem dangerous at any point.

Westport became a major city as a commercial center for gold diggers in the 1860's, then for coal miners as one mineral ran out and the other proved to be easy to get. Easy to dig for and get, but not easy to get out, as it was mainly hundreds of meters up into the Southern Alps. One of the most famous places was Denniston, and we both recently read Denniston Rose, a novel set there that is in all the bookstores as a best-seller. Denniston had a famous way of getting the coal to market, it put it in rail cars that descended the Denniston Incline at a 35-40% grade, the weight of the coal in the descending cars providing the power to bring up the empties and anything else, such as mail, or anyone, such as everyone wanting to get to Denniston, as the Incline was the only way up there for its first 20 years.

The Coaltown Museum in Westport had a Denniston coal car set up at the correct angle --
can you imagine sitting in that thing, covered in coal dust and being whizzed up a mountain at what must have felt like close to straight up? Many who did it swore never to do it again, and stuck with that resolve, staying in Denniston for decades. They only left when they were dead, as the ground was so rocky they couldn't be buried in Denniston! By the way, the trip down was actually two trips,
as the cars had to be taken off one set of tracks and relaunched down a second set at the midway point. The museum had this historical photo showing that spot, called Middle Brake. Working there, in the line of fire of any descending coal car that broke a cable or a connecting pin, made it a less than popular job location.

After our long day, we compensated with a short ride out to Cape Foulwind, named by Capt. Cook but the name fit the day we rode there, a stiff headwind that made our 13 km flat ride far from easy. But just down the road from our motel was another grand walk along the cliffs

to a spot where we could look down at a fur seal colony, the southern-most one in NZ for this particular type of seal. There were once enormous numbers of seals in NZ, but fashion and greed combined in the early 1800s to bring them to near-extinction.

That brings us to today, and the "Pancakes" of the blog title. Since Westport we have been in what Kiwis call "Westland," a narrow band of land wedged between the Southern Alps and the Tasman Sea. Today we rode 60 km, sometimes along wave-swept beaches, more often climbing over hills that brought us as much as 200 m above the water,

almost always hearing the pounding of the surf. At last we descended to Punakaiki, home of the "Pancake Rocks."

And sure enough, they are pancake-like! DOC, the Dept. of Conservation, has once again built a wonderful trail through them and to places where the incoming waves shoot up through blowholes, sometimes shooting 50 or 60 feet into the air!

We have our "bike legs" again, more or less, and have a route down the west coast that is fairly well broken into 40-70 km segments. Part-way down the coast we climb a little to the base of two glaciers, or glah-see-urs as Kiwis pronounce them, then return to the sea for a few more days before climbing into the Southern Alps again. We'll "talk" to you next from there!

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Back On The Saddle Again

You'd have to go back to 1993 for Louise and 1990 for Jeff to find a time either of us was off a bike for as long as we've been off this past few months. As we've explained, the roads on the North Island of NZ are a bit narrow and frequently shoulderless, tolerable when a road is reasonably flat and straight but waaaaay too dangerous when they're as twisty and hilly as North Island roads frequently were. Add to that a nationwide speed limit of 100 kph, which Kiwis often consider a starting point for how far they push down the accelerator, and -- well -- we joined them behind the wheel of a car, albeit at somewhat slower speeds.

But it's time to put two wheels back on the road, and we spent two days reassembling our bike from this mess of parts into the red tandem we know and love so well. Two days, because the box carrying the rear triangle of the frame was apparently dropped or hit, bending a part called the rear dropout. The rear wheel no longer fit into the rear dropout, but a visit to a Wellington bike shop solved that at a very reasonable cost of only $11 US.

In between reassembling the bike and numerous hours plotting our route and likely stopover points, we socialized with Dan and Gerard, our hosts at the Wellington Motel, which is actually an old home remodeled into several efficiency apartments. They were definitely in the top decile for affability among motel owners we've met. We spent even more time with Robert and Katrina and their teenage daughter Jessamy,
whom we befriended aboard the Volendam. The motel was next door to their town home, and we had some meals with them, watched real TV for a change in their living room, borrowed their computer to do research for the trip and to update the blog, and even went next door one night to borrow a little salad dressing when our calculation of dressing to salad ratios for the week's stay missed the mark and we had dry lettuce staring at us from an otherwise attractive dinner setting.

Two high points of our adventuring with them, pardon the pun, were a hike with Katrina and a drive with Rob, both to elevated portions of Wellington, of which there are many. The walk started with a cable car ride steeply uphill from downtown to the Botanical Garden, with its view of downtown, its hills and dells, and even more than a few flowers.

As we hiked along we looked down at two cruise ships,
our own beloved Volendam on the left and another boat, the Millennium, going head to head at the Wellington dock. From another spot on the trail we looked down to a large home that Katrina identified as Premier House, where the Prime Minister lives -- it's the home
in the center of the picture backed up to the greenbelt we're taking the picture from. Unfortunately for her, it brings back painful memories, not political but dental -- part of the home was her dentist's office a few decades back!

Robert is a car guy, so when Katrina and Jessamy took off for a girls' holiday, Robert took us for a drive. Good thing, we needed all his horsepower to get to Mt. Victoria, an impressive bit of hill right outside downtown.
We had to literally hang onto the railing at the lookout to get this photo. The next day we read in the papers that the wind was so fierce it shattered windows in downtown, forcing the closing of some major streets while they cleaned up the debris and made sure all the glass that wanted to come down had descended. Not for nothing is this town nicknamed "Windy Wellington." In fact, we almost got knocked off our feet last October when we stopped by as part of our cruise, the wind was even worse that day. Cyclists have a hard time of it here.

We went on to prove just that. Once the bike was successfully reassembled, of course we wanted to take it for a spin. Our first two attempts had to be shortened when the wind proved just too dangerous. Then on our last day here the weather gods all cooperated and we had a sunny unblustery ride all along the shore, from north of downtown where we're staying through downtown and out to where we could almost make out Antarctica, we knew it was out there with nothing else between us and it in that direction.
What we did make out was the boat we take tomorrow from Wellington, on the North Island, to Picton, on the South. The road followed the shore more or less at sea level for 35 km, and the route back gave us just one good workout for our climbing muscles as we completed a 46 km day.

Our route is very easy tomorrow, about 5 km of riding to the ferry and off, as we're staying in Picton. Day 2 is only marginally harder, 40 fairly flat km to a small town called Renwick. Then stuff hits the fan, as we have a 97 km day, 60 miles, with a climb of 727 m (about 2300') to a ski town in the Southern Alps, St. Arnaud. That's a do-able distance and climb for us, but with so little of a warm-up, we're a little apprehensive. But today felt good, it was great to be back on the saddles again. It should be just fine, and we have three days booked in St. Arnaud to do some hiking . . . or maybe just some recovering.

For the next 5 weeks, we plan to bike our way southward on the South Island, perhaps all the way to the bottom if things work out. We'll certainly make it to Queenstown, about 3/4 of the way down, but there is a stretch of road that sounds dangerous for which we need more info before we commit to going all the way to Invercargill. We'll no doubt be blogging you next from the wet West Coast of New Zealand!

Adventures in Oz III: Melbourne and More

We spent a week in Melbourne and 5 days on the road west of there before heading back to NZ. Melbourne struck us as a pleasanter place to live than Sydney, but for the things we were interested in (bike races excepted!), not as interesting as a tourist destination.
Nonetheless, we enjoyed a calm week in a B&B in East Melbourne and had a nice walk
through its interesting 19th century architecture and near downtown on the Yarra River
with its new pedestrian walkway. We even slowed down occasionally to enjoy Melbourne's cafe culture, which is everywhere,
and read several Australian novels. It's interesting to read books where the characters go through neighborhoods you've actually seen, in a culture you've come to know, if only a little.
And of course we thoroughly enjoyed getting around town on the trams, both old and new.
Melbourne has the fourth largest system in the world, and it was an enjoyable way to get around, though "rapid transit" it's not.

After a week and a half in the Sydney area we had not, of course, seen any of the animals Australia is known for. Cruising the streets of Melbourne did not turn up any kangaroos either, so we headed to the zoo and caught Joe Cool taking it easy,
and even some teeny-tiny penguins nearby.
But of course you can see animals like this in zoos anywhere, so it was off to the wilds to see if we could find some in their natural habitat. And did we ever! First were the koalas. We were driving along when all of a sudden there was a "bear jam" (traffic jam caused by tourists stopping to watch bears) as good as any in the Montana Rockies. Sure enough, there were 9 or 10 koalas ten feet above our heads in the eucalyptus trees.
Koalas sleep an average of 20 hours a day, but we found one that was wide awake and not happy with the eucalyptus leaves on his branch. Now if he could just get to that next branch . . .

Next were the emus and kangaroos, which we tracked down in a park that filled an extinct volcanic crater, about 250 km west of Melbourne. The kangaroos were deep in the bush, and the first one
we glimpsed looked rather like a deer. But he was kangaroo, all right,

and even hopped down to the road after a bit. But kangaroos are all over the place in Australia,
and two days later, we found a lawn that was pretty much infested with the little hoppers.

Our trip wasn't all roos and koalas, however. The Great Ocean Road is a famous road built during the Depression as a make-work project. It occasionally is down at sea level, as seen here from above, but much of it is on bluffs
with turnoffs for views and walks. The route started with some attractive beaches, but the further west we went, the more spectacular they got.

Rather than talk about it, we'll let the photos tell the story of our road trip there.

One of the most interesting spots was near the end, called London Bridge.
It used to be a double span, but one day in 1999 the left span collapsed with no warning. Not even for the two tourists who were on the end of the point, who had to be rescued by helicopter a few hours later.
It's hard to convey the power of the sea, pictures like this of the waves breaking don't do justice without the full sound and fury of the thundering surf, but look again at London Bridge. All that stone is gone, in less than ten years. Totally gone!

After three days of sea views and one short visit to a rainforest as the road crossed the Otway Mountains, in the rain no less, we turned north to the Grampians.
We saw them from the car for about an hour before we got there -- here's the view, with the aptly-named Mount Abrupt on the right.
The Grampians were full of interesting hikes, including one through an area they call the Grand Canyon, another to a spot called
The Balconies, where Louise is checking out the Upper Tier, and another
nameless rock where Guru Jeff mellowed out. Serious forest fires went through here just two years ago, but much of the forest we hiked through had recovered splendidly.
We closed out with a drive to Mount Difficult, with these views that were not at all difficult to enjoy.

One final destination stood between us and the airport, Ballarat. We found a classic backroad lined with gum trees, and checked out a town that once mined millions of dollars of gold. The downtown still has many marvelous buildings

built with the mineral wealth they extracted, and the sculpture they dropped all over the main street.
This statue of Queen Victoria had four bas-reliefs illustrating high points of her life. Bet you didn't know that one of them was
her signing of the Australian Constitution Act in 1900, memorialized here in bronze.

Oh yes, there was one more matter to deal with. Ballarat just happened to be hosting the Australian National Road Championships. As in a bike race to see who was the best rider in Oz. 159 riders started, but about half quit before the finish line 162 km later when they found themselves too far behind the peloton. The course was 10 km around, so we got to see bits of the race 16 times as they swooped by, averaging 40 kph for the first dozen laps and then about 37-38 for the last few (24-25 mph). Not bad for a course with a 600' climb every six-mile circuit. With half a dozen professionals in the race, guys who ride with the best in Europe, an amateur racer who works in a Sydney bike shop pulled off the win, Peter McDonald.

And now it's time for us two amateurs to get back on our bike. Next week, we'll let you know how it went.