We spun down the central west coast on a sunny day, toward Franz Josef glacier. The high rocky mountains jutted up around us. A dreamy turquoise river flowed under the road toward the sea. It was hot, so we stopped for lunch at a little roadside cafe and drank fizzy Lemon & Paeroas.
Montana was fuming. Riding on the road makes him peevish.
“Hey, that looks like a really good pie,” I said brightly.
He grumbled. I gave up, smearing more sunscreen on my face. Maybe one day we'll find a place to tour that we both like.
South of Wellington, I didn’t know quite what to expect. While I was studying abroad in New Zealand, I did a quick hop over to the South Island. I didn’t have a car, so I decided to join some friends on a Kiwi Experience tour bus. These buses are painted forest green, and they’re usually full of hungover college kids. It drove us down the West Coast and deposited us in Queenstown. Along the way, we drank a lot of wine, took a bunch of pictures and did a 3-day hike. It had its fun points, but I’d missed the freedom of traveling under my own power
Picton - Blenheim
It was hot, humid hilly dirt road riding. Like the Hilly Billy race in West Virginia, but next to the ocean. The kilo of peanut butter in my frame bag was dragging me down. Up and over the last muddy dirt climb, to the beach. Our campsite was just down the hill. I coasted in, and Montana was already boiling a pot of rice. Time for a cold shower and a stroll on the sand.
Blenheim - Molesworth Station
55 miles of hot, breezy gravel climbing out of Blenheim. Overheated sheep crowded into a tiny sliver of shade under a scraggly tree. No campsite for the next 20 miles. We set up camp by the silty river under the trees. Maybe the wind woud stop in the morning.
Molesworth - Hanmer Springs
Windy as hell again, barely going 8 miles per hour. Stunning scenery, high dry mountains and purple wildflowers. Camped for the night by the river and became acquainted with the New Zealand sandfly.
No sandflies in these photos. No Montana, either. He couldn’t stay outside the tent long enough.
Montana’s birthday was in Hanmer Springs. It's a little mountain town with a nice campground and some hot springs.
“What do you want to do for your birthday?” I asked over coffee and toast at a cafe in town.
“Repack our hubs.” Well, I would’ve suggested going out for ice cream. But it was his birthday, not mine.
Hanmer Springs - St. Arnaud - Nelson
No wind! We rode up, up more gravel to the highest graveled pass in New Zealand. Twenty minutes of hike-a-bike. A guy pulled up in a truck, asked if we wanted a ride to the top. We laughed. No, we’re good.
Over the hill, a long descent to Island Gully Hut. We had it all to ourselves.
"Let's stay here a while," Montana said.
Maybe, but we were almost out of rice and beans and it’s a long way to town.
From our nice snug hut, another long descent to St. Arnaud, a beautiful but rainy sandfly zone in Nelson Lakes National Park. One night camping in the rain by the fly-infested lake, and we retreated to a hostel full of soggy Te Araroa through-hikers. In a couple days the rain finally let up and we hustled to Nelson, getting soaked by another deluge along the way.
The sun came out! We swooped down singletrack with Philip, another great Warmshowers host. Montana had a new set of Moonmen bars from Colorado. He giggled all the way down.
Back to Philip’s house. He sent us to the town market for olive oil, then gave us most of the bottle. Such a nice guy.
After the market, we rode around town. A note appeared in Montana’s helmet.
“Hey single speeder, nice handlebars. Todd Heath’s a good friend of mine. If you’re in Christchurch stop by for some Kiwi hospitality."
Seriously, SO nice.
We were on our way to have dinner with a Kiwi couple, Hamish and Jane, who we’d met on a street corner in Santa Monica. They’d noticed our touring bikes, said hello and given us their address in Nelson. We took them up on the offer and spent a lovely evening at their place. They’ve been touring since they rode the first Bikecentennial in 1976 with handmade canvas panniers.
Hamish and Jane rode out of town with us on the bike path toward Seddonville, the closest town to the Old Ghost Road trailhead in the ghost town of Lyell.
Lyell - Seddonville
High ridge riding on the Old Ghost Road. Damn. It was pleasant wide bike path riding in the woods till this part. I get off and walked. Chin up, this tour's been way easy. Rain clouds moved in along the mountain tops. Better hustle to get to our campsite.
The next morning, more rain and techy rocky riding. I walked a lot, but not enough to ruin my day.
We rested in the tiny town of Seddonville at the town campground (an old schoolhouse maintained by local volunteers). There was one bar/hotel/restaurant/post office run by a friendly, gruff fellow named Greame and blazing fast Internet. I binge-watched all the episodes of Stranger Things while Montana fiddled with maps to figure out the rest of our route down the South Island. I’m not very helpful when I’m resting. We ate at the Seddonville Hotel twice. I recommend Graeme's very tasty chips.
Seddonville - Westport
The wind blew us into Westport, where we stayed at a surf hostel to wait out more rain. It was a cool, quirky place run by a couple well-traveled Kiwi surfers.
At night the hostel population swelled to capacity when the Kiwi Experience buses pulled in. Noisy teenagers poured into the place. They partied loud. At least one guy knew how to play the guitar well enough to make the whole room shut up
Westport - Greymouth
We pedaled from Westport down the west coast with Ian, another bikepacker who’d shown up at the hostel after us. The whiskey from the night before had us all a little groggy.
Standing outside the famous-ish “Pancake Rocks,” we waited for Ian to show up amid the tour buses and camper vans. It was getting late. The manager at the Pancake Rocks Cafe kicked us off the parking area for eating non-cafe hummus. Ian pedaled up slow, and we went to look at the Pancake Rocks. Gray and blocky. Not much like pancakes. We turned back south and raced the setting sun to Greymouth.
West Coast Wilderness Trail
Spinning through squishy mud. Another four-foot-wide path. Ferns and lichens grew all around. Montana was annoyed by this trail, but he’d be more annoyed by the 250 miles of road riding between us and Otago.
At the end of the trail in Ross, we walked into a hotel/bar that supposedly had campsites in the lawn. The crusty local farmers at the bar frowned at our goofy bright clothes and click-clacky shoes. Tent sites? Ten dollars. Montana got a beer. The farmers snickered.
In a few minutes, the hotel lawn was full of camper vans and rental cars. European chatter floated on the air. Nobody went to the bar to get food, eating instant noodles and canned beans instead. No wonder the locals were annoyed.
We spun down the road, watching camper vans whoosh past. Montana got saltier by the day. I tried to keep up a cheerful face, but we were both wishing there was a better way to ride down the drizzly coastline.
Walking to glaciers
We hiked our bikes up the walking path the the glacier. The sky threatened rain again and helicopters thrummed up above, shuttling people to the mountains and back. Huge black cliffs rise up on either side, waterfalls pouring down.
We almost didn’t go, since I saw the glaciers back in 2012. But damn they’re small now. I’m glad we got to see them before they melt away.
Glacier Country - Wanaka
I was riding faster than the sandflies up Haast Pass - barely. At least the pouring rain was keeping the bugs down. A giant RV trundled past, knocking me into the ditch by the road. I was ready to be done with the west coast.
Up and over the hill, finally we were in Otago. The sky cleared as we rode along the clearest, bluest lakes into Wanaka
Wanaka - Cromwell
On top of the Pisa Range, looking down at Wanaka. The lake was misty blue in the distance. The mountains jutted up, gold and green. Wind whipped around the craggy black rocks. I pushed my bike up to the top of the climb, breathless in the altitude. It was like being on the Front Range. Dang that climb was good and long.
All signs said the track was closed from the top. So we went right where we should’ve turned left. It took us three tries to find the right way down to Cromwell.
Cromwell - Lumsden
Montana had his helmet off, swinging from his handlebars. I wiped sweat out of my eyes while I hiked up the steep, scrabbly road. It was the Nevis Crossing, New Zealand’s highest public road. We’d been walking for two miles.
Lumsden - Invercargill
Back on the pavement. A tailwind! No rain! Flat land and flat gray skies. Invercargill wanted us to visit. Montana wanted to see Burt Munro’s record-setting 1920’s motorcycle in a hardware shop. I wanted to see the tuatara, New Zealand’s only native reptile, in their Tuatarium.
Invercargill had terrible weather, some neat old buildings and a surprisingly hip salon where I got my first haircut in a year. We loved it there.
Invercargill - Gore
In NZ’s country-western capital, we stayed in a campground with just a few other people. Montana was locked in a deep conversation with a slightly-tipsy Maori guy in the warm kitchen. They had their palms pressed together. The guy kept pressing Montana to define his religious beliefs. Montana kept deflecting, drinking slugs of whiskey to ignore the question. The kitchen smelled like fried fish. I left them to their male bonding and went to bed
Gore - Dunedin
It was raining and chilly. Instead of mountain biking on the local trails, we sipped coffee and walked around town, looking at the cool Gothic churches and university buildings. We bought used books, went to a garden and listened to some music. We rode up the steepest street in the world.
No, it wasn’t Pittsburgh. We were in Dunedin, on the other side of the world.
Dunedin - Oamaru
I sat down on the side of the road and pressed my palms into my eyes. My back wheel was off, tire lumpy and soft on the rim. The damn thing wouldn’t inflate. The wind whipped around, and I zipped up my rain jacket. The zipper broke at the bottom, and it unzipped all the way. Goddamn.
Some sheep on the side of the hill looked at me blankly. Bastards. I started pushing up the next huge climb, hoping Montana would get worried and turn around. He did. We gave up on the big mountain route and rode north on the road.
We staggered back from the jazz bar along the streets lined with wedding-cake stone Victorians. Back to the campground through the steampunk playground, where we took turns zipping around on the Flying Fox.
A crowd was gathered in front of the campground porch. The worldâ€™s smallest penguins! Montana crouched down in front of the porch to get a look. The grayish, rabbit-sized penguins hissed and snapped.
Oamaru - Tekapo
We counted the days we had left. Wow, there were a lot. If we did a backwards tour of the Alps2Ocean (from Oamaru to Lake Tekapo), we could stretch it into a 6-day ride going about 30 miles a day. That wasn’t a lot of riding, but it would be better than sitting in Christchurch for two weeks waiting on our flight home.
Spinning along the washboard next to Lake Pukaki, we looked for a spot to camp. The Lake glowed turquoise under the bright blue sky. After three days of riding into a headwind, the weather had finally settled. Snowcapped Mount Cook jutted up across the lake. We rolled off the road and set up our tent on a cliff by the lakeside. Wild camping night #3 in New Zealand.
My idea of Tekapo was from postcards - showing fields of lupines (my favorite alpine flower) along the the lovely blue lake, starry night skies over the old stone Church of the Good Shepherd, snowcapped mountains and braided rivers.
We rolled into town, high off the night of peaceful free camping. Tekapo was a town full of tour buses and million-dollar homes painted black against the tussocky grass. It was too late in the season for lupines, and the sky was overcast. We got food from the Four Square and beat it out of there.
Tekapo - Geraldine
Shacked up in a holiday park cabin in Geraldine, we watched the rain fall hard outside. It was 9:00 am. We still had an hour till official checkout (which Kiwis take kind of seriously). The campground owner rushed through the storm and tapped on our door.
“What are your plans? We haven’t got any cabins left, so either you tent or you leave, sorry!” Seemed like she was in a big hurry to get us out. We packed up quick and sloshed away.
Geraldine - Christchurch
We walked along the side of the big farm house, looking for Dan, the guy who’d left a note in Montana’s helmet in Nelson. A black-and-white cat watched us from the window. Dan said he’d be around. Oh shit.
A cat was belly-up in the yard. Its legs looked awfully stiff.
“Montana. I think their cat is dead.” His face fell. We decided to pretend we didn’t see it. Maybe it was a stray?
Turns out the cat was feral. Dan and his wife started trapping feral cats (super invasive in New Zealand, really bad for the bird population) after their black-and-white kitty got a bad infection from a cat fight.
Dan and his wife Ange gave us a great couple days in Christchurch, showing us all the local trails we had time to ride and even letting us use their garage to pack up our bikes.
We ate through the city’s food trucks and souvenir shopped around. Then all of a sudden it was time to go. At the airport we drank our last long blacks, dreading the two days of airports in front of us. We were sad to leave the good espresso and fluffy sheep, but we were ready to get back to our cozy camper by the river