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April 20, 2000
Christchurch, New Zealand
 
 
 
It is official. I am now on Bikeabout. I have toured a small blip on the side of New Zealand’s South Island.

On Monday I set out to ride the Banks Peninsula. It is sort of a dead end kind of side trip, and I thought it would be a great way to shake all the bugs out with my new gear and bike, and end up back in Christchurch before taking off on the big loop around the South Island. I thought I could loop to Akaroa -- the town near the end of the peninsula -- in two days, and then back in one. But I couldn’t.

Since geology and bicycling are such interrelated fields, let me fill you in on the geology. Such and such bunch of millions of years ago, there were two big volcanoes that formed their own island off the coast of what is now the South Island of New Zealand. And gradually over another bunch of millions of years, the volcanoes eroded away into deep valleys and a bay-fringed coast. Meanwhile, really big mountains on the South Island were being eroded away and the crap that rubbed off those mountains fanned out in a big flat plain that eventually connected with the volcanoes.

What this means, is a really nice contrast. Christchurch is happily sitting on a flat plain (And should be voted Bicycle Commuting City of the World because of it.). But right next to it are steep, fun, beautiful hills.

On Monday at about 1:00pm, (Get An Early Start is my motto that I never live by.) I rode out of the city and into the hills. Soon I had left the noisy traffic behind and instead had to deal with the smell of pine trees, the cool clouds and mist, the sounds of birds, and a steady incline. The clouds and mist were a pleasant surprise, because earlier in the day it had been raining, and if I hadn’t been so anxious to test out my new rain gear, I might not have left the comfort of my cozy hostel. But alas, the gear remained untested and the only soaking I got was an internally supplied one.

The terrain could be described as rolling, but only if you account for the fact that it took me an hour or more per “roll.” I rolled up to about 1500 feet -- the volcano crater rim -- and then down to the first of several bays. Then up again and over to the next bay. And the next. On the way to the fourth bay, the road turned to dirt and the sun went down and the temperature dropped, so it really got fun. At last, the light in the sky coming not from the sun but from the crescent moon, I pulled into a ghost campground at Pigeon Bay where I was the only camper. And where I set up my tiny tent with cold-numbed fingers and hoped my untried stove would cook me up a hot meal.

It did. And I got a view of the starry sky as the clouds from earlier vanished in the night. And thus got to confirm that I was actually in the Southern Hemisphere. I mean, I can read a map well enough to tell that New Zealand is in the Southern Hemisphere, but since I’d never been here before, I wanted some astronomical confirmation. And I got it. Primarily because I couldn’t recognize any of my friendly old northern sky constellations. But there was the Southern Cross. And the Greater and Lesser Magellic Clouds. And an unfamiliar chunk of the Milky Way. Cool.

And speaking of cool, that was primarily the reason that I had the campground to myself. It was not the height of the travel season. The warm summer weather had gone, and it looked like I was headed for even cooler weather yet. I made a note to go ahead and take the short sleeved jersey out of my packs when I got back to Christchurch.

The next morning was bright and crisp. I packed up and got rolling by about 10:30 and didn’t get very far before I had to stop and take a nice stroll through the “native bush” of a small scenic reserve. In among the trees, I thought for a moment that I was back in the jungle, but for a couple minor differences. One, I was not hot, sweaty and dripping. The other difference took me a few minutes to figure out. Like the jungle, there were plenty of ferns and understory plants, thick-trunked trees, vines and moss. And everything was all nice and green. (It turns out that the colorful autumn leaves I had been seeing were all recent imports. The native trees of New Zealand are green all year long.). But the difference was in the leaves of the trees which were almost all really tiny. Strange. And I wanted to know why. Why? Why?

And then I wanted to know why a little bird with a broad tail was so friendly to me, flying right up to me, acting like it was about ready to land on my shoulder and giving me a whole Disney-singing-with-the-animals kind of feeling.

Back on the bike, I rolled up to the rim of the ancient crater and into the cold wind. Then I zippered up and zipped back down to sea level and another bay. Okains Bay is the name of the community as well. There was a nice little store with ice cream treats (cold weather be damned) and where Fred the 13 year old shop employee and future mtn bike enthusiast took my bike for a spin after I had taken the packs off and changed a flat tire.

Then I went to the museum and looked at the huge collection of not particularly well described artifacts from both the Maori period and the era of the European settlers. One of the historic buildings that had been moved to the site was a blacksmiths shop. And no static museum display, this. No siree, it was horseshoeing day at the museum. Every six weeks or so the farrier comes to shoe the horses of the nearby residents. And why not use the well equipped shop at the museum? Why not indeed. Plus, the smell of burning coal and burning horse hoof gave the place an authentic historical air.

The whole Banks Peninsula has a long and rich history from the period of the Maori people. But when the Europeans started showing up in the middle of the 1800’s, there wasn’t really anyone to displace, since the Maoris had pretty much decimated themselves in wars and feuds. They did leave behind enough artifacts to make a large and impressive pile in the museum showcases.

The Okains Bay campground was a wonder to behold. I mean there was some ground, and I camped on it. But there was a “pavilion” with showers. I was expecting an open air kind of thing with a roof and a couple picnic tables. But the pavilion was a nice modern kitchen building with about 24 electric stove burners, sinks, and water boilers. And best of all it was warm inside. That evening I cooked in style with two kiwi guys out from Christchurch, one of whom kept wanting to talk about American politics (as if I understand Americans or politics).

The showers were another wonder to behold. After the pavilion, I’d kinda gotten my hopes up over the showers. But no. Not only wasn’t there any hot water, there wasn’t any water. The showers consisted of a hook and pulley arrangement for hoisting a solar shower bag. I had no solar shower bag. And wasn’t sure there had been enough solar energy that day to heat one up. But I made do with a pan and a couple bottles filled with hot water from the kitchen. Whee!

It was even colder that night. And seemed darn cold to a guy recently from the tropics with a summer-weight sleeping bag and an airy summer tent. But the new warm gear did its stuff and (assisted by another bottle of hot water from the kitchen to snuggle up to) I survived without even feeling cold. In the morning I bundled up and hit the beach to look for my first penguin (no luck). Nice clear sunny day, and soon I was sweltering. By the time I got packed up, I was wearing shorts and the short-sleeved jersey that I had considered leaving behind.

I was further warmed by yet another climb to the crater rim and then enjoyed a pleasant ride along the top. I stopped to hike into another reserve of native bush. Climbed a mountain. Took lots of pictures. Had a leisurely lunch. Wrote in my journal. And generally made a whole day of traveling 15 miles. Late in the afternoon I rolled down from the rim to the little town of Akaroa and into a kind of paradise where I stayed four days.

Akaroa is inside the volcano. But the millions of years have been kind. Instead of molten lava, there is a long sheltered harbor surrounded by picturesque hills. The town itself is filled with quaint homes and friendly people. I mtn biked up steep and scenic tracks in the clear, warm sunshine. I sat and read while the brook burbled past the hostel. I played some intense games of Scrabble with fellow travelers. I collected mussels with some locals on a stretch of rocky shore. I dined on fresh fruit and chocolate at the idyllic Tree Crop Farm, which despite its industrial name, was about as pleasant a place as I have ever been. And typical of the whole four days. Almost unbearably pleasant.

And thus I’ve been forced to reassess the whole New Zealand travel plan. I’ve been planning on riding my bike around New Zealand. But if the rest of New Zealand is anything like the Banks Peninsula (and most reports suggest it’s better yet), then it would be foolish to try. Because, no, the trip is not related to the number of miles, but to the quality of the experience along the way. There is no real way for me to “cover” this country in the three-month time period that is stamped on my passport. So I’m not going to try. I’m going to go at a pace that satisfies me and linger where I want to linger. I won’t see it all. But there’s no way I could see enough by moving too quickly.

None of this is exactly new to me. It was just fun to confirm it by turning a quick jaunt around a little peninsula into a full and pleasurable experience.

I’ve also reassessed some of my equipment choices. Got rid of my day pack. Added more bike packs. Added a couple more tools. Took off my big heavy headlight/battery pack with its equally big heavy recharger and NZ power converter and put on a little self-contained headlight. And a new seat to replace the old, hard, worn-out one that I brought along with me. (It’s amazing how much more one tends to sit down when touring than when mtn biking.)

The biggest change in equipment is related to you, gentle reader, because you have become an important part of this Bikeabout. I have been writing this kind of thing for years. But it’s always been solely for my own entertainment, and even then, only while I was writing, since I pretty much never read it later. Now I have you as an audience and I like that. I worry about it, but I like it. I worry that I’ll seem like an arrogant, self-absorbed ass. And worse, that I won’t be an entertaining arrogant, self-absorbed ass.

I do want to thank all of you for reading about these travels, and to thank those of you who have written back with advice or praise. Because I do cling to the act of writing for you. When I look at what I am doing and it seems like I’m just frittering away my time and not accomplishing anything, I comfort myself with the notion that I am an entertainer. My job is to experience strange new things and to share those experiences with you. Writing and pictures.

Three days into the Banks Peninsula expedition, I had already filled up my digital camera. And nowhere to empty it back out. Sure, I could buy some additional memory for the camera, but that would still fill right up, and worse yet, would be sitting around in a pack, doing no one any good. So what I really needed was that which I already had, but had left behind in Christchurch. Yip, this little iBook.

So, after being dragged around Borneo and then being abandoned in a storage locker in New Zealand for a week, the little blue iBook makes its return to the expedition. I’ll strap it onto the bike in as waterproof a way as I can manage. Rain and roadshock and robbery. It’ll be risky. But -- I have to keep telling myself -- that’s what it’s for. And I’ll be glad of it’s company, because it’s my link to these tales of adventure and you.

Now that I have actually traveled across a part of New Zealand (Even though it's just a small part.) I have had a chance to learn a few things about the country. First I’d like to dispel a myth about sheep.

Almost everyone that I have ever talked to about New Zealand has mentioned sheep. There seems to be a common idea that New Zealand is overrun with sheep. And this is absolutely NOT true. The New Zealanders have carefully kept the vast multitudes of sheep from overrunning the country by the clever use of fences. These fences keep the sheep in safe and easily manageable pastures and generally off the major roads and out of the cities.

As I mtn biked the tracks and trails around Akaroa, I had numerous encounters with these fences. (As well as the sheep.) And when the trail crossed a fence, the process was made easier by the New Zealand Stile. Now, a Stile is a kind of simple step that allows a person (but not a sheep) to easily cross a fence. And although this was not quite first time I have ever encountered a Stile, it isn’t something that is found in the parts of the US that I have lived. This is due in part to the fact that the typical American property owner is damned if he’s going to let someone walk across his property, and in part because the typical American is damned if he’s going to walk anywhere. But practice makes perfect, and I have been working on my New Zealand Stile, as evidenced in the pics.

A Kiwi girl that I was talking/flirting with had gotten a degree in horticulture and was able to tell me why the native tree leaves were so small. It seems that it’s the cold. A large leaf surface looses too much heat to contend with the colder weather. Even trees of the same species will have smaller leaves if growing on a high cold mountain instead of a low warm plain. All of which was very interesting to the traveling cyclist. Except for the “cold weather” part.

She also told me that the little bird that had followed me through the forest was a fantail. And that it wasn’t really being friendly. Only in eating the bugs I stirred up by passing through the vegetation. Damn. No more than a meal ticket.

So I’ve finished my shakedown cruise and am ready for a much bigger leg of the adventure: To Ride As Far Around the South Island As I Can Enjoy. And I hope you’ll enjoy the ride.

--Greg
 

 

 



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