is an easy way to get from Christchurch to Dunedin. It's about five
hours by motor vehicle. Just head south on Highway One. Of course
I'm rarely the kind of guy to do things the easy way. The thought
did cross my mind to put my bike on a bus, skip the reputedly boring
yet traffic-infested coastal road, and start riding from Dunedin.
But then I thought that I had no reason to be in a hurry, and I might
as well RIDE south. And I thought that it wouldnt hurt to skip
out on the busy traffic and take some back roads. And then, before
I knew it, I was wandering all over the place and getting way off
the tourist track and meeting interesting people and getting route
suggestions from the local folk and having a great time.
You can pretty much get the idea from looking at the map. The map
is a new feature that I thought was appropriate since I personally
always like an adventure story that comes with a map. But I should
point out that the map is completely to scale and every feature on
it is exact and accurate.
First day out of Christchurch was easy riding through the pastures
and hedgerows of the Canterbury Plains, and I camped at Rakaia Gorge.
The clouds rolled in that evening and hid the mountains that I had
been riding toward all day. And in the night, the possums laughed
their sarcastic laugh at my tiny little tent. I made a mental note
to replace it with a bigger tent before my next bikeabout. Not because
of the possums, but because its too small to even sit up in
or change clothes in or do anything but lie down and sleep in. Especially
when I forgot that all my new improved crap would have to fit in it
By morning, it was raining. I briefly considered lying like a sardine
inside the tent all day. But I figured it was as good a time as any
to test the new rain gear. I got up, packed up, and tested it well
into the afternoon, missing what was supposed to be some good mountain
scenery off to my right.
That rainy afternoon there was a fork in the road. Not merely a junction,
where the road divided. But also a juncture, a moment in time when
the shape of the future would be cast into divergent shapes, and the
resulting forms only dimly imagined.
I stopped near the micro-hamlet of Arundel. Ahead lay the town of
Geraldine and a nice, warm, dry hostel. But down a road to the side
lay Peel Forest, a rare tract of indigenous forest and, more importantly,
a cold, wet camp. Exactly what kind of bikeabout did I want to have?
Thats really all it boiled down to. Was I on some kind of adventure,
or just riding from one safe zone to the next?
I had pulled off onto the turn-off and had stopped, knowing what kind
of bikeabout I wanted, but still teetering on the edge, wanting something
to push me toward the warm sensible choice. I picked an apple from
a tree just off the road and was standing in the rain eating it.
A rough car pulled up. A rugged looking man smiled and we got to talking.
I told him what I was trying to decide. He said he had a farmhouse
he wasnt staying in right then -- just down a dirt side road
-- and I could stay there if I wanted to. He was just going there
to move some cows, and I could follow.
I was almost an idiot. Almost fell into my "aw shucks,"
habit of looking at my feet, shuffling off toward the nowhere that
I somehow desperately needed to be, saying that Id just go to
Geraldine, almost saying no.
But I didnt.
I stayed the night and most of the rainy next day at Bears cozy
and quiet little farm house. I split some firewood. Walked his pastures.
Read my book. Bear came out to move his cows that next day and we
talked and chopped some tough brush out of his paddock. Cool guy.
And better accommodation than a hostel. Better than a wet tent.
A couple of bright sunny days later I was heading out of Geraldine
toward Fairlie. Bright and sunny as the morning was, the air was autumn
crisp, and the wind was blowing strongly from the direction that I
was heading. And seemed likely to blow against me all day. Which made
it appealing to just get the damn day over with and grind along the
main highway, eating the diesel exhaust and getting knocked about
in the pressure waves of the many tour buses on the route. The other
choice was a longer, more hilly, partly gravel maze of back roads
that would definitely take longer -- especially beating into the same
wind -- but would be far from the beaten track. Ahh, another fork
in the conceptual road. It didnt take long to choose the path
I rolled over the hills, free from traffic, free to enjoy the green
grass, the autumn smells, the yellow gold leaves, the fresh snow on
the distant mountain tops. I stopped to see an old lime kiln, where
they made lime for masonry a couple turns of the century ago. I made
up a song for Geraldine where Geraldine was a girl instead of the
town I had just been through. I greeted the moo cows along the road,
Hey moocks! I sang to the sheep (Baaahd, baaahd, Leroy
Brown...) and when they ran, I shouted, Youd BETTER run!
I had engaging and witty conversations with myself in my head and
occasionally out loud. Yip, another day on the road, my legs happily
hamstering away at their wheel down below.
I was about to cross the Opihi River at Hanging Rock Bridge, when
I looked over and saw a pictograph painted on the rock face beside
the road. Cool. I stopped and looked and it sure looked like something
more ancient and interesting than the nearby marking: JOSH 2000. Just
across the bridge, on a whim, I stopped into the Opihi Winery and
ended up following the matronly owner to her house to get the key
to a gated set of pictographs in a nearby gully. Barbara sent me off
with directions, and I had a great time looking at the large pictograph
panel on the ceiling of a rock overhang shelter. A strange and mystical
sense to the art, and very quiet below the white limestone cliffs
in the green grass of the gully. Maybe theres a sense of awe
and wonder gained through antiquity and mystery. But most ancient
rock art seems to be the product of deep spirituality. Unlike JOSH
2000, which is more of a grating, infantile whine for undeserved attention.
Back at Barbaras, I got invited in for a cup of tea, which gained
momentum and a piece of pizza and turned into lunch. Her son David
joined us and hed ridden around the island, so we got out the
maps and talked about all the cool places to go. An altogether pleasant
experience, and soon I was back on the road.
The final thrill that day began with a climb up and over Spur Road
to Fairlie. I had just won the first leg of a very slow race with
a full water truck up the first of several steep stair-steps on the
gravel road. I raised my fist triumphantly in the air and grinned
at the driver as the truck passed me on the next flat section. Then,
instead of following along behind the noisy, stinky, dusty truck,
I decided it would be a good time to take another silly picture of
myself for your viewing pleasure. I set the camera on a handy post
on the side of the road, and was setting up the shot when I heard
a sickening, squelching thunk. I whirled around, and there was the
little camera, embedded in the wet mud of the drainage ditch with
a big muddy splort across the lens. Damn!!
I grabbed it out of the puddle and turned it off and pulled the batteries
out, my heart pounding faster than during the climb. There was mud
on the outside, but worse, I could see water on the inside through
the trendy and conveniently translucent casing. I tried to shake it
back out the gaps in the bottom, but may have just splashed it on
the delicate electronics inside, I dont know. I do know I got
it on the inside of the viewscreen. The mud on the lens looked ugly,
so I cleaned it off with the softest thing I had readily available:
my tongue. There wasnt much I could do right there next to a
mud puddle on the side of a dusty road, so I bundled it up and sprinted
I tried not to sprint. I tried to meditate on the Transience of All
Things and to enjoy the superb view of the distant snow capped mountains
and the rolling hills all around me. I tried to shake it off with
an easy-going sigh. Oh well. These things happen.
But my little heart was breaking. Thinking about how much Id
enjoyed using the camera to share my adventure; how much sharing the
adventure had become an important part of my travels; how traveling
had become an important part of my life. Mulling over the dangers
of living a life defined by the things that one has. Trying to balance
between the fear of owning things that are valued above ones
ability to support them financially (or spiritually), and the pointlessness
of not using the best things that one has available. Trying to realize
that the usefulness of all things will someday end. And feeling like
an idiot for potentially hastening the end to a certain camera by
balancing it on a thin post in the wind.
So I sprinted for Fairlie. I checked into a cabin at the
campground. Pulled everything removable off the camera. Soaked up
all the water I could with a little sliver of sponge shoved into the
small places with the tweezers from my swiss army knife. Left it open
all night and all day with the heat turned on in the little room.
Then I put it all back together, crossed my fingers, my eyes, my ts,
my hot buns. Turned it on.
...sizzled. Nothing smoked. Nothing sputtered or snapped or fried.
All the screens lit up. The lens powered out. Golly. I felt so warm
and relieved inside. Whee!
The next day I rode to Lake Tekapo. And the day after that I rode
past Lake Pukaki. I hated them both. Yeah, sure, theyre both
this beautiful blue that the guide books tell you is a result of the
natural glacial silt suspended in the water. So the blue is natural.
But the lakes arent. Does it make the water any less pretty?
Does it make the trees along the shore any less beautiful? Of course
it does. Just a couple dam reservoirs.
The reason the lakes are so long is because they fill
up valleys that were carved out by glaciers pushing out of the Southern
Alps. Glaciers are the caffeine-fueled overachievers of the geological
world. Heck, I dont even know if a glacier is geological, or
if it just pushes the geology around. But mere thousands of years
ago -- not millions -- there was enough ice piled up and slowly flowing
down out of the mountains to gouge out these long trenches into formerly
flat land. And by riding up the long flat valley, I was able -- without
going up anything resembling a hill -- to get amazingly close to Mt
Mt Cook is a big ol mountain. Highest in Australasia, wherever
that is. And at 3755 meters, its a good 400 meters higher than
my dads house in Colorado. And about 400 meters shorter than
the Big Island of Hawaii. Heck, Ive ridden my bike higher than
that. So lets face it. Its not about how high it is, but about
how rugged it is. And pretty much the only way youd get a bike
up there is by taking the bike apart and stuffing it in your pack.
And youd have your work cut out for you. Its just a pointy
chunk of rock and ice. No walk in the park to get to the top, unless
you wear crampons and carry an ice axe and climbing ropes and set
up base camps in your local park.
I decided that it looked pretty good from where I was, and that I
really didnt need to get up on it. But I did want to see a big
glacier close up, so I joined up with a German guy and a Greenlander
and set out in the morning to hike to Hooker Glacier. We had a great
time stomping up the trail, taking pictures, and trying to cross the
river by jumping from rock to rock instead of using the convenient
On this bikeabout I have seen insects that looked like sticks; fish
that looked like rocks; moths that looked like tree bark; snakes that
looked like green vines. And still, I was surprised to see the protective
camouflage of Hooker Glacier. We came over a rise, and there it was,
looking exactly like an industrial gravel pit. A big grey pile of
rubble with a little dirty ice at one end. Wow. Probably helps it
sneak up on innocent mountains and grind them up into even more rubble,
gravel, sand and powder.
From Mt Cook, I let a strong tailwind blow me far from the tour bus
route through wide open and not very scenic country (or maybe I was
going too fast) all the way to Otematata. Which is really fun to say
over and over as you ride, especially if youre one of the little
rascals. Stayed in a ghost lodge that night. Built in the 40s or 50s,
Id guess. Room for hundreds of people. No one there but me.
A door flapping in the wind. Dark clouds scudding in front of the
stars. No hockey masks though.
Around Duntroon there were all kinds of cool sights that no self-respecting
tour bus operator would come anywhere near. Which made them well worth
seeing. I saw a place called Earthquakes where big white blocks of
limestone had tumbled from the cliffs due to some geological process
that wasnt actually an earthquake. Saw some more Maori rock
paintings. Walked along the Waitaki River. And I got to frolic among
the elephants. Whee! Hadnt really expected elephants in New
Zealand, but there they were. A big green field full of eroded limestone
The next day I tackled the daunting Danseys Pass, a gravel road and
a long climb into the mountains through an old gold mining area. I
had passed the sign warning of snow from May through September. It
was May fourth. The thin layer of morning clouds thickened as the
day progressed and cast a brooding gloom over the stark landscape.
Tussock grass covered the mountains in brown except on the highest
peaks where the grey rock showed and where the angled slate stones
of the mountain bones broke through. The road took me rolling higher
and higher, then a final steep climb to the top of the pass and the
stunning view of the rugged empty landscape all around. Cool. Way
cool. But thankfully no snow. I enjoyed the view while I put on my
ear warmers and gloves and windstop fleece and then headed down the
other side, zipping down the twisting gravel and trying to keep the
washboard surface from rattling the packs off my bike.
Spent the night in Naseby and it was raining by morning. (--and maybe
snowing back at the top of Danseys Pass.) I packed up anyway and headed
for Ranfurly and the start of the Central Otago Rail Trail, which
I followed to the bustling town of Waipiata, pop 10 or something.
Near there, I rolled through the mud to Peters Farm Hostel.
Peter met me at the gate. Did I have a booking? Me? Of course not,
thats not how I fly by the seat of my pants. Because his hostel
was completely booked by a group of duck hunters out for the opening
day the next day. Which was good news and bad news. Bad news because
there would be hung-over men with shotguns out prowling the countryside
in the morning. And good news because Peter let me stay with him in
his alternate overflow farmhouse which had no power, where we had
good conversation around the toasty coal stove and ate dinner by candlelight.
In the morning it wasnt raining, but I wore my black and yellow
raincoat anyway, because I couldnt think of any black and yellow
ducks. Black and orange, sure. Daffy for instance, but not black and
yellow. But if the hunters were shooting at bumblebees, I was in trouble.
My route was supposed to follow more of the Central Otago Rail Trail.
But mostly I took the nearby road. Sure, the rail trail was designed
to be used by walkers and mtn bikes, but before that, it was made
to be used by trains. And trains just arent able to have as
much fun as mtn bikes. Trains cant make sharp turns. Trains
cant zip up and down short hills. Which makes riding the Central
Otago Rail Trail -- maybe any rail trail -- just like eating oatmeal
with no salt and no sugar and no fruit.
There are two types of people in the world. Those who fear riding
up hills on a bike, and those who dont. The former type are
the type of people who probably wont spend much time touring
on a bike. Because you just have to love the hills. One reason is
that it can take twenty minutes to ride up a hill that will only take
five minutes to ride down. And it doesnt make any sense to be
hating what youre doing for eighty percent of the time. But
the best reason is this: the hills are the spice. They put the dash
of salt and the spoonful of sugar in the oatmeal. They toss in some
walnuts or apple chunks or raisins or bananas. And sure, theyll
occasionally toss in a jalapeno pepper or two, but thats not
the point. The point is that -- except for one scenic section of the
rail trail that I did ride -- I had way more fun swooping and climbing
on the roly-poly highway than I would have had grinding along the
damn rail trail.
When I entered the wide part of the Taieri Valley, the cold wind that
had kept me company all day changed -- in just a finger snap of time
-- into a warm wind that blew me toward Middlemarch and under a long
threatening cloud. The long cloud seemed to parallel the long ridge
of the Rock and Pillar mountains, and the winds off the range were
stirring it all into a menacing dark broil that looked like a minor
apocalypse waiting to happen. Even when the wind changed and started
trying to blow me off the bike, I just kept on looking up and waiting
for something to happen. But it didnt.
I Middlemarch I learned that the cloud is a very common phenomenon.
The surrounding geography and the prevailing winds keep the cloud
there much of the time. The little community is quite proud of their
cloud and they call it the Taieri Pet. A cloud seems like a strange
thing to be proud of, but I had a chance to see the other attractions
in the area. A hill with a tree on it. A woolshed. A fence made of
stones. A bridge that looks like... well, a bridge. I guess Id
be proud of the cloud too.
In the morning, rain. And cold, too. I bundled up in warm and waterproof
gear and headed up over the high country on the long ride to Dunedin.
Riding in the rain and over hill and dale was fine. But when I got
closer to the city, the extra traffic sure was annoying. Most of the
population of the South Island is clustered close to the eastern coast,
and Dunedin is the islands second largest city. Which doesnt
mean its really big. It just means that compared to wandering
around the uninhabited interior off the beaten track during the off
season... I could sure tell I was getting closer to the east coast.
Had a minor bout of confusion over the first stoplight that I had
seen in two weeks. But at last, after breaching the ring of steep
hills that surround the city, I entered the welcoming arms of civilization
and all the comforts therein.
The most stupendously fascinating of Dunedins many world class
tourist attractions would have to be Baldwin Street. I was out riding
around the city and caught a glimpse of the sign, did a double take,
then doubled back and made sure I had seen correctly. Sure enough.
Worlds Steepest Street.
I stopped, stood over my bike and took a look up there. The street
started out flat, then gradually began to slope upward, more and more
until about the middle, where it was very steep. But from there it
just kept getting gradually steeper and steeper until, close to the
top, it was hugely and ridiculously steep. I could see that it wouldn't
be easy to get up there on a bicycle. Of course I'm rarely the kind
of guy to do things the easy way. This whole trip. It would have been
easy to take a car, take a bus, stick to the main path, stay on the
flat roads, go with a group, travel in the summer, or just stay at
home and watch the discovery channel.
But werent the most interesting parts of the the trip the result
of getting off the easy path? Bears house. The mystical rock
art. Danseys Pass. The elephants. Werent those were the kinds
of places that I wanted to be?
But the bicycle, the rain, the wind, the cold, the hills. Maybe this
whole bikeabout is the easy way. Maybe this trip is something that
I can do, something that I can actively engage, can get my greasy
hands on and hang on to for dear life. While I try to hide from the
hollow places that echo inside, that are too ephemeral to find, too
slippery to grasp. Too difficult.
So I take the easy way. I muster my strength and I start up, onto
the gentle lower slope, starting to breathe more deeply, staying relaxed,
feeling the incline increase beneath the wheels and the heart starting
to pound, my legs warming and churning at the pedals as the bike keeps
tilting further and further toward a crazy angle beneath me, and Im
shifting my weight forward to keep the front wheel on the ground that
is rising above me, sweat suddenly bursting from everywhere, the blood
hammering in my head and the breath sucking and gasping and becoming
nearly all that I can hear, and my legs now burning with throbbing
fire, and there is no way to keep going and no way to stop, so close
to the top, until finally I arrive at that place where all I have
and all I am and all I can do is right with me in a single moment...
When. There. Is. Nowhere. That. I. Would. Rather. Be.