The Place To Be
May 12, 2000
Dunedin, New Zealand
 
 
 
There 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 wouldn’t 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 it’s 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 at night.

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? That’s 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 wasn’t 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 I’d just go to Geraldine, almost saying no.

But I didn’t.

I stayed the night and most of the rainy next day at Bear’s 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 didn’t take long to choose the path less traveled.
Good choice.

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, “You’d 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 there’s 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 Barbara’s, 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 he’d 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 don’t 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 wasn’t 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 for Fairlie.

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 I’d 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 one’s 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 t’s, my hot buns. Turned it on.

Nothing...

...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, they’re 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 aren’t. 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 don’t 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 Cook.

Mt Cook is a big ol’ mountain. Highest in Australasia, wherever that is. And at 3755 meters, it’s a good 400 meters higher than my dad’s house in Colorado. And about 400 meters shorter than the Big Island of Hawaii. Heck, I’ve ridden my bike higher than that. So lets face it. It’s not about how high it is, but about how rugged it is. And pretty much the only way you’d get a bike up there is by taking the bike apart and stuffing it in your pack. And you’d have your work cut out for you. It’s 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 didn’t 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 bridge.

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 you’re one of the little rascals. Stayed in a ghost lodge that night. Built in the 40s or 50s, I’d 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 wasn’t actually an earthquake. Saw some more Maori rock paintings. Walked along the Waitaki River. And I got to frolic among the elephants. Whee! Hadn’t really expected elephants in New Zealand, but there they were. A big green field full of eroded limestone “Elephants.”

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 Peter’s Farm Hostel. Peter met me at the gate. Did I have a booking? Me? Of course not, that’s 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 wasn’t raining, but I wore my black and yellow raincoat anyway, because I couldn’t 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 aren’t able to have as much fun as mtn bikes. Trains can’t make sharp turns. Trains can’t 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 don’t. The former type are the type of people who probably won’t 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 doesn’t make any sense to be hating what you’re 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, they’ll occasionally toss in a jalapeno pepper or two, but that’s 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 didn’t.

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 I’d 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 island’s second largest city. Which doesn’t mean it’s 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 Dunedin’s 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. “World’s 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 weren’t the most interesting parts of the the trip the result of getting off the easy path? Bear’s house. The mystical rock art. Danseys Pass. The elephants. Weren’t 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 I’m 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.

--Greg
 

 

 



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