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When you almost pee your pants in the morning because the tent zipper is frozen shut: New Zealand Week 11

 

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When you almost pee your pants in the morning because the tent zipper is frozen shut: New Zealand Week 11
Wanaka to Dunedin, 293 km (total cycled to date: 3,023 km)

Two of a cycle tourist’s favourite words are “rail trail” – smooth, quiet paths converted from steam power to pedal power, far away from car traffic and, best of all, no climbs or descents steeper than one or two percent.

imageSo after a glorious week skimming along the Central Otago Rail Trail – New Zealand’s first and most popular cycle-touring track – we’d grown soft on cafés and flatness until a few kilometres into our first day back on the highway. We’d just celebrated the 3,000th kilometre of our Oceania Odyssey when the rail line (now in use by trains) beside us veered left through a tunnel, and straight ahead loomed a near-vertical wall of asphalt scaling a massive, rocky range. No problem any other day, but our spoiled cycling legs had an actual train to catch in less than an hour.

The boys may have learned a few new swear words that day, each time we discovered another new ridge after believing we’d finally hit the summit.

image“Shouldn’t we wait for Mommy and Sitka?” wondered Heron aloud as we sweated slowly up a slightly less insane incline. “Whaf… cat… train…” gasped Ed. Heron didn’t bother asking for clarification.
Then the hair-raising descent (while congealing the sweat on our confused skin) whisked us further below the elevation of the tracks, and we had to slog our cycles on foot back up a ridiculous gravel hill. If we’d had any more energy left, we may have thrown our bikes into a ditch. Instead we grumbled on, petrified about missing our train and having to spend the next 24 hours in a ghost town in the desert.

At last, we spotted the station – an oasis among the barren hills – just as a huge, cozy shuttle bus with a bike trailer zoomed past us. Well, we thought, that would’ve been easier.

imageWe’ve had similar feelings a lot over the past few days, especially as we are now south of the 45th parallel and the night temperatures can plummet to -5C on this beautiful, arid plateau and we find ice coating our tent fly in the morning. We’re the only outdoor sleepers in most of the campgrounds we visit (we’ve started filling our stainless steel water bottles with boiling water and sliding them into a sock, then into our sleeping bags) but certainly not the only cyclists. The trail is buzzing, mostly with folks who haven’t biked in years or even decades.

imageWe met several large, three-generation families bonding on their bikes by day and backpacker kitchens by night. There are comfy accommodation options every 30 km, and dessert-filled cafés every 15 – each with packed bike parking and smiling faces. The sometimes-intense headwinds weren’t dissuading the new bike enthusiasts from enjoying the spectacular views, fascinating history, exhilarating bridges and tunnels, and easy exercise.

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imageSo you don’t have to climb crazy hills or sleep in the frigid fall weather to enjoy bike touring in New Zealand (or anywhere, for that matter – the Otago trail reminded us of Canada’s Kettle Valley Rail Trail from Midway to Penticton, that could bring the same economic benefits to central BC with a bit more funding and coordination). But when you go the hardcore route, it’s much easier to feel totally spoiled.

imageWe started our week with a mid-ride game of mini-putt at (another) shooting range, and homemade birthday pizza at a surprising overnight stop. Just as the sun was about set on the Clutha River next to us, we darted in to an orchard stand for some fresh fruit. When we asked about the campground in town, they invited us to stay in their pickers’ housing. “It’s not very flash,” they warned us. But when we stepped in to our tiny cabin among the fruit trees, we discovered heaven.

image“It’s an EN-SUITE!” screeched the boys in unison, as though the walls were made of chocolate and the bed filled with Jello. Yes, we’ve been away from home so long that having our own bathroom is cause to celebrate. Plus, it was Heron’s 8th birthday. So we pretended the toilet was part of his present – it complemented the gf lemon cake well.

Turns out the birthday vibes continued the next day, when we stumbled upon one of our remaining bucket-list items: a real-live New Zealand community rugby match. We were about the glide right through the small town of Clyde, when we happened upon a bike shop. We had a few clinks to address, and met Finn, a talented young mechanic who eagerly explored our tandems and took on a full-scale tune-up. “Why don’t you go watch the rugby match?” he suggested. Clyde was playing Arrowtown in a game between whatever local burly men they could recruit to pummel each other once a week. So while Finn and Ed primed our rides good-as-new, Joce and the boys experienced the national sport, rowdy fans and all.

imageThree days of chilly-by-night and sunny-by-day rail-trail riding later (on one stretch we flew 17km in 40 minutes, side-by-side and plotting ways to drag various friends and family on our next bike trip), we were on the famous Taieri Gorge heritage train en route to the east-coast university town of Dunedin, where we stayed with the super-sweet and fascinating Liz and Murray, two former tramping guides in Milford Sound still together 20 years later. These two bike-enthusiasts (who both merrily cycle commute up a killer hill home every day) shared their home and hometown with us for a couple incredible days – easily the coolest nature-watching days of our trip.

imageimageThey’d offered us their car for the first day, until it was discovered that we didn’t know how to drive stick shift. So Murray dusted off his guide’s cap and spent his day off work showing us sea lions (just meters away) at Sandfly Beach and an up-close encounter with a rare, endangered yellow-eyed penguin.

imageimageWith only 400 left in the world, along the southeast coast and islands of New Zealand, we had to navigate a series of elaborately disguised trenches to stay hidden from the penguins as they returned to their home beach from a day feeding at sea. After a half-hour watching and waiting, finally a two-foot-tall fellow swam to shore and waddled up the sand, cautiously checking that no one else was around. He or she (you can’t tell with a penguin, apparently) preened and air-dried, then made several territorial calls, then wandered right close to the hide where we were stationed, with Sitka and Heron shaking giddily and silently as their big New Zealand dream played out.

imageWe would also see albatross chicks nesting on a grassy coastal slope the next day thanks to our uber-generous new friends, whom we would have never met had we not been the crazy Canadians sleeping in a tent at the campground where we struck up conversation with them a few days earlier on the rail trail. Going hardcore, it seems, has its upsides after all.

 

imageHeron’s week 11 summary: This week was wildlife week – fur seals, sea lions, albatross, blue penguins and yellow-eyed penguins!

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imageSitka’s week 11 summary: The rail trail was so beautiful. I loved getting the stamps at each station. We are really close to Antartica!

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7 Comments

  1. Martine Chartrand says:

    Wow, memorable moments you children will have later on. Your kids are possibly the next adventurers of their generation, maybe the next wild kratts! Scary ride! Enjoying reading about your adventures. Lucky you!

    1. Terra Life says:

      The boys certainly have lots of ideas about future expeditions! Sitka is keen on Antartica 🙂

  2. Jazz says:

    Looking forward to camping with you guys in a few weeks in the Blue Mountains. Let us know if you have any special requests for supplies.

    1. Terra Life says:

      Hi jazz! Hard to believe we will be in Australia so soon! So looking forward to seeing you having our kidlets meet!! 13 years since otesha!

  3. Mark Thomson says:

    Hooo antractica is another kind of cold!! Well done guys, happy birthday and congrats on the 3k distance! I like penguins (natural predators on polar bears, that is why there are no polar bears in Antarctica…)they are lovely. Zac and I saw 6 or so paddlign the other week. Yay!

    1. Terra Life says:

      Thanks mark! We saw some more penguins today too – they are magical… Hope the bike commuting is still going well – so chilly in the mornings!

  4. Lucy Klein Horsman says:

    Congratulations on 3K cycled! I loved the penguins. Luke did a unit on them at school and he really loved seeing your pictures of them. You must be nearly finished touring New Zealand or do you have more to see? I imagine you are off to Australia, soon.

    Safe travels!

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