Cycling adventure photography

Tour Aotearoa - Part 6

Day 20: Palm Grove to Camerons Flat, 158km.

I woke up well-rested and mostly free of pain due to the sleep and shoulder stretching. Also, who doesn't ever feel great after 12 hours of sleep? I ate my breakfast in the company of the owners' sheep and deer, feeling better than the day before but still unsure about the day ahead. There was a long, solo day of highway riding ahead of me, so I decided to play music while I rode for the first time and hide my Garmin so I wouldn't constantly watch my slow progress. With no destination in mind, I set off alone, cruising at my own pace, and with tunes pumping out of my phone on my handlebars. It didn't feel like summer with the low, moody clouds hanging around and the occasional spit of rain.

Besides the mountains poking through the clouds and the green paddocks, there wasn't much to see. Bruce Bay, covered in drift wood, looked grey and dismal, so I said 'Hi' to a cyclist passing the other way and rode on. Lake Paringa also wasn't very appealing with its hordes of sandflies. I stopped there briefly before setting off again, picking roadside blackberries along the way. Fuelled by berries and lollies, I headed up the one and only hill before Haast, which peaked at Knight's Point Lookout, a popular viewing spot for tourists.

The next hour to Haast was flat and boring. The only entertainment was my music and the windswept shapes made by the westerly-battered trees. I arrived in Haast in time for a late lunch and bought a Wi-Fi voucher from the receptionist of one of the holiday parks so I could talk to my family for the first time in 2 days. There'd been no phone reception since Fox Glacier, and there would be none until just before Wanaka, over 130km away, so I took the most of the opportunity to Skype. With over five hours of light left and nothing to do in Haast, except get sucked dry by sandflies and put up with tourists, I decided to make the most of feeling good and press on over Haast Pass.

I'm glad I did because the next section astounded me. I'd never seen anything like it. The highway headed inland and gently upwards, following the Haast River into the mountains. I was surrounded on each side by walls of earth, covered in dense green forest and pierced with countless waterfalls. At the confluence of the Haast and Landsborough Rivers, the highway continued to follow the Haast south. What was a gentle and even imperceptible climb started to pick up in gradient as I approached the Gates of Haast. The Gates of Haast were one of the few spots I'd researched before arriving in New Zealand, and I knew from seeing pictures that I would love the place.

The wide, gentle giant of the valley floor is replaced by a narrow and fast-flowing torrent. Even with the relatively low flow of summer, the raging blue river carves through rocks as big as cars. I sat for a while and listened to the constant roar, and just imaged the power required to carve and move these humungous rocks. Wanting to get to camp before dark, I set off up towards Haast Pass. However, I was once again distracted by a waterfall, and stopped at the magnificent Fantail Falls. The floor of the river there is largely exposed during summer, so tourists have made a tradition of stacking some of the thousands of flat and rounded rocks into stacks. The collection of piles gave the place the aura of a religious or cultural site. Only one or two kilometres down the road I came across the structure signifying Haast Pass.

From there I flew down the other side and cruised for the last few kilometres to Camerons Flat campsite just before sunset. Learning from my previous camping experiences, I kept away from the converted vans and choose a spot away of grass behind some Winnebagos. These are always occupied by older, quieter people and pretty much guarantee a night free from disturbance. I'd ridden all day but still felt fresh and ecstatic from the scenery, the like of which I'd never experienced before. My effort for the day was rewarded with a spectacular sunset over the mountains, which I'll never forget. After having a terrible day the day before, which really sapped my confidence, riding 158km by myself and seeing some of the best scenery I've ever seen really put a spring back in my step.

Day 21: Camerons Flat to Albert Town, 74km.

My plan for a good night's sleep worked out well as I wasn't disturbed once by my neighbours. I cooked porridge while furiously swatting the never-ending stream of sandflies, then retreated to my tent to eat in peace. After packing quickly, I set off even quicker, with a stiff tailwind pushing me along. I flew through the small village of Makarora and continued to swiftly all the way Lake Wanaka. Now over the lee side of the mountains and mostly free of tree and cloud cover, the temperature and dryness picked up and I finished my water much faster than I expected. Traffic picked up and I struggled up along the winding road, making sure to keep an ear out for campervans. Once again I put blasted music to make it up and over the last big hill, then rolled into the lakeside holiday town of Hāwea for a much needed drink of water, a large lunch and choc milk.

I was doubly glad to be here, as it marked the start of the Hāwea River Track and the end of highway riding. Even though I felt exhausted, I couldn't be happier to be off the highway and on the gentle gravel trail. The trail follows the Hāwea River to Albert Town, and along the way I took the opportunity to dip my feet in the river to cool down and watch a class of students practice descending a small section of rapids in kayaks. The final cruise into Albert Town, just north of Wanaka was leisurely and uneventful. I was surprised by the sudden aridity (relatively speaking) of the landscape, having spent the previous day surrounded by forests and waterfalls. I arrived at the open home (an unoccupied bach, or holiday home for non-Kiwis) tired and hungry, so I put on a load of washing, bought and ate a whole pizza, which I washed down with a couple of beers, and hit the bed early, relishing the soft mattress and sheets.

Day 22: Albert Town and Lake Hayes, 84km.

I knew I hadn't experienced enough rain for a three-week visit in New Zealand, having only had one full day and two short mornings of rain. The weather gods must have decided to make sure I didn't finish feeling too dry, as a steady rain had set in and wasn't forecast to let up any time soon. I didn't have anywhere to be so I took advantage of being under shelter and took it easy while I waited for the rain to pass. I got bored quickly and endlessly checked the weather radar to see if I could escape in a patch of lighter rain. Around 10:30 I eventually just decided I'd be wet whether I waited or not, so I donned my rain gear and set off through the puddles and drizzle. I was soaking by the time I got to Wanaka and the rain hadn't relented at all, so I bought a sandwich for early lunch and a pastry for later, then got back on the highway. Because I left so late my hope to stop and see Wanaka wasn't possible as I was running out of time to get over Crown Range and into Queenstown, but that's the way touring goes some times.
Thankfully, the rain stopped a few kilometres south of Wanaka, so I took off my wet outer layers and dried out on the gentle climb. The rain was replaced by a stiff headwind, but this was short lived, thankfully. I arrived in the tiny but famous village of Cardrona, where I'd earlier noted there was a distillery. Disappointingly, it was newly built and its whiskey, which was barrelled less than a year ago, wouldn't be ready for another 10 years. I'd be told to stop at the famous Cardona Hotel, but I was running out of time and didn't feel like drinking alone, so I kept riding. The road rose higher and higher, and much more gently than I thought it would, until the final kilometre or two, which had me grinding in my lowest gear. I eventually made it over the steep part of the climb and reached the Pass. The bareness of the surrounding mountains, which were covered in short, yellowing grass, was striking. Two different people came over to have a talk about the ride and ask for advice about where they should ride on their holiday. After a very brief view from the top and a few photos, I pointed my bike downhill for the first time that day and followed the snaking road down the pass, taking care on the tight and wet road.
A driver that overtook me didn't take the same precaution and ended up with their car slipping sideways around a corner and stopping in the other lane only 15 metres in front of me. Luckily there was no car coming up the other way and they escaped injury-free but probably shaken. At the bottom of the monster hill I headed off the highway again and down a steep gravel track, dodging several walkers and their dogs. The trail popped out at the cosy, old gold-mining town of Arrowtown, which is nestled at the foot of the mountains. I stopped in at a lovely little pub called the Fork and Tap for a slow-cooked pork belly roll and local craft cider under the warmth of a gas heater. I could have stayed there a few more hours, but there was only an hour of sunlight left, so I headed on along the cycle trail to another open home in the Queenstown satellite suburb of Lake Hayes. My hosts had cooked fresh hot cross buns, so we stayed up eating them and chatting about cycle touring and life in New Zealand before heading to bed.

Day 23: Lake Hayes to Queenstown, 23km.

I was keen to spend some time looking around Queenstown so I didn't hang around long and set of early into town. Tom, who had finished the Tour many days beforehand, had spent the last few days in Queenstown waiting for his flight, so I briefly met up with him by the lakeshore, where he'd stealth camped the night before. We shared stories of our adventures since we'd last seen each other two weeks ago in Ongarue, then said our goodbyes so he could catch his flight, and he wished me well for the final 250km of my journey. Arriving in the main part of Queenstown, I had a similar reaction to when I reached Franz Josef. The town was very nice and clean but it was absolutely packed full of aimlessly wandering tourists, the shops to cater to them and not much else.
I resupplied with the intention of catching my final boat ride across the lake later that afternoon and camping at Mavora Lakes, but changed my plans after meeting up with internet-friend and experienced tourer, Alex, who had just finished a short tour of his own. We each got a pie from the famous Ferg bakery and followed that up with churros at Patagonia. Over our food, and with less than 45 minutes until I was to catch the boat, I discussed my plan to finish the remaining 240km over two days; riding the 50km to Mavora Lakes that afternoon and finishing the final 190km through flat farm country the day after. Rather than finishing in an unceremonious manner, Alex suggested I finish the epic tour with an equally epic final ride; to ride the final 240km through the night and arrive at Bluff the next morning. He'd ridden the Newcastle Overnighter (200km from Sydney to Newcastle overnight) once or twice before and said it was a great experience. Since I'd already gotten supplies, was feeling good (I'd only ridden 23km that day) and was as fit as I'd ever been, I decided to take his absurd advice and go for it. With only 10 minutes before the boat was due to leave, we raced to his hostel room, from which he fetched his headphones so I could keep entertained through the long night. I made it to the boat, the old steamship TSS Earnslaw, with a minute to spare, farewelled Alex, and smirkingly reflected on what I'd committed to.

Day 23/24: Queenstown to Bluff, 242km.

The short ride across the lake to Walter Peak Station was over before I knew it. I was the first to unload and I didn't waste any time hanging around. I followed the one and only road out of there, eerily feeling the same anxiety of 'can I do this?' as when I rolled out of Cape Reinga. Also like the start from the Cape, it began in the most familiar way possible; just pushing off and pedalling. Really, that's what this whole journey consisted of, one pedal stroke after another. Some easy, some hard. I enjoyed views of snow-capped mountains over the other side of the lake just as the remoteness of the station slowly revealed itself to me.

I passed the last farm building and continued on the lonely road. Fences disappeared and were replaced on both sides just by mountains. A small herd of cows wandered freely, only mildly disturbed by my presence. I was only interrupted by the few creek crossings, over which I looked for a bridge of rocks to hop across, but ended up wading through sans shoes and socks. The sunset slowly crept into being over a matter of hours; a product of the southern latitude and the wall-like mountain range to the west. Golden rays of light started beaming over Mount Turnbull like fairy dust sprinkles. The glacial speed of the sunset seemed appropriate for the landscape and my own pace through it.

I really couldn't have asked for better conditions. The temperature was in the low 20s, the air was still, and my only company, besides the cows, was a few wispy clouds. After 50km the sunset colours peaked just before I reached the end/start of Walter Peak Station, which is also right near the turn off for Mavora Lakes, where I originally planned to spend the night. Now riding between traditional 'paddock and livestock' type farms, two cars passed, the first and last for hours.

The sun finally set and the half-moon rose high. The temperature dropped as soon as the sun dipped below the horizon so I stopped to put on every piece of clothing I had and ate a pastry I'd been hauling from Queenstown. I soon reached the turn off for the Around the Mountains Cycle Trail, and after 25km of winding, flat gravel through cattle farms I arrived in Mossburn at 11pm. Alex's promise that a petrol station would be open for hot coffee was found to be untrue, so I stopped at a public park and cooked the very last of the oats Christien had given me at Fox Glacier to warm up and fuel up for the rest of night.

I took a sealed road out of Mossburn, then got back onto gravel, heading aimlessly between non-distinct farms. The moon, my only companion, went down but was replaced by scrambling possums and pottering hedgehogs. I started struggling to follow the cue sheet in the dark, and felt disoriented by the lack of visuals cues in the dark and featureless terrain. 500m felt like 5km and I couldn't tell if a turn-off was a driveway or a road. Exhaustion set in and I realised that I hadn't felt my feet since a short while after Mossburn. My Garmin read -2 degrees. My boredom and exhaustion were only briefly replaced by the thrill and danger of speeding down the few steep sections in the near pitch-black, as well as a half-frozen Mars Bar. Back on a sealed road once again, the final stretch to Winton was as flat and straight as 90 Mile Beach. Thankfully it wasn't as sandy and windy, but it did stink of cow manure and silage. The route bypassed Winton by a kilometre or so, and even though I was desperate for a hot coffee, or a hot anything, I decided to not waste my time by riding in to see if anything was open. I know nothing would, given it was 3am.

The long flat continued, and continued. Kilometre after kilometre, I passed farm driveways and high hedgerows, each looking the same type of 'indistinguishable' in the dark. I could feel the exhaustion and cold overtaking me and I began fascinating about crawling under a hedge with my sleeping bag. The fight was more mental than at any other time. I pressed on, one pedal stroke at a time, shielding my hands from the wind behind my front bag, determined to make it to Bluff.

The lights of Invercargill, the last town and only 30km from the finish line, brightened the horizon for over an hour, and the early morning traffic started passing me. I slumbered past the refineries, factories and processing plants on the edge of town just before I made out the unmistakable form of the Golden Arches. Only one thing is open at 5am in a town this size. Normally at the very bottom of my dining preference, McDonalds was now an unpassable luxury. I downed two muffins, two hash browns and a piss weak tea, and felt enough body temperature return so as to stop my jaw chattering, but I was no less tired. The final 30km to Bluff was one of the biggest struggles of the whole 3000. Sharing the narrow highway with an endless stream of trucks on the way to the port, I struggled to concentrate and keep in the narrow shoulder. I could see the buildings of Bluff on the horizon and the sky brightening. "It's almost over" I kept telling myself. Two kilometres before the famous yellow signs at the lookout a shopkeeper opened the door to the local Four Square just as I was rolling past, so I stopped to pick up a celebratory breakfast. I slowly rolled to Stirling Point, barely faster than walking pace, watching for the sun to peak over the water any minute now. 14 hours and 242km after getting off TSS Earnslaw, I reached the signs, slumped down onto a bench, buried myself in my sleeping bag and slowly ate a chocolate hot cross bun. I'm done. At 7am the sun crept over the horizon just as I nodded off.

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