EPIC Group Travel Writers: Hills, thrills and chills bicycling in New Zealand

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The bicyclists on their journey.

This is another contribution from the EPIC Group Travel Writers, who meet at Savvy Traveler once a month. To learn more, visit www.epicgroupwriters.org

Maybe we were crazy. “A bit daft,” some New Zealanders exclaimed as they scratched their heads when we took off on our bicycles for another day. We slowly pulled into traffic, pedaling up yet another steep and busy road. A long ascent reminded us that if we want to finish this 11-day bicycle trip, we better conserve.

We were daft. We did not adequately research how much climbing there would be, especially in those mysterious meters. We were also not young anymore — we were nearing (cough) 70. And we actually paid for this physical “opportunity” when a younger couple in their early 50s told us about a website of bike tours. We had met Ellyn and Michael mountain biking in Moab, Utah numerous times, so bicycling was in our blood.

A month later, the four of us agreed to pay a New Zealand stranger to try his self-guided, independent bike tour to the West Coast and Banks Peninsula on the spectacular South Island of New Zealand. He would provide bikes, the routes and places to stay each night. No sag wagon. If a bike broke down, the guys were our fixers.

After a tedious 30-hour flight from Seattle to L.A. to Nandi, Fiji, then to Wellington, we finally arrived in Christchurch on the South Island. What a shock to see a still-devastated downtown from the 2010-2011 earthquakes. Cathedrals and high rises still gutted open, they awaited insurance and restructure issues to settle. Old wooden cottages with wrap-around porches, like the charming B&B where we stayed, had no damage. We were told those structures simply swayed to the beat. Then a recent earthquake in November 2016 dramatically cut into many tourists’ plans, including ours.

A popular whale-watching town called Kiakoura still had train tracks laying on the beach with landslides covering major roads. So our tour coordinator rerouted us on a “plan two” mere weeks before we left the states. We would now cross the gorgeous Southern Alps on the magical TransAlpine railway with our bikes in the baggage car, to the little town of Moana where the ride began. Little did we know that everyone in the world seemed to come with us, since Kiakoura was off limits. But onward we must pedal.

On the previous day, our young Kiwi pulled up to our B&B in his van and left us with four quality bikes, straddled with two waterproof panniers and a front pack of tools, tire tubes, pumps, maps and hope. We had never carried our clothes and gear before. Limiting clothes and one extra pair of shoes to six pounds in each bag and no make-up – frightening. This new weight took careful balancing in windy conditions, but it wasn’t our only new lesson: We were now riding on the other side of the road.

We pedaled on major highways for 30-45 miles a day to our nightly B&Bs. It was not far, but it was hilly and busy nearly every day. Where were the bucolic, empty roads that we saw on the website? Ellyn was not afraid to walk up to a guy enjoying his beer at a local pub.

“Hey! We’re on bikes. Here’s my map. Can you direct us to a smaller road so we don’t have to ride that crazy highway out there tomorrow?” she points.

I think I see his buddies snicker. There are no alternate routes, but it seems that smaller roads in this lightly populated country would not reach our final beds. It had all sounded so dreamy five months ago.

Did we train? Oh yes.Three months of spin classes, swimming and core work helped dramatically. It was a terrific feeling to get stronger as we were getting older. Alas, such preparation did not include practice on narrow roads, one-lane bridges and continuous traffic. Seattle’s rainy autumn made riding outdoors less appealing, but at least we could experiment with our rain gear on the hills of Edmonds.

Honestly, our New Zealand rides did include quiet snippets of beauty – lovely sheep farms and stunning ocean views. But it was usually drowned out with an L.A.- freeway drone of tour buses, milk trucks and travel vans breathing down our bent backs. All four of us were scared.

“The white line is our friend,” I nervously chanted by the second day.

Any deviation from the edge of the road was a possible disaster — no guard rails, deep ravines and not even three inches of asphalt forgiveness. If we pedaled too far inside the white line, we risked vehicles whizzing by so close that the force would wobble our thin metal steeds. We all spread out with our trusty orange reflector vests and little blinking lights. Is that enough to keep from dying?

New Zealand livestock along the way.

When we waited for each other at 10-kilometer increments, it was a relief that no siren was heard. We drank water, shared nuts, reviewed maps and laughed at our folly. Sometimes we reminded each other to glimpse beyond the white line. Look: rolling green pastures of sheep and cattle have their own personal views of the beach at the Tasman Sea. In America, there’d be private driveways or hotels to obstruct the view. The tall, swaying tree ferns on the mountainsides were alluring. Sometimes there was a funky ole cafe or tavern at a crossroads where we’d have a pot of tea and remark that these New Zealanders sure are a cordial lot! Raising our teacups, we toasted our continued luck: No need to don rain gear again.

Baffling as it may seem, an unusual pattern began to emerge. A new confidence pulsed through our muscles and minds as we summited difficult terrain without walking the bikes. A feeling of invincibility bloomed as we let loose and sped down the other side with that teen-age thrill — whoopee!

More comforting patterns became apparent. We enjoyed Michael and Ellyn’s daily company. With pleasure, we sopped up two delicious eggs, bacon ’n toast, granola and fresh fruit, every morning by our lovely hosts. We pushed off before the forecasted rain. We rotated who led, who swept. We stopped often to explore. Heads-up, historical signs caught our attentions now. One taught us about the early coal mining towns that once densely populated the remote area. More importantly, I learned to shut up about the traffic or outwardly worry about the upcoming climb. What good was I to the group? I finally quelled my fears and rode with the flow. Maybe that is why my husband stopped on a lonely hilltop and, straddling our bikes, he kissed me.

On our way to Punikaiki Tavern, a country roadside attraction, we peaked a long hill to find a bustling intersection of tour buses, families spilling out of cafes and souvenir shops with ice-cream cones. The world-famous Pancake Rocks and shooting blowholes of ocean spray beckoned us down the trail. We witnessed strange, layered rock formations and ocean bursts. And oh, we were w a l k i n g. So lovely was this movement.

Upon our return to the bike stand, two young Aussies on two wheels of their own, were surprised to see us oldsters walking up to our own bikes. Sun-baked, with wrinkle-deep cheeks squeezed by our helmet straps, we exchanged comments about how rarely cyclists were seen on these roads. Their incredulity of our route was a cherished moment. Funny how those precious slices of acknowledgement can fuel yet another hill.

Enjoying the view.

— By Rita Ireland

Rita Ireland has been lucky to teach in various parts of the world. It was a lovely impetus to escape — growing up on an Iowa farm. She now lives in Edmonds with her spouse, David, who found her reading on a quiet Sunday morning beach in Los Angeles 41years ago. They have two children who now live far away from their home.  Her favorite part of a long teaching career was being the librarian at Meadowdale High School. She was thrilled to buy books, enticing teens to read. 

2 COMMENTS

  1. What a fantastic read, Rita.
    I felt I was right there with you & David on the bikes, because of the way you described your adventures. Hugs to you that you are home safe & sound.
    Kj & Ron

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