7. OTHER TOURS
NEW ZEALAND SOUTH ISLAND 2014
After a week and a half’s rest from the Great Victorian Bike Ride, it was time to fly to New Zealand for a 6 day road tour from Christchurch to Queenstown on South Island. During my research I came across a company in Christchurch that offered various ‘self-guided’ bike tour packages. This means you rent the bike, panniers, tools and spares from them, they provide a pre-planned route to follow, (advising where to begin and end each day) then you go off on your own and meet them at the end of the tour to hand the equipment back. It felt great to be free of the hassle of packing-up and unpacking a bike while having no worries about it being damaged in transit before getting started. In hindsight though, I really learnt a lesson about how important it is to immerse yourself in planning a trip yourself before you go. That way you have a much better idea of how to rush together a plan B if things don’t work out in the sugar-coated way that the tour company describes.
Day one started off as expected in heavy fast moving traffic for the first 30km out of Christchurch, but from there onwards things got harder in a variety of ways. The combination of long hills, hot sun and fierce headwinds (comparable to anything I experienced in Iceland) made the going slow and laborious. I also started to get a niggling sense that the New Zealand roads might not be the safest for cycling, but tried to put those concerns to the back of my mind as I usually do when cycling on country roads. Although incredibly tough cycling, I must say that the scenery towards the end was on a scale that I hadn’t witnessed since Iceland and the last 15km of my 115km day was all cruising downhill right up to the campsite gates in Methven. Day 2 started and ended positively with 80km mostly down hill in very low traffic, nice calm weather, mountains, green fields, glacial streams, more considerate drivers and even tail winds more often than not, finishing up in a really nice town called Geraldine.
Although I didn’t know it when I set off, day 3 was going to be my last of the planned tour. Things started well enough, with good weather for cycling, but again I started to grow increasingly uncomfortable with the number of cars whizzing past me at 100kmh, all too often leaving a gap of what felt like just a few inches. The frequency of close-calls combined with a hard shoulder that disappears and reappears periodically started to really affect my mood and I was starting to feel a much stronger sense that actually the traffic and road conditions weren’t very safe. I stopped for lunch in a nice little town called Fairlie and convinced myself that it was just a case of persevering, but then a few kilometres after setting off and a handful of grimace-inducing close-calls later, I was actually clipped on the arm by a boat being towed behind a car at high speed. Luckily it was just the tarp cover, or a strap that whipped me on the arm, but at the time it was pretty terrifying and the shock was enough to send me off the road, pumping with adrenaline. Surprisingly or not, I was overtaken by quite a few boat trailers on their way to the lake that day and the scary thing about them is the way that the trailer tends to be much wider than the car towing them.
Without a clue about how to get to my destination by other means, I felt no option but to carry on. I pounded out the remaining 40km uphill through Burkes Pass to Lake Tekapo with a heightened sense of dread, while still being overtaken agonisingly closely at high speed every so often. To make matters worse, I also had to pull over to the side of the road several times with cars in the oncoming lane overtaking into my path. In all the days I’ve cycled I’ve never felt so relieved to reach my destination and by this stage I was 100% sure I wouldn’t be putting myself through more of the same the following day. Lake Tekapo and the views along the way were stunningly beautiful, even Lord Of The Rings doesn’t do New Zealand’s scenery justice, but I found it impossible to enjoy it with such a feeling of being in danger the whole way. Perhaps the traffic conditions were part of the reason why in 3 days of cycling, I hadn’t seen so much as a single other person cycling along the route until I reached the Lake Tekapo campsite. The Dutch cyclists I met at the campsite were a lot more seasoned tourers than I am, but commented that they’d also found the traffic a little bit scarier than they’d expected.
Having assembled the tent and unpacked, I was feeling relieved to be safe and well in such a beautiful (but tiny and remote) township. At the same time however, I was also very aware that I had no plan B and was at a total loss as to how I’d reach Queenstown in time to hand the bike back and make my flight home now that I wouldn’t be cycling the reamainder of the route. I had a lot of asking around to do and a number of phonecalls to make at the local pay-phone to find out about alternative modes of transport to Queenstown. The bike rental company weren’t very helpful and couldn’t offer any useful advice, but eventually I found out that there would be a bus leaving the following day. The problem now was that the bus company made clear that the driver might refuse to take the bike if the bus was too full. I’d just have to sweat it out with my fingers crossed until I could speak to the driver in person the following day. The rest of the evening was spent relaxing my nerves with several well deserved pints of Speight’s beer and mulling over the feeling that I’d failed on the one hand, but on the other, I’d made a pretty sound judgement to save my ass.
I packed up and made for the bus stop early the following day, growing increasingly anxious every time another person turned up with their luggage to board the bus, my plan B being totally reliant on the bus being half empty. Eventually the driver turned up and gave me the reassurance I’d been craving for the last 20 hours or so, pretty much guaranteeing that there was room for the bike. It’s hard to describe how much happier that made me feel, Plan B was now a goer and next stop was Queenstown. The trip was now going in a much more enjoyable direction. The coach journey in itself was excellent, with amazing views the entire way and I knew that when I reached Queenstown I’d be able to spend my last couple of days exploring their 117km of dedicated car-free lakeside and riverside cycle tracks, perfect for a touring bike.
In hindsight I definitely went about cycling in New Zealand the wrong way and I’d love to return in future knowing what I know now. If I was to go again, there’s absolutely no way I’d attempt a traditional unbroken road tour. New Zealand has some of the world’s best dedicated off road cycle tracks, the slight problem being that at the moment they don’t all join up enough to use them for a continuous tour. If I could have a second attempt, I’d definitely rent myself one of the mini camper-cars you see everywhere with bike racks on top and drive between the numerous dedicated long-distance bike trails. I’d especially like to have a go at the Otago rail trail for starters. Maybe forget the road, forget the traditional European style road tour and above all, forget cycling the section of main road between Geraldine and Tekapo, the best cycling all seems to be off-road.
AUSTRALIA – THE GREAT VICTORIAN BIKE RIDE 2014
Time to get a taste of a fully supported, mass bike tour and let others handle the planning this time. I decided to sign up for the RACV Great Victorian Bike Ride as the perfect way to experience some of the best of what Australia has to offer by bicycle and in comparative bike touring luxury. The route was planned out over 9 days and 610km from Mt Gambier to Geelong, following the route of The Great Ocean Road from start to finish. From South Australia, through the Otway Ranges and drawing to an end along the endless miles of golden sandy beaches of the Surf Coast. Along the route I was accompanied by around 5000 other participants, with 3 meals a day served up by volunteers included in the price, all my luggage transported for me between stops and a busy music festival style campsite to relax in at the end of every day’s ride. The weather started out cold, with relentless rain, gusty wind, and a badly leaking tent, but it’s a hell of a lot easier in these conditions when you’re constantly surrounded by other people in the same boat. The weather improved after the first couple of days (apart from a very cold day in the middle, cycling through the towering gums and tree ferns of the winding Otway hill tracks with no gloves), gradually building up to unbroken 30 – 35 degree sunshine towards the end. This was an excellent way to experience a different take on bike touring and I’d seriously recommend it to anyone heading to Australia around November time.
ARCTIC NORWAY 2011
After the exhaustion of Iceland and deciding I wouldn’t be rushing in to another tour the following summer, I started to get cravings around November time to start planning and go touring again. Being a bit of a Scandophile, I decided on Norway and quickly saw my route. I would fly with my bike to Bodø, catch the ferry to Moskenes on the far south of the Lofoten archipelago and cycle from there through the Lofoten Islands, Vesterålen, Senja, Kvaløya and finish in Tromsø, the capital of the north. I managed to get my brother to come along too, which would make a nice change from the solo touring experience. All in all it was 5 days of other-worldly land and seascapes, midnight sun, beautiful weather, miserable weather, nice people, long boat rides, long tunnels and a challenging mixture of long flat stretches and hilly cycling. The tour also took on a slightly dark edge from day one with the tragic events on Utoya taking place while we were on the plane. We heard patchy news about what took place on the evening we arrived, but not being able to read the Norwegian papers and with no internet, it took us several days of speaking to locals along the way to get a real sense of the scale of the tragedy and how deeply it affected the Norwegian people.