As a cycle tour guide I get to meet from all over the world, this time it was nine intrepid English cyclists from the Traditional Touring Club based in Leigh on Sea, in Essex, England. Our journey would take us from Auckland in the north, to Te Anau in the far south of the South Island, with the tour finishing in Christchurch.
Whilst ostensibly belonging to a cycling club, it by no means limits its activities to cycling alone. Trips with a difference are encouraged, provided there is someone willing to organise it. Pretty much anything goes, whether it be skiing in France, weekends cycling locally, or touring in Europe, trekking in Nepal, or cruising the canals by boat. What a great idea for a club!
This ‘little adventure’ was the brain child of Roger Phillips, a retired Super from the Essex Police. He had previously toured New Zealand and had ‘waxed lyrical’ about it ever since. In conjunction with his brother in law, he had organised the itinerary in consultation with Pacific Cycle tours, a Christchurch based cycle tour company. Roughly two thirds of New Zealand’s 4 million people live in the North Island, with around one million living in the Auckland area alone. Why am I telling you this? Just think about it for a minute, a country roughly the same size as Great Britain, all 270,500 square kilometres of it, with a population of only 4 million! Generally crowds don’t exist; just wide open spaces, room to spread your whole towel on the beach and have your picnic basket beside you as well! Within its incredibly long, convoluted coastline there lies a scenic diversity which would make many larger countries green with envy. The roads are small and tend to go round features rather than through them, making travelling distances longer and slower than in other countries. The bonus is the scenery. Traffic on the whole is light, especially on the Westcoast of the South Island where it is possible to count all the cars seen in a days travel and still be under 100! All the ingredients for perfect cycle touring!
Like most overseas visitors I have met they had little idea of what New Zealand had to offer, or how “big” this little group of islands floating in the south-western Pacific are! Many that come make the mistake of thinking they can “do” New Zealand in a couple of weeks. They soon realise that this trip is in fact just a “reconnaissance” and leave vowing to return when they have a few months to spare!
I think initially the group wondered what they had struck, coming as they had from an English winter into the midst of one of New Zealand’s hottest summers on record. Like all holiday makers they were hopeful of good weather, and it came to me to break the bad news. Don’t get me wrong, I was also in favour of sunshine, sunshine and more sunshine, the only problem was, due to a serious drought on the east coasts of both the North and South Islands, the rest of New Zealand was praying for rain, so they shouldn’t be surprised if it did. In the end, however, the power of positive thought won out. Out of 27 days it only rained on 4. Not bad for a country with places such as Milford Sound, in Fiordland, that boast a yearly average rainfall 6 – 7 metres (18 – 20 feet)!
At first I thought I had the wrong group, and that this lot were in fact undercover restaurant critics, as their penchant for red wine, restaurants and frequent cafe stops became apparent. They eventually convinced me otherwise. Anyway, it was a case of 9 to 1, so what could I do? That’s one of the necessary skills of being a guide, adaptability, so it wasn’t long before I found myself drinking coffee with the best of them! It became an unspoken rule that we would check out as many restaurants and cafe’s as humanly possible whilst we traversed the country! How could I argue with that?
Having fun, and finding time to relax is usually the paramount goal of any person on holiday, and this group was no exception. With ages ranging from the mid thirties to the late sixties there was quite a range of abilities and fitness. Whilst all were keen cyclists, they were also keen to sample other activities during their stay. Being on a van supported tour meant the bikes were unencumbered by luggage, and that no one needed to feel guilty about holding others up; if they wanted a rest they could just hop in the van. Our only daily commitment was to be at our next accommodation by around 6 – 7pm. The days activities therefore depended on how the group were feeling, what activities took their fancy, what we passed along the way and how far we had to travel.
In so little space, what do I tell you about? The stunning 6 hour walk over the Tongariro Crossing, through a volcanic desert wonderland of scoria, clinker, pumice and molten statues of stone. If you have the energy, the steaming Mt Ngauruhoe can be climbed along the way giving panoramic views of the central North Island. Or should I talk about the hot springs and geysers to be found around Rotorua. Or Roger and Debbie’s guided trip in two Duo Topolino (double) kayaks down the grade four Kaituna river and over the 7m high Okere falls. A mixture of pure joy and abject terror, ah, but it was worth it, you should have seen their faces at the end! Or perhaps, what would really interest you is the , Driving Creek Railway Barry Brickell’s realisation of a life time dream to build a narrow gauge, light bush railway, initially as a way to collect firewood (exotic pine) and clay for his pottery business. It is now a major tourist attraction in the Coromandel area, taking people through a regenerating Kauri forest to a lookout high above Coromandel. New Zealand at its quirky best!
And that is just for starters. The Cape Foulwind Seal Colony begs a mention, so named by Captain James Cook because of its foul winds. Seals have made all day siesta’s an art form. In order to sleep undisturbed they put their pups into a communal crèche on a small, safe beach, surrounded by rocks, where they play to their hearts content. We watched them for ages, impressed by their social organisation and care of their young. Or the homestay at Hari Hari, South Westland where we hand fed the Wapiti deer and were entertained with tales from the deer hunting days and treated to a table groaning feast of lamb and venison fit for royalty. Interwoven with these highlights, is of course, the daily cycling routine spent cruising along un-crowded, generally sealed roads, with spectacular views lurking around every corner. Some of the cycling highlights include the Westcoast section from Charleston to Punakaiki, home of the famous pancake rocks and blow holes. The road winds its way along the rugged coastline, a small causeway between the crashing waves of the Tasman sea, and the luscious, dense native bush and rugged hills of the Paparoa ranges. This place invigorates and enlivens the senses! Breath deeply, the heady aroma of the fresh sea air mixed with the damp, musty smell of the bush means every lung fill is pure heaven! For variety you can’t beat the section from Queenstown to Te Anau. Queenstown is renowned as New Zealand’s centre for adrenaline junkies, with activities such as bungy jumping, white-water rafting, jet boating, off road mountain biking and paragliding available. The journey begins with a trip across Lake Wakatipu in the “Lady of the Lake”, the historic steamship the “Earnslaw”. Morning tea to the sounds of live piano! You disembark at Walter Peak, a high country sheep station which gives daily farming demonstrations for visitors. After a look around, a magnificent bike ride awaits along the Von river, over a small pass and into the Mararoa River, where the van awaits with food and water. From here it’s a short drive to Te Anau and the start of the Milford Track.
I have hardly scratched the surface of the trips highlights, we packed so much into our 27 days together that I would need a book to cover it all! Not mentioned was the copious amount of wine tasted, or the jet boat rides, visits to the glaciers, Milford Track walk, off road Mt Biking around Lake Wanaka or the groups love affair (some might call it addiction) with New Zealand’s ice cream. Hopefully there is enough here to whet some appetites, cause a dusting off of the atlas and start to exploring some possibilities for a trip to New Zealand. What impressed everyone the most were the dramatic changes in the landscape as we headed from the rolling countryside of the North Island, to the dramatic, mountainous vistas of the South Island. Dennis, who had the honour of being the oldest at 67, kept repeating every day, “yesterday was fabulous, I honestly didn’t think it could ever get better, yet today was!” If there was to be a motto for the trip, that would have to be it. Each day was better! ©Tony Brunt 2001