Day 30 -Christchurch to Wellington – Train & Ferry – 7 kms
A 4 km ride to the train station in Christchurch shook out the cobwebs of my earlier than usual wake-up. It was still dark outside, but the route was well lit and mostly on a portion of Christchurch’s extensive bike lane/path system through South Hagley Park.
As expected, the train’s route provided some wonderful scenery, and as I had imagined, especially spectacular along the Kaikoura coast. Together with the regular seating coaches, the train had one open air carriage equipped with some heavy-duty railings to hang on to as the train swayed and snaked along many miles of older and rickety track up the coastline. I took my camera out to that carriage for a while and wow, was it a wild ride! At speed, there was a cool, strong wind rushing by, and then, just when I’d leaning out a bit for a photo-op, a tunnel entrance or some other structure would pass close by and scare the hell out of me! Quite safe really, but it was an definite adrenalin rush!
The funny part was that the train’s crew announced that seals may be visible on the coast – nary a one! When I rode along this route going south – in the pouring rain and strong wind – there were hundreds of them! – I guess they were enjoying a shower with the fresh rain water then!
After the train trip, the ferry ride from Picton to Wellington, despite good vistas, was rather mundane – and the infamous Cook Strait behaved itself once again for a smooth crossing. In fact the weather was “mainly fine” all day.
Once in Wellington, I just had a short ride ride to the Downtown Backpacker’s hostel, a quick shower and then the nightly food forage. The hostel has its own pub, so I had a couple of pints while watching a rugby match – then the smoke became unbearable, so I skedaddled to the smoke-free TV lounge for a movie. Apparently, New Zealand will be outlawing smoking in bars/pubs (the last holdouts) next December – too bad that it wasn’t last December!
Another train tomorrow to Hamilton – not as early a start though. And I must remember to put the clock back one hour tonight – daylight savings time ends here today – opposite to the Northern Hemisphere – no wonder I was confused with the time differentials when I first arrived!
Day 31 -Wellington to Hamilton – Train – 3 kms
The train ride today was very relaxing. It was nice to sit back and relax,watching some marvellous views effortlessly go by. Rolling across some high viaducts really created some impressive views. Lots of tunnels too, some were quite long, and I also saw some of the flood damage from last month as the train travelled through the central south section of the North Island.
I arrived in Hamilton, and had a short 3 km ride to the YHA which was very close to the stadium where there was a big rugby match on the slate for the evening – while it was on there was quite the racket coming from there, but it was all over before 10:00 p.m., so it didn’t upset my beauty sleep!
Day 32 -Hamilton to Auckland – 120 kms
Due to the clocks changing last night, I managed to ride out of Hamilton a wee bit earlier than on previous mornings. The sun was up even as I negotiated the industrial suburbs of Hamilton. Some mist soon obliterated it, but it wasn’t long before it burned through that, and it was quite pleasant all day – for a change!
Even though it was Sunday morning, I crossed the river and elected to ride a quieter route than the main road to Auckland. It was nice and peaceful until it joined the SH 1 expressway at Rangiri – then it was really busy! But at least and even being a freeway, there was a bike lane with a one metre buffer lane between the main lanes and the bike lane – very nice for the time it lasted. It did run out later though, inconveniently in time to ride through some road works – nothing major though.
Most of the route was flat, except for a 3 km climb up Bombay Hill to 184m. That was the only lump for the day; I was forced to leave the highway at the top, as it changed to “Motorway” designation – no bikes allowed. But at that point I could access the Great South Road, basically the old highway, which was relatively quiet and took me all the way the outskirts of Auckland and ultimately my motel that had arranged when I first arrived in New Zealand.
The Skyway motel is more like a backpacker’s hostel, but that’s fine by me – very pleasant, nice friendly owners and the price was right! Anyway, my duffel bag and packing material that I had left here when I arrived were waiting for me – in fact, the bike’s already packed! Tomorrow I’ve got a tourist day to do in downtown Auckland, then early on Tuesday – I’m outta here for that 24 hour plane ride back to Canada!
Day 33 -Sightseeing in Auckland – 0 kms
The local transit bus stopped very close to the motel, so I bought a day-pass for NZ$8.00 and took the easy way to visit downtown Auckland. I’m glad that I didn’t ride my bike – it’s a very hilly city and the drivers are no slower that anywhere else in New Zealand. In particular, the bus drivers must be in training for a Grand Prix – unbelievable are the speeds at which they wheel their charges around the streets with no regard for pedestrians or cyclists.
I must say that in general I wasn’t too impressed with the Auckland (City of Sails) that I saw. As I rode the bus through the suburbs, I saw quite a few run-down areas. And perhaps some of the downtown area is in restoration mode, as I noticed many derelict buildings and dirty streets together with a multitude of of stores and a mass of humanity scurrying around endlessly (“I’d rather be cycling,” came to mind). I wandered around for quite a while taking in some of the better sights around the harbour where many large yachts are moored, including some of the sleek America’s Cup contenders from past races.
The highlight of the harbour was a new 178 foot sailboat that was receiving some finishing touches. Nevertheless, Auckland is a city of one million people – that’s about 25% of New Zealand’s population living in this area – and I’m certain that there are many fine areas that I would not be able to visit in one day. Besides, my heart wasn’t really into sightseeing – I guess that I was apprehensive about the long flight ahead of me the next day and I was somewhat sad that my bike tour was over.
So I ate a bit, drank a bit, continued to wander a bit more and decided to head back to my digs for an early dinner followed by an early night. I had to be up early anyway for that flight the next morning – and I couldn’t afford to be late for that appointment!
Well, that’s about 2300 kms by bike and probably over 1500 Kms by bus and train. I’ve seen so much of the country in a few short weeks; it’s been difficult to scratch out all my thoughts on the small keyboard of my Pocketmail device everyday – besides I came here to ride, not write!
At the tour’s end, I must admit that my impression of New Zealand was a little jaded – mostly due to the fact of the amount of rain and cooler weather that I had encountered. It’s not that I didn’t expect some rain, but just not in the quantity that I did come upon. And after all, the plan was to escape the cool Pacific Northwest winter in western Canada for some summer weather in the southern hemisphere. All the research regarding weather patterns that I had performed prior to the trip seemed futile. Nevertheless I did hit a bad year, but how does one pick a good year?
Overall though, now that I’ve had time to reflect, I did have a fabulous trip and saw a great deal of the country in a few short weeks. There are places that I wished I would have had more time to visit, but my schedule would not allow me to do so, and of course time is always a factor when there is not enough of it!
February (last month of summer down-under) and March are definitely quiet months to bike tour in New Zealand. Children are back in school after their summer break and most locals are also back at work. I had no problem getting tent sites at campgrounds, but hostel/backpackers or cabin availability was trickier in areas that are more popular with visitors. I found it best to book ahead for any “covered” accommodation. I had no problem with finding my way around and found signage on most routes more than adequate. I used AA District maps extensively together with Nigel Rushton’s, Pedallers’ Paradise books – a must for any cycling venture to New Zealand.
As I mentioned in one of my messages, the campgrounds were for the most part superb. Most had kitchens, showers, and many had lounges; all features that were certainly welcome during inclement weather periods. Also the common areas were a great meeting place to chat with other travellers and acquire information regarding possible routes or road closures.
I did carry a stove and fuel, but very rarely used my own burner for cooking – I did use my pots extensively though, as many campgrounds do not provide the actual cookware, whereas hostels do. In retrospect, I could have definitely managed without my stove, but being a “belt and suspenders” kind of guy, I’d rather carry it even if only for a possible “wild camping” opportunity or emergency.
All the folks that I met were extremely friendly and helpful – I can honestly say that I did not have any unpleasant encounters in that respect – I just wish that the drivers would slow down on some of the trickier roads – especially when passing cyclists! But apart from that whinge, the Kiwis are marvellous hosts for visitors to their very diverse, scenic and spectacular country. I found it very easy to get around, even though one has to ride on the left – but that’s how I learnt in Britain, so it was nostalgic for me rather than a hindrance. Buses, trains and ferries are accommodating to cyclists, but once again, it pays to book ahead to avoid being left behind!
Ultimately, I found New Zealand a terrific place to visit – yes, there are lots of hills – many are nasty steep ones – not usually too long though; after all, the highest mountain pass in New Zealand is only about 1000 metres!
Most of the hills/mountain passes that I have ridden in North America are what I’d call “highway grade” – where road builders have either blasted or graded to lessen the slope – to mostly less than 10% grade. The Kiwis seem to build right over the landscape, no matter how steep! New Zealand roads reminded me of some of the Gulf Island roads in British Columbia – narrow and hilly. But if one scales down one’s daily mileage expectations, the hills really aren’t too much of a problem. I also found that the areas of the North Island that I rode, for the most part, were hillier than my South Island touring. The Canterbury Plains were a good rest from the hills, but like any daft cyclist, I soon miss the hills and the scenery that is associated with them!
It can also get very windy in New Zealand (especially on the coastal roads, of which there are many) which once again can upset daily mileage potential. However, as any cyclist already knows, when that wind’s at your back – it’s superb, but when it’s in your face, it can be downright miserable!
I don’t imagine that anyone could not enjoy a excursion to New Zealand, but if you do decide to go, and especially if you’re cycling, don’t plan for a marathon each day… And, take good rain gear… Just in case!!!