A beige sea of jostling visitors, filled the east coast platform, excitedly munching and chattering, making it difficult to guide a fully laden bike, without ramming a few calf muscles! With the bicycle loading carriage at the rear of the train, crowds quickly embarking, progress was slow. Thankfully a kind conductor came to the rescue and helped lift the laden beast into the guard’s van! Bike safely secured, I collapsed onto a seat in the nearest carriage, feeling the relief of finally escaping suburbia. It had been a long-term of teaching during the lead up to Christmas, with all the associated Kindergarten celebrations, including baking special treats, re-learning traditional songs and making presents. Rewarding though sometimes tiring.
Fortunately, the scenic journey from Picton to Blenheim is a short one, the usual excitement of a solo bike trip began to rise, diverting my mind into more pleasant thoughts. While living in New Zealand, one of my closest held dreams was to solo cycle the Rainbow Trail. A backcountry sub-alpine pass, which at 1347 metres, is the highest publicly accessible ‘road’ in New Zealand. This route passes through the land of two working sheep farms, in the remote high country. As a historic stock drovers road, it also links the two regions of Canterbury and Malborough. The trail passes over icy rivers, temperamental fords winding through an eerie gorge with mountains galore, along with numerous hill climbs on a winding, curving, rough gravel track! This ‘road’ hasn’t been engineered and isn’t maintained for public access……so it seems, cyclists must travel at their peril!
Leaving the buoyant sightseers to their own dreams of whale watching, I hastily unloaded the bike and disembarked onto the hot, dusty Blenheim station platform. Blenheim is well situated in the heart of the wine-growing Malborough region……a sun trap, home to endless rows of marching grapevines, belonging to 20 plus wineries! No doubt, an absolute delight for the wine connoisseurs visiting Blenheim for wine tasting tours! 20,000 hectares of vineyards producing delicious New Zealand wines, such as their famous Sauvignon Blanc.
The sweating tarmac rolled out in a straight line between the vineyard edges. It was an easy ride with a gradual incline, much-needed, having lost some cycling fitness in the school term. Eventually, in the late afternoon, I arrived at the rather scruffy looking, large, square, Wairau Hotel. Well-positioned for the local vineyard workers, helping to quench their thirst at the end of a long hot day….not really a campsite at all! Fortunately, the owner took pity on me, very kindly allowing my small tent, a small space, in their surrounding land. A yard that was baked to the bone from the dry heat. Only one or two bent pegs later, my little Acto tent was gratefully and securely pitched. Feeling slightly unsettled by the outback look of the local drinkers, casting curious glances, keeping a low profile seemed a good idea. The hot shower plan was also abandoned, probably the grottiest facility ever encountered in New Zealand, clearly not been used for years by anyone.
The two daughters of the pub landlord, Jessica and Hannah, were interested in, why, this middle-aged woman was travelling alone on a bike. They likely decided being English had something to do with it! Hannah was 12 years old. She listened avidly to tales of my two sons and Tui, our African Grey parrot. Hannah confided in me, that her elder sister, was desperate to go to the bright lights of America and become famous. This aspiration was slightly shocking, the Hotel was in a very rural situation, miles from anywhere with a substantial population. Then a thought hit home, of course, the television. The Wairau Hotel hosted a huge flat-screen television, suspended over the bar, it dominated the pub bar area, and sadly the lives of Jessica and Hannah too.
Despite the nervy, backcountry feel, sleep came easily. The next morning dawned, with a pale turquoise sky, luscious grape vines gazing thirstily upwards, tarmac already exuding black heat. A quick bowl of soaked muesli, a large mug of green tea and ready to go!
The straight unwavering road was bearable till around mid-day. By that point, a break in the meagre shade became the best option. A few bushes at the road end of a long driveway, gave a little shade, a chance to eat a snack and re-hydrate a little. Both water bottles were worryingly low. Very, fortunately, a kind lady emerged from the driveway, took one look at my predicament and offered water, wow, could hardly believe my luck!. After an hour of more pedalling, the fierce heat started to feel oven-like. A fifteen-minute stop, under a sturdy fence post, more blazing tarmac and slow, slow cycling, until the start of the St Arnauds pass road.
There another half an hour was spent, collapsed in a little heap under a scanty bush, nursing a bursting, throbbing headache. My red bike helmet ( a legal requirement in New Zealand ), had long been abandoned for a baseball cap. The chances of meeting a member of the local constabulary were surely much lower than getting major heatstroke, from wearing a red-hot, plastic bowl on my head.
Slowly, trundling, struggling on, feeling exhausted and nauseous, relief was palpable, when the left turning for Lake Rotoiti camping area came into view. My gratitude wavered a little, upon realizing the tent pitch pointed out by a ranger, was, in fact, a small patch of dry, stony ground on a slight slope. Unpacking the panniers was a mammoth effort. Weakly attempting to push the tent pegs into the hard surface, they behaved badly, like a group of truculent soldiers. More tears came.
Finally, finally, I crawled into the shaky tent, prayed for a gale free night and slept solidly for fourteen hours.
The old saying,’tomorrow is another day,’ proved to be so true. The campground was peaceful, the glowing calm lake perfectly situated in a horseshoe of mountains. Camping spots, thoughtfully set in shady glades among the red, silver and black beech trees of Kerr Bay. Large open wooden shelters to cook in, plenty of showers and toilets….all sparkling clean…….excellent.
The forest and lake fall within the boundaries of the Nelson Lakes National Park, the New Zealand Department of Conservation ( DOC ), are treating this area as a mainland island. A serious, long-term attempt is being made, to regenerate the manuka and kanuka as well as the beech forest, along with the indigenous wildlife, by simultaneously trapping predator stoats, possums, wasps, rats and deer. This tremendous undertaking appears to be working, the greater spotted kiwi has been successfully re-introduced, endangered kaka parrots will be spotted flying past. Nectar-feeding tui and bellbird can be heard calling vociferously, many friendly bush robins and fantails hastily swallow down clouds of thriving insects.
Listening to this excited bird orchestra, turned out to be the best tonic for recovery from sunstroke. Lots of water and lots of food added to the mix renewed my ‘Joi de Vivre.’ The cooking area was housed in an open wooden building, giving any birds an opportunity to pop in for meals. In fact, one cheeky little robin came close enough to enjoy a few oatcake nibbles…..even an ugly weka scuttled in, grabbing a few morsels in passing.
Rest and replenishment having done their trick! It was time for an afternoon wander through the enticing beech forests, along the aptly named, ”Honeydew Walk.” The honeydew of the beech forests hosts an insect, which supports a whole ecosystem of animals and birds, providing food and making it possible for them to survive and flourish. Which is why DOC wants to keep the predators at bay, therefore giving all the NZ indigenous creatures, especially flightless birds a chance to thrive. The forest is hauntingly beautiful with dappled sunlight filtering through a kaleidoscope of branches. The air humid with strange scent, an undergrowth of green-blue ferns, black furry tree trunks, inlaid on a bed of yellow-brown leaves…….bliss.
The following morning dawned bright, warm and clear, with the Rainbow trail beckoning invitingly.
Travelling on a bike for any length of time means carrying food and probably water, adversely affecting the weight of the bike, meaning the rider gets stronger quicker, but definitely the hard way! A two-day route usually involves carrying close to three days worth of food, cooking gear, fuel, tent, sleeping bag, clothes etc. Luckily my water supply would come from the pristine river and sparkling side creeks along the trail, thankfully reducing the need to carry more weight.
Access to the Rainbow Trail is only allowed between Boxing Day and 5 pm Easter Monday, quite a small window, especially as it can be closed at any time due to heavy rain or fire risk. First, though a phone call to confirm access, after a positive answer, the previous days’ struggles were forgotten, excitement bubbling in anticipation of the adventure to come!
The next few hours were a delight, cycling on mixed surfaces, alongside shady beech forests full of giant emerald-green ferns, extending into dim mysterious realms. The sort of forest that lends a perfect home to the nocturnal brown kiwi, and New Zealand’s only surviving owl, the morepork.
Eventually reaching the Old Malborough Homestead, I dutifully paid my two-dollar toll fee. Mrs O M H unlocked the padlock, the enormous wooden gate creaked open, and I passed over the threshold onto the winding track, barely able to breathe through my elation. Ten minutes later reality took over, the back wheel inner tube valve failed. Leaving me in no doubt that the inner tubes purchased in Oamaru were duds. It took the best part of a frustrating half an hour to change the wheel. While struggling with the rear brake alignment, ‘two handsome knights on shining mountain bikes’, appeared from nowhere. Seeing my ill-disguised struggles, they deftly pulled out a few spanners, quickly put the V brakes into position and kindly gave me a spare quality inner tube! We didn’t exchange names, thank you, thank you, to you guys, wherever you are!
Pedalling onward, the bumpy gravel track soon entered a flat river valley of sprawling bush and towering rocky peaks. Then passed over the glacier-blue Wairau river on a rickety wooden bridge, delivering me into the infamous Hells Gate Gorge.
More sprawling bush, wise old beech and spindly rata trees lined the blue rushing waters. Punctured inner tubes banished by breathing in the raw wilderness, filled my eyes with tears of pleasure. All too soon the Coldwater Creek, ‘camping’ area sprang into sight. Delightfully there were no facilities, apart from a gushing side creek with a flattish grassy area………perfect for a wild camping addict. Not another soul in sight was even more perfect! The tent went up promptly, low grey clouds began looming whilst thoughts of food were gnawing at my mind.
Two older Austrian cyclists arrived along with a flimsy tent. Striking up a conversation, it transpired they had no wet weather protection, such as jackets or trousers. Apparently eventually heading to Japan via a whistle-stop tour of New Zealand, deciding somewhat unwisely that rainproof equipment was an excess luggage requirement! ‘Good on ’em,’ as the Kiwis tend to say, as of course, the rains came in a silent silver drizzle. Wishing the two burly Austrian chaps the best of luck. I retreated into my cosy tent, devoured a feast of sweet potato and tofu, breathed a small wish that tomorrow would bring more dry weather, before falling into a deep sleep. The next day was going to be a distance of 40 kilometres, most of it steep on a challenging gravel road through endless fords and over the alpine Island Saddle leading onward to Lake Tennyson……phew.
Fortunately, the day broke, with a gift of azure blue cloudless skies.
A quick splash in the sweet cold creek, a mug of green tea, a saucepan full of gluey hemp seed porridge, always eaten straight from the pan itself…….saves on washing up!
Wheels rolling out of the gorge along the curving gravel track. It was slow going, repeatedly up and downhill, bumping through numerous wide shallow streams and heavy awkward steel gates. As my legs screamed out, Stop! The usual thoughts of, ‘Why am I doing this?’ It’s too much hard work, it hurts and there’s no one to whinge to!’ Followed by the usual answer,’Because you love to be out in the wild on your bike, alone and free from the shackles of modern life, all this is worth the pain and struggles.’ I reassured myself, of course, it is……always.
Wobbling across the last bubbling ford gathering wet feet for the final time, brought into view the boundary gates between the vast Molesworth and Rainbow sheep stations. On the far side of the iron gates, were a couple of large jeeps with a group of around 10 resting cyclists. Mmm, a guided, supported bike trip…….they had it good! As the gates came closer, ‘three more knights on shining mountain bikes,’ raced forward to open the gate for me. How chivalrous! Being a woman alone on a bike can be an advantage when help is needed. The oldest knight and I exchanged information about the track ahead in both directions, mutually useful.
Quickly the road spilt out into the valley heart, brimming over with classic South Island landscape. High, high mottled grey mountains, long steep screes reaching from the ridge to the valley floor, tussock upon tussock of golden grasses, glowing under a perpetually changing sky. Remote, stunning and so so quiet. Feeling momentarily like the only person alive on and in this huge planet of ours, was wonderful!
Slowly, steadily bike tyres crunching over the slippery gravel, closer and closer to Island Saddle. On the very steepest section just before the summit, stopping for a breather seemed sensible, pushing the bike was not going to happen. While gazing at the arduous section ahead, studiously concentrating on not becoming mentally overwhelmed, a four-wheel-drive vehicle suddenly popped into view. As the pick-up came closer, the woman driver slowed down, stopping to say hello… After a short conversation, to our surprise, we turned out to have some mutual acquaintances, linked together by our connections with the New Zealand Steiner school system! She wished me luck, swept downhill, leaving a billowing dust trail and musical silence.
After several false alarms of annoying flattish sections, finally, the green and yellow DOC sign declared, ‘Island Saddle 1347 metres. A classic mountain saddle, with a panoramic view spreading for miles over snow-capped peaks, bush laden valleys and vast clear skies. Turning, looking back at the valley floor, with it’s winding ribbon of ochre track, a sense of achievement flooded in. It felt so wonderfully satisfying, to know I was well on the way to completing another compelling dream.
Some women, gasp incredulously, asking how I manage it when they discover the solo cycling exploits and adventures, that pass through my life. The usual answer is, anyone can do this. It involves becoming bike fit, having the right equipment, starting small, using commonsense and crucially…..definitely not overthinking about all the potential problems or circumstances that can go awry. Invariably one does encounter problems, big or small, however, they can usually be overcome with thought, action and a little luck!
The other question often put forward is; ‘Aren’t you afraid?’ Well, yes sometimes…… travelling alone can be scary. The trick is to keep reminding oneself that the world is essentially a good place, along with keeping a balanced feeling of trust, by using the three-second rule of character assessment. Gut instinct is rarely wrong.Wild camping sites, when carefully chosen, out of sight of passing vehicles or people, are safe and secure. Probably safer than sleeping in a busy hostel/campsite or perhaps my own bed at home. No burglars, predators or marauding drunks in a stone sheepfold, old bothy or hollow in the hills!
Bravery has little connection with my adventures. It is more likely related to an interminable inner drive to throw off the traces of material living. By grasping the challenge in wild places, being immersed in all the wilderness has to offer, one meets unique freedom and spiritual connection to the landscape. George Mallory’s interpretation of the reasoning behind the human need for adventure makes inspiring reading;
”What we get from adventure is just sheer joy. And joy is after all the end of life. We do not live to eat and make money. We eat and make money to be able to live. This is what life means and what life is for.”
Looking around at the gentle swaying tussocks, creeping alpine plants, dappled hills, big white clouds all backed by the Crimean Mountains. Quite simply, life at that moment, could not have felt more joyful, spiritual, peaceful or contented.
Then came a five-kilometre downhill stretch along a rough, twisty track, with ruts big enough to disappear into. The upside was some leg muscles had a welcome rest, soon the Lake Tennyson sidetrack appeared. Tennyson is a beautiful high country lake, surrounded by the towering mountain ranges of Spencer and St James, Mt Una being the highest peak at 2301 metres! The lake itself was born behind a glacier deposit of moraine rubble, giving an incredibly scenic foreshore area totally ruled by the lofty peaks, providing unsurpassed camping. Fortunately, only one other tent belonging to a Swiss cyclist occupied the foreshore. He turned out to have five children, three in Switzerland and two in New Zealand! That must make life a little tricky, but great holidays for the kids! As we chatted, the conversation was cut short by the arrival of heavy rain, each of us retreating to our respective tents. Apparently, at Lake Tennyson, there has been a recent addition of a small, open hut type shelter, including an information board. Also, it seems, there is now a war against the humble rabbits who make their homes in the area.
Snuggled up in my sleeping bag, hunger was niggling, despite having eaten a huge pan of vegetables, walnuts and rice. The pannier provisions left, included a meagre supply of oats, rice and one avocado. Not a lot, to get through the next days ride to Hamner Springs village. With hunger biting, agitated rain pounding, the thought of tightening the guy ropes became distinctly unappealing, fortunately, before too long a brief lull in the heavy rain came, giving a small chance to avoid soaked waterproofs. Damp gear is hopeless in a tent, however, New Zealand usually has a very dry advantage, over Scotland for example.
The next morning once again arrived dry and clear, with a fantastic view over the water to the distant snowy peaks. While packing away the Acto once again, I thanked my blessings. Suddenly out of nowhere, appeared an enormous mob of sandflies. The New Zealand black sandfly (Namu in Maori ), is notorious for its nasty bite, being a third bigger in size, than the famous Scottish midge. Captain James Cook first met these notorious insects in Fiordland while visiting Dusky Sound in May 1773.
His journal explains; ‘The most mischievous animal here, is the black sandfly which are exceedingly numerous…..wherever they light they cause a swelling and such intolerable itching that it is not possible to refrain from scratching, and at last ends in ulcers like the small pox.’ 1
There is a Maori legend that the god Tu-te-raki-whanoa created Fiordland. Which looked so stunning, it stopped people from working, as they constantly gazed admiringly at Fiordlands beauty. The Goddess Hine-nui-te-po became angry and created the sandfly to get the workers moving! Yes, moving fast gives the only respite from sandfly fangs!
Packing quickly, I felt sorry to leave the pure tranquillity and power of this special place. Civilization was looming, a temporary sobering thought! Pushing such musings away by jumping on the bike, I headed along the bone-rattling track towards Hamner, all 30 kilometres of it!
Luckily and gratefully, plenty of moral support came my way from the occasional passing vehicle. One friendly Kiwi family slowed down, their two children leaned out of the open car window, handing me a handful of juicy sweets ( or lollies in New Zealand speak ). An elderly Scottish chap passed by, yelling through his open window, ” I think you are wonderful and amazing.” Fine praise indeed, but not strictly true! The jarring bike was starting to shake teeth as well as panniers and rack fittings, frustration and tiredness began to creep in as I prayed for the end of the ruts, seemingly my prayers were answered. Miraculously the gravel suddenly became smoother, now obviously well maintained, perhaps by the Rainbow sheep station, maybe they too were fed up of the ruts!
Riding smoothly along, finally, at a decent speed, an older man on a mountain bike came into sight, on greeting each other he turned around accompanying me for a few kilometres. Richard was so encouraging, a much-needed tonic after the ‘rattle and bone’ effect. It transpired that we had quite a few UK friends in common, connected with my time spent living at Plas Y Brenin, the British Mountaineering Centre in North Wales. Richard was an ex-mountaineer in his late 60’s, he definitely had not slowed down in his senior years…..plenty of energy and vitality. As we bid farewell at the bottom of Jacks Pass, Richard mentioned his wife, who was at that moment descending the pass on her mountain bike. The 800m Jacks Pass is the last steep hill before the fast descent into the picturesque village of Hamner Springs, a popular tourist resort famous for its thermal springs and ski-ing.
Sure enough, there was Richard’s wife, as I struggled uphill she sped downhill. We stopped, exchanged a few words, 69 years old and looking amazing, more like a 55-year-old, what a marvellous role model of willpower and determination.
The rest of Jacks Pass was psychologically tough feeling like twice its height, with a challenging steep section just before the summit. Eventually, though the distant town of Hamner appeared in sight, along with a feeling of total euphoria.
Exhilarated and joyful, I sped downhill towards sustenance.
“20 years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbour. Catch the trade wind in your sails.
Explore. Dream. Discover.” 2
1. The journals of Capt Cook on his voyage of discovery.
2 Mark Twain.
PS. Lake Rototaiti photos were sourced elsewhere. The rest are owned by Julie.