Zen On Dirt


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Leaving Wanaka – into the unknown

New Years eve. Da-yum. How did that get here so fast? I feel like I should take some time for reflection on the year in this space, but I’m afraid that the bugs are going to drive me crazy before I get the chance. Maybe time for reflection will be when this trip is over in a mere 11 days.

For now, we celebrate finally leaving Wanaka. I think it’s been seven sleeps in this area. I probably could have spent the rest of the trip in Wanaka and the surrounding areas and been perfectly happy, but the New Years revelers were filling town, and it was getting a little crazy. Crazy to the point that the lines in the main grocery store were backed up through the aisles to the back of the store. From what we hear, Wanaka is a pretty sleepy little town most of the year, but during summer holidays (Christmas until a bit after New Years), it goes crazy.

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With a forecast calling for rain starting at 9am, we actually set an alarm so that we could get up and get to town before it started to rain. When we woke up, it didn’t look particularly threatening, so we drank coffee and ate breakfast before heading out. We were tired. Our plan of resting up in Wanaka for the last leg of the trip got completely derailed by our Grandview mini-epic yesterday, and there wasn’t much pep in the legs of enthusiasm of the soul going on in the morning.

We had three main goals in town: Wait out the rain, send a box of stuff forward to Christchurch, and buy food for the next leg of our trip towards Omarama.

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The rain never materialized, so that was great. The post office was closed on Saturdays, so that wasn’t so great. And the lines at the New World were crazy, so that wasn’t so great either. Luckily, there was a smaller grocery store that had what we needed without the hour wait in line.

I also bought new socks. My old ones had lost all elasticity in the cuffs and had a huge hold that had been repaired. I guess nearly 2 months of constant wear through mud and wet and high UV will kill any piece of clothing. Happy New Years Eve present to me!

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We eventually escaped the chaos of town, stopped by the postal service store in Albert Town to see if they could send our box (they couldn’t, at least not with tracking), and rode back to camp to gather our belongings.

Our bikes were so heavy. There was a fair amount of griping and complaining as we loaded up. I though for sure I’d be able to forward my rock collection to Christchurch.

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Then it was off down the Clutha River on lovely singletrack aided by a tail wind. We soon forgot about the heavy bikes and enjoying the riding. Then a slow grind up a false flat towards Lindis Pass, and a free DOC campsite by the ruins of an old hotel from the first gold rush in Otago. It ran for 70 years and now is a lovely little freedom camping site.

In the end, with our commute to and from town, we put in 45 miles of pedaling today. Not exactly the rest day we were hoping for, but it puts us in primo position to get to some cool huts tomorrow in the Ahurirri (ah-really) Valley.

Onwards into the new year. I’m excited to see what it’ll bring.


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Day Riding Underestimations: Thirst and Hunger on Grandview Peak

We had a semi-tentative plan to leave Wanaka today. Well, at least until we checked the weather forecast before leaving for camp yesterday evening. Today was supposed to be bluebird, tomorrow, rain. All day. We didn’t want to go bikepacking in the rain if we could avoid it. And when you’re hanging out in Wanaka, you can definitely avoid it.

Instead, we hatched a plan to day-ride today, have a town day tomorrow with the possibility of a run if the weather breaks, and then leaving to a much more promising forecast (at least more promising in our ability to get to a hut in time for the next wave of rain) the day after tomorrow.

Right? Right.

We pulled a lazy morning at camp, complete with a second cup of coffee. Some morning I look over at Scott next to me and his eyes are half shut while drinking the first cup. That’s when I know it’s a two-cupper day. We had a big traverse of the Grandview Peak area planned, we needed our energy.

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After a brief stop at the nearby cafe for cup of coffee #3 (we do share all of these cups of coffee, so it’s not actually as bad as it seems), a sausage roll, and a pie to go, we were on our way down the mighty blue Clutha River. There’s single track on either side of the river, and we’d taken the other side in when we’d come to town. This side was far more mountain bike-y.

This was followed by a handful of miles of highway riding, which wasn’t that bad because we were leaving Wanaka at a time when everyone was going to Wanaka.

Then official trail. We could go left and climb, or we could go right and climb. Left was mapped and on Trail Forks, right was not. We went left. After 200m of bushwacking through rose bushes, yes it was as painful as it sounds, we abandoned the mission, backtracked, and hopped a fence to get to the right track. It climbed beautifully and steeply upwards to exactly where we needed to go. There’s a lesson in here somewhere…I think.

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Anyhows, up. And up and up. Eventually we gained the ridge and were treated to many kms of “rolling” terrain. Rolling might be too gentle of a term. Many of the ups were too steep to ride…or we just didn’t want to allocate that many resources to the job at hand.

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But man oh man, was it beautiful! We got giant views of the Wanaka valley and Lake Wanaka to our left and the Dunst Mountains to our right.

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We ate all of our food. We drank all of our water. There was not water to be found anywhere up there. We were still miles from the peak. Doh! This was maybe our first time being thirsty in New Zealand.

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Eventually, after one more brutal climb that was really more hike-a-bike than pedaling, we reached the top! Grandview Peak, 1,300m.

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We could see Mt Aspiring in the distance, Rob Roy Glacier, and a giant view of Lake Hawea and the town of Lake Hawea, where we knew there was a store and cafe. Given our thirst and hunger, we didn’t linger as long on the summit as we normally would.

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And down on actual single track. We’d been on two tracks or no-tracks for most of the day, so some actual trail was a special treat. There were more gates on it per mile than the Arizona Trail (which is saying something) since it went through a working farm.

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Eventually we found a stream that crossed the trail, complete with a patch of shade, and sat and guzzled water. Water in NZ had never tasted that good. I have to say, it made the rest of the descent far more enjoyable. Keeping the body happy is key #1 to happy riding.

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We made a bee-line to the cafe in town, which was also the grocery store, and wi-fi hot spot, and gift shop, and ordered up some food, milkshakes, and an L&P, which is some sort of lemmony drink that they market as ‘World famous in New Zealand’. It’s our favorite post-ride drink when it’s hot.

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Lake Hawea is to Wanaka as Wanaka is to Queenstown. Smaller, quieter, and potentially even more beautiful.

We stopped for a quick dip in Lake Hawea, because it’s finally summer here and warm enough to go swimming, even at 8pm.

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And then a six mile bike trail ride brought us back to camp. A 45 mile pure loop from camp. It doesn’t get much better than that!


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Dog Days of Summer in Wanaka

What a fun couple of days its been here in Wanaka. We’ve done nothing exercise-wise besides the 45 minute commute from our campsite to town each day, but boredom has never even approached.

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When we woke up from our camp in the Mt Aspiring car park, the wind was blowing gale force. Down the valley. That meant a tailwind. And while it was raining, it was raining horizontally, and not very hard. We made short work of packing up camp and eating breakfast and got on the bikes earlier than we have in many moons.

The tail wind was amazing. One of those where you’re flying along at 15+ mph, and a gust comes along and accelerates you.

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Not only were the tailwinds awesome, but the impending storm that it was blowing towards us produced some amazing rainbows.

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They faded in and out as we went along.

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And at one point in time Scott told me to not waste all of my pictures on rainbows (my memory card was running dangerously low).

Bah. What does he know. Rainbows should always be celebrated.

The storm did hit us eventually, soaking us thoroughly. But the bad weather kept the campervan drivers holed up waiting out the weather, so we had the roads to ourselves.

The rain really started coming down when we got to Glenhu Bay, a campsite that hosts 2,500 people at its peak. It only had 2,000 when we stopped for a cup of coffee, but they told us that they were sold out for New Years. This is definitely the time to be camping here.

The sun started to come out as we got to Wanaka, and we headed straight to Urban Grind for our third cup of coffee of the day. We were just finishing up breakfast when a couple approached us, ‘Are those your touring bikes out there?’

‘Yes indeed.’

‘Where have you been?’

We told them a rough outline of the past nearly two months. ‘Can we buy you a coffee?’ the guy asked. ‘It sounds like you guys have some good stories.’

We weren’t about to turn down coffee #4, and we spent an hour talking bike touring, New Zealand, and the bikepacking scene here. They were from the Dunedin area and have done several of the underground race series bikepacking races here. We encouraged them to come do Tour Divide.

By the time we were done, the sun was out and we spent the rest of the afternoon lazing on the beach in the sun before pedaling the 45 minutes back to camp.

Waking up exhausted, we slowly made our way into town the next morning. Quality internet is hard to find here, so watching movies on Netflix was out. Instead, we went to a local cafe/movie theater that was showing Star Wars and bought tickets and cookies and popcorn. We hadn’t been on a movie date since Star Wars last Christmas.

Now, I did very little research on this new Star Wars and automatically assumed that it was going to be Episode VIII, so I was confused as shit when a) none of the old characters appeared from Episode VII, b) Darth Vader appears and c) everyone was talking about this new weapon called the Death Star.

If you’re at all less dense than I am, you’ll figure out what’s going on. Scott did. I didn’t have enough faith in my remembrance of the other movies to put it all together. I is dumb sometimes.

Anyhow, going to the movies was awesome, and then we went to the beach and watched the gulls play.

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Finally this morning, we were starting to feel better, as in, waking up wasn’t followed by a bunch of groans and moans.

We headed to the library, bought some internet ($5 NZD, $4USD) will buy a gig to share between 5 devices. It was well worth it as we both got a good bit of internet-y stuff done, including the first actual work I’ve done since leaving Manapouri a month ago.

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Charging station at the library

After lunch at an amazing Indian food cart (where we met an American who was doing a night-per-town air bnb rushed tour of NZ and complaining that there weren’t any more secret places (duh, you’ve got to take your time to look for the secret places, or they wouldn’t be a secret!)), we headed up to the bike shop that had been recommended to us by the hut ranger at Mid Caples, many moons ago. They had a focus on bikepacking, and we wanted to pick the guy’s brain on routes from here.

We were mid conversation when a woman walked in with a mountain bike. Matt, the owner had a Revelate seat bag that she wanted to buy, and we got to talking about various things.

‘Is that a Sarah Uhl hat?’ she asked me.

‘No, but I know Sarah Uhl.’

Sarah is a badass artist who I used to ride bikes with a lot and still try to get together with in Colorado to adventure with when time and schedules allow.

We kept on finding more and more mutual friends.

‘What’s your name?’ she asked.

When I told her, she replied, ‘THE Eszter?’

Oh geez.

‘We raced against each other in college. I went to CSU!’

As it turned out, we had raced together (back when I was fast and motivated) and ran in a pretty similar social circle. Which was hilarious. The Eszter. Anyhow, she’s been living in New Zealand working as a vet for seven years and offered up showers and anything else we needed at her place.

I’m constantly amazed at how small the world actually is, and how certain types of people always end up in the same places.

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Afterwards, we went down to the beach with our nightly danishes, watched the gulls, and eventually rode back to our campsite to watch the sun set over the mountains.

Wanaka is rad.


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Ride to hikes: Lunch in high places

We had a master plan: Ride from the car park were we were camped to the Mt Aspiring Hut, which is privately run, ditch bikes in the bush, hike up to Liverpool hut, a gorgeous red hut high in the mountains, spend the night, and reverse the steps the day after.

What is it they say about plans? The weather has the last laugh?

After packing up camp, we set off down the trail after two other mountain bikers. It was apparent pretty soon after leaving camp that we were in for a special ride. Mountains rose up dramatically on either side of the valley, and we kept waiting for a glimpse of Mt Aspiring, which we knew was up near the head of it.

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Progress was slow, but we have a lot of pictures to show for it.

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There was even some hike-a-bike, something that we haven’t had to do a whole lot of. We caught the other mountain bikers just shy of the hut. The woman had been a hut ranger there in the past and they were going up for a ride to hike. They also told us that the weather was supposed to go to shit the day after.

Really? At our last weather check, we had seen a day of rain somewhere in the future, but we hadn’t really internalized what day it was going to be.

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Sitting at the hut, we made a quick and immediate change of plans. We’ve gotten really lucky with weather in the past month, and we didn’t want to make pour decisions that would change our view of New Zealand weather from ‘It’s not that bad.’ Instead of an overnight, hike to the hut with light packs, have lunch, and reverse the whole damn thing in a day. That way, we’d only have to do the 30 mile ride back to Wanaka in cruddy weather, not a whole hike out, trail ride out, and then 30 mile gravel and paved road ride.

Plus hiking with light packs is way better than heavy ones.

The trail itself, once it veered from the valley floor, became an exercise in root climbing, I’m pretty sure that more steps had at least one hand on the ground or grasping a well placed root than not. It was ridiculously steep, and awesome and entertaining. We definitely didn’t want to be coming down this in the rain.

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After nearly 1,300 feet up, we broke thru bush line and gasped. The mountains here are beautiful.

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We had to descend down to the hut for lunch where we shared conversation with a French and Belgian couple who’d quit their jobs a year and a half ago and were hiking and hitchhiking around the world.

Even with spending time in the Alps in Europe and time down in South America, they were impressed with the magnitude of these mountains. They had food for three days in case the weather really went to shit.

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We ate, filled up on water, and started back. We would have loved to sleep up there, but lunch was a happy substitute.

The descent was far less sketchy than I thought it would be. Still, three points of contact were used for much of it.

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Root climbing. It’s all the rage right now.

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From the bottom, it was a quick jump across yet another sketchy swing bridge and hop down the valley to the Aspiring Hut where our bikes waited.

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The incoming storm was creating increasing winds and we were looking forward to surfing the tailwinds all the way back to the car park.

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They didn’t disappoint. In fact, they were strong enough that we halfway contemplated riding even farther down the road towards Wanaka, but in the end, we were worked, hungry, and ready to go horizontal.

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It had been an absolutely spectacular day in the mountains, and we had no intention of finishing it off with a slog.

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Instead, we set the tent up under the shelter, somewhat out of the wind, and passed out, wondering what the morning would bring.


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Christmas at Rob Roy Glacier

One of the main reasons we ended up coming down to NZ this year was to spend Christmas with my brother, who’s here on a year-long work-holiday visa. We’d settled on Wanaka as our location of celebration, and communicated the exact details of meeting up to him the night before as “We’ll roll into Wanaka around 9am. We’ll either be at Urban Roast (amazing coffee) if they’re open or down by the beach.”

When Scott and I rolled into town at 9:30, we weren’t exactly surprised to see a message from my brother sent at 9:15, ‘Leaving Queenstown soon. I’ll text when we get there.’

So we found ourselves the only open bakery in town (I’m all for closing businesses on Christmas, but employees get paid 2.5x their normal rate to work, so I didn’t feel too bad for buying scones and coffee) and settled in for the wait. We spent part of the time talking to another cyclotourist, an Irishman living in Australia, who was riding roads on a Salsa Marakesh. We were also ‘blessed’ by a Californian couple who said they were proud of us for going on our bike trip. They were weird.

Finally, my brother and Vanessa showed up in Yeti, who was finally back from another repair. Yeti is a classic, I’m glad my brother is keeping her/him running.

True to form, we sat around drinking more coffee and eating pies trying to decide what to do with our day. I’m really going to miss the pies here. And the flat whites.

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We settled on a trip up to Rob Roy glacier in Aspiring National Park, and after calling various parents around the globe, we piled the two bikes into the van and headed up the road. There was also some ukulele playing on the beaches of Lake Wanaka, because really, who’s in a hurry.

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While we knew that the road would turn to gravel eventually, we didn’t anticipate 20+ miles of gravel, heavily washboarded gravel. Yeti the Van doesn’t really like washboards, but my brother got it into his head that he wanted to make it to the trailhead. So we went.

Over the washboards, through the fords, to the mountains Yeti Van will go.

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It was definitely a mixture of elation and relief when we finally pulled up to the car park and got down to hiking.

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It was one of the most amazing hikes any of us had been on. Only 10km round trip, there was nothing exceptionally difficult about it, but it deposited us in one of the most amazing alpine cirques I’ve seen with huge glaciers towering overhead and long waterfalls plunging to the valley floors.

Seeing that we hadn’t started hiking until most people were nearly done with their day, the upper valley was essentially empty as we settled down for Christmas dinner: Wraps with hummus, avocado, cheese, salami, and greens. It was maybe the best wrap that I’ve ever had.

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We spent a long time laying in the sun, lounging under the majesty of the mountains, watching the sun light play long the cracks and waves in the glaciers above.

It wasn’t a traditional Christmas by any stretch of the imagination, but being able to spend it with family and friends in such a special location made it a memorable one.

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It wasn’t until long after the sun had left the valley floor that we headed down and back towards the car.

Andras had to work the next day, so he and Vanessa pointed Yeti down the road while Scott and I stayed in the parking lot at the base of Mount Aspiring National Park. There was riding to do, and tramping, and we knew that if we went back to Wanaka, we probably wouldn’t motivate to come back out here, at least this trip.

We waved good-bye, wished them luck on getting across the fords, and laughed as Yeti disappeared in a cloud of dust.

It was definitely a Christmas like no other.


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Wanaka and Roys Peak

If there’s one thing I’ve learned about seeing new towns while bike touring, it’s to never judge them on my first impression of them. Even if I get to town fed, happy, and not completely exhausted, I still tend to not fall in love with a place at first glance. It generally takes a sleep or two.

Wanaka was no different. On arrival, it was busy, it was touristy, and while it did have a big a beautiful lake surrounded by big mountains, I was a little bit Meh.

We’d been off the main tourist track for the better part of two weeks, and it was a little bit of shock to get back to a destination town. But now that we’ve learned the official rules of free camping, complements of a hut warden and some in-depth internet sleuthing, finding a free campsite that we felt good about was easy. Free is good.

In the morning, we stashed our stuff in the bushes and headed back to Wanaka for coffee and scones. This place is amazing!

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It’s fairly small and definitely a vacation destination, both for international visitors and Kiwis, but it’s not as in-your-face as Queenstown. It’s also a lot smaller. But still, you have the lake, a real grocery store, some outdoor shops, really good coffee, a library, and mountains in all directions. It seems like people come through on their way to Queenstown, take some pictures, eat some food, and then keep going.

And there are mountain bikers and trail runners everywhere. Uber-fits, old people, young people, families. And people here have dogs. We’ve met very few people in NZ who have non-working dogs.

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To start our visit off right (after coffee and scones, of course), we rode bike trails over to the base of Roys Peak, a giant mountain towering over Wanaka. Based on the number of people in the parking lot, it’s a super-popular trail.

And for good reason. The mountain rises 4,000 feet straight up, giving commanding views of Aspiring National Park, Lake Wanaka, and all the way back to the Dunston Mountains from where we’d come. Lots of people hiking, lots of people running. It made me miss running.

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We pretty much couldn’t stop ooohing and ahhhing, which is a fairly common theme here in NZ.

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And down, reminding me that I’d forgotten to trim my toenails before starting up. Ouch.

Then back to Wanaka to enjoy a lovely bottle of cider down by the beach. Cider here is dirt cheap, as in $4 NZD ($3USD) for a big bottle, and pretty much delicious.

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The pedal back to our campsite was 45 minutes on backroads and trails where we sat on our bench and watched the sun set behind the mountains.

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I could get used to this Wanaka place.


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Into Wanaka, finishing the southern loop

Wanaka. We made it to Wanaka today.

This feels like a pretty big milestone because Wanaka is actually north of Queenstown, where we started this leg of bikepacking and tramping. It feels like we’ve come full circle, especially since my brother is meeting us here for Christmas in two days with all of the belongings that we left stashed in the bush outside of Queenstown.

Three weeks is what it took us to do our big southern loop. Three weeks is all we have left in New Zealand. I suppose I should be celebrating that we still have that long…but it’s sort of starting to feel like the end is near. And that is associated with feelings of sadness.

There was not sadness when we woke up this morning. While my toes did get cold, the little hut definitely kept us from a thoroughly and miserably cold night. And there were no mice. But the sheep did start to talk at about 5:30am. Baaaaahhhh. Stupid sheep.

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When Scott opened the hut door, an intense beam of sunlight lit up my sleeping bag and entire hut. Time to get up! Sun is shining!

The intense sun actually had us stripping layers before breakfast was even over, and for the first time on this trip, I started riding in a single layer. Yeah. It was that warm.

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We climbed a bit and then descended a lot into one of the high valleys of Central Otago. It’s incredibly desert-y here, reminds us of home. Very much Arkansas Valley of Colorado-esque.

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Our route took us through a small town called Tarrace, where we were hoping to find internet and power so that we could plan our next steps. We found neither.

So we settled for a coffee, cheese scone, and some delish sandwich and kept pedaling towards Alberts Town. We’d gotten a tip about a river trail that would drop us into town, and it turned out to be singletrack! What luck.

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While the roads here are amazing and beautiful, there’s something to be said for singletrack and actual mountain biking.

Plus, there was a really cool swing bridge at the end.

Alberts Town had a single cafe that boasted power outlets, but no internet. Time to keep moving. On to Wanaka just a few kms down the road.

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We’ve actually already been to Wanaka, as the bus that we’d taken south nearly a month ago stopped there for a bathroom break, so we knew somewhat of what to expect. We knew that we’d be able to find internet, power, and now food was needed as well. All was found at a burger joint, so we stretched our time out there by ordering a smoothie and fries first, and when we’d used up that amount of time, getting a burger as well.

Turns out, it takes power to keep camera batteries and iPads charged, and I’m in the middle of a good book, so I’m eating up far too much power reading at night.

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With an afternoon to kill, we headed down to the shores of Lake Wanaka, armed with Mallow Puffs and a bottle of cider and proceeded to wile away the entire afternoon laying in the sun, people watching, and tracing the last three weeks on the map.

We covered a lot of ground. We saw a lot of things. For having left Queenstown with only the plan to ride to Te Anau and hike the Kepler Track, I have to say, I’m pretty impressed with the loop we put together. Planned out day by day, coffee by coffee, bad idea by bad idea.