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Christchurch, wonderful hosts, Indie the dog, and leaving NZ

I would love to write some deep and insightful post about our time in NZ, now that we’re officially out of NZ and in Australia, en route to home in Tucson, but the 3:15 wakeup call to nearly miss our plane compounded by some quality beers last night isn’t really encouraging, ummm, deep emotional insight. Pretty much my brain can process: Where’s the next coffee, and when we can get on the next plane to sleep, but not much past that.

But, a final entry about our last two days in Christchurch, which were amazing.

When Scott and I first flew into ChCh, we were so overwhelmed and jetlagged that instead of staying and exploring the city, we did what we know how to do best, we pedaled. We were excited to come back and see the place, even if only for a few days.

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We had an immensely generous offer from Scott Emmons, to be referred to here as MultisportScott, and his wife Jo to stay with them in ChCh. They were the ones who’d chased us down on our way to Omarama. They organize the Kiwi Brevet and both he and Jo are members of the rad community of bikepackers.

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Our plan was to eat our way through ChCh on the way to their house on the other end of the city. Our first stop was frenchfries and a flat white at the gorgeous botanical gardens in the city.

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I particularly loved the center rose garden. Reminded me of my grandparents’ houses in Budapest.

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The whole garden was filled with color and people wandering around enjoying the day.

From there, we went to the Lucky Ninja food cart in front of the cathedral in the center of town. The sheer destruction from the earthquake in 2011 was still apparent. Empty lots, condemned buildings covered in graffiti, the cathedral half collapsed. The grayness of the day led to a very glum atmosphere, somber. Sad.

The population of ChCh dropped from 500,000 to 300,000 after the quakes, and it sounds like building has been slow but steady, and at least Jo and MSScott seemed to think that the city would be amazing after the rebuilt.

Our next stop was the Re:Start Mall, which is an outdoor space where all the shops are made out of shipping containers. I think it was a big part of getting downtown ChCh back into business. Lots of neat little shops, a coffee shop for another flat white, buskers, lots of people. It was definitely a happy place.

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We ended up running into Jo on our way to their house, so we got a guided tour in, which was awesome. We rode by a giant concrete stadium, unsafe to use, that sat lonely and sad. Step by step, I guess. Earthquakes are scary.

We all took Indie the Heeler on a walk on the trails in their neighborhood. Their house is backed up against the Banks Peninsula, and there are both walking and mountain bike trails nearby.

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After a night spent in a bed, the first since Athol two+ weeks ago, we faced our last full day in NZ. We delayed the cleaning and packing of bikes by visiting MSScott at his place of employment, where they all take a 10:30 tea break together. Lunch is on your own there, but work stops during morning tea. I dig it.

We met Scott’s “adventure ride” doppelgänger, Dave Mitchell, who told us that NZ has the best adventure riding in the world. He also had Scott’s selective memory about hike-a-bike levels. This scares me, but we promised to be in touch when we came back. Sounds like he knew of lots of neat connections between places….if you were okay with the occasional bike carry.

And then on to packing.

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Indie helped. She also stole our tape several times to aid in the process.

MSScott and Jo went far above the call of being amazing hosts by offering to drive us to the airport in the morning for our 6:15 flight. Having a quiet place to pack bikes and to not have to worry about getting a shuttle made the entire process of getting ready to leave so much more bearable. Hopefully we can return the favor someday.

The line for check-in was already heinously long when we got there two hours early, and then we had to repack the bikes because they were both a kilo too heavy, which left us sprinting for our plane, which actually didn’t board on time. We did get to watch the bikes get loaded, so we know that they at least made it to Melbourne, where we are now waiting for our connection.

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Soon, home. I’m trying to convince Scott that we should just escape the airport in LA and ride down to the Baja Divide, but I think rest will be good and Tucson is awesome. It’s a big world to explore…and I need some sleep.

I’m sure more will come from this trip once we’re back in the States. NZ is a special place filled with amazing people. I can’t wait to go back.

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Back to Christchurch to see kiwi birds…and to begin preparations for leaving

We’re back at the same holiday park in Christchurch where we spent our first night in the country. It feels a little bit like coming home, full circle, end of trip. It feels familiar after two months of unfamiliarity. We chose this park two months ago because it was 3km from the airport. This time around, we chose it because it was 5km from a wildlife sanctuary that had kiwi birds.

It feels good to be back here, a fitting end to the trip, even though we still have two days to explore Christchurch. It feels like we accomplished what we set out to do, which was to ride bikes, go hiking, eat good food, and meet neat people, and see a kiwi bird, which we got to do today. Anything extra that we see or do in Christchurch is just frosting on what was a delicious cake of two months in NZ.

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Yesterday morning started as I described in the previous blog post – with the realization that we’d gotten off by a day and now had two and a half days in Lake Tekapo, which would have been great if it was sunny and beach weather, but it wasn’t. It was also at 2,000 feet, which meant that nights were cold.

So we altered our Master Plan by altering our bus ticket by 24 hours. Let’s spend a day in Christchurch and go see the botanical gardens, and kiwi birds, and the big cathedral. Let’s do something completely out of the norm for us, let’s be city people for a day!

Lucky for us, they’d only had the more expensive ‘flex fares’ left when we’d bought our bus tickets, so we could change them for free. Yay for paying an idiot tax? I guess?

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We pulled the classic dirtbag move in bad weather of hanging out in a coffee shop/restaurant and continually ordering more small things to keep our presence acceptable. As late as 7:30, we went all in and bought a full-on dinner to buy us another of hour next to the fire. It was worth every penny.

It was a 10 minute ride to free camping, and we found ourselves a secluded spot in the pines. It felt just like Colorado camping.

We returned to the same coffee shop in the morning to wait for our bus. Like I said, free and unlimited internet, you have our business.

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As we waited to board the bus, bikes in pieces and tied up nice and small, we ended up talking to a Danish couple who’d just arrived. We gave them a bunch of places to see, places to eat, and I gave them my Good-Bye Sandfly bug repellant. Yes, we told them, they are as bad as they’re made out to be.

It felt good to be able to pass on advice on camping, the cycle trails, and different roads and places to avoid.

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Airforce mascot is the flightless kiwi. Yeees.

The bus ride was painless. The driver was funny. I’m going to miss Kiwi humor. He didn’t charge us extra for the bikes, which means four more flat whites in our budget. Or two more flat whites with scones. I’m going to miss flat whites and cheese scones.

We got off the bus at the airport, not because we’re flying out now, but because it was the nearest stop to the wildlife sanctuary that had Kiwi birds. While we’ve heard them in the wild, seeing one in the wild is amazingly hard to do…and we really wanted to see a Kiwi.

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The sanctuary was awesome! They had all sorts of birds, wallabies, rare pig and chicken breeds, donkeys, keas, and of course, kiwis.

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Since they are nocturnal birds, they had them in a dark enclosure lit by red lights. We watched two of them foraging and being territorial for a while. What a goofy, goofy bird.

I’m super glad we got to see them.

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Kea!

And then, back to the holiday park that we knew. The kitchens been remodeled, but otherwise, it’s the same music playing, same airplanes flying overhead, same random mishmash of people, but this time including other cyclotourists. It’s good to be back.


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Master Plans, Alps 2 Ocean greatness, day confusualment, and Lake Tekapo

I find it funny that last night, when I was catching up on writing blog posts (a combination of a freezing night and a late night had me skipping writing two nights in a row…which means catch-up when I do finally get a warm and extended space to write), I wrote something about always having a Master Plan, just not always, or ever, following it to a T.

Our plan was to ride to Lake Tekapo yesterday, spend today lounging on the beach and letting Scott work (tracking season is gearing up…so home we must go because Internet here doesn’t quite cut it), and then hop on a bus to Christchurch tomorrow for final prep to getting on a plane.

When we got to Lake Tekapo yesterday, we pondered changing our bus ticket to a day earlier…there’s not much to this place besides a bunch of people stopping for lunch on their way to Mt Cook or other places down south. But whatever, a day hanging out here wouldn’t be too bad, there is a pretty lake, after all.

And then we woke up this morning and realized that we’re a day off. We have two and a half days here before our bus picks us up.

I guess at least we weren’t off in the other direction. It’s hard to complain about having an extra day, but we’ve definitely sort of run the energy rope out this past 10 days and now sort of feel like we should do something else with our newfound 24 hours. But the only way out of here is on a main highway, or back the way we came…so we’re definitely feeling a little bit of stuckness. And…tired. We are tired.

Something will happen, it always does. Even if it’s two days worth of drinking coffee and lounging by the lake.

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We had a fairly straightforward day of pedaling yesterday, except for the wind.

Our campsite in daylight was even better than in evening twilight. We definitely dawdled away the morning, knowing that the cafe down the road didn’t open until 9am.

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Motivation

Cups of coffee one and two were had on a big boulder.

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Coffee #3 was from the cafe on the shore of Lake Pukaki.

Then it was on to more Alps to Ocean. We ran into a family touring with four kids who were packing up camp. They had two more kids who were older, but they’d toured with all eight family members before. They hauled trailers, and the kids seemed to be pretty stoked. Lots of people out on these cycle trails, which is awesome.

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The full force of the wind didn’t hit until we climbed to the top of Lake Tekapo Power Station 2. A bunch of lakes here are connected by a giant hydro power “scheme” and we got to follow the canal all the way up to Lake Tekapo Power Station 1. There was also a salmon farm in the the middle of the canal where the flowing water provided the fish with fresh water at all times and kept them swimming. The marketing material said this was good for the salmon meat.

We had some at Lake Ohau earlier, it was delicious.

Anyhow, the crosswind was, intense.

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At the sole highway crossing, we saw a van with four loaded bikes gathered around it. We stopped to talk, slowly working out that there were a couple from Holland touring, and then a couple from Pagosa Springs, CO, touring on Salsa Fargos there, and they’d randomly started to talk to a Kiwi couple who were touring around in their van.

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We were immediately offered coffee (#4) and yummies and spent some lovely time talking to everyone.

From there, it was a fairly short pedal into Lake Tekapo. I would love to find a way to make entrances into town more graceful, but somehow they always end up stressful. With no public showers or laundry, and the prospect of a bus ride soon, we eventually gave up on other options and paid for a night at the local Holiday Park in order to have access to their facilities.

It was an expensive shower and laundry…but beggars, especially stinky beggars who haven’t showered or done laundry in over a week, can’t be choosers.

I always have this dream of ending a trip on a big magnificent high note with celebration…this wasn’t quite it. The reality of it is, end of trips are usually accompanied by complete exhaustion…so maybe I should embrace the fact that I can barely keep my eyes open today and say ‘Job well done.’

But I guess we have an extra 24 hours and a second chance to do it better should we decide to go further. And they’re forecasting rain this afternoon, so maybe it’s better that we get to hang out in a town, even if it is a silly one.


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A Day in Mt Cook National Park

Oooh-eee, last night was cold. We woke up to a solid layer of frost all over everything. I knew this was happening before getting out of the tent because of the painful toes that I started experiencing long before the sun wanted to come up. Maybe someday I’ll figure out how to keep my feet warm…but probably not. Too much damage to the little tootsies over too many years. C’est la vie. I love you little tootsies.

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Our master plan (we always have a plan, we just rarely stick to it) was to go to the DOC office as soon as they opened in order to file our intentions to going out to the three bunk Ball Glacier Hut. At 8:45 when we finally rode over, 15 minutes after opening, we found that another group of three had already spoken for the bunks. Drat.

Win some. Lose some.

We went to a different cafe, this one in the fancy-pants hotel to get a coffee and make a new Master Plan. The day was beautiful, the day was young, the opportunities were endless.

And we happen to be opportunists.

The wind forecast for the next day looks terrible for trying to ride out from the park. The rain forecast for the following morning also looked dire. But there, there in a four hour window late in the afternoon this afternoon, the wind shifted for a few hours, going down valley.

When opportunities present themselves…

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But first, there was hiking to do in the form of 2,200 wooden steps up to the Sealy Tarns. They love their steep-ass trails here, and I love going up them.

We could have gone higher to the Mueller Hut for lunch, but we were pretty happy with the half-way view. We lounged in the sun, willing a giant block of ice that was precariously perched on the glacier across the valley to fall and make a big boom. It didn’t, but we saw some smaller pieces of ice fall and make still significant booms.

Glaciers are cool.

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Next up was a ‘charge stuff up and do internet-y’ stuff break at the fancy cafe. I’ve never really thought about getting a dynamo hub for charging before this trip…but I’m starting to see the appeal. I’d love to see my iPad at over 50% charge…but that may be a pipe dream that won’t be fulfilled till we get home. It seems like most cafes in NZ make a point of not having power outlets, and doling out Internet usage in 50mb vouchers in order to keep people from sitting around for ever and taking up tables.

When we find a coffee shop with both unlimited internet and power, we become loyal customers. Generally, the internet will still suck. Internet here really is 10 years behind the States, for better or worse.

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Anyhow, we pedaled down to the Tasman Glacier and did a little hike on our way out of the park. It’s the largest glacier in NZ and retreating rapidly, sadly. All of the glaciers are retreating rapidly.

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Finally, after much delay, it was time to pedal down the road. We knew we wouldn’t make it all the way to the end of Lake Pukaki, but we hoped to find some sort of camping along the way. It was a solid 7pm departure from the park.

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And the roads were empty! And the weather forecast had been right, the winds had shifted and were pushing us along solidly. Win. Big win. It was as enjoyable as any pavement could possibly be. When we got tired at looking at the giant lake ahead, all we had to do was look behind us to see the sunset golden light on Mt Cook.

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Things only started to look dire for finding camping near the end. We’d been bordered by private land for the last 10km, and it was starting to threaten to get darkish.

But I’d remembered a DOC land sign just a few kms from the lakes end. Could we make it? Of course we could. It’s light forever here.

After a short hike-a-bike up a trail off the highway, we found ourselves the most perfect campsite of this trip. A giant boulder to shelter us from the wind. Big views of Mt Cook. And pink clouds changing with the last of the light.

What a day. Turned out, not getting into that hut turned out just fine.


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Mt Cook: Perfection of rain avoidance timing

It was to be a 55km ride on pavement up to Mt Cook National Park. As a top tourist spot, we were worried about the level of traffic on the road. We were also worried about the level of wind, wind can be a real bummer around here.

We made a master plan of getting up early and beating the traffic. It’s very similar to National Park traffic in the States, get to where you’re going before 9am, you won’t see a soul.

So when we slept until 8, we were right on time with our plan. Or not.

On the plus side, now there really wasn’t a whole lot of reason to hurry, which is good, because we’ve definitely structured our trip around not hurrying whenever possible.

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The ride up actually wasn’t as painful as we thought it was going to be. We were blessed with a tailwind strong enough to make a difference, and traffic really wasn’t too bad. A few people passing too close and too fast for comfort, but I never felt an overwhelming need to panic.

The Alps to Ocean route is a bit of a bummer here. The actual route goes up the opposite side of Lake Pukaki, one of two glacier-fed lakes in NZ and thus incredibly blue, avoiding traffic. But, but there’s a catch. The catch is a massive glacial river that you have to cross between the park and the end of the road. $125 will get you a 1.5 minute helicopter ride with your bike across the offending river.

I’d rather spend $125 per person on scones and coffee, so highway it was.

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We had massive views of Mt Cook the whole way, and the day was clear enough to be able to oogle the mountain for the full three hours that it took us to get up there. Well, three hours plus the coffee break we took at the cafe halfway up.

Threatening clouds started to mass during the final few kms. When we got to the DOC office, it started to rain. What perfect timing.

Timing perfect for another cup of coffee at the cafe, followed by a fine spell that allowed us to pedal up to the campground with enough time to get into the shelter for the next round of showers.

Tea this time. And lunch.

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When the rain abated, it was time to go for a hike. We opted for the Hooker Valley and started out under grey and cloudy skies. Even when we got to the lake, the skies covered the peaks, but we could see blue skies coming up the valley, so we sat down to wait.

Boy oh boy, was it worth the wait. Mt Cook came out in full glory, the huge west (?) face looming above Hooker Lake and the glacier.

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The mountain towered over us the whole walk back, now that the skies were truly clearing for the night. It was funny that we’d walked the whole way up having no idea that it was there.

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We hung out in the cooking shelter for as long as we could. We knew it was going to be a cold night out. Having the shelter made it worth paying for camping, plus something about supporting National Parks. We’ve gone almost 2 weeks without paying for camping or lodging, so we’re pretty proud about that.

And to have the chance to camp in the shadow of giant glaciers? Well that’s pretty cool too.


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Rain, lakes, Twizel, and Mt Cook!

Mt Cook, the highest peak in NZ, was on my list of things that I wanted to see before leaving the country. I like big mountains, even if all I get to do is look at them, because I don’t quite have the requisite skills to climb something like Cook.

Anyhow, today I got my wish. In fact, we got to watch the sun light up the mountain and provide a beautiful and colorful sunset while we ate dinner from camp. Tomorrow we go to the base for a few nights and do some tramping. We’ve got a 48 weather window, and we don’t plan to waste it.

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We did not really have a weather window this morning. The pitter patter of drops on the roof kept us all sleeping, and no one actually got up until just shy of 9am. Breakfast and two cups of coffee were not rushed affairs.

By the time we actually got riding, we knew that we’d hit the Ohau Lodge perfectly for lunch, perfectly for another round of coffees and a high country platter. This bike touring business, it’s rough.

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The tailwind that had pushed us into the hut had ceased, and the rain held off as we made our exit from the valley into the wide opens of southern Caterbury.

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Lunch was delicious, and we got the chance to see the logistics of a fully supported luxury tour of Alps to Ocean. Peoples’ luggage was unloaded and waiting for them when they got to the Lodge.

From the lodge, it was 39km to Twizel along the lakeside and a canal.

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There were no hills to speak of.

Or wind.

It’s been a while since I’ve experienced such easy and effortless riding.

It was beautiful too.

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And then we did something that is completely against our bike touring credo. We went into Twizel, bought a scone and donuts while we double checked the weather, loaded up on food and left.

Gah. Twizel looked neat, but Mt Cook is forecasted to have two days of good weather before it shuts down with rain for a bit, and a headstart for getting up there would do us good.

Hopefully we’ll hit up Twizel on our way back, towns are fun.

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We rolled out on the A2O track, turned a corner, and there was the giant mass of Mt Cook in the distance. It was covered in clouds, but it had to be it.

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As we rode down the trail, she gave us a tantalizing strip tease, the clouds slowly melting off the summit, exposing the peak that towered above everything else. Awestruck and in a full team-photo mode, it took us a long time to cover 5 miles.

We set camp up at the edge of Dept of Conservation land and drank our cider watching the light change on the mountain. It was magic, and I can’t wait to get closer tomorrow.


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Alps to Ocean…except backwards. Bike tourists galore!

All anyone on a bike wanted to talk about today was the wind yesterday. And we got the chance to talk to a lot of people on our journey from Omarama to the Monument Hut up the Hopkins River Valley, for finally, we had reached the Alps to Ocean Cycle Trail, a route that links Mt Cook Village at the base of the Southern Alps to the ocean at Omarau. We intercepted the route halfway and were thankful to be off the highway. It seemed like everyone got shelacked by the wind in one way or another yesterday…it wasn’t just us.

The traditional way to ride the route is from the mountains down, so we got to intercept a lot of people since we were going the uphill direction on it and no one had a kind word to say about the gales.

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A guy from Dubai who had a second home in Cromwell, a British sounding fellow on a two month tour of the island, an older German couple with tires far too skinny for the gravel who were going to complete the route and keep going south, a German woman who was heavily loaded and had thoughts about riding the AZT in the future (we recommended a lightly loaded bike), and dozens more. Some doing just the segment, some doing the whole trail, some, like us, using it to link two places together.

The A2O is definitely a big thing there. With towns or lodges every 30-45km, it’s easy to break up into day rides with accommodations in between. We ran into a group doing it on e-bikes and loving it. The NZ government definitely did something good when they poured money into these routes. It’s put small towns on the map and created a lot of guiding jobs. So yay for that!

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Us? We enjoyed the shifted wind. Overnight, what was a heinous wind from the west turned into a gentle but significant breeze from the south east, and since we were traveling north west, we couldn’t believe our good luck.

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Gravel road turned into wide single track which had the sense to climb high enough to provide expansive views of Lake Ohau and the Southern Alps. It was fun and easy riding.

From the top, we were treated to a 12km descent, nearly chainless-able, and nearly brakeless-able. It really was lovely.

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The trail deposited us at the Ohau Lodge, where we could have camped for $16, but instead, we opted for coffee and a “high country platter” that we’d heard about.

It’s in the running for the best food we’ve eaten in the country.

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We left the lodge with our eyes set on a hut up the valley. The forecast called for a rainy night and morning, and we wanted to be under a roof. Once at the hut, it was looking like we might have the place to ourselves…and then four trampers appeared in the distance.

It’s always a roll of the dice of they type of hut neighbors you get. These four ranged from 17-22 from Christchurch and were, umm, loud when they walked through the door. And they were absolutely hilarious.

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With little to no tramping experience between them, everything seemed to verge of disaster. From getting their car stuck halfway in to an exploding liter of milk to getting/treating water with iodine and iodine taste neutralizer, Scott and I could only look on in amusement.

We’ve all been there, having no clue what we’re doing but pretending the best we can.

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When they’d successfully fed themselves, we all got down to the serious business of playing games. First, a few rounds of Mafia, which I’d never heard of but somehow ended with me getting killed by the Mafia in the middle of the night, twice, then Articulate, which is basically Pictionary but verbal…I know we have the game in the States, but the name escapes me. Anyhow, Scott and I sucked at it and got whooped solidly by both other teams.

Scott tells me that this isn’t because my brain is getting old.

It was a lot of fun. A lot of trampers here in NZ take their tramping very seriously, and there was nothing serious going on in the Monument Hut that night. And somewhat miraculously, when 10pm rolled around, everyone wanted to go to bed. And because they were all so young, nobody snored.

It was all in all, a fantastic day of talking to and hanging out with people doing fun things. Getting out in the wilds and having a great time. I like that.