Zen On Dirt


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It’s good to be back in New Zealand

It’s our two week anniversary of being in New Zealand, and we’re wiling away our afternoon at the lovely Granity Pass hut, high up in the Marino Mountains. We could have made our way back down to our bikes after this morning’s summit of Mt Owen (home of Gollum and location of Moria in Lord of the Rings), but that would have involved more hiking and either a long camp in a sandfly-infested field, or more hiking followed by more riding, and then a short camp in what would probably be a sandfly-infested DOC campsite. And this hut is lovely. So we’re staying for a second night.

Seemed like as good of a time as any to share some pictures and stories.

Tucson -> Christchurch ->Hanmer Springs

A part of me doesn’t want to say anything about how smoothly the travel went, because then I’d be jinxing it for on the way home. But aside from a delayed flight into Brisbane and a short connection that had us worrying about the bikes, things couldn’t have gone any better.

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Weighing boxes with Lee. We learned our lesson last year.

By the end of our first afternoon in Christchurch, we’d gotten a functional SIM card for my phone, Jo had picked us up from the airport (Thanks!), taken us to her and Scott’s house (Thanks!), let us play with Indie the Doggie (Double Thanks!), and fed us some amazing food (Triple Thanks!).

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By the end of our second day, we’d had a famous Scott Emmons flat white, played with Indie, built bikes, played with Indie, went grocery shopping, played with Indie, and gone on a mountain bike ride in the Port Hills with Scott, Jo, and Dave, followed by beer and chips. Then we played with Indie some more.

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Day 3 found us on a shuttle to the “alpine village” of Hanmer Springs. The shuttle driver pointed out every cow and sheep herd on the way and talked a lot about the Scottish influence on the place.

During the previous night’s beer drinking, we’d neglected to call the Rainbow Station between the hours of 6:30 and 8:30 to request permission to cross their land on the Rainbow Road. So with a few hours to kill before we could hit the time frame again, we rode up some mountain bike trails and hiked to a waterfall. Welcome to New Zealand!

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We were expecting a No from the landowner. A series of thunderstorms had caused extensive damage throughout the area a few weeks ago, but we’d heard that people were riding through. When Scott called and was given the “You’re good as gold!”, we were stoked.

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So stoked in fact, that we motivated to climb Jack’s Pass to spend the night at the St James Homestead with another pair of bike tourists.

St James Trail -> Rainbow Road -> St Arnaud

The St James trail is one of the NZ Cycle Routes, coming in around 70km. Most people rode it in the opposite direction of what we were doing, but we were using it as a connection, and Scott Emmons had said, ‘You guys love hike-a-bike, you’ll be fine.’ Great.

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The scenery was spectacular. The detour to a little hot spring was even better.

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Following several different river valleys, first west, then north, the trail was mostly rideable. We ran into several different groups doing either day rides where they’d been shuttled to the top end or groups doing over nighters in the hut, either with proper bikepacking gear, or just giant backpacks.

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When we were solidly worked over from the day, we got to enjoy a 1.5 hour hike-a-bike over to the end of the trail. It was pretty rad, but the camping in the carpark was easy and quiet.

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Now that we were on the Rainbow Road, the riding was straightforward and beautiful. First some big and open mountains, then narrowing down to a beautiful river gorge where we stopped to chat with some kayakers from Nelson. Apparently getting permission to get into the Rainbow station isn’t that hard after all…

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Rolling into St Arnaud mid-afternoon gave us time to eat meat pies and scones at the cafe, figure out lodging and hut availability in the area, and surf the Internet before heading down to the campground outside of town.

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Our next day was spent swimming in the lake, rigging for a three-day tramp, and hanging out with a father-son pair who were hiking the Te Aorea (the NZ long trail) and sharing a suite with us for the night. Delicious pizza from the hotel next door was also enjoyed down on the lakefront while watching ducks and black swans.

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St Arnaud -> Cold Water Hut -> Angeles Hut -> Wakefield

Last year, Kaitlyn, Scott, and I had hiked up Roberts Peak outside of St Arnaud on our one nice day of weather. We knew that we wanted to spend more time up there, so we booked ourselves a night at the Angeles Hut, one of the few huts that aren’t on a Great Walks that requires advanced booking. But there wasn’t availability until Wednesday, so we decided to break the walk up and spend a night at the Cold Water hut at the far end of Lake Rotoiti.

With bikes stashed in the bush, we headed off on the east side of the lake. The walk itself was pretty flat and easy. We made a detour to Whisky Falls, because well, we had plenty of time. There was still plenty of time to go swimming off the dock at the hut too.

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We ended up sharing the hut with a pair of trampers, one of which knew a lot about routes on the island, two fisherman who were on their annual fishing vacation together, and a third fisherman who originated from Germany but had been in NZ for 10+ years and took his fishing very seriously, to the point of measuring the surface water temperature multiple times per day.

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It was a lovely evening talking politics (no, we’re still not sure how Trump got elected), fishing, and mountain biking (one of the fisherman was a mountain biker as well). And we all went out to watch the giant freshwater eels that lived in the lake and came out at dusk, circling the dock that we’d been jumping off of just hours earlier.

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Post breakfast, we headed up the hill on the Cascade Track. As with any NZ mountain track, it was not straightforward, but the location was mind blowing. Most of the way up to the hut, we ran into the school group that had booked out the Angeles hut the night before. They were not making quick progress down the steep and loose “trail.” One of the smaller kids lamented that some of his mates “hadn’t prepared properly for this trip and were moving like snails.” I had to laugh.

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At the hut, which slept 24, big by NZ standards, we dropped our overnight gear and headed towards Mt Angeles with Jon from Scotland. This was his seventh year coming back to NZ for a few months during the northern hemisphere winter and worked in both Scotland and NZ as a wind turbine technician.

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The peak was neat, our first 2,000+ meter peak in NZ. The skinny dip in the tarn just outside of the view of the hut was also pretty neat.

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Back at the hut, there were a large group of Israelis, some French, a few Kiwis, and a guided group of Americans who were getting a gourmet meal cooked for them. They’d also come up the Cascade track and lamented to me that the two-day backpack was billed as “moderate,” but it wasn’t and that they could have died.

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I informed them that Kiwis were the biggest sandbaggers in the world and that everything was harder than they made it out to be.

For the most part, they didn’t really seem to want to talk to anyone outside of their group, but their guide doled out the Oreo cheesecake leftovers to anyone who wanted them. So I guess they were alright.

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The hut warden had suggested that everyone get up for the sunrise at 5:45. And about 12 of us did, climbing up to the knoll behind the hut to welcome the sun to the new day. That was special.

Then back along Roberts Ridge to Roberts Peak, the location that had inspired the entire journey, and down to the bikes which waited patiently in the bush. After one more swim in Lake Rotoiti, we got one more lunch in St Arnaud, and headed north to Wakefield on the Golden Downs route, a route that we’d used last year.

We camped in a free camping park that was crammed full of camper vans, cars, and tents, but relatively quiet all things considered.

Wakefield -> Matuweka -> Abel Tasman Great Walk

We boogied out of Wakefield in the morning on the Great Taste Trail. NZ has a lot of cycle routes that go all around the island. They’re mostly flat, smooth, and not entirely exciting riding, but they make neat connections and get us off the road. We’re big fans.

We headed north to Richmond then west towards Rabbit Island. But what is this? A Cycleway Cafe that serves coffee and smoothies? Yes please. We watched several groups of cyclists come through, including a kids group from Nelson using the Great Taste Trail to go to the beaches of Rabbit Island. The woman also “raised” butterflies (her dad was an actual breeder) and she’d had a beautiful butterfly emerge from their cocoon that morning.

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We didn’t know much of Rabbit Island aside from the fact that we’d have to take a ferry to get off of it, and that the Great Taste Trail used it to stay off the busy road. So it was quite a surprise to find a giant beach with the warmest ocean water that I’ve ever felt. The ferry ran once an hour. We could have hurried and caught the next one, but we opted for swimming instead. It was like a bathtub. A giant, salty bathtub.

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We shared the ferry with two Aussies. They’d rented bikes to ride the Great Taste Trail, the guy was stoked, the girl was less so, but she told us about frogs that live in the Australian desert that can store a lot of water, so if you’re thirsty, you just have to find one of these frogs and squeeze it and water will come out. I need to investigate this.

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We all ended up at the same fish and chips joint on the other side in Mapua. The skipper of the ferry was also there and claimed the best fish n’ chips in the country. They were pretty stinking good.

By the time we rolled into Matueka later that afternoon, we were roasted by the heat. NZ is under a pretty significant drought and heat wave, and whenever we were faced with a climb that had a tailwind, we’d roast. Toasted is never a good way to enter into a new town, especially a busy one. But we bought a drink and went down to sit by the beach while we got our wits about us.

Somehow, I’d managed to find the motivation to book us a bus ride to boat taxi to the far end of the Abel Tasman Great Walk for the next morning. It was rushed, but I still maintain it was worth the effort. We booked some campsites (Great Walks are uber regulated), found ourselves a Holiday Park that would hold our bikes during the trip, and got rigged for the next morning in record time.

A bus ride took us to Kaiteriteri where we had a few hours to kill before our boat showed up. Ocean watching, shell collecting, and fish ‘n chips eating passed the time pretty effectively. And people watching was great. Plus, a lost dog had wandered into town and wanted everyone to pet her. I was happy to oblige.

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A boat ride is a great way to start a three day hike. So is getting dropped of on a stunning golden beach. We weren’t in too much of a hurry since we only had about 4km to walk. A section of the route goes through a lagoon that can only be crossed at low tide, so we were limited in our campsite selection for that first night, waiting for the morning low tide.

While we did have a giant beach entirely to ourselves (and we made the most of it, ‘isn’t this romantic?’ While getting devoured by sandflies). We spent some time exploring the beach, I got attacked by an Oyster Catcher whose nest I had gotten too close too, and I buried my feet in the sand to keep them away from the sandflies.

I woke up with swollen ankles the next morning. Dumb sandflies, I cried. Did I really get bitten that badly?

We didn’t have that much time to ponder it, we had to get across the lagoon. Plus, we actually had a pretty big day ahead of us, because well, sometimes I’m not a very good planner.

The walking alternated between giant beaches which were crossed barefoot with swims at every opportunity and climbs and descents deep in the bush. The heat was killing us, my ankles continued to swell, we both got blisters on our toes. We were getting epic’d by what was considered the easiest, family-friendly Great Walk on the island.

We were saved by a stop at Cleopatra’s pool, a freshwater oasis up one of the side streams. Plus, afternoon clouds. We were struggling.

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Somewhere between Cleopatra’s pool and our campsite a few hours down the trail, by ankles exploded with giant blisters. At first I thought they were from my shoes rubbing, but then I blistered in spots far from my shoes. Whatever bit me in the sand the night before did a number on me! I limped into our campsite, which was yet another private beach with an amazing view of one of the predator-free islands where birds were being protected. There weren’t too many sandflies either, so that was nice.

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I gimped my way out of there the next morning to the town of Marahau where the bus would pick us up in a few hours. Luckily, there was a cafe with coffee and smoothies, and an Aussie man who’d just finished an overnight with his wife. She was the hiker of the pair, but he owned a motorcycle in LA and went over to the States regularly to do long tours, ranging from Pruhoe Bay in AK down to Baja.

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We eventually made it back to our Holiday Park and our bikes. With a whole afternoon to recover, we went swimming in the pool (still hot out), took showers, did laundry, and played on the Internet. We’d gotten epic’d and determined that we were more freshwater people than salt water people. It was time to go back to the mountains.

Matueka -> Tapawera -> Granity Pass Hut

The whole time we were heading north on the island, we fought the prevailing north winds. When it was time to go south, the wind switched. Seriously.

We stayed at the Holiday Park until 5 minutes past checkout, then headed next door to Toad Hall, which produced the best meat pies that we found on the island, as well as coffee and smoothies, wandered over to the bike shop, to the grocery store, and finally to the library to kill just a little bit more time before hitting the road.

Our destination was a free camp spot outside of Tapawera, only 25 miles down the road, and we didn’t want to get there too early because reviews mentioned swarms of sandflies, but the location would set up us perfecto for the next day.

The ride was easy, minus the headwind. We met an American woman from Washington who was out cycle touring, but knew someone at a holiday park past Tapawera and was headed there for the night. The campsite, as advertised, was filled with sandflies, so we ate our sandwiches and read books for four hours inside of our tiny two-person tent.

The bugs were so bad we didn’t even bother with coffee in the morning, just straight to town for real coffee and scones. The Best Scone on the Island award was reissued at the cafe. They were outstanding.

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From there, it was 20 miles up a paved and then gravel road to an out-there trailhead where bikes were stashed in the bush.

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Our objective was Mt Owen, but first a night at the 12-bunk Granity Pass Hut. It was a steep-ass trail, but we found the hut perched in a stunning location above bush line. When it started to rain just as we walked up, we did happy dances.

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Mt Owen is a giant limestone massif, with the peak being the highest point in Kahurangi National Park. The scramble to the top through giant limestone buttes was endlessly entertaining. Giant rock crevasses were everywhere, and sinkholes dotted the parts of the ground that weren’t covered in rock.

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When we got back down to the hut at 2pm, the decision was clear. There was little point in pushing on when we had this beautiful hut to ourselves, so we ate lunch, took naps, read a little bit, and now here I am, finishing writing this.

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I guess it’s been a pretty good two weeks. I hope the next two weeks are just as amazing.

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