Zen On Dirt


New Zealand: Part III

Back to the town of Blackball after getting thoroughly epic’d by the Creasus-Moonlight Loop. It’s the home of the least expensive real estate on the West Coast and seemingly doesn’t seem to understand the tourism that the Great Walk is probably going to bring. (Seriously, if I were the investing type, I would buy here and set up a B&B or hostel before the Great Walk opens. You’d make a killing.)

We were pretty wrecked by our day’s adventure, having to close the loop with some km’s of pavement, and headed straight to the small store with the grumpy owners. The husband, manning the fish n’ chips fryer, seemed more annoyed at having to sell us food than anything. But then his two little doggos came out, and I made friends with them, and before long, the guy seemed to think that we were pretty okay too.

People are funny. Kill them with kindness. Or at least pet their dogs. The dogs will at least appreciate it.

We spent another night in the community center yard before heading to Graymouth the next day where we had bus reservations to take us to Fox Glacier. Someone had told us that it was all downhill to Graymouth (the mouth of the Gray River into the ocean), and then we pointed out to him that the road actually climbed out of Blackball, so there was no way that it was actually all downhill. Even discounting that hill, it still wasn’t all downhill.

Still, we made it with plenty of time to load up on 4+ days of food (we had plans! and Fox Glacier didn’t have much of a store) and head to the train station and bus station. The train arrived a dumped a whole load of what I’ll call “traditional” tourists, complete with massive amounts of luggage.

‘Please let them all get rental cars,’ we thought.

They didn’t, and before we knew it, we weren’t getting a spot on the bus. Bikes always get loaded last, and if there’s no room…well, you’re shit outta luck. There may or may not have been some cursing involved as we watched the bus drive away.

We went to the local coffee shop, pondered our options, and threw ourselves a nice little pity party. After we rebooked our tickets for the next day, hoping for better luck, we pedaled our four days worth of food far enough out of town to where camping was legal and enjoyed a nice sunset on the beach. And then we spent the rest of the night listening to the roar of waves, hoping that we were higher than the high tide mark.


The next bus took us no problem. Thank goodness. And the driver was hilarious, though once again, it seemed like we were the only ones laughing at his jokes.

Of course, the first thing you do in Fox Glacier is go and see the rapidly shrinking glacier.


The view points for the glaciers are always a little depressing. You can see where the viewpoint area has been moved farther and farther up the valley over the years as the ice has retreated.

But at least the signs were funny.


While we had hostel reservations for the next day, somewhat because it was Christmas and we wanted to treat ourselves, but mostly because it was supposed to piss rain all day, we had to find ourselves some camping for the night.

Little did we know what we’d share the forest with thousands of glow worms!


It was like sleeping amongst the stars.

Because we knew that it was going to start raining in the late morning, and we’re not so good at just accepting a chill day and going to a coffee shop and doing nothing, we pedaled out to a lake known for its tanin-aided reflections. Rumor has it that on a dead calm morning, you can get beautiful pictures of the southern alps reflected in the water.


We were there neither early enough, nor on an exceptionally calm day.

But we did get a good look at a Pukeko playing in the reeds. Silly birds.


Back in town, we went straight to the hostel where they graciously let us check in early.

‘We’re having some nibbles and beer in the main room at 6pm as an orphan’s Christmas celebration, if you’d like to come,’ the young guy at the reception mentioned nonchalantly.


“Nibbles” as it turned out, was a huge platter of meats, cheeses, crackers, candies, breads, and Pineapple Lumps. Now, Pineapple Lumps may be one of the most foul candies that you can buy, but they’re a national treasure, made in NZ and loved by…well, I’m sure there are people who like them. Anyhow, the TV commercial for them is pretty funny.

The owners of the hostel had been throwing a Christmas feast of various sizes for as long as they’d run the place as a Thank You to the guests. The owners’ son, who had been the one to check us in, came back for the summers to work. He said that the general trend of people staring at their phones instead of talking to other travelers made him sad. But that times like the Christmas feast were fun because everyone mingled and talked.

The entire hostel tried real hard to eat all the food. But we failed, miserably.

It was one of the most memorable nights of the whole trip. And a Christmas that I won’t forget for a long time.

The whole point of the Fox Glacier layover was to set us up to head up to the Copland hot springs, just 20km down the pavement…and then 8 miles up the trail. It was one of those huts that had to be reserved ahead of time, and we lucked into two spots.


The pedal was easy, the bikes got stashed in the bush. We paused to talk to a bikepacker riding the Tour Aotearoa Route. He’d just realized that he had 210 km of busy pavement with no shoulder ahead of him.

“I can’t wait till I get to Bluff and finish this route so that I can go back and actually do some fun mountain biking,” he said.

We didn’t have the heart to point out that he didn’t have to finish the route and that he could just go and ride wherever he wanted…thru hikers/riders are a funny breed.


Sometimes this place just doesn’t seem real.

If it wasn’t for the sandfly infestation, the hot springs would have been more…relaxing. But hey, you can’t always get what you want, and all we wanted was a hot spring.


The hut was an odd mix of people. The super popular ones tend to be. We favor the backwoods run down ones, but we had to check this one out. And it started up fantasies of going over Copland Pass in the future and dropping down into Mt Cook National Park. The more places we visit…the longer our ‘To Do’ list gets. It’s not a bad problem to have.

As with a lot of huts, people were in a hurry to leave in the morning. By 10am, the place had cleared out, so we went for a second soak. I didn’t hike eight miles up the valley to only soak one day.

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The swing bridges were pretty cool. At the very least, we appreciated the big views that they allowed. Plus swinging over a raging river is always a thrill.

We’d spent our entire trip (and last trip to NZ) trying to get a picture of a Fantail fanning its tail. They’re beautiful little birds, but they never stay still long enough to get a in-focus picture. Mom and dad were flittering around, tempting us with brief fans of their tail, while these three babies sat and watched. A prime lesson on how to frustrate bird nerds.


There was also this guy. Introduced for hunting, I believe. But so pretty.


Our campsite was the trailhead. It was also the gathering ground for all of the sandflies on the west coast. I’ve never seen that many bugs in my life. Having them fly into the netting made it sound like it was raining. Needless to say, we spent the afternoon reading and stayed in the tent for as long as possible in the morning.

And why not just get up and ride?

Because the Intercity bus had a stop right at the trailhead, and we’d booked ourselves a ride to Wanaka. And luckily the bus had plenty of room.


And while the salmon farm tourist stop is probably hated by pretty much everyone who takes that bus route (the busses stop 5 or 6 times throughout the day for extended tourist stops for snacks…it takes forever to get anywhere), we were stoked for a hot breakfast.  And to not be pedaling the west coast highway.

Once in Wanaka, we picked up Heather, who’d had her own adventures coming down the West Coast and had also opted for an air conditioned bus ride instead of pointless pavement. We showed her our super-secret camp spot outside of Wanaka and watched a stunning sunset over the hills.


It was good to be back in Otago.


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New Zealand, Part II

Well, I’m discovering that I don’t have the memory of an elephant, and I forget things that I don’t want to forget. So I’m going to get back to writing things down. I’ve spent far too much time in the past two weeks looking back at old, old blog entries to remind myself of the details of certain trips that happened a decade ago, and being so glad that I’d taken the time to document it all. So here’s to the revival of this blog, and the telling of stories about cool places.


We last left this blog (6+ months ago, yikes) with us wandering around the limestone karst landscape of Mt Owen, filming site of a very brief segment of Lord of the Rings where the Hobbits escape from the troll dungeons and lose Gandalf to the lava. Or something like that.


Our original plan was to backtrack to the previous little town we’d just come from to get some extra food before pointing towards Lake Rotaroa and then on to Merchison to try to meet up with Heather, who was also riding bikes around NZ.

But first, swimming. Because when it’s hot out and there are lovely hidden pools to jump in, swimming is a moral requirement.


When we got back down to the bikes, which were safely stashed in the bush, I argued that we had enough food to just keep moving forward.

Scott disagreed. Why would we ration food while riding roads instead of going back to town and getting scones? Because backtracking is dumb.

I won the debate, and we headed south. Rationing food.


Scott was not pleased. I’d been accused (probably accurately) of being in too much of a hurry earlier in the trip. When we came across this sign (we were on the Tour Aotearoa route, the NZ version of the Great Divide), we thought we were saved. At least I thought Scott’s mood was saved if we could get a burger out of the deal.


Plus with a name like Huha, we were intrigued.

So we pedaled up the hill. While we hoped maybe it was a super-fan of the race who’d want to talk bikepacking in exchange for a meal, we found just a normal hostel/farmstay. The woman running the place didn’t seem excessively excited to see us and definitely didn’t offer us any food, and we knew there was a far cheaper campground down the road, so we left. Wind out of sails.

Instead, we stayed at a sandfly infested campground right next to the highway. Shambalized. We were totally shambalized, especially since we’d run out of fuel and had to borrow a stove from some other campers in order to make dinner.

Luckily, the little coffee shop on the way to Lake Rotaroa was open the next morning. As in the owner came out in his robe, asking us what we were doing up so early. (It was 8am) Still, he made us coffee, sold us some snacks, and told us how there was nothing to do up on Mt Owen any more since the 1080 poison designed for the possums and other rodents had killed all of the deer that he used to hunt.

Knowing Heather’s route from St Arnaud would bring her by the lake that day, we stopped for a morning swim, and she showed up not long after.


The ride to Merchison was downright pleasant with a new person to talk to.

Heather is one of those smarter people who plans rest days into her bike tours, and she had one planned for the next day before she embarked on the Old Ghost Road. Being fairly worked over, we decided to join her, booking ourselves into the cute little hostel in town.

I’m not sure what most people consider a rest day, but we started the day with a hike up to the local high-point overlooking town.


And then Heather talked us into the whitewater rafting trip down the Bueller River. Because, why not? Our faux-guide, accompanied by a real guide, was taking some rafting test the next day, and our trip was her practice round. I’m pretty sure it was the first time she’d taken commercial clients down the river. A bit unnerving, but she was awesome, getting us through the Room of Doom without having to grab onto the Rope of Hope. I hope she passed.


Thoroughly exhausted from our rest day activities, Heather pointed west to the Ghost Road, we pointed south along the Tour Aotearoa route, the goal being to get near Reefton, the old mining town that had endless options for bikepacking or tramping routes. While the first pass of the day was on a nice backroad, we ended up on a highway for the second half. A highway with a headwind. Pretty much the worst.


Reefton ended up being the town with the winner of the Best Coffee Shop in the Country award. Fast internet. Power outlets. And tables were we could sit and drink coffee and eat snacks for the better part of a morning. Plus, they had a cute cat who spent much of the morning in my lap.

When we’d determined that we’d had enough screen time and were sick of working, we examined our options. We’d taken a bunch of photos of a guide book back in Christchurch and debated between a few routes. But in the end, we had a vague goal of making it to Wanaka for New Years to see some friends, and if we spent too much time dawdling, we wouldn’t make it.

So forward on the TA route. Up Big River to a hut for the night.


If all bike touring in NZ could be like this…well, it’d be a biketouring mecca. But unfortunately, it’s not. And the highways are pretty terrifying. And windy. The bush may not have big views, but the protection from the wind is priceless.


We shared the hut with a rather odd father-daughter couple. We pretty much spend the entire evening terrified they were going to burn the place down. But the location was perfect, and it was made even better by the fact that it pretty much pissed rain all night. Huts are the best.

The hut was located at the site of one of the bigger gold mines in the country. Someone had spent a lot of money restoring as much of the mining equipment as possible for historical purposes, and it was fun to wander among all of the machinery and think ‘How did they get all this up here?!”

Gold. Anything for gold.


As far as we can tell, the TA route doesn’t have that much single track on it. But the route down from the hut was a well-loved section by all riders on their fully loaded rigid bikes.


That’s not really true. I think people suffer a lot on it. Even with a heavy bike, I thought it was good fun. Even with its fair bit of BS.


It was just so green. Every inch of the ground, aside from the trail, green.


We dropped down into another old abandoned mining village, and on to Ikamatua.


Now, Ikamatua might consist of a handful of houses and a gas station/small store, but they had some of the best burgers we’d eaten anywhere. It’s one of my favorite things about NZ, rolling into these towns where you expect nothing beyond maybe a small selection of frozen meat pies, and you end up with an amazing meal made from fresh and yummy ingredients.


Look at that lamb tail!

Our destination for the night was Blackball. We knew nothing of Blackball besides that it was the start of a recommended bike ride. And there was a store that we’d been told had food. It doesn’t take much to make us happy.

As it turns out, Blackball is fascinating. The birthplace of the NZ Labour Party, because of a fight for 30 minute lunch breaks in the mines instead of 15, it was filled with some of the quirkiest people we’d met thus far. Including Quentin, the DJ for the local radio station. The town camping was in the lot by the community center, and he was on his way to do his nightly show when he stopped to talk to us. Before long, he had Scott on Blackball radio. Then he managed to get all of us locked in the building, and we had to escape via a window.

There were also the excessively grumpy store owners, the patrons of the bar who all stopped to stare when we walked in, and the community landscaper who had a teenaged boy doing court-ordered community service working for him. When the kid showed up in the  morning completely hung over and plopped down on the couch in front of the community center, he asked him in a completely pleasant voice, ‘Would you like some tea? I have some hot tea and milk in my truck. Might as well get your day started off on the right foot.’ The kid was not pleased. I couldn’t stop laughing.


But the real reason we were in Blackball was the Creasus (I’m totally butchering the spelling of that) trail and hut. With a rainy afternoon forecasted, we thought it would be a good idea to ditch anything we didn’t need in the bush, ride up to the hut, spend the night, and then try to link up the Moonlight Track the next day.


The Moonlight Track route had come from Dave Mitchell’s bikepacking guidebook. As we were learning, he rode some pretty burly routes, but we were undeterred.

The ride up to the hut was fairly tame by NZ standards, as in we were able to pedal most of it. We found the hut filled with a DOC trailcrew who were in the process of getting the hut ready for the of building one section of what would become the next Great Walk and Great Ride. Wide, easily accessible trail that would connect Blackball with the Pancake Rocks on the Coast with the Pike Mine as part of a memorial to the 29 miners who were killed in the 2010 Pike Mine explosion. There was an American from Flagstaff, a Czech gal who was so happy to hear someone speaking “normal” English, and a handful of West Coast Kiwis who’d perfected the NZ mumble.

The trail crew worked on the hut through the afternoon of rain, most of their time being spent making a space for a BBQ that would be flown up later in the week. They were going to be based out of the hut for the entire summer, and Kiwi’s don’t believe in roughing it too much if not necessary.

They shared porkchops and copious amounts of alcohol with us.


When the trail gets done, it’s going to be amazing. But for now, well, at least the views were amazing.


There was a lot of bike carrying after we got off of the main trail, but the trail crew leader had told us that once we got off the ridge and got onto the benched trail in the bush, we’d be ‘Good as gold’. We weren’t. There were still endless trees, insanely steep trail, and huge tangles of bush.


But some of the swing bridges were the best we’d seen thus far.


We started counting down the km’s to go based on the numbers of the possum traps. It was insanely slow progress. The trail did finally dump out in a parking lot filled with fossikers (gold panner). A toothless old man greeted us and asked us how the trail was.

Burly. Difficult. Beautiful.

‘Welcome to New Zealand’ he said and shook our hand.