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New Zealand: Part IV

Maybe we should have known better than to go to Wanaka over the Christmas/New Years break. Because well, we’d spent Christmas there last year, and we full on knew how crazy it got during the holiday season.

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When we got to Wanaka, I started taking pictures of these ducklings. One of the pictures corrupted my memory card, and while I could save the rest of the photos, I lost access to them for the rest of the trip. Which is basically why this blog stopping being updated throughout the trip. Stupid ducklings, why did you have to be so cute?

Unlike in the US where Christmas is generally indoors, and dark, and not many days are taken off of work, in NZ, it’s a camping holiday where pretty much everyone takes at least a week off of work, if not two. Kiwis take their holidays seriously, and Wanaka is one of the go-to places for anyone under 30. The campgrounds are packed, people everywhere…and for good reason. Lake Wanaka is amazing for swimming, there are mountains everywhere, and the town is big enough for good coffee and food.

But if Wanaka is good for mountain biking and trail running and swimming, it’s shitty for bike touring. The only roads going anywhere are highways, and the proximity to Queenstown ensures that the roads are busy and filled with campervans.

Anyhow.  We knew that if left to our own devices, we’d spend our entire two months on the north end of the island doing gawd knows what, aside from getting devoured by sandflies, so we made it our goal to get down to Otago to spend a day or two with Scott, Jo, and Indie Dawg over the holidays. Riding, running, and coffee drinking ensued.

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Run to the top of a hill. Point at stuff. Get good and sore the next day. 

We had the brilliant idea of trying to get up early on New Year’s Day to ride over the Crown Range, trying to beat traffic, to get to Queenstown. And while this idea would have worked if we’d actually set an alarm and gotten going, we only managed a semi-motivated start, and by the time we started climbing, traffic had started.

It was one of the more terrifying rides of my life. There’s a lesson here boys and girls, don’t be lazy. Road touring in NZ is amazing…it just has to be done before 10am and after 6pm. And preferably not on mountain bikes.

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Highest paved road in NZ. All downhill to Arrowtown. Not really. 

One could argue that this was where a couple of variables started to line up against us in terms of creating frustration.

Central Otago can be hot hot hot in the summer. While last year, the warmth and dry weather was welcome after getting shit-stormed on for the first three weeks of our trip, we’d been hot far more times than we’d been cold this time around. The cold weather last year also led to a lot of forced rest days, and also created an urgency this year: While the weather is good, GO! But when the weather never turns bad (and we’d yet to classify hot and sunny as ‘bad’), bodies get tired.

And we were definitely getting tired.

But Queenstown over the holidays isn’t exactly the most ideal place to hang out. Queenstown is weird. And busy. And impossible to camp around. Even the secret site that my brother had last year was no longer very secret and led to a funny (in hindsight) and non-restful night of sleep.

So, me being me, got restless during our ‘day off’ in Queenstown, and pushed to ride the 30 miles to Glenorchy.

It’s along a lake, how hilly can it be? 3,000 feet of climbing hilly, to be exact. Plus, roasting temperatures, lots of Jeep Safari traffic going to see Lord of the Rings sites, and a narrow to non-existent shoulder.

A meltdown may or may not have happened. On the plus side, there was a little single track to ride, and we stopped to swim at least three times.

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And when we did finally make to to Glenorchy, we were pleased to find a semi-stocked store, and a dock to jump off into Lake Wakatipu.

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Little did we know at the time that we’d make this little town our home base for pretty much the remainder of our trip.

Our main reason for coming here in first place was to run the Routeburn track. It’s one of the Great Walks, and one of the hardest to set a shuttle for. I’m talking a 5 hour drive to get from one end of the 20 some odd mile track to the other. So we just figured we’d run to the high point and come back. Apparently there’s a guy in Glenorchy who makes a living driving people’s cars around and then running back. Not a bad office, if I say so myself.

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The track was beautiful. And, because of it’s Great Walk status, busy. It’s sort of like the National Parks in the US. There’s a lot of beauty to be seen, but you have to get through the crowds and regulations first.

In my mind, it’s (almost) always worth it.

We were far from ready to brave the 30 miles back to Queenstown on the road that we’d come in on, so we picked out some local mountains and huts to visit. The area had a history of Sheelite mining, which is a steel hardener, and there were huts scattered all over the hillsides. DOC had restored a handful of them, and old mining roads allowed bike access.

But mining roads in NZ are rarely straightforward. Kiwis are a special breed of crazy.

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This was definitely one of my favorite huts. A gravel floor. Six or so bunks. Views for days. It was a massive hike-a-bike to get up to…but hey, we’d get to coast pretty much back to town.

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In the morning, we headed up, me on foot, Scott on his bike, to the peak behind the hut. Maps showed a road most of the way up, but I was pretty over pushing and thought that running was a lot more appealing. And faster.

It was, and I soon got ahead of Scott. And then promptly made a wrong turn.

I soon figured out my mistake and took a sketchy ass route back down to the main road. I assumed that Scott wouldn’t have made the same dumb mistake that I had, so I carried on. Turns out, he didn’t have basemaps or a track on his GPS and had followed me up my wrong turn, and then lost sight of me as I realized it and dropped down.

So he ended up climbing a different mountain with his bike.

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He was not pleased with me when we met back up.

‘You left me!’

‘But you’re Map Man! You always know where you’re going!’ I argued in my defense.

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I think the fact that the descent was fun for him saved my bacon from a grumpy Scott for the rest of the day.

Communication. Err on the side of over-communication rather than under.

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Cruise back to the hut. Eat some lunch. Pack up bikes and cruise back to town. It was a pretty perfect sub-24 adventure, even if it didn’t go as planned.

We landed back in Glenorchy in the middle of Glenorchy Days, pretty much the biggest day of the year for the small town. Christmas horse racing season is a big deal in Otago, and Glenorchy knew how to do it right. Pretty much the only rules were that you had to be 16, and you had to wear a helmet.

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We watched some dual-slalom style barrel racing, two up elimination, some standard track racing (in shorts and gumboots), and observed heaps of Kiwis getting burnt to a crisp as they spent the day outside drinking. It was great. And what a location!

At this point in time, with hindsight 20/20, we should have joined the drinking and hung out and gone swimming in Glenorchy for a few days. But we were in New Zealand! And we only had two months! And the weather was good! And self-control is not our strong point.

We booked ourselves a shuttle to Arrowtown the next day with the plan of walking the Motatapu track and Cascade Saddle back to Glenorchy over the course of a week or so.

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The first part of the track description basically said that you could take a narrow single track on a sidehill that did lots of pointless up and downs, or you could walk up the river for a few miles. Being a hot day, we chose the river.

It was almost sad when we had to regain the track, the splish-splashing around was fun.

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The Motatapu is a far cry from the railroad graded wide Great Walks. Steep, narrow, exposed. All in all, awesome, with huge views in all directions.

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The track, and the three brand new huts were created when Shania Twain bought a huge station (aka ranch) in the area. Apparently NZ has a policy that when a foreigner buys a huge tract of land, they have to invest money into improving it, and they decided that the track and huts was appropriate. I fully approve!

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The Te Araroa, the NZ long trail, uses the track, so while we had the first hut to ourselves, the second one was filled with thru hikers. It’s a funny thru hike, apparently you can stay in a hut pretty much every night if you do it right. And the thru-hikers we met took their task of walking very seriously. It was in bed by 9pm because they had to get up early. Comparatively, most Kiwis in huts don’t actually get up until nearly noon unless there’s a really good reason.

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Still, always fun to share a hut with people. Even if all they want to do is hang out in their own little clique and not talk to anyone but other thru hikers.

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Our second day of hiking was mercifully cloudy. We would have roasted if the sun had shown its face.

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But the clouds were a foreshadowing of incoming weather. Everything we’d read warned that going over Cascade Saddle in bad weather was a very bad idea. Kiwis are very safety conscious, but they’re also badasses, so every warning needs to critically analyzed. On Great Walks or other more popular routes, warnings can be taken with a grain of salt, but we’ve found that on more obscure routes, warning need to be taken seriously.

So when we ended up in Wanaka, our mid-route resupply, and saw that our weather forecast had taken a turn for the worse, we started looking at other options. The weather looked crappy enough for long enough that we didn’t want to wait it out in Wanaka. We settled on hitching out of town to the Pisa Range and trying to make it to Meg’s Hut for the night. From there, we could wander back to Queenstown and hop a shuttle back to Glenorchy and our bikes.

The old guy who finally picked us up on the outskirts of town was a retired local who insisted on looking straight at me whenever he was talking, instead of looking at the road. It was mildly terrifying as we made our way up the mountain road.

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Meg’s Hut was one of my favorites. An old hut used for sheep herding back in the day, it looked a little rough on the outside, but was cozy and comfy on the inside. Don’t need a lot of fancy to be happy.

But what did make us happy the next morning was the thick cloud cover. It sounds so strange to say it, but we were over the sun. We wanted wet, cold, and damp New Zealand where we didn’t have to hide in the shade and put on gallons of sunscreen every day. While I’m sure we were missing big and amazing views, I think we were far happier in the clouds for the day.

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After walking for a few hours, we popped out at Crown Range Pass, the same high-point we’d ridden to just a week or so earlier where an endless stream of cars had passed us for hours on end. This time around, with our thumbs out, there didn’t seem to be anyone driving. Seriously?

We eventually caught a ride with two girls who were living in Queenstown and working as guides on the Routeburn Great Walk. They had some classic stories of people who they had guided, and were stoked to hear about us doing some of the lesser known routes.

Queenstown is definitely a tourist economy. And tourist economies are funny.

After some finangling, we got ourselves a spot back on a shuttle to Glenorchy, and before we knew it, were reunited with our bikes and gear. Rationally, we knew we needed to lay low and recover some. But…New Zealand! Tired legs be damned.

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