Zen On Dirt


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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.


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New Years Day semi-junkshow

One of the things that I’ve been working on as a human being is being okay with whatever happens and trying not to force things that shouldn’t be forced. Taking a more ‘go with the flow’ attitude, if you will. I also have been working on trying to take a bigger frame of reference on life when I feel like things are going wrong. Trying to make issues that seem big at the time seem small in the grand scheme of life.

So I guess it’s pretty funny that 2017 started as it did. It was a good practice run at life intentions.

Midnight. When the four ass-hats at the campground, that was filled with tents, decided that they needed to celebrate New Years, loudly. Silent campground, their group yelling, playing drums, being obnoxious. A bit of rain shut them up for a bit, enough to let everyone fall back asleep mostly, and then they came back out again, loud as ever.

But they did go to sleep eventually, so that was awesome.

And it was windy, and our little yellow tent really doesn’t like the wind, so we were woken up at 6am to a centerpole that was trying is hardest to collapse on us.

And the bugs from last night were back, this time wanting to bite. They were swarmers for sure, and we couldn’t seem to cook breakfast and get camp torn down fast enough. The year was off to a good start.

But you know what? It wasn’t raining. So that was awesome.

We continued up the track, we were on a side dirt road paralleling the highway, and knew that cars couldn’t get out the way we were getting out. But the good people at Good Revolutions had posted the GPX, and the GPX went through.

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It’s pretty great soaking your feet on a fairly significant river crossing first thing in the morning. We had to hike up our shorts, as the water came up well past my knees.

I didn’t get swept down river, so that was awesome.

Our goal was to get up early, take advantage of empty New Years morning empty roads to try to blast over Lindis Pass on Highway 8 before anyone woke up. It’s on the tourist driving route, and we wanted nothing to do with the traffic going from Wanaka/Queenstown back to Christchurch.

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With this, we succeeded, cresting the pass just shy of 10am with minimal traffic. Plus, our feet had warmed up, the scenery was beautiful, the flowers were gorgeous, and it was all downhill to our turn off at the Ahuriri Valley. Things were looking up!

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And then the wind. It was supposed to be 21km to a shelter and another 10km to the hut we wanted to stay in. In theory, under 20 miles, mostly flat gravel roads, we should have been able to knock it out in well under three hours and then had time to go for a hike or to ride up farther in the valley.

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But the wind. I haven’t fought headwinds that fierce for a long time. We kept thinking it would get better. We took a nap behind a rock to see if they’d die down. We kept pushing. In two hours of pedaling, we’d covered less than 7 miles. And it wasn’t pedaling of the fun variety either.

This is dumb, we eventually decided.

Go with the flow. We were being stupid.

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Aside from one hill that we had to pedal up, we didn’t have to pedal all the way back to the highway. I couldn’t stop giggling. How had we been dumb enough to force that situation for seven miles? Madness.

The tailwind continued to blow us all the way to Omarama. We got stopped halfway by Scott, the director of the Kiwi Brevet, and his wife. They’d known we were touring around and saw us pedaling. It was fun to put a face to the name.

Omarama, contrary to our expectations, was awesome. We were able to buy cold drinks, there was a Spark booth for internet, and best of all, we were able to ship a box to Christchurch. Nearly 4kg of weight, adios! Halleluja! And have I mentioned the free camping just outside of town on the banks of the Ahuriri River?

So yeah, we may have junk-showed the shit out of today, but in the end? It all turned out awesome.


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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!