South Island, New Zealand

A quick glance out of the plane window as we made our final approach to Queenstown Airport was enough to get me excited – the scenery looked incredible! Big rugged hills and huge lakes, any jaded thoughts of the 25,000km already cycled disappeared and I couldn’t wait to rebuild our bikes and get cycling.

We’d arranged to meet Stef & Ange in Queenstown, who we’d stayed with 16 months ago in Vienna. They’ve since been on their own cycling trip for the last 10 months, so it was great to catch up with them and have some cycling buddies for a few weeks!

Best viewed LARGE

The task for our first day of cycling after nearly two weeks off since arriving in Sydney was to cross the Crown Range to Wanaka. The summit is the highest paved road in New Zealand at 1,076 metres and it was a brute of a climb at times – the steepest gradients we’d seen since northern Laos. The views were awesome though and made it worthwhile.

After hiding from a day of solid rain in Wanaka we cycled over the much gentler Haast Pass and up the west coast. We had regular soakings from the unpredictable weather, as in Australia it seems this part of the world is having one of the worst summers in recent history. Thick green forest lined the road most days, at times it felt like we were boxed in by walls of ferns.

After Hokitika we turned inland to tackle Arthur’s and Porters Passes. Hana (last seen with Mark in Malaysia) came over from her home in Lyttleton with her bike to meet us and cycle three days back to the east coast. The weather was pretty terrible again, and we got drenched.

Arthur’s Pass was even steeper than the Crown Range, it took all my strength to keep the pedals turning and at times Stef’s fancy cycle computer showed the gradient to be a hefty 21%!! I was bloody glad to see the summit, although it felt freezing up there in my sweat/rain soaked clothes. We had a 5km roll down the other side to the village, so I quickly put a couple of dry layers on to avoid an almost certain death by frostbite in this balmy Kiwi summer.

Once over the final lump it was downhill for over 100km to Christchurch, but instead of a pleasant spin we battled horizontal rain and a cross-head wind – horrendous cycling conditions! We made it eventually, just beating Mark home from a week of climbing down south.

We went to see Christchurch city centre which is still closed down from the tragic earthquake that struck over a year ago. The entire CBD is cordoned off, and a new shopping street made from shipping containers has opened. It was shocking to still see piles of rubble where buildings used to be. The damage was extensive – Lyttelton (the small town where Mark & Hana live) lost its only supermarket, and most buildings have at least some damage (M & H have a huge crack down the wall in their living room).

During one of our three rest days in Lyttleton we drove back to Arthur’s Pass to walk up Avalanche Peak. I’d never stood on the top of a proper mountain, so being in a country with loads of big hills and staying with two avid climbers was too good an opportunity to miss.

It turned out to be harder than I’d imagined! I guess I’d had no idea what to expect, but a 5 hour return trip over very steep terrain certainly woke me up. Some of the ridges near the top were spectacular and felt quite exposed to me. When we reached the summit we were surrounded by cloud and couldn’t see a thing, but suddenly it lifted and some amazing views lay before us.

Bex and I were knackered by the time we’d got back down, and having done nothing but cycle for 18 months meant our legs were in agony for about 5 days after – we could literally barely walk! An awesome experience, thanks M & H!

Whilst we were at the top of Avalanche Peak a few Keas (mountain parrots) came to investigate. They are super-confident, and if you turn your back on your backpack for even a second a Kea will hop over to steal your lunch. At least their cockiness meant it was easy to get nice and close for a few photos!

We left Lyttelton/Christchurch with wooden legs in a five-man peloton with Mark, Hana and Stef (Ange had finished her trip and flown home from Christchurch). We were headed for the Rainbow Road, a gravel track that follows the Clarence River Valley.

After a short but steep climb up over Jacks Pass we descended into the valley, and the temperature began to drop. We spotted an old hut and piled inside for the night. It was good fun with the five of us rolling out our sleeping bags, but it was super cold – we wore all our clothes at night but still woke up shivering. Mark’s sleeping bag was the worst of the lot (he carried a camera lens that was bigger than his packed bag) and said it was his coldest night ever – not bad for someone who has spent plenty of nights up big mountains!

We woke to a thick frost outside and quickly boiled some river water for a round of teas. We waited for the sun to appear before we started cycling, and the scenery was spectacular – it felt like we were in Central Asia again.

The track was really tough in places, the steep slopes and large rocks were hard work with heavy bikes and on one sharp climb a cheeky Bex even persuaded one of the rare 4-wheel drivers skidding past to take her panniers to the top and wait for her there (30 minutes). But the faster sections were great fun, and despite Bex hating skiddy roads I was proud to see that she battled on, even if she was slower downhill than uphill!  It’s definitely made me want to do some mountain biking after we get home.

After saying goodbye to Stef, Mark and Hana, we took the ferry from Picton across to the North Island. We’re really on the home straight now – there’s only about 700km left until Auckland (even less now, as I write this a few days later) and I’m pleased to say I’m feeling mega excited about the prospect of finishing. Let’s hope it stays that way!

More New Zealand photos are here

Melbourne to Sydney

Most of you will know that we arrived in Sydney last week (wahoo!) and you may have been wondering why we haven’t written a blog. Well, to be honest, we’ve been having too much fun!! There have been friends to see, beers to drink and parties to attend! But after a week of indulgence I thought I really should take a little time to document our last leg of Australia from Melbourne to Sydney.

After some uninspiring days spent cycling past industrial towns and McDonald’s (we only went to one, honest!) we left the urban sprawl of Melbourne and visited the Hamilton family at their lovely house. House numbers here were determined by the number of kilometres your house is down the road, and letter boxes are on the verge to save lots of trips up long driveways for the postman.

After a long time living a cyclist’s lifestyle, some might say it was only a matter of time until we became coffee lovers. Back in Adelaide Amber made us some strong cyclist-approved cups of real coffee, and we haven’t looked back. We bought this stove top espresso maker a few weeks later, and it’s already in contention for being my favourite piece of kit. We justified the purchase based on our cycling performance – any extra weight is more than made up for by a significant increase in speed after a coffee break!

The coast road around Eden in New South Wales presented some of the steepest hills since northern Laos. Despite being very short, we were panting and dripping with sweat by the top. I actually got off and pushed on one small climb (and made sure I was back on the saddle before Ryan turned around!). The hardwork was made worthwhile by the beautiful lakes that scatter the countryside and I’m hoping it will be good training for New Zealand.

We met Jacqui & Aaron (two Australian cyclists going the opposite way) in China for 10 minutes on the side of the road. Fast forward 9 months and we stayed with Aaron’s mum in the lovely town of Vincentia, New South Wales. Jacqui & Aaron are still on the road, heading towards England – hopefully we’ll catch up with them there!

This part of the world is thick with forest which makes for good camping spots, although we had a few noisy nights’ sleep as we were joined by squawking birds and cheeky possums who were desperate to get into our panniers for a midnight snack. I didn’t think I would ever meet someone who was as aggressive as Ryan over food, but the stand-off that occurred in the moonlit forest between Ryan and cheeky possum was intense – neither was going to back down. Periodically Ryan would stamp around and lurch towards the possum, who stared unblinkingly back before going for another attempt at the food. I’m not sure who won, cheeky possum didn’t get our food but neither did Ryan get any sleep.

70km before Sydney we stayed with my uncle Paul in Bulli. We’d been warned about a big climb over Bulli Pass the next morning so Paul took us for a recce over it on 4 wheels before we set off. It looked very steep in places even from behind a car window, but despite Paul’s offers of a lift we set off for a painful slog to the top. 35 minutes and a sandwich later we were sat panting on the top, with 65km of downhill left all the way to Sydney.

On the final day into Sydney it felt like someone really wanted to make it as hard as possible. We had a short but very steep climb over Bulli Pass and then got caught in a wild thunderstorm as we cycled up the hardshoulder of the unavoidable freeway. Our cycle computer ticked over to 25,000km so we stopped for a quick photo in the rain. Not the most picturesque spot we’ve stopped at!

We cycled up to the harbour to take in the iconic sights. We’ve both been to Sydney before, but the amazing Opera House and Harbour Bridge were just as stunning second time round.

A few friends have moved to Sydney, so our 9 days off passed quickly in a blur of socialising – a nice change from a quiet tent in the middle of nowhere! The rest of our time was spent wandering round the city and enjoying some time off the bikes.

On Monday morning we flew from Sydney to Queenstown, New Zealand, for the 23rd and final country of our journey (ARGHHHHHHH!). I can’t believe we are so close to the finish line…

More Australia photos here

Adelaide to Melbourne & the Great Ocean Road

I recently wrote an article for Sidetracked Magazine about our journey through China – have a read here

And while we’re at it, I don’t think I ever shared the links to the photos that Mark took whilst he & Hana cycled with us in Thailand and Malaysia. The 70-odd photos span three posts, here, here and here.

As we set off towards Melbourne we were excited about the cycling to come – we’d heard good things about the famous ‘Great Ocean Road’ running along part of the south coast. But first we had to pass through the Coorong, a national park with salt flats and more wide expanses similar to those seen on the Nullarbor. Once again my camera’s memory card started to fill up with photos of long, straight roads.

The wind always seems to be strong in Australia, which is either great or rubbish depending on the direction. Through the Coorong we had a tedious day of headwind followed by an easy day being blown along by a nice tailwind. Sometimes it feels like it’s pointless to even bother cycling when the wind is in our face – maybe we should just wait until the wind turns in our favour and then catch up the miles with a couple of long days.

We spent New Year’s Eve camped out in the bush on the side of the road and we fell asleep as it got dark at 9pm. We set the alarm for 11:58pm and woke up for approximately 4 minutes  to see in the New Year. We’d left the fly sheet off the tent that night so we had a good view of the starry sky through the mesh tent skin.

The Great Ocean Road covers 250km of mostly winding coastal road in Victoria, from Warrnambool to Torquay. We’d been looking forward to this part of the ride and it didn’t disappoint – the road was spectacular in places, and gave us our first real hills in months (hills always make for interesting cycling).

We were in full tourist mode as we joined the campervans taking regular detours out to the various lookouts along the coast to see impressive rock formations under some moody skies.

The weather has been changing rapidly from hot sun to driving wind and rain straight off the Southern Ocean. I’d always assumed that Australian summers were guaranteed to be boiling, but it appears not.

“Hot enough for you yet, is it?” we get asked by Australians whenever the sun pops out.

“A nice change from the rain yesterday” I generally reply.

“Just you wait, it’ll be 46 degrees next week!”

Exaggeration of temperatures seems to be endemic, and although I’m sure there are plenty of savagely hot days in Australia, the fact is down on the south coast we’ve been cold more often than we’ve been hot this summer. After a 3 hour climb up to Lavers Hill on a particularly grim day we could even see our breath in the cold air and dived inside a pub to sit in front of the log fire!

Early January is peak time for the Australian summer holiday, so the little towns along the way were busy with tourists and very expensive. We usually raid the budget aisle of the supermarket and hang around for a rest in the town park (which always have shade, pinic benches, free electric BBQs and water – ideal for cyclists on a micro-budget).

Just after Kennet River we found what may be our best camp spot of the trip, a flat patch of grass high up over the road, overlooking the ocean. Infinitely better than a poo-infested tunnel under a Chinese road.

When we woke up we found another cyclist had pitched his tent nearby after we’d gone to bed, but as he was still sleeping we left quietly. He caught us up as we stopped to brew a mid-morning coffee in the next town and we cycled the rest of the day together. Ben, from New Zealand, had cycled 17,000km from Istanbul to London with an incredibly bendy route through Europe (we’d cycled 4,000km between London & Istanbul, and reached Bangkok before we’d covered the same mileage!) Two completely different mental approaches to cycle touring, and it was interesting to chat and swap stories.

For our final night before reaching Melbourne we’d been due to stay with Maxine (another great host), but we felt bad to send Ben on his way to another campstove dinner and bush camp whilst we enjoyed showers and a bed. Fortunately Maxine kindly took Ben in as well, and the three of us enjoyed a tasty lasagne and beds. Thanks Maxine!

We’ve spent the last week in Melbourne (big thanks to both Alex and then Bethan for putting us up) and we’ve both decided that we really like it here. The CBD is compact with a nice mix of alleyways filled with coffee shops and graffiti, larger shopping streets, and the Yarra river flowing through the centre.

We’ve had an unusually busy social schedule here with lots of friends to meet, both old and new. In particular it was great to finally meet Tom and Jodie, an English couple who have moved to Melbourne just after cycling from England to New Zealand. They’ve always been about 4 months ahead of us on the road, and although we’ve been chatting regularly online for the last 18 months we’d never actually met each other.

Melbourne seems like a very sporty city – take a five minute walk along the Yarra and you’re guaranteed to see hoards of cyclists, runners, rowers, skateboarders and a whole host of sports arenas. The Australian Open is taking place in Melbourne at the moment and we spent last Thursday in the grounds watching a few matches..

Tomorrow we head off once more to start another 1,000km section that will take us to Sydney, and the end of our Australian cycling. It looks like we should get a few days of hot weather on the way out of Melbourne, maybe my jesting above will come back to bite me… Thankfully though our leisurely pace of late can continue – our flight to New Zealand doesn’t leave until 20th February.

Kit review #2

After kit review #1 a few months ago, here’s the second in a series of blogs reviewing some of our best bits of equipment.

1. Hammock

Camping is the norm for touring cyclists around the world, but in Southeast Asia the combination of wet days, hot nights, rice fields covering lots of the flat land, and an abundance of cheap guest houses meant we decided against carrying the weight of a tent, 2 sleeping mats and 2 sleeping bags (probably 7kgs worth and a couple of panniers full). We imagined we’d be finding guesthoues each night, but we also wanted to be able to sleep independently if needed.

So we decided to carry a pair of hammocks (Ultralight Hammocks from Lifeventure). They weight about 600 grams each, pack down very small and can be strung up between two trees in seconds.

Hammocks are commonplace in this part of the world, and we saw them hung up outside most cafes and village homes as we cycled along. The locals seem to agree – there aren’t many better ways to spend a hot afternoon than swinging in a shady hammock!

Most of the local hammocks were of the string net variety, but ours were made from solid black fabric – vital to keep the mosiquitoes out (when combined with a mosi net) whilst sleeping out. They’re also surprisingly long (another advantage over local hammocks) – I’m way over 6 foot tall but still had plenty of room to spare at each end.

Overall, we found the hammocks really comfy and are glad we carried them through Southeast Asia. Although it was almost too tempting to stop cycling and have a sneaky rest break swinging under a tree (or a hut, as pictured below)!  Hammocks are so much smaller and lighter than the traditional tent & mat combination that people that like to travel ultralight really should consider taking one on their next trip.

2. Mosquito net

Mosiquitoes are an annoyance throughout most of Southeast Asia, and if they’re around then it’s guaranteed that at least one of the little buggers will find a way to eat you during the night. Cheap guesthouses rarely provided nets, so we strung our net up every night whilst in Southeast Asia, and now class them as essential kit for this part of the world.

We have one each, in case we’re in our hammocks or a guesthouse gives us two single beds, but one of them can stretch to cover a double bed if needed (Lifesystems BoxNet). The four hanging cords means it’s nice and roomy inside, and although we’ve had to be inventive, we’ve always been able to tie it up.

The other net (Lifesystems UltraNet) is lighter, smaller and simpler, with only one hanging cord. It goes up much quicker, but there’s much less room to manoeuvre inside – fine if you’re travelling light by yourself, but two people won’t fit.

3. Saddle

We both have Brookes B17 saddles, a common choice amongst long-distance cyclists. Everyone who sees our bikes slaps the firm leather surface, wonders why we don’t have a massive soft seat and asks if we’re mad. The theory is that the wide leather part supports your sit bones, thereby keeping weight off other more delicate areas.

The theory seems to work, as we both find them comfortable – I don’t even wear padded shorts and my rear end has been fine all trip. However, Bex has some problems from time to time with the edges of the saddle rubbing as she pedals, causing some chaffing. We think the overall shape of the saddle perhaps doesn’t quite match her bum – everyone’s a different shape, so saddle choice is a very personal thing. Definitely something to test out before you leave on a big trip!

As an aside, leather stretches when wet (clearly bad news for a saddle), so put a cheap plastic seat cover (or shopping bag) over the saddle when it rains.

4. Buffs

Basically a thin cotton tube that fits over your head, Buffs are great as a warm hat/face mask/bandana/neck warmer/balaclava/sweat band etc etc, depending on how you wear it. Back in the Central Asian winter we wore a couple balaclava-style to keep the ice out, but now we’re in hotter climates they’re good when dunked in water and left to drip down our necks as we cycle in the midday sun along with the mad dogs.

5. Silk sleeping bag liner

If you cycle all day and then dive straight into your sleeping bag, they can quicky get dirty and washing sleeping bags whilst on the road can be hard. Using a silk liner inside your bag to collect the dirt is a good idea as these can be washed much more easily. They also add a few degrees of warmth, so are useful when it’s cold. In hot countries they can be warm enough on their own, or if there are a few too many suspicious stains on the sheets in a budget guesthouse. A useful bit of kit at only 130 grams.

Next time in the 3rd and final instalment: tents, tyres and a few other bits

One photo a week for 2011

During 2011 I’ve been continuously updating a Flickr album with my favourite photo each week. Now the year’s over, it’s been fun to have a quick look back over the 52 photos to get a nice random selection of snapshot memories from the last 12 months, from Turkey to Australia.

Which is your favourite photo? Let me know in the comments below!