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