Day 67: Murchison, NZ to Slab Hut Creek Campground - Four Legs on the Slow Road - CycleBlaze

November 1, 2014

Day 67: Murchison, NZ to Slab Hut Creek Campground

We're ready for an early start, ready to head back to the road, ready to get out of the motel room and into the sunshine, and, wait, hold on. My rear tire is flat. Unwind everything. There are few things in the world more boring than hearing a bicycle rider talk about getting and then repairing a flat tire, but this one is worth mentioning because it's the first I've had in the two months and more than 2,200 miles since we left Portland. Even though it's just some cheap tire that was never designed for touring that I bought from some bike store whose name I can't remember when I lived in Bellingham, Washington, and even though it then sat in closets in various cheap apartments on both sides of the state for the two years that followed, it managed to carry me farther without a flat than any rear tire I've ever used. There's no big lesson for anyone else to take away from this experience, but it's pretty fucking sweet all the same, and I can't say I've ever felt so satisfied about changing a tire.

Heart 0 Comment 0

Thick clouds hang a few hundred feet above the valley floor around Murchison, but they do so in kind of a horseshoe shape, which leaves a gap toward the east where the sun shoots in and warms the morning. We ride past a feral pig with black skin that has little gray patches all over it, along with her five tiny piglets, all of whom shoots off into the brush as soon as they spot us coming. Then it's on past Doughboy Road and over Doughboy Creek, after which we pass small waterfalls that splash down onto rocks at the road's edge before sliding under it in culverts. It's a wonderful morning. When the weather's good in New Zealand, the national forecasting service likes to describe the conditions as fine, like, showers early followed by fine spells. This morning is every bit as fine as we could have hoped for.

Heart 0 Comment 0
Heart 0 Comment 0

By the time we reach Buller Gorge the clouds have been pulled back and the road starts to take us through the type of country that we traveled all the way to the South Island to see. Small patches of grass and Scotch broom grow in sections that were cleared to build the road, or to give cars a place to pull off, or to provide access to one of the few small farms that exist around here. But mostly we ride looking out at the endless native forest land and the muddy brown churn of the Buller River winding a narrow path through all of it. I have to angle my head back to see the tops of the hills from beyond the edge of my helmet visor; they're that steep. Where natural walls of stone fly up from the road's shoulder, they're covered in thick layers of moss into which ferns deep green in color root themselves. So many streams and creeks surge down from the hills on their journey to the river far below that I soon lose count of the number of bridges over which we ride.

Heart 0 Comment 0

And the best part? There's not a pine tree to be seen. The hills are covered in a blanket of forest so thick that the ground into which the tree trunks are rooted stays hidden away. The only exceptions are the rare places where the rain proved too strong a match for the soil, which slid down and away toward the bottom of the gorge to reveal a narrow sliver of tannish-brown earth. When we stop, all we hear is the monotone hiss of the river and the calls of the birds whose ancestors have known this part of the world as home for tens of thousands of years

Along the way we make fun of the tourist traps that exist despite all of this beauty, the ones that try to separate people from their money by way of letting them walk across a swing bridge, take a jet boating tour, or fly through the forest on a zip line while attached to a harness that makes them look like a complete knob. It's the kind of stuff that I imagine starts to become appealing after you've spent hours or days or weeks staring out the window of a car or an RV, almost entirely disconnected from the world outside.

"Are you sure you don't want to stop?" I call out to Kristen. "Are you really sure? Aren't you tempted? This might be your last chance to dominate nature until we get to the coast!"

I think we're gonna clear it.
Heart 0 Comment 0

Kristen continues to struggle with pedaling a loaded bicycle up the steep hills that we find every day without end in New Zealand. Our hope was that over time she would gain more strength as a result of riding day after day and week after week, but every person has a limit when it comes to what they can handle without having to exert too much energy, and now we know that she's beyond that point. When we stop to eat lunch, dozens of pieces of gear fly out of our panniers and start to form stacks on the picnic table and in the grass around our bikes as we look for a solution.

After almost half an hour of lifting one set of objects with our left hands and then comparing their weight to another set of objects held in our right hands, we manage to shift somewhere between eight and ten pounds of electronics and water bottles and other dense stuff from Kristen's panniers to mine, while sending only a couple of pounds of lightweight gear back the other way. It's hard to believe we waited this long to do something so important and so clearly needed, but the members of Team Hawthorne are long on both stubbornness and optimism, which has a way of leading to all sorts of ridiculous outcomes. I celebrate our new-found balance by dousing my legs in bug spray to fight against the army of sandflies that descended as soon as we stopped, which gives me the privilege of smelling like a cheap air freshener for the rest of the day.

Heart 0 Comment 0

We continue down through the gorge, riding across old single-lane bridges where the wooden slats of the original deck appear below gaps in the newer asphalt surface. We ride around one blind curve after another, tunneled in the trees. There are so many folds in the hills that we can't tell what direction the road will take beyond the few hundred feet of pavement laid out in front of us. I start to think that we could ride through country like this for a month and never tire of it.

Heart 0 Comment 0
Heart 0 Comment 0

Not five minutes later the gorge reaches its southern end. It opens up into a much wider valley that's filled with low-impact agriculture instead of indigenous forest. As soon as the road runs flat for more than a quarter of a mile we start to get weirded out, because we've become so conditioned to the unending climbs and descents that go along with the constant hills of the South Island. As we watch the easy miles in the valley add up, we also notice how even though it's colder here than normal right now, there are still signs all around us that spring is in full force. We look out on blooming flowers, watch little butterflies zig and zag above tall stands of grass, feel the thickness of the pollen in the air, and hear the high-pitched cries of month-old lambs who have trouble standing on legs that look far too long for their narrow little bodies.

Heart 0 Comment 0

Most travelers turn right at the junction of Highways 6 and 69 and head toward the West Coast, but today we pedal up the hill to the T in the road and turn left. Although we'd love our noses to fill with the smell of salt and watch waves larger than a house crash into dramatic rock formations in the kind of scene you'd find on a postcard, we have to be in Greymouth early on Monday morning for our first round of volunteering on this trip. The off day we took yesterday to avoid the bad weather means we have to travel the shorter, more direct, less spectacular route.

Heart 0 Comment 0

But there's no rule that says something that isn't spectacular can't also be wonderful. With a rare tailwind blowing straight up our backs we crank down the center of a valley, parallel to the single line of railway (not railroad) tracks that will follow us all afternoon and into the evening, with almost no traffic to spoil the calm and the quiet. Along the way I spit at the wires of electric fences that zap twice every second from the rush of current. Attached to every mailbox post we see a small and heavily rusted metal barrel where the morning newspaper gets tossed, or at least where it used to get tossed when the morning newspaper was a thing. We also give thanks for the most important piece that's missing: long lines of rented RVs piloted by semi-distracted tourists. The West Coast can keep them.

Heart 0 Comment 0
Heart 0 Comment 0

In the wide open fields scattered with small numbers of livestock we smile and say hello to calves with patches of brown around both of their eyes, which make them look like fuzzy little masked superheroes. Later on I look down toward the road just as a fat bee flies toward my front rim, bounces off the wall of fast-spinning silver spokes, then jerks up and over the top of the tire between the end of the fender and the brace of the front rack before continuing on in the direction he wanted to go all along. The sun shines on the tops of the hills to the west, but the valley is cast in a soft gray from the thick clouds overhead. It's not butt tanning weather, but it's everything we need.

Heart 0 Comment 0

Fifty-four miles after leaving Murchison we pass through the first town we've seen all day. Reefton is a place built on the export of coal and lumber, and like so many small towns we've passed through in New Zealand, where in America we'd expect to find a baseball diamond, here we find a well-manicured lawn bowling court. Although as in America, the grocery store blasts an awful Justin Timberlake song, first released almost a decade ago, that lodges itself in my brain for the rest of the day.

Beyond town we hang a left off the highway and head up a dirt and gravel road that runs alongside a creek. The water churns in a brownish-copper color that makes it look rusty, just like most of the other creeks and streams and rivers we passed next to and over today, for reasons we haven't been able to figure out. In the campground at the road's end we eat lentils with rice, drink apple-pear juice straight from the box, and look at our giant map of the South Island and think about where the next six weeks might take us. Soon a light mist of rain shows up, which makes us think about how the last weather forecast we saw called for rain to arrive in the morning and then never leave.

Heart 0 Comment 0

But that's a matter for tomorrow. Here, tonight, in a tent that smells of mildew and unclean wool socks, with three dozen sandflies trapped in the gap between the rain fly and the mesh of the tent, as the weight of a long but fulfilling day starts to descend on us, all is right with the world.

Today's ride: 61 miles (98 km)
Total: 2,276 miles (3,663 km)

Rate this entry's writing Heart 1
Comment on this entry Comment 0