Day 78: Franz Josef Glacier, NZ to Lake Paringa Campground - Four Legs on the Slow Road - CycleBlaze

November 12, 2014

Day 78: Franz Josef Glacier, NZ to Lake Paringa Campground

We have incredible timing. The last drops of rain fall onto our heads as we load up the bikes as they're leaned against the rear porch of the backpackers, and as soon as we start riding the clouds part and the warmth of the sun streams down on us without obstruction. That turns out to matter a lot, because the air temperature is low this morning, snow appears on the sides and tops of hills not that much higher than us, and within a few miles our toes are frozen and our fingers and ears ache from a lack of circulation, even though we're bundled in gloves, hats, thick wool socks, and enough layers of clothing that if we crashed into the rocks at the edge of the highway I imagine we wouldn't pick up a scratch.

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And then within a mile our faces and arms and legs stream with sweat as we start the grind over the first of three climbs that stand between us and the overpriced cafes and helicopter tour kiosks of Fox Glacier. Steam rises off the road's surface in pale gray waves and water drips and drops with a hundred different tones from the near-vertical hillsides that sit under a blanket of moss that's thick enough I could punch it with all of my strength and still my hand would feel nothing but softness. Nine out of every ten cars and motorcycles and RVs that pass us are rentals, and all of them seem to have left Franz Josef within the same one-hour window. We can't imagine trying to cycle this part of the country in the summer when there are ten times as many people driving the same narrow and winding stretch of road, all of whom have at least one camera hanging out the window taking the kind of poorly composed photos no one ever needs to see.

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Although we freeze on the long and fast descent that takes us down the back of the second climb, the chill and discomfort are worth the trouble, because they drop us into a gorge where the closer hills shoot up into the clouds and have long lines of waterfalls cascading down their sides. The more distant peaks loom like ghosts in the dark and hazy shadows created by the mist. After a hit-or-miss beginning, the South Island has now shifted into the mode of being mind-blowing more or less all of the time. We couldn't be happier about that.

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The long and fast descent into Fox Glacier isn't quite as awesome, because we do it in pouring rain and the kind of cold that makes it impossible to tell by feel if our ears and faces are still attached to our heads by the time we reach the bottom. Our reward for the trouble is standing around and shivering while we eat hand pies, after which we walk over to a cafe full of people who just had to reschedule their glacier sightseeing helicopter flights. They all seem to have decided to drown their sorrows in overpriced cappuccinos while wearing a look on their faces that says, "This is so much bullshit. I hate you, you stupid rain and you goddamned clouds."

One family of four stands around awkwardly as they deal with the news that their morning flight was canceled, but also consider the fact that they can reschedule for later in the day.

"Hey dad," says the teenaged daughter with optimism, "We can still go this afternoon!"

"Oh no," he says back to her with a look somewhere between frustration and anger, "Dad isn't gonna play that game."

The weather is making everyone crazy.

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We try to warm up with tea, and also grab a couple of newspapers that we can shove into our wet shoes tonight to soak up the wetness that has already drenched them. In the same way that some people discuss nuances in the taste and smell of fine wine or craft beer, we talk in flowery, semi-assholish terms about the certain kind of stank that comes along with water-resistant cycling clothes that have become soaked with water on the outside, while the insides have at the same time picked up a slimy, steamy coating of sweat.

We sit around for more than an hour but the rain never lifts. We'd rather suck on the tailpipe of a rented RV than hang around Fox Glacier any longer than we have to, so we decide to head back to the highway. But before we get there we have to prepare for the conditions. This means not only putting on rain jackets and rain pants and gloves, but also wrapping plastic bags around our socks before we put them back in our shoes. Not those thin bags you get when checking out at a grocery store, but ripped-off parts of thick black plastic bags, the kind you'd use for taking out the garbage or hauling chopped up body parts. Kristen first goes one step beyond this by also putting part of a bag on the outside of her shoe. She then takes the game to an entirely new level by putting a shower cap over her head before putting on her helmet. We are Team Hawthorne and we are beyond sexy.

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After my in-depth analysis of the weather situation ("Well, this sucks"), we leave town wet and shivering and hoping for the best. We ride in a landscape that looks like a tropical rain forest, but unlike a tropical rain forest we get to experience the colors and the textures and the density of the trees with toes so numb it feels as if they might fall off if we bump our feet into a solid object. The rain dumps for ten minutes and we get soaked, then it lets up, then it returns, and lets up again, and on and on like that all afternoon. We see blue sky reflected in the twin channels of water that run near the middle of each lane, but it always remains just out of reach, which means we stay wet and never too far from shivering all afternoon.

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We spend most of our time cycling along the floors of valleys. That seems remarkable when you consider that we're so close to glaciers and mountains and some of the most dramatic-looking foothills you could ever hope to see. I think of Glacier National Park in Montana, and how on the way there you get some kind of lead up, where the plains give way to rolling hills and then gradually steeper terrain. Here it's just, boom, glacier, right there, conveniently placed only a five minute drive off the flatness of Highway 6.

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In a moment when the winds turn calm, we can hear the rumble and the commotion of the sea, even though it will be many miles before we see it. Then the smells of petrichor and salty air mix together and we get the feeling that something spectacular is about to happen. And it does. We round one last corner and find ourselves riding alongside Bruce Bay and looking at the Tasman Sea, where the distant skies are sunny and blue and entirely unreachable, but make us dream of heat and barbecuing and beach towels all the same. Even more impressive than the sky is the water, where an endless procession of waves as tall as the high-top camper vans we've been seeing all day break only a couple hundred feet from where we stand, and turn the shoreline into a chaotic mix of green and white and tan. The view comes with roughly 8,000 sandflies, all of whom are quick to introduce themselves.

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The darkness that's hung over most of the day stays in place while we stop to make dinner, but by the time we're done it has started to clear. Within a few miles we ride in the sun for the first time since the morning. It means that when we look down the valleys we can now see some of the snow-topped peaks that have been hidden from view for the better part of the last week. Up above us, the steep hillsides charge away from the clouds to reveal smooth contours covered in the kind of native forest that looks like it never has and never will be touched by human hands.

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Soon we find ourselves riding in a tunnel of trees, where the patches of sunlight that fall between open spots in the tree line cause thick clouds of steam to spool up from the asphalt in a way that makes it seem as if the world is moving at half speed. All of the rented RVs have found their homes for the night, so we have the chance to ride side by side and talk about how much it fortifies the soul to finish a wet and cold day in the glow of the setting sun.

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A rainbow arcs across the sky as we pull off the highway and arrive on the shore of Lake Paringa. Right away we crawl into the tent, which as a result of having been shoved into the stuff sack wet and kept that way for two days now smells like a hockey bag that's been left open in the bilge of an old sailboat. From inside this haven of funk we hear the cries of crickets and the rush of birds swooping through the air above us as they catch and eat the sandflies that hover and dart around by the tens of thousands.

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We also think about the fact that we rode almost sixty miles and climbed more than 3,000 feet today. Back in Oregon or California, that's something that would have left us hovering somewhere in the area of near-death, with aching hands and sore backs and chapped asses. Now it makes us no worse than tired and that's fucking awesome.

Today's ride: 59 miles (95 km)
Total: 2,558 miles (4,117 km)

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