Day 79: Lake Paringa Campground to Pleasant Flat Campground - Four Legs on the Slow Road - CycleBlaze

November 13, 2014

Day 79: Lake Paringa Campground to Pleasant Flat Campground

The clouds are gone, and what a difference that makes. The air feels fresher, the birdsong sounds more complex in character, the light reflects off the creeks in more intricate patterns, and every tree and fern and patch of grass somehow looks more alive. And unlike so much of our time on the West Coast, today when we look up and to the east we can see the tops of mountains that have for so long been hidden from view. In so many ways it feels like we've woken up in a different country than the one in which we traveled yesterday morning.

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Yet we both agree that if we had the chance to make every day as clear and as beautiful as this one, to make the rain disappear deep into the soil and out of sight, we wouldn't take it. If every day was like this, the skies would fill with sightseeing helicopters, the lakes with boats, and the campgrounds with the kinds of people who insist on playing the harmonica for hours on end. If every day was like this, the roads would jam with endless lines of tour buses and camper vans, and it would be only a matter of time before the left-side mirror of a rented RV crashed into the back of one of our helmets and left us dead in the ditch. If every day was like this, there's a chance that we would start to get used to them, and then in short order come to take them for granted.

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Instead we're on the edge of giddiness all morning, because it all feels like some kind of hard-earned reward. We ride for long stretches alone, which gives us the chance to examine all of the wrinkles and folds of the hills, to look down through glacier-fed water and figure out all of the different colors of rocks that lie at the bottom of the riverbeds, and to watch the pair of black swans that have the entirety of Lake Moeraki to themselves. It's also the perfect weather for walking down a short trail off the highway, dropping your shorts, and taking a dump in the bushes. You know, if you're in to that kind of thing.

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The riding remains spectacular into the afternoon. When the highway curves toward the sea we look out on an unbroken expanse of turquoise. Closer toward land, the waves crash over jagged little islands of rock before falling into the shore on flawless sandy beaches. When we stop, tui birds land in the trees not twenty feet away from us, and we look almost straight up at rock slides that reveal a hundred tones of brown and tan and amber that had until just a few months ago been hidden inside of the hills for thousands of years. All of the hard uphill cranking proves worth the work as I fly down hills with so much speed that tears blur my vision before sneaking out the corners of my eyes, running in wandering lines back across my temples, and then coming to rest at the edge of my sideburns.

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Eventually we realize that we haven't seen a house or a farm or even a fence at any point. Except for the narrow strip of grass at the road's edge we've been surrounded by native forest and bush for the entire day. When these facts have time to come together in our heads, we think about where we are, how grand of a spectacle it all is, how it's every bit as impressive as we hoped it would be, and how far we've come to get here. In that moment our hearts can't help but fill with joy, and we have trouble putting together the words to explain how wonderful all of it feels.

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Power lunch in Haast.
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A man of great words.
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It doesn't get any easier to describe what waits for us beyond Haast. It's hard to even decide where to start. There are the dozens of waterfalls that shoot down toward fast-moving creeks, but there are also the hills and mountains that tower above so steep and so tall that it hurts our necks to try and look up at the tops while pedaling. Then there's the Haast River, which reflects a shade of blue so vibrant it looks fake, or at least chemically altered in some severe and unnatural way. We also catch ourselves staring into the forests running alongside the road, the ones that are so thick it's impossible to see more than about thirty feet into them unless they're spotlit by the sun.

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We don't know which direction the highway will take until the curves are upon us. In between the turns we watch cloud shadows float across sheer rock faces a thousand feet above us, shiver a little when the air starts to turn cooler and more crisp, and feel the invisible helping hand of a tailwind as it pushes us up the valley. And then there are the mountains — mountains beyond mountains, mountains around each corner, mountains casting shadows, mountains of dark stone and fingers of white standing guard over everything in valleys below.

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And all of it — all of the things we see and smell and hear — are pristine and pure and untouched by the hand of humans beyond the narrow ribbon of pavement on which we ride. I've had both the desire and good fortune to have cycled in so many beautiful places during the last five years, first in America and now in New Zealand. But none of them can compare to what surrounds us today as we travel through the wonder that is Mount Aspiring National Park. The depth and the complexity and the volume of the beauty leaves us awestruck, dumbfounded, and appreciative beyond anything we could have anticipated.

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The miles stack up with what feels like no effort at all, somehow the sandfly bites come with less sting attached to them, and we can't help but make stupid laughing sounds while trying to explain to each other how happy we are. We also can't help but think of how different all of this would be if it was raining and cloudy. But mostly we feel proud. We didn't just get dropped off in Haast and start pedaling. We rode here from Auckland, over days and weeks and more than a month, through warm and cold and freezing-ass cold, through clear skies and dark, among the semi-trucks and tour buses and RVs, and past more sheep than we ever could have imagined existed in all of the countries of the world combined.

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And unlike all of the cars who blow past at fifty or sixty miles per hour, we don't just see it all stream by our eyeballs in a blur like some kind of movie, or step out into it for ninety seconds to take a picture before piling back into a car and continuing on to dinner a hundred miles away. New angles and details reveal themselves with every mile, but with the kind of slow and measured revelation that can only be appreciated by bike or on foot. We hear the calls of the bell bird, spot thin waterfalls hidden in even thinner gaps in the cliffs that rise straight up toward the sky, and feel the air turn ten degrees colder for the three seconds that both precede and follow each stream and creek that we cross over. It's like I felt this morning: this all seems like some great reward — not only for what it physically took to get here, but for taking the plunge that set all of this in motion; for leaving behind stable, predictable, professional adult lives back in America; for making the kind of wholesale lifestyle change that we knew in our hearts was the right thing for each of us to do.

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And then at a certain point all of the awe and analysis fall away and we just try to relax and lose ourselves in the scale of the magic all around us. Before long I feel this kind of queasy anxiety start to run through my body. It makes my arms and hands shake a little and my stomach feel weak. But it isn't some kind of sickness; it's simply the pure and undiluted rush of adrenaline, endorphins, and unabashed excitement.

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The setting sun causes the tops of the mountains all around us to glow a pale orange as we set up camp and cook dinner. The sandflies are the biggest and most aggressive we've shared space with so far, to the point that even eating becomes a challenge. First we take a bite, walk about a dozen feet away to get rid of them, and then take a winding path back to the pot to take another bite. We repeat the process over and over again for at least fifteen minutes.

Chemical-free sandfly protection: covering every inch of your skin with clothing.
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But any kind of annoyance is forgotten by the time we tuck into the tent, furiously zipping the doors behind us to keep those little black assholes out. The evening turns into night backed by the rush of a nearby creek, the birds in the surrounding forest letting out their last calls, and the slamming of camper van doors. And then there are the two of us, buried deep in a sleeping bag, closing our eyes, content with the knowledge that we just experienced one of the greatest days in our lives, and that the memories created today will stay with us until the moment we close our eyes for the very last time.

Today's ride: 61 miles (98 km)
Total: 2,619 miles (4,215 km)

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