Day 80: Pleasant Flat Campground to near Albert Town, NZ - Four Legs on the Slow Road - CycleBlaze

November 14, 2014

Day 80: Pleasant Flat Campground to near Albert Town, NZ

For the first time in longer than we're able to remember we wake up to the sun hitting the rain fly and warming the inside of the tent. The sun also acts as a kind of spotlight when we step out into the morning. It illuminates the halo of fifty sandflies that swarm around each of us at all times, which gives a little wren-like bird the chance to better see the bugs and then swoop toward us and swallow them up one at at time. The bird comes close enough that we can hear the humming of his wings as he hovers and the click of his beak when he swipes a sandfly off the leg of Kristen's rain pants.

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After a few flat miles to get our legs loose, the grade starts to trend up and we know that the climb toward Haast Pass is upon us. We've slogged up countless saddles and gaps and big fucking hills since we pushed out from Auckland five weeks ago, but this is our first proper pass across a mountain range. With a half-moon still showing in the blue sky to the west we ride a one-lane bridge over the charging torrent of the Haast River and immediately see a runaway truck ramp leading off the highway to our right. That's the point when the road goes up like it means it, with the kind of steep slope that makes the sweat pour out of us in unending waves. The kind that makes the cool breeze blowing over us when we stop feel like the most wonderful gift we've ever known. The kind that makes me want to dump every extra pound of gear, which leads to me thinking things like, I don't need this laptop, I don't need this tent, I don't need these water bottles, I don't need these pants. The kind that makes the passing trailer stacked with the limp carcasses of freshly killed deer seem as if it's a terrible omen for what's to come.

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And for about two miles that's our life — our tired, sweaty, smelly, heavy-breathing life.

But then the grade eases. Then the flow of the river calms. Soon we start to ride in patches of shade where the trees grow over the road. And then, as if delivered straight from heaven, a tailwind starts to blow up the valley and push us toward the south at double-digit speeds. It's the sort of thing I never could have asked for, because it would have seemed such an impossible, dumb-assed request. It means that in only a couple of hours and with exactly zero mental breakdowns we reach the crest of Haast Pass.

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After sailing down the other side at forty miles per hour, we end up in a broad valley that manages to make us gasp and laugh in pure joy and excitement for what seems like the thousandth time since we started riding yesterday morning. Never before have we seen such sustained, untouched, unimaginable beauty.

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The rivers, the hills, the mountains, the forests, the rock slides, and clean air, and the pristine skies would each be stunning on their own, but here they exist together, stacked in layers, forever blending into one another. It's literally too much to take in all at once, to try and process and make sense of it, to try and figure out the character of all of the details contained within it, even while passing through at bicycle speed. It demands days and weeks and months — and maybe even a lifetime — to appreciate in any meaningful way.

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It's like we've walked into a different day when we step out of the cafe after lunch in Makarora. The blue skies have vanished, and in their place it's a hundred tones of gray, ranging from a dirty white above our heads to an angry, bruised, near-black down south toward where we're headed. The mountains still loom over everything, but below them the national park gives way to sheep and cattle farms and all of the fences and troughs that go along with them. Kristen rides in front of me singing the same song over and over again, my stomach makes satisfied churning sounds as it deals with all of the pies and soda I packed away in the last two hours, and we fly along the highway at twenty miles per hour with no effort, thanks to a tailwind that's doubled in strength since the time we stopped.

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But almost as soon as the farm land appears it then goes away. In its place we look out to our right on Lake Wanaka, which reflects a mix of blue and turquoise that's broken by thousands of whitecaps, and on which we see exactly zero boats. There aren't any lodges or holiday parks or overpriced little cafes, nor any cabins or condos or houses. Aside from the road and a single state-run campground it stands unblemished. The whole scene is so big, so vast, and so full of color and texture and the kind of details that reflect millions of years of geologic activity in a single glance, that my mind can't put together any well-packaged conclusions about what it's seeing. And this is to say nothing of the waterfalls that shoot down vertical rock faces not fifty feet off the edge of the highway on our left. If I traveled the world for another thirty years, I can't imagine I'd ever experience anything quite like what's been laid out in front of me over the past twenty-four hours.

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To make sure we don't get lost in the vistas around us and drive into the path of a rented RV whose driver is doing the same, we have debates about whether to eat an entire package of cookies for dinner tonight or for breakfast tomorrow. In between them I unclip from the pedal while riding and then use it to scratch the sandfly bites on my legs. And then I decide that I'm eating the whole thing of cookies the next time we stop.

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We cross a narrow isthmus and then we're again smacked in the face with natural wonders we struggle to comprehend. This time it's Lake Hawea, where the far shoes run ragged with mountains that look like they couldn't possibly be real, where the water churns and rolls from wind gusts that push beyond forty miles per hour, and where snowy peaks spy on all of it from a perch high above the end of a valley toward the north.

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Disbelief gradually gives way to appreciation of what we're seeing and how we're seeing it. The cars and trucks and RVs roar past and have maybe three or four places to turn off the highway. But on bikes we stop wherever we want. On bikes the thick smell created by the flowers of the thousands of lupine plants that stand beyond the pavement gets kicked up by the wind and fills our noses. On bikes we're immersed in the world, surrounded by it. On bikes we become a part of where we're traveling, for hour after hour after hour. Soon it all begins to turn us kind of crazy. We start popping wheelies, where we pull back on the handlebars and our front tires lift maybe an inch and a half off the ground before crashing back into it with terrible clanking sounds. When we see yet another amazing thing, we tell each other about it by saying something like, "Look at them craggy-ass motherfuckers up there!" We continue our long, slow progression toward becoming Team Bodily Noises. I'm not going to lie, it's weird.

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To reach the town of Lake Hawea we have to turn back into the wind for about a quarter of mile. The wind blows with so much force that it pushes the snot perched at the end of my nose back up into my head. In town we refuel ourselves on pizza and pumpkin cheesecake with whipped cream and notice that, all of a sudden, every other person we see speaks with a strange accent that's half New Zealander and half Scottish.

Team Grabby Hands.
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Beyond town we pick up a gravel trail that sends us toward Albert Town at high speed. In part this is because we're going downhill along a river, but also because the wind gusts continue to surge past forty miles per hour, which makes it sound as if a freight train is rushing through the trees when we pass alongside them. Adding to the challenge are the chunks of rock, the patches of sand, and the deep beds of pine needles, all of which stand ready to give our front wheels a solid grab or an angry push. By the time we reach a place to camp, set up the tent, and then crawl inside we're both worn far down from three straight days of long riding and mental overstimulation.

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But given the choice between laying exhausted and satisfied in a small tent that smells of feet, or sitting at home rested and in comfort but unhappy with the direction of my life and how I'm spending the precious number of healthy days I've been given, I'm taking this route every time. We're so lucky to be here.

Today's ride: 59 miles (95 km)
Total: 2,678 miles (4,310 km)

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