Day 82: Queenstown, NZ to Mavora Lakes Campground - Four Legs on the Slow Road - CycleBlaze

November 16, 2014

Day 82: Queenstown, NZ to Mavora Lakes Campground

The morning picks up where the frustration of last night left off. This time it's Kristen's turn to have a low-level freakout, about how she feels like she's riding at too slow of a pace; how we've been on the bikes so much in the last week that it's seemed like an endless run of riding and eating and sleeping and not much else; and how easy things like writing to family and doing laundry never get done, which leaves them hanging over her head all the time. Even when you're on a long trip like cycling across America, you know there's an endpoint, that some time in the next few weeks or months the pedaling will end and life will have many ways of making sure that you catch up on everything you've let slide. But when you travel on the scale that we are, with no idea how many miles or years it will be until you settle down somewhere for more than a week or two, that sort of mental release valve doesn't exist. It takes a lot of effort to manage the day to day business of living on the road, and neither of us have yet come close to mastering it. Yesterday's long day of riding in harsh weather, with the promise of more on its way starting tomorrow, isn't helping anything either.

We again try to set things right with pizza, for the third day in a row, which is an unprecedented streak for New Zealand. It works to great effect.

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In the early afternoon we ride down to the waterfront and buy a pair of one-way ferry tickets that are so expensive it makes it almost impossible to keep a thick stream of profanity from shooting out of our mouths at full volume. As we're making what feels like a mortgage payment, a helmeted herd of Segway scooters roll past, followed soon after by a group of women on their way to go zip-lining, and then a bunch of dudes in over-tight jeans who later on will end up at the bar down the street where the temperature is kept at twenty degrees at all times, which lets them call the place "Queenstown's Antarctic experience" in giant, garish signs. In the moment we feel like such suckers, which is the most common emotion we've experienced since we rode into town yesterday evening. But our goal is to reach the opposite side of Lake Wakatipu and take a little-used back road to Te Anau over the next two days, and the ferry is the only way to get there.

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The wonderful thing is that the ferry is almost as intriguing as where we're going. It's a beautiful steamship called the TSS Earnslaw that was built in 1912 on the east coast of the South Island before being dismantled, shipped by rail to the lake, and then put back together. It has been in service hauling sheep or mail or people ever since. Inside it's all the slick teak floors, shiny brass, narrow walkways, and low ceilings you'd expect to find on a ship that's more than a hundred years old. It takes us across a lake that's long and narrow but still more than a thousand feet deep. The scarred sides of impossibly steep mountains fall straight into the lake's surface, which shines like a gem and is backed by the most dramatic sets of snow-capped mountains that either of us have yet seen. It's an expensive ride, but it seems a small price to pay for the chance to step into what feels like another time and looks like another world.

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Within the hour we reach Walter Peak Farm on the other side. We push our bikes up the dock, past the restaurant, gift shop, petting zoo, and fanny-packed tourists, and then start riding. From the first moments it's hard to figure out what to direct our attention toward. There are the jagged peaks dusted with snow, the turquoise shine of the lake, the deep folds of the hillsides, the lambs chasing after each other in the sprawling paddocks, and air that's as fresh and clear and pure as any we'll ever have the chance to breathe. There's also the fact that we get to experience it all alone, free from cars and trucks and even our nemesis, the rented RV.

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Beyond the lake we head through areas where the sheep have wandered out from the fields to graze along the edge of the road, which once again turns us into inadvertent herders on bicycles until they dive off into the brush or through a hole in the fence line. We see a couple of houses and a few hay barns, but the land is otherwise empty of people, and the farther we go the more the animals start to drop away too. Although the wind blows strong and cold, and the quality of the track on the steep hills makes for tough riding on 700x32 tires, the fact that the sun is shining has a way of painting over all of the blemishes. New Zealand once again turns our day into a series of stunning moments, and we have trouble keeping the giddiness that churns inside of us from boiling over.

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Kristen rides in the tire track on the left side of the road and I pedal in the track on the right. We cross over tiny streams that trickle down toward the Von River, and soon decide to stop near one of them and sit in the sun. We listen to the rush of the river, eat Cadbury Fingers, and drink pineapple juice straight from the cardboard box. We talk about how we haven't seen any garbage on the road out here, and how great that is. And we soon realize it's because we haven't seen anybody out here who could do it. We've pedaled for hours without passing a single car.

Tour guide.
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We have to take off our shoes and socks and ford the bikes through the ice-cold water of a fast-moving creek, and then dry our feet off on the other side using an extra pair of socks. They hang from the sunny side of one of Kristen's panniers for the rest of the day to dry. When cows stop in the middle of the road and block our path, we yell at them to git, git, go on now! We also try to keep from making the mama cows anxious by slowing down almost to a stop to let their little ones cross over to the same side of the road before we rumble and clank past at six miles per hour.

Warning: this road is amazing.
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There's a steep two-mile climb on loose gravel that takes us from the bottom of one valley to the top of the next. It's every bit as strenuous as we imagined it would be, but unlike yesterday we climb in peace, without the dangerous drivers and without snow blowing across both the sky and the road in waves. Against anything we could have conceived of then, I ride up the hill in the sun, in a t-shirt, for the first time in longer than I'm able to remember.

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The first car of the day rolls up as we're climbing. It stops, the window rolls down, and I see a couple of old guys with rods and reels inside.

"It would be silly of me to ask if you wanted a ride, right?" the driver asks.

I look at him and smile and laugh and say, "No thanks, we're okay. I appreciate the offer, but we've come a long way to get here and to ride this road. We just have to keep going."

"Where ya headed then?"

"We're going to Mavora Lakes for the night, then on to Te Anau."

The two men look at each other, make a few doubtful noises, and talk to each other in voices muffled enough that I can't hear what they're saying. When I see questioning looks spread across their faces my nerve endings start to tingle a little.

But then the driver turns to me, his eyebrows raise, he sighs, and he says, "Well, yeah, after you get to the top of this thing it gets easier. Yeah, it does. You should be able to make it."

"Yeah, I think you can do it," says the passenger in a way that's not entirely convincing.

They wish us both good luck and within seconds they disappear up and around the next corner, leaving behind only a pale cloud of dust. We knew it was a stretch to make the thirty-five miles to the lakes over rough terrain while leaving at three in the afternoon, but it seemed like the more adventurous choice, so we went for it anyway. It's good to know that a couple of locals think we have a shot, even if it's not a great shot, because the sun is charging toward the horizon and we're just past halfway there.

Where we've come from.
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The view from the top of the climb is beautiful beyond almost all words. The landscape is rough and rugged and pristine in such a way that it's hard to imagine it's real, that we're here, and that somewhere out in the folds of the hills in the distant west is where we're going to spend the night. All we can do is fist bump and try to put together coherent chains of phrases when we look at where we climbed up from and scan across to see the stunning scene laid out along the road in front of us. But we can't linger for too long, because after our late start the faltering daylight is going to become an ever-greater issue. So we do what we've become more and more capable of as the days and weeks and months wear on: we steel ourselves for the task in front of us and then get to cranking.

Where we're headed.
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Along the way we can see how the rivers and creeks have worn away the hills around them, such that they aren't sloped but terraced, which reveals the many different paths that each one has taken over the last few thousand years. This is a good distraction from the cold wind that blows straight into our faces, freezing our fingers and turning our lips dry and chapped in minutes. Eventually we reach a creek where the road builders decided a bridge was too luxurious, so we throw off our shoes and socks again and inch our way through another freezing-ass creek ford.

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The world around is so wide open and isolated that it feels like some kind of grand show that's been staged only for an audience of two tired and numb cyclists. For the first time I also get a sense of what it might be like to ride through the remote mountain valleys in China or Mongolia or the Stans that I've seen so many pictures of on other cycle-touring journals. But both of these thoughts soon fade, and we just put our heads down and pedal with everything we've got for as long as it's going to take.

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And it works; we make it. We head away from open grazing land and into thick native forest, where we set up our tent a few dozen feet from the lake shore. Inside we eat fried rice with garbanzo beans, passing the warm pot back and forth between us while we eat to help return feeling to our hands. With the sound of little waves falling into the sand and the temperature marching toward zero, we think back about all of the day's wonderful moments, how much we accomplished, and how improbable it is that we're here now when we consider the state of our lives during this time last year. Our tent is a warm, happy, content place, and like the clouds of dust kicked up by our bike tires all afternoon, the stress and anxiety and frustration that hung above us in Queenstown seem to have faded away into nothing.

Today's ride: 36 miles (58 km)
Total: 2,766 miles (4,451 km)

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