Day 86: Te Anau, NZ to near Beaumont, NZ - Four Legs on the Slow Road - CycleBlaze

November 20, 2014

Day 86: Te Anau, NZ to near Beaumont, NZ

We see blue sky when we look out the window at 6:30. We also watch the branches of the trees thrashing back and forth with the wind that's already blowing twenty miles per hour. But the weather in Te Anau is no longer our problem, because this morning we get ready to board a bus that will take us more than a hundred miles to the east, which we hope is enough to cover the three days of wet, windy, cold cycling that the late spring storm headed toward the Southland stands ready to unleash on us. Everyone has their limit and we've found ours.

We're concerned about the bus for a bunch of reasons. We read that we have to remove the pedals and chains from the bikes just to have a chance of getting them on the bus, but we don't have the ability to take off the pedals and the chains are a complete mess. The driver can also choose not to let the bikes on board if he doesn't think there will be enough room for the bags of the passengers boarding down the road. And then we read that the bikes come with an extra charge, and that we're limited to two bags with a total weight limit of thirty pounds, which we're so far beyond. The chance we'll actually get to use the nonrefundable tickets we've paid for and escape the weather seems lower and lower the more we talk about it.

But in the end, we worry for nothing. There are maybe seven people on the bus, and we throw our bikes and all of our bags into their own separate cargo hold. The only real concern is that the driver doesn't know where we're going.

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"I was hoping the bus company would leave me a note telling me where Waipahi is," he tells me. "But they didn't. It's probably just some bend in the road. I've never seen it. If you can find it on the map it'll be no charge for the bikes."

After a moment of internal panic I tell him that yes, we do know where it is, thanks to the maps we have on our phone.

"Ok, great," he says. "Just come up to the front of the bus and tell me when we're about five minutes away."

Relieved about the bikes and tired from waking up early, we find our seats and zone out for the next two hours.

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When the bus stops, it does so in the middle of nowhere — there's no mini-mart, no grocery store, no post office, and no homes, just farmland and a lone side road snaking north up and over the hills away from the highway — which is of great concern to every passenger except for us. As we step out to unload our bikes and gear from the storage locker, we notice that the wind hasn't changed at all. If anything it's blowing with greater force than when we left Te Anau. But the temperature is a bit warmer, and although it's not like we can see our shadows when we look down at the ground, the clouds aren't dumping rain either.

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The thing that has changed a lot is the landscape. It doesn't matter which direction we look, we don't see snow-topped mountains, ragged-edged mountains, or any kind of mountains at all. The world around us is now a green and yellow and brown patchwork of paddocks overlaid on the sort of rolling hills where the road doesn't run flat for more than about ten feet at a time. But it's such a welcome change. We're now passed only by vehicles going to and from farms, so instead of watching our mirrors for RVs and camper vans we can focus on more important things, like calling out to the sheep and the cows that watch us pass with a look on their faces that reflects equal parts curiosity and terror. And rather than freeze or take on the texture and smell of an old dish rag by sweating inside our waterproof clothing, we crank over the hills in a warm and toasty cycling sweet spot.

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It's good for the soul to leave behind the tourist towns and highway for milking barns, red Rural Post vans, and small towns where farmers have to kick off their gum boots before they walk into the farm supply store. There's something that feels right about heading through country where those same farmers drive hard-starting and mud-stained pickups and wave to us from beneath dirty and slightly askew hats as they pass, and where a herd of sheep have been loaned to the golf course to keep the fairway grass trimmed. Rather than look at sandwich boards advertising holiday parks or skydiving or jet boat tours, we see short and squat old concrete water tanks with the sides covered in either a thin layer of lichen or the complex series of shapes left behind by lichen that's been scraped off.

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Later I see an old man in a weathered baseball hat who sits in the cab of a tractor that idles in the middle of a field. As I pedal, I watch as he leans back with his chin raised an inch or two above level, and with a slow and deliberate effort blows a thin line of cigarette smoke that rises up and forms a cloud that hangs in the space between the top of his head and the roof of the cab. Alongside the fields that follow, eucalyptus trees planted in straight lines act as wind breaks. We talk about the cheese rolls that we're sure wait for us when we get to the town of Lawrence. But most of the time we crank with diligent effort but low speed up the hills while fighting the wind. Their steepness, their quantity, and the hundreds of shades of green that cover them make it feel like we've been dropped into the foothills of the Appalachians, and like the Southern Alps of New Zealand were all just a dream.

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As we make dinner below the cover of a picnic shelter at a park in Lawrence, a green and tan SUV pulls into the parking lot, does a few laps, and then parks in the grass twenty feet away. Two fifty-something guys climb out, open the rear hatch, and immediately start pulling out a pair of portable gas grills, bags of food and condiments, and armloads of other stuff we can't identify.

"Didn't you get the email?" the bigger of the two says in a kind of high-pitched voice as he walks toward us. "We said we was comin' and yet you haven't put on any tea!"

This is Brian, a fast-talking, always-happy, ever-giggling man who's round of face and body. He's traveling with his best mate Wayne, and the two of them are driving and camping around the South Island for a couple of days to escape from their wives and kids and jobs back home in Christchurch. Brian asks where we're headed, and we tell him. Then Brian asks whether we like the North Island or the South Island more. But before we can put three words together, he answers for us.

"Of course the South Island is better!" he says with the huge smile and laugh that follow everything that leaves his mouth. "It's so much better! The North Island? Pfft! The North. The North hasn't got nothin' on the South!"

And so it goes for the next half an hour. We talk about interesting places to go in New Zealand, about how awful the weather has been this year, about food ("Ah yeah, pies are nice, but we loooooove KFC, don't we Wayne?"), about how the earthquake that hit Christchurch several years ago has forever changed both the layout and character of the city, and about how Wayne has never in his life left New Zealand and never plans to. And all the while, Brian and Wayne flip endless lines of shit both at each other and at us. They also share with us some of the mound of greasy hash browns they've cooked up, and every two minutes they ask if there's anything else they're cooking that we'd like to have a bit of as well. If there was any doubt as to whether we had left tourist country behind or not, it blows away on the breeze along with the fading smell of sausages, hot dogs, and ketchup.

The inimitable duo: Wayne and Brian.
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The four of us takes pictures of the other, we trade Facebook info, and then we all wish each other well in about eight different ways before Kristen and I ride away to the north, still kind of dazed by the whirlwind of socializing that has descended upon us but also happy that it did. Soon we pick up the Clutha Gold Trail, which follows the path of an old rail line before heading along the curves of the Clutha River. We see blue skies for the first time all day, which makes the hills shine in brighter and friendlier tones of green, and causes the wind to blow soft and warm instead of biting and frigid like it has for almost a week. Lambs work their way along the steep hillsides, bounding up and down on legs that look like they're spring-loaded as we pedal past. At one point we ride through a quarter-mile-long former railroad tunnel, out of which shoots a strong blast of air ten degrees colder than everything that surrounds it.

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The setting sun casts every rock and tree and cow into higher contrast with a warm orange glow. The trail sends us through a canyon, where the water churns a pale emerald and the hills shine yellow with a blanket of Scotch broom. It's all so wonderful and soon we realize why: for the first time since we set foot in New Zealand it feels like spring. The chill in the air that has been our third team member from the moment we stepped out of the airport terminal in Auckland seems to have at last moved on. Our decision to bail on the Southland now feels like the best choice we could have made.

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The daylight trends ever longer as we head toward summer. Together with the breaks in the clouds it means that we ride in peace and quiet all alone on the trail until almost 9:00 with no trouble. That's when we pull off down a little-used side path and set up on a soft patch of grass at the bottom of the canyon next to the river. Birds chirp all around us as they go about picking off the mosquitoes and other bugs that hang in the air, and the stink of the tent is offset by the smell of wildflowers swirling up under the edges of the rain fly.

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What a remarkable day. From the anxiety about taking the bus, to the happy and helpful driver, the quiet back roads, the exertion of climbing, the thrill of the descents, sharing dinner with gregarious strangers, and riding off into the evening with no plan, hoping for the best and then finding it — all of them are things that on their own aren't all that interesting. Yet coming together as they did, somehow they formed what feels like the ideal bicycle touring day. It leaves us once again excited at the thought of what the days ahead have in store for us.

Today's ride: 55 miles (89 km)
Total: 2,862 miles (4,606 km)

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