Thursday, March 11, 2010

Tour Day 7 – To cross the Southern Alps

Another great 11 hours sleep in the bag and another huge breakfast on the way. What a great morning. The sun was duelling with the thick clouds and when it did break through it was very very warm. I scoffed a good greasy spoon breakfast and to complete the feeling I had that I was in a UK cafe a larger than life English wideboy came to chat to me. Now don’t be confused by the term boy, this guy was probably in his late 50s, rather round, grey curly hair poking out from under a cheesecutter, shirt open to expose an horrific hairy chest with enormous gold chains fighting to tame the vegetation. He was like a walking caricature and he was lovely. He was truly amazed I was biking round by myself, said he’s chatted to a French girl who was doing the same sort of thing and thought we were crazy, but great. He had heaps of questions and was so intrigued he was even trying to drag his companions over to meet me, but they were bored and uninterested. He was impressed with my breakfast eating powers and suggested that porridge would also be a good start for the day, which I agreed with, until he suggested topping it with plenty of Irish Cream! I bade him a fond farewell as he drove off and I saddled up in a fantastic mood and looking forward to great challenge the day had in store for me. Almost 800m of climbing and 80ks till the next town, bring it on!

Today’s ride again managed to step up the beauty and magnificence of my riding environment to a whole new level of mind-blowing loveliness. With the heavy overnight rain the Haast river valley I was riding up was alive with hundreds of waterfalls, from the small happy road-side ones to the enormous roaring monsters high up in the mountains. It was so heavenly I couldn’t stop smiling and my face hurt. With so much water flowing down the mountainside there were many, many TransitNZ signs with often silly names for all the streams and creeks I was crossing. Then I came to a sign that read Imp Grotto. I thought that someone was getting very lyrical with their names and then I saw Imp Grotto. It was a deep cleft in the rock face and inside water poured down. The light hit the cleft at such an angle that the white water seemed to glow green. It was possibly the most beautiful thing I’d seen on the trip and that’s saying something. It was made all the more special by the fact that unless you were moving at bike pace you would never get to see it. I wanted to stop and photograph it, but it’s on a narrow corner and there’s no safe place to stand. I didn’t need reminding that this is the reason cycle touring is fantastic, well one of the reasons.

After a morning tea stop in the drizzle I made it to Pleasant Flat, which was aptly named and had a nice big lunch which I shared with the Brown Creepers and Chaffinches. Then it was onto Thunder Creek, at the base of the Haast Past. Even though the road had been gentle climbing I felt like it was actually going downhill and I’d made great time, with my legs feeling really strong. My plan for the day involved stopping at all the bush walks and enjoying this place as much as possible so I tied my bike to the information sign at Thunder Creek and headed into the bush. Only a minute later I popped out on the river bank to see a lovely waterfall. After a brief stop I was back on the bike and the climbing started.

Soon I was at the Gates of Haast, where the river tumbles violently through a deep and narrow gorge strewn with enormous boulders. The water roils like an angry, trapped beast, battering its way down the gorge with roars of defiance. It is a very cool place and apparently causes tourists to abandon their sense of reason. As I biked up towards the singlelane bridge, which had tight corners on the entrance and exit I came upon a man parked in my lane. Not off to one side of it, but in the middle of it, facing me, effectively blocking the bridge. What an idiot! I gave him the evil eye as I slowly rode straight towards him. When I got to the bridge and stopped for the obligatory “this is where the climb really starts” photo I looked back and saw he’d pulled off the road into parking spot, which had only been 5m from him the whole time. Duh!

From the Gates of Haast the road pitches up into a nice hard 10% gradient and for the first time on the whole trip I was really feeling the weight of my luggage. I had to work really hard for the next kilometre or so, egged on a group of young English lads who were stopped on the side of the road leaning on their, pretty much unladen, bikes. To be honest I would have stopped where they were if they hadn’t been there, but as is the way of the cyclist, I smiled, called out a few words back to them and continued on as if this climb wasn’t bloody hard work. My breath was steaming out of me in clouds before my eyes as I climbed through the damp forest, with the constant roar of the river to keep me company.

Sooner than I expected I reached Fantail falls, where the road and river both flatten briefly. They are lovely falls and I scoffed that staple of the New Zealand confectionary counter for generations, the K Bar, to up my sugar levels and keep me going. Here at Fantail Falls the rock stacking phenomena which seems to be becoming more and more prevalent throughout NZs lovely areas, was in great force. It’s like people see these amazing places and just have to leave their mark, I’ve begun to see these little cairns as eerie graffiti. They look like little burial mounds left by ghost folk who need to shape their world.

I continued up the road in the drizzle, passing some more road workers on the road who told me I was almost at the top. I didn’t really believe them because people who mainly drive have a very different concept of “nearly at the top” to people who get there under their own power. So I was amazed when a few minutes later I reached the Pass! I had thought I had about another half hour of climbing based on my assessment of how long it would take me to do this climb. I was extremely happy with this and cruised down the other side grinning like a fool.

Onto the next stop at the Blue Pools and a nice 30 minute walk through the bush to crystal clear deep pools that just cried out to be swum in, but it wasn’t warm enough for that sort of silliness. The serenity of the place was broken by two excitable middle-aged men who spotted some huge trout drifting in the pools and started yelling to each other “Do you see it?”, “There it is!”, “Look at the size of that one!” even though they were standing next to each other on the bridge. It was actually pretty cool. These guys were just like excited little boys and I love when people forget their inhibitions and let their joy take over. Their wives weren’t too happy about this and left and I ended up walking with them for a bit. They were also very interested in my trip and had lots of questions, like Was I scared? What was my bike called? Why do it? They were really nice and offered to take a photo of me, but I said I already had plenty of photos of my bike and that was my best side anyway.

The walk back up to the road revealed one last gem to me, with my fascination for birds. A pair of Rock Wren, which I’ve never seen before. They were absolutely adorable with their short little legs, squat bodies and beautiful bright plumage. They seemed so friendly and inquisitive and I fell in love with them. It was just the icing on an already amazing cake of a day! Along the road a bit more and I was in Makarora. Upon entering the visitor centre, which is the restaurant, shop, pub, accommodation and trip booking office, I was overwhelmed with the mouth watering smell of roast beef. Oooooh, just what I needed. I quickly booked a dorm room, which I once again had to myself, rushed up to my little A Frame house, had a nice long shower and headed back down to the bar, visions of meat swimming in gravy in my head. I was horrified to discover that no dinner was available until 7:30pm! It wasn’t even 5:30 yet and I was dying of starvation. The young English bartender asked if he could help me and I asked if it was possible to get some food earlier and he said no! Unable to remember my manners as my low blood sugar took over I asked him if (young children look away now) he was fucking kidding? I then explained that I’d just biked here from Haast and that I was extremely hungry and did he have some wedges or something like that I could order. I couldn’t believe it when he said no, just the sandwiches over there. My mind struggled to comprehend that I was in a restaurant and pub and couldn’t get a feed. I decided to have a cider to calm down and think about what I’d do for food. I knew I couldn’t wait till 7:30, I was struggling to stay awake as it was. The very nice and understanding barman went out the back and talked to the chef while I sat in the corner of the bar getting quickly drunk on my cider and writing. The chef came out and yelled out “Who was the woman who wanted some fries”. Without hesitation I called out me! And he told me that I couldn’t have the ones in his hand, but that he’d bring me some shortly. Saved! And they were very good and only $4. Woot.

Full of potatoey goodness and swaying slightly from my pint of cider I headed back up to my dorm and went to bed and was asleep just after 7! It had been a fantastic day, I'd crossed my first Alp and I was actually sad that tomorrow would be the last day. I decided that I wanted more riding and thought that I’d maybe go on to Cromwell, rather than stop in Wanaka, after all what’s another 50km?

Haast to Makarora - 80km in 5hr 14 (800m climbing)

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