Strangers offering hammers, cups of tea and the “thumbs up” provided solace amid storms as we cycled 450 km in southern New Zealand this summer.
What we’d hoped would be a late January week of sunshine turned into days of strong head winds, relentless rain and occasional hail.
Sometimes we were cycling down hills, yet needing to pedal to propel us forward. Or not needing to use our brakes at all. Both of these are very unusual when heading down serious slopes!
Perseverance became our everyday experience; as did finding something good to focus on while being soaked to the skin.
Something good included native birds chirping in the indigenous bush, or listening to kererū wings whir as we rode by. Silence was part of the beauty as we pedalled around remote bays, rain dripping off our helmets’ peaked fronts.
During previous thousands of kilometres tour cycling in Europe and North America, never before had rain penetrated our rain gear, nor had we battled such a fierce combination of gale-force winds, driving rain, cool temperatures and coastal hills.
The calm before the storm
On beginning our journey, my husband Kel and I drove to Millers Flat township, on the Clutha Mata-au River’s edge in Central Otago. The Millers Flat Holiday Park owners kindly let us park our car there until we returned six days later.
With our panniers clipped to our bicycles, and wearing both sunscreen and rain jackets, we left Millers Flat. This first day was only 25 km long and we followed the five-year-old Clutha Gold Trail past green trees, farmland and craggy rocks, alongside the beautiful teal, clear Clutha.
The day’s second kindness occurred when a land-owner proffered his wooden table where we could cook lunch and watch the river run. His wife brewed hot water for a cuppa, we chatted and they invited us to stay.
However, we needed to keep pedalling. The day’s third kindness came when we reached our destination, the Beaumont Hotel and Holiday Park. Cyclists don’t generally carry mallets, so fellow campers lent their hammer so our tent pegs could crack the hard ground.
That was our last night on dry ground for a while.
Into the storm
The next day, we cycled quickly to make the morning’s final crossing on the historic Tuapeka Mouth Ferry. This ‘reaction punt’ uses only the river’s current, two guiding cables and the pilot’s skill to cross the river. It is the only one of its type remaining in New Zealand or, possibly, the Southern Hemisphere.
The British punt pilot warmed our hearts and hands by giving us a cup of tea before she went off duty. It had started raining lightly and gently by then; however, this became steadier as we rode the road to Balclutha.
By the time we were at the Balclutha Motor Camp, severe weather warnings of gale force winds had been issued. The friendly, acting manager rented us a room, rather than making us test our tent’s gale force capabilities.
Overnight, rubbish bins rolled around, plastic chairs went flying and camper vans switched direction to resist the wind, as gales of apparently up to 120 kph buffeted Balclutha. We were glad we’d chosen a cabin above canvas!
For the ensuing four days, we endured cycling south in very strong and gusty winds and often with relentless rain along the gorgeous Catlins coast, through Fortrose and then inland to Wyndham and Gore in Southland.
We hastily threw yoghurt on our Honey Puffs to stop them blowing away at Kaka Point; watched seagulls and a heron flying backwards; and gritted our teeth pedalling into winds so powerful that we were reduced to riding in our lowest gear.
Descending a significant hill in the Catlins, the nasty wind, hail and slippery roads scared us. Once in rolling countryside near picturesque Waikawa Bay, headwinds physically forced me off my bike.
Upon a local librarian’s advice, when yet more rain was forecast, we abandoned our day’s 75 km route and cycled the crowded but shorter State Highway 1 into Gore.
Embracing the delights
Even amid the storms, we delighted in the smell of sea salt and seaweed; the desolation, flax and weather-muted colours; and more warm southern hospitality, as a couple made us coffee after a gruelling ride.
Southland’s embracing welcome included a farmer motioning encouragement from his tractor and another grinning widely as he and his dog drove past. Drivers gave us the ‘thumbs up’.
We were grateful that throughout our trip, most drivers were courteous, either slowing or going wide to pass us and this included milk trucks and roading company vehicles.
Our final day’s ride was on back roads from Gore, via Heriot and Moa Flat to Millers Flat. The weather was fine and we rejoiced in vast Central Otago beauty as we ascended for ages, cycling in solitude and silence: seemingly just us, sheep and hawks.
This was our longest climb of the journey and hard work. Our eventual descent was superb, with hectares of golden land tumbling away from Kel and me, on both sides of the road. Gold and red grasses mingled with grey rocks.
Having completed a 450 km circle, we returned to the stunning Clutha Mata-au River. And to our car!
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