Überbrief Guide to Cycling New Zealand, for Wimps
Überbrief Guide to Cycling New Zealand, for Wimps
[back to popular
articles / back to main
This überbrief guide does not cover everything. You must seek alternate sources of advice (see "books", below) and when in the land itself seek out and follow official advice. All prices below are listed in New Zealand dollars, which are worth about 80 US cents.
Who am I?
I'm writing this in a café in Christchurch after a three week tour of the South Island. Previously I had ridden 80 miles two or three times in the New Jersey and Pennsylvania countryside, and felt comfortable doing a 15 or 20 mile ride in the Chicago area. When I started the trip I had done no training, and, it being Winter, was rather out of shape.
I did 14 days of riding, and took three rest days, covering a total of about 1150 km. I rode the Crown Range, Haast Pass, and Arthur's Pass -- the last a serious undertaking -- and saw some of the most amazing scenery of my life. Most wonderfully, I rode through it, around every curve and switchback, and felt like I had truly experienced the country. If you are looking for an active vacation that you can undertake on your own speed, I think this is one to consider. The land sometimes looks like Puerto Rico, sometimes like Colorado, and I never had a "boring" day except coming in and out of the Canterbury Plains around Christchurch.
I use the word "town" here very liberally -- especially on the West Coast, a town is often no more than three or four buildings, and sometimes just two farmhouses slightly closer together than normal. Once, for example, you leave Wanaka heading North to Haast Pass, you are basically in the wilderness. The Kiwis take excellent care of the land (at least in an aesthetic sense) and you will be absolutely spoiled by the landscape.
Bring Your Bike or Rent?
Rent. I can attest -- from a Chicago-Santa Fe trip -- that bringing your own bicycle on the airplane is a misery. Expect a $50-$100 one-way charge by the airline straight off the bat, plus $40-$100 for a solid box (Dr. Thomas says you can buy one at the airport -- good luck, brother.) Further factor in that you probably can't haul that guy on public transport -- you'll have to hire a cab. When you get to the airport, your box may not fit in the X-ray machine (mine didn't, at 70 cm tall or so) -- in which case you will have to unpack the whole thing for a hand-search. You will have to recheck bags -- possibly lugging them to a different terminal -- before crossing the Pacific. Once you get to the other end, expect your derauiler to be out of alignment and for the whole thing to be in general need of a tune-up. Oh, and youth hostels won't store things for you, so you'll have to lug that pedal wrench all over the island, and buy a new box when you ship out.
Much better is to hire a bicycle in Christchurch. I hired a touring bicycle from Hedley at "Natural High Cycling", and it was perfect for the job: triple chainring, dropped bars, solid racks, cycle computer, well-sized, and in excellent condition -- just as nice as my fancy bicycle at home. Not only is it far more convenient, and barely more expensive than bringing-along, but you will also be patronizing local business instead of tossing your money down the throat of United Airlines.
Hedley will also supply you with a multi-tool, so in fact you don't have to check any baggage at all. Very nice, since with at least three flights to get to Christchurch, along with the strong possibility of an overnight weather delay in the Winter, your luggage might get lost (mine did!)
To Camp or Not to Camp
I originally planned to do the tour with a tent and sleeping bag, staying in campgrounds. I pulled my gear for the first three days, and decided it was for the birds; I mailed it poste restante back to Christchurch.
There are three reasons I would recommend against doing New Zealand with a tent on your bicycle. The first is that the gear is very heavy; when I mailed it the total was 10 kilograms, and compared to others I met on the road I was travelling light. The days lugging the tent and bag were unpleasant. It seemed romantic at home planning, but on the road I felt less like a cowboy with his saddlebags and more like an ox under the lash. Once I dumped the gear -- leaving only a change of clothes -- my bicycle felt nimble and responsive, and hills were a challenge, not a grueling misery.
As you get to the alps, the riding gets very tough going. I met a German couple that looked as fit as string beans, and they were having a rough time. We were doing the same distances each day, and I'd arrive two hours before they did and watch them roll in while I had an early dinner. Many other camping cyclists who were less fit were planning to cover some of the passes by bus -- which seems a terrible shame, because these are the most beautiful parts.
The second is that you are not going to get to camp anywhere particularly nice for most of the trip. There is gorgeous camping all over New Zealand, but you have to hike out to it for at least an hour or two most of the time; what is available on your bicycle are the "official" campgrounds -- a patch of grass next to a bunch of campervans filled with people watching Sky television on their generators, or, a backyard behind a hostel. I don't doubt that there are some nice places to camp, but if you are thinking you'll pitch your tent in isolation from civilization on a majority of days, you will be disappointed.
The third is that you won't save very much. Campgrounds will charge between $6 and $12.50 (per person) for the night (personal experience.) On the other hand, there are hostels literally everywhere on South Island; they are clean, cosy and dry, and their prices range from $23 to $30, averaging out around $26. There is nothing sadder than watching a couple pitching a tent in the rain, but it is made picturesque when you're watching it from the porch with a cup of tea.
You might think to do "freedom camping" -- pitching a tent in an unobtrusive location for free. This is really not possible on most days. The population density is very low (excepting Christchurch, less than Maine or Colorado and about that of Kansas or Utah), but everything is either a national park, with strict rules, or fenced off for pasture. In many places, especially in the middle and East, there is not much cover and a tent would be seen for miles. I suppose you could camp on a farmer's land if you ask permission, but farmhouses are very far apart and ownership is hard to guess.
Hostels are, as I said, absolutely everywhere. If you're not travelling in the peak of the peak season (late December to mid-January), you will have no trouble getting a bed solo if you book the night before or, very often, before noon the day of. The only stretch without a hostel I rode is between Haast and Franz Josef; I stayed in a Bed & Breakfast which was expensive ($120), but very nice. Do not roll into town at four pm without a booking, because things do fill up.
If you're still set on camping, go for it; you have my great respect -- you can always change your mind and mail the stuff back after a few days; or mail it further along if you have a particularly nice spot you'd like to do.
There are two essential books. One is Pedaller's Paradise, by Nigel, and the other is the Cycline guide, by Nigel and his German friend Dr. Thomas. These are all you need. Nigel's book doesn't have maps, but it has gradient cross-sections and a complete list of facilities on all the routes. The Cycline guide covers exactly the same rides, has less detail on facilities, and comes with maps -- which are very handy to have. You can get both online from amazon, and they're sold cheaply all over Christchurch (try the map store next to the downtown YHA.)
Neither guide gives phone numbers for the hostels to book. Either go on the internet when you check your e-mail, or stop by the "i-site", the tourist information centers, where they will give you the lists (and often have information about who has beds.) They are friendly and eager to help. The i-site numbers are all listed in Nigel's book.
These two guides will give you total freedom to "plan as you go." I can't praise them enough. There are some minor errors, but definitely nothing that will ruin your trip, and it's nice to feel like you're blazing a bit of a trail. There are two errors I'd remark on. One is that they claim hostels require you to bring your own sleeping bag or sheets -- I saw this only once, at the Unwin lodge in Mt. Cook, and everywhere else explicitly forbid the practice. Two is that Dr. Thomas puts little arrows on the maps to show uphills and downhills -- ignore them; they bear very little relation to reality, and can discourage you ("what's this hill? Dr. Thomassssss!")
Don't bother with the usual travel guides. They don't cover half the towns and villages you'll be staying in. There are two other cycling guides, one called "Cape Renga to Bluff" (not useful as it is a "one way" guide with few sidetrip options) and the Lonely Planet guide (apparently ripped off entirely from Nigel!)
Food and Drink
This is the place to save money instead of camping. There aren't really diners here; more restaurants, and you will pay upwards of $17 for a hamburger! Do what the Kiwis do -- go to the grocery store and prepare your own food. Every single place I stayed had magnificent kitchen facilities, fully stocked with pots, pans, dishes, cultery and knives.
Despite all the farms, the beef here is not American quality (although it's better than Britain.) This is not boutique farming country, this is industry, and the beef gets shipped off to your Los Angeles McDonald's. For that reason, beware of buying packaged or canned meats -- it very often tastes very bad to spoiled Yankee palates.
If you do eat out, go for the fish (even unsexy fish like cod.) Very often it's been pulled from a stream that morning and it tastes absolutely wonderful. Sadly, sushi is new here even in Christchurch and folks are unclear on the concept -- expect half the rolls to have meat and mayo!
I found that the guides did not warn sufficiently of the dangers of sunstroke. The light down here is very intense, and the UV is particularly strong. It is very easy to give yourself sunstroke even on a cloudy day and thirst is not a good guide. If you wait until you get thirsty, it may be too late -- your body just doesn't know what's going on. Especially on your first few days, be very strict with yourself: start off the day by drinking two (2) liters of water, and be ruthless about draining and filling up your waterbottles at every tap. Two waterbottles will last you at a maximum of 30 kilometers.
If you do give yourself sunstroke, you'll feel nauseated and like you have a really bad hangover. The only solution is to drink lots of water, stay indoors in the shade, and rest. Don't try to "push through it"!
Unless you've been very very good about hydrating, do not end your day with a pint of beer at the pub. You will feel dizzy and sick. First, seek shade. Second, drink water (or tea if you're getting sick of it.) Then, and only then, have a drink.
To the minor annoyance of the locals, New Zealand tourist officials have been excellent at convincing the world that everyone here is friendly and eager to please. After three weeks, I'd say Kiwis are "New England friendly" -- a bit guarded at first, but easy to warm up -- as opposed to Southern ("More hash browns, honey?") or California ("Let us share our spiritual journeys together") friendly. The culture here is British, so a heavy ladling of please and thank you will get you very far; on the other hand it does mean that if you need something that's against the "rules and regulations" it's very unlikely to happen.
Outside of the tourist towns -- where you'll spend most of your time -- you will find people to be extremely honest and very often trusting. Not once (even in tourist towns) did I encounter someone trying to scam me as a tourist. Relax. If you're in a jam not of your own making you will find help, and this is definitely not a place that will ignore someone in serious trouble. But I would say it's better to plan well, act sensible and be pleasantly surprised than to count on invariable help.
As for culture with a capital-C, there is nothing: the country is mostly younger than the American Civil War, and the Maori built in wood, so there are no historic things to see. There are no old churches or castles, and there's no theater, no opera, and no symphony, except in Christchurch. There is just the land, which is absolutely gorgeous, but it can get a bit oppressive, so bring a book (I suggest Jane Austen.) Culturally, I'd say it's a bit like going to, oh, Montana -- perhaps an amateur theatrical, or a government-sponsored chamber music concert on rare occasion, but nothing like, say, the Santa Fe opera. I found very little evidence of Maori culture, by the way -- just one Marae, for example, behind a fence and looking grotty.
Plan a few days ahead, but don't plan your whole trip. Remain flexible, and have that feeling of "blowing in to town" -- very nice and relaxing. Unloaded, you will find a 60 km day pretty easy, a 75 km day standard, and a 95 km day hard and long. Do not try to push beyond a hundred kilometers -- the last few ks on a 95 day are really not much fun.
There are two kinds of rest breaks: voluntary and involuntary. The goal is to take enough of the former that you don't need the latter. Time is on your side -- the sun won't set until nine pm! -- and never be in a rush. Every terrain has a natural speed, which can be anything between 6 and 25 kph; find it and stick to it.
Ignore every gradient that doesn't have a name ("Knight's Point", "Mt. Hercules".) The main factor is the wind, which can turn a 5% downgrade into a 5% upgrade, and do not plan to do 110 km because it happens to be a slight downhill according to Nigel's maps. Some days you will feel fit and energetic, others sluggish and slow, and it has little to do with terrain and everything to do with wind. If you cycle "clockwise" -- heading South-West from Christchurch -- you will find the winds on your side, but not always.
These numbers may sound a little crazy to you -- I used to average 18 mph on my rides in the Princeton area, which works out to 27 kph, and an 80 mile ride, which I survived a little worse for wear, is 129 km! But in addition to the terrain and the wind, both of which I've discussed, and the fact that even light loads of a few kilos will affect you, there are the New Zealand roads. Kiwis do not do "blacktop" -- the smooth surfaces you're used to in the States. Instead, the surface, even when paved (or "sealed", as they say), is rather rubbly and at times downright bumpy. After discussion with other cyclists, we ended up agreeing that it was the surface that cut our speed 10 kph or so -- i.e., under weather and terrain conditions that would allow us to go 25 kph in our native lands, we'd be stuck in New Zealand at 15.
Plan for rest days. I would strongly suggest taking one after the first four days of riding -- your body needs to heal after all that work, and you don't want to get sick. You cannot reap the benefits of all that training without giving your muscles time to heal! After that, take days when you want; if you roll into a town that's particularly pleasing, stay an extra night.
Hedley will set you up just fine. What you need to fit are fenders (for the rain -- most of which you splash up from the ground.) If you go with a different rental, or bring your own, please be sensible and bring wide (but not too wide) smooth road tyres -- not mountain knobblies -- and dropped (not straight) handlebars.
In terms of clothing, Kiwis have a magical fabric: Merino wool. It is light, soft, and works wonderfully in the sun. Get a long sleeved t-shirt and longjohns, and you're set for riding. The solution to the sun is cover, not sunscreen. You can get all of this cheaply in Christchurch (indeed, at the Sydney airport) -- a good quality long-sleeved t-shirt ran me $60. Merino wool is amazing: it doesn't stink after a long day of sweating (hang it up to air), and doesn't soak up water in the rain. Merino socks are more comfy than cotton!
I think the rain here is overestimated. You do not need to spend $300 on wacky GoreTex raingear, as I saw plenty of people doing. I found merino wool just fine to wear in a light downpour -- you won't get chilly or cold, it holds its heat -- and brought a poncho ("rain cape") for heavier rain. Along with fenders, it's an excellent solution to keep you dry and happy at 15 kph, and you just don't want to be riding in heaver stuff.
Traffic can get heavy at times, and there are rarely shoudlers. Ride a foot and a half to the right of the white line. This is enough to convince drivers behind you to slow down, cross into the oncoming lane, and pass you -- and for the rare times they don't, you have extra room for emergencies. I got a lot of thumbs-up and "good onyer mate" toot-toots, and was never honked at in anger.
Psychologically, the first days can be hard. Bring your iPod (the one thing I missed -- music to psych yourself up in the morning, and to relax to at night), and steer clear of watching television (if you don't own one, like me, you will learn that it is an addictive depressant -- you will feel worse after watching it.) Go outside, and gaze at the views or the stars (Orion upside-down!), or have a cup of tea, or read a book.
Sandflies on the West Coast are horrible: their bites will keep you up night after night. The only solution is to cover up completely (which you should be doing anyway because of the sun.) Aloe Vera does nothing to soothe the bites longer than a few minutes, but Tiger Balm helps a little. Speaking of heavily-marketed hippie cures, I can attest that Bees Wax Lip Balm does nothing for your lips, and Lanolin does not heal sunburn any faster.
"Kiwi" (as an adjective or noun) is considered neither cutsey nor offensive, and it's a lot easier than saying "New Zealander."
There is no tipping in New Zealand -- none at all, and everyone's quite happy about it. Attempting to tip (even just twenty cents loose change on the table) will cause either confusion or offense. There is no coin smaller than 10 cents, and prices are rounded, so don't stick around waiting for your five cents back.
If you are buying a lot of equipment, go to the same place and let them know ahead of time -- you'll often be offered at 10-20% discount. If you rent your bike from Hedley, do your bicycle shopping at "Bicycle Business" and let them know -- they may cut you a 10% break as well. MacPac is a New Zealand camping brand, and -- I am told by the experienced -- is very good value for the money.
Get travel insurance. I went with Southern Cross, $150 for a month. It will cover $500 worth of travel delays -- very likely because you are flying in Northern Winter and it's easy to miss the last/only plane to New Zealand that day -- and medical, which can be expensive and will not be covered on your health plan unless you are very special or travelling for work.
I have tried to steer clear of specific advice on where to go and where to stay, because the fun is in making your own choices and discoveries. That said, I will suggest you spend a night at the Old Church Backpackers in Kakapotahi. It's a gorgeous hostel, Frank puts on a driftwood fire every night, there's no television, an excellent record collection, and folks are quiet and friendly. Kakapotahi is 6 km North of some serious weirdos in Pukekura; the number there is 03-755-4000 and when I was there it was $23 for a bunk, $56 for a private double.
You will remember more what happens off your bicycle. Get off at every lookout point and rest stop and soak in the scenery. Don't power through the day -- you will always have plenty of time. Amble along, take it easy. This is a vacation! For that reason, I would advise against going to New Zealand to "get fit" -- you will unavoidably, but if you are planning on it, you might push yourself to hard and find the last 20 ks a misery. The golden rule is don't kick your own ass; let New Zealand do it for you. And it will, in spades, but you will survive! Nobody had to heli-evacuate me, at least.