Swapped bike for chopper over Mount Cook: 250 km from Haast to Ross…

Taking off for Mount Cook and the glaciers.

Right. A bit of a delay in posting, thanks to helicopter flights over Mount Cook (read on), some 160 miles of utterly amazing cycling over three days, a need for early nights and a severe paucity of internet and even mobile phone connections down New Zealand’s West Coast.

Riding into the rainforest.

There’s a lot to report, so I’ll miss most of it out, and include instead a few thumbnails embedded in this text, and a lovingly long slideshow of photographs on Google+ which you can access by clicking here.

New Zealand must have the oddest set of naming conventions of any country I’ve ever visited.

Raven and driftwood, where Route 6 heading north from Haast meets the Tasman sea.

There’s Haast, the settlement on the South Island West Coast where the road from Wanaka first meets the sea, named after a late 19th century adventurer from Austria, and the spot 18 cycling hours ago from where I sent my last post. .

Haast has a first-rate campsite, but also world –beating sandflies and mozzies.

I’d forgotten to close my tent flap when Gerben and I repaired to the local restaurant for one of the best steaks I’ve had in a long time.

When we returned, the inside of my tent was BUZZING with insects. I zapped them with shedloads of DEET, closed the flap and, nervous about sleeping a full night in a cloud of insecticide, moved myself to the site’s rather lovely common room where the carpet and my sleeping bag afforded a perfectly good night’s sleep. Who needs beds? (OK, Sue, you do. Fair enough…)

Then (back to naming), there are straightforward Maori names, like (one of my favourites) Whangarei in the North Island, pronounced Fangaray.

There’s Queenstown (so named in Victorian days, apparently, because it was a  place fit for a queen) and there’s Kat’s second NZ home town (after New Plymouth) of Wanaka, another Maori name.

A glacier that ends in a rainforest. Only in NZ. The dreadful cycling jersey, btw, was chosen not for its fashion, but for its merino wool. Perfect for this work.

And then, my favourite, there’s Franz Josef, known locally just as (say this with a thick NZ accent) Fra-enz, where I spent last night and, this morning, bade a fond farewell after four delightfully shared riding days to my new Dutch friend and fellow cyclist Gerben.

(As is the way, and it’s mainly blokes one meets on bikes, travelling singly, we didn’t even share surnames or email addresses – companionship of this kind  is for the moment and all the richer for it).

Again back to the naming (and a reminder that there are more ix here on G+), Franz Josef was named, by the very same Herr Haast more than 100 years ago, after Austro-Hungary’s pre-First-World-War Emperor and is now a delightful little place sharing its name with one of the world’s two most extraordinary glaciers terminating just out of town, the other glacier being about 16 miles earlier over two VERY steep passes to the south, the Fox (as in, Fox Glacier mints…)

OK, names by way of getting into the continuing story of one of the most enjoyable long-distance bike rides I’ve ever done.

Road through the rainforest

What a country! Scotland (my previously favourite cycling destination) on steroids doesn’t begin to do justice,

Long, long, beautifully smooth roads through stunning rainforest and (less pleasant to think about, given 100 years and more of unthinking forest-clearance) grazing land along the world’s youngest mountain range, Tasman sea to the left/west, and to the right/east, alternately snow-and cloud-capped peaks and the densest vegetation that comes with rainfall of up to 10 metres a year on the higher slopes.

Some of that fell today, day seven of the bicycle journey, but on the whole, the journey has been blessed so far with fantastic cycling conditions – even, after the hidwund blast coming out of Wanaka, a gentle wind in my back for most of today. Makes all the dufference.

Franz Josef Glacier from the air

Photos speak for themselves, (and a reminder again that there are more ix here on G+),)but the highlight, apart from the cycling itself, so far has to have been a 40-minute helicopter trip up the Franz Josef glacier, round the back of Mount Cook and back home down the Fox to Fox township. Utterly, utterly amazing – and worth every one of the 20,000 pennies it cost me. (£200 for the mathematically challenged). But, Sue, think of what I’m saving by camping. And the flight was in the sale anyway, with a discount that came with the campsite referral.

Those shades again

Talking of sales, lovely sign outside the Visitor Centre in Fraaaaanz this morning. Take note, Sue – seems that wives around the world have the same issues with husbands too tight with money.

Wives – your husband has phoned and said you can spend as much as you like. Sign outside the visitor centre in Franz Josef, where they the sweetest real kiwis.

Inside, I saw my first genuine kiwi bird, snuffling around in a very well-organised terrarium.

Poor old kiwis. There used to be some 10 million of them in these islands before homo sapiens turned up, with rats (thanks already to the Maoris), then, disastrously, stoats, ferrets, dogs and cats thoughtlessly introduced by European and especially British settlers who wanted to make NZ feel just like home. Hence all the non-native birds and, would you believe it, even hedgehogs, imported just because the settlers thought they would be cute.

New Zealand now is in incredibly hot on biodiversity and protecting itself from non-native animals, plants and infections from overseas, to the extent that customs even cleaned my tent of leaves for me on arrival, a residue from previous camping trips in Europe and the UK.

However, horses and stables and bolting all come to mind. The kiwi birds of course, like their much larger (as in, twice the size of an ostrich) flightless cousins the moa came to grief when exposed to predators who hunted by smell. Until humans arrived, there were no, as in, none at all, land mammals in New Zealand, and the only predators were in the skies, in the form of hawks and kites.

Rather larger than the real thing..

So, the kiwi and the moa and the rest learned to stay safe by being exquisitely camouflaged and, when danger was sensed, by STAYING STILL. That way, they couldn’t be, and most of the time weren’t, seen by the hawks overhead.

No damn use, sadly, as a protection from dogs and cats and stoats and us lot. The kiwi have had a very rough time, but there are at least some left. Starting when the Maori arrived by boat from Polynesia, NZ’s first humans a mere 800 years ago or so, the moa had it even worse and were rapidly eaten into extinction.

Anyway, I hope the stories here are faintly interesting as an accompaniment to the photos. Cycling through this wonderful land is prompting a LOT of thinking about how we humans have impacted our planet and I’m afraid I am even less confident than I was of our chances of surviving, or even of our right to survive, the planet’s gathering backlash for what we as homo sapiens have done to its ecosystems. A subject on which I shall no doubt continue to blog….

2 responses to “Swapped bike for chopper over Mount Cook: 250 km from Haast to Ross…”

  1. Hi Mark, great going, i’m pleased you are enjoying the wild west coast, you really have had some good kiwi weather, I hope it lasts a while. Look forward to seeing you in a week or two. Peter


    • Indeed, Peter, going brilliantly, and not just the weather. The neck and the knee were really touch and go before I left, but clearly, long-distance biking is just the treatment. Have now reached Westport (not exactly the prettiest place!) and heading up the Buller Gorge tmmw. See you soon…


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