As we watch the South Island fade into the distance, swaying with the Bluebridge ferry’s wave-riding, my thoughts float back over our rich, smooth and eventful 2900-kilometre tandem journey the length of New Zealand from the very North to the very South, with thanks to the Weather Gods and what must be a chorus of angels that watched over us and Katie and Mela these past seven weeks.
And thanks too to all those who supported or accompanied us, or rooted for us, or donated to the Rory Peck Trust to make this journey so incredible and enjoyable.
My own huge thanks to Mark, who organised all and every step of the way, blogging determinedly as we progressed.
He took the lion’s share of manhandling the tandem and our 30kg+ of baggage up excessively steep stretches and through the narrowest of gates and tracks, fixing and refixing Daisy2 lovingly and successfully as we went.
We finished the Tour Aotearoa in Bluff on Tuesday March 22, and cycled the short 30km back to Invercargill the following morning minus the headwind we had faced going south the previous day.
Then the heavens opened, pouring relief but also sadness at the end of our tour.
Mela had to catch a flight to a family reunion back home in New Plymouth, while Katie, Mark and I took to a hired van to ferry us and all our bikes and equipment back North.
Man and Woman Handling Daisy down one of the bridges on the final stretch into Wanaka
So, our journey has continued, as have the daily miracles which we have come almost to expect.
Our long-distance bus from Invercargill was able to accommodate all our bikes.
The weather has continued to be perfect at all the strategic times, with downpours or storms either before or after our arrivals.
We have seen Albatrosses swooping along the coast off Dunedin, and seals relaxing completely unbothered by humans just one step away.
We had minimal queues at the hot baths in Hanmer Springs despite all the usual Easter tourism – exhilarating fun without having to struggle for it first!
We had amazing views along a traffic-free Lewis Pass and the Nelson Lakes, where as dusk fell we were privileged to view huge eels in Lake Rotoiti in the moonlight.
To me, it feels like our journey and the wonders it has brought is still continuing.
There have, of course, been my “What’s-The-Point?!” moments on steep and gravelly off-road paths or hugely busy and noisy main roads.
But Mark with his bicycle touring experience has always been quick to remind me how, in biking as in life, nothing lasts forever. And sure enough, every time the misery has quickly dissipated on the next downhill run, with the next scenic views, with starry skies or the next lovely rest place, picnic or meal.
And there have of course also been the reverse moments when I have needed to remind a moaning Mark of his own dictum.
And I must say, our breaks were definite highlights.
The West coast on New Zealand’s South Island is so much more attuned to visitors than North Island, where many holiday places, pubs and cafes are derelict and shut down, with barely a food shop or supermarket on our route.
The South Island in contrast feels thriving, while still maintaining the beauty and tranquility of nature and pristinely cared-for scenic points, and we enjoyed frequent coffee breaks with delicious burgers, scones, cakes, ice creams or meals.
I’ve been struck by the lack of rubbish bins at most scenic viewpoints or DOC (Department of Conservation) sites. You have to take away your rubbish and dispose it elsewhere (a bit of a drawback for cyclists and trampers), but the visitors all respect that.
In every town/village of New Zealand there’s a public toilet that is also well maintained, and we have not found any graffiti. anywhere. One public loo even played smooth classical music as soon as you locked the door, and then said thank you on the way out.
Maintaining and reinstating indigenous vegetation is really paying off for the South Island now as it attracts huge amounts of tourists, busloads of Asians, mainly Chinese and Japanese, and vast numbers of Germans and English people on individual journeys.
Several youngsters we spoke to had no desire to go back to unsettled Europe and were looking to stay in NZ long term.
Cycling, touring and especially mountain biking are now big business in NZ as more and more routes and mountain bike paths are created and maintained. A Swiss cyclist was amazed how many women engage in mountain biking here compared to Switzerland.
Since there are always two sides to a coin, there are also downsides and concerns about tourism.
NZ is a safe country. No poisonous spiders or snakes, no terrorism, but the country’s infrastructure, particularly accommodation, struggles to cope. Locals told us of their concerns that New Zealand may lose precisely what attracts visitors – the offbeat, being in nature, capitalising on the fun and thrill of extreme sports.
Interestingly, it is not possible just to roam the country.
Every bit of land seems to be fenced in. Tramping as the Kiwis call longer-distance walking happens on designated and maintained paths only.
Great and convenient in many ways, but there are warning signs everywhere not to step off those tracks, partly in order not to spread pests and infestations and partly to avoid becoming a Prosecuted Trespasser.
Dog-walkers are warned to keep their pets away from poisoned land and away from traps as DOC tries to keep non-native rodents (rats, possums, rabbits, stoats) introduced with human settlement at bay, and limit the huge damage they do to native birds and vegetation.
What really struck us is the friendly openness and unwavering helpfulness of Kiwis. Whenever we had a problem with the bike, we were helped instantly, including on evenings and at weekends.
Many people readily opened their doors to refill our bottles of water, and offered accommodation or excellent advice for it enabling us to emergency camp when we were unable to find a backpackers, holiday camp, Air B&B or (this a truly wonderful global community of long-distance cyclists) WarmShowers.
Once we managed to shed my fingerless gloves, which I had forgotten either to put on or to clip under a pannier monkey strap.
As we were resting at a crossroads, a small truck pulled up alongside us with a load of beehives on the back, and the driver asked us whether we were missing a pair of gloves. I realised we indeed were, and he then drove me back several kilometres to find them where they’d fallen off.
To my joy, the driver was a Manuka honey-bee keeper, who relocated his hives up to five times a year to make the most of the global Manuka craze.
As my thanks, I reassured him that my love for Manuka honey would keep him in business. He apologised for his basic bench type lorry seat, but exchanging my bicycle seat for it for 30 minutes was BLISS!
In summary, this has been the most amazing experience.
Had there not been the perk of joining up with Katie and Mela on the South Island, I probably would never have agreed to this near 3000 km madness (mad bikes and Englishman come to mind).
I feel healthier and fitter than I have done for a long time.
The ankle that I twisted last September playing tennis has strengthened, and I cycled the last three weeks without ankle support. The hamstring tendon that I stretched walking and slipping on the road during our tour healed quickly with all this exercise.
I had not trained for this trip.
Cycling does seem to be a gentle (did I write gentle?) way to increase stamina, health and fitness, and we had a lovely open air gym for it.
And to my utter surprise, my so-scarily minimal luggage allowance (just one small front pannier) saw me through perfectly.
Actually, such limitations simplify life. Our purpose for the last six weeks was merely to get up, on the bike, heading South, keeping ourselves clean, fed and sheltered.
So, many thanks to Katie and Mela for planting the idea, to the Kennett Brothers for devising a route that we could mostly follow, and to Mark for his personal, but rather Kiwi-typical Can-Do attitude to make it happen.
And thanks to my breath, body and spirit for having struggled through the lesser bits, and for allowing me fully to enjoy the many more good bits and moments.