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Highlights of New Zealand: Mt. Cook, Lake Tekapo, and Meeting John | We're Not There Yet

Many people we met told us to head inland from Christchurch, that the scenery gets really boring south of the city. Even our guidebook noted that heading down the coast, like we had been planning, was a bit of a chore after the stunning scenery along the coast. They were all right. Our 84km ride from Christchurch to Ashburton was a straight, flat, busy road with farmland and sheep as the only decorations. We were tired and bored by the time we reached Ashburton, but we rode right through town and out the other side, unable to find an affordable place to camp. We figured that we’d be able to freedom camp, with all that wide-open space, but each of our scouting rides down small country lanes came to nothing: all that open space is farmland and it is all fenced in with not even a little nook for two weary cyclists to camp. I was getting irritable and evening was approaching and I just wanted to set up camp for the night.

A Japanese tour bus pulled up next to our picnic site so everyone could take pictires with this giant fish

R took the lead and approached the only person in sight, a man doing some work outside his house, and asked if he knew of a good place for us to pitch our tent for the night. ‘Why don’t you camp right here?’- came our favorite response. John turned out to be an avid road cyclist and offered to let us stay without a second thought.  He gave us the use of his ‘man-shed’ (a game room/TV room/tool room), but we opted to pitch our tent in a large square of grass just outside. We showered and ate dinner and then joined him for a beer and some route advice. We had planned to head straight down the coast to Dunedin and then on to Invercargill in the far south. We thought we’d just make a big loop and see whatever sights were along the way. But John set us straight. Not only was that road boring and about as heavily trafficked as South Island highways get, but we’d be missing some of the best parts of New Zealand. He brought out an atlas and a stash of regional maps and had us completely rerouted by the time we headed off to bed. The new itinerary included Lake Tekapo, Mt Cook, and the Lindis Pass, which would be the highest pass for us in New Zealand. Also included in our new itinerary was an invitation to call him up for a beer or maybe a place to crash if we made it to Twizel, a town mid-way between Lake Tekapo and Mt Cook. By complete chance, we had met another crazy-helpful local who generously let us in to his home and even use his toaster (it’s the small things), and he changed our trip entirely.

John (on the right)

Deer farm

The ride to Tekapo would take us two days and there is not a hell of a lot between here and there, so we’d have to find a place to camp off the side of the road. Along the way, we came up on another cyclist who was walking his bike up the hill: he was riding a Pennyfarthing bicycle that he had built himself. Turns out that he makes a living building replicas of early bicycles, creating everything by hand, from the frame to the spokes to the pedals. He was on a two-day trip with his grandson, who was on a 1920s style single speed bike with stylish leather panniers, also hand-made. Just when we thought that we were pretty badass, we had to go and run into someone who was not only riding the same route, but outclassed us by far. Shortly after we parted ways, we ran into The Germans, who we had been bumping into quite a bit along the way. We first met Benjamin riding into Blenheim and ran into him at major towns along the way. He had a mountain bike and was taking all the backroads that we purposely stayed away from. Though he rode more difficult and longer routes, we always seemed to be just behind him. He had joined forces with another German who was on his way to participate in an Iron Man competition in Wanaka. He flew into Christchurch and just figured he’d cycle for 10 days to get to the event on the other side of the island. Double whammy. We parted ways with them as well, since they were taking some unpaved, highly mountainous backroad that they would undoubtedly ride in half the time it would take us to chug along the highway. As soon as we hit the first set of big hills, we found a little pull-out and stopped for the night, joining a small group of campervans who were taking advantage of the free place to park for the night. We passed the night chatting with our temporary neighbors and sipping beers that we had picked up in the last town.

Just another touring cyclist

The road to Lake Tekapo

Lupine everywhere

Reuniting with the Germans

Tekapo view

Another Tekapo view

The next day, we ran into the Germans again. We rode together for a while, but it soon became clear that they were just a lot more motivated than we were and they finally pulled ahead and out of sight. We made plans to meet at the lake that evening, but due to a series of complications (utter exhaustion, horrible rain, and, later, a hangover) never saw them again. We stayed in Tekapo a day longer than we had planned when a huge storm rolled in. We had already packed up all of our stuff but just couldn’t summon the will to ride in the cold and wet. We ended up springing for a $75 hut for the evening (don’t get any fancy ideas- there was no bathroom or kitchenette, just a bed and a table, but it was dry and warm). The next morning was clear and sunny, but brought with it the most ferocious wind that I have ever ridden in. Heading the 50km or so to Twizel, our next stop was as draining as climbing up a mountain. The ride was incredibly pretty and took us along a car-free canal road that followed electric blue water along the base of a postcard-worthy mountain range (the side approach to Mt Cook), but it was hard to appreciate what lay in front of us while we were riding hard to keep up a 8km/hr pace. Finally, finally we made it to Twizel and reunited with John, who was responsible for the whole thing.

M (yellow dot at left) cycling the canal road on the way to Twizel

Riding the canal road

If you didn’t already get a sense of what a great guy John is, let me wow you with tales of his hospitality. He invited us to stay overnight with him and his family at their family get-away home in Twizel. There is not a lot to do in Twizel except fish and boat in the many lakes or head to Mt Cook, which is an out-and-back trip. Not only did John feed us, put us up, and share his beer with us, he also offered a lift to go see Mt Cook so we wouldn’t have to do the out and back. When we decided that we couldn’t accept that offer, he suggested that we leave whatever we didn’t need with him and swing back to pick it up on our way back from the mountain. And when the weather for our intended departure date was too crappy, he had us stay an extra night to wait it out before we making the trip. Because of his advice and generosity, we had a perfect stay at Mt. Cook. We took the shuttle from Twizel to the mountain and brought our bikes on a trailer (pricey at $45/person, but ultimately saving us a day of travel and accommodation). We did a little hiking and stayed the night, then rode our bikes back to Twizel.

The road to Mt Cook

Before Sunset


The view from behind

We thought that the road back would be vaguely downhill, but we were wrong. There was lots of climbing along winding roads on our way back to town. We figured on an hour and a half long ride, but I think we came in closer to three hours. We were tuckered, but the scenery was beautiful, so we didn’t mind too much. John was out with his kids when we made it back to his place, but he had left us a key so we were able to collect our stuff and continue on to Omarama, a DOC (Department of Conservation) campsite about 30km south of town. Happily, we ran into him at the grocery store while we were picking up supplies on our way out. It wasn’t possible to express how grateful we were for all of his kindness and how much he influenced our trip. He is a model Kiwi: modest, genuine, knowledgeable and willing to help out strangers when they ride up out of nowhere. We’ve said it before, but we’ll say it again: this is why bicycle trips are so amazing. No way would we have had this great experience and interaction with John if we had been safely tucked away in a campervan. We are beginning to wane a little from all the cycling and the effort it takes, but an encounter like this breathes new life into a trip and puts all the discomfort and tedium into a positive light- a chance to really see a place and its people at a slower pace.