New Zealand Cycling
After finishing my studies in 1999, I spent 11 months travelling and having cycled down South East Asia, headed over to New Zealand. 20 years is a long time to clearly remember an experience, but the mental summary I have carried with me over the years was of a quiet, mild island with lots of cycle tourists, few cars and green busses with backpacker travelling from one party hostel to the next. It was fun and back then I’d hooked up with an East German chap also riding a bike who I am sure I nearly drove insane. Fresh out of university and young, I travelled with a high intensity and chilling out was a term I didn’t comprehend. Why would you go to the other side of the world and read a book?!? Having lunch was enough relaxation for me.
Somehow though we got on and cycled around the quiet roads, swam in clean lakes and kayaked the Abel Tasman together.
Given I would be living in China for a while and having a good friend in Auckland, I decided therefore that 2019 would be a good time to refresh my memory and revisit Aotearea. This time I would head south from Christchurch and discover places that were ignored last time.
Travelling now is easy, almost boring I would say and the flight from Shanghai via HK to Auckland on the modern plane was a breeze. Auckland airport is also a chilled place and nicely sets the tone for the rest of the country. Immigration is easy except for the bio checks which are taken very seriously. After queueing for a while my tent was taken for cleaning – a standard procedure even when the tent otherwise lives in Switzerland and is subject to strict Swiss cleanliness standards.
This is the first shock for some people…a chatty French couple who were on a camping tour had their tent destroyed as it was too dirty and contained some kind of insect eggs which couldn’t effectively be sanitised in a short period. Just to rub it in, the long wait for this sad news also meant they missed their connecting flight to Queenstown.
My schedule was less stressful and whilst awaiting my tent, I had unpacked my bike, screwed on the pedals, packed the panniers, withdrawn some cash and was waiting to go when the smiley tent cleaning lady handed my tent over. I cycled over to the back of the small car park, hid my box in some bushes and set off up the road.
I had a lovely ride up to Titirangi on some back roads and bike trails. I wondered why it took so long, but on checking my computer saw it really was up, up and up. On entering the village I called in at the café for a coffee and met a very opinionated local lady – having never left the north island her views were probably also quite local!
So all in all my trip started well. It was great to see old friends again and my ride back to Auckland airport the following day was much quicker and my box was waiting in the bushes with a few spiders happy to have such a great new home. I evicted them before quickly packing the bike again and getting on an earlier than planned flight. Before I knew it I was in Christchurch and checking in to a hostel on the edge of town.
NZ is a great place to be a solo traveller. People are friendly and interested in your story, particularly when you are on a bike. But you can also have peace unlike some other places where every passer by shouts at you. This time though I saw no cycle tourists, at least not until I chatted to a random guy over a beer who also happened to be cycling and from Wales. He was a big guy and told me quite clearly ‘I hate the hills’. Fred was good company though and we had a fun night out on the town.
My trip timing was not perfect and my first week presented very mixed weather. Nonetheless I enjoyed some of the new rail trails – mainly the Alps to Ocean – on my circuit from Timaru via Fairlie, Lake Tekapo, Twizel, Omarama and back to the coast at Oamaru. Surprisingly I didn’t meet many other cycle tourists, maybe it was the mixed weather, or perhaps they were just on the roads elsewhere in NZ. Indeed I met more people hiking the 3000km Te Araroa hiking trail which spans the length of the country. One couple I did meet were on a tandem and were not having much fun on the trails. As most of the cycle trail is not paved, it is quite slow and tough going compared to the road. It also doesn’t suit skinny tyres so much and so they were mainly riding on the busy road. As they had become quite frustrated, they had instead decided to rent a car for the following weeks of their trip.
A few weeks later having cycled some of the northern part of the South Island and part of the North Island, I could very much understand their feelings. The roads are generally busy, certainly much more so then my last trip, and I was also shocked by the number of Chinese tourists who rent cars. Having lived in China, I am aware of their driving style and I can only say it is not necessarily cyclist friendly. Indeed at the start of a car relocation I did, I was chatting to the staff at Hertz who told me of a few situations where in the interest of public safety, they have actually taken the keys back from some tourists before they have even left the car park.
So overall, although NZ is an attractive country and certainly has pockets of great cycling or mountain biking, I wouldn’t now recommend it as a cycle touring destination. It is often tough to get off the busy main roads and unlike in Europe it is more difficult simply to hop on some public transport for a while. Whereby in Western Europe there are mainly asphalt cycle trails, many in NZ are gravel requiring a suitable bike and tyres. And as a huge network of otherwise small roads does not exist, the only way off the gravel is to ride on the main roads. Personally I don’t have a problem with unsurfaced trails, but even taking these the network is still way too sparse to use for getting around the whole country.
Maybe someday will come a Te Araroa biking trail……