Sydney to Sydney (via New Zealand) – Part 1

The adventure starts when the plan goes wrong. As everything goes awry you engage with the now; trying to sort out the inevitable mess you find yourself in provides the most interesting, funny and stupid tales of the trip – which, let’s face it is why we all leave home. 

Two years ago I was driving a rental car through the wooded heartland roads of Wyoming, with two of my best friends Frank and Charlie. We were on a west coast road trip and had decided to detour 800 km’s inland to see the Yellowstone national park for five days of hiking. The previous day had been a monotonous slog behind the wheel, as we took shifts speeding through endless wheat fields alongside an array of jacked up pick up trucks. Things were starting to look up this morning, with our re-discovery of roads with occasional corners and an approaching jagged horizon that signalled the start of the mountains. Frank’s selection of calm tunes eased us into another day’s travel before we got a serious wake up call in the form of a rock smashing our windscreen. The offending item had fallen out the back of a truck heading in the opposite direction and had properly nailed our little Suzuki – this wasn’t supposed to happen…

Cue the traveller nightmare – faffing around with insurance companies – trying to get wifi in a national park and generally starting to worry that we might be due to payout a hefty sum for a car we’d only had for a day. To our surprise, not only did were we covered with the stock insurance that came with the car, but we were upgraded to a 7-seat, 3 litre white Dodge. Now the trip was really on! Acres of space to sprawl out in the back, a serious sound system and 4 empty seats that needed filling. For weeks we drove that beast around the country, picking up friends and going on spontaneous trips we wouldn’t have bothered trying in the measly Suzuki. One of those friends was Camille, an Aussie travelling the States with best friend Jelena, who we met in a rowdy San Diego hostel. We all drove out into the desert to see the Grand Canyon and had a good laugh driving up to cliff jumping spots in the trusty wagon. 

Now two years later, I was in Camille’s hometown, and Frank – the same one on that road trip – had flown out to see me arrive in Sydney. One day since rolling into the Opera house and the unlikely gang was back together, enjoying a celebratory Margherita as the sunset over Manly. It was here that Camille spontaneously decided what we needed was another road trip… 

‘Let’s take my car and drive to Melbourne, it will be much more fun…’. ‘What about your work?’ ‘I think I’m going to be feeling sick tomorrow.’ And that was that. Cruising back down the Sapphire coast on a beautiful Australian day; I couldn’t help but laugh thinking about us all stressing out in McDonalds car park back in Wyoming, worried how we wouldn’t be able to afford the cost of the windscreen to where we were now. The other side of the world, with friends we wouldn’t have made had that rock not ruined our rental car. Three rowdy days in Melbourne with more old school friends, travelling pals and old work colleagues followed before me and Camille drove Neil – our affectionate name for her car – back to Sydney. 

I had planned to stay in the city for a further three weeks, writing up Blogs and following up my first published magazine article with hopefully a few more, with a good friend. My first piece had just hit the shelves in the UK’s most distributed cycling magazine – Cycling UK – and I was excited to get stuck into writing a few more pieces that had been being in my head over the past months. This, the idea of taking time off the bike after the 6000 km slog across the country was more than appealing, but it unfortunately it wasn’t to be. Things fell through and plans quickly had to change – a metaphysical smashed windscreen? A little sombre, I packed my bags back onto the bike before calling Max, a traveller who I’d met on a rooftop in Kathmandu 8 months ago, asking if I could sleep on his floor for a couple of days before my hastily arranged flight to New Zealand. 

If it sounds tenuous, it was. I barely knew Max, and what’s more, he barely knew Sydney. Having just moved back off his parents rural farm in the northern reaches of New Zealand, Max had moved his life to the city just last week. Well, a friend in need is a friend indeed, and I really count Max as one of my best pals after sorting me out on such a whim. Quickly we realised we both liked the same music and DJing, so the next nights were spent mixing records way into the early hours followed by a morning meditation sessions. I helped him out moving photography gear about whilst he took portraits of friends and clients for his ever-expanding portfolio, (check out maxwatts_ on Instagram to see his incredible work) I even got a few snaps of myself and the bike in there. We spent a few evenings walking the streets deep in discussion about my recent change in plans what had been going on with him since those Kathmandu nights. The five or so days spent hanging out with Max turned out to be one unexpected silver lining if ever I saw one.

Before flying out of town, my good friend Kit took me up the coast for some swimming in the sea followed up by a cracking leaving party. Molly and Haydn (Cycle for Love – who’d I’d cycled with four times over a period of a year on this trip) joined us and we all said our goodbye’s for one last time on this trip. In the mad rush to fix my bike (I had chosen now to completely overhaul my gear – switching to a bike packing orientated set up), send gear home and say goodbye to everyone, I hadn’t looked much into the requirements for entering New Zealand. Of course I end up at the front of the queue of travellers at the airport, before being informed that I needed a flight out of the country already booked for me to be allowed in. Brilliant. Now really wasn’t the time I fancied a Skyscanner session, not only trying to find a good deal, but a date that I wanted to leave and even a country to go to… I hadn’t decided where I even wanted to fly out to after New Zealand, I wasn’t meant to consolidate everything in Sydney and lay out my plans over the next weeks – noe of which had happened. One thought of mine was even to go home from New Zealand, as in any ways I had achieved what I set out to do, and the loneliness of 18 months solo was starting to catch up with me. So where to go…?

I knew my Aunt was flying into Brisbane in 6 weeks time, so Brisbane it was. An impromptu family visit. Looking back with 20 x 20 hindsight, I realise I could have booked a flexible ticket, but with beads of sweat forming on my brow I had immediately committed to the cheapest option in front of me – a non-refundable journey to Brisbane, with a stop back here in Sydney. So much for me leaving this place for good…

I would deal with that when the time came, for now, I had the grim prospect of a late flight to Christchurch, having to sleep in the airport before I flying out to the bottom of the country. Or as Max had put it, ‘ the arse end of nowhere’. Touching down, I knew what he meant. I had been swimming in the sea just days ago, worrying about burning my pale skin, whereas here it was currently 1’C and driving sleet whipped my face on the runway. Bloody hell, maybe I’ve made a mistake… My thoughts were only echoed by a curious ground staff worker, wanting to know what exactly my plans were assembling my bike in the corner. ‘You’re at the bottom of the south island you know, in the middle of winter, you’re mad!’ I certainly felt it. This was the first time with me riding my new set up, and the uncertainty in the weather and gear really wasn’t helping with my mood. The supermarket, normally a haven for a ever-hungry cyclist wasn’t helping either, as most of the shelves were bare with the odd tin of minestrone soup scattered about on the dusty surfaces – where the heck was I? This was New Zealand, these shop shelves resembled something out of a war zone. Looking out the window at the dark clouds and driving rain, maybe make that a natural disaster site…

After one night couchsurfing with a hilarious Kiwi called Corey, I set off into one of the most ridiculous winds I’ve ever encountered on this trip; what would become a common theme in the country alongside forever putting my waterproof on just to take it off again minutes later… Cloud bursts were common and served to dampen my mood further as I made painfully slow progress along the exposed roads. I’d decided to really explore New Zealand with all this unexpected extra time I had here, which had led me to choose the coastal route directly west from Invercargill. Just a few miles out of town, I had to laugh as one of the plastic road bollards was swept into a frenzied vibration from the force of the wind – this was ridiculous. In the iconic words of D:ream – ‘things could only get better…’ 

Despite the cold, wind and rain, I really couldn’t fault the beauty of the place. Rugged coastline features next to large rolling hills framed by snow capped mountains were a site to behold. Although beholding the Mona Lisa in a force 10 storm doesn’t exempt you from still being in a force 10 storm…

The next days were spent toughing it out through the wind and exceptionally cold mornings, but the scenery kept on taking things to the next level. No matter how grumpy I wanted to be, thinking about potential sunny afternoons writing in Sydney, the mountainscapes that began unfolding before me couldn’t help but elevate my mood. I’m a mountain person. The sight of rugged rocks and sharp peaks have always emanated a sense of calm to me, no matter how crap the weather. Some small climbs followed by blue chinks in the seemingly impenetrable grey armour on the south island sky was all I needed to start to come around. I even managed to laugh at myself getting lost in a damp cave before eventually surfacing. 

To help make things a little easier, I began cutting the daily distances in a bid to explore more of the villages round me, the beautiful Manapouri and Te Anau lakes being some standout gems in the jewel encrusted crown of the south island. I’d only seen a few hundred km’s so far but could already tell it was going to be a special place. 

Now with a little more time on my hands, I asked about for any interesting routes between Te Anau and Queenstown, coming up trumps with a 100 km gravel track around Mount Nicholas where I could board a steamboat to cross the lake to the city. Cruising across the lake after a day and a bit of off roading by steamboat sounded a bit special, and I just couldn’t resist. The route I found was called ‘Around the Mountains’, and is one of hundreds of purpose built and maintained cycle routes the government has built around the country. The NZ cycle trails website became a treasure trove that I regularly mined for inspiration to leave the roads behind – not that there was any traffic down here, I was at the ‘arse end of the world’ after all.

The country treated me with a bitterly cold but bluebird sky morning as I rolled up the start of the trail after leaving Te Anau. I’d read that it was recommended to ride the trail in the opposite direction to that which I was travelling, and I immediately knew why. My old friend the wind. I later found out that it’s recommended to ride the whole of New Zealand from North to South, and I would spend a few days cursing my route choice. It made sense to ride to and fly out of Auckland, but logic falls by the wayside when your ears are flapping about in the wind like two-wheeled Dumbo for days on end. I couldn’t complain though, the trail was too much fun for that. Yes, I would have speeding along had I ridden it the other way, but camping out in a picture perfect lakeside camp spot surrounded by snow capped mountains with nobody about was something else. They filmed some scenes from Lord of the Rings out here, and as I cooked up an evening brew, I felt like this Hobbit’s adventure was just beginning all over again. 

For those 24 hours cycling and camping around the stunning Mavora Lakes, I didn’t see another person, I had no phone signal and nor did I want it. I needed New Zealand as a place to clear my mind from the craziness of Sydney, more than that, I needed to work out whether I even wanted to carry on with this trip at all. 18 months of solo riding was bound to take its toll, and I had already done more than what I set out to do after all. Yet, I couldn’t finish with things as they were, leaving Sydney so frantically and then just riding aimlessly halfway up the South Island. If I could have a few more days like today then I’d be more than fine. The rocky track, stream crossings and beautiful camp spots were something fresh. I found that when riding the trails you have to constantly focus on what’s going on around you, with no regard for anything off the bike I felt truly present again. 

Another breakthrough came in the form of my lighter and more minimal bike set up. I had sent back a load of gear from Sydney in an attempt to rejuvenate my riding experience. From just the first few days riding to the Mavora Lakes from Invercargill I knew i’d made the right decision; the bike now rode like one as opposed to the 50kg ship I’d been steering around the world for the past 18 months. The less gear had brought about unexpected benefits in the form of some mental clarity. Every item I now had was 100% necessary to live on the road, or it made me so happy that  I’d have no qualms about lugging it over a mountain. Little did I know, that with my new found freedom to explore the mountain bike trails with the lighter set up, I’d soon have some serious lugging to do.

Before that however, i was lapping up another bluebird sky starting off with a porridge and brew next to the water at Mavora Lakes. A stunning lake surround by snowy peaks made for a perfect place to wake up to and kick off the day by riding back down the gravel track, past the designated camping areas with their composting toilets, all of which unbelievably had toilet roll – ridiculous luxury! The track flattened out as I began my way along a large flat plateau flanked by gorgeous mountains. From here I rode into the wind, around Mt. Nicholas until I finally came out by Lake Wakatipu. Queenstown was on the opposite side of the water so I needed to catch the Earnslaw steamboat to reach the city. Having spent a good few hours riding into the wind, I was running a little late for the boat, which I could now see steaming (pun intended) across the lake towards the jetty, about 5km along from where I was. I knew from my timetable that the next crossing would be the last one of the day, yet with half an hour before the departure time, all seemed in order. I sped along the lakeside gravel road, until I found myself racing towards the jetty to find the boat had just pulled out only minutes before! I still had 10 minutes you bastard!

I quickly found out that my timetable was horribly out of date, thankfully not only were my crossing times wrong but there were extra landing times scheduled for that evening. I bought myself a ticket before kicking back and enjoying the beautiful views across the lake. It wasn’t long before the Earnslaw returned and I was cruising across like something out of a Bond movie. The beautifully wooden clad boat was complete with a long bar next to which a pianist played some classical numbers. I stuck out like a sore thumb – a dirty face complemented by lycra and long riding socks clearly wasn’t the envisaged dress code…

I had planned to take the week off in Queenstown to properly decompress from what had been a full on few months. The Blog desperately needed updating from its current reading of my arrival in Adelaide, whilst my body was screaming out for a reboot of its own. Luckily, my friend Daena, who I’d met at a hostel way back in Amritsar India, had invited me to crash on the sofa of her lovely shared house in Queenstown. For five days I enjoyed just going out for walks, cooking proper meals and being part of a dynamic group of people who lived in the house. It was perfect. Although the sense of serenity was soon broken by Daena suggesting that went bungee jumping… Queenstown is home to the first bungee jump centre in the world, and is renowned for being the premier destination to launch yourself off an obscenely high platform into oblivion. Reluctantly I agreed. Cue getting harnessed up, taking out a cable car to a large platform over a 200m drop where some serious jitters began to kick in. The platform was totally enclosed, with about 30 people getting kitted up to jump. Loud music pumped out the speakers, creating a strange party atmosphere where revellers had to wear a bulky harness to compliment a strange expression of contemplation for what was to come. 

As people jumped, everyone cheered them off the platform. The charged atmosphere in that place meant that not jumping really didn’t feel like an option, and as Daena launched herself 130m with a smile on her face into the valley below, it was now my turn. After having my feet shackled to a bungee, I inched along the platform – easily the worst part of the whole process. Just two inches away from the end, I heard the instructor tell me I needed to move forward. Even though I knew I was about to jump down, shuffling those final two inches was excruciating. Next thing I knew I was flying. Everything went silent and free falling down into a ravine felt strangely natural – it was incredible. We celebrated still being alive with a beer before promising to go out that evening for a Queenstown send off. It ended up being a great night with everyone to round out a lovely week off the bike.

The next day was to be a fun one over a 900m climb to the nearby lakeside town of Wanaka. I was due to stay with Joe, a warmshowers host, but it turned out he was currently out of town riding down the west coast. Instead of just sending me on, he organised for me to crash with his flatmates and we planned to meet for a drink in a few days time, on the west coast road. The road turned out to be a real peach, but before I could really enjoy it, I had to press through a few more days of serious headwind and driving rain. But when the sun finally broke through, I found myself riding through a luscious rainforest that flanked a stunning coastline. Giant glaciers flowed down mountains by the road, glowing orange in the setting sun. Quaint farmlands passed under my wheels as the quiet road slowly revealed more of its secrets. I’d heard good things about this region, yet hadn’t expected to be able to see the bulk of it bathed in a warm sun. After four days along the coastal road, and a 100km detour off up the west coast wilderness trail, I caught Joe in Greymouth over a cuppa. We talked all things bikes, as he was planning to ride from Singapore to London which I’d just done myself. I vowed to meet him in the capital as he finished off his epic trip. I should be home by then…

New Zealand had been a real treat on the eye so far, but I fancied a little more adventure. As I spent a night couchsurfing with Peter – a keen hiker – pouring over maps in his off the grid log cabin, we started to formulate a little plan. It involved a track ominously named ‘the old ghost road’. I wasn’t entirely sure I’d be up to it, as me and my gear didn’t quite tick the ‘experienced mountainbiker’ box the website described, but as the trail I’d intended on riding for the next few days turned out to be closed, I started to come round to the idea. Maybe I could just push the ‘extreme grade 5 sections…’ I had no idea what grade 5 even was! All I had to go on was that I’d managed to do all the 4-day easy trail rides in one day, so maybe if I allotted the supposed time for this one I’d be alright…? A lot of ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’, nevertheless, I had a lovely evening chatting to Peter about life off the grid and his previous cycling trips in Europe. The next day we rode out together for 15 km’s (his normal trip to pick up his milk!) as I took to another gravel road to Murchison.

As I came into town, a well-built man in the luminous orange work overalls tapped me on the back  – ‘It’s me you’re looking for’ he said with a big smile on his face. So it was. Owen had offered his place for me to stay after I made my last minute change of plan due to the closed trail that morning (I’ll never cease to be amazed at the kindness of strangers on this trip). He was telling me about how beautiful the north-western reaches of the south island are where he used to live. I really fancied exploring over there but it would mean riding back on myself – something I loathe to do – especially as this road had a chunky 800m climb slap bang in the middle of it… Unless, he suggested, I rode this Old Ghost Road track, then followed it up immediately by riding a 80km walking track called the ‘Heaphy’. That’d bring me out right at the top of the island where I could ride the road for a few days to Picton, and the ferry to the north island. I checked out the Heaphy trail online – it was open to mountain bikers during the winter months – it was on. I dashed to the corner shop, picked up five tins of beans and a mound of muesli bars to compliment my instant noodles and tin of rice pudding I already had. I was stocked up and ready to ride the Old Ghost road the following day. I was certain the next five days were sure to be an adventure. I was right about that…

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