Feel the Wind in Your Face

Feel the Wind in Your Face

Andrew Marshall packs his puncture repair kit and pedals off in New Zealand to discover volcanic landscapes, gushing geysers, tumbling glaciers and rugged coastlines backed by a prehistoric rainforest.



The port of Picton, gateway to the South Island

The port of Picton, gateway to the South Island

“It’s magnificent cycling country,” declared 65-year-old Andy Bremner when I met him inside the Adventure Cycle shop in downtown Auckland. Tanned, fit and sporting a mile-wide grin, Andy was completing his third season pedalling through New Zealand and had so far clocked up 3,000 km. “There’s nothing I like better than to pack up each morning, load the panniers on the racks, look over the handlebars and head off down that open road,” he said.

With its magnificent volcanic landscapes, gushing geysers and rugged coastlines backed by a prehistoric rainforest, there can be no better way to experience this cool green land, and certainly no better speed, than by bicycle.

My plan was to cycle from the North Island to the glaciers in the South Island, but when I got down to the actual route planning, the line on my map zigzagged all over the place in an attempt to take in just some of the abundant points of interest.

It was a grey, drizzly Auckland morning when I caught the ferry to the Coromandel Peninsula — a densely forested coastal strip across the Firth of Thames. The boat had barely pulled alongside the dock before I was off, legs pumping, and the salt air fresh in my lungs, the bitumen rolling steadily beneath my wheels.

Cycling along the coast, I passed through the character-ful towns of Manaia, Waikawau and Tapu. By late afternoon, I’d covered my first 50km with just enough time to set up camp in Thames, and cook a quick pasta on my stove before dark.

Day two is always the hardest on a cycle tour. The reality of stiff muscles and a tender behind hit home as I loaded up the bike and hit the road. But a couple of hours later, the stunning scenery was enough to distract my mind from aching body parts. And besides, the first of many highlights was within reach.

In the coming days, I turned inland to the Rotorua region, world famous for its geysers, hot springs, mud pools and shimmering lakes. I spent endless days in the saddle skirting the very heart of the North Island, along the shores of beautiful Lake Taupo, New Zealand’s largest lake and on to the Tongariro National Park.

With its collection of mighty and still active volcanoes, Tongariro is one of the country’s most spectacular parks. There was something surreal and ‘other worldly’ about climbing warily around the crater rim of a still active volcano. Couple this with a fantasy landscape of volcanic dykes, swirling clouds of steam and gasses, of chemical blue lakes that lie in the folds of a grey desert streaked with sulphur and what you have is the 17km Tongariro Crossing... one of the best ‘day walks’ in the country and a definite cycle tour highlight.

The crossing from North Island to South Island is always a psychological milestone for any cyclist. Leaving the cultural and artistic hub of Wellington, I rode the ferry to the pretty little town of Picton, situated at the head of the Queen Charlotte Sound on the South Island.

The lack of traffic was immediately apparent as I pedalled off towards Nelson, revelling in magnificent coastal views over the Marlborough Sound. For the weary cyclist like myself, the laidback town of Nelson represented a cosmopolitan oasis; waterholes at local pubs, great restaurants and the best chance to stock up on provisions for my 2-3 day journey inland and across to Westport on the west coast.

Cycling New Zealand is certainly a challenge but, despite its hilly nature, it attracts cyclists from all over the globe and stopping to chat is a common occurrence. “You’ve got about 5km of climbing ahead of you, but it’s a great downhill after that,” is typical of the comments from fellow cyclists you meet on the road.

From Dutch couples, members of the Cross Canada Cycle Tour Society, single Kiwis, to super-fit German couples towing trailers of gear behind the latest in bicycle technology, there seemed no limit to age or nationality, all sharing a great sense of adventure and camaraderie.

From Westport to Greymouth, South Highway 6 hugs the west coast as tightly as a pair of Lycra bike shorts. In a series of dramatic switchbacks, the road snakes between the white-capped breakers out to sea, and the foothills of the rainforest-clad Paparoa Ranges, cloaked in tree ferns and stands of ancient beech, rata and rimu.

After days in the saddle, sampling some of the world’s most glorious scenery, I was finally within reach of my goal, the Franz Josef Glacier situated in the World Heritage Westland National Park. The glacier along with the nearby Fox Glacier is unique, for nowhere else on earth at this latitude have they advanced so close to the sea.

But cycling is not the way to go in this land of ice; it’s much better to take the helicopter. The whirr of the chopper’s blades sounded like a gigantic insect when it came in to land, sending a blast of wind towards the small group of waiting travellers. The athletic figure of outdoor guide 
Murray Naylor crouched low beside the helicopter as he beckoned each person over one by one.

This was the start of my heli-hike — and within a few minutes, the helicopter was flying over an immense river of ice that tumbled down a densely-forested valley towards the sea. After superb panoramic views of the surrounding snow-capped mountains, we landed high up on top of the glacier between the icefalls for the start of our two-hour guided trip.

“This is one of the most dynamic glaciers in the world,” Murray told us as we donned warm hats and jackets to combat the sudden blast of cold air. “At times, the glacier can move at up to five metres a day, over ten times as fast as glaciers in the Swiss Alps.”

I quickly found myself immersed in a surreal landscape, surrounded by the sculptural beauty of ice. Fluted towers, eroded pinnacles, tunnels, pools, crevasses and frozen waves. The surface looked thin and brittle in places but can, in fact, be up to 150 metres thick. It was an awesome opportunity to experience the type of scenery that is usually the domain of mountaineers.

Leaning on my ice axe I took a breather and savoured the view. Back down the glacier’s flank a group of hikers created a snaking ribbon of colour that contrasted vividly against the white of the ice, putting into perspective the immensity of this frozen world.

It seemed the perfect moment to reflect on my bicycle journey. Within a month I’d accomplished what I had set out to do, ride from north to south and reach the glaciers by pedal power-a journey of nearly 2,000km. Now all that was left was the bus, ferry and train back to Auckland. The thought left me feeling flat. Already I was yearning to be back in the saddle again, with the wind in my face and the constant unlimited beauty of this green mountainous land filling my view.


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