Tuesday, 29 October 2019

Challenging ourselves in China

I'm home, finally. And, I have to admit, a little reluctantly. Tour Leader has been back in his happy place for the past fortnight, planting the vege garden and riding his beloved Picton trails, while Suzanne and I were adventuring in Asia.

How to best describe our week in China? An incongruous metaphor, I know, but I feel as though I’ve been dipped into a vat of wondrous experiences and then hauled out, dripping wet but seasoned with exotic new flavours. And I'm not just talking about the food.
Our first day on the Wall, with fellow trekkers

It was a giant leap into the unknown when we landed at Beijing airport late at night. The arrangement with the tour company was that we would be met by a driver who would then deliver us to the rest of the Great Wall trekkers.

The airport proved to be the first challenge. Let's just say there was no welcoming vibe in the cavernous arrivals hall. We walked. We queued. We pressed thumbprints onto a screen. We queued. We handed over our passports with necessary visas. We pressed our thumbs again and, this time, various other digits onto a screen. We waited and waited for a train then shuffled to the luggage carousel and through customs.

The excitement of emerging onto the public concourse and scanning faces to find our names on a board was tempered by the fact that it was now well after midnight, not at all a sensible time to be embarking on an adventure in the Middle Kingdom.

Sun, our driver, was inordinately chatty for the time of night. In return, we could only offer a drowsy wakefulness as the kilometers ticked over.  With the rest of China sensibly asleep, Sun had the roads to himself and made the most of the 120 km/hour speed limit.
A Great Wall 'restaurant', with elderly dog.
We were always the only guests at our evening meals

We met the four other trekkers at breakfast in the guesthouse the next morning. Having joined the tour late (our original challenge trek had been cancelled), we were happy to be amongst congenial Aussie company. That first breakfast became the pattern for the remainder of the week. It was plentiful and fresh, it involved rice and vegetables and jasmine tea and it required chopsticks. No matter where we ate, and how impoverished the surroundings, the food was always delicious.

Our first day of trekking saw us climb innumerable steps to reach the top of the wall at Gubeikou. On this quiet, unrestored part of the Wall there were few other walkers so we made good progress, despite regular photo stops.  It was a day of wild beauty, open skies and breathtaking vistas of the Wall snaking across the ridges behind and in front of us.

Lunch on the first day was
served in an ancient tower
As our group neared the more populous sections of the Wall, especially around Jinshanling, the watchtowers became insistent and we spent more time and energy clambering up and down steep staircases than actually moving forward. By the third day, the mission was to navigate through the crowds of day-tripping wall walkers and past the sellers of tee-shirts and trinkets camped at each watchtower.
We shared the Wall with many, many Chinese in festive mood 

So it was with a sense of great achievement that we finished our trek on day four with a steep climb from our campsite in the valley up to Wang Jing tower at the summit of Mt Simatai.
Here, we found ourselves the only foreigners amongst a cascade of Chinese day trekkers who streamed onto the summit from a ruinous section of the Great Wall, officially closed to the public. They were just as excited as us about reaching the tower, not surprisingly given that they'd disobeyed a number of signs prohibiting climbing that route,  and were keen to record the experience with the nearest Westerner. A frenzy of picture-taking ensued.

It was hard not to admire these agile young things who could nimbly climb great heights along broken walls then promptly light a cigarette to celebrate.

Respect, though, to the slightly older chap who managed to negotiate a long stretch of the prohibited section of wall with a cigarette in his mouth the WHOLE way. He was using both hands to stay alive, of course, so where else could he park it? (Away from Australia and New Zealand, smoking in public is at epidemic levels, even amongst the young and fit. In Croatia, our mountain bike guide Marko would regularly disappear for a quiet smoke. His colleague, a super-intelligent history teacher who moonlighted as a bike tour guide, could be seen on deck at night having a surreptitious vape. In French cafés, we were generally driven indoors in the summer heat because the outdoors was owned by smokers.)
With my imperial guardian lioness
at the end of our Great Wall trek

Our return to Beijing had the advantage of daylight this time but the obvious disadvantage of congested roads. It was late afternoon before we reached the Dong Fang hotel, home for the next few days.

The Dong Fang opened in 1918, and has had a long association with China's political leaders. It was at the Dong Fang, for instance, that a group of scholars gathered to develop pinyin, the system of converting Chinese characters into the Latin alphabet. Or so they claim. Wikipedia research suggests a longer timeline and a broader range of personnel were involved. But why spoil a good story? I can safely say, though, that the hotel's décor has barely changed in its 101-year history.  After two nights in tents in the shadow of the Wall, Suzanne and I were very happy to indulge in its period charm. The shower was especially popular.

Beijing was a blur of temples, palaces and vast open spaces. With our guide, we navigated the crowds to explore the Forbidden Palace and Tiananmen Square. With fellow trekkers Cathy and Steve, we enjoyed the delightful Summer Palace, the Emperor's wee bach on the outskirts of the city. On our own, Suzanne and I used the modern metro system to broaden our shopping parameters.

Walking the length of Tiananmen Square, we observed thousands  of people (for once, I'm not indulging in hyperbole) dutifully queuing in the heat to shuffle past Mao's tomb. It was too easy to recall the events of April 1989 when mass resistance resulted in a massacre, and the image that conveyed the story to the rest of the world. But that's China: a country of complexities.
Tiananmen Square

China has been good for us. This adventure was never going to be easy travelling.  But Suzanne and I signed up for the Great Wall trek in order to be challenged. We signed up, too, because we both wanted to support the work of the Mental Health Foundation. Our fundraising challenge was to Conquer the Wall. And thanks to so many of you now reading this blog, we did just that.

Thursday, 24 October 2019

Crumbling walls

I've been thinking about walls lately, no doubt influenced by my impending trip to China and the greatest Wall of all. But here we are in the former Yugoslavia, enjoying a stay in Dubrovnik, an ancient  city that’s defined by its walls. I'm with Suzanne, who joined us in Zurich for this trip to Croatia.
Laundry lines, Split

In the mid-eighties, our Kombi van trundled down the Yugoslav coast, having recovered from an engine transplant in Munich. My memories of that drive are vague but I do recall being dazzled by the beauty of Split and Dubrovnik and the coastline in between.

Oh wait. Back home, Bruce has found our old travel journal and sent me a photo of the relevant pages. It seems we were also preoccupied by bathroom facilities and house-building styles. Really? And my final comment - "The Yugoslav red wine slips down smoothly but what will we feel like in the morning?" Sadly, the next day's entry failed to answer this burning question.

So much has happened in the world since. Only five years later, cracks began to appear in the Wall dividing west from east. As the Soviet Union crumbled, Dalmatians broke away from Yugoslavia, which led to civil war and then, in the aftermath, redefined borders. From socialist state to tourist mecca, Croatia has undergone a remarkable transformation.

Back to the future. It was a shortish Saturday morning flight from Zurich to Croatia on the delightfully named Edelweiss Air service, though sadly there was no sign of a husky-voiced Captain von Trapp and his beloved guitar on board.

Our destination was the port of Trogir where we were met by an array of handsome looking boats. Ours was the San Snova, a gleaming 30 metre wooden motor launch, which, once we three were on board (apparently, we were the last to make it to the ship), upped anchor and headed out to sea.
The San Snova, berthed at Stari Grad

You may be wondering how in the world I had managed to entice Biker Boy offshore. Well, it turns out that it’s possible to cruise and cycle in Croatia. Island hopping it’s called, and just about every boat on the Trogir wharf that afternoon was loading bikes as well as passengers.

The San Snova had a point of difference though, in that it offered both mountain biking and touring options on the same cruise. Some months ago when booking the tour, I had been forced to choose between spouse and sister-in-law.  Would I sedately ride the tarseal with Suzanne, or take up my accustomed place behind Tour Leader on the more challenging rocky trails?

Opting for off-road excitement, I was rewarded with a pretty blue bike, with all the bells and whistles. Well, no actual bell, because mountain bikers don't do frills, but there was full suspension, along with a dropper post and reassuringly knobbly tyres.
Of the 30 passengers aboard the San Snova, we mountain bikers (five Swiss, two Kiwis) were a tight group of seven, led by the irrepressibly cheerful and fearless Marko. On Day 1 he challenged each of us to ride down a flight of stone steps. I chickened out. On our last day of riding, another set of steps presented itself. Marko saw that I needed to do this, gave me some technical advice (“No brakes!”) and sent me down. Legend.

Another hill climb done and dusted
There are 1,200 islands off the Croatian coast. We ticked off only a few on our seven-day biking cruise but each village we cycled through turned out to be another colourful jewel set against the deep blue Adriatic sea.

The week was a blur of dusty trails, steep (“undulating”) hills, beautiful villages and timely beer and coffee stops. And, on board, good company and hearty (read, meat at every meal) Croatian food.

Here's a video created by a talented couple onboard the San Snova, Wilma and Chris. It captures our week beautifully: Southern Dalmatia Tour 2019

When our floating hotel berthed a week later, Suzanne and I saw Bruce off to the bus station – the first stage of his long journey back to New Zealand. For we girls though, still on a post-cycling high, there was fun to be had in Split. Our bijou apartment – aka a tiny room with kitchen – was nestled right into the walls of Diocletian’s Palace.

Diocletian, a Roman emperor who built the palace as his grandiose retirement villa in 300 AD, surely loved his walls. The old town is a delightful labyrinth of narrow alleyways, each with their own enticing waiters and cajoling retailers. We enjoyed an afternoon and evening strolling through the old town's pedestrian streets, honing bargaining skills and gate-crashing wedding parties.
Split nuptials

A day later, we took to the water again, catching a fast cat ferry to Dubrovnik. It was a challenge to discover that our apartment was at the top of the old town, almost right on the city wall. To be precise, we were 122 ancient stone steps above the main street. But we were in training for our Great Wall trek and were not to be deterred.

Dubrovnik has been around in some  form since at least the 8th century and is no stranger to conflict. At various times, it has had Byzantine, Venetian, Serbian and Ottoman rulers. In 1991,  the collapse of Yugoslavia saw the emergence of the new nation of Croatia. In the ensuing conflict,  the city was besieged for seven months by the Jugoslav National Army with the loss of many lives.

Marking a life lost during the siege of Dubrovnik 

Today, though, the invaders are tourists. Ironically, Dubrovnik's walls, which were built as a defence against invaders, now attract an annual invasion of hundreds of thousands of visitors, most of them from the 500-plus cruise ships that berth here each year. It's a city under siege once again.
Old port

We did our best to avoid the waves of humanity flooding through Pile Gate each morning, by kayaking around the perimeter  of the walls one day and climbing 500 metres up to Napoleon Bonaparte's fortress the next.

My lasting memory of this beautiful World Heritage-listed city is of the pre-dawn limestone-paved Stradun (main street). Deserted but for two Kiwis towing suitcases – on our way to catch an early flight. Before the hordes of visitors breach the gates.
Early morning Dubrovnik

Sunday, 6 October 2019

Dordogne delights

 We have just spent four fabulous days in the Dordogne region of France. And while we’ve wandered through any number of photoworthy villages and enjoyed stunning rural skylines, it is the interactions with other humans that leave lasting memories.

Our hosts Jill and Brian, pulled out all the stops to welcome us.  Our reception at Le Buisson station on Saturday morning really needed only a red carpet, brass band and  bunting to make it a full civic occasion. Having been kept up to date with my daily journal (well, since you ask, https://www.cycleblaze.com/journals/peeps/ ) Brian had even scoured the shelves of local stores to produce a welcoming array of red, white and rosé. What more could we ask?
The grounds of the gîte on a foggy autumn morning

Next morning, the Kiwi peloton set off from the gîte for an impressive (in terms of the hilly terrain) 30-plus kilometre loop of this beautiful countryside, crossing the Dordogne river twice and calling in on two villages, Limeuil and Tremolat. We were riding our trusty touring bikes, blissfully without panniers, while Jill and Brian had rented a couple of nice-looking Treks.

After the generally flatt(ish) greenways and canal paths that Tour Leader and I have encountered in previous weeks, the Dordogne landscape is consistently undulating. Translate that as you will, but it would be fair to say the ride was a good challenge for three of us. It was a relief, then, to pedal over the bridge and into Limeuil for our first stop.

We did it ...uphill

Limeuil is a medieval hillside village that rolls down to the confluence of  two languid rivers, the Dordogne and the Vezère. Beauty oozes from its warm tiled rooflines and stone walls.  We stayed in this village for a fortnight on our way to the London Olympics in 2012 so we're looking forward to this morning’s visit. And it does not disappoint.

Morning coffees and pastries at a café overlooking the two rivers inspired a flurry of social media activity of the hashtag-how-cool-is-this ilk. And you’d have to agree, if you were sitting in the sun there with us, it was a magical moment.

After caffeine, we climbed the narrow street, past so many photo opportunities, to the open square at the top of the hill.  Here we could take a peek at our 2012 home, a 16th century magistrate's house, complete with a cellar which once doubled as a lockup for drunken sailors.

Cheeky fellas, Mirabeau
Back on the bikes, our next stop was Tremolat, a mere two hills or so away. We enjoyed lunch there and a great chat with four English travellers who were intrigued by our Kiwi accents. Wearing her NZ Tourism hat, Jill even roughed out a few itineraries for the couple who were keen to head Down Under.

The Dordogne region is a popular destination for the English and has been since forever.  Who hasn’t watched an episode of that TV show “English couples trying to buy a bargain in the French countryside and meeting many obstacles in the form of reluctant tradesmen and red tape”?

OK, I may have made that up but you know what I mean. Which explains why, after a month of greeting people in French, I have felt rather odd saying bonjour to all and sundry since arriving here. The chances are that those sundry saying bonjour back are English. Just too weird!

Back in Limeuil this morning, we had chatted to an older English couple who'd noticed the Kia ora on the back of my bike. They spend five months in their Dordogne home every year and were on their way back to the UK, along with their wee dog, to see the winter out in a warmer house. When I commented on the ubiquity of the English here, Mrs Brit replied in a flash, “Well after all, this was our first colony”. And yes, there was a certain sense of entitlement in her response.
Jill and Bruce in a-maze-ing Campagne. Sorry.

Another day, another ancient church. We were in Le Buisson de Cadouin, a popular tourist destination because of its 12th century abbey. And what remains of it is indeed a fine landmark. The French Revolution six centuries later saw its possessions looted and the library burnt down. Progress eh?

But plenty of visitors still flock to the large square in the centre of the town to admire the church building that still stands. The drawcard for us, though, after an afternoon of exploring by car, was the ice cream sign spotted in a quiet corner. It was 3pm, right on opening time.

So we ordered. And sat outside. And waited. Monsieur mimed and gesticulated to suggest that the ice cream was in the freezer and needed to soften. The afternoon unfolded further. We sat and softened a little ourselves. Monsieur whistled and sang, ignored instructions from his wife in the window upstairs (“I make ice creams!”) And gave us regular updates on the state of the ice cream.
Le Buisson ...beyond ice creams

 I can't recall the exact order of events – it played out over some time – but by the time we had our treats in hand,  a bond had been forged over rugby. Monsieur Rashid was from Toulouse, Jerome Kaino now plays for Toulouse. So, to illustrate this connection Rashid needed to borrow Brian to demonstrate a Kaino tackle. Pure theatre!

Reading the signs, Belvès

Of course we had to go back. On the pretext of buying some gorgeous pottery from the studio next door, we found ourselves outside the café dead on three o'clock a couple of days later. Things unfolded much as before. This time, we were asked to perform a haka in exchange for free ice creams. Brian gave it his best shot mais non, we fell short of the expected standard. A mere 35 minutes later, defrosted ice creams finally in hand, we farewelled footy-loving Rashid and the Abbey of Cadouin.

Our final day's outing was to Domme, an ancient fortified town (bastide) perched 150 metres above the Dordogne river. En route we stopped to explore the fairytale Château de Mirabeau. As beautiful as it is, the history of this castle is eclipsed by the story of its celebrated owner, Josephine Baker. Wikipedia labels her as a French entertainer, which barely does her justice. This talented black American performer taught herself to dance, left home at 16 to find fame in France in the 1920s, joined the Resistance during the war and later became a civil rights activist. Oh and adopted 12 children. Her life was a compelling and ultimately sad story.

Château Mirabeau
On to happier things. Ascending to Domme’s highest point, we enjoyed a convivial lunch in dramatically stormy conditions as a weather front passed overhead.

I've written more than usual in this blog – there seemed so much to say, and so much I still haven't said – but this return trip to the Dordogne was something special. And again, it was very much about the people. Thank goodness for characters like Rashid, and the English colonisers. Thank goodness for friends like Jill and Brian.

Think I left a piece of my heart in Limeuil

Saturday, 21 September 2019

Why life should be more like parkrun

I've noticed something recently about how my  mind works. Doing something physical provides mental space. Whether cycling long distances or jogging around the block, once the activity is underway, auto-pilot seems to take over.

Excellent, says my brain, I'll fill up that space with something useful like . . . oh maybe constructing a shopping list for the next time I see a supermarket. Or how about trying to recite the NATO phonetic alphabet? (You know - Alpha, Bravo, Charlie. Delta, Echo . . . I can never remember O, P or V.)  Seriously annoying. I wish it wouldn't.

In case you were

Sometimes, though, my organising brain goes off to have a lie down which allows random ideas to percolate, rearrange themselves and grow into coherent thoughts. Today was one of those days.

Along with 350 or so others, I was jogging around a 5km course on the island of Jersey. It's Saturday, even if on the other side of the world, so yes, it was a parkrun event.
After parkrun this morning, we enjoyed a stroll
around Jersey's lavender farm 

I'm a huge parkrun fan and have written about it before.  Today though I realised why. Put simply, parkrun is a blueprint for life as it should be lived.

Let me share this with you.

First, be supportive. Be kind. Be inclusive. Parkrunners make a point of cheering each other on. At the start line, elite athletes mingle with the rest of us, who tend to come in a variety of larger shapes and sizes. Volunteer marshals encourage us as we pass them by. Finishers are applauded whether they've raced through in 18 minutes or walked with the baby in a pushchair for an hour.

Enthusiastic volunteers
at Jersey parkrun
We all have our own personal goals, because that's what motivates us, but we love to recognise the achievements of our fellow parkrunners.

Next, be organised and be on time. It takes some effort to reach the start line by 8am on a dark winter's morning. (Or 9am on this side of the world). But the event director won't wait for stragglers. Nor should life.

Sharing your world with animals can be so rewarding. Many lucky dogs get to do parkrun with their humans - and they just LOVE it. Parkrunning dogs are welcomed, so long as they're under control. They even have their own feature - Parkdog of the Week -  in the newsletter emailed regularly to their humans. And their enthusiasm is infectious.
Meet Ollie, my grand-furkid,
doing his first parkrun.

Keep scanning the horizon. Understanding how others live their lives leads to acceptance of differences.

Overseas travel isn't for everyone but parkrun provides the perfect opportunity to explore the world. Visitors are always made welcome at parkrun events. And, no matter where in the world, parkrunners are encouraged to meet up and chat at a cafe afterwards. It's a rule, and a good one.

Finally, parkrun has pushed me to do more than I thought I could. So far, I've run a cumulative 500 kilometres, one Saturday morning at a time. And I've been welcomed into a community of people who look out for each other.

Come join us.

Tuesday, 30 July 2019

Where's Harry?

It's not often that one follows in the footsteps of royalty. Especially given that one's other half is an avowed republican. (That's certainly NOT with a capital R, thank you very much, autocorrect.) And more especially not when one has forsaken one's cashmere, tweeds and nude heels in favour of merino, goretex and gumboots.

But here we were, on our way to Rakiura/Stewart Island, dressed in aforementioned garb and blissfully unaware we would be clomping along in the shadow of Prince Harry. (Astute readers will have noticed the shift in personal pronouns. Well done, both of you. One has reached one's limit.)

It was not a promising start. We'd arrived at the rather breezy Bluff ferry terminal well on time for our 9am departure, farewelling Bill in the car park. It was difficult to remain upright as we trundled our bags into the terminal, a hint perhaps of things to come. There was no sign of our catamaran. It hadn't yet made it across the strait. Too windy, apparently. Big seas. Hmm.
The pole is actually keeping me upright

Many blustery hours later, a suspiciously small vessel tied up at the wharf and we were shepherded on board. This was not a voyage for the faint-hearted. Or for the weak of stomach, though some of those unfortunately made it onboard. Dwarfed by alarming swells, the little catamaran-that-could ploughed its away across the notoriously fickle Foveaux Strait.

Helpful hint: What's the best way to avoid seasickness? According to a local ferry skipper, to stand under a tree.

The first clue that our week-long Rakiura expedition onboard the Milford Wanderer could involve a royal scavenger hunt came from a most unlikely chance meeting. We had bumped into Simon at the Bluff terminal.  He was one of the good guys at St Peter's and is now teaching in the South Island. Simon and his uncle were off to the family bach  for a few days.  Stumbling across a familiar face at the extreme edge of the country, what were the odds? Nah, Kiwi as, bro.

Simon filled us in on pub quiz, a regular Sunday night affair at the South Seas hotel in Oban. He and his uncle had automatic right of entry whenever they were on the island.Did we want to come? Did we know that Prince Harry had also been to pub quiz? Regretfully, we had to decline. We had a luxury floating hotel to board and gourmet food to nibble on. But we appreciated the offer to join such illustrious company.
The Milford Wanderer
As the Southland Times breathlessly reported in May 2015, Harry had indeed led the 'Ginger Ninjas' team to 2nd place, pipped for glory by his personal protection officers. His team faced a barrage of questions on royal music, corgis and Eton Mess, apparently.

The Times' headline encapsulates the evening: "Prince Harry's rowdy pub quiz night on Stewart Island." A good time was clearly had by all, including the then-bachelor Prince.

Meanwhile, our little cat had berthed alongside Oban wharf. Simon and his uncle strode off to conquer pub quiz while most of the remaining ferry passengers, ourselves included, tottered the few metres to the Milford Wanderer. Dinner that first night was roast pork, with pavlova to follow. In case you were interested.
Intrepid (but well fed) adventurers

Like many of the 30-odd passengers on board the boat, we were repeat customers, having spent a week, three years ago, poking around deepest Fiordland. This time, we were to explore Port Pegasus, to the south-east of Oban, and Paterson Inlet.

I could wax lyrical (which is obviously a posher way of rabbiting on) about these cruises. But I'll spare you. They are magnificent. If you ever have the opportunity, there is no better way to explore these rugged wilderness areas of New Zealand. Google Real Journeys. Go on.

We had a talented artist on board the Wanderer. Michael was never without his sketchpad and drew a constant stream of admirers as he magically conveyed the day's experiences onto the page. His artwork somehow perfectly captures the spirit of Rakiura, something that often eludes the photographer.  michael_david_geissler is a joy to follow on Instagram.
A curious juvenile female Hooker's sea lion/whakahao

We spent some days exploring Port Pegasus, hiking, climbing Bald Cone and encountering sea lions. [Rakiura salmon and apple pie. Roast duck and chocolate brittle with ice cream. Roast beef followed by beetroot chocolate cake.]

The final leg of the cruise saw us return to Paterson Inlet, a four-hour sea journey, where we were met by a pint-sized border control officer.  Detector Gadget, a crossbred terrier, has been trained to hunt out rats. Only after a Gadget bag-check were we able to board the tender for an afternoon on Ulva Island.

Part of Rakiura National Park, Ulva is a DOC-managed predator-free sanctuary for bird and plant life. And it is simply stunning. Joseph Banks famously described the dawn chorus in the Marlborough Sounds as '...the most melodious wild musick I have ever heard, almost imitating small bells ...'. There was certainly a sense of that 'wild musick' enveloping us as we toured the island with our DOC guide, with the likes of saddlebacks, weka, Chatham Island robins, kaka, kereru and tui for company.
You're never too old for a cool stamp!

This was our final full day on board the Wanderer. So it was an evening of relaxed conversations and exchanges of contact details.

As had been the case throughout the week, it was interesting to watch the crew in action at dinner time. All seven of them, skipper included, were rostered on to serving meals, clearing tables and washing dishes. This was a very shipshape ship indeed. [Oh sorry. Lamb ribs, ice cream.]

The following afternoon, we disembarked for the final time and were given an hour to explore Oban before taking the ferry back to Bill on the Mainland.
Where it all happened . .  Or did it?

On the pretext of needing an-actual-flat-white-kind-of-coffee-for-the-first-time-in-a-week, I coerced Bruce into the public bar of the South Seas hotel, scanning the walls for princely photos or memorabilia.. The coffee was good. The ambience, well, what you'd expect in Stewart Island's only watering hole.But not a skerrick of evidence of The Royal Visit.

I guess that's the Rakiura way. What goes on during pub quiz stays on the island. As it should.

Thursday, 4 July 2019

Getting away from it all

Well, hello. It's been a while.

I've dabbled recently with writing for publication. The resoundingly silent response suggests that I should stick to my knitting. So, another travel blog it is.

We're in Bill as I write this, parked up for lunch in Lawrence, a stone's throw from historic Gabriel's Gully in the deep South. The persistent rain and wintry temperatures are what you'd expect this time of the year but we have been blessed with blue skies in recent days while riding the Otago Central Rail Trail.

Chatto Creek pub
This is the grandaddy of all of New Zealand's cycle trails. It opened for business at the turn of the millennium, 2000 (Remember the Bug?) thanks to the foresight of DOC and a few locals. Here's a link to the rail trail's history

We've cycled stretches of it over the years. But now was the time to knock it off, from go to whoa.

There was a certain romantic notion, I admit, of pedalling through Central Otago in the middle of winter. Blue skies, I thought. Crisp, frosty mornings. Rest stops in photogenic hamlets involving great coffee, date scones and congenial chats with others of the lycra ilk.
Scenery just keeps coming at you

Well, two out of three. The weather gods smiled fondly on us. We splashed through frozen puddles. But. There were no people.

Oh wait. On day one, we exchanged greetings with two chaps walking the length of Te Araroa. And on day two, we crossed paths with another couple of cyclists, though only waves were exchanged this time.

During the season, which peaks in April when autumn colours abound, up to 20,000 people cycle or walk the entire trail, with many, many more completing short sections. Crazy busy.

And then, it's not. The tour operators, shuttle drivers, café owners, accommodation providers, lycra launderers, baristas, scone makers, bedmakers all need a break. So off they go - to Rarotonga maybe, or Hawaii,  or the Gold Coast. Anywhere but Central. Anywhere warm, understandably.

This seasonal shutdown, along with a lack of planning on our part, provided some challenges. We needed to start and end each day in Bill.  And we did, thanks to the laid-back approach of a couple of shuttle drivers who must have missed the flight to Rarotonga. Fletch went out of her way (literally - she had to drive back to Lauder) to pick Bruce up at the end of the first day, then gave him Terry's phone number. Terry rearranged his baggage pick-up the following day, told us our bikes would be "as safe as a church" at the Ranfurly station, and delivered us back to Bill.

And the owners of the Lauder pub, where I waited on the verandah in the chilly dark for Bruce and Bill to return. They weren't open for customers that evening but were concerned enough to keep checking on me for the hour or so until the cavalry arrived.
Comfy couches for long waits

Riding this trail in winter was not the experience I had imagined. The scenery was stunning, of course.

 But thanks to Nobby*, Fletch, and Terry, (names have NOT been changed), it was quite the experience.

But isn't that the way?  We may seek grand landscapes when setting forth on great adventures but it is the people we remember.

He tāngata, he tāngata, he tāngata.

Speaking of grand landscapes . . .

Saturday, 15 December 2018

Westward Ho!

A standout memory from my teaching career was the day that I had to defend William Shakespeare's choice of language from charges of inappropriateness. In The Tempest, Act I, Prospero summons Caliban, his beastly servant.

       '. . . What, ho! Slave! Caliban!
      Thou earth, thou! speak! 

There is no easy translation for 'ho' - though 'hey there' would do the job. To this classroom of teens, however, my attempts at offering alternate meanings were clearly inadequate. They were offended, in a giggly sort of way, that this old timer (Shakespeare, you understand) could use such pejorative language. To be fair, this is Caliban's first appearance in the play. Perhaps his gender was unclear. Perhaps Prospero was indeed looking for a ho . . .

Where am I going with this? Thanks for asking. Westward. Ho. In Bill.

Bill has had a life of his own lately (Bill, you ho!)  so we thought it time to renew family bonds. He has been rented out to couples and families wanting to explore the South Island, via the Mighway platform, which can be best described as Bookabach on wheels.

With two more hires still to come this summer, we seized the chance for a few days away on the West Coast. 

At the end of the Buller Gorge, there is a choice. Left to Greymouth and the glaciers, right to Westport. Left to the tourist trail. Right to empty roads and vast rain-washed skies. 

After a night parked on the beach just north of the Big Smoke, Westport, we continued up the coastal road, turning right at Waimangaroa to travel nine steep kilometers and 130 years back in time. The Denniston plateau,  well known probably thanks to Jenny Pattrick's novels, is another world, high in the sky. We rode our bikes over challenging and unforgiving rocky terrain before the encroaching clouds and precipitation forced us back to Bill and dry clothes. 

Then we wandered around the ghostly remains of the aerial tramway that took coal, on an industrial scale,  from this inhospitable landscape. The lives of the miners and their families were as fraught as you'd imagine. For the twenty years before the road was constructed, the only practicable way down the hill was by coal cart - straight over the edge of the plateau 500 metres above sea level. Some women never left Denniston in those 20 years.

Warning: more history to come.

Sometime during the last millennium, we took a road trip to the Coast with cousins Graham and Julia. This was probably in the 1970s, so picture us as four fresh-faced and naive city-dwelling 20-somethings.

North of the Denniston turnoff lie the three hamlets of Granity, Ngakawau and Hector. They merge into each other now but Ngakawau is the subject of this shuffle down memory lane.
Time for a beer?

After a night in Westport, the four of us planned to visit a distant cousin of Julia's. We drove to Ngakawau early in the morning, pinpointed the house of the distant cousin and knocked on the door, looking forward to a nice cup of tea.

The distant cousin's name is long gone from my memory but his hospitality has become legend. "Would you folk like a beer?" Sigh.

A little further north of Ngakawau, we parked up at Gentle Annie at the mouth of the Mokihinui River, a location better known to overseas tourists than to Kiwis, I suspect. It's a glorious spot, with the added bonus of a very cool cafè,  open 12 hours a day and staffed by wwoofers . It's also near the end of the internationally renowned Old Ghost Road tramping/cycling trail.

Comfy couches, great coffee ....
In the middle of nowhere
It was a leisurely start the next morning. I blame the café and the views. Our destination was the Charming Creek walkway. Yet another testament to the determination of early entrepreneurs to extract as much of our coal and timber resources as possible, this 9km track followed the original railway up into the hills above Ngakawau.

The rails and hardwood sleepers made this a bone-shaking challenge for cyclists. Which is perhaps why we were not only the oldest on the track but the only ones on bikes.
Charming Creek 

DOC staff were hard at work, maintaining the trail and re-roofing an old hut. This walk was also on the to-do list for overseas tourists, in the main young backpackers travelling in campers.

By this, our third day on bikes, legs and shoulders had had enough.  Well, mine anyway. I can't speak for Tour Leader.

Bill took us back down the coast road and into the Buller Gorge, a spectacular journey in its own right. Our final stop was at Lyell, a DOC campsite home for the night to cyclists about to start their Old Ghost Road adventure . . . and to a particularly persistent breed of sandfly.  The rain arrived shortly after we did. Tour Leader gave up on the idea of a wee ride on the track. We battened down the hatches and read our books, pretending we didn't miss the internet one little bit.

They have smashing sunsets in this part of the world 

Challenging ourselves in China

I'm home, finally. And, I have to admit, a little reluctantly. Tour Leader has been back in his happy place for the past fortnight, plan...