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Sisters spend a month cycling through their island nation from bottom to top, over hills, around glacial lakes and through major cities. Grace Colmer is our guide.
Text and photos by: Grace Colmer      Country: New Zealand

efore flying back to New Zealand from Australia, I called my sister, Irene, and asked her if she wanted to bike the length of New Zealand with me when I came home. She was keen. We are not two super-athletes but we both enjoy cycling regularly into town, 30 km from our parents’ home in the Bay of Islands. We planned to bike from the southernmost town of Bluff to Cape Reinga at the northern tip of New Zealand. It would be an achievement we wouldn’t forget

So a few months later, we jumped on a bus, a ferry and two more buses to arrive at Invercargill on the 27th of March 2012. The lovely people we stayed with there gave us a ride to Bluff, 30 km away where we would start our journey north. Everyone had told us April would be a silly time of the year to be biking, but lucky for us, that first day was beautiful, even though Bluff isn’t exactly known for its wonderful weather.

So we took the first photos and adjusted the equipment on our bikes. For me, this was simple even though I had a couple of old-fashioned, possibly handmade panniers (saddle bags). For Irene this was considerably more complicated because her panniers consisted of two picnic basket sets that were obviously not designed to sit on the side of a bike rack. Eventually Irene cut her loading time from an hour to about 20 minutes. We carried as little as possible, settling on sleeping bags, food, and spare warm clothing. We wore flouresent clothing to be highly visable on our notoriously dangerous roads (the drivers drive fast, are inconsiderate, and the roads are narrow and badly maintained), and for the most part, the clothing helped to keep us safe.

The first night we ended up in Lumsden after a fairly uneventful 110 km through flatish farmland. Because we were on a tight budget and couldn’t depend on finding a backpackers hostel, we had a tent. We decided to knock on people’s doors for permission to tent on their lawns or paddocks. We picked our houses carefully, looking for signs of a woman or children, checking the types of cars, and whether the lawn would be too precious to tent on. In the month it took us to bike 2,300 km. During our monthlong journey, we were refused only three times. Being two girls who look friendly and harmless persuaded many people to say “Yes, of course!” Sometimes we would be invited in for dinner and a bed, and other times, we could use only the bathroom. Sometimes we got only a safe place to tent the night. We were offered a shower at least every second day, which was important to us to feel clean and smelling nice.

That first night was freezing and because it was getting dark, we needed to get off the road. We chose our spot badly; out hosts were unwelcoming, but we were safe. On the second day, my body, especially my knees, decided it didn’t like this amount of exercise, but I didn’t want to stop to rest because it was still early in the journey. We took a beautiful ride through to Frankton, following the Lake Whakatipu and seeing the hills around us slowly become mountains, barren with only rocks, grass and some flowers called Lupens.

I chose the route through the South Island to see the glacial lakes and then the east coast because I hadn’t spent much time in that area before. I had travelled New Zealand extensively, but Irene had not, so I wanted her to see some of the amazing areas along the way. Every day we stopped to pick up more food (this included a lot of bread and bananas and dried fruit) and to walk around the towns to stretch our legs. Towns are few and far between on the South Island.

The mornings were absolutely freezing, but we still had amazing blue skies all the way to the North Island. From day 2 to day 4, we rode up, up, up, through the Lindis Pass, going from sea level to more than 900m and back down to sea level again on the other side. We made our way to the east coast, arriving in Ashburton in the evening. It was on this day, along state highway 1 where we had our scariest moment. A continuous stream of traffic flowed on either side of the two-lane bridge. A truck was going south and one coming up behind us, going north. The truck behind us did not slow down to pass because he couldn’t; there was no room. But pass us he did, and my heart pushed its panic button.

We visited our brother in Christchurch, which endured two major earthquakes and thousands of aftershocks. The road to his house was broken and bumpy, but the city was no way near the mess it once was. He too had biked the east coast to the top of the South Island where we were headed next. As we left, he said, “Tell me what you think of THE hill—you will know it when you get to it.” It was my 26th birthday as we biked up and over the hill, and I had a great time! There was no headwind, and we found apple trees on the side of the road and banana passionfruit. As soon as we got to the coast, the wind began again. Beautiful, yes, but the wind destroyed the enjoyment. We celebrated my birthday with a large packet of licorice all sorts. (on my sugar-free diet, this was a major luxury)

The next day, we encountered a large group of tourists who were all walking up beside a stream. One tourist told us there were baby fur seals, so we decided to stop and see them. Every year the mother fur seals drop their baby pups off to this forest creche, so as you walk along the stream all the way to the bottom of a small waterfall, you see these pups playing in the water.

We biked through beautiful wine country, quite a bit north of Kaikoura heading to Picton where we would take the ferry across to the North Island. I had been worried about how to get out of Wellington. The route took us over the beautiful Akatarawa Road. This road is used by cyclists to train because of its steep gradient and long climb. We flew down the other side, braking for the sharp and many corners. The North Island in general is much hillier than the south, and we found the worst hills were from Otorahanga, north.

We were in Mount Tongariro National Park, but missed the amazing view because it was so cloudy and rainy. The park has mountains that seem to come from nowhere in a desert-like landscape and that are a great place for skiing in the winter, hiking all year, and mountain biking. We had our first full day of rest 19 days into the trip and then again 2 days later because Irene was sick. We spent 3 more days in Auckland so I could attend a wedding.

Navigating Auckland was interesting. It was our longest day, 150 km. We were in south Auckland and needed directions because it was almost dark. We got to the airport and stopped as I was unsure where to go next. A man on a bike stopped to see if we needed help. It turned out that he was heading in the same direction as us, so he led the way for 2 hours through the dark cycle paths of Auckland city, zooming ahead and then waiting for us to catch up. So we managed our way through New Zealands biggest city with the help of an angel in disguise!

New Zealand roads are hilly and windy. We took highway 10, which follows the coast, to Kaitaia. We finished the journey at about 3pm at Cape Reinga at the top of New Zealand. Our father arrived a minute later to take us and the bikes home, saving us the 160 km ride back to the house.


Taking New Zealand on two wheels

Before I flew back home to New Zealand I called my sister, Irene, and asked her if she wanted to go on a month long bike trip. She was interested, so we planned our trip: starting in the south and finishing in the north. We aren’t extremely athletic, just two normal girls- so this was sure to be a difficult and interesting trip!

A few months later we were ready to begin our journey. We packed light; we only brought sleeping bags, food and some extra warm clothes. When we rode we wore fluorescent clothing so that the drivers could see us. This was very important because the roads through New Zealand are very narrow, badly maintained and dangerous!

To save money, we decided not to stay in hostels. Instead, when we got to a town in the evening, we would knock on people’s doors for permission to camp on their lawn. Many times, people invited us into their homes, fed us, gave us a bed and even let us shower. Sometimes we stayed in our tent. This might sound dangerous, but we tried to use good judgment when choosing each house. Through our entire trip we were only refused permission 3 times!

The route we chose let us experience hills, mountains, glacial lakes, the eastern coast, rivers and wine country. We even saw baby seals one day! We got to visit many different towns throughout New Zealand and were able to stay with our brother in the town of Christchurch.

The journey was absolutely amazing. While we were freezing cold and exhausted at times, we got to see so many incredible sights! It is an adventure that my sister and I will never forget.



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