I have never visited the town of Kingston that resides in Jamaica, but I’m pretty sure it’s nothing like the (Southland) Kingston that I woke up in. This one was cold and misty and pleasantly quiet. And all I had to do for the day was ride 40km to Queenstown.
If day 1 was the beautiful scenery day, and day 2 was the long rainy day, then I was expecting today to be the scary highway day. All the guides I’d read, said that the highway between Kingston and Queenstown was best avoided. Don’t ride it they said, take a shuttle they said. So I tried to book a shuttle, but the company I emailed didn’t seem very keen. They wouldn’t come at the time I wanted, and were going to charge $90. Meanwhile the news was full of reports of foreigners driving on the wrong side of the roads all over the South Island. So I had a look on Strava, and it seemed that some roadies were managing to cycling along there quite frequently. At least one person was using the highway to commute to work! Well, it can’t be that hard then, I thought, despite part of the road being called The Devil’s Staircase(!). My strategy consisted of getting up not too early, having breakfast in the Kingston Cafe while the morning tour busses blundered past on their way to Milford Sound, and then quickly riding to Queenstown before the buses came back in the afternoon.
So I had a shower (the luxury!) packed up my wet stuff and rode up to the Kingston Cafe for some breakfast. Much like the 5 Rivers Cafe the previous day, this place was full of middle-aged men on motorcycle tours of the South Island. They were having a loud conversation about how cold and wet the weather was, and making motorbike jokes that I didn’t understand. It was one of the most boring conversations I have ever overheard. At about 10am I decided the road was about as safe as it was going to get, and I set off.
Either my strategy worked perfectly or I had been worrying too much, because it was actually quite a nice ride. The views were spectacular, the drivers were mostly quite considerate, and there was no sign of The Devil. In fact I think that section of the road should be renamed something much less daunting – Satan’s Wheelchair Ramp perhaps?
I arrived unmolested in Queenstown after midday and rolled triumphantly (and anonymously) along a trail next to the lake. I found my way to a cheap but shabby campground where I spent the afternoon drying my stuff on the grass in the sun. In the evening I met up with Machete, and when I told her about being savaged by the Mavora Lakes Sandflies, she informed me that the SAS keep them away with Avon Skin-so-Soft, so that’s what I’ll be taking with me next time.
I woke up to grey blue light filtering through my grey & blue tent and ate some flapjack. By the time I was halfway through packing up my stuff, the Mavora Lakes sandflies had formed a cloud around me and were taking turns to attack me in squadrons (at one point I ran actually ran up to the road to get away from them). But soon I was on my (itchy) way, looking forward to a long day in the (literal) saddle.The rain began falling just after I turned south on the Mavora Lakes Road, but despite the weather I was enjoying myself – the gravel road was flat and deserted, there were fields and animals and shelter belts. There were probably mountains, but I couldn’t see them. Other than me, there were hardly people around. I was expecting to to have to spend some time on the Te Anau – Mossburn Highway, but just before arriving at that intersection, I saw out of the corner of my eye, a little bridge. When I rode over to it I found that it led to a cycle trail that took me all the way to Mossburn. Hooray for being able to stay off the highway. Now, let me tell you about one of the serious dangers of cycling long distances – getting a catchy song you hate stuck in your head. My personal nemesis is the Manhattan Transfer’s We Built This City on Rock and Rock and Roll. I can’t tell you how much I loathe that song, but once it’s in my brain it won’t shift. To pre-empt such a dire event and to keep myself amused, I sang other songs on my way to Mossburn, starting with The The’s This is the Day;
Well you didn’t wake up this morning Cause you didn’t go to bed You were watching the whites of your eyes turn red
I saw two shooting stars last night I wished on them but they were only satellites It’s wrong to wish on space hardware I wish I wish I wish you’d care
I don’t usually get bored on long bicycle rides, I’m happy with my own (frequently repetitive and inane) thoughts. My father used to say to me that “a civilised man can spend 3 hours at a railway station and not be bored.” (I don’t know if he thought civilised women had such capabilities, he didn’t mention them). He was certainly a good exponent of this. He always seemed only lightly tethered to the real world, ready to drift off and find amusement in his own thoughts at any time. A pause in conversation, or a red traffic light and he would be gone. Only dragged back when it was necessary for him to answer a question or resume driving. These days his connection to the physical world has (thanks to dementia) come adrift in time too. He’s happiest in the firm ground of the past, while the present is shifting sand that holds him only briefly before he slips away. I stopped at the first place I came to in Mossburn that sold food. It was not a sophisticated establishment, but the guy working there was nice. I ate fish & chips surrounded by tacky souvenirs, watching tourists in buses coming in to buy cups of coffee. The rain was still falling and I was as wet as an otter. I left Mossburn and followed the highway to Five Rivers. The official Around the Mountains route involves going to Lumsden but I couldn’t be arsed with that this time. There’s a good sized cafe in Five Rivers so I stopped to have a look. It was fairly full, mostly, it seemed with groups of men on motorcycling holidays. They were swishing in and out, dressed in soggy protective clothing, ordering large meals and complaining about the weather. It felt too crowded so I squelched out, got back on my bike and found the next section of the cycle trail. The rain continued and and I was getting tired. Seeing some alpacas cheered me up though. They reminded me of a roller derby player whose derby name was Alpaca Punch. I started to see signs warning me that I was entering a working farm and that there were hazards everywhere. Then I saw an actual farmer – I waved, he opened a gate for me, I thanked him, it seemed like a friendly interaction. But the next farm along wasn’t so cordial. They had in fact put a padlock on and locked the gate across the cycle trail. Which meant that I had to remove my front panniers and then grunt & curse while lifting my bike over the gate. I put the panniers back on and continued riding while wondering what the hell that was all about. Then the same thing happened at the next gate, and the next and… Five. Five bloody gates in a row were padlocked. I don’t know why. At some point in the afternoon I arrived in Athol, and dripped in to The Brown Trout Cafe. The woman who took my request for soup and toast was very nice. We talked about sandflies and she told me that her boyfriend had a serious allergy to them and has some super strong special repellant. She tried using it once on her hands and her nail polish melted. A somewhat melancholy poodle came to see me while I waited for my food. I patted her and she stayed a few minutes before wandering off to sit by the door and stare out at the rain. According to my notes, the soup was fine and it was accompanied by “the best buttered toast I’ve ever eaten”. Slightly revived by food, warmth and company, I embarked on the last stretch of my ride to Kingston. The track was as deserted as ever (I didn’t see a single other cyclist all day) and the rain was still falling and I was still tired. The flat terrain was punctuated with bridges now and then and I was starting to think about what I would do when I arrived in Kingston. How will I reward myself for all this effort? A lie down? A shower? A cup of tea? All of these things at the same time? Having spent the whole day wet, I decided not to camp for the night, but to treat myself to a room or cabin of some kind. Somewhere dry. On the last 10k’s or so to Kingston, there are markers every kilometre, counting down the distance (or counting out the distance if you’re going the other way I suppose). These were perfect for feeding my fantasies about what I would do when I arrived – 5km to a warm shower. 4km to lie on a dry bed! Ah the luxury I was anticipating. It was enormously disappointing therefore, to find that they had no, I repeat no, rooms left. Not even a barn. Even Jesus had better facilities. They did kindly let me put my tent up in the barbecue area (in the pouring rain) though. So I did that, and then spent the evening drying my clothes in front of a tiny heater in the dining room that was on a timer and had to be switched back on every 20min. I fell asleep to the sound of rain on polyester, and the humming of wind in the guy lines.
I have conflicting feeling about starting tours. I’m excited to get going, I’m worried that I’ve forgotten something vital and I’m sad to be leaving Coo behind. On this occasion I was also stressed because the scrambled eggs wouldn’t cook and I had a ferry to catch. You see…
We were staying with Machete & Bec in Queenstown. The four of us, plus four more of The Pirate City Rollers finest roller derby players had just completed the Routeburn Track the day before. And now I was setting off by myself, to ride Around the Mountains. I was catching The Earnslaw across Lake Wakatipu so I abandoned the eggs to Coo and scampered out the door. Bec told me it was best to ride in to town on the trails rather than the road. So I did, until I lost them around the airport and rode the rest of the way on the proper road. I had a couple of things to do in town – first, I bought some food. And second, pick up my camera (that I had somehow left behind) from the post office. I didn’t have much time before the ferry left, so I was anxiously waiting in the queue when an older couple came in. They had the air of people who were unfamiliar with the place and they sounded European, so I tried to stay in front of them, assuming they might be awkward customers. I succeeded, and as I scampered out, tearing the bubble-wrap off my camera, I could hear a man yelling in what might have been a Belgian accent “IS THIS BONK?”. I got to the ferry just in time to line up behind a million tourists waiting to board.
I made it safely on, stowed my bike and fought my way to the refreshments bar to buy a cup of tea and a muffin. The ferry was crammed with people and the only seat I could find was downstairs on a pleasantly warm bench, facing the water. I was just finishing my tea when I was forced to accept that the the formerly pleasant bench was now in fact burning my arse (damn steam-powered vessels) and I spent the rest of the journey standing upstairs leaning against a banister
I got off the ferry Walter Peak, left the tourists in the gift shop, said hello to a couple of sheep out the back, and got on the road. The scenery was beautiful, the sky was bluer than the National Party logo, and the mountains were more spectacular than Mike Hosking’s ego. My plan was to ride 60km to the Mavora Lakes, camp for the night, ride 120km the next day to Kingston and camp again, then ride the 40km back to Queenstown the following day. Where I would stay in relative luxury (something with a roof and walls perhaps?) before flying back to Auckland.I was trying not to make the same mistake I made last time I visited this part of NZ, which was to have an overly ambitious but inflexible plan. But it was starting to look like I might have done exactly the same thing this time. The first day should be fine, but tomorrow looked hard. And riding along (up?) the ominously named ‘Devils Staircase’ amongst tour buses and tourists sounded scary.It was a great start to the ride though – I had the road almost to myself, as it led me down the side of Lake Wakatipu. There was quite a headwind which slowed me down, but I was in no big hurry. According to the Kennetts, there was only one significant hill I needed to get over, but it wasn’t until the road turned away from the lake. I saw a few other cyclists going in the opposite direction but they didn’t appear to be traveling far.After a while the road indeed turned left and started to climb and I wondered if that was the ‘significant hill’. It wasn’t too steep, although I did have to slow down when I was surrounded by hundreds of sheep who were all on their way somewhere. I didn’t see any people (or dogs) around so I didn’t know what prompted this expedition. One of them was limping a bit so I tried avoid her. But sheep have a way of always going where you want to go, and you would rather they didn’t go.Over the hill and past the sheep I rode through a beautiful valley. There was a river on my right and cows on my left. The wind had gone to bother some other cyclists or ruffle a cat’s fur, or maybe give a hawk that extra bit of lift it’s looking for, so I made better progress. Then the road started to go up quite steeply and I eventually realised that this was the ‘significant climb’. I knew it was a ‘significant climb’ when I had to stop for a little rest. At the crest of the hill I could see the road stretching for miles in to the distance between mountain ranges. It looked amazing and the wind had finished it’s business elsewhere and returned, this time to give me a push and I flew down the road.It was brilliant riding all the way to the Mavora Lakes turnoff where I was suddenly cycling through a forest next to a lake.As I put up my tent, it became apparent that this area’s reputation for being popular with sandflies is well deserved. So I hid in my tent and ate noodles. Pretty soon I was lying down. Not long after that I was reading, and drifting off to sleep.