We had two days of riding on the Otago Rail Trail. Like so many trails across the world, it is built on the remains of railway tracks which are no longer used for trains. Since the trains require that gradients have to be very low ( in other words pretty flat) the trails all have this feature. On the one hand this makes for easy cycling physically, but mentally it does seem to present a challenge. The generally straight design and lack of hills somehow make the K’s drag on even with beautiful scenery. The trail we were on had a good surface for riding so that was not slowing us down, in fact, we made good time. The first day was 94K’s on the trail – we all mentioned that the day dragged and we would be happy to get back to a little more variation. Weather was cool and cloudy. We are getting further and further south so cool weather is the norm, especially with a south wind but the next day with 60 K on the trail found us with temps rising to the upper 20’s C. Actually hot in the afternoon. It’s been all very small towns for us down here and I was sharing a cabin with Peter and Horst. All of us found our shelter from the heat there. One would think that we would be so happy for the sun and heat but it was just too much of a good thing.
The following day that would all change. It was warm in the morning but had been raining all night. The forecast was for more of the same all day. Lindsay’s info sheet, written months before, said Big Tough Day. 1650 meters of climbing and 128K’s distance. It turned out to be over 1900 m climbing. At this point in the trip we can handle that, though still tough, but what Lindsay couldn’t know about when he wrote this was the big south wind that really made those words prophetic. I was riding with Bridget and Q in the morning when the wind came bringing lashing cold rain. Though we all were dressed for the rain when we started, the cold wind was a whole other thing. My light raincoat is designed to breathe, thus not totally waterproof and the wind and rain took very little time to penetrate. Being wet is one thing but add temps down closer to freezing and a big head wind and it’s trouble. Q had trouble with his bike. First his derailer broke. Bridget and I were there then but he waved us on and since the truck was still behind us to help, we kept on biking. Q found that the hanger that the derailer mounts on was also bent from the torque he was applying which made it impossible to change gears so he converted to just a one speed bike. Very tough to move forward on a day with so much climbing when the mechanical advantage is gone. Q had gotten very cold in the process snd when his chain broke he struggled with frozen fingers to do anything. A farmer pulled up, pulled out his tools and helped Q work on the chain. The situation was just too tough so when Vince was able to get involved they brought Q the extra bike (kay’s) which was carried in the trailer. Even though most anyone else as cold and miserable as Q was at that time would have ridden in the car, Q peddled the rest on that miserable day on Kay’s bike.
Bridget and I rode with Horst and Michael until we stopped to add the little extra layers we carried. In that type of weather there is no waiting so they moved on as we did after getting a little more protection in our misery. The route was on gravel backroads so there was no town or cafe to pull into to get some relief. We just had to press on. Our feet and hands had little feeling and the fact that we were wet clear through in our upper layers made the wind’s effect even more telling. Hypothermia was creeping in when we finally rode into Balclutha. Bridget’s Garmin had stopped working and my paper instructions were completely soaked. We actually biked past the motel without knowing it and pulled the first cafe that we came to. The waitress was the only one there – no other customers – and she doted on us as we dripped and shook at the first table trying to separate the pages on my instructions without destroying them. Since we were past our motel, we had to try to decipher going backwards with the directions – our brains weren’t working well enough for that. The young waitress solved that by telling us exactly how to get there. After two hot chocolates and a shared piece of carrot cake we were off. Horst and Michael were the only other cyclists in and helped us to our rooms where they had brought our luggage. Heather and Rosie had not cycled that day and they brought us food. A long hot shower did the rest. Other cyclists came trickling in just as miserable but soon the stories were flowing and all was well once again. Good food helped too.
Why do we do this – put ourselves in this position? We all know going in that we are at the mercy of the weather. This is a group of friends riding together, not a commercial trip. There will be no hand holding but we do all work together to help each other out. None of us expects help. We have all done adventurous things, hard things, before and don’t panic. We know that we will get through it. We know how great that shower is going to feel, or, in other adventures, how warm the sleeping bag will be, or a campfire, or maybe just a simple shelter from the storm. There are big rewards in these types
of days. They are hard to explain to people who don’t take chances. You really can never appreciate just how much better – how great that simple meal will be until you’ve been without. Never know just him much better a warm blanket feels until you’ve really been cold. Would we have preferred that that cold South wind and blast of rain had not happened? Preferred that the sun was out and we were dry and happy. Of course. However, we know the risks and gladly accept them knowing we can deal with them as just part of life.
The next day was a cruiser day of just 74K and was listed on Lindsay’s sheet as only 600+ meters of climbing. It turned out to be twice that amount of climbing but still damn easy compared to a lot of our days. I rode very easily and just enjoyed the day. We ended up just beyond a small village in a resort where we were treated to a really nice dinner that evening and breakfast the next morning. It was a good day for all as was our last day cycling on this trip. The ride to Bluff at the bottom of New Zealand was really enjoyable. We were greeted by a blue bird day with perfect temps for biking. On this last day I wanted to ride with Lee and Scott. We were joined by Rosie, Heather and Trish. Bridget was riding with her old friend Vince. Peter and Greg usually brought up rear every day – only Vince and Lindsay were behind them in their roles as Tail Gunners for any problems that might have occurred. Peter told me that Greg and he had devised a secret plan for the last ride. They were going to leave at 710 am knowing that everyone else was waiting for the 830 breakfast provided by the resort. With that 2 hour plus lead they hoped to be the first ones in on the final ride. Of course, they hadn’t counted on Q – he flew along the course because he had been asked to do some chores on the trailer as Vince and Lindsay had other projects to finish. But Q was the only one to pass Peter and Greg since the rest of us were moving along comfortably and just enjoying ourselves. When our group got to the lunch truck Kay passed on a message from Peter. “Buck, sorry to miss you at lunch.” – a not so subtle dig at me for always being gone by the time he would normally get to lunch. We all had a big laugh but as I pedaled along that afternoon I started thinking that it would be fun to throw it into gear and try to catch those two. Scott and I were taking turns leading the girls into the head wind but with about 20K to go I decided to sprint on out and see what might happen. I pushed hard those last K’s – biking anywhere from 29K/hr to 45K. In other words as fast as I could ride but as I approached Bluff and they hadn’t come into view I knew it was fruitless, It was fun to see them cycle so well on this day and to see Peter so happy not just about this day but also about the accomplishment of biking through all these difficult days as well as the easier ones on this 3000K plus ride.
It has been a real pleasure to ride with this group. Of course, as in any group of people of this size (about 20) there was some drama, a few people who complicated life unnecessarily, and a very few who didn’t get along. Overall, though, it was a group, especially those who did the whole ride, who formed a strong bond and a smooth operating team. I can’t say enough about the organization of the trip by Lindsay with so much help from Vince. Those two have been friends for forty years and are very bright capable people who also have the personalities that make things fun for all around them. I have been very lucky to be a part of this.
Having Scott and Lee along has also been a real blessing for me. Those of you reading this blog who know them easily understand what I am talking about. Just really fine solid friends who are such a pleasure to be around. They fit right in with the group as I knew they would. Neither had ever done a trip like this before – the distances, hardships, and time on the bikes were new to them. Scott was already a strong rider but for Lee biking has never been a big part of her activities. She was a real trouper – despite an early problem with chafing from time in the saddle, she became a really good rider on this trip. Not just getting stronger physically but also getting over the hump on letting go on the downhills which is a real challenge for any inexperienced rider. Lee is a super athlete in so many ways and now she can proudly say that she is a cyclist. I couldn’t be happier.
Although i made many new friends in the last few weeks, I would have to single out Peter as a real special kind of guy. He is like a big lovable teddy bear. Peter was my roommate for much of the time and I really came to appreciate the bubbly enthusiasm he brought to each day – his laughter is infectious and even though these days were often really hard for him, he came in with a big smile and no complaints. A family man, he called his wife and kids every day, sharing the days events with the pride and joy that he deserved to share. I have to say thanks to Peter here in this blog for making the experience so much better..
Bridget is also a very wonderful new friend who made my life here so much better just by being here. Also a roommate (until we gained two more women on the South Island and the numbers didn’t work unless the girls were together) we bonded quite early in the trip and shared most of our time together. She is loved by all here with her graceful personality and adventurous soul. She is also a very strong cyclist who has had many different adventure activities over the years (climbing, paragliding, running,etc.) executed on a high level which have given her that confidence and can do attitude. Though she lives in South Africa, I know that we will do more things together in the coming years. She’s really been a special treat for me to be around.
OK, enough accolades. Oh, I guess you who have been reading regularly know about Q and what a stand-up guy he is. He really has been.
Thanks for coming along on this adventure. I will try to add some photos as I get into Queenstown and have some internet and time.