Antarctica was Plan A. Now that we are done with that frozen continent, we are moving on to Plan B: Biking New Zealand.
We are really excited for this trip, and have been thinking about it for a long time. It promises to be one of the hardest, most physically demanding adventures we have ever set out on, but also one of the most rewarding. The scenery here is beautiful, the people are nice, and the land practically beckons you to explore it on two wheels. In actuality what we both really need after three and a half months in Antarctica is a few weeks to dethaw on some warm tropical beach, but against our better judgment, we have decided to head south first, to the land of snow capped peaks and glacial fjords (as if we hadn’t had enough snow and ice for one lifetime already?). Our plan as it stands right now is basically to bicycle from Christchurch down the East coast of New Zealand’s South Island towards Queenstown, though we will kind of zig-zag inland at various points connecting different scenic routes and trails laid out in our guide book.
Our reason for picking to start our trip with more snow and mountains, rather than sand and palm trees, was that we were hoping to make it south before the oncoming winter weather, and then move north with it like a pair of migrating birds – but considering it is already freezing at night, we are wearing every layer we brought with us, and we still have a long way south to go, we are beginning to second guess our decision. We have been told the weather has been a bit unusual lately, and that it is not normally this cold or rainy this time of year, but that is not much consolation when you are wet and freezing and still have to ride 50 miles before you can call it a day. In any case, by the time we get to Queenstown, four or five weeks in the saddle will have made the thought of that tropical beach even more appealing so I am sure that we will be more than ready to head back north. At Queenstown, our bike tour proper will be complete, but we will still have quite a bit of time here in Kiwiland, so we are thinking about buying or renting a campervan, loading up the bikes, and working our way to the top of the South Island, across the Cook Straights, and on through the North Island, stopping here or there to ride any interesting circuits we come across. That’s the plan at least, we’ll see how it plays out…
We’ve been traveling now for two weeks. Two weeks of exercising long atrophied muscles, two weeks of sleeping in our cozy little tent, two weeks of getting used to our bikes, and two weeks of packing and repacking trying to lighten our loads.
We arrived in Christchurch late at night. After two flights and 10 hours of traveling from the South Pole, it was an eerie feeling stepping out into the humid darkness of our first night in over three and a half months. The air seemed heavy, and solid, like you could bite off a chunk and chew it. Within minutes the cracked and parched skin on our hands began to soften, reversing the months of damage brought on by living in near zero humidity and too many hours submersed in deleterious dish water.
We made our way through customs, collected our bags from the winding conveyor belt, and walked the 10 minutes over to the USAP Clothing Distribution Center (CDC). A huge pile of big red coats, white rubber bunny boots, and all the other ECW we had been issued took up the majority of floor space in main warehouse. We threw our gear on the mountain, got the paper work for our night’s accommodation, and for our last act as employees, collected our United States Antarctic Program patches- though you could buy these patches in the station store, they have taken to giving them out for free to negate people’s inclination to rip them off of their coats as souvenirs.
The hotel they put us up in could have been the Ritz compared to our jamesway. A huge king sized bed with soft linen sheets, a balcony overlooking the garden surrounded pool, and in the bathroom… a bathtub. A bathtub may sound simple and standard, but to someone who was, until recently, on a frustratingly unsatisfying ration of 2 minute showers, the thought of submersing myself bodily into a bubbling tub of hot water was at that moment the epitome of luxury.
The next morning it was back to the CDC, where we organized our absurd amount of luggage and personal effects. A lot of what we had with us at the South Pole we boxed up and mailed home, while all the camping and biking gear we had been storing at the CDC since October had to be crammed into the four pannier bags we would each be carrying on our bikes. In true Renfroe fashion, we had grossly over packed, and now it was a monumental struggle to get it all to fit. In the end, geometry outweighed willpower, and we were forced to leave quite a bit of gear (all of it could admittedly be considered “luxury” in nature when you consider our mode of transport) at the CDC. Even after this first round of purging, it turned out that even the gear we initially thought was essential and chose to take with us would soon be whittled down to the absolute bare essentials. My inherent tendency to plan for every contingency is not one that couples well with light weight packing, and we soon realized (the hard way, unfortunately) that things like a liter of whiskey and a kilo block of cheese could be bought at our destination, rather than lugged over every long mile of our ride.
This was only “Part 1” of our outfitting saga- we still needed to assemble the bikes- but we had had enough for one day, so we rallied our friend Sidney who was doing a final bit of packing herself, and jumped into her “new” car. She is planning on travelling and working in New Zealand for a number of months so she arranged to borrow a set of wheels off a fellow Polie. The one hurtle to her plan was that the car is a manual and she didn’t know how to drive it. Having taught a number of beautiful young ladies how to drive stick over the years, I offered my services, and I have to say that she was one of the quickest pupils that Dave’s Driving Academy has ever seen. In return for this small favor, Sidney graciously acted as our Christchurch shuttle for two days, taking us and our bags to our campground, running us around town on a bunch of last minute errands, and driving us back to the CDC the next day to collect our bikes.
Our bicycles, or Sally and The Great Whitey to be more specific, are a modern engineering marvel. They are full frame touring road bikes, made from the lightest materials and equipped with the most sophisticated components, but their greatest attribute is their ability to “come apart” into two separate pieces, which along with the wheels, racks and everything else besides, fit snuggly into a traveling suitcase that is within the size and weight restrictions for a normal piece of checked luggage on most commercial airlines. The drawback to this supremely convenient manner of transporting the bikes is that getting them to fit into the suitcases is harder than a Chinese puzzle, and putting them back together takes forever. Luckily we had forever, or almost so, and we spent the afternoon of our second full day back in the real world with bits and pieces of our bikes scattered across the floor of the CDC warehouse attempting to assemble them into some sort of rideable configuration. Two and a half hours after we started, I tightened the last bolt and like a caterpillar turning into a butterfly, we had miraculously morphed from two immobile and over-burdened tourists into a pair of free-as-a-bird, two-wheeled adventurers, with all of New Zealand at our fingertips.