Tuesday, 22 November 2016

Flight over Greenland and Northern Canada!

What amazing scenery, half of my Amsterdam to Calgary flight saw me glued to the window, staring open mouthedly at picturesque fjords, frozen beaches, and hundreds of razor sharps peaks coated in snow. Further inland the peaks started to disappear in what I thought was fog, until I realized it was snow... so much snow that it buried entire mountains under a single, uniform sheet of whiteness.

Later on, the landscape mutated into Hudson Bay; a sea of ice, enormous sheets of ice riddled with cracks the shape of lightning bolts, protruding beyond the horizon. The wonder was far from over, though, we still had the Canadian tundra to cross. Again a uniform, infinite expanse of land with nothing but the occasional dune or lone tree sticking out of the snowy whiteness. Not a single building, road, or any other sign of life for thousands of kilometres.

And then came the prairies. All snow disappeared, giving space to a brown checkerboard of geometrically perfect chunks of land, divided by roads and the occasional muddy canyon. In the distance, prairies were abruptly cut-off by a solid wall - the Rocky Mountains.

This stunningly scenic flight didn't come cheap, though. After past disappointments I made sure to pick the right seat - by the window and far away from the wing. Thus, I could not believe my eyes when I reached my row and there was no window! I checked my boarding pass several times but there was no mistake - of all the available seats I ended up choosing the single windowless spot on the entire plane.

Speechless, I sat down next to a skinny girl and brooded over my predicament until I noticed that the guy in front of me was planning to sleep through the whole flight. To my great relief, he agreed to switch places and I was able to enjoy the view after all, but it came at a price - there was no skinny girl sitting in that row, instead I ended up squeezed next to an elderly woman the size of a wrestler...

What an incredible, scenically uncomfortable flight!

Wednesday, 16 January 2013

Cycling the North Island - Day 13 - Gentle Annie is not gentle!

Wednesday, 5th December 2012
As mentioned previously, I turned away from Tongariro due to bad weather and headed to Hastings, via the old Taihape-Napier Road. That's its official name, but cyclists know it as Gentle Annie, a nickname originating from a hill of the same name somewhere in the Kaweka Range. Whoever chose that name must have had a twisted sense of humour, because Gentle Annie is anything but gentle. It's the toughest ride I've ever experienced!

The road is 150 kilometres long, it stretches over several mountain ranges, farmland and large valleys, and it contains no less than three huge - I mean HUGE - climbs. Starting just off SH1, it greets you with a sweet downhill leading into a long valley with a small Maori settlement. As it starts climbing, steadily for several kilometres, it reaches a wide plateau covered by farmland. That's not the end, though; it doesn't stop climbing until the plateau's eastern side, a good place to check the bike's breaks before diving into an amazingly steep downhill ride leading into a massive valley, with nothing but a fence separating you from a deep drop. A successful descent is the perfect way to finish the day at the basic free campsite near the historic Springvale suspension bridge. The only thing spoiling the fun is the massive climb out of the valley, in plain view and a reason to feel apprehensive about the morning...

Friday, 28 December 2012

Cycling the North Island - Day 11 - The Tongariro Disappointment

Tongariro National Park.
Photo borrowed from DailyMail.co.uk
Tuesday, 4th December
Tongariro! The Lord of the Rings! Mount Doom! Frodo and the ring! I'm finally going to see the famous mountains used to film Mordor, and one of New Zealand's most stunning places. Or so I thought.
Tongariro National Park takes its name from Mount Tongariro (1978m), but there are two more - Mount Ngauruhoe (2291m) and Mount Ruapehu (2797m). The latter two have been used in the Lord of The Rings movies, Ngauruhoe being Mount Doom. All three are active volcanoes, which makes them a popular tourist destination. The park offers several walks, the most popular being the one-day Alpine Crossing. It wouldn't be me if the volcanoes, quiet for over a hundred years except for a big burp in 1996, hadn't decided to erupt just as I finally included them in my travelling plans...

But that's not the only reason why my visit to Tongariro National Park was so brief, so disappointing, and why I decided to come back another time. Due to the volcanic activity, the walks I was interested in were closed. In addition, there was still too much snow on Ruapehu, and if that wasn't enough, a whole lot of bad weather was coming from the north.

Sunday, 9 December 2012

Cycling the North Island - Day 08 - The Forgotten World Highway

Saturday, 1st December
After one exciting and one totally lazy day in Stratford, I finally took off again. Stratford's at the western end of the 153km long Forgotten World Highway (HW43), a link between the Taranaki region and the central part of the island. It's considered a heritage trail due to early 1900s settlements that were later abandoned. There are several villages with old brickworks, a flour mill, schools, etc. and according to the brochure, every single one of those things is a marvel. Of course...

In the real world, it's just a hilly ride through remote country, with nice views of Mt Taranaki, Tongariro, and a few man made landmarks worth noticing. The road's strongest point is traffic; the lack of it, to be exact. The quietness makes it ideal for cyclists, if they don't mind going up and down on a roller coaster.

HW43 is a tough route with no less than six big climbs (although the brochure mentions only four) and lots of rolling hills. As for human heritage, the only things worth mentioning are a triangle-shaped tunnel called the Hobbit Hole, a bridge called the Bridge to Somewhere (although it's in fact in the middle of nowhere) and the small village of Whagamomona. The bridge is just a slab of concrete in the middle of the bush, an absolute waste of time unless you like rough mountain biking, in which case the 20km track linking Whagamomona with the bridge is a real treat. It took me almost two hours each way and it involved plenty of mud, two tunnels, deep muddy tracks and several landslides, including one where the road just slid into a gorge a dozen metres below and the gap could only be crossed on a 50cm narrow ledge. The bridge was highly disappointing, but the ride was totally worth it.

Saturday, 8 December 2012

Cycling the North Island - Day 06 - Mt Taranaki

Thursday 29th November
What started as utter hell turned out to be a great day. I climbed up Mt Taranaki, enjoyed amazing views and an exhilarating ride back to town.

Taranaki National Park, the "heel-shaped" peninsula in the North Island's west, is one of the places I was really looking forward to visiting. It consists of a single mountain, the 2517m Mt Taranaki, often referred to as New Zealand's Mt Fuji. Its white cone is right at the centre of a circular forest, which is surrounded by farming country all the way to the semi-circular coastline. This tribute to symmetry is really cool to look at on a map, and it's one of the country's most scenic views. It's visible from hundreds of kilometres on clear days, a friend of mine apparently saw it from as far as the South Island (a local man told him he hadn't been that lucky in twenty years).

The first thing I did yesterday afternoon, after jumping off the bus in Stratford, was to visit the i-Site office and ask about the track's conditions. Big mistake. As usual, they were full of crap, pardon my French. A thick-waisted woman who's probably never been up the mountain herself told me matter of factly that anything above 1800 metres is socked-in and only accessible with icepick and crampons. She almost succeeded in dissuading me from the hike I was so eager to do, and almost convinced me to go for a dull low-altitude bushwalk instead.

Had she looked outside the window, she'd have seen that Faltham's Peak (1966m), the lower peak on the mountain's western side, was almost completely free of snow. To confirm this, the owner of the hostel I stayed at claimed that one of his guests had hiked up there a week before without any problems. To further prove his point, a local mountain guide had just strolled in for a chat, reporting perfect walking conditions. The 2517m summit was a different matter, though. The crater is still covered in snow and going up there without crampons, he said, would be only my choice. Good. He refrained from lecturing me and stuck to practical advice, leaving it up to me whether I'd risk my life or not.

Saturday, 1 December 2012

Cycling the North Island - Day 05 - Die, evil wind, die!

Back after a short break from blogging. It's been a week since my cycling journey through the North Island started, and I'm now fully into it. Ironically, I'm sitting on a bus while writing these words...

Monday 26th November
After an extremely windy night on the coast, spent in attempts to hold the tent together rather than sleeping, I carried on to Martinborough. The day started greatly - first I met a young farmer herding a huge flock of sheep, a scene that reminded me the Kiwi b-horror Black Sheep, then I had a refreshing bath in a stream and finally, refreshed, clean and full of energy from my bacon and eggs breakfast, I started tackling the long ride back to civilisation. Of the 70km from the coast to Martinborough, the first thirty were on gravel, through beautiful and utterly remote farming/native bush country, while the remaining forty were on sealed roads, through beautiful farming/native bush country. The first part was easy, with much milder gradients leaving the coast than the official road to Cape Palliser I took to get there. The real hard work started when the terrain threw a bunch of long steady climbs my way, but it wasn't until the biggest hill's summit that I realized trouble was coming. A warning sign saying "wind gusts" and a large, crazily spinning wind farm were the harbingers of what followed - lots and lots of bad wind. Indeed, as soon as I reached the ridge, a strong northerly almost blew me off the road. And yes, I was heading north. Oh happy days.

Thursday, 29 November 2012

Cycling the North Island - Day 02 - Cape Palliser

The lighthouse at Cape Palliser, the North Island's southernmost point.
Sunday 25th November
Yesterday evening I was happily pedaling on HW53 towards Martinborough, the North Island's premium wine region, when I saw the sign for Cape Pallister (the island's southernmost point) and decided to go there, literally on the spur of the moment (ok, not on the spur, but after ten minutes of thinking and checking Google Maps). I had been originally planning to go there, but then scrapped the idea as not time effective, since it's a dead end ride 70km each way, plus it was supposed to be very hilly, difficult riding partly on gravel, at least according to the Rough Guide. Never trust guidebooks. It was a beautiful, pleasant ride and I couldn't have enjoyed it more.


Look closely, do you see the snowy peaks
in the background? The South Island!
I spent the previous night near the junction with HW53; since there was no camping ground and every inch of the road was fenced up on both sides, I had to ask a farmer for permission to pitch my tent on his property. This is one of the few things I really dislike about NZ - there are thousands of hectares of open spaces, mostly deserted or grazed, but you can't pitch a bloody tent anywhere, because it's all private land surrounded by an electric fence. The 90-year old couple whose door I knocked at at 8pm was a bit surprised, but had no objections for me to stay. After a sound sleep it was time to resolve a big dilemma - should I cycle all the way to the Cape, with a nice tailwind, or leave the bike somewhere nearby and hitch-hike there and back to save time and energy, since I'd have to go back the same way anyway? I kept turning the thought over and over in my head, while enjoying a beautiful ride through farmland, slightly downhill and with a favorable wind, until four hours later I eventually reached a long steep descent down the cliff almost to the beach.

A little bit windy...
After a break and a short walk to the Putangirua Pinnacles (where Peter Jackson filmed some scenes from King Kong and also one of his early splatter movies), I eventually did hitch-hike to the lighthouse at the end of the road, and the local guy who was giving me a ride said that it was possible to get to Martinborough without going back the same way. I'd have to cross a 10km section of coastline on a very tough 4WD track through some private land, which would bring me to another dead-end road, also going to Martinborough. That caught my interest, so I hitch-hiked back to my bike, jumped on, enjoyed a splendid coastal ride with good tailwind to the Cape Palliser lighthouse, jumped a gate and now here I am, at the other end of an unmarked track joining two roads leading to the same place. It was no easy task, though. The track is very tough, involving big rocks, mud, several gates to jump, and a huge sand dune. Add extremely strong wind gales throwing shingle in your face and you get something only for the adventurous. As I'm writing these lines, the wind is blowing so bloody hard that it would send my tent flying if I weren't sitting in it!

All things considered, I'm really, really glad I rode to Cape Palliser. It's a beautiful ride with the most amazing views of the South Island; you can see its snowy peaks, looking as if they were floating in mid-air, and apparently during winter, when the whole Kaikoura Range is covered with snow, the views are even more fantastic. That alone is a reason to come back!