Friday, 28 December 2012

Cycling the North Island - Day 11 - The Tongariro Disappointment

Tongariro National Park.
Photo borrowed from
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!

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Cycling the North Island - Day 01 - Leaving Wellington

Welcome to the North Island.
My cycle-tour of the North Island has finally started and I'll try to blog about it as often as possible. I haven't properly sorted my photos, so just adding a few ones make the post more colourful.

Saturday 24th November
What a crazy way to start! A terrible night at the hostel, in a dorm room hot like the Sahara at midday and loud like a dorm room with a Chinese snoring champion at his best. When I finally managed to get some sleep, it was obviously check out time, so out I went, tired and in a terrible mood, to sort out my last bits and pieces, buy groceries and finally get going. I didn't manage to leave Wellington before noon, frustrated for all kinds of reasons, including the fact that the Hobbit's world premiere was due in just five days and I was going to miss out on all the hype and red carpet, but I had already spent too much time lingering around and just had to go.

So, on a sunny Saturday with favorable wind (which I waited for), I finally started my cycling tour across the North Island. Leaving Wellington by bike is far from pleasant and unless you're like me and want to cycle at all costs, I highly recommend to take a train to Upper Hutt, saving yourselves a 40km ride on a motorway's shoulder, even though it's officially classified as cycling lane and there is plenty of space. It's also possible to go through the centre of Lower and Upper Hutt, but according do a local cyclist, it's as busy as the motorway and has no shoulder, so probably not the best option. At least State Highway 2 is fast.

Middle of Middle Earth - that's the marketing slogan
for Wellington's world premiere of the Hobbit movie.
The Rimutaka Incline Rail Trail, and old railway converted into a cycling/hiking path, starts just 9km from Upper Hutt - climb the big hill up SH2, turn right into Kaitoi Loop Rd at the very summit and you'll soon reach the rail trail starting point. It's an 18km gravel track with a mild 1 in 15 gradient and a few tunnels, the longest being 580m long; bring a flashlight so you don't end up in the ditch at the tunnel's centre. The eastern side is a lot steeper, but still manageable. The Rimutaka Incline is a great way to avoid a chunk of SH2 and also a very pleasant ride, with camping spots along the way. It pops out at Cross Creek, halfway along Lake Wairarapa, about 10km south from Featherston. You can also go south and around the lake, if you're heading to Lake Ferry or to Cape Palliser.

Which brings us back to me; I did go to Cape Palliser, even though I wasn't planning to, but I'll talk about that later. First I want to mention Jim, a 65-year old cyclist I met on the Rimutaka trail - my first fellow cyclist in the North Island. He seems to know a great deal about European history (for a Kiwi, anyway), for example about the Spring of Prague in 1968, apparently Alexander Dubček was his youth hero, and he also knows all sorts of things about the former Yugoslavia. Perhaps that's why he's married to a woman from Montenegro.

Friday, 23 November 2012


After more than a year spent in the South Island, I finally see the other face of New Zealand - the more populated and tamed North Island. Wellington is a nice, vibrant city which I really like. It's lively, there's culture and pub life, and I can easily imagine myself living and working here. The only bugger is the wind, constantly blowing through the streets, especially around the wharf. From the architectural standpoint it isn't the prettiest city, but it's nice enough. It kind of reminds of a smaller version of Sydney, with its plethora of multi-storey office buildings that don't quite make it to skycrapers (they do in Sydney), and the wharf being lined with old warehouses converted into pleasant-looking pubs. There is no significant landmark visible from a panoramic view - no old castles, cathedrals or buildings that would stick out. Except for a big church on top of a hill that looks more like a convent or a hospital. Wellington's beauty stands in the small buildings you only spot from close up.

The city's also culturally significant - there are events going on all the time, there's the government headquarters (free tours daily) and the Te Paha, NZ's national museum covering nature, history, Maoris and everything Kiwi. Right now the big thing is the upcoming Hobbit world premiere. It's only five days away and it's all over the city. They invented the slogan "Middle of Middle Earth" which you can see on every wall, every lamp post, on post stamps, there's going to be a Hobbit-themed market, all souvenir shops are filled up with Hobbit merchandise and posters of Gloom, Bilbo, Gandalf, etc. hang everywhere. Unfortunately, I won't be here for the premiere, even though it's due in a couple of days. It's one of those badly timed situations like "I'm here now, but the fun won't start for another couple of days, and I can't wait here doing nothing, but if I go away, I'll miss it by inches". So I'm going to miss all the fun with Peter Jackson and the movie stars walking the red carpet to the cinema, but I just can't linger around for five days. If I could at least see the movie that day, but it's going to be expensive and probably already sold out anyway. It's stupid, it sucks, but it's life. At least I'm still gonna see the movie in New Zealand, just a few days after the actual premiere, just in another city in an ordinary cinema.

Thursday, 22 November 2012

Back in New Zealand. Big update!

You might be wondering where I've gone and what's up with the blog. I haven't abandoned it, I just switched to writing in Czech for a while. So what's been going on since my return from the Pyrenees? I spent a week in the Slovenian Alps, as if I hadn't had enough mountaineering, rafting, canyoning and the sort sort. Then I tried to earn some cash picking grapes in France, which wasn't much of a success - I can still feel the knee and back pain from bending down for ten hours a day, trying to pick grapes that grow practically on the ground, and not earning more than a few lousy euros.

Last, but not least, I visited London in October and it was really nice seeing all my friends and colleagues and knowing that I only have to put up with the big city for a week. I really enjoyed moving around a place I'm so familiar with, as if I had only been gone on a long holiday. Despite my reluctance to live in London, it was, after all, my home for five years. Between all these trips I spent quite some time in Prague, sending many many liters of Czech beer down my throat and grinding the videogames I was waiting to play for a whole year.

So, all in all, it was quite an eventful summer, finished by a nice 24h flight to Christchurch. That's right, I'm back in New Zealand! As I write these words, the Picton-Wellington ferry is lolling its way across the Cook Strait and soon we'll be disembarking in the North Island. With my pushbike, all ready for the next big trip - 3000km from Wellington to Cape Reinga.

Tuesday, 28 August 2012

Pyrenean Haute Route 2012 a.k.a. from coast to coast in 36 days

I'm finally back! I can't believe it's been two months since my last post, but hey, a 36-day coast-to-coast hike plus two extra weeks of holiday and some recovery time afterwards took their toll. Unfortunately, I have to disappoint those anxiously awaiting my report - I wrote in Czech this time. You can always use the translator, though, I hear it's getting better :) I'm working on the report right now and hopefully will start publishing it on my Czech blog soon.

In the meantime, this post is to provide some basic info about the challenge I've been through and to let people know where to find the photos (some of which are really gorgeous). You'll find them all in my usual Picasa gallery (links inside the post).

Friday, 22 June 2012

Pyrenean Haute Route - crossing the Pyrenees the hard way

In the process of packing for the Pyrenees.
After one and a half months in Prague, I'm finally heading off again. I'm going to the Pyrenees, to cross them on foot from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean. 800km of hiking in about 30-45 days! It's the Pyrenean Haute Route I'm talking about, my biggest hike so far.

I think it's just about time to leave Prague, before I settle down too much. It already feels awkward to be leaving my flat, my gaming computer which I started using again, and the city environment I was getting accustomed to after many years.

The first two weeks here were really hard. I was clearly unhappy to have left New Zealand and my non-Czech friends who saw me said that it was visible a mile away. I was disappointed by Czech beer, whose fame kind of faded for me after tasting all the nice stuff in other countries, and after realising that mainstream Czech beers like Gambrinus or Staropramen aren't what they used to be. Nowadays all the big breweries belong to huge concerns such as Heineken, and everything tastes the same. However, I found out that micro-breweries, pubs that make their own beer, have sprouted up around Prague like mushrooms after a hot rainy day, and that they make really awesome, delicious brews. That's the real stuff, to hell with the mainstream crap without character. Two places I'd definitely recommend are U tří růží, near the Old Town Square, and Bašta, in Nusle. Their beer is simply delicious, and it goes without saying that food is also great. What really struck me was wasabi beer at the Bašta pub. Now, now, don't sneer, it's not what you think. Wasabi beer doesn't burn your mouth to bits, on the contrary; it's a normal beer horseradish smell and flavour, that's all. I love it.

Wednesday, 9 May 2012

Surreal return to Prague

Just came back from town. A short stroll through Prague filled me with really unusual sensations. Have you ever felt like a tourist in your own home?

Two days ago, the daily reality I was used to was buying groceries in New World or Countdown, cycling through vineyard country and discussing topics such as North Island versus South Island, the earthquake, how the All Blacks beat them Ozzies or how bad the State Highway 1 is (that's actually a very popular topic even in the Czech Republic, even though it's D1 instead of SH1). Less than 48 hours later, with nothing but a long sleepless flight in between, I'm in Prague, surrounded by people who have never heard about the All Blacks, who are oblivious of Motueka, Blenheim, Queenstown or Christchurch, and who live in a completely different daily reality.

A bit like Alice in Wonderland, or like a freshwater fish that swims happily in a mountain stream, then blinks and finds itself in the middle of a tropical ocean (and yes, it's a fish with eyelids). It's really strange, especially considering that I'm in the city where I spent most of my life.

Tuesday, 8 May 2012

A few quick words from Sydney Airport

on the plane, as we finally took off from chch, it dawned on me for the umpteenth time that i'm really leaving, that my nz holiday really is over and there's no coming back. shit that was sad. it's funny how the same place can give so different impressions. when i flew to new zealand, every stop - dubai, bangcock and sydney were all new, interesing, and sydney was a nostalgic return to a city i really like. now, on the short stop flying from nz, sydney couldn't feel more different. unsmiling grumpy security people and shop people, everyone string and looking for anything suspicous... just not nice. absolutely nothing like the casual chat with the christchurch security guy who scanned me and at the same time was keen on small talk and happy to hear i liked nz and want to return.

Things I'm gonna miss about New Zealand

For the last 12 months NZ has been my reality, my everyday world, my home. Despite some tough moments, I never thought about leaving, about being fed up with the place, about not liking it. London is where these feelings were always present.

Of course there are new, equally interesting adventures ahead, but leaving a country where I really felt at home, happy and relaxed as I never did before, is still sad. I never had any regrets leaving other countries, including my own, until now. NZ's given me an unforgettable experience, really.

Unforgettable and highly eventful. There are so many new things I did and tried, even though it'd never even cross my mind if it were somewhere else. Some of them are rather trivial, but some others... Here's a few that come to mind...

Farewell New Zealand

My time in New Zealand is up, time to leave. It's been a great year, an amazing adventure and an unforgettable experience, but like all good things, it eventually came to an end. I do have new things and plans to look forward to, but leaving this country still makes me sad.

For the past two months my mind was torn between two equally attractive options, I changed my decision hundreds of times, weighed pros and cons of both options time and again, and every time I thought I had made a final decision, the other possibility popped up in my head again, with new arguments to consider.

Although the reasoning part of me was for leaving, the emotional one tried really hard to make me stay, and over time it was starting to win. The strongest argument for leaving, except for the approaching winter, e.g. short days and freezing mornings, was that my mum would probably kill me if I told her, with only a few weeks' notice, that I changed my mind and wouldn't be coming home. She'd probably fly to NZ and drag me home by the ear. In the end, though, even these two barriers didn't stop me from making a final, definitive decision.

During a bike ride through a beautifully sunlit autumn valley, I realized that I don't care about reasoning and arguments, I just want to stay and that's it. However, by the time this last-minute decision to change plans clicked in, it was too late. Applying for a visa extension means parting with one's passport for a couple of weeks (it must be sent to the immigration bureau), and that would mean that I'd miss the holiday in Tonga with my best friend (which was a huge push for my decision) and in the unlikely event that the visa extension would be declined, I'd have missed my return trip to Europe, too, so I'd be triple fucked - no holiday, no visa, and no ticket home. Too risky for my taste.

So here I am, in Christchurch, writing my last post before heading to the airport. Thank you New Zealand for this amazing year and I look forward to seeing you again!

Friday, 27 April 2012

Night shift from hell

Vintage 2012 at Vavasour Wines is officially over. The fruit has all come home and my last night shift is a thing of the past. Thank goodness!

The last shift, at least part of it, was seriously messed up. At some point I was genuinely afraid what would happen next and if I was going to get through the night alive. It was a model Friday 13th, except it was Thursday 25th...

It all started with disconnecting a hose...

Thursday, 26 April 2012

Vintage is full on... and almost over

Vintage has been going for over two weeks now, and after harvesting over 2000 tons of grapes we're almost done. Tonight is my last night shift and then the 24/7 cycle will be over. The juice is still fermenting, but there will be no more fruit coming in.

Being on night shift means working every day from 6pm till 6am, and sleeping most of the day. It doesn't suck, as you may think, although seeing hardly any daylight for three weeks is rather unsettling. On the other hand, nights are nice around here, the sky full of stars, during Easter there was an incredible full moon, and I get to see a fantastic sunrise every morning. It looks like one of those pictures advertising fantastic holidays in the tropics (only the palm bit is missing). It always starts with what I call the "northern light" - a thin white strip of light on the northern horizon, between the sky and the hills, and a bit later, before you even realize it, the eastern horizon will be on fire - a strong orange light going lighter and yellowish, until it changes into various shades of blue. This magnificent view is topped up by the stars and the moon still clearly visible high up in the sky. The house I'm living in is west of the winery, and as I cycle home each morning, I see this show of lights and colours in my mirror, while in front of me the day is still dark. Incredible, breathtaking.

Sunday, 8 April 2012

Eleven months in NZ, time's almost up. What to do next?

Today is the 8th of April 2012. I've been in New Zealand for almost a year and in exactly one month I'm supposed to board a plane to Europe. Or maybe I'm not. I don't want to leave NZ, I like it here!

I planned big things for 2012 ages ago, but now that my time in NZ is almost up, everything seems to be losing importance. It's hard to leave a place which I enjoyed so much and where I feel at home after all this time.

Saturday, 7 April 2012

Vintage 2012 finally starts!

After a month of scrubbing, sun dancing, cleaning and scrubbing some more and then dancing again, we finally commenced harvest. The excitement was big as the first truckload of 2012 grapes was being tipped into the receiving bin and vintage at Vavasour Wines could start at last.

Tuesday, 3 April 2012

Cycling NZ - Molesworth Station (Blenheim to Hanmer Springs via Awatere-Acheron road)

If you're up for a real cycling challenge, try riding through the Molesworth station. There are 200 kilometres of gravel road connecting Blenheim and Hanmer Springs, with beautiful scenery, really tough climbs, heaps rivers ideal for swimming and fishing, and long hours of quiet solitude in the middle of nature. Here's a map with the key points' description.

Molesworth is New Zealand's biggest farm (181 000 acres), it's operated by the Department of Conservation (DOC) and it's only open to the public during summer (late December till early April, check here for details). It runs through some impressive scenery and it makes for a bloody challenging ride. If you haven't got enough at the end, you can cycle back via the Rainbow Road.

Monday, 2 April 2012

Vineyard warzone

In case you didn't recognize the shooter, it's me;
shooting for the first time and winning a tournament!
Do you know what it's like to live in a place surrounded by thousands of hectares of vineyards with ripening grapes? It's like being in the middle of a war! Actually, take out the word "like" and you get the real thing. There's a war going on, a war for juice, a war between birds and farmers.
It's happening right outside my window and the usual saying "wake up and smell the coffee" feels more like "wake up and smell the gunpowder".

The first line of defence is netting; entire vineyards get wrapped in white nets - from far away it almost looks as though they've been snowed in - but that's hardly enough to keep the pecking flocks away. There are always holes in the nets, cheap solutions such as fake plastic hawks fail miserably, and therefore heavier measures need to be adopted. Most farmers adopt noise!

New Zealanders have two very effective weapons, and they love to use them from the very wee hours right until sundown (just because they're not allowed to make noise after dark). The first one is to drive around on quad bikes and shoot from double-barrel shotguns (if you're thinking of taking a stroll between the vines, think twice). When trigger-happy old farts don't do the trick, it's time to call in the heavy artillery. I don't know who invented this genially simple device, but I'd put my money on a Kiwi. All you need is a gas bottle, a steel pipe to send the gas in, and a car battery to create a spark that makes it go BANG!

Friday, 16 March 2012

Scrub, Scrub, Scrub. Call me Scruffy

Another week has gone by and the winery looks much cleaner than a few days ago. We've scrubbed literally from the roof, thousands of litres of water have been sprayed and blasted at dirty surfaces, kilograms of detergents and other chemicals have purged dust, rust, tartrates and germs from the place. Many more are yet to be used and sprayed.

Everybody worked hard, but something tells me that the job that kept me and Emily, my French colleague, busy for the last two days, was by far the most challenging. We cleaned the destemmer. The destemmer is a machine designed to separate grapes from leaves, stems and all other crap that gets collected during harvest. It's very difficult to clean under normal circumstances, everything needs to be scrubbed and made as shiny as a mighty knight's armour. We didn't work under normal circumstances, though. Our destemmer hadn't been cleaned last year...

Monday, 12 March 2012

Third week at the winery - a hermit among the crowd

Deja-vu? No, just another Sunday morning.
Cleaning tanks, cutting weeds, flying in a helicopter, becoming a hermit on temp-contract... in other words, pretty uneventful two weeks.

The last fortnight has been pretty quiet, but quite interesting. Even though I haven't done much stuff related to wine, I did lots of different jobs that were new to me, and none of them was as repetitive and boring as vineyard work. Weed whacking was good fun and although the bosses seem to consider it a necessary evil, I hadn't had enough even after three days. Some people think of it as punishment for naughty employees (e.g. those who turn up hangover), so I needn't worry about that, haha.

Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Day 2 - Boots and Wine

A very relaxed day. The only job consisted of cleaning a stinky drain with some corrosive shit, then I went to town to buy safety boots and got a pair of absolutely cool ones for just 40 bucks (the company does provide free footwear, but I decided to pay the difference for a slightly over-budget pair I fell in love with - Vulture 2599). For the rest of the day I stayed with a colleague, learning about wine making. Finally, the big boss has paid a visit to his winery to check the newest addition, a brand new production hall. He flew in with his helicopter from his lodge in the North Island and brought a bunch of bigjobs from the USA for tastings. About twenty bottles had been opened, tasted and then left untouched. Until the "working class" showed up. Cheers!

Monday, 27 February 2012

First day at the winery

Call me Mr. Scrubby. Everything's getting ready for harvest and for the big boss's visit. That means everything's getting sparkling and spotless. And that means that this morning, after filling in a pile of paperwork and receiving health and safety induction, I was assigned to the team with Mr. Bucket, Mr. Brush, Mr. Detergent and Mrs. Hose. It was hard and wet (work). Apart from the above mentioned team mates I also got to use the high pressure water blaster, which was a lot more fun, a lot wetter and a lot steamier. And my back didn't hurt so much after the job. Although the work has nothing to do with wine production as of yet, I've already learned something about it - making wine involves lots of cleaning.

I should probably say more about the winery in itself. There are lots of huge stainless steel tanks, about five metres high, there are two big presses and when they're not being used, they function as swimming pools. There are lots of other devices, such as filters, pumps, etc., but I won't be able to say much about them until I learn more about the whole process.

One of my colleagues, a Swiss guy with bachelor's degree in wine making, confirmed what many people already told me - that in New Zealand wine production is mostly a big industrial process, very different for example from France, where some wineries still use wooden tanks instead of steel ones, etc.

Ok, that's it for now, I need to sleep so I can start my second day in a less tired and clumsy fashion than the post-hard-boozing-weekend Monday. Good night.

Sunday, 26 February 2012

Hard working, hard partying

We recently moved into a house, leaving hostel the psychotic hostel manager behind. By "we" I mean a group of friends that formed at the previous place, consisting of a bunch of Czechs and two French guys.
After almost a year of backpacking and camping it's nice to be able to say "my own accommodation" without referring to a tent. The house is nice and tidy, although the pile of beer bottles outside is growing to a scary size, and we've got a friendly and relaxed (again, no psychotic hostel manager) atmosphere. It wasn't so relaxed during last night's party, though. I'm glad no neighbour came at us with a shotgun when we started chopping wood for the fireplace at 3am and then at 5am again.

Our enjoyment was halted only by the unpleasant fact that we ran out of alcohol in the middle of the night and Blenheim isn't a town where you'd find a 24/7 booze shop.

I was planning to work on Sunday, since I'm starting the winery job tomorrow and this weekend was the last opportunity to "enjoy" the vineyard, but at 10am, after five hours' sleep, it didn't sound like such a good plan any more. Everybody, and especially Martin, the only other person willing to work on the day of rest and hangover, agreed that a trip to the supermarket for some fuel would be a better idea. The bike is great for transporting beer.

The other picture shows Martin's breakfast. We all had beef soup and beer, but he seemed to prefer the fancy stuff; apparently, carrot dipped in peanut butter tastes good. I couldn't tell if it's true, he ate the last one!

Friday, 17 February 2012

The holiday part of my Working Holiday is over, now it's just the working

I've just come back from the West Coast, my last cycling trip around New Zealand, finished off by a two-day ride from Motueka to Blenheim. The two weeks on the road were really sweet, however, it was a bit sad since I was aware that it was going to be my last ride for a very long time. Having explored most of the South Island and depleted almost all my money, there's nothing else to do but work non-stop till the time comes to fly back to Europe.

After all those months spent in Blenheim doing all sorts of vineyard work, I wanted to try something different, and apple picking sounded like a good option (apparently it's really good money, but also very hard work). Alas, the season in Motueka, the country's biggest apple region, doesn't start until the end of February, which is in two weeks time, and is closely followed by vintage in Marlborough, where I already have a job lined up in one of the local wineries. As a result, apple picking is not an option, and neither is staying idle (and broke) for two whole weeks, so guess where I am again. That's right, in Blenheim, doing yet another vineyard job! This time we're putting nets around the plants to protect ripening grapes from hungry birds' peckers. It's not the most exciting job in the world, but it'll carry me right through the weeks left till vintage. Vintage will finish just before I'm due at Christchurch Airport, and then hurray back to Europe. But don't worry about my bike, it's not going to be forgotten, I have big plans with my newly discovered passion!

Monday, 30 January 2012

Cycling NZ - Queenstown to Te Anau via Mavora Lakes

Mud, rocks, streams, that's what I call mountain biking.
There are two ways to cycle from Queenstown to Te Anau (the base for excursions to Fiordland National Park). Supposing you choose the shorter, slightly harder and much more interesting route, you'd be taking the Mavora Lakes Road through the Mavora Lakes Park.

The road is 60 km shorter than the highway (110 km instead of 170), it's all gravel, deep in some places but manageable, and if you ever get fed up with pedalling, there are plenty of famous tramps in the area (Caples, Greenstone, Routeburn), plus some very cool and rough mountain biking, as you can see here.

Friday, 27 January 2012

Cycling NZ - Wanaka to Queenstown via Cardrona Valley (Crown Range Road)

There are two ways to get from Wanaka to Queenstown or vice versa. The easier and longer one is HW6, 112 km, around Lake Dunstan and through Cromwell. The shorter and of course tougher one, Crown Range Road, goes through the Cardrona Valley and although it's only 70 km long, it's quite a challenge with a 1076m mountain pass, which makes it the highest sealed road in New Zealand. Chains are required during winter.

According to Lonely Planet's Cycling New Zealand, part of the road is still gravel, but that's not true, it's all paved. That book is actually very old (written in 2000) and even my 2009 edition lacked up to date road information.

Thursday, 26 January 2012

Thieves, haircuts and crazy manager make an ordinary day

Just another day in Blenheim. That's what I said to myself yesterday morning, oblivious of the events waiting to happen later on. Chasing thieves, consuming large amounts of alcohol, getting a cherokee haircut, fighting with the hostel manager... So, yes, just "another" day in Blenheim.

It starts with an ending
It was our last day at work and although the job we'd been doing wasn't nearly as boring as wire lifting, my previous task, we were glad it was going to be over. Even skirting (tidying up the plants, removing hanging and dead vines, etc.) gets quite repetitive after two weeks. Since it was hot as hell, we stopped by the river to soak our feet in the cool water. Heaven.

It felt so good that we wanted more goodness and went to buy some beer. Back at the hostel we were greeted by loud rap music coming from the garden, where a bunch of Kiwi youngsters was hanging out. Considering our strong dislike for that kind of music and the fact that our group outnumbered them, their decisions regarding the volume and playlist were quickly overruled.

Monday, 23 January 2012

Cycling NZ - Taking a break in Wanaka

Not just Pisa, Wanaka's got it too!
After beating Lindis Pass, celebrating my 6 months in NZ with a beer offered by a Jehovah witness on top of a mountain and riding for 80 km without seeing any sign of civilization, we set camp on a nice pine clearing just past Tarras. It was only 30 km to Wanaka, but it was almost dark and after the day's performance, we were sort of knackered. We reached Wanaka the following day at noon, with sunshine in our faces - a much better approach than stressing out about a late night's arrival.

Olivia went to a campsite a bit outside of town, while I stayed at the YHA hostel by the lake front. First thing on the list was to do some chores - shower after three days, laundry after almost two weeks, oiling the chain to stop unpleasant squeaky sounds, buy groceries and have a HUGE steak for lunch.

Sunday, 15 January 2012

Cycling NZ - Cyclists meet... again... and tackle Lindis Pass

Back to cycling stories. I've got such a backlog of posts that it's driving me crazy, but we'll get there eventually. So here comes the next bit.

Remember how I went to Twizel to "cure" my sore knee? Popping into town was a lucky stroke, irrespective of the knee business. I spotted a bike rack by the supermarket, and guess what was in it. Bikes! How strange... anyway, jokes apart, one of them belonged to Neil, the Taiwanese fella I had met before, and the other one to Olivia, a French girl I ended up travelling with to Wanaka. What a jolly cyclist gathering, eh?

Anyhow, we left Twizel too late and didn't make it to the next town. We put the tents next to the road and tried to gather some strength for the next day's big challenge, Lindis Pass (965m). However, if it wasn't for all the sugar in the morning's big muffin, even bigger coffee and bigger still home made steak pie (no sugar in there) in Omarama, I don't think I could have climbed the pass without switching to the granny gears.

Saturday, 14 January 2012

Family reunion in New Zealand

Siblings and beer. Happy days (and gulps).
The world is full of funny coincidences. A few months ago my sister told me that she was playing with the idea of coming to NZ and was looking for someone to travel with. Practically at the same time I was discussing practically the same thing with a friend and former colleague of mine. So not just one visitor, I'd have too! Then it was just a matter of arranging a few details, putting the two of them in touch and now we're having a beer together!

Shaky welcome
They landed at midnight in Christchurch and what a greeting they received. Less than two hours after they got off the plane they were already sipping New Zealand beer in the rhythm of a 5.3 earthquake and a loud party at the hostel. Although the party went on right until people started to leave for work, we managed to catch a few hours' sleep and then we went for a walk through town. They opened lots of new streets and did a plenty of renovation work since my last visit, so it was interesting for me, as well. I can't say the city centre rebuilt with shipping containers is the most aesthetic one I've seen, but given the shaky circumstances, it's a pretty good solution - cheap, quick and easy to build and probably very safe.

Sunday, 1 January 2012

My bike and I: reunited

Almost a month has passed since I last rode my bike. We stayed in Cromwell for a while, then I had to leave in a hurry when I got a job in Blenheim. Hitch-hiking with a bike would have been a bit difficult. I decided to cycle back south, and despite some organisational difficulties, I managed to have the cycle shipped here (thanks Mira). There's some cleaning to do (not thanking Mira for parking it under a pigeons' toilet) and then I'm ready to go! Christchurch I'm coming!