One man's undulation is another man's alp, discovers Richard Tulloch on a cycling tour of the South Island.
FEW of us look our best in Lycra in the early-morning light. I kept this in mind as I checked out my fellow riders in the Adventure South minivan, rolling out of Queenstown to the start of our guided ride, hoping they would make allowances for my appearance, too.
Nine of us would be spending six days cycling together, taking in the hills, the food, the beverages and the sights of New Zealand's South Island. It helps to get on with everybody in a small group. And when the cycling starts, you want to be able to keep up.
"Anybody got any medical conditions we should know about?" guide Louise queried. No hands were raised. Everyone looked pretty fit to me, ranging in age from 30-ish to, maybe, 70-ish. I wasn't the oldest. If that David bloke from Northern Ireland thought he could do this, surely I could, too.
Louise and her fellow guide, Rudy, gave us a quick overview of the West Coast and Glaciers route; from Queenstown to Wanaka, west over the Haast Pass, then north up the coast past Fox and Franz Josef glaciers and, finally, inland towards Arthurs Pass.
"It's about 400 kilometres all up," Louise said, "but there are places you can do some extra riding if you want to." Extra riding? Did a Kiwi joke just go whooshing over my head?
"If anyone gets too tired, the van will be along soon," Rudy said. "If you wave as we pass, that means you're OK, but if you tap your helmet, we'll stop and pick you up." That sounded better. My fellow riders seemed a little reserved. I guessed everyone was wondering, "Just how hard is this going to be?" The standard traveller's question, "Where do you come from?" was quickly followed by the standard cyclist's question, "Do you do much riding?" and the standard cyclist's answer, "Oh, I try to do a bit."
"I haven't ridden a bike for two years," South African Susanne volunteered. "We live in Hong Kong now," her husband Hugo said. "Nobody cycles there." Phew - that was a couple more I might be able to keep up with. Kaye, from Sydney, confessed she didn't ride much, either. "I do like running, though," she said. Oh.
Rudy stopped the van on a quiet stretch of road just out of town and he and Louise started assembling the bikes; Trek hybrids with padded saddles and lots of gears. Not racing bikes, I was pleased to see.
Wayne, Ian and David had brought their own pedals to fit their cycling cleats. In my mind that edged them towards the "serious cyclist" category. OK, I'd brought my trusty pedals, too.
I suspected I'd need all the help I could get. Saddle heights were adjusted, bike computers set to zero and off we went. It turned out to be the best ride
I had done in my life.
I'd driven around New Zealand at other times and seen touring cyclists. I didn't envy them as they struggled to drag their heavily laden panniers up the hills, grimly pedalling through the wind and the rain. Now that I've ridden in New Zealand myself, I've changed my mind. It is the greatest country for cycle touring I've seen. The combination of spectacular scenery and quiet, well-surfaced roads was a step up from anything that I'd found elsewhere.
Having the support vehicle helped. With our gear stowed in the trailer, we could travel light on the bikes knowing there'd be a shower, clean clothes, a drink, a meal and a comfortable motel bed waiting at the end of the day.
We came to love the sight of the little white van. Every time we started to feel we just couldn't take any more, we'd round a bend and there it would be, with coffee in the plunger and a stock of fruit, muesli bars and cool water available.
There was also the option of riding in the van to the top of hills. Most of us took advantage of this from time to time and Louise told me she occasionally gets non-riding partners travelling this way for the whole trip.
As it turned out, our group was fairly well matched in fitness and cycling ability. There were sore derrieres and tired legs at the end of every day but nobody was left struggling and miserable behind the pack, nor were there any gung-ho cowboys powering ahead to make us feel inadequate.
No pressure was put on anyone to move outside their comfort zone but usually about half the team would attempt the tougher climbs. We learnt that Hugo rode regularly before he moved to Hong Kong and obviously still had plenty of residual fitness. And that David bloke from Northern Ireland would have a crack at anything. We'd discovered he was 71, so whenever he took off up a hill, honour demanded that I try it, too.
I suffered, chanting my mantra "Shut up, legs" as the gradients became steeper. David would sit behind us until, with the summit in sight, he'd switch down to the granny gear, legs whirring furiously, and power past.
"And we say we're not competitive," he chuckled. "Age doesn't matter on the bike - it's how much riding you've done." He quickly changed in our conversation from "that David bloke" to "the David phenomenon".
There was plenty of scenery to take our minds off our legs and lungs; sparkling lakes with snow-capped mountains as their backdrops, forests of mighty beech and rimu trees, red tussock grass on the higher slopes and wild beaches below.
"I'm writing to my friends in Switzerland," Susanne said, "and telling them they no longer have the world's most beautiful country."
The weather was unexpectedly kind. New Zealand's West Coast gets five metres of annual rainfall, so carrying good wet-weather gear is essential. I hardly used mine on this trip. We faced headwinds at times but clear, sunny days predominated and we were able to eat picnic lunches in front of gorgeous vistas.
Cyclists are big eaters, as Louise and Rudy understood. Usually, we shunned those mean motel breakfasts with their mini cereal packets and tinned peach slices. Instead, we followed our guides to a local cafe where early opening had been arranged. Real coffee, eggs Benedict and full Kiwi cooked breakfasts were the go, while we studied maps of the day's riding.
"There are a few undulations," was the phrase that regularly cropped up in Louise's morning briefing. We came to understand that this meant different things to different people. What the Kiwis call undulations, we Australians call hills. Dutch cyclists probably call them alps.
We were on the road early and it was often late afternoon by the time we reached our accommodation. That left little time for exploring the towns we stayed in, though after riding 70 to 100 kilometres, our enthusiasm for sightseeing had naturally somewhat dissipated.
We probably weren't missing much. Villages such as Wanaka and Franz Josef have spectacular locations but mainly cater for the tourist trade. Cafes and shops selling souvenirs and outdoor gear abound and we could see them all in a short evening stroll. An exception was the old goldmining settlement Arrowtown, just north of Queenstown. The gold has run out and the tourists have run in, for good reason. Its restored timber shopfronts verge on the too chocolate-box cute but it remains very interesting.
I spent some time exploring the former Chinese settlement, where the sites of Tin Pan and Ah Gum's huts are remembered and other shanties restored. The Chinese were invited but not welcomed into New Zealand in the 1860s to 1880s and the settlement is a testament to their stoicism and resilience.
Hokitika, too, is a pretty town, a centre for carved jade jewellery and other Maori artwork.
Our favourite local watering hole was in Haast, a remote village of 4 million residents, 200 of them human and the rest sandflies. The Hard Antler Bar is decorated entirely with deer horns, framing an impressive stuffed moose head above the flat-screen TV.
Dinners en route were usually part of the package and there were plenty of local delicacies. If the whitebait fritters were a bit uninspiring, I couldn't fault the superb New Zealand lamb and salmon. At the historic Jacksons Hotel, I went for the signature dish of peas, pie and pud - an excellent venison pie on a bed of mashed potatoes and green peas - perfect fuel for cycling.
I also discovered a renowned Kiwi institution known as Rush Munro. Does anybody else in the world make feijoa ice-cream? Great stuff.
When the wine list was handed around, what could we choose but Mount Difficulty pinot noir?
The name seemed so appropriate to our adventure. It's from the Central Otago region and not a bad drop at all. Apart from the cycling, the trip had its magical, unexpected moments. Like the morning Louise dragged us out of bed before dawn to take a mystery hike in the dark.
It was worth the stumbling to see the sun come up over the mountains, perfectly reflected in the still water of Lake Mathieson. Then there was the day our bikes were attacked by keas while we were having breakfast. These chunky, cheeky mountain parrots are notorious vandals, ripping the rubber off unattended cars, destroying windscreen wipers, door seals and radio antennas. On this occasion, they chose to eat the rubber buttons from some of our bike computers and to tear gashes in our gel saddles with their beaks. "Tourists love to watch them in action," Louise growled, "as long as they're trashing someone else's stuff."
My computer was undamaged and when we rolled into Jacksons at the end of the ride, it told me I'd completed 394 kilometres. Damn, I should have ridden up that six-kilometre hill.
Team photos were taken, email addresses exchanged and our guides thanked. They'd been exceptionally kind, efficient and very good company. I'll go back to New Zealand with my bike as soon as possible. When I do, I'll certainly organise a little white van to meet me at the top of every undulation.
The writer was the guest of Adventure South and travelled with assistance from Tourism NZ.
Air New Zealand flies from Sydney to Queenstown via Auckland or Christchurch from $630 return. 13 24 46, airnewzealand.com.au.
Adventure South runs various guided cycling tours in New Zealand, catering for different levels of fitness and experience. The West Coast and Glaciers trip is rated "recreational" and costs $2095, including bikes, guides, accommodation, most meals and the TranzAlpine train. 1800 107 060, adventuresouthnz.com.au.
Three things along the way
1. TranzAlpine railway The daily train from Greymouth to Christchurch has been described as one of the world's great rail journeys and I won't argue with that. We joined it for the two-hour trip from Arthur's Pass to Christchurch, through tunnels and over viaducts with spectacular panoramic views. See tranzscenic.co.nz.
2. Wildfoods Festival We were just a week early for the west coast's Wildfoods Festival, a popular annual event in Hokitika during which adventurous gourmets can sample, among other delicacies, huhu grubs and fried scorpions, washed down with a shot of horse semen. Yum. wildfoods.co.nz.
3. Fox Glacier There are only three temperate glaciers in the world — one in Argentina and Franz Josef and Fox (pictured) glaciers in New Zealand. We took a morning off riding to join Fox Glacier Guiding's four-hour Fox Trot walking trip. They armed us with boots and crampons and, following our guide, we stepped out onto the ice for an Antarctic experience without the cold. Trips cost from $NZ99 ($74). foxguides.co.nz.