Feeling a little defeated after failing to hitch a ride to Mt. Aspiring National Park the day before, Carrie and I decided to move on from Wanaka. So on Easter (DAY 58) we cycled further west to a village called Makarora. The crisp and clear morning (we woke with ice on our panniers) became a sunny and warm day, which made the ride around lakes Hawea and Wanaka all the better. Our official last ride in the mountainous Otago region, we were sad we’d soon be leaving the area behind for the west coast, but that’s all part of touring.
On DAY 59, we pointed our wheels for Haast Pass (alt. 576m), gateway to the west coast and the lowest pass over the Southern Alps. From Makarora we almost immediately rolled into Mt. Aspiring National Park and its lush lowland beech forest. The road bobbed and turned until a mild grade led us up to Haast Pass. This section of the road, from the Haast township on the west coast to Wanaka in Otago, was, like the Homer Tunnel, commissioned during the Depression to give Kiwis a way to earn some money. From the pass we descended quickly through a steep gorge overflowing with waterfalls and then spent about 50km approaching Haast. It was a long day but the landscape and nice weather kept us in high spirits.
Remember how I bragged how we’d only spent two days cycling in the rain so far? Well, the “wet coast” didn’t disappoint us on DAY 60. From Haast we headed north for our only realistic destination, a Department of Conservation campsite at Paringa Lake. The day started off with gloomy gray skies but held off until we passed the sandfly haven and tourist point called Ship Creek, a swampy estuary that borders a sandy beach and the cold Tasman Sea. While we stopped to take photos and have a snack, we practiced the age old art of avoiding sandfly bites: You do everything while continually moving. I chose to eat some trail mix and change shirts while circling a picnic bench. Carrie preferred pacing back and forth. The minute you stop, the nasty little bugs hunt for a patch of exposed skin for a snack.
From Ship Creek to Paringa Lake we got what was coming to us, a healthy lashing of rain. We arrived at the lake and quickly pitched our tent, where we stayed for the rest of the day, just enjoying being dry. During the night, the sprinkles and drizzles traded places with the utter downpours and gusty gusts of wind. We worried all night that we’d wake up in the morning, as if in a cartoon, floating along a river headed for a waterfall. What we did wake to though was a completely wet tent. Inside and out, the tent was soaked. Miraculously, our ground pads kept our down sleeping bags dry and the waterproof panniers saved my laptop and camera.
Before I could even finish packing up everything on the bike, my shoes, socks and poor feet were soaked. This was an omen. DAY 61 started wet and only got wetter. Before we could even get 10km away from the lake and toward Fox Glacier township, our next destination, the heavens opened up and really let us have it. It didn’t rain. It didn’t pour. It dumped. It felt like riding through a waterfall. As we climbed up a small hill, the road became a shallow river and we were salmon swimming upstream. We were so wet I swear I was starting to sprout gills. Thunder snapped in the distance, winds from nowhere pushed us all over the road; it was the second coming and we weren’t chosen. And just when it couldn’t get any worse, it did. Ssspt. Ssspt. Ssspt. I got a flat tire.
Most of the time you don’t know you’ve got a flat until the bike starts handling funny. You usually can’t hear air escaping until you’ve removed and carefully inspected the inner tube. My rear tire however was having a hissing fit. As luck would have it, we were close to the only bus shelter, or any shelter for that matter, along the route. Carrie and I hurried for safety where we had lunch and I discovered that my rear tire was completely warn. I replaced the tire with the spare I’ve been lugging around this whole trip, and I also replaced the inner tube. While under cover we missed another two tidal waves of rain. We thought we were fortunate, but it didn’t take long after we’d started riding again for another wave to come.
Cycling in the rain can be a drag, but once you accept the fact that you’re wet and you’re only going to get wetter, the ride becomes a real joy. The joy hits you suddenly; it feels like the moment you’ve remembered a word that’s been dancing on the tip of your tongue; it feels like a revelation, and it makes you feel like screaming, and you do, and I did, and it felt great.
We arrived at Fox Glacier completely exhausted and completely wet. After opting for a room at the holiday park, we took a warm shower and then walked to town where we bought dinner rations and ate some ice cream. Ice cream is our reward for surviving another day.