Even the dogs don’t bark at bicyclists in New Zealand!
If ever there was a paradise for a touring bicycle rider, New Zealand is it. The South Island with its 12,000-foot glacier covered summits possesses extraordinary mountain vistas. But it doesn’t end there. Animal life abounds along the rocky seacoast including countless shorebirds. On the domestic front, sheep. More than 21,000,000 of them out number the human population seven to one. Four-million-year-old Meroki Boulders “hatch” out of the sand along the coast. Kiwi birds hide in the darkness while penguins and sea lions frolic in the surf.
My cycling friend Doug and I spent three days in Christchurch. It’s a lovely Victorian City where characters like the Wizard and the Bird Man catch everyone’s attention. The former proclaims himself a theologian who walks into the city center daily and preaches a sermon on most any subject that catches his fancy. His “sermons” cause wild reactions among tourists. Milder mannered, the Bird Man provides a walking perch for hundreds of seagulls that inhabit the city. His avian friends trust him and fight for the honor of perching on his cap.
But paradise sometimes exacts a price. We rode south out of Christchurch with a brisk tailwind. Being blown down the road is like a free ride. You get to laugh and sing and sit in the saddle with little effort. A hundred miles south, we headed west on Route 79 toward Mount Cook National Park, into the heart of the highest mountains in New Zealand. We pedaled with side winds blowing us across the highway, but that wasn’t too bad. We made our way through a valley until we reached Route 8 in Farlie. A wide open plain covered with brown grasses brought us to a vista overlooking the turquoise waters of Lake Tekapo. We cut across its lower end and coasted for the next few hours on a tail wind that whipped along at over 50 miles per hour. We loved it…that is until we hit Route 80 at Lake Pukaki, headed directly into a 50 mile an hour zephyr. This created the granddaddy of headwinds. Sixty mile per hour gusts thundered down from the canyons in front of us.
Twenty-four miles separated us from the camping area in the park. It might as well have been a 10,000-foot climb with 16% grades. We stopped for a drink at the intersection.
“You sure we want to do this?” Doug asked.
“No kidding man,” I said. “This is an inland hurricane. We’re gonna’ be blown off the road. I don’t know how we’re gonna’ make it.”
“We’ll be in Granny gear the whole time,” Doug said. “Let’s get it done.”
From there our five-hour ordeal began. With the mountains in front and to our left, and the white caps on the lake, we cranked into a savage wind. An invisible force ripped at our bodies. Normally, we hammer out 24 miles in two hours. Not in that wind. We cranked along, heads down, hands gripping the bars and fighting for balance. Blasts of wind howled in our ears. For the first hour, a narrow canyon directed a cyclone at us. The road was straight for three miles, but looked like it was forever. We were in the Granny gear the whole time even on slight downhill grades. After six miles, we reached the storm whipped waters of Lake Pukaki.
The wind intensified as it exploded off the flat surface of the water.
We had been riding together, but one blast sent me crashing into Doug. After that, we kept a short distance between our bikes. On we cranked into this brutal gale-force wind. Up ahead, swirling clouds played wildly in the mountains at the end of the lake. We saw the birthplace of this raging tempest. It thundered and howled at us. It ripped violent patterns into the surface of the lake. That wind was doing everything in its power to keep us from our destination. Hour after gut busting hour, we fought our way into this tempest of sound and fury.
Near sunset, we dragged our weary bodies into the camp area of the park. Doug decided to take a rest. I pitched my tent, tossed the panniers inside and grabbed my camera. The sun was setting high over the peaks. Shadows moved up the west face of the mountains to my left. Glaciers hung to craggy peaks above me. I wanted to catch the sun making its final lighting assault on the glaciers for this day. I ran along a huge glacial moraine with my pack bouncing on my shoulders.
At the end of the camping area, it turned to bush and moss-covered rocks. I followed a primitive trail that meandered upward along a ridgeline. It climbed steeply offering me a glimpse of five large glaciers. Further up the hill, a gray glacial river came into view below me. In front, an enormous canyon stretched into the distance, the result of a receding glacier whose foot was barely perceptible under the south face of 12,500-foot Mount Cook. The clouds broke momentarily giving me a full-blown view of its south face. Brilliant mountain energy! Along the canyon, back toward me, on sheer vertical cliffs thousands of feet high, four glaciers clung to their rocky perches.
Nearer my location, about a mile on the right, a large gravel avalanche chute, now still, cut its way through dark green vegetation. In front of me, where I stopped to sit on a rock, I had a grandstand view of the merging of two glacial canyons. The one closest to me had 300-foot-high banks that resembled a canal trough, but the contents of this trough were gray rock overlapped with ice which protruded like broken glass shards on a ghetto sidewalk. Along the rock fields, sinkholes made indentations and 500-ton boulders lay around like broken eggshells. On the left side of the canyon, nine glaciers in various formations poured like cake batter out of the mountains. Beneath each glacier and mingling around the base the ice floes, dozens of waterfalls cascaded down jagged rock.
Above this grand mountain scheme, white and gray twisting clouds folded into changing formations ghosts in a Disney movie. Even more dramatic was the thrashing and thundering wind. It rushed through the canyon to my right with the deafening roar of cannon fire. Each volley blasted the ridge where I sat. The blasts bellowed over the water of the glacier lakes below me and ripped up the ridge and roared by me at 60 miles per hour. I was nearly blown over the ridge at one point and dropped to my stomach to save myself. The grasses were being blown so hard; they looked like water running over a dam.
As I watched this drama, wonder crept into my soul. I let out a yell. At times like this, when the wind blows and the ice cracks and rumbles, and rivers roar, and the mass of nature’s moving parts unite to create a natural movie with a screen that stretches across the sky–it’s at these times I know my life is delicate perfection. Living is right and good. I have no doubts, while I sit here in a howling wind with my spirit soaring and my eyes full of blue, gray, aqua, white, ice, water and mountains rising to collide with the sky.
Upon returning to camp, Doug and I were invited into a Kiwi couple’s van for dinner. We talked for two hours before the wind died. We walked out at 11:00 o’clock just as a full moon broke over the summit east of Mount Wakefield. A slight drizzle fell west of us across the Seffron Glacier, which we could see from our location. What we witnessed, I’ve never seen before nor since. Its existence requires the most exceptional of circumstances to occur. That night, we saw one of the rarest wonders of the world.
“Would you look at that!” Doug said.
“Holy catfish,” I said. “What do you call something like¬ that?”
“I don’t know,” Doug answered. “It’s not a rainbow, so it’s got to be a…moonbow, yeah, that’s it, a moonbow.”
Across the sky to the west, created by the blazing light of a full moon, and a clear sky to the east–a fully arced rainbow swung from the ground, up over a mountain, into the night sky, back down into the white glacier field, and touched down again on the rocky ground in the distance. The brightest colors were green and yellow, but red and purple glistened in the drizzle, too. Within the arc, a white mist curtain brightened the darkness.
“That is a once in a lifetime happening,” Doug said.
“You know, this makes everything we suffered today worth it,” I said. “This is so amazing that I can’t even believe it!”
My friend and I stood there watching the moonbow. In the silence, we heard other things.
“What a privilege to know the profound stillness and the peace of the land, to see star spangled skies, and to listen to the pulse of the universe.”
– Jill Tremain
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Read more posts by Frosty Wooldridge here. Frosty is a blogger for JenningsWire Online Magazine.
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