Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Mavora Lakes - Stunning Scenery, Great Company and Sore Bums.

So, it's my first Christmas off in about 15 years (that's what happens when you get caught up in a career in retail!), and I really couldn't think of anything better to do with the time than go riding. Unlike my trip earlier in the year, though, I had to pay due consideration to accommodating the interests of my better half, Sarah, and somehow fitting time with her and with my beloved Ninja into the one trip. Sarah isn't really a mountain biker... Although she isn't NOT a rider, either (if that makes sense?). I had bought her an early Christmas present months ago... A nice new hardtail XC bike... And we had done the odd spot of riding together, but with her end of year exams, she hadn't been on the bike much of late.
When I first suggested the idea of us doing a "short" cycle tour together at some stage over the holidays, the original idea was to do the Otago Central Rail Trail... Plenty of accommodation along the way, nice scenery, short stages with good rests in between... But somewhere between then and our final plans, we shifted to the Mavora Lakes ride (dutifully guided by the Kennett Bros book "New Zealand Cycle Trails"). The Mavora Lakes ride starts in Queenstown with a trip across the lake on the old Steamship, the Earnslaw, to Walter Peak. You then ride about 60km to Mavora Lakes, camp the evening (or stay in one of the DOC huts), then ride through to Te Anau the next day (about 70km). If you look at the altitude profile of the ride, there is an ever-so-slight uphill gradient from Walter Peak to the Lakes, with one solid climb in the middle of the day. The following day is a downhill gradient that s so subtle that it pretty much feels flat. So it's entirely doable as an introduction to cycle touring... I knew that Sarah would make it just fine, but we had discussed previously that her lack of time on the bike of late would likely mean that she would end up with a rather sore bum. Her longest ride so far had been 17km, and here I was dragging her along on a 128km epic. I justified this misdemeanor by explaining to her than the riding would be much easier than riding in the forest at home... There wasn't as much climbing, we'd be taking it pretty slow and it wasn't technical like riding in the forest. I neglected to mention that this would be largely negated by the fact that the distance each day was nearly four times longer than she had ever ridden... And with the weight of a pack on her back.

So we packed up and set off on a beautiful sunny day a couple of days after Christmas. I set up the Ninja with the Freeload rack on the back (careful not to tighten the straps too tightly around my carbon stays for fear of crushing them, as I had learned from John Randal). On the rack was a twenty litre drybag stuffed full of my favorite lightweight kit... A tent (Vaude Power Lizard UL), a couple of sleeping bags, a couple of camping mats, cooker and a first aid kit. We then each had a backpack. Sarah carried her clothes and some spare bike bits and I carried my clothes and all our food. We also carried 3 litres of water in a bladder, and another water bottle on our bikes (it was going to be a hot couple of days!). I was stoked with how much gear I fitted in my Camelbak Octane 18X, and the little mesh outer pocket later proved useful for carrying nasty rubbish bits and pieces that you didn't want to put inside your backpack with everything else. I was also carrying a tow-rope which I had devised to tie to my saddle rails and then had a loop at the other end to lasso around the stem on Sarah's bike when required. We didn't get a chance to test it before we left, so I had no idea if it would work. I wanted to make sure that Sarah enjoyed the trip for a couple of reasons... Firstly, I do like the girl, and I didn't want her to have a miserable time. Secondly, I wanted her to join me on subsequent trips. And thirdly, I wasn't all that keen on returning home single... I truly think the best way to see the world is on two wheels under your own steam, and I wanted to show her that so she understood why I loved it so much.

We arrived at Walter Peak on the first boat across and sorted out all our gear... I re-tied the drybag on my rack so it didn't drag on my rear wheel and then we were off. It was surprising just how quickly we seemed to leave the madness of the tourist season behind us. As they all surged off the ship and onto the shores at Walter Peak, we disappeared up the road amongst nothing more than the cows, the sheep and the mountains that towered over us on one side and the lake that shimmered on the other. It was a super hot day and we just meandered along at a civil pace. I'd stop and take photos, then ride back up to Sarah. There were a couple of other groups out, apparently doing the same trip... One of them had a support vehicle carrying all their gear for them (cheating, as far as I am concerned!), and the other group was a couple of older guys... One on a foldable bike, and both carrying quite a bit of gear. Sarah and I had done exceedingly well to travel so light. The ride was so pleasant. As we cruised along and took in the stunning scenery, stopping along the way to enjoy snacks and sandwiches (Camembert cheese and cucumber makes a surprisingly good mix on fresh ciabatta!). We followed a gentle climb around the edge of lake Wakatipu until we ran into the Von River, then sidled along the river up the valley towards our destination with nothing more eventful than a rather large, scary-looking bull that was blocking our path at one point. With some gentle persuasion, we carefully cycled our way around the lovely bull, joking that the farmer probably puts his biggest, meanest-looking, but lovliest bull on that road purposely to freak out cyclists.

We crossed our first ford  at the same time the two other guys caught up to us. It was about this time that Sarah also first complained that her bum was a bit sore (not great news when we had only gone about 20km). Our pace had been pretty cruisy, and my thoughts were that the slower we were, the longer Sarah's bum would be on a saddle and the more it would hurt, so I thought that now was the time to try out our towing contraption (and to crack out the Butt Butter), and hopefully get us to our destination a little quicker. The small loop went through my saddle rails and threaded back through the rope, which then ran along the top of the dry bag at the back and looped over Sarah's handlebars to nestle around her stem and tow her along from the centre of her bars... It worked an absolute treat, and as we passed a gorgeous little stone cottage on the side of the road where the boys were having their lunch, I can only imagine how unusual it must have looked to see this tiny little girl carrying the load and towing her partner along.

Before long, we reached the foot of what was to be our only climb of note throughout the whole trip... The road wound it's way rather steeply up around the mountain in what was approximately a 250m climb. Not really too tough in normal circumstances, but was a good hard slog with a load on and Sarah in tow, as well as a number of stock trucks making their way past us on the narrow, dusty road. It took us a while to get into the rhythm of how to stop and start with Sarah on tow... It pretty much meant that I was in charge of forward pace and steering, and Sarah was in charge of any stopping or breaking that happened. Starting again after stopping usually involved me track-standing on my bike whilst yelling out "Ready? All good? Have I got you?" about three times before riding off, worried that I would either entangle the rope in one of our wheels, or drag Sarah's bike off on her before she was ready. Surprisingly, we did pretty well, and I only remember one occasion when we tangled the rope in my back wheel.

We stopped about three quarters of the way up the climb to have lunch, at a stunning vantage point that looked straight back down the valley with the river winding through it and the mountains surrounding and standing guard. It was stunning... This is why we ride bikes!!! The top of the climb saw us enter another huge valley with a relatively flat, undulating road winding through it. The whole ride had been quite exposed to the elements, and this section was no exception. The barren basin held the heat and funneled the headwind straight at me. It was just after our lovely little climb that Sarah got her first introduction to the world of self-photography... I was dead-set on getting a photo of us together, me towing Sarah along... And it took five or six attempts with my Gorillapod and my camera on 10sec timer to get an acceptable shot (camera manufacturers... Can we please have a 30sec timer option???). Finally, we were on our way again, with Sarah already well on her way to using the entire pot of chamois cream. We were making pretty quick work of the distance, but the basin we were riding through was so vast, it seemed to be taking forever. I took great pleasure in stopping and pinpointing where we were on the map, much to Sarah's disgust (she doesn't really share my map fetish).

We hadn't seen many other people the whole day, which was lovely... It seemed like we were in a world of our own (far away from Queenstown's tourist crowds!). Towards the other edge of the basin, though,we passed another cycle tourist heading in the opposite direction. We exchanged friendly "hellos" and then about a minute later, he pulled up alongside me. His name was Peter. He was from North America and apparently rather impressed by our towing setup. I was secretly stoked that someone had seen my towing contraption and was impressed with my incredible towing powers. Peter was doing his first solo tour through NZ, starting in Christchurch and making his way all the way down to Mavora Lakes so far. I was envious... I can't think of many things I would rather do than spend an undetermined amount of time just traveling around on my bike, seeing amazing places and meeting new people. I offered up a hot shower and a place to stay if he happened to find his way to Rotorua and he mentioned an organisation called Warm Showers. Warm Showers (http://www.warmshowers.org/) is a reciprocal hospitality website for cycle tourists... Looks like a good thing to get into, and once I get home, I'll be sure to sign up myself. It would be so cool to have cycle tourists drop by, spend a night, and tell some good stories! Peter took some photos of our little towing setup and then turned around and headed on his way.

Not long after, we could see huge clumps of trees rearing up in front of us, and before too long, we could see the Mavora Lakes turnoff right in front of us... It was like a mirage, where the desolate basin we were riding through entered a lush forest bordered by crystal clear lakes with beautiful blue waters. We registered at the campers registration and paid our fees and then continued on until we came across the first camping area at the northern tip of South Mavora Lake. To be honest, we should have continued on and checked out the larger camping area about 2-3km up the road, but Sarah was tired, and there was a cosy little spot in the bush on the edge of the lake where we were able to pitch the tent, have a feed, a dip in the lake and chill out for a bit.

The spot we had chosen for our tent was on a slight hill, but we figured that if we pitched it downhill (with our feet down the hill) then we should be fine. We then spent the entire night with our sleeping bags sliding off our mats and depositing our weary bodies at the bottom of the tent. Other than that, though, the spot was beautiful. I had generously offered to carry a small bottle of wine with us which we drank as the sun was setting. We dipped our bodies in the cold water in the lake, which ended up being incredibly refreshing after a day on the bike (and a convenient way to wash our only set of clothes seeing as we were traveling so light!), and ate pasta cooked on my pocket rocket (the Bunsen burner for campers...). It was truly stunning... The two other guys we had seen earlier in the day arrived some time after us and set up camp nearby. They were surprised how light we were traveling considering we had all our camping gear with us, but I suppose that is the thing with cycle touring... If you want luxury, you have to be willing to carry it!!!

The thing I find bizarre when staying in the mountains down south is that the sun disappears long before it actually sets, casting an eerie, dull light across the early evening. We stayed up long enough to watch the sun disappear behind the hills and then climbed into our beds, Sarah using her amazing ninja swatting skills to successfully prevent sandflies and mosquitoes entering our tent. I was surprised at how soundly we slept, waking up only on a couple of occasions to hear possums mating, the neighboring tent's fat dog hunting for scraps and then once to go to the toilet. I remember climbing out of the tent and thinking how bright it was, then stumbling half-awake to the edge of the lake to see a full moon casting a stunning reflection across the completely still lake... It was magic... Surprisingly, I went back to sleep for four hours after that, waking up about 7am to the stunning reflection of the mountains upon the lake.

After a quick breakfast, a cuppa and packing our stuff back down into nothing to attach to our bikes (it really is amazing how little you can get away with carrying on these trips), we mounted our bikes again to continue on our way... Not wanting to miss out on any of the spectacle, I insisted that we take a short trip further north to check out the other lake, to which Sarah reluctantly agreed. I'd love to do this trip again, but camp up for two or three nights and explore the area a bit more... There are dozens of walking trails to check out in the vicinity of the lakes, and it's a beautiful spot. I knew Sarah was keen to get moving, so we didn't venture too far before heading back to the main road to continue on our way to Te Anau. I think Sarah was a bit over the trip by now, and probably largely because it isn't very comfortable to have to sit on a bike seat when your bum is already sore... I just wanted to get her to Te Anau as soon as possible.

To be honest, I didn't enjoy the second day as much as the first... The increasing number of cars meant we were getting closer to civilisation again and whilst the scenery was very pleasant, it wasnt'quite so much as the previous day. The extra weight of carrying a pack on my shoulders was also starting to make my saddle a little uncomfortable, too (mental note... pack as much as possible onto the bike and avoid using backpacks). I put Sarah on tow pretty much from the start of the day and we were chewing through the miles pretty quickly, knocking out a good 30km in under 2 hours. It was all looking pretty rosy until we reached our next turnoff which said "Te Anau 45km". I knew Sarah was pretty gutted with how much further she had to sit on that damn saddle, and to be honest, I was surprised we still had that far to go... But there wasn't much we could do about it other than push on. We knew the last 30km or so was on the main highway and would probably be slightly less rough on the body than the gravel roads, so when we reached the highway, it was a bit of a milestone for the day. It meant, though, that we had to contend with traffic, and I wasn't sure if I was entirely comfortable with towing Sarah along a main road with crazy holiday drivers zipping by, so we took the tow rope off for the first 5km or so.

We both wanted lunch, but I was hoping for a slightly more pleasant vista than merely the edge of the road. In my quest to find a nice rest area, we rode past two or three perfectly nice spots with shade and ended up having to settle for an overgrown strip on the side of the highway, in the sun, next to some road kill... Perfect... Not long after this, I decided to put the tow rope back on Sarah... I think we both just wanted to get to Te Anau, and had it been on a pleasant, country backroad, it might have been a different story, but the highway was becoming a bit of a drag, so we jumped back into tow mode and headed for home, Sarah's underpants hung over her handlebars in the hope to dry them before we arrived.

We finally reached Te Anau, three and a half hours before our bus back to Queenstown. We found a good pie shop (very important), a good ice cream shop (important again) and an ordinary coffee shop (two out of three ain't bad). We also found, to our delight, a lovely, clean public shower facility and the guy who worked there was so lovely and accommodating, even letting us put our bikes inside where he watched them for us while we had a shower... It was absolute bliss! And probably much to the benefit of other bus passengers who had to sit near us on the trip back to Queenstown. My concerns at getting the bikes on the bus were allayed when we had the most super nice bus driver (who was also a biker) who carefully loaded our bikes on board and then dropped us off nice and close to our car at Frankton.

Another stunning trip under my belt, and whilst I haven't had the guts to ask Sarah whether she will join me for another bike trip any time soon, I'm hopeful she may forget about the bum chafe and allow me to drag her along (literally) on another ride sometime in the future...

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