Thursday 24 May 2018

Alps2Ocean 1: Cycling in Camelot

But in Camelot … The rain may never fall till after sundown. By eight, the morning fog must disappear. In short, there's simply not a more congenial spot for happily-ever-aftering than here in Camelot. - Alan Jay Lerner

It was not a promising beginning. After a summer as long, warm and dry as most people in the South Island could remember, the morning of our 5 day cycle trip from Aoraki/Mt Cook to Oamaru dawned darkly cloudy. And as we completed our briefing and boarded the mini-bus/van that would take us from Christchurch to the start, the rain began.

[A little better than expected! The cloud-free Alps across Lake Pukaki] 
To my simple Tasmanian mind, heading west towards mountains in weather like this meant it would be even wetter by the time we reached the hills and started the afternoon’s cycling. The weather forecast promised the same. As the van shoosshed through the wet outskirts of Christchurch, we exchanged gloomy glances and settled down for a long drive. At least the driving was being done by someone else, namely our German-born guide Johanna (who preferred we call her Joh). Her cheerful chatter and nonchalance about the weather even managed to lift the gloom a little.

By our first stop for coffee in Geraldine, the clouds had miraculously parted, even if the air still had a chill to it. Over coffee we got to know our fellow cyclists. We were a small – we prefer to say “select” – group of five, plus Joh our guide. Our long-time friend Tim was the reason Lynne and I were here. He’d booked to do the Alps2Ocean ride a little over a year ago, but had had to cancel the trip because of a shoulder injury. So when the chance came for him to come back, Lynne and I put up our hands to join him. The other two riders were a Canadian/New Zealand couple, Dave and Jackie. She was originally from New Zealand, but had married Dave, a Canadian, and they’d moved to Ontario decades ago. We were intrigued to learn that now they’re in retirement, they spend six months a year in each country. What would it be like to never experience winter?

[Five at the start beside Lake Pukaki]
After Geraldine the road began winding a little more, and our progress towards the Alps was slow but steady. By our lunch stop at Lake Tekapo, the clouds had cleared enough for us to gain glimpses of New Zealand’s giant 3 754m mountain, Aoraki/Mount Cook, across the milky blue lake.

At Tekapo we also picked up our bikes. After a local technician had fitted and adjusted them for us, we took a few spins around the carpark. Tim and I had opted for straight mountain bikes, vibrant yellow Avanti branded bikes with front shocks and rear racks fitted with bags. Cannily Lynne had opted for the Avanti e-mountain bike, in gun-metal grey, with a Shimano motor. The three of us ride e-bikes at home, and had all considered this option. But Tim and I had decided we’d cope with the 260km ride just fine under our own steam. After all, wasn’t it practically all downhill from the Alps to the Ocean? What could be hard about that?

As we drove on to Lake Pukaki, the weather just kept getting better. Welcome to Camelot! By the time we’d taken the dirt road up to our starting point at Braemar Station, our  views of the “cloud piercer”, as Aoraki translates into English, were the best I’d ever seen in 40+ years of coming to New Zealand. There, seemingly just at the end of the lake, stood this commanding snow-clad peak, as classic a pyramid shaped mountain as the Matterhorn or Mt Aspiring. It easily shouldered aside the wisps of clouds that smothered some of its less lofty neighbours.

[View to Aoraki/Mt Cook from near Braemar Station] 
I was tipsy on what the Psalmist called “the wine of astonishment”, and could have stayed and gazed at the mountain all afternoon. But we did have a “token” amount of riding to do on that first afternoon, “just” 30km or so along a quiet gravel road to the Lake Pukaki Visitor Centre. So we climbed into our saddles, and set off down the shore of the glittering lake with a gentle breeze and astonishing views at our backs.

[Tim explores the lake at the tea break]  
It was a shake-down ride in more ways than one. The road, while gentle of gradient, proved to have fierce corrugations at regular intervals. Wherever we pointed our bikes, we couldn’t avoid these bone-shaking corrugations. Joh had warned us we’d strike some of this, but had distracted us with the “carrot” of afternoon tea just a little down the road, served from “Morrison” (as we dubbed our van). Between that and our frequent photographic stops – in settings we had to blink to believe – we gladly made it to the bottom end of Pukaki. There Joh met us, wearing her accustomed beaming smile, and chauffeured us off to our first night’s accommodation, with its showers, soft beds and hot food! One day in Camelot down, four days to go.

[Astonishing views across Lake Pukaki at day's end]

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