Yesterday’s sleet turned out to be only an hors d’oeuvre. Overnight the main course was delivered: proper snow. And not just in the mountains. A dusting covered the ground in Omarama, and as we sat down to a hot breakfast in the warm hotel, a fresh flurry blew through. Guests rushed to the windows, ooing and aahing. Our group exchanged raised-eyebrow looks. Snow and ice don’t make for great riding conditions.
[Snowy hills across Lake Benmore]
But I had another concern. Yesterday’s downhill hammering had done me some mischief. I’d been unable to lift my heavy luggage without wincing in pain. It seemed I’d sprained my wrist and/or damaged a tendon. Lynne and Joh saw my struggles, and both were concerned about me riding. Joh decided to strap my wrist. As she finished, even though I’m old enough to be her father, she gave me one of those “doubtful mum” looks. She didn’t want me riding if I was going to be unsafe, or at risk of further injury. I made a braking motion with the thumb and fingers of my affected hand, then gave a thumbs-up. There weren’t any rough sections today: what was there to worry about?
[Signalling the start of Day Four at Benmore Dam]
Not even the weather, it turned out. By the time we were ready to leave, the sky was clearing, and the snowline had lifted far enough to ease our worries. But it was still very cool, and we threw all our cold weather gear into the van. As Joh drove us to Benmore Dam and the start of the day’s cycling, we rubber-necked out the windows at the spectacular views of snowy hills and mountains.
There is something inherently cold about concrete, and Benmore Dam – deeply shaded beneath newly snowy hills – provided a perfect example. Jackets, gloves, leggings and wool beanies beneath our helmets were all essential for the fast downhill section from the dam to the next hydro lake, Lake Aviemore. Tim had even added some plastic bags over his still-damp socks, to keep the wind chill down.
If an uphill can ever be merciful to any cyclist apart from Richie Porte, the couple of small climbs along the lakeshore helped get our internal combustion going. By the time we’d ridden the long sealed road section to the Aviemore Dam, we were thawed enough to appreciate the spectacular views across to the snow-capped hills. And more than ready to find Joh and Morrison for a warming cuppa.
[Tim and snow-capped hills in the Waitaki Valley]
Backroads and cycle trails took us down the Waitaki River valley, firstly beside Waitaki Lake to the next dam, and then alongside the river. Along the way I thought afresh about the conundrum that is “100% Pure New Zealand”. We spent most of the day riding past hydro-electric lakes, rivers staunched by dams, countryside criss-crossed with transmission lines and surrounded by once-forested hills that are now cleared and covered with sheep and cattle. In truth we’d found the scenery entrancing. But little of it has remained natural or “pure”. Ask around a bit, and dig beneath the surface, and you’ll find plenty of environmental problems here, from dairy farming pollution to feral infestations. New Zealand’s is an ecosystem that is anything but pure. But I suppose marketers can’t – or won’t – sell complex, compromised stories, until we tourists and travellers demand a more-than superficial response to the places we visit.
We finally reached town of Kurow. This is wine country, and we were more than happy to stop at a winery for lunch and a tasting. Lynne had been having knee problems, and opted to join the others who’d chosen to do the next section in the van. In one breath I commiserated with her; in the next I asked if she’d mind if I rode her e-bike for the next section. Given that only Tim and I were riding the next section, it was the only way I’d keep up with him!
[In the vineyards near Kurow]
It was still windy and a little wet as we wound our way through vineyards on the very pleasant bike-only trail. Tim had plans of his own, and put me in front so he could ride in my e-powered slipstream. “As good as two extra gears” he told me, as I tried to make sure I made no sudden moves that could land us both in a ditch. For some of the trail we whizzed along beside the Waitaki River, now free from its damming, and flowing fast, braided and blue through the broadening countryside.
At a few points we had to slow to cross side streams, one of which contributed to more wet socks. After a fast and furious hour or so, the trail led us back to the main SH83 road, where Joh and Morrison (our van) met us. We had a quick look at the fascinating Takiroa Maori rock art site. A steep limestone overhang is set amongst green pasture, and from about 1400 AD, Maori decorated the cliff walls in both ochre and charcoal. Some decorations have apparently been removed or defaced over the years, and the site is a shadow of what it once would have been.
[Limestone cliffs at the Maori rock art site]
In the warm comfort of Morrison we sped back over countryside we’d just ridden through – albeit on a different road – and arrived back in Kurow. There, in newish accommodation called Waitaki Braids, we cleaned up before spending a very enjoyable night wining and dining. The beauty of a hard day’s riding is the feeling that it’s okay to splash out like this in your down time.