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Nov 19, 2017

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Thrills, Spills and Hills in New Zealand
by Lori Rackl
Magazine Issue: U.S. Vol. 5.3

As I stood on the bridge, my ankles bound together with a thick, rubbery bungee cord, I made the mistake of looking down. Way down. Almost 150 feet down. I saw a tumultuous river the color of blue Gatorade looming beneath me. My legs started to shake. Goosebumps the size of kiwi fruit sprouted on my arms. Visions of my mother begging me not to bungee jump filled my dizzy head. I turned to one of the suntanned guys whose job it is to tie people up and send them plummeting off bridges. I meekly asked if he had any advice for me. He shrugged his shoulders, smiled a mischievous grin and in a voice that sounded vaguely like Russell Crowe, glibly uttered these profound pearls of wisdom: “Just do it.”

Welcome to New Zealand, ground zero for plasma-pumping, heart-racing adventure. It’s an adrenaline junkie’s paradise. A breathtakingly beautiful country that provides the perfect backdrop for pushing your limits and trying things that could easily be labeled “crazy” by most folks. Then again, Kiwis aren’t most folks. Their genetic code seems to have left them impervious to fear. And that makes for some pretty white-knuckle pastimes in this picturesque landscape.

“We have an adventurous spirit. Who was the first man up Mt. Everest? A Kiwi,” boasts Wally Bruce, a ruddy-faced New Zealand native with an insatiable thirst for fun and fluorescent-colored clothing. Wally was one of my guides on a 15-day cycling trip down the west coast of New Zealand’s raw and rugged South Island. “We have a magnificent environment,” he adds, “and we like to play in it.”
Thirteen other Americans and I (all of various cycling abilities) wanted to play in it, too. That’s why we signed up for our own heart-pounding adventure: the most challenging bike trip offered by Backroads, a Berkeley, California-based active travel company. The 600-mile, two-wheeled trek promised to leave our legs and lungs begging for mercy. To wit: Backroads’ South Island biking trip includes not one but two centuries, those grueling, 100-mile rides that are the closest thing cyclists have to a marathon. But wait, there’s more. One of those centuries has an extra dozen miles tacked on for good measure and includes more than a handful of 700-foot climbs. Let’s just say at the end of that day’s little outing, riders are happy to personally throw their bikes over a bridge -- sans bungee cord.

You’re probably thinking this sounds more like hell than a vacation. If so, start sinning. New Zealand’s arguably as close as it comes to secular paradise, and the most rewarding way to see it is from a bike saddle, especially when the tour operator takes care of pesky things like food, lodging and schlepping your luggage from hotel to hotel. The trip has you pedaling through virgin rainforests and rolling vineyards, past hulking glaciers and the Southern Alps, near stunning lakes and along the wild waters of the Tasman Sea. Bellbirds serenade you along the way, and grazing sheep stop to stare. So do people in tour buses, who gawk out the window as they watch you desperately downshift to granny gear to muscle your way up one of the many hills loitering along Highway 6. (You just keep telling yourself this is why you can have a guilt-free second helping of pavlova for dessert and why those sedentary bus-bound captives cannot.)

The ride kicked off on the northern tip of the island in Nelson, a charming town that offers more sunshine than any city in New Zealand. An abundance of UV rays isn’t Nelson’s only claim to fame. The region churns out some fantastic wines, most notably chardonnay, sauvignon blanc and riesling from Seifried Estate, conveniently located on the bike route. Not a bad place to get a flat tire and wait for the van. (Check out the sidebar for the lowdown on other New Zealand wineries.)

When it came to cycling ability, our group pretty much covered the spectrum. One woman happily admitted to being a novice; one man raced in centuries. Still, just about everyone managed to find someone they could keep pace with. If things got too tough, there was always an empty seat waiting in the Backroads van. Our two leaders, Steven and Wally, took turns “sweeping” the route, picking up those who’d had enough. After all, this was a vacation, not boot camp.

The first day’s 45-mile jaunt through vineyards and apple orchards proved pretty straightforward, a mere precursor of bigger things to come. The trickiest part was trying to remember that Kiwis drive on the opposite side of the road and that we’d better stay left if we wanted to avoid getting mowed down by a timber truck. That evening, we divided into small groups and got shipped off to the homes of various New Zealand families for a firsthand taste of Kiwi hospitality. (Things we learned: they love rugby, Vegemite and Russell Crowe, who was born in New Zealand, not Australia.)

For the next two weeks, we gradually worked our way down the spectacular west coast, cycling anywhere from 39 to 112 miles a day. We rode along thunderous rivers and dramatic white-sand beaches; past misty green mountains carved with waterfalls and rainforests that nuzzle up to glaciers. We spotted water buffalo, ostrich, sheep and more sheep. In fact, the wooly creatures outnumber humans by more than 10 to one. We saw scenery that reminded us of Montana, Alaska, Scotland, Indonesia, California and Hawaii -- all in the space of one day. That’s the beauty of New Zealand. It’s like no place on earth, simply because it’s like so many places on earth, all in a space the size of Colorado.

On “The Big Riding Day,” we began our 112-mile journey with breakfast at 6:30 a.m., earlier than I wake up for work, let alone vacation. To make things worse, it was raining. We literally had miles to go before we’d sleep, not to mention almost 6,000 feet of hill climbing. I started pedaling with all the enthusiasm of Jesse Helms at a gay pride parade.

About 50 miles into the ride we reached the gates of Haast, affectionately known to cyclists at the Gates of Hell. This marks the start of the most difficult part of Haast Pass, a route that slices through the Southern Alps and leads us inland, toward Queenstown, the end point of our trip. Queenstown, by the way, has been dubbed the adventure capital of the world. Locals insist that if you did every activity offered, from bungee jumping to jet boating, it would take two months and $2,000 U.S. dollars. I’ll take their word for it.

Before we could dig into Queenstown’s menu of thrills, we had to contend with Haast Pass. So we put our heads down and cycled up a comically steep hill followed by a few other quad-burning climbs. Mother Nature rewarded our considerable efforts by opening up a serious can of sunshine for the remainder of the ride, which was positively stunning as it hugged the edges of the deep blue Hawea and Wanaka lakes.

To keep us from going home with saddle sores as souvenirs, Backroads makes sure there are a handful of days with no riding. These welcome “rest” days ended up being as restful as front row seats at a Limp Bizkit concert. After all, this is New Zealand. We had mountains to hike, rivers to raft and things to ride that go really, really fast. So we used our precious non-riding time to go sea kayaking, whitewater rafting on the Buller River, and hiking (or tramping, as Kiwis call it) through beech forests and terra that could have doubled as the set for Jurassic Park.

During one day off, we strapped talons on our boots and climbed up part of the Franz Josef glacier, where we peered down bottomless crevasses and wended our way through ice caves. On another we hopped in a small plane for a scenic -- and sometimes scary -- flight to the famed Milford Sound, which geography purists note isn’t a sound at all, but rather a fiord. Our tiny seven-seater flew disturbingly close to snow-covered mountains, giving us a glimpse of Mt. Cook, the tallest peak in the country. It also gave one person in our plane the need to use the little white bag in the seat pocket. Let’s just say this is not for the queasy.

I could’ve used one of those little white bags on the last day of the trip, as I stood tethered to that bungee cord on the Kawarau Bridge, trying to will my body to do something completely and utterly unnatural. We’d cycled to the bungee site, the very place where commercial bungee jumping got started back in 1988. Everyone from the Backroads group was there, cheering me on. I started thinking about all the things that we’d experienced, all the challenges that had cropped up during the past two weeks. I thought about the 53-year-old woman who managed to bike up Haast Pass, and the mother of two who changed her mind at the last minute and took a pass on the van to bike all day in the relentless rain. And then I thought of the infectious spirit of adventure that pervades not only Kiwis, but visitors, too.

Finally, I thought of the growing line of people behind me waiting to jump. And I just did it.

Winery Route

Adventure isn’t the only thing New Zealand is famous for. The country is making quite a splash in the wine world. And with good reason.

New Zealand’s diverse topography, climate and soil types mean that a wide variety of vino flows from its 10 wine-growing regions, which span a total of 1,000 miles. Of course, the most famous libation is New Zealand’s sauvignon blanc, which has been getting props for years from critics around the world. That acclaim has started trickling down to the country’s chardonnay, methode traditionelle sparkling wines, riesling, pinot noir, cabernet sauvignon and merlot.

On the Backroads bike trip, we passed through two wine-growing regions: Nelson at the start of the ride and Central Otago at the end. Here are some of the vineyards that tickled our fancy along the way.

Nelson Region:

Moutere Highway Redwood Valley
(03) 544-2706

Sunrise Road, Upper Moutere, Nelson
(03) 543-2980

Awa Awa Road, RD1, Upper Moutere
(03) 540-3555

Appleby, Nelson
(03) 544-1555

Patons Road, RD1, Hope
(03) 542-3868

Central Otago Region:

Mt. Aspiring Road, Lake Wanaka
(03) 443-8084

Burn Cottage Road, Lowburn, Cromwell
(03) 445-1638

McNab Road, Cromwell
(03) 445-1351

Kawarau Gorge Road, Gibbston, Queenstown
(03) 442-4000

State Hwy 6, Gibbston, Queenstown
(03) 442-6910

Off the Biked Path

You don’t pass through the Marlborough region on the Backroads bike trip, but if you’re on the South Island, you’d be remiss not to visit this exciting and expansive wine growing area nestled in the island’s northeast corner. Here are just a few of the many vineyards worth a visit:

Jacksons Road, Blenheim
(03) 572-9054

Jacksons Road, Blenheim
(03) 572-8914

Waihopai Valley Road, Renwick
(03) 572-8200

Alabam Road, Blenheim
(03) 578-7674

Main South Road, Blenheim
(03) 578-2099

Kennedys Road, Omaka Valley
(03) 572-9933

New Renwick Road, Blenheim
(03) 572-8642

(The country code for New Zealand is 64. When dialing from the U.S., drop the initial 0 from the local area code.)

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