Day 22 – The Toro and the Toreador

My animus was lost, I found, when I looked back in time
I can see the ‘where’ and ‘how’, but I don’t know the ‘why’
Or if it’s right to try

The best advice I ever had was leave what was behind
But did I see some value there, or am I going blind?
Is it all in my mind?

You’ve got a choice – it’s the toro or the toreador
Your brides are not all as weak as what you take them for
This mean arena is all the things it seems, and more
Well that final day will come – it comes to everyone

The last full day of the Rimu tour began with some seriously stiff legs, which were partially offset by a lingering hangover of accomplishment. Around 7 am I pretty much willed myself out of bed while every major muscle group south of the equator winced in protest. A nice warm shower and another delicious breakfast from Linda (augmented by four or five cups of strong tea) helped to right the ship. Our guide Glen arrived with a transport van at 9 am and loaded our gear as we checked out of the B&B.

The morning’s activity sounded relatively simple – at least on paper. We were scheduled to cycle from The Grove to the town of Picton, about a 20 km trip on paved roadways. Back home, I often go for 35 km to 50 km rides around town on my hybrid bike. 20 km would be a leisurely little cruise! Except – there is no such thing as a straight (or flat) road in New Zealand. I locked out the rear suspension on my trusty Cannondale and set off to the east on Queen Charlotte Drive. Before long, I found myself missing the comfortable riding position and the 60 psi tires of my Norco ZFR-1. This would be a decent challenge after all.

The road hugged the south side of the Grove Arm of Queen Charlotte Sound. The first 10 to 15 km of our ride was mostly an uphill climb, with a few short downhill chutes thrown in for good measure. I periodically pulled over to take some photos and strip off another layer of soggy clothing. Milton and Shellie forged ahead, their Coloradan lungs a little better prepared for a cardiovascular workout than mine.

Cycling on Queen Charlotte Drive

Fortunately, traffic was light on this Saturday morning so there were only a few witnesses to my red-faced 2nd and 3rd gear grind. Any passers-by would have been disgusted by the torrents of sweat pouring off of me. Pools were even collecting in the air vents of my helmet. In my defense, pounding away uphill for 90 minutes on a mountain bike while locked inside a sunny humidor is not normally my idea of a good time! At least the scenery in places like Ngakuta Bay was worth the effort.

Ngakuta Bay, Marlborough Sound

The pay-off for our long climb to the apex was a glorious downhill spin into Picton. Glen met us with the van at the top of the hill, dutifully checking to ensure that we were on-time and problem-free. For the next few kilometres, I finally got to use 25th, 26th, and 27th gear. I managed to stay visible in Glen’s rear-view mirrors despite the road being a 50 km/h zone. Did I mention that I really love cycling downhill?

On the way into Picton, we pulled off the road to check out the lumber processing plant at Shakespeare Bay and watched the passing of a massive Interislander ferry. Activity picked up as we rolled into town, and I once again had to concentrate on staying to the left in city traffic. We three North Americans mercifully managed to navigate a couple of roundabouts and made it down to the waterfront without piling headlong into any vehicles.

We turned in our bikes at the tour company’s office then went for a walk around Picton. Glen treated us to lunch at a little café whose reputation rode on their many delicious varieties of home-made meat pies. Even though they didn’t have tourtière on the menu, my steak and mushroom pie hit the spot.

After some high-street window shopping, we piled into the van for a transfer to Blenheim. We had a couple of hours before our rendezvous with the hikers and kayakers, which gave us time to drop into a few local ‘establishments’. Our first stop was the Moa brewery, where we thirstily sampled a variety of lagers and ales. Milton was pretty keen on the pale ale, but I was a little turned off by the Kiwi practice of pumping their pale ales with citrus flavours. I really liked their more traditional Noir (dark ale), while the Moa five-hop winter ale reminded me of Granville Island’s winter ale back home, albeit with a little more spice.

Next up on our tipple tour was the cellar door at Cloudy Bay. Shellie was a big fan of this internationally renowned winemaker and wanted to visit the source. Once inside, we were treated to a tasting of half a dozen wines. Like many producers in the Marlborough region, Cloudy Bay’s signature wine is their sauvignon blanc. Even though I’m an avowed fan of red wines, their sauvignon blanc (and their Gewurtztraminer) were admittedly very nice. My favourite wine at Cloudy Bay was their 2010 Riesling – it was reasonably dry and I could imagine it pairing very well with a Christmas turkey dinner.

Marlborough Vineyard

With his charges getting a little chatty and giggly, teetotal Glen drove us the last few kilometres down the road to our rendezvous. As we pulled into Forrest Estates vineyard, we found our hiking compatriots lounging on the sunny front lawn. I was ecstatic to see that Cathy and Colin and Sally had survived their backcountry experience none the worse for wear. A few glasses of celebratory sauvignon later, the sea kayakers made a fashionably late entrance. We quickly rounded up some goblets for Bil and Cam; the whole crew was finally back together.

We spent a couple of hours at Forrest Estates, getting a crash course on vines, varietals, alluvial soils, weather, irrigation and the harvesting process. I grew up on a farm and thought I knew a bit about horticulture, but viticulturists have so many more factors to contend with. I came away from the tour with an appreciation for how difficult it is to make a decent bottle of wine; suddenly $25 seems like a bargain. At the cellar door, we sampled another seven or eight varietals while snacking on cheese and crackers. I thought their Riesling was a little too sweet, but was pleasantly surprised by the reasonably full body and fruit-forward flavour of their pinot noir.

Our increasingly well-marinated band of misfits stumbled aboard ‘Frank’ for the two-hour drive to Kaikoura. We rolled through the Marlborough countryside with mountain ranges on our right until the Pacific Ocean rushed up to greet us on our left. From time to time we would spot seals sunbathing on the rocky shore. I kept a hopeful eye on the ocean for signs of life, but didn’t spot any whales.

In Kaikoura our group was distributed between a cozy B&B and the motel next door. I dropped my bags in the end unit of the motel and marvelled at the décor. Apparently polished chrome and red pleather furniture weren’t exclusive to late 1960s Las Vegas. I briefly considered asking the motel’s management to comp the prime rib buffet and my Wayne Newton show tickets, but thought better of it.

The ramshackle Rimu gang assembled at the B&B for one last ensemble dinner. Our hosts served a local delicacy as an appetizer – green-lipped mussels – and we expanded our culinary horizons. Between bites of hoki with all the fixings, Cathy and I excitedly exchanged stories about our three-day excursions. It sounded like the Nelson Lakes backcountry was rugged and gorgeous, while I made a pretty strong case for the awesome Queen Charlotte Track. One thing we did agree on was that Marlborough pinot noir is not a great match for poached fish, but when in Rome…

A good song lyric is one in which the writer tells a personal story while leaving the listener enough ambiguity to interweave his or her own narrative. One of the ways I interpret “The Toro and the Toreador” by Ted Leo is that you can’t let yourself be defined by your past – each one of us has to choose our own destiny. Do we want to live ‘in the moment’ with hair-trigger emotions like the bull, or seize control and live another day like the bullfighter? Far too often in my life I have chosen the ‘safe’ option, and surely missed out on some great moments of spontaneity. For this reason, I had deliberately pushed the boundaries of my comfort zone on my trip to New Zealand. In three weeks on the road I had somehow found a way to walk the fine line between chaos and control – and had enjoyed a richer life experience because of it.

Dinner wound down around 8:30 pm, but the party was just getting started. Many of my buddies were making noise about sashaying down the road to the pub. It would be one last chance for our troupe to buy a well-deserved round or three for our hard-working guides. I knocked on Cathy’s door and implored her to join us, but to no avail. A quick decision ensued – be outgoing and join the party, or spend one last quiet evening of stories and Yahtzee with Cathy? Seizing the toro by the horns, I bounded into the Kaikoura twilight and treated my new friends to a good time. And the pub, to the best of my fuzzy recollection, was uproarious fun indeed.

But with the benefit of hindsight, this is one occasion that I wish I had gone with my natural instinct and chosen to be the toreador.

Song of the Day: “The Toro and the Toreador” by Ted Leo + the Pharmacists

Day 21 – Knights of Cydonia

By daybreak in The Grove, most of the overnight rain showers had subsided. Our B&B hosts offered to serve us a nice cooked breakfast, so we happily obliged. Linda stuffed us full of pancakes and syrup, tea and coffee, and fresh fruit. It was wonderful to have some carbohydrates in our bellies as we commenced our grand mountain biking adventure.

At 9:00 am we collected our two-wheeled steeds from the garage and disembarked for Anakiwa. Our epic breakfast took awhile to digest, so progress was a little lethargic until we reached the Queen Charlotte Track trailhead. By that point Milton, Shellie, our guide Glen and I were warmed up and ready to rock.

British music group Muse has pretty much cornered the market on up-tempo, slightly bonkers, progressive modern rock music. Their stock in trade is a tougher, more energetic take on the brilliant theatrics and noisy experimentalism of forebears like Queen and Radiohead. One of the tricks I have learned to harness on intense backcountry hikes is to imagine music with a strong beat playing in my head. I quickly adapted this trick to mountain biking, and summoned Muse songs like “Hysteria”, “Resistance” and especially the science fiction infused lunacy of “Knights of Cydonia” to play on endless repeat in my brain.

The first hour or so on the Queen Charlotte track consisted of a long and steady uphill climb over variable terrain. The track is reasonably wide, and provides enough room for cyclists to navigate around oncoming foot or bicycle traffic. This did prove to be a little more challenging around some of the blind corners and narrow wooden bridges. Complicating matters further was the local custom of bearing left to oncoming traffic while our subconscious North American sensibilities were imploring us to bear to the right. We managed to avoid any head-on collisions, but with one group grinding uphill while others rolled freely and merrily in the opposite direction the potential for trouble was always there. Fortunately, it was a cool and moist early-season Friday morning and there wasn’t a lot of traffic on the track.

Queen Charlotte Track

After a climb of about 225 metres over 7 km, we reached the summit between Anakiwa and Waterfall Bay. We stepped off our bikes for a short break while Glen made tea. Despite the overcast conditions, our hard-earned elevation had rewarded us with impressive views across Queen Charlotte Sound.

Queen Charlotte Sound

The rapid and mostly downhill descent towards Waterfall Bay was a hoot. The same kinds of roots and wet stones that had made the trip uphill more challenging were now our allies. I thoroughly enjoyed bounding over obstacles and zipping through fast corners as my Cannondale’s front suspension absorbed most of the shocks. I brazenly bombed down the track, periodically stopping to take photos and wait for the others. It was cool to see the exhilarated smiles on my traveling companions’ faces as they rolled up to meet me.

We exited the track near Waterfall Bay and followed a series of gravel roads down to the tip of Mistletoe Bay. This area had a boat dock, a campground, and a few cabins for rent. It seemed to be particularly popular with day-trippers exploring the Sounds. We dug our lunches out of our backpacks and settled down on the beach to stretch our legs and dine alfresco. Glen pointed out a mānuka tree in full bloom next to the beach, and we learned a little about the genesis of the mānuka honey products that grace the shelves in various New Zealand shops.

Manuka Tree Blooms

After lunch, we geared down and cycled our way back up the hill to the Queen Charlotte Track. We elected to return to town by the same route that got us to Mistletoe Bay, and this decision paid off handsomely. It turned out that the track rode better east to west. The climb to the summit was steeper but still quite manageable. There were certain spots where I had to pound away on my pedals to gather enough speed to climb over stones and hills, but that was all part of the fun.

We stopped long enough at the summit for some more photos, and I took the opportunity to unlock my rear suspension. I soon wished I had done so earlier. The ride down to Anakiwa was absolutely riotous. I attacked the trail and flew around corners, exuberant as an accelerating blur of ferns and beech forest rushed by on either side of me. Some parts of the track were so amusing that I dismounted, spun my trusty steed around, doubled back a few hundred metres, and rode them again. Rock chips were flying off my tires and gouging my shins, but in the moment I couldn’t have cared less.

Biking the Queen Charlotte Track

Our troupe reassembled at the Queen Charlotte trailhead and excitedly compared notes on our rides. Milton and Shellie were experienced mountain bikers from Colorado, and even they thought the trail was world-class. We carried on through Anakiwa and rode all the way to the Grove. My legs were trashed after a 40 km day on the trail, but the music in my head propelled me up the final hill to our B&B.

We agreed to meet for dinner at 7 pm, which gave me plenty of time to shower, chillax on the patio, and snarf down a few pre-dinner cocktails. I brought a lovely bottle of Marlborough “victory merlot” to dinner, which went very well with Linda’s beef schnitzel.

Later on, feeling the warm glow of physical accomplishment (and good red wine) I waltzed up to the hot tub to soak my aching limbs and reflect on the day’s experiences. I hoped that Cathy, Sally and Colin were safe and sound in their backcountry cabin after another glorious day in the great outdoors. And with any luck Cam and Bil were relaxing at their waterfront lodge, sharing a similar sense of glory from their kayak adventure as I got from my invigorating day on the trail.

Song of the Day: “Knights of Cydonia” by Muse

Day 20 – Little by Little

It was a misty Thursday morning, and I woke up refreshed but a little pensive.  After packing my bags, I still had about ninety minutes of free time before breakfast.  It was our last day on the rugged west coast, so I walked down the road towards town to do some exploring.  The constantly evolving gravel banks of the Punakaiki River made for a brief but excellent cross-country hike.  I watched from a respectful distance while a colourful pair of paradise ducks (Tadoma variegata) led their brood of seven chicks on a sunrise tour of the riverbank.

I hopped a fence and skirted across an empty lot to access the Tasman Sea.  Good-sized swells were rolling over the beach.  I walked along the shifting sands, thinking about the day ahead.  We were scheduled to cross the north part of the island and would be breaking into three groups after lunch.  Cathy, Sally and Colin were going on a two-day backcountry hiking tour in the mountains.  Cam and Bil were set to embark on a cool sea kayaking adventure in Mahau Sound.  I was looking forward to two days of breathtaking mountain biking along Marlborough Sound with Milton and Shellie, but was starting to feel the first pangs of separation anxiety.  Little by little, my soul grew more forlorn as wave after wave lapped at my ankles.  I suppose it’s only natural to ponder one’s existence and the mysteries of life in such surroundings.

The beach to the south of Punakaiki provided an interesting perspective on the rocky Tasman coast.  The previous day, we had walked above the Pancake Rocks and marveled at the odd formations and the power of the sea.  The relentless cycle of wave action was just as interesting when viewed through the early-morning fog from sea level.

Punakaiki Coastline

On my way back up the road to the motel, I came upon a small grove of Pōhutukawa trees.  The trees were decorated by dozens of brush-like, blood red flowers with yellow tips.  It was late November, and these so-called “New Zealand Christmas trees” were well on their way to maximum early-summer bloom.

Pohutukawa Flowers

After breakfast, we loaded our gear onto the bus and set off for our next destination.  The highway hugged the coastline for the first hour or so.  We passed a herd of cattle grazing in a pasture, seemingly oblivious to the gorgeous ocean view maybe two hundred metres behind them.  This made me chuckle, since our cows back home had a panoramic view of nothing but the flat and featureless Red River Valley horizon.  Just before Westport we turned east and headed inland.  Considering the twisty coastal highway and the winding traverse of Buller Gorge, I was quite happy to not be hung over.  Others weren’t so lucky.

Around noon, we stopped for lunch at St. Arnaud on the northern edge of Nelson Lakes National Park.  Our tour guides had their hands full – not only did they have to pull off a lunch for 18 people inside an unserviced picnic shelter, but they also had to work out the final logistics for our crew’s three side trips.  I went for a short walk down by Lake Rotoiti with my buddies, but I could sense that we were all a little apprehensive about being split up.  Back at the bus, I helped Cathy adjust the straps on her cool new backpack and gave her some tips on how to load it for comfortable backcountry travel.  Sally and Colin had chosen to rent backpacks from our tour company, and before long they too were able to make the proper adjustments.  I didn’t envy them having to carry 10 to 15 kilograms of gear and food up the trail, but I knew they were set for a great experience.

After lunch, a shuttle arrived to pick up the bikers and kayakers.  With a lump in my throat, we bid the hikers good luck and began a two-hour drive east to the Marlborough area.  The Southern Alps soon morphed into rolling foothills and forests.  In turn, the forests gave way to alluvial plains, with fruit groves and vineyards irrigated by the Wairau River.

We were treated to our first views of the famous Marlborough Sound region east of Havelock.  The northeast tip of New Zealand’s south island is home to dozens of picturesque sounds and bays, where the sea has inundated the gradually subsiding land mass.  We marveled at the tranquil beauty of the Mahakipawa arm of Mahau Sound as we gradually made our way east.  It was 3 pm by the time we reached our bike and kayak tour operator’s headquarters near Anakiwa.  After a long travel day, most of us were keen to get outdoors and get moving.  With misty eyes, I waved goodbye to Bil and Cam and the other sea kayakers who were headed north to a different arm of the sound.  We wouldn’t see each other again until Saturday afternoon in Blenheim.

Our merry trio of cyclists got changed into our riding gear at the bike shop.  We were introduced to Glen, our trail guide and expert bike mechanic.  Glen worked quickly to set us up with excellent full-suspension Cannondale RZ120 mountain bikes.  After a few quick adjustments, we were ready to go for a test ride.  Glen pointed the way and I led our pack of riders down a relatively easy trail to the town of Anakiwa.  Once I got my rear suspension locked out and my seat post height set correctly, it became a very comfortable ride.  I loved the way that the Shimano derailleurs smoothly shifted gears, and the disc brakes provided excellent and predictable stopping power despite the rain showers.

Milton and Shellie and I were still suffering from varying degrees of the “Ann-Slam”.  Our hacking and wheezing was so bad that Glen probably thought we had all just stumbled out of an emphysema clinic.  Nevertheless, we were eager to do some technical riding.  Glen led us up the first portion of the Queen Charlotte Track as an appetizer for the following day’s big ride.

Queen Charlotte Track Trailhead

The Queen Charlotte Track is 71 glorious kilometres of continuous singletrack.  Parts of the track are relatively easy to ride, but there are also many long and challenging hills to climb.  The presence of hikers on the trail, not to mention two-way bike traffic around blind corners, also makes for an interesting ride.  Since we were pressed for time, we rode for about half an hour on the track to Bottle Bay.  We returned by the same route to the bike shop then Glen led our ‘bike gang’ to our B&B in the nearby hamlet known as The Grove.

We checked into our accommodations, and I was grateful for a hot shower after a long day on the road and our 20 km ride.  We met our hosts Steve and Linda for dinner at 7 pm.  Steve enlightened us with stories about the earthquake reconstruction efforts in Christchurch and elsewhere, while Linda put the finishing touches on a monstrous chicken dinner and a scrumptious Pavlova cake.  I found myself occasionally glancing out the windows at the rain showers, silently hoping that my friends had safely made it up the mountainside to their backcountry hut.

After dinner, we checked out the glow worms in a little alcove behind the B&B.  I spent some quiet time writing in my journal and catching up on emails before turning in early.  The next day promised to be an epic ride.

Song of the Day: “Little by Little” by Oasis

Day 19 – Take A Walk

Time to split out my back door
Sunrise dancing on my wall
Heading down off beaten tracks
Try to get that feeling back

I could take a walk again
up a mountain to a stream
Standing on the open rock
Looking out over the sea

Okarito may be the most relaxing place on earth, but I was still anxious to get moving when I shook off my slumbers at 6 am. With the sunrise dancing on my wall, I split out the back door of Gonfishin’ for a nice walk on the beach. The shoreline was predictably deserted, aside from a handful of black-backed gulls and their human interloper. The early-morning swells were smaller than the previous day but still fascinating to watch. With the Finn brothers reverberating in my mind, I scoured the beach for interesting new pebbles to add to my collection.

Our group convened for breakfast around 7:15 am, and I noticed a few pairs of blood-shot eyes and a couple of notable absentees. Evidently some of my new friends had a LOT of fun at the previous night’s party and were paying full price for it. We were all aboard ‘Frank’ by 8:30 am, which according to our lead tour guide was her first ever on-time group departure from Okarito. We were sad to bid adieu to such a lovely locale, but simultaneously glad to be rid of all the bloody sandflies.

We drove up the coast to a town called Hokitika for a few hours of shopping and sightseeing. Hokitika was the epicenter of New Zealand’s 19th century gold rush, but today’s agribusiness-based economy is far more pastoral. The town has also become an enclave for some of New Zealand’s most talented artists – the main street is lined with shops that proudly promote their wares. Within a stone’s throw of town centre you will find shops overflowing with nature photography or metal sculpture or all manner of possum-fur clothing. But the star attraction in Hokitika is undoubtedly jade jewelry.

West coast jade, or pounamu, is highly revered among the Maori people and has become an important Kiwi icon. At several workshops in town, you can watch artisans carve raw greenstone into beautiful works of art. We dropped into quite a few pounamu shops, but I was particularly inspired by a visit to a small enterprise down by the beach. The proprietor patiently explained the Maori symbolism sculpted into the multitude of gemstones on display, and walked me through her shop. Since she was a member of the local iwi, she had access to one of the highly coveted local greenstone quarries. While she ran the retail business up front, her brother and cousin carved her merchandise in the back of the shop. I was especially taken with a pendant carved in a quasi-traditional Manaia shape. It featured the stylized head of a bird, the body of a man, and a dolphin-finned koru for a tail. The Manaia symbolizes a spiritual guardian that protects travellers in the air, on the land, and on the sea. It seemed like an appropriate talisman considering that several bus rides, a notoriously rough ferry crossing, and a trans-oceanic flight separated me from my distant home. Later outside, while Cathy and Sally gave my new travelling companion their seal of approval, I was thrilled by the jade’s milky translucence in the midday sun.

After lunching at a local café, we travelled north along the spectacular coastal highway to Paparoa National Park. There were two activities on our itinerary, and our guides suggested we check out the Pancake Rocks while the tide was high. Located near the village of Punakaiki, the Pancake Rocks are odd-looking sedimentary limestone outcroppings that are constantly under attack by the crashing ocean surf. A series of paved walkways among the rocks reveals the relentless power of the Tasman Sea. Evidence of severe undercutting and erosion surrounded us, while saltwater jetted out of blowholes between the rocks.

Pancake Rocks

The 30-minute loop through Pancake Rocks wasn’t particularly strenuous, so our clan of avid hikers crossed the road and set off on the Punakaiki – Pororari Loop. The trail follows the south bank of the Pororari River for a few kilometres, climbs over a 200-metre ridge, and returns to Punakaiki via the south end of the Inland Pack track. I walked the first half of the 11 km loop trail with Colin and Sally, marveling at the verdant forest and lush undergrowth.

Inland Pack Koru

Realizing that this would be my last official hike of the Rimu tour, I lollygagged at the summit simply to immerse myself in the sounds of the rainforest. The bellbirds and tuis serenaded me for a few minutes, but then I heard a creature approaching through the woods. Before I could guess at what it might be, a black feral goat galloped out of the ferns, saw me, turned right and bolted down the trail. In stark contrast to my Rocky Mountain hikes back home, this solitary goat would be the only wild ungulate I would encounter on my entire Kiwi adventure. New Zealand truly lives up to its reputation as “the land without teeth”.

A moment or two later, Bil and Cam and Cathy caught up with me and we finished our last true hike together. We stopped for some photos at the swinging bridge over the Punakaiki River, and walked up the highway to our motel at Razorback Point. After getting checked into our various accommodations, we enjoyed a simple bowl of pre-dinner nacho chips with a million dollar view. From our picnic table, we watched the waves crash into Pancake Rocks about a kilometre away.

Dinner this evening was a delightful feast of fish and chips down at the local tavern. The six of us forty-something ‘youngsters’ sat together, and for the first time in a long time I didn’t feel like a fifth wheel at a dinner table. Plus I finally got a chance to buy my new friends a round of drinks – long-overdue reciprocity for all the beers that Colin had been ‘forcing’ me to drink with him for the past week and a half. A few pints of Speight’s later, our little crew were definitely the liveliest table in the joint. The battered hoki was excellent, and the proprietors even scavenged a bottle of malt vinegar for my English friends and I to enjoy on our chips. With bellies stuffed, it was back to the bus for the short journey up the hill. Somehow our tour guide read my mind, and graciously let a couple of us work off some excess carbohydrates with a fifteen-minute sunset saunter on Punakaiki Beach.

Punakaiki Sunset

Back at the motel, with the endless sound of the surf just beyond my open windows, I slept like a hibernating bear. It was another perfect ending to yet another day in paradise.

Song of the Day: “Take a Walk” by Split Enz