Eight months into the tour and it can often seem, and feel, like we spend all of our time cycling, but, as the weeks go by, we have been spending a bit less time on the bike and a bit more time doing other things. Even when we are cycling there are certain things, little pleasures that are always worth a detour or taking time out. The last few weeks especially, since leaving Christchurch, have been all about downtime and enjoying the simple, surreal, sugar-dusted things that New Zealand has to offer.
M’s favourite hobby (alongside reading every information board in the entire country) is museum visiting and it seems almost every place we ride through, however big or small, has one. I have a vague memory of being told that it’s actually a government requirement? Even if a village is just a tiny cluster of houses however, it’s worth betting that one of them will be a museum.
They are literally everywhere, from smartly built exhibition halls to dusty sheds, to collections which are basically in someone’s front room. Almost all of them however are staffed by cheerful, chatty octogenarians and filled with all kinds of incongruous, random items. Sometimes there’s a loose local theme, but often the collections run from the mundane to the bizarre.
I have a theory that, when the local people die, they bequeath the dusty and unwanted contents of their attics to the local museum. The bits and pieces that relatives have politely declined to take, meaning that local museums are the recipients of vast collections of mismatched china plates, jars of buttons, crumbling books and toys and the severed heads of embalmed hunting trophies.
There seems to be a particular fondness for taxidermy too, with whole display cases of every native and exotic animal imaginable, stuffed and posed and looking very pissed off about it. Not surprising really. I’ve christened these gems ‘the museums of dead things’ and have developed a strange fondness for their ferocious looking exhibits.
The other local quirk is that small towns in New Zealand (similar to Canada) seem to love giant statues, usually depicting a variety of local items, often food related.
Big produce is definitely a recurring theme. Lake Dunstan, for example, sports an accident-inducing giant apple and pear configuration in the middle of a new and very busy roundabout. My favourite ‘big item’ however has to be the Ohakune Carrot Adventure Park. This wonderful creation came into being after the farmers of the town met up in a bar to decide how best to celebrate their fantastic produce. I think the part of that sentence to take note of was ‘met up in a bar’……..
The result of that brain-storming session is a collection of surreal and very perky 10 foot tall plastic vegetables (potato, parsnip, sprout), led by Muncho Manchester the punk carrot, who lurk, semi-menacingly, around a local park like orange playground bullies.
The park has actually won awards for its promotion of health and exercise and is, giant veg aside, beautifully crafted with shady walking paths, orange (of course) gym equipment, an adventure obstacle course, flying fox and mtb pump track, all of which I tested out under the disdainful glare of Muncho Manchester and some local ‘yoof’.
Thrills and Spills
You can’t come to New Zealand without being bombarded with the opportunity for ‘Adventure sports’ and there’s a mind-boggling number of options from which to leap to your doom from every conceivable height or platform.
Having experienced New Zealand in the past, and being terrified of heights, I have already completed and forever crossed off my list bungee jumping and skydiving, along with jet boating and helicopter glacier treks. But the pull to be out in New Zealand’s landscapes and to experience it, not just by bike, is incredibly strong, which is why I love taking time out to go kayaking in the Abel Tasman, horse riding in Ohakune and mountain biking in Queenstown, Picton and Rotorua (OK, still biking but very different, promise).
One of my favourite experiences however was tandem paragliding. I’ve done this only once before in France with a dear friend who was also a pilot and always remembered the serenity and peace of drifting slowly along on the thermals, none of the terror of parachuting and hurtling towards the ground, just a slow descent over mountains.
In Wanaka we found a fantastic company to take us flying. It was only slightly perturbing to arrive early and find one of the pilots shoveling cowshit from the landing zone after a farmer helpfully let his cattle in to graze. It’s all glamour.
After climbing up towards the local ski station, still hidden in the early morning clouds, we took off by (almost gracefully) stepping from the side of a mountain, out into thin air. One moment you are standing on a hillside, the next you are swooping out alongside it, crossing rockfaces and waterfalls, birds of prey flying in parallel, rising and dipping with the air currents. The flight ended with a clean and precision perfect landing between the cow pats, or at least mine did. M’s pilot option to land in the nextdoor cabbage field, cleaner but bumper given the foot high stalks.
A little bit of adventure goes a long way but, if you’re going to throw yourself off a mountainside, I can highly recommend New Zealand as the place to do it.
After all that adrenalin, it’s always good to have a place to wind down and what better place than sitting in a cafe with a coffee and cake to hand, watching the world go by. This is probably my second most favourite thing to do anywhere in the world. Partly because you get to listen in on little snippets of people’s lives, look at the scenery, take in the music, the chat. And partly (mostly) for the opportunity to eat cake and drink coffee.
Every country has both its signature cakes and very exact descriptions of coffee.
In France for example, it took weeks of trying to order a ‘long black’ and receiving espressos with mugs of hot water on the side, before a French friend came to my rescue with the magical words ‘cafe allonge’.
In the UK a long black coffee or an americano are interchangeable. In New Zealand however a long black will get you a powerful double espresso with a little water, whereas an americano is much weaker. In America incidentally almost all coffee is delivered in gallon sized receptacles whatever you order, even the small sizes. The coffee in NZ though is almost always delicious, always small, always strong.
If coffee tends to the petite however, NZ cakes are at the opposite end of the scale.
There’s a variation of the same national favourites in every bakery, ginger slices (shortbread with a ginger caramel), Anzac or Afghan biscuits, lolly cake (not sure entirely but a colourful collection of marshmallow a bit like rocky road) and, my universal favourites, either date or cheese scones….every country has its cake collection and I can confidently say that I have done exhaustive research, all to achieve that immersive travel experience and embrace local culture of course.
Finally, without a doubt, my number one pastime when not cycling is to go Op shopping. Now, I hate trudging around regular clothing stores, shoe and bag shops, modern highstreets leave me cold but, give me a thrift shop, secondhand or charity shop, whatever you call them, I could spend a lifetime trawling through these Aladdin’s caves of unknown treasures.
In NZ, the Op part stands for ‘Opportunity’ and this perfectly describes the feeling that you get when you walk through the door. Literally anything could be inside waiting for you to find it. We, or more annoyingly M, who always pretends indifference, have had some amazing finds. Brand new cycling tops and sports wear, bike parts, kitchen bits, bags and shoes. When something wears out we trawl the Op shops. When we go mountain biking and I need some trainers, we go Op shopping, ditto for horse riding. In Ohakune recycling centre I got a brand new pair of boots, leggings and a merino wool jumper, for a princely $9…. that’s less than £5….Once I’ve finished with the stuff I return it too.
And this is how we both change out our wardrobe, vaguely adhering to a one in, one out’ policy with the clothes panniers, Op shops create the perfect lending library for all sorts of gear.
It’s also a great way to meet local people and tune into local culture. Volunteers and customers will happily talk to you about pretty much anything, from their life history to their neighbours hernia operation, the state of the country to the state of Mrs Brown’s front lawn. I was even in a Op shop when the then Prime Minister Jacinda Ahern resigned and a customer dashed in off the street to announce it, dashing off again to ringing cheers and applause (guessing the PM wasn’t popular in that town).
With so much else to do it can be hard to find time to cycle, but it’s been really enjoyable spending a bit more time in small towns, relaxing and just doing something different. In between we have pedalled, bused, ferried and taken the train back to the North island with the plan of making our way up the west coast for the remaining few weeks and of course taking in a few Op shops and cafes along the way.
Our sincere thanks go out to Kirtsy, Andrew and Mary for a lovely break in (and tour of) Wellington, to Brian for the top advice on the train and the staff at the Ohakune recycling centre for their marvelous facility.
If you enjoy reading about adventure, travel, cycling or all 3 why not check out my book: How To Cycle Canada the Wrong Way.
It’s the story of a forty-something woman with no clue in life and no cycle touring experience. What she does have is a sense of adventure, a second hand bicycle and a skirt and the idea of riding across Canada….the wrong way.
Available on Amazon in e-reader and paperback formats.
7 March 2023 at 12:56 pm
Loved hearing about the cakes lol! What an adventure!
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7 March 2023 at 7:10 pm
Love hearing from you! Obviously it’s all about the cake, with just a little bit of cycling thrown in for good measure 😁 NZ and Canada have a lot of similarities too.
8 March 2023 at 7:23 am
The paragliding looks and sounds amazing 😍 as do the cakes 😋
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8 March 2023 at 6:46 pm
It was a winning combination 😁 always nice to try some different activities (and cale!)
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8 March 2023 at 12:55 pm
Brilliant, we have Zero Waste here, which does the same as the Ops. Latest find for me a 50p iPhone case which will protect it when I inevitably drop the phone. Did this once at 25 mph, the case broke a bit but the phone survived. Love quirky museums too.
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8 March 2023 at 6:49 pm
Exactly! The waste recycling centres here are brilliant. You can get odd bits of wood, paint, tools or skis all for a few pounds, it’s a great system. Isn’t it great too when you find a bargain like your phone case. Mike has found so many cycling tops!