How was your trip to New Zealand?

We've been back from New Zealand for a little over a week. I still don't think I've processed it enough to write something thoughtful. 

People are asking us this question a lot: So how was New Zealand? Oh my God, I'm so jealous. Seeing it on a bike must've been amazing. We smile and try to describe our trip without being reductionist. 

Back up two weeks. We were sitting in a strange nursing-home-converted-to-hostel in Christchurch, paying $10 for WiFi to check our bank account balance. I got up to make dinner, another rice-and-eggs concoction in the crowded hostel kitchen. Red-lettered signs up on the wall - WASH AND DRY ALL DISHES, ONLY BOIL WATER IN JUG, LABEL ALL FOOD. Three French teens wandered in and started making toast with Nutella. Two more German kids trooped in speaking in hushed voices, big hiking packs on their backs, little daypacks on their fronts like papooses. I wished we were back in Ohiopyle.   

Ever since I studied abroad in New Zealand in 2012, I've wanted to go back. I only got out of Wellington a few times to explore the rest of the country, and one of those trips was on a sightseeing bus full of hungover college kids. I wanted to go back to go deeper into those two wild islands, to see all the sheep and meet red-haired guys named Hamish. 

In four months of touring around the country (two months per island), I learned a lot of things - some that I couldn't believe I hadn't figured out before. For instance, it took me weeks to understand what a "wheelie bin" was. Trash can with wheels. Duh. 

When I was a student, I didn't connect with local folks much. Maybe I was shy? This time, we got to meet lots of people - talking in the grocery store, staying with Warmshowers hosts, or just riding around town. And for the most part, they're NICE. Once, I was in a grocery store needing to make a phone call and two clerks practically threw their cell phones at me in a rush to help. And people honestly want you to have a nice time in New Zealand. Their first, earnest question, "How do you like New Zealand?" is always so hopeful that you can't help but tell them it's wonderful. Their next question to all American travelers, "And how do you like Donald Trump?" was not as charming to me. 

But there's such constant tourist bustle that sometimes it's hard to meet Kiwi folks. We went days talking only with Europeans or other foreign travelers. We expected that at first, since we arrived at the beginning of the high-travel season. Auckland was full of backpackers lugging their 80-liter packs around, hunting for hostels. The campgrounds were full, most motels were booked and hostel rooms were snapped up fast. Any scenic place was full of camper vans and bus tours. We figured the people would go away after Christmas. No dice. Most of these people (like us) were in New Zealand for months, sometimes even a whole year. With that ever-revolving door of tourists, traffic didn't die down much. It was especially apparent in the South Island, where the number of tourists in many towns dwarfs the number of locals. 

Checking out the glaciers with 1000 new hiking buddies.  Montana's  photo. 

Checking out the glaciers with 1000 new hiking buddies. Montana's photo. 

When we could, we tried to get away from the crowds. That's hard to do on a bike, since the hiking trails are too gnarly for anything but bushwhacking. But New Zealand is working on making the country more bike-friendly. There's a decent touring route system - about 2500 kilometers right now. Some of the routes, like the Timber Trail and the Old Ghost Road, are impressively accessible multi-day mountain bike rides. But a lot of the routes are just semi-quiet roads. No bike lanes, just a few signs pointing the way. And we did a lot of pavement shuttling between rides, sometimes on busy highways when there was no other way to go. Those roads are narrow, with a skinny shoulder about the width of one mountain bike tire. 

We met quite a few European bike tourists who were aghast at the condition of the roads. Coming from southwestern Pennsylvania, we're used to riding on busy, narrow roads and getting buzzed by speeding cars. What we're not used to is all that traffic, everywhere, all the time. We even saw rental cars and camper vans in the middle of a remote sheep station that took us seven hours to reach. And even when we were as deep into the backcountry as we could get, we could usually still hear helicopters shuttling people up and down to see the mountains without more physical effort than swiping a credit card. 

A helicopter service can take you and your gear to the top of this trail, no sweat. 

A helicopter service can take you and your gear to the top of this trail, no sweat. 

That said, the government's working on creating more cycle touring routes and linking them up. I know it's probably not their tip-top priority, but it will be really cool to see it finished. The land is great for riding. Really up and down, with nice smooth pavement and excellent gravel. And when you're far enough away from traffic, you can focus more on enjoying the landscape around you. 

All the outdoor tourism makes wild camping a little difficult. When we lived in Colorado, we could pull off anywhere in National Forest of BLM land and set up a tent. In Pennsylvania, we can usually count on a cheap state park site or dark patch of woods. But in New Zealand, camping laws are a lot stricter. 

While the country got ready for a tsunami of tourists for the Rugby World Cup in 2011, local governments tightened the rules on freedom camping. Now you can pitch your tent on Department of Conservation land, which is relatively scarce and far apart, or in a designated campground. People driving "self-contained" motorhomes (i.e. a van with a toilet) are allowed to park in a few town parking lots or open fields for free. Tent users aren't allowed. So usually we ended up we in a Kiwi holiday park, or a hostel if we were in a city.

Holiday parks are nice, with clean kitchens and good water pressure in the showers, but at $20-25 per person, they're more than we'd usually shell out set up our tent. And staying in an RV park with electric hookups and internet they didn't really fit with our idea of backcountry travel. So it got a little old. 

Still, I can understand why camping is so limited. If I were a Kiwi, I wouldn't want some dirty hippy campers trashing my favorite spots. I'm also glad we budgeted enough money to be able to stay in a campsite every night. I wish we could've stayed in more of New Zealand's backcountry huts.

Those huts are usually in really beautiful spots. Plus they come in handy on cold, windy nights in the mountains. 

The food there is way better than it is at home. In every tiny town, you can find at least one knock-your-socks-off bakery with painstakingly crafted espresso drinks. I love their cafe culture. I love it so much that I gained about 10 pounds when I lived in Wellington. But since I have a gluten problem, I'd never had a famous Kiwi meat pie. Montana, with his stomach of steel and keen eye for a food bargain, got really into $4-5 pies. Towns weren't too far apart, so we could make a pie stop almost every day. I'd sit in the fragrant bakery, miserably watching him eat his flaky meaty pastry. Then we'd go to an Indian takeout place and I'd inhale $10 of delicious curry. I'll miss that good, cheap food. 

The West Coast lives up to its reputation - wet, windy and full of sandflies. While the West Coast has some good scenery, our 10 days riding down that side of the country was a serious test of patience. Sandflies were especially attracted to my gray pants and the insides of my glasses. They're annoying, but their bites don't itch as bad as a poison ivy rash. So. 

Last, Kiwi playgrounds are awesome. This thing is called a kangaroo jump, and we spent about an hour on it. Cross training is important, right? 


So I did get to see more of New Zealand. It wasn't the secluded outdoor paradise we thought it would be, but that's not a realistic expectation for a place with an economy that hinges on tourism and milk exports. Still, we got to see the entire country from our bikes, riding almost 3000 miles on mostly pleasant roads, enjoying the happy fluffy mobs of sheep eating grass in their fields while tuis warbled in the trees.

That's my brain dump. In a couple days, I'll post a couple more detailed posts about each island.