Notes From the Road:
New Zealand Biking
I can’t listen to the Counting Crows CD “August and Everything After,” without conjuring up the golden-hued rolling hills of the central Otaga, the wind-swept salt-encrusted beaches of New Zealand’s wild west coast, and the placid otherworldly beauty of Milford Sound.
The first trip I ever guided for B&R was a biking trip on the South Island of New Zealand back in the winter of 1995. I was travelling the world after an ill-fated career in corporate law, using the pungent exoticism of the road to cleanse the trauma to the spirit caused by two years of grueling hours and soulless work. Fortune smiled on me, and I was plucked from the privations of the backpacker trail in Asia and parachuted into the heady comforts of the world of B&R. Having finally found my natural milieu, I never looked back.
It was the height of summer in New Zealand, of course, and my co-guide and mentor was a young woman named Rosemary Bird. We picked up a car and drove the entire route forwards and backwards, checking the bike routes, walking the hiking trails, sampling the restaurants, arranging the menus, and confirming the myriad other details that go into every trip. That Counting Crows CD was the only music we had for the entire two weeks and we practically wore a hole in it.
New Zealand itself was just beginning to emerge from its relative obscurity at the time as a quaint and somewhat bemusing relic of the colonial enterprise. Adventure travel was still in its infancy, and yet the world’s first commercial bungee-jumping operation had already been established just outside of Queenstown (in addition to the river jet boating, paragliding, sky-diving, heli-hiking… there’s a reason they call this place “the adventure capital of the world”).
Back then, most New Zealand wine was considered undrinkable by the international cognoscenti, and never made it beyond the borders, but the Pinot Noirs of Wanaka and the Sauvignon Blancs of Marlborough were revolutionizing local winemaking at the time. In short, we were in New Zealand at the perfect moment in time, when the reality on the ground had fundamentally changed, but international awareness (and the hordes that go with it) had yet to catch up.
B&R was originally drawn to this region because it represented one of the most accessible adventure destinations for biking and walking trips outside of Europe and North America. It offered an extraordinary diversity of physical and cultural landscapes in an incredible compact area; from the glaciers and great mountain ranges of the Remarkable to the primordial rainforests of the West Coast, from twee English sensibilities of Christchurch to the adrenaline soaked outdoor adventure of Queenstown.
The concept of an eco-lodge had yet to emerge as a force in international tourism, and yet the Lake Moeraki Wilderness Lodge, set in the middle of 2.7 million hectares of world heritage forest and run by Gerry McSweeney, one of the top naturalists in New Zealand, was our home away from home on the West coast.
The wave of mass tourism (fuelled in large part through the Tolkien movies) has receded, and in its wake is some of the best infrastructure in the world for high-end active travel. In particular, the government has almost completed Nga Haerenga, a national project to build the world’s greatest network of cycle trails across the length and breadth of New Zealand.
Add in killer Sauvignon Blancs coming out of Marlborough, swimming with dolphins and whales in Kaikoura, and heli-hiking to just about any mountain peak in the Remarkables, and you have all the elements for the perfect adventure trip.