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My arrival into Invercargill coincided with a slight change of fortune weather wise. The rain clouds withdrew enough for me to see some blue sky, and I pedaled happily along the flat road into the city. Pleasant fields and livestock flanked me, until eventually suburbs grew out of the agricultural land and this in turn became dense enough to call urban. My first appointment was with Gerry Ford, Southland Spirit of the Nation Brand Manager. Southland of course is the region of which Invercargill is the major hub, and has quite a reputation among Kiwi’s. Southlanders are often the butt of jokes in the same way that many rural areas get stick, but they are also famed for their unique slant on the New Zealand accent and their dry sense of humour. Gerry was a true Southlander, and it was fantastic interviewing him. Passion for the region was apparent in every word from his mouth and movement of body. He loved the place and was at no loss to tell me why. One thing I really picked up on was the warmth of the people – how helpful they are. As Gerry described how a Southlander would go out of their way to help a stranger, I could immediately empathise, having already experienced such kindness. In return for the interview, I happily agreed to get my photo taken while riding my bicycle and waving the Southland flag. I was on my way to initiation!
If Gerry is Invercargill’s most passionate inhabitant, then Henry is absolutely the oldest. At over 120 you can forgive his lethargy and perhaps even his grumpiness, but it doesn’t stop his popularity continuing to skyrocket. Henry, of course, is a Tuatara. The enclave in the Southland museum is one of the only places to see these reptiles up close – ‘living fossils’ that walked in the footprints of dinosaurs 220 million years ago, according to the information upon entry. And they are undoubtedly fascinating. Lindsay Hazley is the proud keeper of the relics, and is another whose passion is clear for all to see. There cannot be many people in the world who have greater Tuatara knowledge that Lindsay, and he is leading the field in research and innovation on the species. Henry made an appearance for the camera, but only to eat dinner, after which he retired once more to the darkest spot he could find. Being brought up to respect my elders, I left him to it.
The calm inlet
I rode out to my accommodation on the outskirts of town and spent most of the evening resting up. Next on my agenda was a visit to Stewart Island, the so-called third island of New Zealand. Sitting to the south of Bluff on the tip of the South Island, it has only one settlement, the town of Oban in Half Moon Bay. There may only be 400 inhabitants, but there are no permanent residents at a lower latitude in the world. By 9am the next morning I was on the ferry crossing the rough Foveaux straight. Our catamaran easily negotiated the huge swells, but the trip is not for those prone to seasickness – it’s a hang on to whatever’s bolted down kind of a ride. Fantastic fun, I might add. Ulva Goodwillie, local Oban resident and tour guide of the area met me on arrival and filled me in on the place. She is a direct descendent of the original peoples on Rakiura, and a delight to speak with. I didn’t realize quite how huge the area was, and that 80% is national park. Raring to go, I hopped on the Stewart Island Experience cruise of Patterson inlet – a huge natural harbour on the east side of the island. Birdlife and sealife abound, and a walk through the unspoilt bush and perfect beaches of Ulva Island completed a perfect afternoon.
Evening sun on wharf at departure
With only a short time on the island I didn’t want to waste a moment, and so found myself back on the water as night and darkness encroached. One of the major attraction of Rakiura is the relative high density of Kiwi Birds. Probably the most famous creature most New Zealanders have never seen, this bird is symbolic of the country and lends its image to almost anything associated with the islands. In reality they are extremely rare, and very hard to see in the wild. Stewart Island provides the best opportunity to do so, and Bravo Adventure Cruises take tourists on a twilight boat trip to a remote area, where they are led on a hike through the bush to a beach on the far side on the outcrop of land. There a guide paces the sand and surrounding area in search of the rare birds. This was my agenda for the evening, and once dark we proceeded through the forest. It reminded me of treasures hunts in the dark as a kid, and emerging onto the open beach with a full moon rising was nothing short of magical. Within 30 minutes we saw our first Kiwi. Large creatures, reaching almost to an adult’s knee they are every bit as unique as I’d hoped. Essentially a big ball of feathers with a long beak, they are fascinating, and very amusing, to watch. With nostrils at the end of the beat they peck down into the sand for grubs, occasionally looking as if they may get stuck. We observed two separate birds for half an hour each. The sun had been splitting the sky all day, and the evening calm and mild. With only a light jacket on I was comfortably warm, and standing on an isolated beach at the bottom of the world I wondered if I might have crossed into another world – one of peace, tranquility and perfection.
A few hours of shut eye and I hopped on the light aircraft to take me back to my bike in Invercargill. On the way the pilot dropped me off at Mason’s Bay for a short time to experience just how beautiful the remote areas of the island can be. Sand dunes drop to an elongated beach, with battered rock formations rising again at either end. The ocean beats them relentlessly, long before I arrived and eternally after I left.
It was almost an anticlimax to be back on the bike at this stage. While not an ugly or unpleasant ride, the 220 kilometres to Dunedin were without major incident or attraction. A night in Gore offered a pleasant trip to the Art Gallery, but in cycling terms it was a little bland. Incessantly flat, I passed through more of the agricultural terrain I had become accustomed to. Another part of the world with a high similarity to the North of Ireland – dairy-farming country. Pondering these parallels that I had come across on my travels, I arrived into the coastal city of Dunedin.
Dunedin Train Station
Called by some the Edinburgh of the South, I discovered that the name is actually a hybrid of Dundee and Edinburgh. The street names are the same as Scotland’s capital, but beyond that I didn’t see a great deal of resemblance. Apparently it was constructed on the same grid pattern, but the sharp steep hills that punctuate this area of the coast were not accounted for, and so the idea did not quite work out. I stopped at the Natural History Unit of New Zealand for a look around – the home of all things documentary in the country, and the equivalent of the NHU in the UK. I’m always keen to see how the industry operates around the world, and was impressed with the smooth operation here. I love the energy and creativity of these places – very few places have such a high density of talent in one space. Another addition to the list of dream places to work…
Not having grown tired of the water yet (in fact quite the opposite) I left my bike in a safe location at the Living Space Motel where I was being hosted, and jumped on the afternoon Monarch Wildlife tour of the peninsula which juts 30kms out of Dunedin’s coastline. Albatross rule the skies here, and with their huge 3-metre wingspan they are a sight to behold. A whole host of other birdlife was also visible from the boat, as were a colony of fur seals. I am falling deeper in love with this part of the world and the amazing variety of flora and fauna on display. Further example of this diversity, as if needed, was found at the Penguin centre. This conservation centre has been set up to help protect these animals in the wild, and has been cleverly designed to allow the curious tourist an opportunity to observe the Penguins from specially designed viewing huts. I spent an hour watching these delightful creatures waddle their way out of the sea and return home for a spot of R&R. I’m not sure if there is a time limit on how long one can ogling Penguins; if there is I am yet to discover it.
Baby Penguins, for the 'cute' vote
A good beer is always an attractive option after an evening of activity (even one of limited cycling exertion) and so it seemed only right to visit the Speight’s Brewery while in Dunedin. Perhaps New Zealand’s most popular beer, and certainly it’s best selling, Speight’s is a quintessential part of Dunedin’s heritage. The brewery tour was fun, as these things always are, and the reward was a half hour tasting session upon completion. If there’s one thing better than a cold beer, it’s a few cold beers. Dinner at the Ale House next door rounded off another day in which I had encountered more than I could reflect upon accurately, and so once again I slept soundly with a smile of my face. This was true NZ and I could not have been more grateful to be experiencing it.
The next day unfortunately brought about a tough decision, and one which while regrettable was unavoidable. Too many stops had been made, too much lingering and loitering. I had been getting my kicks both on the bike and off, but time had caught up with me, and if I was to make my planned departure date out of Christchurch there would be no time to cycle there from Dunedin. I still find this a rather distressing happening – if there is one thing I try to avoid on this journey it is time restrictions. However, on occasion they must be enforced and so it was with deep regret that I pedaled to the bus station in Dunedin, loaded on Lola and watched the next 600km of lost possibilities roll away.
The Cycling Vest
Luckily Christchurch is another of New Zealand’s cities with it’s own distinct brand of charm, and I was able to spend a day enjoying the sights and sounds between preparing for my impending journey to Australia. My perpetual search for people with a passion found me riding out toward the Untouched World Garden Café, to meet with Peri Drysdale. Now here’s a story. In 1998 ex-nurse and self taught entrepreneur Peri took her zeal for sustainable business to the next level launching Untouched World – a ‘sustainable fashion and sportswear brand based on the New Zealand lifestyle.’ For me, there are so many great things about this company. I’m lucky to have quite a few excellent sponsors for my trip who have environmental concerns, but in terms of integrating sustainability with every aspect possible of the business model, Untouched World stands alone. I reckon this is not a real achievement, but a great example to be setting. It seems the United Nations agrees; in 2007 they became the first fashion company to be recognized by the U.N for sustainability. It was great to interview Peri on camera, and even better when she came on board as the latest sponsor for ‘The Cycling Reporter’ expedition. I’m still lost for words to describe the chamois on my new cycling shorts – riding comfort has been taken to a new level.
Inside the Antarctic Centre
Leaving Peri, I made my way to the Antarctic Centre, located near the airport in Christchurch where over 70% of all flights to the continent depart from. For anyone interested in the topic, this place is absolutely essential to visit. Near the top of my ‘to-do’ list is shooting a documentary in Antarctica, and so I happily lost myself in the centre for an unspecified amount of hours. The highlights I could pick out include a ride on a Haaglund, the all-terrain vehicle used on the ice, and the 4D movie experience – this was a specially commissioned doco the Centre had made in 3D, and they combine it with moving seat and water/wind effects!
My last few weeks in New Zealand had undoubtedly been a whirlwind, and there were many places I wished to have seen but didn’t. This of course is always the way, and I must not complain – my 2 months on the islands provided me with experiences and memories that not only enriched my cycle tour but I believe will stay with me for many, many year. I have learned more than I could ever have hoped for, and I cannot wait to view the footage. But, all good things must come to an end, each door closing leads to another one opening – all those old saying, however clichéd, have a good deal of truth, and awaiting me was the new, unexplored country of Australia. I have learned now not to pre-empt, and so left Christchurch with a great deal of ambivalence – NZ will remain very close to my heart, but the riches of Oz were ready to be discovered.
Accommodation and activies in Southland, Dunedin and Christchurch made possibly by local owners and operators, as well as Venture Southland, Tourism Dunedin and Christchurch & Canterbury Tourism, see Sponsors page for more details