03/2019 // Dennis Müller
Gravel royal - Cycling through New Zealand
My bike, my toothbrush and me
My name is Dennis Müller, I work as deputy warehouse manager at Alpina and, together with my team, ship helmets, goggles and protectors all over the world. For me though, one destination is more exciting than any other. All the same, I have been dreaming for a long, long time about one very specific spot on earth: New Zealand. The country at the other end of the world. The country that consists of two islands that could hardly be more different. The north hot and more densely populated. The south green, rough, diverse, mystical. That's where I want to go. Just me, my toothbrush, my tent, some clothes and my bike. My dream was to become reality.
My employer, Alpina, gave me almost three months off for the adventure of my life. Three months by bike through and around the South Island of New Zealand: madness. And in the end everything happened really quickly: Flight booked, panniers packed, last working day ticked off. Off I went to Christchurch, the starting point of my trip. When my feet first stepped on New Zealand soil, I was incredibly nervous. The view from the plane offered glimpses of the New Zealand landscape. And one thing became very clear: there are mountains here. Lots and lots of mountains. Actually I couldn’t spot one single flat place down there. Looking down at that, doubts quickly began to surface in me whether I had bitten off more than I could chew with my plans. But it was too late to back down now anyway.
I had prepared for this trip for about three months. Which bike do I take? Which tent will fit in the small panniers? How many underpants do I need? And of course: Where am I even going to go? These and a thousand other thoughts had been buzzing through my head almost every day. And then came the moment when the knot in my head finally came undone. The first breath of New Zealand air. The first turn of the crank. Ease, independence, freedom. Everything felt right in me. This is exactly why I came here. From now on everything just comes as it does. The long preparation is over, now only one thing matters: Cycling. Via Darfield, Geraldine and Fairlie I started off towards Burkes Pass. There the first mountain lay in wait for me and my 30 kilos of luggage. I was incredibly slow. The speed I was going even the timid sheep at the roadside didn’t shy away. Beads of sweat ran down my temples and my legs burned. And yet I was so happy. The air smelled of dry pine needles. Insects buzzed around me. Bright blue sky. Glorious. This was followed by the "Alps To Ocean Cycleway" - a marked cycle path. In other words: off the road and onto the gravel, home of my bike, the Grandurance Elite of Bergamont. That section was 306 kilometres long. From Lake Pukaki, filled to the brim with turquoise glacier water, to Oamaru, home of the dwarf penguins on the east coast. It wasn’t a route to take on alone.
Fighting wind and weather
I came to New Zealand to be alone, to free my mind. And for the first few days it worked, too. But then not any more. And the reason was: Charlotte. She was French, had been living in New Zealand for some time and wanted to explore her temporary homeland by bike. Like me. Our common ground welded us together. We had a good time together and got along great right from the start. Everything was much easier as a pair. The conversations about everything and everyone were distracted by the wind, the weather, the climbs and all the other temporary challenges. It was just perfect - or to use Charlotte's word: royal. She wasn’t to be my only encounter on the bike. I met people from countless countries. Israel, Africa, Canada, USA, Denmark, Japan. At some point I stopped counting.
A signpost with small yellow signs in all directions marks the southernmost point of New Zealand. It is in Bluff. From there I headed north. By bike, through rivers, rain forests, mountain landscapes. The trail led me from Bluff to Queenstown and via Wanaka to the west coast - which I had heard nothing good about. At least as far as the weather was concerned. In New Zealand the West Coast is actually called Wetcoast. And everyone tells you that you better not go there by bike. I did it anyway, my wetsuit always ready to hand. And I was rewarded. I didn't get a single drop of rain on the route past the two big glaciers, Fox and Franz Joseph, to Hokitika, Greymouth and Westport.
Spoke too soon
Inland, however, it all then quickly changed again. Above me the clouds had condensed into a huge grey carpet, which barely let any light through. But in its place a huge amount of water. After the Golden Bay and the Abel Tasman National Park it got cold and uncomfortable. But that’s New Zealand for you too. I was really in the flow now though, so the rain didn't bother me any more. It went on, I was happy. More than happy: overjoyed. Right to the end. Via Hanmer Springs I headed back to Christchurch. And there even my first puncture five kilometres before the finish couldn’t spoil a thing. The tyre was so gone I simply couldn't carry on. Fortunately that failure came right in front of John's house - a farmer in the Christchurch region. He carried me and my bike in the back of his truck with him on the way to his fields. And that’s when I had time to think about it all again. The nature of New Zealand. My encounters. The feeling of sitting on the bike, being outside all day long. All this made me smile. It was royal.