I wake up shivering. My toes are numb but feel icy cold curled up against my calves. There is an chill reaching down my chest and clutching around my neck. As soon as my eyes open I am wide awake, staring at the total darkness of the roof of the tent. I wiggle my extremities trying to coax my sluggish blood to go warm them up. The chill down my neck advances, catching my breath. I roll onto my back and a puff of warm air shoots past my face and cold rushes in to fill the gap. I shiver again, the foetal position abandoned. Its time to take action.
I grab my ‘pillow’’ (my down jacket wrapped in a t-shirt) and put both the layers on. I find my wool gloves that were resting in my upturned helmet and throw them on. And I step into the night. My breath drops from my mouth visible only by the light of the stars. There is no moon but the whole area is lit by a spectral glow of billions of sparkling stars. The total blackness of the tent transformed into a majestic blanket of glinting stars.
I rustle around in my pannier, feeling rude to break the silence. Grabbing some chocolate, I start chewing on the semi frozen bar. At the same time, I start doing squats. The crinkle of my down jacket and my loud crunching of chocolate are deafening in the quiet. The stars look down disapprovingly, my little escapade taking away from their spectacle, like coughing during a theatrical performance.
As I warm up, my knees start to click less and the feeling comes back to my toes. I stop and gaze up at the totally clear sky, It’s the middle of the night. I am camped next to Lake Tekapo. Right now though, the lake is hidden by a thick creeping mist, it hangs heavy over the water and glows silver in the starlight. It’s an outer-worldly place to be, surrounded by cloud and stars and nothing remotely familiar. I creep myself out and clamber back into the homely comfort of my tent. Now wearing all of my clothes I manage to fall back to sleep, leaving the eerie dreamscape behind.
Mountains and Mist
As dawn broke I awoke to an alien world of thick fog surrounding my tent. The mist of last night was now higher than my head, the whole landscape faded into bleak nothingness. I wandered down to the lake to eat my breakfast, the cold chill hurting my hands on my metal bowl. Lake Tekapo was eerily still. Grey surrounded me and depth perception was a mystery. The mist seemed to steal the sound right out of the air and even the birds seemed quiet. Their usual dawn chorus delayed as they too huddled from the chill.
The warm days of the hostel in Methven seemed a long time ago. Two days and 160km can seem like a world away. I had waited out the majority of the bad weather there but winter was very much on its way. The trees that lined the road were dropping their leaves at a faster rate, the gold and reds had become darker and then melted into a less majestic brown on the floor. They bordered the roads in windswept drifts as I had made my way to Lake Tekapo and back to the Southern Alps.
I wound through Tekapo with all of my lights on, the crowds of tourists were comfortably hidden in their hotels at this hour. The hustle and bustle of the day time still to come and a relaxed silence settled on the village. I left civilisation behind and was soon on a quiet back road, the start of the Alps to Ocean Trail.
Just as I was leaving Tekapo I came across a hiker, even from a distance, as I approached I knew she was a thru-hiker (someone hiking from Cape Reinga to Bluff.) I pulled over for a chat, and she told me her name was Adele.
She had a pair of well-worn boots (as you would imagine) muddy and scuffed but in perfect order, much like my bike. Over the boots were multicoloured wool leggings scattered with many tears and holes and repairs. Again, not dissimilar to my thermals. The backpack was big and threadbare. It was well packed full but not bulging. Adele herself had a smiley, round face under dark hair. She had a woollen beany pulled tight over her hears to keep warm. She looked happy for a chat but equally anxious to be making some progress, her time restraints were much tighter than mine if she wanted to avoid walking into winter.
We chatted a while about the trails we had taken and the weather and camping. I couldn’t believe how long it took to walk, 6 months to do the same distance I would do in 6.5 weeks! My god, what commitment! What determination!
So, I was already pretty impressed, then she went on to tell me that she had just come back from an injury. Earlier on during the hike she had been crossing a river (alone, as you often are on these adventures) and she had grabbed a rock for balance. As she pulled the rock it fell on her and broke her leg. Luckily, not knocking her under the water. She then managed to get out and to safety and get her leg healed up. Now, ten weeks later she was back to finish what she had started! Absolute legend!
I cycled on, riding along giant canals flowing from Lake Tekapo a back-country shortcut and part of the Alps to Ocean Trail. Well signposted and flat with crushed gravel the whole way. I made cracking progress, averaging 25km/h. Adele behind me would make 20-30km per day!
Rolling into Lake Pukaki I was greeted with another beautiful turquoise, glacier-fed lake. The sun was out and had burned off all the mist. A flat plateau of water stretched right up to edges of the mountains. Their ruggedness pinched between the blue sky and the even bluer waters. The gentle lapping of the lakeside beckoned me in. The water looking so clear and inviting. I had made this mistake before on a road trip. The waters of Lake Pukaki are absolutely freezing!
I traipsed around the edge the lake. The light reflecting into my face warming me and blinding me at the same time. I made an impulsive decision to visit Mt Cook! I had never been and being so close it seemed like a shame to ride right past. My only issue was I didn’t fancy riding up the 35km road just to have to ride all the way back. Plus, the extra riding time would reduce my time to explore Mt Cook.
Riding around to the junction I passed a hitchhiker on the side of the road. His thumb out, he nodded to me as I came close, and then I did something I have always wanted to do, I high fived him as I went past. He had given me an idea.
I pulled up at the turning for Mt Cook and stuck my own thumb out. Very particular as to what lift I needed, I specifically needed a RV or a UTE, something I could just chuck the whole bike in the back and get a lift up to Mt Cook. This way, I could then enjoy the sights and ride the 35km road back the next day.
As I have always found in New Zealand, finding a ride didn’t take long at all. After a few false starts, a huge RV pulled over and I was welcomed to join them.
Jim and Julie ushered me onboard and I felt bad as my bike dropped clumps of mud around their pristine RV. It was a seriously plush camper with a stand-up shower, fridge and four hob cooker. I sat at the back and enjoyed the view as we tried to shout down the length of the camper to each other. The crystalline blue of the lake shimmering in the sun and changing colour as we got closer and closer to the mountains.
It turns out they were keen cyclists themselves, having toured all over New Zealand and Europe at various times. They were in their 50’s but the age gap meant nothing as we chatted about our common love of cycle touring and tiny house living.
Aoraki, Mt Cook
As we got closer the mountains blocked out the sun and the world was tinted in a blue light. Jagged ridges buckled vertically from the ground. Avalanche debris made little slopes at their feet the whole area looked formidable and daunting. The sky, still blue bounced off the snow-capped peaks all around and lit up Mt Cook beautifully. Even from a distance it looked steep and difficult. The whole area filled me with wonder. How did you even begin to approach climbing mountains like this? I love the mountains but alpinism is next level adventuring! The harshness of the landscape so different from the idyllic lakeside of Lake Pukaki where the mountains look so small in the distance.
We visited Mueller Lake, murky with sediment and leading to Hooker River. The river frothing with energy, floats of ice being floated serenely around the lake before being battered down the rocky rapids. The glacier itself was a dusty mottled grey. The dust and rain had left it looking grubby, all the better contrast to Mt Cook that was peeking in the background.
Jim and Julie took me all over Mt Cook village and even invited me to dinner in their RV. I was happy to join them and continue chatting, even more so when they said they had steak on the menu! My option was mash potatoes and gravy so I added that to the mix and definitely felt I got the better end of the deal. We talked into the evening as the light turned from blue to purple.
The sun set quickly behind the mountains and the cold rapidly settled in the valley. I slept in all of my clothes including my down jacket. The campsite was busy with people a huge difference to my solitary spot by Lake Tekapo the night before. I could hear the familiar zipping tent and rustle of sleeping bags all around. I felt comforted by the familiarity but hypocritically missed the solitude of being alone in the mountains.