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Thrills and Hills in New Zealand


As I stood on the bridge, my ankles bound together with a thick, rubbery bungee cord, I made the mistake of looking down. Way down. Almost 150 feet down. I saw a tumultuous, turbulent river the color of blue Gatorade rushing far beneath me. My legs started to shake. Goosebumps the size of kiwi fruit sprouted on my arms. Visions of my mother begging me not to bungee jump filled my dizzy head.

 

I turned to one of the tanned, sun-weathered guys whose job it is to tie people up and send them plummeting off bridges. I meekly asked if he had any advice for me. He shrugged his shoulders, smiled a mischievous grin, and in a voice that sounded vaguely Russell Crowe-like, he glibly uttered these words of wisdom: "Just do it."

Welcome to New Zealand, ground zero for plasma-pumping, heart-racing adventure. It's an adrenaline-junkie's paradise, a breathtakingly beautiful country that provides the perfect backdrop for pushing your limits and trying things usually labeled "crazy" by most folks. Then again, Kiwis - the nickname comes from the flightless bird, by the way, not the fruit - aren't most folks. Their genetic code seems to have left them impervious to fear, and that makes for some pretty white-knuckle pastimes in this picturesque landscape.

Copyright: Markham Johnson.The Tour: "We have an adventurous spirit. The first man up Mt. Everest was a Kiwi," explained Wally Bruce, a ruddy-faced New Zealand native with an insatiable thirst for fun and fluorescent-colored clothing. Wally was one of my guides on a 15-day cycling trip down the west coast of New Zealand's raw and rugged South Island. "We have a magnificent environment," he added, "and we like to play in it."

Myself and 13 other Americans of various cycling abilities wanted to play in it, too. That's why we signed up for our own heart-pounding adventure: The most challenging bike trip offered by Backroads, a Berkeley, Calif.-based active travel company. The 600-mile, two-wheeled trek promised to leave our legs and lungs begging for mercy.

The Trip: Backroads' South Island biking trip includes not one but two centuries, those grueling, 100-mile rides that are the closest thing cyclists have to a marathon.

But wait, there's more. One of those centuries has an extra dozen miles tacked on for good measure. And it includes 5,700 feet of climbing, the equivalent of about four Chicago's Sears Towers. Let's just say that when you're done with that day's ride, you'd be happy to personally toss your bike over a bridge - sans bungee cord.

You're probably thinking, "This doesn't sound like a vacation. It sounds like hell."

If so, start sinning. New Zealand is arguably as close as it comes to secular paradise, and the most rewarding way to see it is from the vantage point of a bike saddle, especially when Backroads takes care of things like food, lodging and schlepping your luggage from hotel to hotel.

Copyright: Robert Houser.The Terrain: The trip has you pedaling through virgin rainforests and rolling vineyards, past hulking glaciers and over the Southern Alps, near stunning lakes and along the feral waters of the Tasman Sea. Along the way, bell birds serenade you and grazing sheep stop to stare. When it came to biking ability, our group of 14 covered the spectrum. One woman happily admitted to being a novice; one man raced in centuries. Ages ranged from mid-20s to early 50s. Still, just about everyone managed to find someone they could keep pace with. And if things ever got too tough, there always was an empty seat waiting in the Backroads van.For the next two weeks, we gradually worked our way down the spectacular west coast, cycling anywhere from 39 to 112 miles a day and sleeping in the best accommodations the area had to offer. Some nights, that meant a modest motor lodge. Others nights, that translated into a junior suite at Nugget Point, a luxurious-yet-laid-back mountainside resort with outdoor jacuzzis overlooking the Shotover River.

We meandered along thunderous rivers and milky-white beaches; past misty green mountains carved with waterfalls and rainforests that live next door to glaciers. We spotted water buffalo, ostrich, sheep and more sheep. The wooly creatures outnumber humans by more than 10 to one. The dearth of people - less than 4 million Kiwis call New Zealand home - coupled with an aggressive national parks program that covers nearly 1/3 of the land, gives the country a virginal, pristine feel. It also has a gloriously schizophrenic feel: The dramatically shifting landscape brings to mind Montana, Alaska, Scotland, Indonesia, California and Hawaii - all in the space of one day. That's the beauty of New Zealand. It's like no place on earth, simply because it's like so many of the best places on earth, all in the space of a country no bigger than Colorado.

Copyright: Markham Johnson.The Ride: Our two affable trip leaders, Wally and Steven, constantly "swept" each day's route, picking up those of us who'd had enough. After all, this was a vacation, not boot camp. The ride kicked off on the northern tip of the South Island in Nelson, a charming town that boasts more sunshine than any city in New Zealand. We hopped on our Backroads bikes - candy-apple red, 27-speed Cannondales - for a 45-mile jaunt through gently undulating vineyards and apple orchards. The hardest part was trying to remember that Kiwis drive on the opposite side of the road, so we had better stay left if we didn't want to get mowed down by a speeding timber truck.

The Tough: On The Day of the Big Ride, we began our 112-mile journey obscenely early because it would take every hour of daylight for some to finish. To make things worse, it was raining. We literally had miles to go before we'd sleep, not to mention almost 6,000 feet worth of hill climbing. We started pedaling with all the enthusiasm of Jesse Helms at a gay pride parade.

About 50 miles into the ride, we reached the gates of Haast, which cyclists have affectionately dubbed the Gates of Hell. This marked the start of the most difficult part of Haast Pass, a route that slices through the Southern Alps and lead us inland, towards Queenstown, the end point of our trip. (Queenstown, by the way, has been called the adventure capital of the world, and for good reason. Locals insist that if you did every activity offered, from bungee jumping to jet boating, it would take two months and $2,000 U.S. dollars.)

Before we could dig into Queenstown's menu of thrills, we had to contend with Haast Pass. So we put our heads down and cycled up a comically steep hill followed by a few other quad-burning climbs. Mother Nature rewarded our considerable efforts by unleashing the sun for the remainder of the ride, which was positively stunning as it hugged the edges of lakes Hawea and Wanaka.

The Rest? To keep us from going home with saddle sores as souvenirs, Backroads threw in a handful of days with no riding. These welcome "rest" days proved to be as restful as front row seats at a Limp Bizkit concert. After all, this is New Zealand. We had mountains to hike, rivers to raft, things to ride that would go really, really fast.We used our precious non-riding time to go sea kayaking, whitewater rafting on the Buller River, and hiking (or tramping, as Kiwis call it) through beech forests and terrain that could have doubled as the set for Jurassic Park.

Copyright: Robert Houser.During one day off the bikes, we strapped talons on our boots and climbed up part of the Franz Josef glacier, where we peered down bottomless crevasses and crawled through ice caves. Another day, we hopped in a small plane for a scenic and somewhat scary flight to the famed Milford Sound, which geography purists will note isn't a sound at all, but a fjord. Our tiny seven-seater flew frighteningly close to snow-covered mountains, giving us a glimpse of Mt. Cook, the tallest peak in the country. It also gave one person in the plane the need to use the little white bag in the airplane seat pocket. Let's just say this is not for the easy-queasy. I could've used one of those little white bags as I stood tethered to that bungee cord on the Kawarau Bridge, trying to will my body to do something completely and utterly unnatural.

The End: It was the last day of the Backroads trip. We'd cycled to the bridge, the very place that commercial bungee jumping got started back in 1988. Everyone from the group was there, cheering me on. As the bungee crew wrapped a towel and giant umbilical cord around my ankles, I thought about all of the challenges that had cropped up in the past two weeks. I thought about the 53-year-old woman who managed to bike up Haast Pass, and the mother of two who changed her mind at the last minute and took a pass on the cozy comforts of the van to bike all day in the relentless rain. I thought of the spirit of adventure that pervades Kiwis and seems to infect visitors, too.

And so I just did it.

When You Go: Cycling through New Zealand's South Island

Cost: Backroads' 15-day biking trip through the South Island of New Zealand costs $3,598 per person, airfare not included. The trip price includes all meals except one dinner and two lunches and does not cover alcohol. It's an additional $190 to rent a Backroads bike. Singles wanting their own hotel rooms are charged an $820 supplement.

Copyright: Markham Johnson.Fitness level: You won't be kicked off the ride if you can't keep up, but you'll certainly enjoy the experience more if you're in reasonably good cycling shape. The South Island trip is considered by many to be Backroads' most challenging. If you plan to ride most of it, you should be comfortable cycling at least 40 miles a day, several days in a row.

When to go: New Zealand is in the Southern Hemisphere, so it's winter down there during our summer. For the best weather, October through April is a good time to visit. Backroads will run three more trips this year. Two of the trips are open to couples and singles and run from Nov. 25 to Dec. 9 and Dec. 14 to Dec. 28. A singles-only trip goes from Dec. 22 to Jan. 5. Dates for 2002 are Jan. 2 to Jan. 16, Jan. 20 to Feb. 3, Feb. 8 to Feb. 22, Feb. 27 to Mar. 13 and Mar. 17 to Mar. 31.

Find out more: To request a Backroads catalog or talk to a trip planner, call (800) GO-ACTIVE, or (800) 462-2848. Web site: www.backroads.com.

For the next two weeks, we gradually worked our way down the spectacular west coast, cycling anywhere from 39 to 112 miles a day and sleeping in the best accommodations the area had to offer. Some nights, that meant a modest motor lodge. Others nights, that translated into a junior suite at Nugget Point, a luxurious-yet-laid-back mountainside resort with outdoor jacuzzis overlooking the Shotover River.

We meandered along thunderous rivers and milky-white beaches; past misty green mountains carved with waterfalls and rainforests that live next door to glaciers. We spotted water buffalo, ostrich, sheep and more sheep. The wooly creatures outnumber humans by more than 10 to one. The dearth of people - less than 4 million Kiwis call New Zealand home - coupled with an aggressive national parks program that covers nearly 1/3 of the land, gives the country a virginal, pristine feel. It also has a gloriously schizophrenic feel: The dramatically shifting landscape brings to mind Montana, Alaska, Scotland, Indonesia, California and Hawaii - all in the space of one day. That's the beauty of New Zealand. It's like no place on earth, simply because it's like so many of the best places on earth, all in the space of a country no bigger than Colorado.

Copyright: Markham Johnson.The Ride: Our two affable trip leaders, Wally and Steven, constantly "swept" each day's route, picking up those of us who'd had enough. After all, this was a vacation, not boot camp. The ride kicked off on the northern tip of the South Island in Nelson, a charming town that boasts more sunshine than any city in New Zealand. We hopped on our Backroads bikes - candy-apple red, 27-speed Cannondales - for a 45-mile jaunt through gently undulating vineyards and apple orchards. The hardest part was trying to remember that Kiwis drive on the opposite side of the road, so we had better stay left if we didn't want to get mowed down by a speeding timber truck.

The Tough: On The Day of the Big Ride, we began our 112-mile journey obscenely early because it would take every hour of daylight for some to finish. To make things worse, it was raining. We literally had miles to go before we'd sleep, not to mention almost 6,000 feet worth of hill climbing. We started pedaling with all the enthusiasm of Jesse Helms at a gay pride parade.

About 50 miles into the ride, we reached the gates of Haast, which cyclists have affectionately dubbed the Gates of Hell. This marked the start of the most difficult part of Haast Pass, a route that slices through the Southern Alps and lead us inland, towards Queenstown, the end point of our trip. (Queenstown, by the way, has been called the adventure capital of the world, and for good reason. Locals insist that if you did every activity offered, from bungee jumping to jet boating, it would take two months and $2,000 U.S. dollars.)

Before we could dig into Queenstown's menu of thrills, we had to contend with Haast Pass. So we put our heads down and cycled up a comically steep hill followed by a few other quad-burning climbs. Mother Nature rewarded our considerable efforts by unleashing the sun for the remainder of the ride, which was positively stunning as it hugged the edges of lakes Hawea and Wanaka.

The Rest? To keep us from going home with saddle sores as souvenirs, Backroads threw in a handful of days with no riding. These welcome "rest" days proved to be as restful as front row seats at a Limp Bizkit concert. After all, this is New Zealand. We had mountains to hike, rivers to raft, things to ride that would go really, really fast.We used our precious non-riding time to go sea kayaking, whitewater rafting on the Buller River, and hiking (or tramping, as Kiwis call it) through beech forests and terrain that could have doubled as the set for Jurassic Park.

Copyright: Robert Houser.During one day off the bikes, we strapped talons on our boots and climbed up part of the Franz Josef glacier, where we peered down bottomless crevasses and crawled through ice caves. Another day, we hopped in a small plane for a scenic and somewhat scary flight to the famed Milford Sound, which geography purists will note isn't a sound at all, but a fjord. Our tiny seven-seater flew frighteningly close to snow-covered mountains, giving us a glimpse of Mt. Cook, the tallest peak in the country. It also gave one person in the plane the need to use the little white bag in the airplane seat pocket. Let's just say this is not for the easy-queasy. I could've used one of those little white bags as I stood tethered to that bungee cord on the Kawarau Bridge, trying to will my body to do something completely and utterly unnatural.

The End: It was the last day of the Backroads trip. We'd cycled to the bridge, the very place that commercial bungee jumping got started back in 1988. Everyone from the group was there, cheering me on. As the bungee crew wrapped a towel and giant umbilical cord around my ankles, I thought about all of the challenges that had cropped up in the past two weeks. I thought about the 53-year-old woman who managed to bike up Haast Pass, and the mother of two who changed her mind at the last minute and took a pass on the cozy comforts of the van to bike all day in the relentless rain. I thought of the spirit of adventure that pervades Kiwis and seems to infect visitors, too.

And so I just did it.

When You Go: Cycling through New Zealand's South Island

Cost: Backroads' 15-day biking trip through the South Island of New Zealand costs $3,598 per person, airfare not included. The trip price includes all meals except one dinner and two lunches and does not cover alcohol. It's an additional $190 to rent a Backroads bike. Singles wanting their own hotel rooms are charged an $820 supplement.

Copyright: Markham Johnson.Fitness level: You won't be kicked off the ride if you can't keep up, but you'll certainly enjoy the experience more if you're in reasonably good cycling shape. The South Island trip is considered by many to be Backroads' most challenging. If you plan to ride most of it, you should be comfortable cycling at least 40 miles a day, several days in a row.

When to go: New Zealand is in the Southern Hemisphere, so it's winter down there during our summer. For the best weather, October through April is a good time to visit. Backroads will run three more trips this year. Two of the trips are open to couples and singles and run from Nov. 25 to Dec. 9 and Dec. 14 to Dec. 28. A singles-only trip goes from Dec. 22 to Jan. 5. Dates for 2002 are Jan. 2 to Jan. 16, Jan. 20 to Feb. 3, Feb. 8 to Feb. 22, Feb. 27 to Mar. 13 and Mar. 17 to Mar. 31.

Find out more: To request a Backroads catalog or talk to a trip planner, call (800) GO-ACTIVE, or (800) 462-2848. Web site: www.backroads.com.