This is the first stage of our trip, but we didn’t cycle. The maps shows our route by train (in red) from Auckland to Wellington, the ferry (blue) to Picton and a very short ride (green) to Blenheim. December 19, 2004, packed and ready to go: two bikes, two duffel bags, and two day packs. It was an early start and it would be long day: three flights, 25 hours of travel in total. We had rented a van to get to the airport. It seemed the easiest option, since not many of our friends have a car that can accommodate two bikes.
The first two days in Auckland we spent with our friends Mike and Liz and their two dogs, Katie and Phoebe. Katie closely supervises as Liz prepares her dinner. Phoebe tries to supervise as well, but still has a few inches to go.
Here we are in Auckland, the day of our arrival. Summer really wasn’t all that different from Vancouver…in the winter. The cool weather made transitioning to a different climate easier though. On many occasions over the next few weeks we would be quite happy with the cloud cover and less than perfect summer weather, because when the sun comes out, it gets very hot, very quickly.
December 23, 2004 we set off for Wellington on the “Overlander” train, run by the Tranz Scenic rail service. It was a long ride, about 13 hours, but relaxing. The train wasn’t full; the seats were comfortable and spacious. The weather was grey and rainy for most of the trip, but we had some brighter patches as well.
The train stopped in many small towns. Sometimes you couldn’t even see a town, just a small platform with a small station building. The station at National Park (shown in the picture above) was actually large compared to some. This station also housed a nice cafe and we had a long enough stop here to get some lunch. Although the train had a cafe car, its choices were limited. Having access to fresh made chicken & brie sandwiches and flat whites was a nice surprise.
National Park is a popular place. Several backpackers, including a Dutch contingent of six, got on the train here. National Park provides easy access to the Tongoriro National Park, which offers one-day and multi-day hikes, including the Tongoriro Crossing, which we planned to do in the second half of our trip.
Wellington, 8 p.m. Before we could be on our way, we (Roy) had to unwrap the bikes and do some minor assembly (put the peddles on, turn the handle bars). Showing up with our bikes and our many colourful paniers got us some strange and skeptical looks from locals at times.
The next day we stayed in Wellington; it’s an enjoyable town and well worth a visit. It has a busy and active downtown and nice residential communities going up the hill. We visited the Te Papa museum, walked around the downtown, and took the cable car up to the botanical gardens.
From the hill you get a good view over the city. We walked back down to the centre again through the botanical gardens.
Christmas Day was the first official day of cycling, not counting the 2 km in Wellington from the station to the hostel and ferry. We had opted for a morning ferry out of Wellington, which would put us in Picton, on the South Island, around 1 p.m. After waiting about half an hour to let the ferry traffic die down, we were on our bikes. This would be an easy day, only 25 kilometers to Blenheim, where we would spend the first night.
Being Christmas day, most stores and restaurants were closed. We had very little in the way of food with us. I figured we could eat on the ferry and if need be we could buy food at a gas station to get us through the day. Riding into Blenheim, we kept out eyes peeled for any place that might offer food. The only one I spotted was a KFC and I figured if push came to shove we could have that for dinner. However, when we got to the hostel, Roy mentioned that the KFC would close at 3 p.m. By this time it was already 2 p.m.
We couldn’t check into the hostel yet, the office wouldn’t open till 4 p.m., so we decided to explore Blenheim. Like most towns on Christmas day, the place was deserted. It was only about 700 meters into the town and there, like an oasis in the desert…we found Bellafico, a restaurant that was open and served delicious food! And flat whites!
Inside the place was packed, but by this time the rain had stopped and it was warm enough to sit outside. Although the restaurant had officially closed for lunch, they were happy to feed us. While enjoying our lunch we noticed the restaurant was serving a ‘gala’ Christmas dinner that evening: a seven-course dinner with live entertainment! And they had two spots left!
It didn’t take long to decide, since there were no alternatives. We reserved the last two spots and promised to be back at 6.30 p.m. It felt a strange going for a ‘gala’ dinner dressed in zip-off pants, quick-dry shirt, and Tevas. But hey, that was how it was going to be for the next little while, I might as well get used to it. At least my pants were a kaki-green and my shirt had red in it, so I maintained a Christmas theme. Fortunately, like in Canada, the dress code is pretty relaxed in New Zealand. And although some people did dress up for the event, several others showed up dressed quite casually.
The live entertainment was provided by an older couple who sang, played a synthesizer and bongo drums. They did a great job. I loved her haircut and her bright red outfit. She sure pulled it off. At the end of the evening, when paying our bill, we got chatting with them. It turned out the guy is originally from The Hague and a civil engineer by trade. She was Kiwi but had lived in Holland for several years a long time ago; she even still spoke Dutch, which I thought was quite impressive after all this time.