Thursday, January 28, 2010

Like Wales, but bigger

A few days into New Zealand and we're getting things done. We bought a van...

We had a swim...

And I did some kayaking...

It's odd being in a foreign country with our own Queen on the banknotes and where cars still drive on the left. Kiwi hospitality has been just as exceptional as people say it is: from the hostel (Kiwi Basecamp) owner in Christchurch helping us to choose the van, to the kayak rental shop (Captain Hector's, Akaroa) giving us a great deal on the kayak in order to help Emily's swim, to friends welcoming us in at Dunedin.

The van is a Toyata Previa. A people carrier. And I don't have 7 children. Oh, well. It has the back converted into a comfy bed, and it goes when it's supposed to so I can't complain. NZ has a real campervan culture - there are loads of them out here. Rentals, tourist-owned, and local-owned. So many people want them for touring here that there's a whole market of buying cheap vans for a few weeks or months then selling them on. We plugged into that market to get ours, and will hopefully sell it in Auckland before we go.

Our first stop was Akaroa, a small town on the volcanic Banks Penninsula. It sits on an outrageously blue harbour and serves pastries under the Tricolore, proud of its French heritage. As we drove down through the clouds, the whole area had a low grey ceiling. The harbour looked more like a large lake than a sea, and a 6 hour swim for Emily was on the agenda.

Jetlag and necessity had us up early and into the water for 7.30. The swim began with a walk across the silt left shallow by the tide. Eventually, we could swim though and the cold was enough to tweak at a few muscles. Not enough to numb my face though, so maybe 15C. We swam across the harbour and around a little cove where a boat had anchored. On this side, the land dropped steeply to the water and trees hung onto the green slopes.

The plan was to swim back to the car, then I could go pick up a kayak and join Emily for the rest of her swim. So, I loaded up, thanked the guys at Captain Hector's and headed out. We plotted a route around the harbour and the cloud finally lifted the lid on the day. With peaks and ridges all round us, and blue water underneath us, it was great day to be out and the wet bum caused by the "self bailing" (for which, read, self-filling) kayak didn't seem like too big a problem. The swim flew by pretty easily, punctuated by the sight of rare Hector Dolphins at on stage. Their fins did cause a brief heart-stopping moment, but I quickly recognised that they were the local dolphins not sharks.

Our next plan is to hit the Kepler Trail for some hiking, and then Doubtful Sound for some more kayaking. No bikes :)

Thursday, January 21, 2010

It's bike failure season, so lets sleep out

There's always a time of year when my bikes all start falling to pieces. It's come now, just as I was getting over a Christmas-acquired cold and disrupted my plans to get some good training in for the TD.

The current bike casualty list is:
  • Stuck front brake piston on Pugsley
  • Worn out BB on Pugsley
  • Worn out rear wheel bearings on Karate Monkey
  • Worn out freewheel on Karate Monkey
  • Worn out rear tyre on Karate Monkey
  • Worn out pedal bearings on Karate Monkey
  • Broken cranks on Balfa
  • Worn out pedal bearings on Balfa
  • Torn (but patched with toothpaste tube!) tyre on Voodoo
  • Worn bushings, and associated gouged stanchions on Voodoo's forks
  • Worn out pedal mechanism on Voodoo
  • Mangled LH crank-arm on Voodoo
  • Broken saddle (might be fixabled) that I use on Voodoo/Pugsley
Woe is me! I'm sure I can beg, and ebay my way out of that lot eventually.

Fortunately, this weekend is time to go to NZ for Emily's swim which means a break from bikes. We're going to buy a camper van (and sell it before we go) to tour around the country swimming, kayaking, hiking, (maybe a bit of biking), and having a fine old time. So with this and other camping adventures in mind, we've been testing out various combinations of gear...

Where some people see -5C in London as a problem, we saw an opportunity for Emily to test a potential new sleeping bag and for me to push the envelope with minimal gear. Camping out on the grass by the pool where she works was an odd experience. We headed out from home at around 9pm (just when we were warm and settled for the night), and picked our spot on the grass. Somewhere without frozen footprints so that we could make our own smooth ground. Up with my tent for her, and down with my bivvy bag for me.

My aim was to see how my +7C rated summer bag would perform when wearing cold-weather clothing that I might take on the TD. For the uninitiated, a bivvy bag is a breathable waterproof outer shell to put a sleeping bag in. It looks like a green body-bag, but gives you an acceptable level of protection for just 300g. Point number 1 was that my sleeping bag zips up on the opposite side to the bivvy. Tricky, but not insurmountable. Point number 2 was that when it's cold, you need to do it pretty much all the way up which is pretty claustrophobic, but that's something to get used to.

To be honest, I don't think I slept at all that night. City noise and uncomfortable (but not dangerous feeling) cold added together to keep me restless. I knew that I wasn't warm enough and doubts nagged about whether it would do any harm. My mind jumbled and circled possibilities, but wouldn't rest. I suppose the conclusion is that if -5C is the extreme end of what I could expect on a trip, then the kit is just enough.

Camping out like that probably seems even more insane to some people than going to the great outdoors, but it's a great way to test stuff with no real risk and a way to get a tiny slice of being in the wilds without having to drive way out of London.

It was the same mentality that I took to Wales at the weekend. The plan was to ride all the trails at Afan in one go, then sleep out and head to Barry for a meeting on Monday morning.

Starting from Glyncorrwg Ponds, the trail is 4 miles of twisty climbing. It was immediately obvious that lots of time on a turbo trainer is good for sitting down on moderate inclines and not that helpful for hauling up a proper hill with one gear. My arms were still attached at the top, though, so I made it to the fire-roads.

I had known that snow was a risk, particularly on the more remote Skyline trail and as soon as I dipped away from the main valley, I was on a mix of snow and ice. Wet snow ploughed my tyres sideways. Polished ice drifted me around with disdain. Pretty soon, I was walking through ankle-deep snow in my summer shoes. Frustrating as it might have been, I had my long-ride head on and this could easily be replicated in the Rockies in June so I took it for what it was.

After some getting lost, I eventually found the trail markers again only to find the trail gone. Logging by the forest owners had obliterated sections of trail completely, forcing me to carry over and around. Still could happen in the Rockies. I spied another rider ahead and he turned out to be a local who had worked on the trails. We dragged some of the more manageable stuff out of the way and he took note of what needed tackling with a saw. When I got back onto the mission, I had covered few miles and a lot of time, but I was coming back around to the trail centre.

With fresh supplies, I headed out to tackle that silly climb again. As soon as I reached the top again, I noticed my crank-arm: still bolted tight but the spline had worn round and it was pretty close to going round without the axle. The only safe thing to do was to pick a safe way down and abort the ride. Damn.

With the ride aborted, I had time to think about where to sleep. Either a cheap hotel (below) or a bivvy.

The beach at Barry turned out to be a great place for a bivvy. Quiet, dry, and with the chance of a nice sunrise in the morning. So, I settled down and watched the stars. As I lay there, they flew back away from the sea. Hang on... stars don't move. My head churned, but the stars kept moving. I'm sure stars don't move. I don't look at stars often enough, but I'm sure they don't move. Finally, my brain caught up and realised that it was the clouds moving. Shifting gear, I could suddenly make out a sensible perspective where banks of cloud drifted overhead. Shooting stars popped across my view now and again as I lay snug in my bag. This certainly beat TV in the hotel, and a perfectly restful night enveloped me.