Bicycle travel in New Zealand Interview
Brent Hall just completed a 4,700 km, two and a half month, bicycle journey around both the north and south islands of New Zealand. During these travels he contended with various climatic extremes, camped, foraged for food, worked on organic farms, stayed in the homes of locals, and took what actions he could to stretch his budget as far as it could go. I did the following interview with Brent via email upon his return home to Maine, within which he more than adequately provides a primer for anyone looking to bicycle in New Zealand or, for that matter, just about any where else in the world.
Brent is an experienced bicycle traveler — having previously crossed the USA from Arizona to Maine as well as various other shorter tours around the north east — and also possesses a high degree of knowledge in bicycle repair, but the expertise that he shares in the following interview can be fully utilized by even a novice bicycle traveler to get out on the roads of New Zealand.
Bicycle touring in New Zealand Interview
Where did you go in New Zealand? Around how many miles?
I traveled both the North and South Islands. I arrived in Auckland, toured the Northland, cycled the Coromandel Peninsula, cut down to Rotorua, Gisborne, Napier, and then bussed to Wellington. I took the ferry to the South Island, headed up to Abel Tasman Nat’l Park, then down the West Coast, crossing Haast Pass to Wanaka and Queenstown, then to Fiordlands and Milford Sound. From there I headed to Bluff, rode the Catlins Coast, up to Dunedin, inland to Lake Pukaki and Lake Tekapo, across to Akaroa and the Banks Peninsula Circuit, then finally ended in Christchurch, where I caught my return flight home.
I logged about 4700km (2900 miles) on the bike, plus a bunch more on buses and hitched rides.
How did you prepare for this journey? What measures did you take prior to departure?
I had some money saved from a previous job, which was nice, booked my flight with a travel agent (they are free, can find the best deals, and save the headache of scouring the web for fares) did a lot of reading online, and contacted friends and their friends who had visited New Zealand to pick their brains. Shortly before my departure I was given a dated copy of Lonely Planet’s “Cycling New Zealand” guide book, which soon became my bible.
The idea for the trip was spurred by my coming across a beautiful old touring bike for $90, so I spent a lot of time rebuilding and fine-tuning it to suit my needs. A friend told me about Couchsurfing.org, which I quickly joined and established myself on. As a gardener and organic farm worker, I also decided to join NZ’s WWOOF (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms) program.
How long were you traveling in New Zealand for? Around how much money per day did you spend?
I spent 2.5 months there, from mid-January to early-April 2010. I spent roughly 1 month on the North Island and 1.5 months on the South Island. From the time I touched down to the time I left, I spent about $30- $45 a day. I spent less when I was in rural areas, and more when in cities. My biggest expense was food, primarily from grocery stores, and second was accommodation, as hostels and “backpackers” can get expensive.
What gear did you use? What type of bike did you use? What adaptions did you make to it? What system did you use to haul your gear? Protective gear? Camping gear?
My bike was a 1988 Trek 520, their touring model. It had drop bars, a cyclometer, down tube shifters, a wide range of gears (useful for the many hills!), men’s Terry saddle, and Armadillo road tires. I had a front and rear rack, with 2 panniers on each. I had 3 water bottle cages, although one was rarely used for anything other than storing wild blackberries. I used a helmet and extra-padded cycling gloves. I brought a Marmot 30 degree bag, which was sometimes a bit on the hot side, but towards the end of the trip on the South Island, was necessary. I also brought a thin sleeping bag liner which I sometimes slept in by itself, and later used inside the bag for extra warmth. I decided against a camp stove, which was no problem due to the plentiful quality grocery stores, and stands to pick up fresh fruit, produce, cheese, etc. I used a Mountain Hardware “Meridian 2” tent, which was well ventilated, light, and totally waterproof. On the west coast (the “wet coast”) of the south island, I picked up some cheap rain gear from a Salvation Army.
Did you take your bike to New Zealand with you or did you buy one when you arrived? If you brought your bike, how? On the plane with you? Shipped by another air service? How much did this cost?
I flew the bike with me, for free on Air New Zealand (owned by Virgin Blue). Their policy is to allow 1 piece of checked sporting equipment for free, including bikes. My US flight (with Delta, notorious for their anti-bike policies) had to adopt Air NZ’s policy, because they were the International Carrier, so the bike made it to NZ and back for free.
What strategies did you use for shelter? Did you camp? Couchsurf?
Couchsurfing is big in NZ, but I only used it on my arrival and just before leaving, because I had no phone or computer. Both experiences were awesome. I primarily camped in the countryside, almost always asking farmers (or people with large tracts of land) if I could pitch a tent in a back corner of their field. I was never turned away, and several people insisted that I stay inside with them, some even fed me! I met people along the way who I stayed with, and who gave me contact information for their friends and family members in other parts of NZ, and was able to stay with some of those folks as well. I WWOOFed and lived with 3 farm families for a total of about 3 weeks, which was a great way to learn skills, reenergize, eat well, and get a truly authentic NZ experience.
I also stayed in a handful of privately owned campsites, and their less-expensive and usually more scenic counterparts: state-maintained DOC campsites. A couple times I stayed in RV/ camper-van parks but they were often soul-less, grimy, and overpriced. When nasty weather approached, or I couldn’t stand another day without a bed/ shower/ human contact I stayed at “backpackers” and youth hostels. These typically ran $30 a night, sometimes less for smaller and more rural places. There are a few backpackers which are worth the extra mile and the $- in tree houses, on boats, and “bike packers”.
If you plan to stay in backpackers for more than 5 or 6 nights, invest in a BBT card as soon as you get to NZ. For $45 or so, it gets you discounts at a majority of backpackers in the country, a $20 phone card, and will quickly pay itself back.
What strategies did you use for acquiring food? Did you cook for yourself?
I didn’t bring a stove, and typically ate raw and cold foods. I stopped at grocery stores and markets to pick up bread, hummus, PB (stock up on Pic’s PB when you find it- it is phenomenal and hard to come by!), cheese, fruit, veggies, trail mix, chocolate, beans, and Ramen-type noodles. I also discovered delicious pre-made pouch soups in larger grocery stores. Some of the flavors (especially the coconut curry) are fast, delicious, inexpensive, and hearty.
Many smaller grocery stores have dumpsters- check them out for the best deals in town! If you’re at a hostel, check the “free” box, or “free” shelf in the fridge. I once made 2 days worth of good meals from these!
If you’re there during the season and are looking, you can often find blackberries, apples, citrus, avocados, and other fruit growing along the roadside. Be careful not to eat from spots where herbicides are sprayed, especially with blackberries. Fennel also grows wild everywhere and when paired with a slice of fresh lemon, makes your water taste better than any sports drink.
What methods did you employ to keep costs low?
Preparing my own food, foraging, dumpster diving, camping, WWOOFing, Couchsurfing, thrift store shopping, doing my own repairs, and of course cycling. When I did need rides, I tried to hitch primarily. I didn’t drink too much either- the beer was good, but very expensive, and made it hard to roll out of the tent and get going!
In general, did you find New Zealand a good country for bicycle travel?
New Zealand is an amazing country to cycle in. When I arrived at the airport in Auckland, I was pleasantly shocked to find a designated “Bicycle Assembly area” which consisted of 2 repair stand arms mounted to a wall. Kiwis understand and appreciate cycling, although you won’t find many touring in their own country. The landscape changes so fast and so dramatically, that being in a vehicle can’t give you the full picture. That said, there are some roads, especially on the north island, that can be high-traffic and have crappy shoulders. Some kiwis also have the habit of speeding up and quickly swerving around cyclists, rather than slowing down- I don’t quite understand why. It is always good to ask locals, or consult a guide book, about the road conditions and if certain stretches are worth riding. If you have a limited amount of time it really is better sometimes to hitch or take the bus to get to the more breathtaking routes.
Also, expect to have tree-trunk sized legs when you return. One local accurately described NZ’s topography to me as being like a “sheet of corrugated iron”. The hills are everywhere and unavoidable.
And remember- you will be cycling on the left side of the road! This can take some time to get used to- for you, and for foreign motorists.
What difficulties/ challenges did you encounter on this journey?
This is a tough one… Loneliness? Keeping ahead of the wind and rain? Seeing and experiencing everything I wanted to? Sandflies? Life and travels in New Zealand are really pretty amazing. I once was almost stuck in the middle of a 40 mile-long gorge at dusk during a major storm, but was rescued by a friendly motorist and carted to safety.
What advantages do you think that traveling New Zealand by bicycle had over more conventional means of transport?
As stated before, the landscape changes so quickly and so dramatically that you miss a lot when in a vehicle. The smells of the rainforest, the wild blackberries, the bird songs, the possums and hedgehogs scurrying off into the bush, the sun on your back, and the ocean breeze belong only to the cyclist. Besides, renting a vehicle is super expensive, pollutes, and keeps you sitting on your ass!
What advice do you have for someone planning to undergo a long distance bicycle journey?
You can do it. Before my first tour, the farthest I had ridden was 30 miles. Get a good bike, good saddle, good tires, and good gear. They will last you for many travels to come. But you can still do it with crappy gear. Learn a little bit about bike maintenance and repair. Learn a little about the country and people you’re going to be visiting. Wear lots of sunscreen in NZ, and bring long-sleeves for sandfly country. Get off your bike to talk with people. Eat everything, go fishing, stay with a Maori family. Swim a lot, walk in the forest. Take lots of pictures, write a lot in a journal. Use the silence of the road as time to reflect.
Thanks man! It is appreciated very much!