16.4 mi / 8.4 mph / 853 ft. climbing
Home: Sharleen’s House
One final North American bike ride took us north from the center of Seattle to Rett’s friend Shar’s house in the suburb of Mountlake Terrace. Our ride through the steep urban hills of Seattle (much steeper than the long-slow 5%-grade mountain-climbs we’d become used to) was definitely a good way to revive our dormant cycling muscle-memories, particularly since we would be riding in similar conditions upon arriving at the Auckland airport.
Once there we could borrow “Chuck”, her SUV, to go pick up cardboard boxes to pack our bikes in for the flight. The “standard” way for bike tourers to do this is to go to a bike shop and obtain (generally for no cost) used boxes that their bikes-for-sale are shipped in from the manufacturer (this is what we did when we left Mexico, the one time we’ve flown with the bikes previously). We were running into a problem though: the multiple places we called weren’t building up any new bikes because it was the end of season in Seattle (understandably, when the October rains begin, no one says “hey, let’s go buy bikes!”), so consequently that meant they didn’t have any boxes to give out. Even when I called the nearby REI (Alderwood) I got the same sympathetic apology, but then she remembered to offer what I’d heard rumors of on Reddit: they have actual brand-new boxes for sale! They were $25 apiece, which had some of the Redditors grumping about something that they thought should be free, and sure, it feels like a lot to pay for an empty disposable box. But we used to pay $15 to Amtrak for their bike boxes used on each one-way train trip, and since no boxes were available elsewhere for any price, I was fine with the explicit financial transaction. Plus, the boxes now begin their short tours-of-duty as bike-protectors in pristine shape, better than we can expect from free used boxes. Though unlike in Mexico, where the boxes contained the leftover packing material from the bikes that they had originally protected, here we had to run across the street to Home Depot to buy some foam pipe insulation and a big bag of zip ties.
I then spent most of the afternoon and evening (and a bit of the next morning) cleaning, disassembling, and packing the bikes. I was definitely a lot faster than the first time I did this in Mexico, but the “cleaning” part was an added time-consuming task. The island nation of New Zealand has strict biosecurity rules (they succeeded in keeping COVID out for a long time!) so they don’t want any foreign soil brought into the country.
10.7 mi / 9.9 mph / 394 ft. climbing
Home: Alan’s AirBNB
We loaded the boxed bikes and the rest of our luggage into Shar’s son Evan’s pickup truck (her two-row SUV wouldn’t fit them inside) and she drove us to the airport, completing her hugely-helpful assist in this whole “flying with bikes” logistical challenge. Thankfully she also had a bathroom scale, so I already knew that our bike boxes were (barely, by 1-3 lbs.!) under the 50 lb. weight limit (because they definitely weighed them at the baggage counter!) We had to pay $100 apiece for them, but that was just the standard “2nd checked bag” fee for our Air New Zealand fare class, there wasn’t any extra “oversized” or “bicycle” fee.
Rett was claustrophobically shocked by the tight confines of our seats on our United first-leg, and while the legroom might have been marginally lower than any flight we’ve been on previously, I think we mostly had been spoiled by the expansive space on Amtrak trains, so the knee-bashing was definitely a rude awakening. At least we had good distractions out our left-side window; the Seattle-to-Los Angeles route (which we’d never taken before) provides spectacular views of the Cascade volcanoes (except for Mt. St. Helens, which we flew directly over the top of!)
On the descent into Los Angeles, we saw the Hollywood sign from a new perspective…twice! Because seconds from touching down, our pilot punched the engines, steeply climbed back up (forcing Rett’s narrow ear canals to go through another air-pressure cycle), and we had to do a go-around. There wasn’t exactly panic in the cabin, but people definitely noticed and there was confusion until several minutes later the pilot announced something about “losing visibility” of other air traffic. (Weeks later I downloaded the air-traffic communications, and my non-expert interpretation is that our pilot had mistakenly tuned to the localizer frequency that would guide him to the left runway, when he was supposed to have (and thought he had) tuned to the right runway. Only when the tower told him “uh, dude, looks like you’re heading for the left runway” did he abort in confusion. He then radioed back that something might be wrong with the airport’s localizer, but given that no other planes had a problem, it seems likely to have been pilot error. Wikipedia says that go-arounds happen in 0.1-0.3% of landings, and a short-haul commercial pilot might do 1 or 2 a year, so it sounds like we were, uh, “lucky” to have experienced one!)
The extra delay only prevented us from landing ahead-of-schedule, but then we had to (got to?) do an unbelievably-long walk (like 1.4 miles!) from our domestic gate to the international terminal at LAX, all while carrying a hard-to-carry rear pannier in addition to a front one on our backs. While it felt like a torturous slog (what percentage of air travelers would even be capable of this?!), it turns out it’s actually a just-completed feature of the airport (LAX’s website almost-proudly touts the “2-mile” distance, and the LA Times just published a piece about walking the whole thing) that unexpectedly allowed us to make the connection without needing to exit and re-enter the security zone. So, fair trade!
I spent the remaining time mostly trying to figure out the surprisingly-unpublished answer to the question of what meals we would get in coach on our trans-Pacific flight (to learn whether we should eat before boarding). I saw suggestions that we’d get “dinner” and “breakfast”, but with a 9pm departure, would they really serve “dinner” at 10-11pm? Yes, it turns out, for no cost (including alcoholic beverage!) and then we got breakfast too.
In between we got a bit of sleep on the 13-hour flight, partly due to the fact that we had sprung an extra $500 for a “SkyCouch”. This is an Air New Zealand feature that allows you to pay extra to buy out the third seat (in this case, for ~$200 less than our actual seats), and then the seats all have folding leg-rests that allow you to convert the row into a bed-like platform. If it was just one of us, the “bed” might have worked (we actually tried it for a bit, both laid down and wrapped around each other in the 3-foot by 5-foot space, but it was just too cramped), though just having the extra space had a lot of value. And eventually Rett was able to curl up and sleep across two seats while I slept upright on the end.
Upon landing in Auckland, it would be a long time until we could leave the airport. The human side (“are you allowed in this country”) was actually pretty quick, helped by being completely automated: scan passport, answer a question on a touch screen, look at the camera, and pass through the gates (with our 9-month visa all just electronically tied to our passport). But then there was the luggage side (“is your stuff allowed in this country”). We had no shortage of things to declare (and “declare everything and let them sort it out” seems like the safest policy) so got shunted to the long line, then then went through two separate branches: first for prescription drugs (no problem) and then for food items, camping equipment, and bicycles. The New Zealand immigration website is fairly helpful but far from precisely-clear about what it allowed. They let us keep our big bag of spices, though disallowed honey packets. They disinfected the soles of Rett’s shoes (but didn’t care about mine since I told them I’d just bought them in Seattle). The guy apparently recognized and trusted that we cared about the rules, so after some hemming and hawing, let our bicycles through without even opening the boxes. But he did take our tent to a separate area for inspection/cleaning, and we picked it up 10 minutes later after sending the rest of our luggage through a final set of scanners.
And then we were in New Zealand, with 99% of the travel-stress and doubt behind us! The final step was reassembling the bikes, which took an hour or so (during which we had our first New Zealand meal: McDonald’s!) A worker came and took away the boxes without us even asking.
Then it was time to hit the streets! It was a 10 mile ride from the airport to our AirBNB near central Auckland, and luckily much of the section leaving the airport had an off-street bike path. So we were able to get our legs under us a bit before having to truly ride on the “wrong side” of the road. And it went pretty well! We had the most trouble at the many roundabouts, but even that was just standard “which exit do we take?!” confusion more than side-of-the-road issues.
As we turned onto the street of our AirBNB, we got one of our first “friendly New Zealand” welcomes from a guy who approached asked what address we were looking for. Then our host Alan welcomed us into the lower level of their house, and we could completely exhale. Just about 24 hours after leaving Shar’s house, the most-complex travel day of our nomadacy was successfully completed, and now we have a whole new country in a new hemisphere to explore!