23.0 mi / 10.7 mph / 591 ft. climbing
Home: Sue and Dennis’s WarmShowers House
3:45am, the alarm goes off and we are up and moving. 4:45am, the motorized sliding door in the lobby of the apartment block opens on its strange delay, and we roll our loaded bikes out into pre-dawn Wellington. A worker inside the softly-glowing corner coffee shop, prepping for the morning, reminds us that we have no grounds to feel sorry for ourselves; we’re awake by choice, to make the crossing to New Zealand’s South Island today.
It can be a little bit tricky getting to the Interislander ferry terminal; for pedestrians they recommend taking a shuttle from the train station, and the direct route for cars is not great for bikes. But then I remembered there would be no traffic at 5am, so we were delighted to be able take that direct route, that didn’t have a single turn, sailing through the mostly-green lights blazing against the black. We beat the “required” 5:15am check-in for our 6:15am departure, and then stood outside the terminal to wait with 4 or 5 other bikes. We followed after all the cars loaded on, walking our bikes along the path where railroad tracks ran down the middle, directly onto the boat! A worker told us where to arrange our bikes (standing them on their kickstands was fine), and then he roped them in.
There were enough people on the boat that finding decent seats was a bit of a challenge, but we managed to grab a table with a couple chairs. The three other sailings today were completely sold-out (that’s why we were on this early boat), so I guess it would be even tougher on those.
Everyone must have been good and heeded the check-in time, because the big boat started moving (so calmly I barely noticed) nearly 15 minutes early. We both got big-ass “full cooked breakfasts”, and by the time I finished mine we had gotten far enough out of Wellington’s harbor that my stomach could now feel the rolling. But it was an unusually-smooth crossing. Ferocious winds frequently tear through the gap between the islands, so we were really lucky that the heavy wind that had been blowing ceaselessly day and night for four straight days calmed itself just in time.
It takes quite a bit of time for the boat to simply circle its way out of Wellington’s large harbor, and then the journey across the Cook Strait to the South Island is surprisingly…northwest. And it doesn’t take long for the hills of the South Island to appear, but then the third phase of the trip is navigating the long, narrow Queen Charlotte Sound, where the hills of the many twisty peninsulas and islands rise quickly on either side of the boat.
Once we docked at Picton (on whose bay Rett’s favorite Trader Joe’s wine is named!), us cyclists were the let off ahead of the vehicles. Unlike most ferry terminals, we head down a separate pathway from the cars, so we didn’t need to just immediately pull over and wait for them to all clear out first (which is what we normally do to avoid having to share a narrow road with an endless line of impatient drivers).
Rett was immediately in-love with the big, pine-forested hills of the South Island, though to me it felt unexpectedly like Montana. Which is hardly an insult, since Montana is beautiful! But we hadn’t seen this level of timber-farming (with associated clear-cut hillsides) anywhere we’d been on the North Island.
We had considered taking a hilly gravel coast road south out of Picton, but when the bike-tourer reports I found all said with rare unanimity that they regretted it, that definitely took it off the table for us. So that left the dreaded SH1, but it wasn’t a bad section of it. Shoulders except for a short bridge or two, few big trucks, and no continuous streams of traffic. We had to climb a few hundred feet in the beginning, but then it was mostly-downhill with tailwinds, making for a pleasant welcome from the South Island. When we hit the broad Wairau River, a relatively-new, well-signed, easily-accessed bike bridge had been cantilevered off of the aging, shoulderless highway bridge. Often a fairly-short bottleneck like what used to exist here can take a whole 50-mile route off the table, so it was great to see such a bottleneck being addressed with a high-impact solution. Of course then we saw a road cyclist go past on the main stem right next to us for some reason; often we’ll also avoid bike-specific infrastructure if it’s a challenge to access, or if it significantly slows us down, but this did neither of those things. After the bridge, when he then stuck right on the white line even though there was 6 feet of shoulder to his left, it was clear that he enjoys making some sort of political statement about cyclist rights.
A short bit later we got onto a bike path that did have annoying shit in it (big metal bars perpendicular to the trail at intersections, that forced us to dismount and walk our bikes around them), but even that was still worth it for us. By this point the timber farms had given way to the Sauvignon Blanc vineyards for which this Marlborough region of New Zealand is known worldwide (and is Rett’s favorite source of wine, and close to mine too). It also ended up being a much better place than the main road to repair Rett’s suddenly-flat rear tire, though I was frustrated and mystified that I was unable to find the leak in the tube (and thus the cause).
The holiday park in Blenheim had really poor reviews (even from cyclists, which is a good way to check if the bad reviews just come from people with too-high expectations), and when we passed over it on an old highway bridge now left in place as part of the bike path (yay!) and saw the rough sites running under the multiple bridges, that confirmed that my idea to try a WarmShowers stay tonight had been the right call.
When we reached the end of the long driveway to our hosts’ “back section” house (the term I finally learned for the houses-behind-houses that seem quite common across New Zealand cities), we were delighted by their absolutely-gorgeous yard, as we often are when a WarmShowers host lets us come to their beloved home. Their front door was wide open, but a call inside and two rings on the doorbell failed to summon anyone. I noticed that there were no cars in the drive, so I figured they might have just popped out for a second. No problem, relaxing in this beautiful outdoor space seems like a great idea anyway! But before we could even set up, ah, here they are in the car pulling in. “Hello, are you Sue?” I ask the woman who emerges. No, she’s a friend of theirs, and as soon we explain why two people who don’t know what Sue and Dennis look like (but know their names) are lurking on their porch, she says “oh, you should know, they’re both vision-impaired; Dennis is totally blind, and Sue has quite low vision” (“5%”, Sue would tell us later).
I’m glad that their friend led with that bit of info, because it now makes me feel like less-of-an-ass for leading with the same info here. We quickly learned that there is so much to define Sue and Dennis beyond their lack-of-vision that it feels gauche to even mention it, much less lead with it. But I suppose the reality is that it’s a rare enough condition that it will always stand out ahead of more-important but more-common qualities.
And it especially stood out to Rett and I, who have never really spent any time with blind or nearly-blind people. And what better way to remove that hole in our human experience than to spend time with them in their home, living normal life, versus listening to a presenter at some school function, or watching a documentary on TV. The more we experience WarmShowers, the more it feels like the cycling part of it is just a hook to bring people together who otherwise would have no reason to interact. And what an incredible gift that is, beyond the gift of them providing us with food and shelter and sharing their home with us!
They were insightful, inquisitive, thoughtful, and had good cycling information (they ride tandems!) Sue put together a wonderful dinner with more courses than we normally eat in a whole day. They’ve lived on both the North and South Islands, and we were glad to have them as our welcome to the South.
And while I now understood why they were home despite there being no cars in the driveway (and their doorbell had just been turned off, they hear just fine!), I couldn’t get their beautiful yard out of my mind. The colorful flowers, the ornamental trees, the hidden nooks and cute knickknacks; what is the point if you can barely see any of them? Then with their patient help I realized, as someone who exclaimed “ooh, who turned on the air-conditioning?!” on today’s ride (as we always do every time we ride past a spot where the air suddenly cools our skin), there are ways to witness beauty without seeing it. Their flowers aren’t just colorful, they create soothing scents. The trees make spots of that cooling “air-conditioning” on your skin when you step from the sun into their shade. All those protected spaces join the flora in attracting birds whose song fills the air. And the produce from their backyard garden surely tastes better than the same vegetables from the grocery store.
The fact that I immediately jumped to “what’s the point of this stuff if you can’t see it”, even though that stuff has sensory impacts beyond the visual, makes me wonder if my vision-first attitude prevents my other senses from getting the full value out of a thing. I labeled the tourist train above a sightseeing train, but Dennis had an enlightening explanation for the value he gets (or, sometimes doesn’t get) from the frequent travel that they do.
We always say that when traveling by bicycle, you experience so much more than you do when zipping along the same road in a car. And a lot of that extra experience is the smells that the open air brings to you, those moments of natural air-conditioning, the sounds you can hear without the noise of an engine, tires, and wind. So maybe I’m already more-aware than some of the value of non-visual senses, but after spending the afternoon and evening with Sue and Dennis, I learned I could probably still go a good distance further before reaching full sensory equality.
And I also learned that Kiwis definitely know more about US politics than is healthy, I learned what “Christmas Cake” tastes like (pretty good, but not as good as a fruit-mince tarts), and I learned that New Zealand’s economic setup makes it at least slightly-more possible (vs. other non-US countries) to engineer an early-retirement. Just because I lead the story with their vision-impairments, that doesn’t mean I need to end with them! (oh, shit, I just wrecked it again now, didn’t I?)