Mount Somers, NZ to Glentunnel, NZ

37.8 mi / 10.9 mph / 1349 ft. climbing
Home: Glentunnel Holiday Park

In this sleepy town of less than 200 people, the midnight peace and quiet was bludgeoned away by the thumping roar of a helicopter, circling closer until it had to be low and directly overhead, before shooting off again to wherever it came from. I groggily recalled that yesterday as we were exiting the high remote valley and returning to town, no fewer than six small single-engine planes had flown over us across a 10 minute span, all headed toward the mountain spine. I had jokingly said that maybe Australia had declared war on New Zealand and New Zealand was sending its “air force” to protect the west coast. Maybe my joke wasn’t? While impossible to believe, the eerie sightings (and hearings) of unexpected aircraft over the last 15 hours kept any other explanation veiled in the darkness.

Late-night conspiracy theories only deepened when a siren revved up in town, blaring its rise-and-fall cry for five minutes. Is this how New Zealand announces air raids?!? After it quieted (false alarm?), finally peace? No…soon, the distant thumping began again, increasing in volume until the helicopter was once more on top of our tent, before apparently landing in the field just on the other side of the fence. Responding to come to defense of the city? It sat with its engine idling and rotor spinning at least until the tired side of my brain wrestled the answer-seeking side back into slumber.

This still was not the last nighttime noise, but at least the final one was familiar, if not even more-unsettling than thoughts of military activation: it was the screams, shrieks, hisses, and barking coughs from the same animal (or three) we had heard just outside our tent when we camped here two nights ago too (and we’ve heard them at other New Zealand campsites as well). We finally confirmed that they were the noises of possums, which in New Zealand are more-ferocious-looking cat-crossed-with-a-monkey creatures than the smaller waddling (o)possums of North America. Thankfully their (angry, evil) bark must be worse than their bite, because of the hundreds that we have seen in New Zealand, literally 0 have been alive, and we only know what they look like from their corpses littering the highways. I don’t know what makes them so bold at night to come so close to our tent (they never seem to bother the food-containing bags on our bikes like raccoons do), but I’m not looking forward to the day when I’ll have to wrestle one.

The craziest (best?) thing is that when I asked Rett if she remembered anything strange from last night, the only thing she remembered was the possum! After a little prompting, she also remembered the siren, but had somehow completely slept through both flights of the helicopter! That made me start to wonder if it had all been a conspiracy-dream rattling solely inside my own head, but other campers confirmed that I wasn’t alone (though they also admitted to doubting themselves until I brought it up…is this how mass delusions start?!) The reasonable theory of people with more local knowledge than me was that there was likely a fire up in the hills somewhere, the siren was the call to volunteer firefighters, and the helicopter was delivering water/scouting/etc. Or, maybe that’s just what these locals wanted me to believe?!?

Given how common/important hedge-walls are in New Zealand, it’s surprising that this is the first time we’ve seen one carved with even close to this level of detail, and even more surprising that it’s in the small town of Mount Somers.
Some extra detail, though it’s weirdly difficult to decipher the message!

If there was a fire somewhere out there, hopefully the facts that the morning temperature was 39F, and the wind speed was zero, were helping to prevent any further spread. For us, the first fact wasn’t so great, but the second was (and at least the second helped limit the effects of the first during our morning routines). The beautiful green country that we began our ride through also revealed no sign of fire nearby.

Hay farming in front of green-sloped mountains.
The trees are also beginning to feel the autumn chill in the air.

At a brief rest stop in front of the rural Alford Forest Hall, a married couple of Sounds 2 Sounds riders (from Wellington) pulled in for a stop as well, and we had a nice chat. They were incredibly positive and cheerful (offering a WarmShowers stay with them if they were back home in Wellington by the time we got there), and didn’t seem at all like the insane people that they actually were. They asked me to get a photo of them in front of the moa sculptures (which I had already photographed for myself), and that’s when I realized that this was one of the S2S “photo checkpoints” that I’d seen on the map, for riders to prove that they have followed the prescribed route.

Or maybe you’re what makes the scary noises outside our tent at night? Ok, no, since moas were driven to extinction some 700 years ago.
Moas were huge (up to 500 lbs!) so they better not be what’s been nosing around our tent!

Fifteen miles in the winds suddenly began hitting us hard from our front left, just as we started climbing a 200 foot hill. We thankfully got some protection from tree-lines on the left side of the road, but it still took a while to get to the top. This was our introduction to the infamously-windy Rakaia Gorge.

The Rakaia River flowing toward us through its deep gorge.

The Rakaia River has carved a 500-foot deep gorge at this point, and we faced a steep descent to the river-level bridge(s) while the wind raced out of the mountains far more-vigorously than the water. We were forced to walk down the first 100 feet or so, because it was fairly terrifying to ride down such a steep slope with strong gusty crosswinds threatening to slam you sideways. But once we got a bit lower, things seemed to settle enough to let us ride the rest of the way down.

I wonder if this Rakaia River is coming from a glacier? How could you ever know?!
Downstream of the crossing, the riverbed broadens significantly and it braids out. I guess that’s why there is a crossing right here, and the next (and only other) crossing is 25 miles downstream, on a mile-long suicide-for-cyclists SH1 bridge.

The two small bridges at the bottom were completely stress-free in comparison, surrounded by a couple of camping areas (that had hosted a huge load of Sounds 2 Sounds riders last night, most of whom we saw this morning heading the other way). We took a break to fuel up before the steep and potentially-windy 500-foot climb back up, but our luck meant the winds that existed here had essentially become tailwinds. Additional luck made the traffic even lighter than it had been, so we were able to make it to the top without needing a single pause.

Nearly every bike touring journal I read about riding through the Rakaia Gorge talked about the wind bringing them tears, pushing them completely off the road, or just completely wrecking their bodies from the battle (and if not precisely here, somewhere else on the Canterbury Plain). I hadn’t shared any of these terror-inducing tales with Rett because I didn’t want her feeling days of stress in anticipation of such challenges. But that means (through no fault of her own!) that she was under the impression that we had faced tough winds here. When really it was the opposite: our gorge-crossing would likely be filed in the “ideal” box, in comparison to how bad it could have been. I mean, the Maori call it “The Wind That Devours Mankind”!

Ok, now Rett is probably convinced that winds are always insane here!

Once back on top, we had a tailwind that was even better than the forecast predicted, and made good time down the now-straight and gradually-descending road, so good that we decided to press on past our normal lunchtime to get to our destination.

At the small grocery store in the small town of Glentunnel (run by a friendly woman who keyed us into a ‘Lord of the Rings’ filming site that isn’t in any of the guidebooks!) we got hot pies, drinks and chips and ate up in the park across the street (on a bench in front of a tall redwood!) before returning for our actual grocery trip. Then we rode a couple blocks down to the mostly-empty holiday park, where the emptiness extended to anyone to check us in (we were 15 minutes past the 2pm stated check-in time). After a few attempts the Internet-doorbell finally responded, and via disembodied voice we were told to just set us wherever we wanted. Ok, good, but when can we get the specific $2 coins needed for the showers? (the cold morning had turned into an 80F hot day, so showers were a priority). “Um, I won’t be there for a few hours, but maybe you can get change at the store?” Great, thanks. So, a quick ride back up the hill for the third trip to the store, where thankfully the friendliness continued and I got change and a report of how good the showers are!

At least being able to pick our own site (usually we’re assigned one) let me find a nice wind-sheltered spot close to the kitchen and bathrooms and far from anyone else, and the emptiness extended to us having those facilities almost entirely to ourselves. Like, the refrigerator in the kitchen didn’t have a single other food item in it besides ours!

Sunset above our Glentunnel campsite.
It’s been weeks since we’ve had any sort of concern about sandflies biting us, which means bugs have almost no effect on us in always-outdoors, screens-don’t-exist New Zealand. But that doesn’t mean bugs don’t exist! Here is a whole swarm of them attracted to a light outside the toilet blocks.
More bug-flight-track abstract-art. This isn’t camera-tricks either; these photos are essentially what it looked like to the naked eye too, with the bugs leaving visible tracks across the black, just like when you wave a sparkler in the air (or in this case, 200 sparklers simultaneously!)


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