Cycles, cathedrals and asking the unthinkable

11th March 2012
“Do you want to have the arse conversation now? We’ve already done it” nothing if not forthright these Antipodeans. The reason for this rather blunt enquiry? We’d just pulled into one of the stops along the Otago Central Rail Trail, a 150 km cycle trail along the disused rail tracks through the once prosperous gold mining area of central Otago. And yes we did have the conversation, and yes my response was sadly ‘it’s killing me’, despite my newly acquired padded shorts. Mike had assured me I’d ‘love it’ but I was already having doubts as this was only day 1 of a five day trip. However, we cycled on with sailing friends Doug and Sandra from Freycinet ll. One of the lovely things about the trail is that you do get to know the others cycling it as you all stop at the same pubs, cafes and accommodation and the conversations don’t all centre round the state of one’s nether regions!

We were struck by the number of little cafes etc along the route. Talking to the owners it seems the creation of the rail trail has been a real life saver for the area which had seemed doomed to a steady decline as first the gold dried up and then the rail was closed down and the tracks ripped up. With the rail trail came visitors – some 20,000 a year and income – 7.2 million dollars in 2007. No wonder the prime minister John Key is backing the creation of more rail trails with a view to being able to cycle from Cape Reinga to Bluff (equivalent of Land’s End to John O’Groats), we also met several canny Aucklanders who having cycled the trail themselves in previous years, had seen the potential and moved down here to open or buy trail related businesses. Seems they work their socks off during the season September to May then close and have three months off. Of course there were the inevitable ‘historic’ sites and towns to cycle through, the one that caught our imagination the most being the station at Wedderburn, for the real rail enthusiasts this is an ‘unmodified Vogel Class 5’ so there!

Seriously we do struggle with buildings being labelled as historic that are only 50 or 60 years older than our very ordinary and common home in Ealing. Suppose it’s the fact that the Maori built in wood, now long gone that there are no very old buildings left, just their very impressive earthworks or pa built with only the most basic of tools.
Talking of Ealing we have discovered New Zealand’s own Ealing. It’s en route from Christchurch to Aoraki Mount Cook. We had started this trip south in Christchurch where England had been due to play their RWC pool games before the earthquakes. We knew the centre had been devastated but the extent was truly shocking with 1264 buildings – mainly commercial – listed for demolition in central Christchurch. To say the heart of the city has been ripped out is no exaggeration. The cathedral, or what remains of it stands as a powerful emblem of the present situation facing the city. The decision that it is not viable to save it and that it will be pulled down has only just been made. It is of course one that splits opinion from those that feel it should be saved and rebuilt as was to those who say although the loss is sad, use it as an opportunity to build for the 21st century, after all the church is the people and not the brick, despite the potent memories those bricks hold for some. The important thing is that in the midst of so much prevarication a decision has been made, after consultation and much thought led by the bishop of Christchurch, a woman as it happens and a brilliant example of compassionate leadership. So now there is a way forward for this building at least.
Of course the issues for Christchurch don’t end with the cathedral. We saw for ourselves toll on infrastructure and continuing disruption in the suburbs along the Avon river, where homes still have portaloos outside them one year on.

It gave a real sense of the extent of the damage beyond the centre and why the cost for repair and rebuilding has reached an estimated 30 billion dollars, and is still climbing. A tremendous bill for a country as small as New Zealand, put another way, we’ve read one suggestion of a Canterbury earthquake levy, to tax everyone 3% on top of income tax until the bills are paid, thought to be for the next twelve years or so. This started us asking the unconscionable, can, indeed should, the billions required to recreate NZ’s second city be spent doing that? When raised in conversation over dinner during the rail trail with people not from Christchurch, they were quite clear; they wouldn’t countenance not rebuilding, for them it was unthinkable, but not sure how long that view will prevail when the bills bite. There is an economic view that the only truly international sized city in NZ is Auckland and that maybe it should be recognised that in the 21st century Christchurch’s role can only be that of a tourist destination and a hub for the agriculture of the Canterbury Plains, just another part of rural arcadia in South Island. Already many businesses have moved out ‘temporarily’ as their offices were in the devastated CBD, the closed off red zone and you have to wonder how many will return.

We were staying in a motel and the owner’s daughter, who works in banking, was offered a promotion and pay rise to move to Christchurch but turned it down. ‘Why would I want to move back here when everywhere I’d go to enjoy myself – in the city centre - is gone? It took me an hour queuing to get into an old people’s pub’ - probably the one we thought rather fun and full of life. And that’s going to be the other problem, attracting the young people back. There’s a realisation here that successful industrial growth nowadays depends on creating cities with specialised labour markets, the clustering of such things as biotech, finance and IT skills, encouraging that invaluable x factor, the cross fertilisation of ideas. But whilst Auckland tilts at becoming such a super city, in Christchurch the aftershocks continue. New Zealand’s second largest city will spend much of the next year demolishing its CBD, compounding harsh economic realities and testing further the resilience of residents who’ve stayed.
From Christchurch we headed for the mountains via Lake Tekapo. The lake is the most ridiculous shade of blue, one we hadn’t seen since the Tuamotus, only this time the colour is due to the minerals dissolved in the waters from the glaciers of the Southern Alps. Overlooking the lake is the Mount John Observatory where we enjoyed the most fabulous 3 hours one cold and clear night being inducted into the stars of the southern hemisphere by astronomers from the university who work there. The tour included taking long exposure photos or stars with tripods designed to compensate for the earth’s rotation and using their telescopes to get a closer look at the celestial bodies, this included using the big 24 inch one through which we saw a nebula at the heart of the Milky Way, a very humbling experience. At the other end of the spectrum overlooking the lake, this time at shore level is the tiny Church of the Good Shepherd, supposedly the ‘most photographed church in the southern hemisphere’ – who the heck is counting? Anyway it is a tourist ‘must do’ that seemed to constantly seethe with coach loads of tourists, much to Mike’s chagrin as he tried to get his shot at 0200!

Still it is a great location for a church, the view so fabulous they have dispensed with the need for stained glass, leaving the main window behind the alter clear, after all what could better the view of the lake and mountains behind?
The highest peak in the Southern Alps is Aoraki (Mt Cook). Even in summer it is snow clad, as are the surrounding peaks. From the slopes of this mountain and its neighbours flow the glaciers including the Tasman Glacier, the longest in New Zealand, and Hooker and Mueller – to name but a few. The Tasman Glacier ends in the ever growing Tasman Lake and Mike persuaded me we should go kayaking on the lake. Despite my reluctance I have to say it was a wonderful experience, gliding through the milky coloured water, milky from all the rock ground into a fine powder, known as glacial flour that discolours all glacial melt water. We got up close and personal with several icebergs and watched one roll over. It was only small but still very impressive, certainly wouldn’t want to be anywhere close to a big one that rolled.

This wonderful experience is only possible due to climate change and glacial melt; 25 years ago there wasn’t a lake, just solid glacial ice. Although it might sound cheesy we all collected ice and when we got to shore had a whiskey with thousand year old ice. But it wasn’t all gliding around in kayaks and we did also walk up to the shores of the Hooker Lake, another relatively new lake courtesy of glacial melt with its glacier.

And that brings us to where we started - Clyde and the rail trail that goes through to Middlemarch. Legs and ‘other bits’ have just about survived, but do now have pair of padded shorts going cheap as you won’t see me doing this again. For Mike there was the reminder of a moment on one London to Brighton bike ride, when 40 miles outside London he was sitting in a field, relaxing. A complete stranger detoured across the field to announce to him ‘My arse is killing me’, so not just the Aussies and Kiwis who call a spade a spade!

See more of our photos of New Zealand

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Photo comment By Anita: My arse is killling me in sympathy - good on ya gal! Love the glacial lake...
Photo comment By Del and Gary: I have given my bike a wide berth since we've been home....can really relate to the rear ing your story
Photo comment By Dick: To avoid a sore arse you need to get out of the saddle a bit more, up a few hills for example, it was probably too flat!
Photo comment By Sarah George: Thoroughly enjoyed reading about your adventures.... don't throw the padded shorts away, I am thinking a saddle designed more like a camode might be the answer..... either that or a small armchair.....

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