Monthly Archives: March 2015

Curling in Naseby

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The road to the famous Olympic curling center in Naseby.

Today I was able to check another item off my bucket list. Ever since watching the exciting, nail-biting, action-packed winter game of Olympic curling squeezed in on the television for five minutes during the day-time lulls between the figure skating freestyle championships or the giant slalom finals, I’ve said to myself, “Someday I must try curling because it just looks so darn fun.”

Well, that someday was today. Thanks to the advertising on the Otago Rail trail brochures, I learned that Naseby, New Zealand, only a 15 km side trip off the trail, is home to the Maniototo Curling Club which is the home of the New Zealand Olympic Curling team. After reading this I said to Eric, “We must go. It’s my birthday week and this is chance in a lifetime.”

After cycling about 8 km off our planned route and still riding on a bumpy gravel road, I was thinking to myself. “These Olympic curling athletes need to do some more fundraising and get the road to their rink paved.” (Actually, that wasn’t exactly what I was thinking. I was really thinking, I must be on the wrong road. What Olympic curling athlete would settle for this kind of drive every day to practice?!”

We did eventually connect to a paved road and arrived in Naseby. Naseby is sheep station out in the middle of nowhere. We cycled into the metropolis of Naseby never seeing another car of person except for an orange Morris Minor 1000 parked alone on the side of the main street. The cafe was closed. The library was empty. The park’s cricket field lacked players. The place was deserted.

After checking into our camp site we cycled back through the deserted town to the Maniototo Curling Club. From the parking lot we could tell that four of the five cars in front we tourist rentals.

I also noticed a Trip Advisor sticker on the window so I knew that some tourists had thought it was fun, too We checked into the office and were instructed to head upstairs and watch a training video before we were let loose on the ice.

The video was great. It was hosted by a handsome Ozzie wearing a fluffy, white down coat and claiming to be the Olympic team trainer. His warm-looking coat reminded me that I might get cold out on the ice so I pulled on my down jacket and put my rain coat on top just to be sure I , too, would be warm. Cute Olympic trainer guy then narrated while some actors and actresses (usually young kids or senior citizens because they are the only people who have time for this action-packed game) showed us how to push the stone down the sheet hard enough to cross the hog thus making the stone eligible for a point.

After the video I felt ready for the ice.

Practicing the technique I watched on the video..
Practicing the technique I watched on the video..

The receptionist/curling trainer instructed us to put on some grippers (rubber over soles so we wouldn’t slip on the ice) and walked us to the sheet. She showed us how to hold the stone, where to aim, how to use our legs for momentum, and how to release the stone with just a bit of twist to make the stone turn slowly and land perfectly in the ring at the other end of the sheet.

Our training was briefly interrupted when a female senior citizen two sheets over fell flat on her back and hip looking like she might need an ambulance. (She did manage to turn herself over, crawl to the edge of the sheet and push herself up to a stand…thank goodness!)

After a few practice stone pushes down the sheet, the trainer/receptionist left Eric and me to practice and play our own game.

Eric practicing his curling technique.
Eric practicing his curling technique.

We had a lot more fun than I would have anticipated and agreed that we would curl again when the opportunity presents itself.

A "must visit" place on the Otaga Rail Trail.
A “must visit” place on the Otaga Rail Trail.

More importantly, I can now watch Olympic curling and understand the thrill of knocking the opponent out of scoring range and sweeping a stone to successful winning position.

Hitch-Hikers and Possum Hunters

 

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Our driver and native New Zealand possum hunter, Chris

Today we decided to hitch-hike to Nugget Point because it was raining, the 7 km long dead-end road was muddy and hilly and the idea of seeing a lighthouse (not unique) and the VERY slight possibility of seeing penguins (not the season) did not seem worth the effort on bikes. Plus we’d been assured that hitch-hiking in NZ is perfectly safe.

After locking our bikes to the road sign for the only place to go on this road, Nugget Point, we stuck out our thumbs.

The first vehicle was a large camper van. The grey-haired driver and his spouse avoided making eye contact and sped by.

Next came another retired couple in a camper van who mouthed “no room” as they sped by. The joke was on them, though, because they’d left the curtains open and we could see the pristine counter tops, beds and chairs that would have easily given us a lift to the light house.

I turned to Eric and said, “Take off your hat. Show them your grey hair and I’ll do the same. Then the cars will feel safe to pick us up.”

The next truck to drive by was the postman and I’m pretty sure he’s not allowed to pick up strays so we smiled, waved, and kept our thumbs tucked in our gloves for warmth.

By now the sun was peeking through and the rain had stopped. It seemed like we’d been waiting for hours – It was probably only 10 minutes – but I was getting antsy.

(I don’t have enough patience to be a hitch-hiker I thought.)

“Let’s go ahead and ride our bikes “ I said to Eric.

Just as we were giving up on our thumbs, and older model, low-riding, steamed up window, well-used Subaru wagon packed to the roof with back packs, canvas totes of food, electronics, tents, sleeping bags and three millennials (two guys sporting shaggy backpacker beards and one girl with wavy brown hair and a kind smile) pulled up beside us.

Nugget Point light house. The end of the road and our hitch-hiking destination.
Nugget Point light house. The end of the road and our hitch-hiking destination.

“Where are you going?” the girl asked rolling down the window.
“Nugget Point, “ we replied.

(We were standing under the sign for Nugget Point, the only destination on this road but I know when to keep my mouth shut and not point out the obvious.)

“You can ride with us if you don’t mind that it will be really crowded.”

“We don’t mind,” as we hopped in and pulled our knees up to our chins.

After the usual NZ traveler pleasantries were exchanged “Where are you from? How long have you been here? How long will you stay?” the fun began.

“What do you do?” I asked the driver Chris and his partner Gracie.

“We’re possum hunters,” they replied simultaneously.

This was too good to be true. I’ve never met possum hunters before. In fact, I didn’t know there was any such thing as a possum hunter.

While cycling NZ we have learned that possums are a real nuisance. We’ve seen lots of “road kill” possums splattered on the highways. We’ve actually covered our wheels in possum guts when traffic prohibited us from swerving to avoid the carcasses. We’ve seen possum/merino wool gloves for sale at the tourist traps. And, we’ve heard what we though was the urban myth that NZ pays money for dead possums. But, until today, never met real, live possum hunters.

“So, how do you kill possums? Traps… snares… guns? ” Eric asked.

“Traps and guns,” replied Gracie in the sweetest, most innocent voice of twenty-something youth.

“What kind of gun? Eric asks.

“Oh, a 22,” Gracie replied.” Well, Chris can shoot. I’m not that good. He can shoot a possum 50 to 100 meters away.”

(I’m imagining the illusive possum completing his 100 yard dash and then being shot at the finish)

“How many possums have the two of you killed this season?” I asked.

“About 1000, “ Gracie says in the same matter-of-fact voice.

“1000!” I exclaim imagining being burring in piles of dead vermin needing to be skinned or de-furred.

“Well, we’ve had a good season. During one 8-day hunting trip we killed 500. (That’s like 250 possum per person or 40 per night or 5 per hour or 1 every 12 minutes…Wow) Chris knows where the good places are, “ she continued in the same dead pan monotone.

(I’m thinking about the “Beverly Hillbillies” but changing it to a reality TV show. “Real Live Possum Hunters in Oz”.)

The conversation gets even better. Every question I ask has an answer better than I could imagine.

Gracie and me after the ride to Nugget Point and the possum conversation.
Gracie and me after the ride to Nugget Point and the possum conversation.

Chris and Gracie have a friend fly them by helicopter or plane to the good possum stashes. They start their hunting about 8 pm and chase possum up and down hills, scrambling over rocky cliffs and up and down gullies until about 4 am. After each kill they skin the possums or pluck out the fur depending upon the quality, leaving the entrails for the scavengers.(Gracie described in detailed how important it is to skin the possum within 15 minute while it’s still warm). They don’t usually eat the possum unless they run out of food but they can eat possum even though it’s a little gamey tasting. They hunt possum during the NZ summers. Then they go to Alaska and fish for salmon during the Alaskan summers.

No penguins but lots of baby seals playing in the tidal pools and waiting for mom to bring home lunch.
No penguins but lots of baby seals playing in the tidal pools and waiting for mom to bring home lunch.

Even though the light house was pretty but I didn’t see any penguins, today’s hitch-hiking experience, being picked up by real live possum hunters, has made me curious to stick out my thumb again real soon.

Budget Dining for Calories and Cold in NZ

One of our four food groups.
One of our four food groups.

With all the cycling we’re doing, food is always on our minds. We’re thinking about food, eating food, or planning for the next meal. And, here on the South Island of New Zealand, sometimes it’s many cold, windy kilometers between provisions so “being prepared” with enough fuel to keep us going takes on new meaning. Food is expensive so we’ve come up with the most calorie and fat for the NZ dollar to keep us energized. Here are our four staples:

Meat Pies – These warm, butter and gravy laden delicacies are delicious for breakfast, lunch, dinner or anytime in between. They can be found at Dairies, Pubs, Taverns, quickie marts, and grocery stores. There are even some speciality shops that sell only pies which are real finds. So, even if we’ve had a pie for breakfast and lunch, if we come to a town like Te Anau, that has a “speciality” pie shop, we go ahead and have another.

Pints of Beer – After a long, hot ride, there is nothing better than a cold pint. Not only do we replenish our fluids, we give ourselves some needed carbohydrates to fuel the next ride, or (if we have a pint at lunchtime) the afternoon’s kilometers. We used to stop for coffee, but a pint is about the same price and we get more carbohydrates for our dollar, so “why not?”

 Chips – I’ve never been a big fan of French fries (chips) but with the delicious new crop potatoes, fried in good oil, and topped with lots of salt, the chips replenish the salt we sweated during the day plus they give us some starch, fat and carbohydrates to keep us pedaling.

Ice Cream Cones – The yummy, high-in-butter-fat, NZ ice cream cones produced from cows eating all the luscious, green grass from the rolling hills that zap our energy from pedaling up and down all day are just the ticket for quick bursts of energy and Vitamin D for strong bones and teeth to complete our NZ cycling diet.

Just so you don’t worry about our mental health and sanity from lack of B vitamins, occasionally, if the small store near our tent site has any green vegetables like broccoli or Brussels sprouts, I’ll steam up a few for good measure.

As you can see, we are getting protein, carbohydrates, salt, Vitamin D and some vitamin B in tasty and inexpensive manners. We’re saving money, fueling up, and building a layer of fat to keep warm.

Building Confidence to Cycle Back Country

Paul, Elizabeth and I on the coal-fired steamer in Queenstown.
Paul, Elizabeth and I on the coal-fired steamer in Queenstown.

New Zealand is a mountain biker’s mecca. Notice I said “mountain bike” not touring bike. As a matter of fact, in spite of the fact that there are lots of cycle tourists here, the reality, as we’ve recently learned, is that there are many more beautiful mountain bike cycle tracks than actual cycle touring lanes or shoulders on the roads. It took the meeting of two cycling friends, Paull and Elizabeth, to give us the extra boost that we needed.

Before meeting them I had been afraid of:

1. breaking down and having to walk hundreds of hilly kilometers for help.
2. falling off my loaded bicycle in the slippery gravel or hitting a tree root or rock and hurting myself.

A friendly text message from Paul, a guy I’d never met but had offered us a place to stay in Queenstown and who was friends with Liz, a cycle tourist who we’d met way back in Malaysia, suggested we take the beautiful Glendhu Bay cycle track while we were in Wanaka. Since we were camping and had a place to leave our panniers, this track seemed like a good first mountain biking attempt. Not only was the track beautiful, it was also lots of fun. We didn’t break down. We didn’t get hurt.

Steamship docked at Walter Hill Station where we enjoyed a gourmet lunch.
Steamship docked at Walter Hill Station where we enjoyed a gourmet lunch.

Then, several days later we spent several amazing days with Paul and Elizabeth in Queenstown. Paul, a dead ringer for Liam Nieson, a great conversationalist, and an exceptional host kept us in stitches with his stories of work and kept us in comfort by moving to the attic so we could rest us in a real bed for the first time in several weeks. He also organized the iconic Queenstown ferry ride/ gourmet lunch, a game of bowls, a drive to Glenorchy with the best blue cod fish and chips, and a game of billiards. In other words, he gave us a taste of “normal” after weeks on the road.

Eric playing bowls.
Eric playing bowls.

Liz, the most interesting, awe-inspiring, cycle tourist/dart and billiards champ/should-be novelist, that I’ve ever met was our other host. Her relaxed attitude about situations that she has experienced and would have brought out the worst in me such as missing her first flight in London, cycling on the fly-over, one-lane road car freeway in Bangkok, or riding in the 10% grade, 1.5 km long, Homer Tunnel near Milford sound, made me think that 150 km of dirt and gravel couldn’t be that bad.

View of Lake Wakatipu heading towards Glenorchy.
View of Lake Wakatipu heading towards Glenorchy.

The wonderful days the four of us spent together gave us knowledge and experience of the area. The days also boosted our energy not realizing how starved we were for some relaxation after over five months on the road.

 

The  dirt track cycle trip went as follows:

View of Lake Wakatipu from the dirt track after Walter Station
View of Lake Wakatipu from the dirt track after Walter Station

We again took the coal-fired steamer ferry from Queenstown to Walter Peak Station followed by a 58 kilometer ride on a dirt/gravel road along the coast of Lake Wakatipu and inland uphill through some beautiful sheep stations continually climbing, steep at times, until we were above tree line was not too bad.

View from the top of the road looking at the road we'd just climbed.
View from the top of the road looking at the road we’d just climbed.

We enjoyed the descent to Malvora Lakes National Park where the primitive camping (no kitchen/no showers/no heat) along South Lake Malvora was beautiful and peaceful.

Campsite at South Malvora Lake
Campsite at South Malvora Lake

The following morning we woke to almost freezing temperatures, had a quick breakfast of cold leftovers of spaghetti-rice and a few crumbs from the almost empty bag of Musli followed by a strong cup of coffee. We peddled in the cold and wind for another 35 kilometers along gravel roads, through herds of sheep and downhill towards highway 94.

Another 20 kilometers or so of freezing cold, windy roads and beautiful scenery brought us to Lake Te Anau where we sprang for a dormitory room (with heat) in a large campground.
Exhausted but happy that we took the chance to go “off-road” and experience the best of New Zealand cycling was made possible because of the inspiration of two fellow cyclists. Thank you, Paul and Elizabeth.

Mountain Biking to Keep Your Brain Fit

 

Trails like the ride from Wanaka to Glendhu Bay, New Zealand provide fun and mental stimulation.
Trails like the ride from Wanaka to Glendhu Bay, New Zealand provide fun and mental stimulation.

Several days ago I read an article in the Wall Street Journal about brain plasticity. It was an interesting article about new brain research. My take-away from the article is that gradual memory loss generally associated with aging can be reduced or delayed. Daily exercise of 25 minutes or more and engaging in problem solving tasks can help the brain’s memory function.

I’ve been thinking about this article a lot while riding my bicycle on long stretches of rural highway in New Zealand. Part of doing this cycling tour is to keep fit while we are still physically capable. And, according the article, we more than meet the daily exercise goals.

Regarding the second part of the brain plasticity article’s suggestion of engaging in problem solving skills, we met this goal on a daily basis in SE Asia. Every day presented some type of new problem to solve.

But here in New Zealand where the land seems so familiar, and English is spoken everywhere, my brain has been mothballed. After cycling, setting up a tent, cooking dinner, and planning the next day’s routes, I’ve been writing and reading less. My brain has been turning to mush.

That is, until today. Today’s mountain bike ride met both the daily physical exertion recommendation and daily mental problem solving activity to keep my brain sharp and functioning like a bug-free computer.

Here’s why I like mountain bike riding:

The trails are curvy and hilly.
There is no traffic.
There are lots of obstacles to navigate around – rocks, sand, tree stumps, other riders
There are many decisions to make – when to shift, when to unclip, when to jump off and walk
The scenery is beautiful.
I’m not a scientist, but I think it would be interesting to do a study with the following hypothesis:

Riding a Mountain Bike on Single Track Trails for 60 Minutes Three Times Per Week Reduces the Onset of Dementia By Five Years.

Even if mountain biking doesn’t improve brain fitness, it does improve mental health and bring lots of joy and happiness.