Sunday, January 26, 2014

Have I found the cycling paradise?

What can I say about Australia? "Wow” comes into mind. “Unreal”, “Heaven”….something along those lines.

Before I start writing an entire dissertation about my first impression about Brisbane, I will keep it in bullet points:

  • Holy cow! Everywhere mango trees (my favorite fruit) Delicious, juicy and for free! 
  • Weather! It is always T-Shirt or less weather. Rain? Well, let it rain, it is still so warm that it doesn’t matter if it is pouring.
  • Cycling scene – Overwhelming! If I would do every group ride in town, it might take me a year or two to do all of them. At 5:30am when I ride 20 minutes to a group ride meet up point, I see 10 other cycling groups on their rides, no kidding!
  • Every group ride ends in a cafĂ©. And oh my god, they make amazing strong coffee!!!
  • The terrain is great here in Brisbane. Mostly undulating terrain... those short little 10-20 seconds pitches everywhere make every ride more or less to an interval training.
  • Scenery – love it. Very varied. You got the ocean with some beautiful beaches in riding distance, the river through the city, the subtropical vegetation and colorful fauna everywhere. In fact, this morning at breakfast, rainbow colored parrots argued over the nectar of a pink tree flower. Seeing kangaroos on a ride is not unusual either. 
  • Atmosphere – relaaaaaxed. The best indicator how relaxed a region is the time in the coffee shop after a group ride. I might have spent a solid 1.5-2 hours there. Of course, with a coffee shop and bakery on every corner combined with the amazing weather makes it hard to be stressed out.
Yep, I think I will stick around here for a while. J 

Monday, January 20, 2014

An epic hike - How to get dropped right out of the parking lot

Last weekend I joined a few Kiwis for a tramping trip in the Fjordland – at least that was the plan.

Reality was far away from it.

A month ago, I was invited for a 50km+ hiking trip by Andrew – my current roommate. Sounded epic, adventurous and tough. Oh I was totally game!

Well, the closer the time came to prepare for this hiking trip, the more I thought about its meaning. 50k on my feet, walking, not turning pedals, but walking.
When exactly did I do that the last time? No memory!

With the approach of action time, I learned the small but significant details: We would start the track at around 10pm and run to a hut up the mountains, “but don’t worry, Monika, we are walking the uphills and run the flats and downhills”. The run would take 2-3 hours if we are fast. Then sleep until sunrise (6am) and run/hike to the end of the trail and hike back.

After some intense discussion with my ligaments, joints and muscles waist down, I decided not to be a sissy and go for it. Getting ready for the hike meant packing for all weather conditions New Zealand has to offer aka snow,hail,sun,rain,showers,and everything between.
I think by the time I tested my backpack I had four times as much clothes with me on this 24h adventure than for my eight day bike ride the week prior.

11pm in the parking lot we were finally ready for the adventure. While I was packed in three layers, everyone was half-naked. I naively ignored this more than obvious warning.

When I was still adjusting the straps on my backpack my fellow hikers started running towards the trail. I lurched my heavy legs into forward shuffling mode when I realized that was not enough to catch up.

The flat terrain was not exactly flat as it rose to 3-4% and my quads gave me the distinct and clear “above lactate threshold alert”. The Kiwis kept going. I, confused, what this all meant for the next 49.5k. After a few kilometers they notived my absence, stopped and waited for me. Me, huffing and puffing approaching them, “no need to wait for me!”.”No worries, we are just getting rid of clothes.” (Uhm, which clothes?)

Well, we planned that game for another three times when they stopped waiting for me “No worries, we are stretching” “No worries, we need to eat something”. But eventually they ran out of excuses to stop for me and I ran totally out of gas – lactate has fully invaded my lower extremities. Battle was lost!

And I got really tired – that feeling when you do a really high intensity workout and all of a sudden you could just lay down and fall asleep – that kind of tired! Fortunately enough, after an eternity and a half (around midnight) we stopped at a hut, and Andrew said I could sleep on the cushion surface in the main room of that hut. A nod later I was knocked out on a narrow padded bench in a kitchen of an isolated hut in the middle of a forested mountain while they ran for another two hours up the mountain.

And that was the end of my planned hike with the Kiwis. In the morning I carried on alone and decided after another eight hours of hiking up and down mountain that a proper nap in the car would be justified while waiting for the crazy Kiwis to return.

Lesson learned: Don’t underestimate the fitness of a Kiwi with their incredible natural playground in their backyard!

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

A backpack and a bike and the horizon as the destination

When I left Dunedin 3.5 weeks ago with a small bag to explore the South Island of New Zealand, I did not anticipate that this would lead to an epic eight day cycling trip with an even smaller backpack. Only a few clothes, sun lotion, rain jacket, a bike,  a map and a friend from the US (Patrick) - enough to make this an unforgettable adventure.

Our plan? Well, heading in one direction in the morning and finding a place to sleep in the evening and do it again the next day. The uncertainty of sleep arrangement, terrain, weather and other unknown factors made this quite an adventure.

The sudden change of weather and wind made us change our destinations very spontaneously. It started right at the beginning when our Christchurch host, Rori, told us we could ride to Arthur’s Pass that day --150 km, mostly uphill, into a 50mph headwind, with heavy rain and temperatures in the 40’s -- but it really would not be very pleasant.  (Gotta love summer in NZ!). We changed direction and ended up with this route in eight days including two hiking days:

I learned quickly that mileage does not mean anything in New Zealand. Wind (as in 60mph gusts) and terrain (like a 3k 16% Arthurs pass) are the deciding factors.

Kaikoura - our start location (nope, the picture is not color-enhanced)
Our sleep arrangements were the adventure on its own. On the first day, we decided to put signs with "Need bed in Blenheim" on our backpacks to find a place to stay for free. 

After a long day in the saddle, we were browsing the aisles of a supermarket in Blenheim while an older lady in a wheelchair stopped next to me and checked my sweaty, dirty, worn-out self from top to bottom out. I must have looked still somewhat decent because she invited us to their place. 

A sign on the backpack that got us our first sleep arrangement.
The second stay (via was just as surprising. The description of our free place near Murchison with similar conditions as a rain forest said: "Pass shed garden to the left and you will find our driveway a few hundred meters ahead."

On arrival we learned that the shed was his house. The dwelling consisted of corrugated steel as a roof, plastic walls, no electricity, no heater, an outside toilet, outdoor showers from a hose and the nearby rain forest as the yard.

Corrugated steel as roof and plastic as walls

View from the "bathroom"

Grocery shopping before heading to the host house. 
Food dangling in front of my nose while riding the last few miles – dangerous!

My attire for the supermarket when everything else was getting washed.

Cooking after the ride. Don't need to say how big the portions were.

After a rainy day near Murchison, I found my absolute favorite cycling route: The 100k coastal route from Westport to Greymouth.
Mountains and beach - so much to see.
Near Greymouth, we found a great backpacker place to stay that was surrounded by mountains. We decided to stay there an extra day and go for a hike. The hike was a climb up one of the mountains. It wouldn’t have been an adventure if we didn’t get lost. After walking into one direction with seemingly no end, we had to make the call - the call to our backpacker's host who was so kind and picked us up - my first DNF on a recreational hike.
Surrounded by surreal vegetation 
Next on the agenda was the notorious climb up to Arthur's Pass. 16% grade for 3km. Loved it!

Our final ride from Arthurs Pass back to Christchurch lead us from wet and mountainous terrain to dry and sunny flats. That's New Zealand! Change of scenery, vegetation, weather and terrain within a very short distance.

For those who might be interested in doing a similar trip:
  • I have posted all my road cycling rides in New Zealand on Map My Ride. (Not sure how to share them here)
  • The stuff I had in my backpack: one cycling kit with arm and leg warmers, hiking shoes, one set of normal street clothes, sun lotion, rain jacket, and food. 
  • Weather and wind conditions guided us. We rode against the "northwesterlies" (NW Wind) and it took us a long, long time.
  • Weather reports are an OK indicator but could also change spontaneously. We completely changed our cycling route when we saw it was sunny and not the forecasted rain. 
  • We always had to apply sun lotion, no matter how stormy, rainy and windy it was. One item I wish I had with me was a hat. 
  • Our accommodation was a combination of friend of a friend's places, (cycling hospitality website) and backpackers. My favorites were staying with locals. Kiwis are such warm, welcoming and friendly people with a lot of insight knowledge to share. 
  • The two backpacker places I would recommend though are:
    • Brunnerton Lodge in Taylorville near Greymouth, very scenic, non-touristy with a great hike around the corner.
    • The Sanctuary in Arthur's Pass. Low key, non-touristy, basic backpackers place.

I wanted to thank all the amazing people I met along the way of my NZ-wide adventure:

  • Thanks to Jenny and Kevin in Alexandra for your hospitality, the amazing food and for the insightful conversations.
  • Huge thanks to Reta and Robyn in Christchurch: You are awesome! Robyn, thank you very much for your great hospitality. Reta, es war der Hammer, dich kennenzulernen. Du bist einfach super! Ich hoffe, wir sehen uns bald wieder! Viel Erfolg in Deutschland dieses Jahr.
  • Thank you to Sheila in Washington, DC for connecting me with Rori in Christchurch. Rori, you were not only a wonderful host but also an incredible tour guide. I have never thought I would learn so much about earthquakes (and experience one!) as I did at your place.
  • Thanks to Bob, Gracia and Bill for hosting us in Blenheim and Murchison.
  • Big thanks to Bethy for hosting me in Oamaru, for your inspirational stories and for checking out penguins with me!
  • Last but not least, thanks to Patrick for sharing such an incredible adventure with me!

Friday, January 10, 2014

What happens in Hawaii…The Naked Truth

(This happened mid-Dec 2013 on my way to New Zealand)

I probably had the most entertaining and random 48 hours in Hawaii, I could have ever imagine.

It all started that a male middle-aged stranger (connected through a cycling hospitality website), Mike, greeted me with a typically Hawaiian flower lei at the airport at 9:30pm. As a woman travelling alone it’s not always a good idea to go with a male stranger.
However, I felt good in this case. He is gay and lives with his partner in an apartment. 

On the way to their apartment we planned the next day, it would be a tour around the island, Oahu, followed by a dinner that spontaneously popped up for Mike.
The next day, the sightseeing tour was amazing, the beaches are incredible. No question why Jurassic Park, Lost and other big movies were filmed here. Mike asked me if I wanted to go to the beach swimming. Hell yea! I asked him if we could stop somewhere so I can change into a bikini. He said 'no need, we are going to a nude beach.'
Ehhh! What?

Okay, that caught me somewhat off guard and I tried to pretend it wasn’t a big deal.
After an eternity of awkward silence I asked if I could show up with my bikini anyway.
Sure, he said…whew, at least that.

So I went with a gay guy to a nude beach. Who would have thought that!
Once we were there, a few others were laying rather exposed and relaxed in the sun. Mike started spreading one huge  blanket across the sand.
Where is the other blanket?
The blanket that was meant for ME?????
Very nice of him to offer to share, but no way am I sharing a blanket with a naked guy, gay or not (at least not on this day ;).
I saw a hand towel in his bag – a very ,very small one. I grabbed it and spread the mini piece in safe distance next to the huge blanket and settled there.
The first minutes I was VERY focused on the sea. I didn’t care too much to blink left or right. After a while though I was okay with my surrounding and I actually was able to have a proper conversation with Mike lying on his blanket in...ummm…nothing.

After the beach I decided to be more careful in what I agree on.
We continued our sightseeing tour, saw how coffee is made and pineapple is grown until we went to  the dinner party.
I ended up eating in an expensive seafood restaurant with Mike and six of his friends. So me and 7 gay guys… it was absolutely awesome. When one guy realized that I was freezing in the restaurant he disappeared and came back with a T-Shirt which he just bought nearby in a store. Never had that happened to me!

The next day was interesting in a very different way. The plan was to ride bikes with another new aquaintance, Hanna and two of her friends. During introductions, her friend asked me questions I am not usually asked about.
What is my sign? What time is my birthday? Where was I born?
During our rather more relaxed ride Hanna suddenly stopped and asked me if I believe in spiritualism. Well, not really. “That’s ok”, she said “but I wanted to tell you”, she continued, “that Paul (the friend who asked me those interesting questions) started seeing people. I am absolutely fascinated with it.”

Okay….well, I guess I haven’t really thought about that yet.
At the end of the ride, I learned that I have 142 sunshine years in me. So I have that going for me...I guess??
After Hanna and I went to the swimming pool and it was time to get ready to get changed, I was about to test my newly attained comfort in nudity and was ready to change in the public area.

No one around! So who cares?!?
Well, Hanna was in disagreement when she was yelling “No,No,No”!!!

I looked at her astonished.
“Security cameras everywhere!”

Okay, not expecting that it could any better, the security people at the airport gave me one last laugh. When they scanned my carry-on they found my chamois lotion. When the security guard asked me about its purpose I gave him a rather detailed explanation.  He let me keep it if I told his boss how awesome he is. That was a no brainer!