New Zealand – Bicycling the South Island
A Bike Tour Review by Annie Apgar of ExperiencePlus!
If anyone had told me when I left New Zealand that I would be returning 25 years later to cycle around the South Island with a bunch of enthusiastic Americans, I simply wouldn’t have believed them. On reflection, I think I must have always been attracted to Americans for I am, after all, married to a man from Pennsylvania, whom I met on a mountain in Austria (which is another story). But mostly it’s the cycling factor which is surprising to me. Growing up in Christchurch, New Zealand, a bicycle was simply a necessity, a means of transport, and not something I thought about as a sport or pleasure.
I began life with Experience Plus! as a walking tour leader in Greece, my other adopted country, and still happily lead walking tours around Athens and the Greek Islands. What a bonus to find though, that when the European winter sets in, I am exchanging my Greek passport for my New Zealand passport, my walking boots for a bike, and heading off to the Southern Hemisphere!
The Christchurch we cycle today is no less beautiful than that of my childhood, and although many of the grand old houses have given up their surrounding land to townhouses, there is a jolly innovation in the new architecture. The heart of the city, set in a loop of the Avon River, is the Botanic Garden. The parks, the flowering trees and the hectares of green space shape the magic of New Zealand’s natural beauty. It is for good reason that Christchurch is still known as the “Garden City.”
Much has changed in NZ since my “defection” to Greece. Not the least of it is the attitude towards the countryside. We have always embraced the great outdoors, and now, thanks to the Resource Management Act, there is an acute public awareness of our environment and an impressive national effort to protect our stunning heritage. But the land is not the only resource. The New Zealander, now universally known as a Kiwi, has always been a most resourceful and ingenious individual whose virtues have led to exciting inventions such as bungee jumping. Kiwi’s are being recognized internationally for their highly marketable products. This has resulted in many New Zealanders being lured away to high-powered overseas positions to make contributions on the international circuit.
The cultivation of the grape has also changed the face of NZ. Where once sheep grazed, now vineyards flourish. New Zealand wine has also won international acclaim-particularly the sauvignon blanc which we sample while picnicking amongst the vines in one of the most southern wineries in the world. With the increasing popularity of wine in NZ, beer consumption has decreased, but beer drinkers will not be disappointed, as the West Coast beer is famous. The “real dinkum” West Coast pub is an unchanged institution, as are many of its colorful patrons. The food, often with subtle Asian overtones, is always interesting, always fresh, and always simply wonderful�a far cry from the Victorian stodge of my childhood.
What for me remains the definitive flavour of NZ, is the gut-wrenchingly beautiful scenery and the unforgettable sound of the native birds. Riding though the dense temperate rainforest or “bush” of Westland, the ringing songs of the bellbird and mimicking cries of the white-throated tui are grand accompaniment to our cycling rhythms. I always feel sad as we climb back over the Southern Alps. I am repeatedly surprised at the first sight of the stark beauty of Central Otago. This sharp contrast to the lushness left behind catches me off-guard and takes my breath away-or, maybe it’s the cycling.
No matter the reason, I see that I have not only changed the way I think about cycling, but also the way I think about NZ. It, too, changes, yet stays the same. The past is still present�though different. New Zealand has experienced changes, yet it is just as rich and just as wonderful as it was 25 years ago. In this astonishing and delightful world I can take nothing for granted. Even though I grew up here, I constantly experience it as if for the first time. Places you love will do that to you.