Dusk was just falling when we first laid eyes on Afghanistan.

My eyes desperately tried to drink in the gargantuan landscape, the road we were flying down felt like a shelf leaning over into a kilometres-wide valley threaded with the wild Panj River.

We’d weaved through several herds of goats before entering what felt like a dreamscape, either side of the road flanked by towers of red rock, a landscape so unlike anything I’ve seen in geological formation and size.

Doesn’t do the magic of the landscape justice but these mountains will stay in my memory forever

Doesn’t do the magic of the landscape justice but these mountains will stay in my memory forever

The red towers became vast mountains which you’ll have to imagine because I couldn’t stop to retrieve my camera, we had less than 20 minutes of light left to find our campsite.

The brand new sealed road - it must have been a terrifying ordeal previously - zig zagged down the face of the mountain to a grassy bluff where we planned to camp.

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The lights of villages in Afghanistan glittered on the mountainsides in the distance, and I felt surprised at how much civilisation there is in this far-flung corner of the wartorn country.

Earlier that day we’d left the town of Kulob and ground our way up 1350m of rutted, gravelly road.

Temperatures were again pushing 40 degrees and the climb was arduous.

Something that’s perplexed me is how other bike tourers carry enough water to prevent themselves from shriveling up in this heat.

Even after guzzling half a bottle my mouth is sandpapery within 500m.

Our solution has been to carry four 1.5L bottles each, perilously tied on with bungy cords which are wont to come hurtling off the back when descending a hill at speed.

Cooling down is impossible when our water is the temperature of a nice hot cup of tea.

A truck carrying a tall stack of hay passed us with wave, and five minutes later we saw it pulled over, wisps of smoke curling from its cargo.

In minutes the hay was fully engulfed in flames and everyone standing around helplessly. There is no water around.

I felt somewhat justified in my perpetual thirst that the heat is enough to make hay spontaneously combust.

We spent the night camped with a French solo cyclist who bought her bike in Invercargill for $200NZD, then rode it to Cape Reinga. Since then she’s done 30,000km of solo bicycle touring.

She tells of unwanted attention from men despite covering her entire body. She’s had men ask her outright for sex in both Mongolia and the US - sexual harassment is not confined to any culture.

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The subsequent days were spent hugging the Panj River, a ferocious grey torrent that acts as a border with Afghanistan. So high are the gorges that we can barely see the mountaintops above when craning our heads back.


Villages with lush green gardens are scattered along the Afghanistan riverbank, and we spy tiny tracks that weave their way up high into the mountains and wonder where they lead. Cultivating opium poppies is the only real source of income for people in this area, so we ponder whether these paths lead to hidden crops.


We camped again on a grassy bank next to the river, waving distance from the Afghans who rode past on motorbikes, responding with a slight nod or touch of the hand to their chest.

There’s a strong military presence on the Tajik side of the river, each day we pass groups of three soldiers on patrol, 100m apart and with AK47s slung over their shoulders.

We pause to fill our water bottles at a stream and a soldier approaches, holding up his arms in a cross and pointing to the other side of the bridge. We understand - it’s safe to gather water on this side but on the other there are landmines. Despite this, and the proximity to the country ravaged by conflict since the 1970s and synonymous with danger, we feel safe, our campsites peaceful.

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The only tangible danger are the rocky cliffs we’re cycling beneath. Signs of recent landslides are frequent and the mountains, despite their enormity, seem to be constantly crumbling.

A man stopped us in a village called Jak - delighted that Jack shares the name of his home - and brings a bag of enormous, fresh juicy figs whose bright green skin gives way to sweet, red flesh.

The roads are lined with pomegranate trees dangling not-quite-ripe fruit, as well as heavily laden apple and walnut trees.


The novelty of high fiving kids has begun to wear thin, particularly when we hit our high speed of 61km/h and a gaggle of young people scattered across the road extending their hands - a 61km/h high five hurts!

We arrived in the alpine hamlet of Kalaikhum and the last remnants of internet before Khorog - the capital of the Pamirs.

With 3500m elevation we expect to arrive there in five days. See you then!



Left my dignity in a cotton field in Tajikistan

It was during the fourth roadside squat, this time in a fetid ditch next to a donkey paddock, as the sun scorched the back of my neck that I thought “this was not what I had in mind.”

Of course I anticipated gastric illness, a staple of travel in developing countries, but I failed to imagine the horror of sudden, urgent bowel movements while cycling through an arid valley in 43 degrees.

The saving grace was a truckie who, at the moment I emerged from the ditch, hurled us an ice cold bottle of cola from his window without even slowing down.

We spent three days with writhing guts in Dushanbe, the gardened capital of Tajikistan, which I will now associate with the certain smell a toilet acquires when half the guesthouse is sick.

When the illness abated we cycled north an easy 40km to a secluded campsite off the road. It was such a relief to be back under the stars.


We stopped the following day at the sight of buckets of fresh figs, where we learnt the trick whereby the vendor takes your money, and instead of giving you change gives you twice the amount you wanted. And thus a kilogram of figs are squeezed into the oven-like interior of my panniers.

The crafty fig vendor

The crafty fig vendor

A man also insisted on buying us four bags of assorted chickpeas, seeds and nuts. We tried to protest but he told us “you’ll find space.” As we discreetly and guiltily poured them out about 4km down the road, we agreed we should’ve got him to lift our bikes so he could understand there really is no “space”.

The next day – that of the four roadside squats - we managed 84km from our campsite to Vose thanks to the powerful lure of a basic hotel with a shower.

Between our campsite and Vose we stopped for water in a town called Danghara where these kind boys gifted me a watermelon. When we finally hacked into it 70km later, it was so worth lugging the extra 3kg.

Between our campsite and Vose we stopped for water in a town called Danghara where these kind boys gifted me a watermelon. When we finally hacked into it 70km later, it was so worth lugging the extra 3kg.

The hotel concierge had recently graduated from university and wanted to practise his English, so like a polite guest I took the opportunity to talk about religion and politics.

I asked his thoughts on the president, Emomali Rahmon, a man whose intolerance of dissent has helped him stay in power since 1992. I got nothing but a sheepish smile and shake of the head.

In response to my question of whether it was offensive for a foreign woman to cycle in shorts, he unwrapped a sweet and presented it to me alongside one still wrapped, asking, “which one would you choose?”

He said a Muslim man is permitted to look at a woman once, because Allah can understand that might’ve been an accident, but the second look is sin.

Later I asked Jack if I should still wear the shorts and he replied yeah, as long as we only cycle past once.

Lake Nurek, blissfully unaware of the roadside squatting horrors to come

Lake Nurek, blissfully unaware of the roadside squatting horrors to come

Route below including camping spots - August 17 - 20

The "Tunnel of Death"

Unrelated to the Tunnel of Death but this was our campsite that evening, and the high speed donkey-riding locals

In hindsight, the friendly man’s warning could not have been clearer.

He made an arch with his hands then covered his eyes.

He pointed to a floodlight overhead then made a cross with his arms.

He even drew us a picture in the dust – an arch, with a line snaking up to it.

But despite his efforts we pushed off from his shady spot under a tree, thanking him for what we thought was his message - that it was only 5km to the top of the pass.

He actually meant we were approaching a 5km-long damp, dark, unventilated tunnel that’s classed as one of the most dangerous in the world.

About halfway to the top of Anzob Pass, which sits at 2700m. Approx. nine oreos consumed each.

About halfway to the top of Anzob Pass, which sits at 2700m. Approx. nine oreos consumed each.

Ominously dubbed the “tunnel of death”, the Anzob Tunnel was built to help travellers reach the capital without crossing the perilous Anzob Pass, which is prone to year-round avalanches. Warnings online read “good luck getting out alive” and call it a “hellish underworld.”

A soldier stationed near the entrance asked us if we had lights.

We looked at each other and nodded slowly… We did… But surely he didn’t mean we should ride through there?

The tunnel’s mouth belched menacing black fumes.

I figured we’d either suffocate or be flattened by one of the lorries carrying gravel that took the tunnel at full speed.

We knew it was common for cyclists to hitch a ride so we waited for someone to help us, and it came in the form of a guy in a 4WD with roof racks.

Our saviour

Our saviour

Within minutes our panniers were off and in the back, our bikes lashed to the roof and we were heading into the darkness.

Once inside it was clear this was no place for cyclists, and not really much of a place for any vehicle. The tunnel is narrow with unmarked drainage channels creating an obstacle course for drivers who were barely adhering to the two-lane system in their efforts to dodge them.

It was a great relief to emerge to a panoramic view of the Fan mountain range, where an old man with one tooth held my bike for me as a I reattached my panniers. We tried to pay our driver but he wouldn’t accept anything, while the toothless man hooted, “this is Tajikistan!" - implying that in this country people don’t need payment to do nice things for others.



What followed was an incredibly heart-in-mouth downhill of about 20km, dodging loose gravel and roadworks, erratic driving and at least 20 more tunnels of varying lengths. Jack shot into the first one ahead of me and I blindly followed, realising once inside that its bend meant utter darkness for about 200m - akin to cycling with a blindfold. Fortunately we didn’t hit any potholes and all the other tunnels were short enough to cope with a headtorch.

Upon arrival at our campsite our faces were coated in grime - a combination of dust and exhaust fumes.


After a week’s riding on Tajik roads I’ve decided the tolerance for cyclists is much higher than at home in New Zealand.

Of course there are motorists who’ll buzz past with centimetres to spare leaving you shouting profanities at their exhaust, but from my experience there is much more of that behaviour at home.

Here, the majority of drivers bellow a greeting out the window or honk at us joyfully - a habit which can get tiresome after a long day but is at least well-intentioned.

We may not have tunnels of death at home but we do have a pattern of behaviour from motorists which can feel very death-inducing, and that needs to change.

The Fan Mountains north of Dushanbe

The Fan Mountains north of Dushanbe

Tajikistan, the best place on earth for freedom camping?

Like most journalists working in New Zealand in the past few years, I’ve covered my share of stories about freedom campers.

Mostly what a nuisance they are, how the Government plans to crack down on them and whose property they’ve most recently taken a squat on.

So I was a little nervous about freedom camping (also called wild camping) in a foreign country. The concept of turning up and pitching a tent on someone’s land does feel a little brazen.

On our first night, 80 kilometres east of Samarkand, our camping app iOverlander told us of a site overlooking a river valley.


We arrived to find a cliff top that dropped away to the rushing grey river below - a beautiful but exposed spot - the apricot orchard over the road looked far more appealing.

But we were apprehensive about setting up camp on someone’s land without asking.

Just then an old ute came spluttering along the road and pulled over.

Through a few hand gestures we were able to ascertain this was the farmer, and we motioned sleeping while pointing under the trees.

He nodded vigorously, but motioned that we should avoid the small stream that ran across the field.


The next morning he came over and mimed sleeping then questioned us with a thumbs up, which we returned with big grins.

He seemed chuffed and pointed towards his house, indicating we should come for food and tea.

Pointing to the road ahead, we tapped our wrists to explain we needed to go.

This scene would play out countless times – a generous invitation into a home, the offer of food and a bed, and the apologetic decline.

The following night we slept in a wheat field overlooking a dramatic ravine.


A fantastic spot, but a lesson learnt about sharp, freshly harvested wheat stalks and blow-up sleeping mats. Thankfully we have repair patches.

Soon after we arrived small children materialised from the grass, peering at us from a distance, waving shyly and gathering bunches of a fragrant herb that smelled like a sweeter maanuka.*

As we were falling asleep at about 9pm, I heard hushed voices approaching the tent and the polite clearing of a throat.


My immediate thought was that we were about to get turfed off. I’m sure that’d be the outcome at home.

A confused Jack, seeing torchlight and the lights from a faraway car, thought we’d been surrounded by insurgents.

When we opened the tent fly, our assumptions were put to shame.

A kind face smiled down, and in an extended hand was a plate of watermelon slices and fresh cream cheese.

It was the landowner, her daughter had informed her of our presence.

They’d walked about 400m from their home in the dark to deliver two strangers dessert.

Blown away by the kind gesture, we thanked her profusely and managed to work out the origin of the cheese thanks to my well-honed impression of a goat.


Two nights later we found a secluded spot by a river 40km from Dushanbe.

As we pitched our tents, a man walked past and gave us a friendly wave.

Two pairs of kids clattered by on donkeys, shouting “Hello! Hello!

And a young boy sold us half his big handpicked bucket of blackberries which we ate on the riverbank as the sun set.


New Zealanders are meant to be a friendly bunch, but I reckon we’ve been beaten by the Tajiks.


*The kids said a word to me that sounded like '“joroob” - if anyone has botanical knowledge of Central Asia please do get in touch!

Vodka, football and free peaches

I can’t remember the last time I ate luncheon sausage, because I guess luncheon sausage by nature isn’t memorable.

That all changed after we politely forced down giant chunks of luncheon in a stranger’s house while Man City played Tottenham on a tiny TV in the background.

Our Uzbek host helpfully served coffee, Pepsi and vodka to wash it down.

Gus (this almost certainly isn’t how it’s spelt) invited us into his home when we stopped on the side of the road about two hours out of Samarkand. We explained we’d already eaten, but that was dismissed with the flap of a hand.

He led us down a dirt driveway, past maize and cows tied to trees, into a small dining hut detached from the main house.

Gus gestured at the table and mats for us to sit, and before we knew it he’d cut up the disturbingly pink sausage with its signature white chunks and placed it on the table alongside a plate of sweets and a bottle of vodka.

He also sent his son across the road to buy eggs, a loaf of bread and two bottles of Pepsi.

Already full of dried apricots and roadside fresh bread, we helplessly watched the food arrive as Gus boiled water for coffee.

He poured the vodka into ceramic teacups, we toasted each other and he advised that it must be drunk in one gulp or two.

At 10.50am with 20 kilometres under our belts and another 60 ahead, I had no desire to be gulping vodka. 

But in the spirit of being a gracious guest and under the earnest gaze of crinkled brown eyes, I chugged it back.


Gus poured Pepsi and offered it to me as a chaser, then poured us coffee.

There was some broken chatting as Jack and I wrestled with the terrible data connection for Google Translate’s assistance with words like “farmer” and “house”.

And then the vodka was being poured again.

I protested, miming falling off a bicycle but Gus mimed sleeping and pointed at the floor, presumably meaning we could just crash at his place.

We shook our heads apologetically but Gus was insistent on giving us one for the road.

So I poured a second teacup of vodka down my gullet, a delighted Gus clapping at my distinctly pained expression.

We found the word for “generous” and showed him, and he immediately shook his head, holding his hands to heart and then aloft.

With a firm handshake and Gus signaling that we must return, we pushed off down the road, slightly wobblier than before.


This was the first of hundreds of interactions that would come to characterise our experience of Tajikistan.

Every second car that passes shouts and waves a greeting.

Every child we pass excitedly yells “hello!” with the more daring following it up with a “where you from!”

Even the border guards smiled through the glass, asking if we like “Tajikistan’s face” and a surly customs officer asked how many in our family and how far we were cycling.

This official-level friendliness could be attributed to a crackdown on corruption in recent years and a push for more tourism in both Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, but regardless, it felt authentic.

We were riding through a small village in Tajikistan when a girl washing clothes in the roadside drain yelled out.

“Can I practise my English with you?”

In clear, precise English she told us she was Maria. She also spoke Russian, Tajik, Uzbek and a little Turkish and her dream was to work as an interpreter in the US.

She asked me how many languages I spoke and I told her the shameful answer.

She graciously told me my English was very good.

Maria pictured in centre, with her two sisters.

Maria pictured in centre, with her two sisters.

Cycling through a vast river valley edged by enormous brown hills contoured like a Dali painting, we heard a shout from the peach orchard next to the road.

Two boys were sitting on a bed with piles of peaches at their feet.

They filled a big bag for us and when we asked how much, they wouldn’t let us pay.


On the last hill before our campsite a lorry tooted a greeting and I didn’t have the energy for another smile and wave.

I haven’t smiled and waved so much in my life.

We’ve learnt the art of the high five from a heavily laden bike, and how to spot the wind-up that precedes an overly-eager high five - one that’ll send you wobbling.

In just one day we experienced so much kindness and warmth.

I pondered how unfair it is that much of the world is fearful of Tajikistan and its neighbours.

And I wondered how my jaw is going to cope with two more months of nonstop smiling.

Thankfully there are thousands of metres of vertical climb ahead to keep the grins in check.


The last two days have brought to mind a Malayalam word I learnt in South India several years ago.

In describing a small but powerfully-hot chili pepper, a homestay host told me “kanthari” means “small thing is sufficient to make many troubles.”

No phrase is more applicable to bicycle touring.

We merrily began assembling our bikes without incident until I discovered the plastic ziplock bag containing the screws for my front rack (it had been taped to the rack inside the bike box) had burst.

Although we were able to recover three of the washers and screws from the folds of the box, one screw and washer had managed to migrate out of the box sometime during transit.

The second small but potentially bad thing was the fraying end of my gear cable. Although this doesn’t affect the bike’s functionality if it’s outside the pinch bolt, it looked to be on its way to fraying inside the pinch bolt and that would be a problem.

Luckily I’d brought spare brake and gear cables, and with the help of Google we found Dmitry, a bike mechanic whose workship is inside the Dinamo Stadium in Samarkand.

Possibly we could have managed to replace the cable ourselves, but having never done it and on the eve of ~2500km trip, I was keen for it to be done by a guy who knew what he was doing.

We found Dinamo Stadium on Google maps and cycled there.


Inside the gates I said “Dmitry?” to a guard while miming bicycle repair.

He pointed across the stadium and shouted to another man who beckoned us to follow him.

We wheeled our bikes the perimeter of the soccer pitch and in under the grandstand, where Dmitry emerged and greeted us with a friendly inquiry.


I showed him the fraying cable and the spare and he nodded, leading us into the gloom under the stands and up some stairs to his workshop.


He gestured for us to sit down while he poured us cold fizzy water into paper Coca Cola-branded cups.

We watched, as Russian dancehall anthems from an old radio filled the small, dim space, while he deftly threaded the new gear cable, attached the kickstand I’d been unable to do without a 14 gauge spanner and even located the correct gauge screw for my front rack.


Jack asked him if he had any spare gear cables and he fossicked in a cupboard and produced one.

All of this with virtually no language crossover, except Dmitry asking where we’re from which produced a delighted grin. He’s mostly fixing the bikes of French or Germans.

Feeling incredibly grateful, I asked how much we owed him.

10,000 s’om. That’s about $2NZD.


Bicycle touring in a remote, foreign place has heightened our awareness of small things that can balloon into big problems. A lost key. Not enough water for a day’s riding. A broken spoke.

But sometimes they lead you to a Dmitry.


Two bikes, a Daewoo Nexia and one tiedown strap

As if the two hours spent crammed around a tiny luggage conveyor belt with 200 other passengers at 4.30am hadn’t frayed our nerves enough, this was the bike transportation arrangement from Samarkand Airport:

Jack wonders when the second tiedown strap will emerge.

Jack wonders when the second tiedown strap will emerge.

The price of this dicey trip was $25USD, a total fleecing we would later discover, but you have to admire their enterprise.

They produced a single tie down strap and we watched with skepticism as they lashed our precious Surlys to the homemade roof rack of a beaten-up Daewoo Nexia. Jack travelled with the bikes while I went with the other guy, who asked if Jack was my husband. The first of many times that mistake is made, no doubt.

Pre dawn in the ancient city

Pre dawn in the ancient city

We later learned the $25 should have been $15 max, but the bikes arrived intact and all we cared about at that point was getting horizontal.

Furkat Guesthouse is a ramshackle building facing a courtyard, with nooks and crannies at its edges filled with rugs and cushions. We found one to sleep in for the five hours before our room was ready. At about 10am we were marinating as temperatures pushed 37 celsius.

Our host invited us to eat the breakfast he’d prepared. Fresh melon, fresh-squeezed plum juice, a hard-boiled egg, some baked pasties with veggies and meat inside and what we think was the sour milk soup that’s popular here.

We biked to a little restaurant about a k and a half from the guesthouse for dinner where two pints, fries, salad, freshly-baked bread, a delicious grain that was similar to barley and grilled chicken set us back $6USD. Not bad given we ordered with the help of the waitress whose minimal English put our total lack of Russian to shame, and we weren’t entirely sure what we were getting and of what quantity.

We’re also considering starting a tally for the number of times I have to subtly withdraw my hand after a Russian man denies me for a handshake, instead snaking past to shake Jack’s.*

* I should explain here that these were Russian tourist men staying at our guesthouse. I realise local Muslim men may not want to shake my hand for cultural reasons. This was just funny because I was standing directly in front of them but they made an effort to go for Jack, who was standing a little behind me.

A sweaty jog up Italy's most infamous volcano


“You are sportsman?”

Our Italian taxi driver eyed us in the rear view mirror.

He assumed we were athletes competing in the World University Games currently underway in Naples, because what normal person would willingly run to the top of Mt Vesuvius.

“No, no, our brother…”

“Ah… OK… brother…”

The fact that we’re related to an athlete appeared to help him make sense of our insanity.

We caught the train from Naples to the Portici - Ercolano station and this guy picked us up, assuming we wanted to be dropped at the bus stop to catch the Vesuvio Express.

A fair assumption given hundreds of tourists are ferried up there daily.

But after some gesticulation and pointing at the map, we finally conveyed that we wanted to use our legs, and that threw him completely.

It is not common to run. That was clear by the absence of information online - just one blog post by a guy who ran all the way from the train station.

But we weren’t keen to tack on an extra 8km in temperatures just shy of 30 celsius with stifling humidity to boot, hence the taxi.

He shrugged and dropped us at the foot of the mountain road.

I handed him a fifty and he apologetically dumped twenty euros change in coins into my hand. “That’s more weight for me to carry!” I joked. He laughed, but I think he thought extra coins was the least of my worries.

We began plodding up the road, which was a mercifully mellow gradient.

The roadside was strewn with rubbish, I noted, not identifying the individual pieces until Jack remarked on the abundance of used condoms.

I guess whizzing by in the bus would’ve spared us that particular piece of local insight.


Halfway up and we could see Naples stretching along the coast in the haze.

We passed a gate to the national park (and presuambly much nicer trails) which is inexplicably closed. The undergrowth is scorched from what I later read were major, deliberately-lit fires in 2017.

We rounded a corner and a friendly park ranger told us it was “4km by car” to the top, I hoped it was also that distance on foot.

The mounds of red scoria and deep gourged-out valley to our left as we wound up the side of the crater are a reminder of the catastrophic forces this volcano is capable of.

A cyclist who passed us on the way up came flying down, shouting us a “GO GO GO” of encouragement.

With just one more kilometre to the top we hit the ticket office where I unsuccessfully tried to offload the coins.

Then it was onto the last stretch - grueling gravel underfoot and a lot of darting in between slow-trudging punters.

Finally at the summit, we gazed over the wooden barrier into the crater’s depths, which vanished and reappeared behind wisps of pleasantly cool mist. A nearby woman with an Australian accent scoffed to her partner of the obscured view - “What a waste! I want it to erupt now.” I edged away.


Steam puffed from vents in the crater’s steep sides. As we traversed its edge I read an article about how some scientists believe victims of the 79AD eruption suffered exploded skulls as a result of their brains being vaporised by the heat of the pyroclastic flow. The evidence was iron oxide residue on their bones, and star-shaped fractures on some of the skulls.

Other scientists rubbished the claim, saying the poor souls likely died from asphyxiation from the toxic gases and ash.

In the weeks and months preceding the eruption, the locals felt tremors and tasted sulphur in their drinking water. They’d had an earthquake 17 years earlier so these signs led many to flee the town.

That meant most of those who were killed were slaves, the poor or people with nowhere to go.

How odd now that the caldera of this menacing giant is lined with tourist shops peddling fizzy drink and postcards and polished stone eggs, while 3 million people live nearby - making it the most densely populated volcanic region in the world.

Vesuvius wasn’t the most scenic run, nor the tidiest, but it’s certainly the most steeped in fascinating, terrifying history.

But 10km was enough, we took the bus down.

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Nelson to Hanmer: Riding through the storm

Filmed by Sam Smoothy, edited by Isobel Ewing and original music by Jack Ewing

Credit: Sam Smoothy

Credit: Sam Smoothy

Cows are oddly encouraging companions on otherwise lonely gravel roads.

They stare as if a soaked, slow-moving cyclist is the most intriguing sight to pass them by and it’s kind of nice to feel like what I’m doing is interesting to somebody.

Because right now, exactly why I decided to cycle from Nelson to Hanmer through the mountains on the cusp of winter is eluding me.

Plus, with frozen hands clawed to the handlebars and toes long bereft of any feeling, the cows’ apparent indifference to the miserable weather is rather inspiring.

The rationale for this trip was to prepare for a bike touring expedition later this year along a section of the Silk Road.

I’ve always loved tramping, and the appeal of doing essentially the same thing but being able to carry more stuff, cover more ground and go a bit faster down hills drew me to cycle touring.

So here I was, leaving my grandparents’ house in Richmond on a bright sunny Easter Saturday, bike laden with food, solar panels and camping gear, bound for day one’s destination: St Arnaud.

The plan was to ride New Zealand’s highest public road through to Hanmer Springs - 112km of dirt and corrugations through Rainbow and Molesworth Stations, passing landscapes that transition from scree-scarred mountains to rolling tussocklands.

But the 80 km from Nelson to St Arnaud was dull.

It’s ugly, scrubby country, peppered with forestry and farmland and not much else.

Roughly 8 km from St Arnaud in the gathering darkness my boyfriend pulled up next to me and said it was “20 minutes until the place with beer closes”.

I got off the bike because there’s no place for heroism when a cold beer awaits.

And I should mention here that yes, I had a support vehicle, but the aforementioned situation was the only time I hitched a ride over the 4-day trip and I think we can all agree a Panhead is a very good reason.

The next day I rode through beech forest draped in thick mist, many frigid fords and met with the Wairau River.

With 35 km under the belt I decided it was time for breakfast, but the warmth of a bacon sandwich and tea didn’t linger long as the temperature tumbled to 5 degrees and a steady rain set in.

Sam pulled over. “Are you cold?”

“No, no, I’m good.”

“The landscape passes in a wet blur as I grind onwards, puffing heat into my chilled fingers and trying in vain to wiggle warmth into my toes.”

The landscape passes in a wet blur as I grind onwards, puffing heat into my chilled fingers and trying in vain to wiggle warmth into my toes.

We stop to pay the toll road fee to a man in an oilskin hat who’s also selling beech tree honey.

Sam asks again if I am definitely OK.

I’m cold but I think I can keep going.

This attitude lasts approximately another five kilometres before I’m ensconced in a thick blanket in the truck, hands wrapped around the life-giving elixir of two-minute noodles and my colourless feet pressed to the heater vent.

I consider the Silk Road’s Pamir Highway and its absence of both the boyfriend and the truck, and conclude a better rain jacket is needed, and that the phrases “water resistant”, “water repellent” and “waterproof” are not so much semantics, but rather important detail to take heed of.

Mist shrouds the valley above Rainbow Station. Credit: Sam Smoothy

Mist shrouds the valley above Rainbow Station. Credit: Sam Smoothy

I ride through Hell’s Gate, a narrow gorge where the river hugs the road and leave the wide valley and the cows behind, exchanging green for grey.

Scree bursts from the mountains’ sides as if spewing from split seams and is kept from swallowing the road by a thin tangle of golden tussock and matagouri.

The ever-present pylons looming overhead mar the landscape but without them this wildness would be untracked, inaccessible by bike or car.

My tyres grind over what resembles the tailings of a quarry and I decide we’ve been flattering this goat track with the term “road” for long enough.

“My tyres grind over what resembles the tailings of a quarry and I decide we’ve been flattering this goat track with the term “road” for long enough.”

I arrive at our intended campsite, Coldwater Creek, and realise there’s nothing about the bleak, wet clearing that has me enthused about pitching the tent.

Three cyclists gathered around a member of their party grimly changing a tyre tell me it’s “just 10km” to the next shelter.

“And it has a woodburner,” one adds.

Suddenly I am imbued with fresh confidence in my legs and ability of my core to maintain a comfortable temperature and tell Sam we’re pushing on to Sedgemere Shelter.

He’s unfazed - in the truck he could be there in twenty minutes, it’s going to take me two hours of slow and relentless climbing.

But the reward comes in the gorge opening wide in a vast tussock-carpeted valley, the road sweeps around the hillside and across the river to where the shelter sits in a small paddock.

Appreciation for mankind’s discovery of fire-lighting is rarely greater than when a roaring backcountry stove is slowly crisping one’s saturated and muddy clothing as rain whistles outside.

They say the wonderful thing about these trips is that they help you to better appreciate the luxuries of home. This wisdom was clearly lost on Trevor from Australia who’d appealed in the visitor’s book for sightings of a lost pillow.

A second entry months later revealed Trevor had returned, whether in search of the pillow or lured back by the high country fishing was unclear.

The following day brought another long, winding climb to the road’s highest point, Island Saddle at 1347m.

Loose gravel and heavy panniers made for a cautious descent across the boundary into Canterbury where Lake Tennyson hides beneath a cloak of mist.

A lone shelter, ineffectual against the howling wind and rain, displays information boards telling the stories of the rabbiters who endured this desolate place tasked with a fool’s errand.

A meal of hot chorizo, cherry tomato and pesto pasta feels offensively opulent before the weathered sepia men watching on.

Lake Tennyson, where the mountains finally emerged. Credit: Sam Smoothy

Lake Tennyson, where the mountains finally emerged. Credit: Sam Smoothy

The fourth day brings with it an unfamiliar warm light curling out from wispy clouds, and a calm that gives the lake a mirror like quality.

Heartened by the sight of blue sky and no need for a jacket or even a fleece, I set off towards Hanmer Springs.

There are no more cows, but two horses chew rosehip pensively in a yellow paddock.

They’re indifferent to my arrival, but that’s OK.

With hot pools just 35 km away, morale is high.

Credit: Sam Smoothy

Credit: Sam Smoothy