New Zealand cycle trek, Chapter 3: In search of the mighty moa

Chris Bateman
By Chris Bateman February 4, 2016 23:02


Photos by Ben Bateman

 Bateman’s Blog

Journalist Chris Bateman, 69, and son Ben continue their 500-mile ride across New Zealand, from Christchurch to Queenstown.

Tuesday, Feb. 2: Springfield to Arthur’s Pass

Distance: 49 miles

Elevation gain: approximately 1,000 meters

 We were feeling pretty good about ourselves until we had dinner with Sandy Inglis, a fellow guest at the Bealey Hotel, our digs here at Arthur’s Pass.

After all, Ben and I had climbed Porters Pass, then several more lesser grades, over nine hours in the saddle. It had been hot, our water nearly ran out twice, but New Zealand’s Southern Alps were spectacularly beautiful, with snowcapped crags surround mountain lakes and lush green valleys.

We were happy to have seen it the right way – in the slow lane.  And by virtue of a lot of hard work on the bike, we had a real appreciation of the breathtaking – in the truest sense of the word – country we were passing through.

But perhaps not the appreciation that Sandy will have later this month.

Our 50-year-old dining companion on Feb. 13 will join more than 1,000 competitors for New Zealand’s annual Coast to Coast Race, a cycling, running and whitewater-paddling ordeal covering more than 150 miles.

“It took me 13 hours when I did it 10 years ago, we’ll see how I do this time,” said Sandy, who had just returned to the hotel from a 21-mile training run involving numerous river crossings that had soaked his shoes.

A shorter run, a 45-mile canoe paddle on the nearby Waimakariri  River and three long bike rides are all part of the Coast to Coast, which starts at the South Island’s Tasman Sea coast and ends at the Pacific.

So we decided to stop complaining about the heat on our apparently modest day’s ride. But Sandy, a South African emergency-room doc who has by turns lived in New Zealand and Australia, had nothing but praise and encouragement for us.

Now that Sandy’s gone, let me tell you that it was really hot out there – maybe in the 80s. And, yes, I know that complaining about a February summer is not going to get me a lot of sympathy from El Nino-drenched Mother Lode readers.

The beginning of today’s ride was fine, cruising through the last of the Canterbury Plains as the mountains loomed ahead. Then came reality – a 1,000-foot, very steep climb up Porters Pass.

Ben, who during rides like this drinks like a camel girding for a Sahara crossing, ran through nearly three liters. The last of my two bike bottles was down to half.

Then came beautiful, cool Lyndon Lake – whose water was not potable and whose restrooms were unplumbed Port-a-Potties.

But Glenda, a teacher at the nearby Lincoln School District who was at the lake helping teach some 20 visiting Thai and Chinese students how to kayak, came to our rescue. “Here you go,” she said, bringing Ben’s CamelBak up to half-full.

Which got us to Castle Hill Village, a subdivision 20 miles further long the West Coast Highway.  Without a clubhouse, restaurant or golf course, it had homes that were so small that most California gated communities wouldn’t allow them. A shack tract is what I’d call it.

But what it did have was a restroom with running cold water and a shaded deck with two comfortable chairs right outside it. We were in Cyclist’s Heaven, drinking water with abandon and wolfing down energy bars – which were our lunch, as there are no diners or dives between Springfield and Arthur’s Pass.

We pedaled slowly after that, whiling away the afternoon in a state of mild drudgery. Which was tempered only – but considerably – by the jaw-dropping mountains all around us.

 But our soft spot for Castle Hill Village stayed with us through the ride, and we mentioned it to Sandy over dinner. “Nobody seemed to live there,” I said. “It was empty.”

“That’s why I love Castle Hill,” said Sandy, who knew the place well. “My wife and I want to build a summer home there. It’s cheap, small and empty, which is exactly what we want.”

Now there’s a guy with his priorities in line. Not only is Castle Hill quiet, but Sandy can step out the door and run, paddle and ride 150 miles any time he wants.

As for Ben and me, things couldn’t be much better: Tomorrow we get to ride downhill.

Kiwi Notes

Porter Heights, Cheeseman Mountain, Craigieburn Valley.

Ever heard of them? Neither had I, but they are New Zealand ski resorts we passed on today’s ride. And none will be hosting the Winter Olympics in the next few centuries.

Lake Placid, Lillehammer, Vancouver, Sochi, Cheeseman? Not going to happen.  Which is too bad.

“These places are like skiing used to be in the States in maybe the 1950s,” said a cyclist we passed near Cheeseman (I love that name).  “Dirt roads in and out and nothing but rope tows.”

Which, I think, would make them great candidates for the  2020 Winter Games. Just don’t let those TV guys mess with those rope tows.

No mo’ moa?

They’ve been extinct since 1440, reportedly overhunted by the Maoris who lived in the future New Zealand at the time.  But before the Maoris arrived, scientists say, some 58,000 moas lived on the North and South islands.

Which must have been a sight, as moas were 12-feet tall, 500-pound flightless birds. They had no natural predators until the first humans showed up.

Believe it or not, some people are still hunting moas – like  some folks hunt Big Foot in certain corners of the Sierra. One those moa hunters was Paddy Freaney, an Irishman who owned the Bealey Hotel more than 20 years ago.

Not only did he spot a moa near the lodge in 1993, but he had proof: a photo.

But it was a photo like those taken of Big Foot: shadowy, shady, grainy and highly doubtful. Make Freaney’s photo a Rorschach Test, and not a single viewer would likely say, “That’s a moa!”

But none of this stopped Freaney, who called the Christchurch newspaper. Its reporter – as any self-respecting journalist should – ran with it.  In days the moa story was the biggest thing in New Zealand.

Sure, naturalists dismissed Freaney, insisting there was no way the huge bird could have survived unnoticed for more than 600 years. But that didn’t deter the hotelier.

“Moa Report ‘Genuine’ Says Freaney,” blared one headline, framed near the Bealey’s present-day bar.

“They guy was a genius,” said Marshall, who with wife Debbie now runs the hotel. “A marketing genius.”

In the aftermath of the “sighting,” curious guests flocked to the Bealey. Freaney named one of its lodges after the bird (we stayed in Moa Room A), and put two life-sized, mocked-up moas on a lawn stand outside the bar.

The amiable Marshall’s eyes roll when he counts the 1993 moa yarn. But he picks no bone with Freaney. In fact, ask him and Marshall will pull what he swears is a real moa bone from behind the bar.

And that’s it for this story. There ain’t no moa.

Read previous chapters, and check back for cycling updates in the coming days, at Bateman’s Blog.

Chris Bateman
By Chris Bateman February 4, 2016 23:02
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1 Comment

  1. Andrew February 5, 11:41

    I’m still chuckling, just like being sucked into a long shaggy-dog story! Great one!

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