New Zealand cycle trek, Chapter 4: Dodging kea and low-geared trucks

Chris Bateman
By Chris Bateman February 7, 2016 16:48


Bateman’s Blog

Journalist Chris Bateman, 69, and son Ben are on day four of a 500-mile ride across New Zealand, from Christchurch to Queenstown.

Wednesday, Feb. 3: Arthur’s Pass to Hokitika

Distance: 64 miles

Elevation loss: 3,000 feet


An elevation drop of 3,000 feet? Isn’t that like an amusement park ride?

Shooting down hills with gorgeous scenery flying by? How hard can that be?  Well, harder than you might think, but we’ll get to that later.

First, let’s talk parrots. Or, to be more specific here on New Zealand’s South Island, let’s talk kea. After being warned repeatedly, we ran into our first at an Arthur’s Pass café.

It was hopping from table to table looking for whatever remnants of scones, pastries or quiches it might find. Several signs, meanwhile, laid down the law of the land: “Don’t feed the kea!”

A half-dozen camera-wielding tourists snapped away, amazed that this olive green, 19-inch-long hookbill was so brazen.

We weren’t as amazed.

IMG_4161-watch-for-sign-next-14km“They’ve taken over,” an English cyclist had told us the day before. “I was at a campground at Arthur’s Pass and these kea were putting up a nonstop racket. A bunch of them were in a trash bin, breaking bottles, fighting over cans, doing whatever they could for scraps.”

He added that kea have been known to break into cars by ripping the weather stripping off windows, and to snatch shiny valuables from the inattentive.

“I hear they’ve become a nuisance,” I told a hostess at the Arthur’s Pass Visitor Center.

“I think we are the nuisance,” she answered.  “The kea were here first.”

She’s right: Kea (yes, the singular is also the plural) were in the alpine forests of New Zealand millions of years ago. And they somehow survived without table scraps until about a century ago– a chronological blink of an eye.

In that 100 years New Zealand’s kea population dropped from several  hundred thousand to less than 5,000.  The government was largely to blame, as it for decades put a bounty on these parrots.

A bounty? Why on earth?

Believe it or not, kea were killing sheep. At least most sheep ranchers swore they were swooping down on their animals, digging through the wool on their necks and prying into their flesh. Logical or not, that was enough for Parliament. Before the bounty was lifted in 1970 –  when the sheep-killing stories were also being brought into serious question – hunters had brought down some 160,000 of these birds.

Sixteen years later, as their population continued to drop, the formerly anti-kea government declared the native parrot a protected species.

Now junk food – not shotgun-wielding bounty hunters – is the species’ main threat. So it’s illegal to feed them, the logic being that the handout-dependent birds will lose their taste – and their ability to find – roots, leaves, berries and carrion and other parts of the traditional kea diet.

Even though picking scone scraps over carrion seems like a no brainer, even for a bird.

That said, it was fascinating to see a very large wild parrot hopping from table to table as we ate breakfast. And, no, we didn’t share a bit of our bacon-and-egg quiche.

We needed every calorie of it for our downhill run into Hokitika, on the Tasman Sea coast.

Named for engineer Arthur Dobson, the route to the 924-meter high was chosen by the government in the mid-1800s after Dobson’s supposedly unbiased brother decreed that “Arthur’s pass is the best pass.”

Built over years of dangerous and often deadly work, the coast-to-coast road over it linked the West Coast gold fields with Christchurch, home of most of the island’s banks. For decades a stagecoach – whose passengers were reported on white-knuckled high alert through much of its day-long trip – plied the route.

Ben and I could understand their terror as we looked down the west side of the pass. The descent into the Otiro Gorge featured several dizzying, curvy  drops of more than 16 percent.

We rode our brakes until our knuckles were white and occasionally – thanks to low-geared trucks ahead of us creeping downward at 10 mph – we gripped  those brakes even tighter.

After six miles or so, the grade on the Route 73 leveled. But a headwind kicked in, the temperature climbed toward 80 and, once again, our water supply became precariously low.

But ahead, our route guide advised, was Jacksons Hotel, serving cold drinks and lunch. We pulled into Jacksons at 1 p.m. and went to the door, only to read a sign saying the hotel had closed for good on Saturday. We were four days late.

But a triathlete training for the Coast-to-Coast Race (see Chapter 3) bailed us out. After her 30-mile ride up and down the gorge, she pulled a chilled bottle of water from her training-equipped  RV and filled us up. Saved by another Samaritan.

Some 20 wind-buffeted miles later we had a meat-pie dinner at a pub in Kumara, refilled our water bottles and headed for the coast. After a 12-mile, tailwind-aided glide we were in Hokitika by 6:30, where we had a shower and a second dinner – pizza this time.

A second dinner? Pizza?

When you’re cycling all day, you can do that.

Kiwi Notes

Driftwood, seaweed and a pink bra:  We took a walk along Hokitika Beach after dinner, and it was no ordinary stroll.

Sculptures – mostly of driftwood, but many including stones, rusted metal, corroded chains, frayed rope and even a faded pink bra –extended nearly 100 yards along the beachfront.

“What’s going on here?” we wondered after seeing a gigantic hand fashioned of huge driftwood chunks sticking out of the sand. Then there was “Old Man and the Sea,” a driftwood-fashioned angler casting a line from a boat also made of weather-beaten, washed-up wood.

Then there was a driftwood diver, ready to plunge from a driftwood board into the Tasman Sea. And a whale’s tail, sticking out of the sand as if its huge owner had dived deep into the beach.  IMG_4159-beach-greeting

There was a cemetery, a stone maze and that scary driftwood character wearing the aforementioned pink bra – which was laden with two shapely beach stones.

What was going on here was Hokitka’s annual Driftwood and Sand sculpture contest.  Competing artists are limited only by their imaginations and whatever they can find on the beach.

“Cool beach art in a cool little town,” read a poster touting this year’s contest – which ended just five days before we arrived.

“So what happens to the sculptures now that it’s over?” I asked our hotel clerk.

“Oh, they’ll all wash out to sea by next year,” she assured. “But once in awhile, a big one survives for a few months, and we have a bonfire.”

So does the contest, now more than a dozen years old, bring a lot of tourists to Hokitika?”

“Not really,” said the clerk. “It’s just us.”

Which to me makes it even cooler.

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

Chris Bateman
By Chris Bateman February 7, 2016 16:48
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  1. PC February 9, 07:43

    Wow it sounds like that particular area is ‘for the Birds’….!

  2. Wells February 14, 21:15

    I love this! Hey, Chris, disc or rim brakes on the bikes?

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