New Zealand cycle trek, Chapter 9: Nation’s ‘darkest, bloodiest secret’ revealed

Chris Bateman
By Chris Bateman February 27, 2016 09:00

Bateman’s Blog

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

Haast (Pop. 279) to Makarora (Pop. Much smaller than Haast)

Distance: 107 kilometers. Net elevation gain: 1,052 feet

 The elevation line soars upward on a graph outlining today’s ride.

It scares the hell out of us: Looks like we’ll be climbing almost vertically for close to 2,000 feet.

It is Haast Pass, our west-to-east climb over New Zealand’s Southern Alps. In the previous four days of riding, the range’s snow-capped peaks have been ahead, breathtakingly beautiful. Now it’s time to cross them.

Ben and I come up with a plan: We’ll fuel up first with a big, carb-laden breakfast. We’ll begin pedaling early so we’ll reach the pass before the afternoon heat sets in. We’ll pack extra water bottles and – since there are no cafés or restaurants on the way – load up with nuts and energy bars for a pre-climb lunch.

And, yes, we’ll ask any westbound cyclist we meet about the road ahead.

Our plan goes off track right away: First, the motel I had booked online sight-unseen several months ago wasn’t in Haast at all. Instead, we found out last night, it was only in the “Haast area.”  It’s about eight miles in the wrong direction.

Today we ride halfway back to the real Haast when I pat my jersey pocket and realize my wallet and passport are missing. So Ben continues and I pedal back to the motel where – to my great relief – I retrieve the forgotten wallet.

So before we even set out from Haast, I’ve put in 16 extra miles – increasing a 50-mile day to 66.  And, after breakfast, our planned “early start” is 10:30 a.m.  Heck, Animal House frat brothers get up earlier than that.

Mercifully, the first 30 miles out of Haast are gently rising hills that have me feeling better about the challenge ahead. Until we meet Neil.

“I’m afraid you guys are in for it,” says the British cyclist. “The Haast grades are really steep. My hands are still sore from holding the brakes coming down.”

The he gives us a look. “But you seem in OK shape,” he tells us. “You might make it.”

Might make it? Who does this guy take us for?

Now I’m anxious for the climb to begin, but the gentle rollers continue for five more miles before we pull into a picnic area.

“Are you really riding up there?” a bus tourist asks as we gnaw energy bars and slap at sandflies (see Kiwi Notes). “That hill seemed to go on forever.”

At about 2 p.m. – so much for avoiding the afternoon heat – we begin the climb. After a half mile or so, merely unrelenting grades turn into steep, scorching pitches of about 15 percent.

Map of climb, complete with sandfly warning

Map of climb, complete with sandfly warning

We drop our rented Surly Long Haul Truckers (“LHTs,” for the bike-touring cognoscenti) into the very lowest of 27 gears. I creep and weave along at 3 mph, in that sweat-drenched netherworld between staying upright and falling.

On the plus side, any fall would be at an unbelievably low speed, and any injury sustained would be to my ego, not my body.

I struggle around one more turn, and there’s our cycling buddy, Harriet. Her overladen bike is behind her and she is stretched out next to it, panting and pale.

I’m probably not much help, quoting Neil as saying grades like this continue for four or five more kilometers. “But carry on,” I encourage the vacationing high school grad from Scotland. “Take it slow and sure.”

Then I try to climb back on my own bike, but fail. Because Haast grade is so steep, I can’t stay aboard. After three unsuccessful attempts, I aim the LHT slightly downhill, hop aboard and wobble into the oncoming lane.

I somehow regain control, reach the requisite 3 mph and turn back into my own lane without incident. Mercifully, Harriet is too exhausted to laugh.

Then I resume, without enthusiasm, what Ben and I had earlier guessed would be “90 minutes of hell.”

But it isn’t. About two turns later, the grades ease considerably, steep cliffs block out the sun and a breeze picks up. Haast Pass suddenly becomes much more doable – and much more beautiful.

When you’re really grinding, any cyclist will confirm, it’s hard to enjoy even the most spectacular scenery. But now I again see the roaring Haast River, marvel at the waterfalls that feed it, and grin as each turn reveals a new National Geographic cover.

Forty minutes later, I reach the shady, cool summit (1,850 feet) and wait for Ben. “It was oversold!” I say as he cruises up, my earlier struggles forgotten.  “Not that tough at all.”

“Great day of riding!” he agrees, and we set off on the exhilarating cruise down the other side and into Makarora.

We later meet Harriet in the town’s café. She’s looking and feeling better and concludes that, yes, Haast Pass wasn’t so bad after all.

For touring cyclists, steep grades are like trophy bass to anglers – they give rise to a lot of tall tales, exaggeration and, yeah, BS.  But they’re part of what makes the sport fun.

So I’m already making up some great Haast stories – resurrecting my earlier pain and amplifying it – for any westbound riders I see tomorrow.

Kiwi Notes

I can’t say we weren’t warned – and warned repeatedly.

I first read about them in a guidebook on biking in New Zealand. Its author said a nearly submicroscopic insect could turn our trip from a garden of delights into a living hell overnight.

The culprit he’s talking about could star in a B-movie loaded with gore, pain and unspeakable agony. It’s the sandfly.

Sounds harmless, you say? Forget it.

“Don’t pooh-pooh them,” warned my friend Leif, who vacationed in New Zealand a year ago. “I was scratching and infected for six weeks. Heed all advice on repellants.”

Such admonitions date back centuries. Captain James Cook, who explored New Zealand on each of his three epic Pacific voyages in the mid-1700s, offered this daunting account:

“The sandflies are exceeding numerous and their bites cause such intolerable itching that it’s not possible to refrain from scratching, and it at last ends in ulcers and the small pox.”

“New Zealand’s Darkest, Bloodiest Secret,” a far more recent magazine story was titled.

So, heck yes, we heeded advice on repellants: From a Christchurch pharmacy we bought one bottle of DEET-loaded lotion, which is recommended by most guidebooks. Then we added a tube of organic goop the clerk said was even more effective. More than $50 later, we are armed to the teeth.

Then we didn’t use it.

“What?” you may ask. “Why on earth??”

Well, we rode four days, weren’t bothered by flies, and naturally – which means completely without reason – assumed we were immune.

“Hey, we’re highly fit cyclists from the rough-and-tumble Mother Lode country,” our flawed logic may have gone. “We’ve conquered poison oak and meat bees. We have thick skin and a ‘keep-off’ vibe that keeps these nasty critters at bay.”

That piece of mythology ended at a picnic area at the base of Haast Pass. The flies interrupted our energy-bar lunch, targeting our lower calves and ankles.

But the bites themselves, while annoying, were not painful. And, hey, we had a pass to climb.

That night we paid the price: Our bites turned bright red and commenced to itch – and Captain Cook was right, to itch irresistibly. A straightjacket or handcuffs would have come in handy.

Only now, five days later, has that itching let up.

Ben aptly blamed our plight on a “triple screw-up”:  1. We spent a lot of money on sandfly repellants. 2. We didn’t use them, and 3. Sandflies bit us and bit us hard.

That they also outsmarted us – which apparently was not that difficult – only makes this episode more painful.

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






Chris Bateman
By Chris Bateman February 27, 2016 09:00
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1 Comment

  1. Wells February 28, 15:45

    I having a great time vicariously riding and scratching…awaiting more tales of heroic adventure.

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