Tom Proszowski and Sandra Mills Hit the Road for a Handcycling Tour on the South Pacific Island
If we can do Hawaii and New Mexico, we reasoned that New Zealand couldn’t be much different…can it? Travelling to and exploring the beautiful landscape of this South Pacific island has been a far-off dream for both of us. We never considered doing a cycling tour until friends of ours, Steve and Malini Hall, suggested we take on this adventure together. We were up for the challenge.
Our first task was to find a way to get Tom’s handbike to this distant land. On previous trips, such as the one we took to New Mexico, Tom shipped his bike with the understanding that it would arrive in time for the start of the tour. Unfortunately, he received the bike with two days left in the tour, spending most of the trip riding shotgun in the support vehicle. So, the question for New Zealand was: How do we get a 70-pound box halfway around the globe in time for a 10-day tour? After much research and consideration, we decided to lug the box with us on the flight and claim it was another wheelchair. Having our friends travelling with us sure helped to manage the luggage load.
After 18 hours of flying time, we arrived in Christchurch on the south island of New Zealand for our tour with Bicycle Adventures. The reputation of the south island is that it has one million people and four million sheep! Just to put things into perspective, the island is almost 27 times larger in land mass than Prince Edward Island. We arrived in the middle of their summer – which is the middle of our winter – to cool, rainy weather. Thankfully, this was contained to Christchurch and did not follow us as we cycled the island.
The south island is sparsely populated, given the amount of land there is. The east coast offers flat, perfect conditions for agriculture of all kinds. Moving across the centre of the island over to the west coast is a series of mountain ranges, some of which have glaciers. Mt. Cook is where Sir Edmund Hillary trained for his big expedition to Mt. Everest. The west coast is a tropical rainforest, in which you will find 90 per cent of the types of ferns that live on the planet.
After exploring the surrounding area of Christchurch, our group of 13 cyclists travelled northwest into the foothills of Lewis Pass on the Southern Alps into Hanmer Springs. This is when we really felt like we were on vacation. The Heritage Hotel was very accessible, and we couldn’t beat the view of mountains all around. We started to experience the fine selection of New Zealand lamb and local wines.
Travelling across Lewis Pass, the mountains began to kick up (the Kiwis like to call them “wee nudges”). We rolled into the small mining community of Blackball, where you’ll find the Blackball Hilton, which had been told in no uncertain terms by a famous family to cease and desist from using the Hilton name. The local hotel is now known as Formerly the Blackball Hilton.
Bridges are a very common sight on the south island. Due to the low population and cost of building materials, the bridges are single-lane. As we travelled south on the west coast, we quickly learned that it’s very important to follow “Right of Way” and “Give Way” signage. The water run-off from the mountains provided incredible scenery as we cycled across the hundreds of bridges. The locals found the sight of Tom riding through the countryside on his handbike a real novelty, and often waved with the familiar greeting “G’day mate, how ya goin’?” No matter where we travelled, New Zealanders were friendly, hospitable and pleased to meet Canadians on their land.
The “wee nudges” became “grunts” midway through the tour. After riding these grunts into Fox Glacier, which runs beside the more popular Josef Franz glacier, we had a day off to hike through the tropical rainforest and emerge onto an ever-changing ice face. Fox Glacier is 12 kilometres long and located in the Westland National Park. Oddly enough, the glaciers in this part of the world are growing at a rate of about one metre per day – a very different story than what we have here in Canada. Tom was not able to participate in this excursion, but found that the accessible accommodations, local beer and scenery kept him busy for the day.
The next two hotels we stayed in, the Wilderness Lodge in Lake Moeraki and the Edgewater Resort in Wanaka, were very accessible, with the hotel layout, common areas and guest rooms suitable for wheelchair users. We celebrated our fifth wedding anniversary in this area, enjoying more local wine and cuisine. The biting sandflies (cousins of the obnoxious blackfly) were everywhere, and appeared to be hungry at all times of the day and night. Both hotels had hard-packed trails through the rainforest and around bodies of water. Given a few boosts now and again, Tom was able to explore the area with the group.
The Haast Pass rises to a height of 2,562 metres above sea level at the saddle between the valleys of the Haast and Makarora Rivers. The road is devoid of any settlements and passes through predominantly unmodified beech forest. The pass challenged even the best of cyclists. It is the lowest of the passes traversing the Southern Alps in Mount Aspiring National Park; even so, Tom found the winding, steeply cambered ascent too much for his handbike. He rode in the van to the top, then took an incredibly fast descent on his handbike to the valley on the other side.
We were shuttled into Queenstown, the adventure capital of the world and home of the first bungee-jumping site. Again, accessibility in and around town provedGlacier water rushing off the peaks of the Southern Alps to be no problem, except for the incredibly steep hills that surround the town. The Sky Gondola going up the mountain in town provided an incredible view of the lake and the mountain range known as The Remarkables. With some assistance, Tom was able to get on and off the gondola. The chalet on top of the mountain was fully accessible. The barrier-free observation deck treated us to exciting views of paragliders jumping off the mountainside into the valley.
After the cycling tour concluded, we rented a right-hand-drive vehicle and did some independent exploring. Arrowtown is a historic gold-mining village that dates back to the early 1800s. We didn’t find any gold or curb cuts there, but the main restaurant in town, Saffron, was fully accessible and definitely worth the money!
Our final few days in New Zealand were spent travelling up the east coast, through the Scottish settlement of Dunedin and the Central Otago Peninsula, and then north to Kaikoura.
In Kaikoura, we had the opportunity to be on the sea in tour boats to scout out royal albatross, seals, sea lions and dusky dolphins. These excursions proved to be a bit challenging as far as access was concerned, but the crews insisted on making it work for Tom. In one case, the strong crewman picked Tom up on his back and carried him into the boat so he wouldn’t miss out on the experience. There were no accessible washrooms on board and he was restricted to the main deck, but the scenery and ocean spray made up for the inconvenience.
It is unfortunate that New Zealand is so far away from our home, because we agreed that, given the opportunity, we would return to this paradise, taking in more of the south island and exploring the north island and Auckland, the capital city.
For now, memories of possum pie, hot days and cool evenings, unusual birds and the friendly locals will have to sustain us here in Toronto. Luckily for us, the liquor store in our neighbourhood carries a good selection of New Zealand wines to keep our memories alive.
Tom Proszowski and Sandra Mills shared details about their handcycling tour in Hawaii in the Fall 2006 issue of Abilities. They live in Toronto.